Premillennial or Amillennial – Does it Matter?
Malcolm C. Davis, Leeds, England
1. The Question Explained.
This question concerns two different kinds of interpretation of the Scriptures which predict the second coming of Christ. ‘Premillennial’ is a theological term which derives from Latin ‘pre’ meaning ‘before’, and ‘mille’ meaning ‘thousand’, and those who hold this interpretation believe that Christ will return before a thousand-year personal rule on earth in literal fulfilment of the prophecy of Revelation chapter 20 verses 1-6. ‘Amillennial’ is a theological term which derives from Greek ‘A’ meaning ‘no’, and Latin ‘mille’ meaning ‘thousand’, and those who hold this interpretation believe that the fulfilment of the prophecy in Revelation chapter 20 verses 1-6 is not literal.
All those who hold the ‘premillennial’ interpretation believe not only in a literal thousand-year rule of Christ on earth, but also in a literal seven-year period immediately prior to this called ‘the great tribulation’’, which is so described in Revelation chapter 7 verse 14. But amongst those who believe this, there is a difference of opinion over the further question as to whether Christ will return for the Church before this great tribulation period (so that the Church will not go through it at all), or whether He will return at the end of it (so that the Church can expect to pass through it). Those who hold the former view are called ‘pretribulationists’, while those who hold the latter view are called ‘posttribulationists’, or sometimes simply ‘tribulationists’.
Amongst those who believe that there will be no literal thousand-year rule of Christ on earth, there are wide differences of opinion as to the meaning of the prophecies of Christ’s second coming. Those ‘amillennialists’ who are true believers all accept that Christ will personally and literally return to earth, but believe that the final judgement of mankind, the destruction of the present heavens and earth, and the creation of the new heavens and earth will follow that return immediately. But those amillennialists who have no true faith in God or His Word would interpret the prophecy of Christ’s second coming in a non-literal manner, thus effectively denying it altogether.
The purpose of this article is to point out to sincere believers in Christ and His Word that many important issues are at stake in our interpretation of Scriptures which predict our Lord’s secong coming, and that they cannot be studied in isolation from the teaching of Scripture as a whole, as if it did not matter what we believe about the questions which have been raised above. For it is feared that in some local churches this is the attitude taken towards the prophetical Scriptures, partly due to bitter controversies experienced in the past over these questions. On the other hand, it is also feared that in some other local churches the premillennial and pretribulationists interpretation, which the present writer firmly believes to be true, has not been taught from first principles, but only as a system of doctrine held by tradition rather than conviction and with understanding. That is why this article has been preceded by another which dealt with the wider and more fundamental question, ‘Is Scripture literal?’ (Precious Seed, 1983, pages 19-22). For upon our answer to that question depends our answer to this one.
2. The Answer Given.
It is submitted that it does matter whether we hold the premillennial or amillennial interpretation of prophecy, because it affects a believer in three important ways.
First of all, it affects his Fundamental Approach to Scripture. The person who holds the premillennial interpretation of those Scriptures which relate to the second coming of Christ interprets all Scripture as literally as is consistent with the language used to convey its meaning. The amillennialist, on the other hand, applies more than one principle of interpretation to Scripture. Prophetical passages are interpreted according to a different principle from non-prophetical passages. Whereas the latter are interpreted literally, the former are interpreted in a non-literal sense only. It has been demonstrated in the preceding article both that this reflects a less believing attitude to Scripture than does the premillennial approach, and also that, despite claims to the contrary, there is no New Testament warrant for such interpretation.
Secondly, a believer’s Doctrinal Apprehension of Scripture in relation to many important subjects is vitally affected by his acceptance or rejection of one or other of these two approaches to Scripture, so that an amillennialist understands Scripture as a whole in a very different way from a premillennialist. The differences between the two interpretations can be summarised under a number of doctrinal headings, as follows:-
(i) The Covenants.
