Premillennialism (Section 3.01) Historic Premillennialism
COPYRIGHT 1957 (C)
BY LORAINE BOETTNER
“PREMILLENNIALISM is that view of the Last Things which holds that the second coming of Christ will be followed by a period of world-wide peace and righteousness, before the end of the world, called ‘the Millennium’ or ‘the Kingdom of God’, during which Christ will reign as King in person on this earth. (Premillennialists are divided into various groups by their different views of the order of events associated with the second coming of Christ, but they all agree in holding that there will be a millennium on earth after the second coming of Christ but before the end of the world )” ( Dr. J. G. Vos, Blue Banner Faith and Life, Jan.-March, 1951 ).
We propose to discuss first those beliefs which belong to the essence of Premillennialism as that system has been held by various scholars throughout most of the Church age, and then to discuss those distinctive beliefs that in large measure have come to characterize present day American Premillennialism, which in general is known as Dispensationalism.
Unfortunately Premillennialism has never developed an official creed, either in former generations or in present day discussion. A movement that has enlisted such a large following and which purports to set forth the divine plan in such detail surely should have an authoritative statement, not only for its own use but also that others at least may know what it teaches and what it does not teach. If such a statement were available there would be much less occasion for Premillennialists to complain that their system is so often misrepresented. As it is, we are forced to rely primarily on the statements of so-called “representative” Premillennialists or Dispensationalists, although these differ endlessly and sometimes violently among themselves. No doubt it is because of this difference of opinion that they never have been able to work out an authoritative statement. Consequently it is not always possible to set forth precisely what the system does teach. This lack of agreement proves that their detailed programs are after all not so certain and that they are in fact of rather doubtful value. In view of all the books and articles that have been written, the charts prepared, and the time spent in “prophetic conferences,” it would seem that a fair degree of unity should have been achieved, and that some representative conference should have set these views down in authoritative statement.
The nearest thing approaching a creed is the set of Notes found in the Scofield Reference Bible. But this system differs considerably from Historic Premillennialism. It is known as “Dispensationalism” because it divides all history into seven dispensations or periods in which man is tested in regard to certain principles of obedience. It had its origin in the teachings of John N. Darby and some of his companions in the Plymouth Brethren group, in England, about 1830. It is, therefore, of comparatively recent date. The teachings of this school have long since ceased to have any important influence in England or on the continent of Europe, but they have been popularized in the United States by the writings of James H. Brookes, W. E. Blackstone, Arno C. Gaebelein, Lewis Sperry Chafer, and above all by the Scofield Reference Bible. These dispensational views have been just as vigorously opposed by other Premillennialists such as Alexander Reese, whom we take to be the best representative of Historic Premillennialism, and whose book, The Approaching Advent of Christ (1940 ), is a classic that should be read by everyone who wants to know the difference between Historic Premillennialism and Dispensationalism; also by Dean Afford, H. Grattan Guinness, Nathaniel West, Theodor Zahn, and more recently, George E. Ladd.
The chief passages in the New Testament to which Premillennialists appeal are: Matt. 24:3-44; Acts 3:19-21; I Cor. 15:20-28; I Thess. 4:13-18; and Rev. 20:1-10; and in the Old Testament: Isaiah 2:2-4; 11:1-11; 65:17-25; Ezekiel, chs. 40-48; Daniel 2:42-45; 7:23-25; 9:24-27; and Micah 4:1-8.
