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The Biblical teaching on the subject of the millennium is an important part of the study of prophecy. It has been an area of controversy ever since the third century. In the last two hundred years it has especially been studied. Today more than ever questions are being raised concerning what the Bible teaches about a millennium on earth. Are we in the millennium now? Or, can we expect such an age in the future? The answer to these questions forms the burden of the inquiry that is here being undertaken.
The events of the last quarter of a century or more have had a tremendous impact on the thinking of the scholarly world. In philosophy there has been a trend toward realism and increasing interest in ultimate values and ethics. In science the moral significance of scientific knowledge and the growing realization that physical science is a part of world life and meaning have emerged. In theology there has been what amounts to a similar revolution, particularly in the study of prophecy.
One of the significant facts of the theology of the last century is its emphasis on eschatological or prophetic questions. Even the works of liberal theologians frequently discuss the Christian outlook. Millar Burrows, for instance, in his work, An Outline of Biblical Theology, rightly gives a long chapter to the subject, and current liberal theological anthologies such as Thomas Kepler's Contemporary Thinking about Jesus and his Contemporary Religious Thought both have considerable sections on eschatology from recent writings of liberal theological scholars.
For the most part, writing in eschatology among the liberals is limited to the search for ultimate ethical values rather than of a statement of a prophetic program. Illustrating this point view is the volume Jesus and His Coming by J. A. T. Robinson appearing in 1957 which attempts to show that the prophecies of the second coming of Christ were actually fulfilled in connection with His first coming and that Jesus Himself never predicted a literal second coming. The view of the early church, including that expressed by Paul and the apostles in the Scriptures themselves, according to liberal interpretation is an error.
Neo-orthodox theologians have not contributed significantly to eschatology though they have not been entirely silent. Emil Brunner's Eternal Hope is a sample of this kind of literature. Generally speaking, the subject of eschatology is being re-examined in all branches of theology. Ray C. Petry, for instance, has contributed a large work on Christian Eschatology and Social Thought. John Bright has written a prize-winning volume, The Kingdom of God, related to the eschatological field. H. H. Rowley has written The Relevance of the Apocalyptic, and Paul A. Minear has published Christian Hope and the Second Coming. Alongside of these writings from those who are not premillenarian and who do not accept the inspiration of Scripture are a host of competent and scholarly works written by thorough students of the prophetic Word of which the most comprehensive recent volume is Things to Come by J. Dwight Pentecost. The twentieth century may well go down in history as the century which gave birth to neo-orthodoxy on the one hand and renewed study of eschatology on the other.
I. Definition of the Millennium
The word millennium means thousand years. While the word itself never occurs in the Bible, it refers to the thousand years mentioned six times in Revelation 20. By both Jews and Christians this period of one thousand years is often identified with the many promises of the Old Testament of a coming kingdom of righteousness and peace on the earth in which the Jews would be leaders and in which all the nations would have great blessing both spiritual and economic. A study of the millennium involves an understanding of this large volume of prophetic Scriptures. Since the third century there has been an increasing difference of opinion concerning the practical meaning of this subject, which has resolved into the question of whether we can take all these passages about this coming kingdom literally. Some take it we are in the millennium now; others expect it to come to pass in the future before Christ comes; still others expect that Christ must return first before this kingdom can come. These views are respectively called amillennialism, postmillennialism, and premillennialism. It is necessary to have these modern viewpoints on the millennium clearly in mind before one can understand the meaning of arguments for and against each view.
Premillennialism. Practically all students of the early church agree that premillennialism, or, as it is also called, chiliasm, was the view held by many in the apostolic age. It is the oldest of the various millennial views. Chiliasm, from the Greek work chilias meaning one thousand, is the teaching that Christ will reign on earth for one thousand years following His second advent. Premillennialism as a term derives its meaning from the belief that the second coming of Christ will be before this millennium and therefore premillennial. Both terms refer to the same doctrine.
As a system of doctrine premillennialism is necessarily more literal in its interpretation of prophecy than the other viewpoints. It views the end of the present age as sudden and catastrophic, with great judgment upon the wicked and the rescue of the righteous. It is characteristic of premillennialism both ancient and modern to distinguish the dealings of God with Israel and with the church. As Van Oosterzee (1817-1882), a Dutch theologian who was premillennial, brings out, premillennialism distinguishes the church which Christ founded as separate from the saints of the Old Testament: "It is, however, more exact, not to fix the date of the beginning of the Christian Church before the appearing of the historical Christ.... From the outpouring of the Spirit on the first Christian Pentecost the Church was really brought to life."
Premillennialism generally holds to a revival of the Jewish nation and their repossession of their ancient land when Christ returns. Satan will be bound (Rev. 20:2) and a theocratic kingdom of righteousness, peace, and tranquillity will ensue. The righteous are raised from the dead before the millennium and participate in its blessings. The wicked dead are not raised until after the millennium. The eternal state will follow the judgment of the wicked. Premillennialism is obviously a viewpoint quite removed from either amillennialism or postmillennialism. It attempts to find a literal fulfillment for the prophecies in the Old and New Testament concerning a righteous kingdom of God on earth. Premillennialism assumes the authority and accuracy of the Scriptures and the hermeneutical principle of a literal interpretation wherever this is possible.
Amillennialism. This, the most popular modern view of the millennium, is traced by its own adherents as far back as Augustine and Origen (third and fourth centuries), and it subsequent rise continued in the Roman Catholic Church. Its most general character is that of denial of a literal reign of Christ upon the earth. Satan is conceived as bound at the first coming of Christ. The present age between the first and second comings is the fulfillment of the millennium. Its adherents are divided on whether the millennium is being fulfilled now on the earth (Augustine) or whether it is being fulfilled by the saints in heaven (Kliefoth). It may be summed up in the idea that there will be no more millennium than there is now, and that the eternal state immediately follows the second coming of Christ. As they freely recognize that their concept of the millennium is quite foreign to the premillennial view they have been given the title amillennial by most writers.
Excerpted from The Millennial Kingdom by John F. Walvoord Copyright © 1983 by Zondervan. Excerpted by permission.
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