Last week, I talked about the different views on the book of Revelation generally. This week, I’m going to expand the “futurist” view and talk about what are known as the main “Millennial” views (or Millennarianism). That is, how do we understand the relationship between Christ’s return and his 1000 year reign on earth.
I’d like to start out by noted that, in the early centuries of the church (from about the 3rd century to the 5th century) Millennariansim, or “Chilliaism” (from the Greek for 1000) were considered borderline heretical in many Christian groups. Now, they are all but standard. Still, one can be “futurist” and not hold any of these views. I’ll outline them as they historically developed.
- Historic Pre-millennialism: The earliest systematic view. Really it only said that Christ would return and then begin his reign on earth, they weren’t even that specific on the 1000 years being literal (in fact, it’s not until the last group when the number begins to be taken more literally). The view is that the world will continually get worse until Christ returns to end that.
- Amillennialism: This was almost certainly Augustine’s view, though he likely wouldn’t have used that language. This is the view that the book of Revelation should be taken much more metaphorically. While Christ is still likely to return visibly again, he is reigning now. However the kingdoms of this world are not gone, and so the two are in conflict. This has a lot in common with the view of the Kingdom of God as it appears in the gospel, which likely explains its appeal. It is not really a millennial view, but gets grouped with them anyway.
- Post-millennialism: This is the view that the world will continue to get better (or more and more people will get saved) until Christ’s Kingdom is established on earth, at which point, Jesus returns. This is a much more optimistic view of humanity and history than most other views. It also tends to only find large followings during widespread revivals, which makes sense considering what is happening. Notably, Jonathan Edwards likely held this view.
- Pre-millennial Dispensationalism: The clear favorite among evangelicals today. Like the “historic pre-millenialism” it states that Christ will return in order to (prior to) establish his reign on earth. However, there is the added “dispensational” element. Now dispensational theology has a lot of different interpolations, but the basics of it is this: there are different dispensations of God’s grace upon earth, generally identified as discrete covenants in the Old Testament. (For instance, Adamic dispensation, Noahian dispensation, the Abrahamic dispensation, etc.). The exact differentiation between these varies, particularly on whether the apostolic dispensation is different from the current dispensation of grace (which is really a question about whether one is a cessationist about spiritual gifts, or more charismatic/pentecostal). At any rate, the final dispensation is the millennial reign of Christ. Dispensational Pre-millennialists argue that, although the bible only speaks of one return of Christ, there are really 2 returns: one visible and public, one invisible and secret. The invisible and secret coming happens first and is usually called the “rapture.” Even if people don’t phrase it in those terms, the discussion of anything involving a rapture distinct from the visible return of Christ is based in disepensational theology. There are other commonalities as well. In generally they argue that literal (i.e. ethnic or political) Israel plays a key role (and in particular an exact 144,000 Jews), that there is one identifiable and historic anti-Christ yet to have come, that there will be a literal war on earth, and that there will be a seven year period that is exactly seven years known as the tribulation. There may be disputes over whether the rapture occurs before, during or after the tribulation (pre-, mid-, or post- trib). In general they think along he same lines, though. Think Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth or the ever popular Left Behind books.
The last option seems to be the current dominate option, particularly among evangelical Christians. The reasons for this are debatable, but it perhaps lies in part with the history of the late 19th and early 20th century. Dispensationalism as an organized systematic theology did not exist prior to the end of the 19th century, when J. N. Darby gave a series of lectures (in 1840 actually)
in Geneva that were later published in English translation at the end of the 19th century. While not initially popular, the creator of the first study bible (Cyrus Scofield) liked the ideas so much he included them in his notes. As a result of this, the ideas became popular and were included as one of the (some say the) fundamentals during the fundamentalist controversy that hit most denominations in the early-mid twentieth Century, and hit Southern Baptists in the 70s and 80s.
Next week, I’ll start actually looking at the book of Revelation (well sort of).