As regards the second coming of Christ the primary difference between Historic Premillennialism and Dispensationalism relates to the question whether or not the Church goes through the Tribulation, that is, whether the Rapture occurs at the beginning or at the close of the Tribulation. Historic Premillennialism holds that the Christians who constitute the Church go through the Tribulation and are exposed to its afflictions, at the end of which Christ comes with great power and glory to raise the righteous dead and to rapture the saints who are caught up to meet Him in the air but who almost immediately return with Him as He comes to destroy the forces of Antichrist in the battle of Armageddon and establish His Kingdom. Dispensationalism, on the other hand, holds that the Rapture occurs before the Tribulation, that Christ may come at any moment without warning signs, that at His coming the righteous dead are raised and that they together with the living saints are caught away in a secret Rapture to meet the Lord in the air, where they remain for a period of seven years. During that time the Antichrist rules on the earth and the dreadful woes spoken of in the Book of Revelation, chapters 4 through 19, fall on the inhabitants of the earth. Notice, according to this view, nothing in Revelation chapters 4 through 19 has yet been fulfilled; all of it belongs to the future, and will not even begin to happen until after the Rapture. One chief advantage of Historic Premillennialism is that it does not find it necessary to crowd all of these events into the short space of seven years as does Dispensationalism. At the end of that period Christ and the saints return to earth, Antichrist and his forces, who are persecuting the Jews and have them shut up in Jerusalem, will be destroyed in the battle of Armageddon, and the millennial Kingdom will be set up on the earth. The Jews are to be converted at the mere sight of their Messiah and, as the Lord’s “brethren,” are to have a very prominent and favored place in the Kingdom.
A further distinctive doctrine of Dispensationalism is that when Christ was on earth at the time of the first advent He offered the Kingdom to the Jews but they rejected it; it was then withdrawn until the time of His second coming, and the Church, an institution altogether new and not foreseen nor predicted by the Old Testament prophets, was established instead as a temporary substitute for the Kingdom. Dispensationalists are thus double “Pre-s”—Pre-tribulation Pre-millennialists, with the added distinctive tenets regarding the Church and the Jews.
The premillennial system is considerably more complicated than either the post- or amillennial system and, consequently, it has also been attended with greater diversity of opinion among its advocates. But despite these differences it has been characteristic of both schools of Premillennialism to hold:
- That the Kingdom of God is not now in the world, and that it will not be instituted until Christ returns.
- That it is not the purpose of the present gospel age to convert the world to Christianity, but rather to preach the gospel as a witness to the nations and so to warn them of and make them justly subject to judgment; also to gather out of all nations God’s elect, the Church saints.
- That the world is growing worse and will continue to grow worse until Christ comes to establish His Kingdom.
- That immediately preceding the return of Christ there is to be a period of general apostasy and wickedness.
- That we are now in the latter stages of the Church age and that the return of Christ is near, probably to occur within the lifetime of the present generation.
- That at Christ’s coming the righteous dead of all ages are to be raised in the “first resurrection.”
- That the resurrected dead together with the transfigured living saints who are then on the earth are to be caught up to meet the Lord in the air.
- That the judgment of all the righteous then takes place, which judgment consists primarily in the assignment of rewards.
- That before and during the tribulation period the Jews are to be restored to the land of Palestine.
- That at the mere sight of their Messiah the Jews are to turn to Him in a national conversion and true repentance.
- That Christ at His coming destroys the Antichrist and all his forces in the battle of Armageddon.
- That after the battle of Armageddon Christ establishes a world-wide Kingdom with Jerusalem as its capital, in which He and the resurrected and transfigured saints rule for a thousand years in righteousness, peace and prosperity.
- That during this reign the city of Jerusalem and the temple are to be rebuilt, the feasts and fasts and the priesthood, ritual and sacrificial system reinstituted, though performed in a Christian spirit and by Christian worshippers.
- That the golden age also is to be characterized by the removal of the curse from nature so that the desert shall blossom as the rose and the wild ferocious nature of the beasts shall be changed.
- That during the Millennium great numbers of the Gentiles will turn to God and be incorporated into the Kingdom.
- That while many remain unconverted and rebellious at heart they are not destroyed, but are held in check by the rod-ofiron rule of Christ.
- That during the Millennium Satan is to be bound, cast into the abyss, and so shut away from the earth.
- That at the close of the Millennium Satan is to be loosed for a short time.
- That the Millennium is to be followed by a short but violent outbreak of wickedness and rebellion headed by Satan which all but overwhelms the saints and the holy city of Jerusalem.
- That the forces of wickedness are to be destroyed by fire which is cast down upon them from heaven.