The premillennial understanding of the covenant given to Abraham concerning both the promised land and his seed, and of the covenant given to David concerning his seed and his kingdom, is that they are unconditional upon Israel’s obedience to the Mosaic law. They are to be fulfilled literally in the millennial kingdom of Christ after the nation of Israel has been restored from its unbelief and has entered into the literal fulfilment of the new covenant promised to it in the Old Testament prophets. Only the Mosaic covenant of law is understood to have been conditional upon Israel’s obedience, and that covenant is to be replaced by the unconditional new covenant. The amillennial understanding of the covenant with Abraham is that it was conditional upon Israel’s obedience to the Lord, and that by the rejection of Christ the nation as such forfeited its right to the possession of the promised land. Instead, the Church is thought to have inherited the Old Testament promises to Israel in a non-literal spiritualised way. Similarly, with regard to the fulfilment of the covenant of the kingdom of David, it is thought that this is only to be fulfilled in a non-literal way in a present spiritualised rule of Christ through the Church, not in a literal future personal rule of Christ on earth. This difference in the understanding of the doctrine of the covenants affects the interpretation of large parts of Scripture in both Testaments.
The premillennial understanding of the doctrine of Israel is that in Scripture the term ‘Israel’ always denotes the earthly people, but the amillennial understanding is somewhat different. All amillennialists believe that Israel is in some way to be identified in this present age with the Church. Some believe that the Church is the true Israel and therefore in a spiritualised way inherits Israel’s promises, which the earthly people are thought to have forfeited by disobedience to the Lord and the rejection of Christ. Others hold that Israel’s promises of blessing will be fulfilled to those of the earthly people who believe the gospel of Christ preached today and so become part of the Church. In either case, no future earthly kingdom is required to fulfil the promises made to Israel. Instead, all are supposed to be fulfilled in the present age in only a non-literal way.
(iii) The Church.
It is thus clear that the premillennial understanding of the doctrine of the Church is radically different from the amillennial understanding. Whereas amillennialists virtually identify the Church with Israel, premillennialists distinguish it as God’s heavenly people of the present age only, comprising all true believers in Christ from Pentecost to the rapture, entirely distinct from Israel as God’s earthly people with a completely different place in God’s programme for time and eternity. Amillennialists do not take sufficient account of the New Testament statements that the Church was a mystery hidden in God from all the previous ages, distinctively the Body and Bride of Christ, formed into union with Him its Head in heaven by baptism in the Spirit at Pentecost, and that the believers’ indwelling by the Spirit of God only began in the present Church age. amillennialists tend to regard the Church age as only a fuller development of previous ages, whereas premillennialists understand it not simply as the fullest revelation of God’s ways in redemption, but also as a parenthesis in God’s dispensational ways with man on earth, to be followed after the rapture of the Church by a literal fulfilment of all the earthly promises to Israel, and judgements upon man in general.
(iv) The Present Age.
Here the difference between the two interpretations is seen at its widest point. For whereas amillennialists regard the present age as the age of the fulfilment of all the kingdom promises, premillennialists believe that the kingdom on earth will follow, not precede, the coming of Christ in glory. Premillennialists believe that the present age is one in which the gospel of God’s grace is preached, not to establish God’s kingdom on earth, but to call out the Church from an increasingly wicked world before the time of God’s judgements in the day of the Lord begins and Christ personally rules the world in righteousness with a rod of iron.
(v) The Great Tribulation and the Rapture of the Church.
Amillennialists usually interpret the great tribulation to mean the whole period of the Church’s trials on earth, and understand Revelation chapters 4-19 in a non-literal way to refer to the historical troubles which have beset all mankind, including the people of God, throughout the past two thousand years. But premillennialists interpret it quite literally as a seven-year period of unparalleled divine judgement, Satanic presentation, and global war just prior to the return of Christ in glory to rule on earth. Premillennialists are divided on the question of whether the Church will pass through this great tribulation period or not. However, if one considers the Scriptures which state (i) that the Church is a distinct body of believers with a heavenly calling and hope, (ii) that the Church is appointed not to wrath at all, of which the great tribulation is the beginning, but to obtain salvation, 1 Thess. 5. 9, and (iii) that the rapture of the Church is to be a comforting hope and one capable of fulfilment at any moment according to 1 Thessalonians chapter 4, so that no distressing prophetic events need to be fulfilled before it can take place, then it seems clear that the pretribulational view of the rapture of the Church is right. It supposes that, after the rapture of the Church, there will be Jews and Gentiles who trust Christ and suffer the judgements and persecutions of the great tribulation before becoming the nucleus of the earthly kingdom of Christ during the millennium. The post-tribulational view, which supposes that the rapture of the Church occurs during the descent of Christ in glory to the earth, ignores the many differences that Scripture makes in its descriptions of the rapture and Christ’s coming in glory. These are best understood as distinct events, separated by an interval of time, just as were Christ’s birth and crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension at His first coming. It also allows no time or place for the return of the Church to the Father’s house as stated by Christ in John chapter 14, and means that there would be no believers left on earth at the coming in glory to inhabit the millennial earth after the judgement of all unbelievers has taken place. For only believers, who have been born again, will ever ‘see the kingdom of God’, according to John chapter 3 verse 3. Therefore, if the general premillennial principle of literal interpretation is followed, the pretribulational view of the rapture of the Church is the only one that is consistent with all the relevant Scriptures.