- That the wicked dead of all ages are then to be raised in the “second resurrection,” judged, and with the Devil and the wicked angels cast into hell.
- That heaven and hell are then introduced in their fullness, with the new heavens and the new earth as the future home of the redeemed, which will constitute the eternal state.
Historic Premillennialism holds that the coming of Christ will be preceded by certain recognizable signs, such as the preaching of the Gospel to all the nations, the apostasy, wars, famines, earthquakes, the appearance of the Antichrist or Man of Sin, and the Great Tribulation. Many think that they see some of these signs at the present time. Dispensationalists, on the other hand, hold that there will be no further signs, all the prophecies relating to events before the coming of Christ having now been fulfilled, and that the return of Christ therefore may occur literally at “any moment”—even for the righteous their heavenward movement being the first indication they have that Christ has come.
Dispensationalism thus sets forth a secret coming of Christ for His saints, which they term the Rapture, and a visible coming of Christ seven years later with His saints, which they term the Revelation. It also holds that in addition to the judgment of individuals, which occurs in the sky following the Rapture, there is a judgment of nations, the “Sheep and Goats” judgment of Matthew 25:31-46, when Christ and the saints return to earth. The nations are then judged on the basis of the treatment they have accorded the Jews, the Lord’s “brethren,” during the Great Tribulation, the righteous nations entering the millennial Kingdom, while the evil nations are consigned to punishment.
The Jews are given a much more prominent place in the scheme of things in the dispensational system than in the historic premillennial system, some writers in the latter system treating the distinction between Jews and Gentiles as comparatively unimportant. Dispensationalism holds that the millennial Kingdom will be predominantly Jewish, with Christian Gentiles in a subordinate position, and the Gentile nations in effect vassals of the Jewish Kingdom in Palestine. Since the establishment of the nation of Israel in Palestine there is general agreement among dispensational writers that the Jews are to return to Palestine in unbelief and then be converted at the appearance of Christ. But in the past many have held that they would be converted and then return.
Historic Premillennialism holds that the entire New Testament is applicable to this age, while Dispensationalism holds that much of the Gospels, including particularly the Sermon on the Mount, was not designed for the Church age but is Israelitish or Kingdom truth and will find its primary application during the Kingdom age.
Within each group there are numerous further points of disagreement regarding details. There is, for instance, no agreement as to whether death befalls any of the believers during the Millennium, although it is agreed that it does befall unbelievers. There is no agreement as to the relationship that shall exist between the resurrected and transformed saints with glorified, resurrection bodies, and those who still are in the flesh, particularly those who are unbelievers. Many believe that the means to be used for the conversion of the world after the Rapture will be other than the preaching of the Gospel, e.g., the personal appearance of Christ, the great judgments that fall on the earth, etc. It is not clear whether during the millennial reign the risen saints dwell on earth, or in heaven, or alternate between the two. There is also difference of opinion regarding the propagation of the race during the Millennium, the extent to which and the manner in which sin will be suppressed or controlled, whether the Jews only or the whole Church will reign with Christ during the Millennium, and many other points in this highly complicated theory.
As we attempt to understand the premillennial system, particularly as it is set forth in Dispensationalism, it is not without some misgivings that we grope our way through a bewildering maze of dispensations, covenants, second comings, resurrections, judgments, etc. Present day Dispensationalism, which is the popular form in the United States, sets forth seven dispensations; eight covenants ( the Edenic covenant before the fall, and after the fall one each with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David), the Palestinian covenant ( Deut. 30 ), and the New Covenant instituted by Christ (Sco field Bible, p. 6); two second comings ( a coming of Christ for His people at the Rapture, and a coming with His people seven years later at the Revelation); at least three and perhaps four resurrections ( the resurrection of the righteous dead at the Rapture, a resurrection of the martyrs who died during the Great Tribulation which occurs at the Revelation, a resurrection of the wicked dead at the end of the Millennium, and a resurrection of the righteous who die during the Millennium if such there be); and from four to seven judgments (the judgment of the righteous immediately following the Rapture, the “sheep and goats” judgment of the nations at the Revelation, the judgment of the wicked at the end of the millennium, and a judgment of angels,—presumably also a judgment of the righteous who live during the Millennium. Scofield adds a judgment of the believer’s sins at the cross in the person of Christ, a judgment of self in the believer ( conscience ), and a judgment of Israel).
A second Rapture also will be needed for the righteous who are alive at the end of the Millennium, in order that their earthly bodies may be changed. Even this does not exhaust the possibilities of the system, for according to some there will be two eternally separate peoples of God, the Church permanently in heaven and Israel permanently on the earth. The Bible is written in language that ordinary people can understand, but this intricate, complex, imaginative system presents an interpretation that surely never would have been thought of except in defense of a theory. How refreshing to turn back to the straightforward post-millennial system, which teaches one second coming, one Rapture, one general and universal resurrection, one general and universal judgment, and one unified people of God inhabiting the new heavens and the new earth!
In the study of Eschatology there are two extremes that we should try to avoid—on the one hand the uncritical, credulous type of mind that accepts these things without adequate evidence as to their truth or falsity; and on the other the rationalistic type of mind that rejects this or any other system which gives a prominent place to the supernatural. David Brown has analyzed this problem well in the following paragraphs. He says:
“There are certain types of mind which, either from constitutional temperament, or the peculiar school of theology to which they are attached, have tendencies in the direction of premillennialism so strong, that they are ready to embrace it almost immediately, with love, souls that burn with love for Christ—who with the mother of Sisera, cry through the lattice, ‘Why is his chariot so long in coming? Why tarry the wheels of his chariot?”‘ These people he refers to as “honest and warm-hearted,” sincerely looking for Christ’s return.
“There are next,” he says, “the curious and restless spirits who feed upon the future. They are in their very element when settling the order in which the events shall occur, separating the felicities of the kingdom into its terrestrial and celestial departments respectively, sorting the multiplied particulars relating to the Ezekiel and Apocalyptic cities—and such like studies. For such minds, whose appetite for the marvelous is the predominant feature of their mental character, and who live in a sort of unreal world—for these, the confused and shadowy grandeur of a kingdom of glory upon earth, with all that relates to its introduction, its establishment, its administration, and its connection with the final and unchanging state, opens up a subject of surpassing interest and reveling delight—the very good which their peculiar temperament craves and feeds on.
“And, to mention no more, there are those who seem to have a constitutional tendency to materialize the objects of faith, and can scarcely conceive of them save as more or less implicated with this terrestrial platform. Such minds, it is superfluous to observe, will have a natural affinity with a system which brings the glory of the resurrection-state into immediate and active communion with sublunary affairs, and represents the reign of those who neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are as the angels of God in heaven, as consisting in a mysterious rule over men in the flesh, who eat and drink, buy and sell, plant and build, marry wives, and are given in marriage. To set about proving to persons of this cast of mind that Premillennialism will not stand the test of Scripture, is like attempting to rob them of a jewel, or to pluck the sun out of the heavens. To such minds, any other view of the subject is perfectly bald and repulsive, while theirs is enriched with a glory that excelleth. To them it carries the force of intuitive perception; they feel—they know it to be true.”
On the other hand Brown warns against an unreasonable, anti-premillennial tendency on the part of those who do not have the patience to make a careful exegetical investigation into the real meaning of the text, particularly the type that tends to tone down the supernatural element in the Scriptures. “Such minds,” he says, “turn away from Premillennialism just as instinctively as the others are attracted to it. The bare statement of its principles carries to their minds its own refutation—not so much from its preconceived unscripturalness as from the absurdity which it seems to carry on the face of it. They have hardly patience to listen to it. It requires an effort to sit without a smile under a grave exposition and defense of it. If they undertake to refute it, it is a task the irksomeness of which they are unable to conceal, and their unfitness for which can scarcely fail to appear. Let us try to avoid both extremes, investigating reverently the mind of the Spirit” (The Second Advent, pp. 8, 9 ).