(vi) The Millennial Kingdom.
From what has been said so far it will be clear that amillennialists regard the present age in effect as the millennial kingdom, whereas premillennialists believe that at present the kingdom, or rule, of God is not openly manifest in the world. Rather, they understand that the ‘mystery of iniquity’ is at present working in the world. This alone can account for the fact that moral conditions in the world are becoming steadily worse rather than better, and will only be arrested by the personal intervention of Christ in glory to rule in the future. The Church is not thus the kingdom, although it is in the kingdom of God and subject to the rule of Christ. Our time for reigning with Christ over the world is not present, but future. Now is the time for the proclamation of the gospel of God’s grace which saves individuals out of a world doomed for judgement, not for attempts at political, moral, or social reform. At the same time we should remember that our individual places of responsibility in the future millennial kingdom of God will be determined by the measure of our faithfulness in the stewardship of our God-given spiritual talents and material possessions in the present age.
Since amillennialists believe that the present age is the millennium, and since Scripture states that during the millennium Satan is bound, it is not surprising to find that they tend to underestimate the present terrible power of Satan, and so do not regard the millennial promises of perfect peace and righteousness and of the removal of the curse on creation as intended to be interpreted literally. Premillennialists, in contrast, expect the activity of Satan to become more and more obvious as the age progresses, until he produces his man of sin in the great tribulation period.
Despite the fact that Scripture speaks of several different judgements at different times and places, amillennialists believe in a single final judgement at the second coming of Christ in glory. Also, their view that the present age is the millennium, the time when Christ is meant to be ruling in righteousness, must cast doubt on their appreciation of Christ’s character as the Judge of the world.
It is not surprising, therefore, when we come to consider the third way in which a believer is affected by his interpretation of the prophetical Scriptures, namely his Practical Application of Scripture, to find that there is quite a wide difference between the premillennial and amillennial positions. It is the difference between the amillennial tendency to attempt the reformation of the world, as being supposedly under Christ’s direct rule now, and the premillennial conviction that this is misguided. Our task is to maintain a path of separation from the world as members of God’s heavenly people, the Church, and we should concentrate our efforts on the salvation of individuals from the world by the preaching of the gospel before the time of God’s judgement begins. Amillennialism tends also to encourage the retention of Old Testament features of worship and service, since the distinction between Israel and the New Testament Church is not at all clearly appreciated. In apostate Christendom as a whole, this has led to a completely Judaised form of Christianity. In local churches of true believers, it manifests itself in lesser forms of the same tendency. By contrast, premillennialism encourages the application of distinctive New Testament local church principles and a deliberate rejection of all that stems from the past economy of Judaism.
3. The Conclusion Reached.
The premillennial interpretation of Scripture thus leads to a very different outlook on Christian doctrine and expression of spiritual life from that to which the amillennial interpretation leads. It is here maintained that the premillennial interpretation is right for two main reasons: first, that it best accords with simple faith in God’s Word as infallibly inspired, literally interpreted, and sure of literal fulfilment; secondly, that it has many times been demonstrated to provide a perfectly sensible and coherent explanation of the Scriptures as a whole and its many scattered prophetical passages in particular. It remains, therefore, to conclude that amillennialism is really an error which should be forsaken as detrimental to Christian faith, practice, and local church testimony, whilst the premillennial understanding of Scripture is to be encouraged as best preparing us in simplicity of faith to wait for our Lord to come to receive us to Himself in glory, and to live and witness consistently with our distinctive Christian calling and heavenly hope.
This article was first published in Precious Seed, Volume 34, No. 3, May –June 1983, pp. 63-68. The author has made a few minor alterations to the printed text.