by Paul Lester
The following article is a highly abridged form of a graduate paper on the historical development of the doctrine of the Millennial Kingdom. Readers interested in a more complete evaluation of the various millennial views can access the paper by clicking here.
In the first chapter of the book of Acts, we find Jesus giving final instructions to His disciples prior to His return to Heaven. Luke tells us that the disciples asked Jesus, “Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” And He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has put in His own authority” (Acts 1:6-7).1 Without any additional commentary on the question posed by His followers, Jesus leads them to the Mount of Olives, from which they watched in amazement as He ascended back to His Heavenly home.
A Literal or Spiritual Kingdom?
Readers of the narrative just described might wonder with the disciples—what about the kingdom? What about the promises Jesus made to the Twelve such as that found in Matthew’s Gospel where the Lord said; “Assuredly I say to you, that in the regeneration, when the Son of Man sits on the throne of His glory, you who have followed Me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Matt. 19:28)? To the disciples, and to this author, that sure sounds like the promise of a literal kingdom, in which the faithful followers of Jesus will rule and reign with Christ. Ah, but the question regarding the kingdom is far from settled for we stumble across another conversation on the subject this time posed by Jesus’ enemies; “Now when He was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, He answered them and said, ‘The kingdom of God does not come with observation; nor will they say, ‘See here!’ or ‘See there!’ For indeed, the kingdom of God is within you’” (Luke 17:20-21). In this exchange, it sounds like Jesus is describing a spiritual kingdom, a kingdom within the lives of believers who have enthroned Christ as the King of their heart. All this leaves the reader wondering whether the kingdom of God is a future literal kingdom on earth or a present spiritual kingdom in the hearts of believers. Various interpretations of this topic, referred to as the doctrine of the Kingdom of God (AKA the “Millennial Kingdom”) have been held by theologians and leaders in the Church over the last 2,000 years. Much of the debate within the Church has centered on the first six verses of the twentieth chapter of the Revelation where John describes a thousand-year reign of Christ, called the Millennium (“from mille, ‘thousand,’ annus, ‘year’”).2,3
Premillennialism, Amillennialism, and Postmillennialism
The three primary views regarding this topic include the premillennial view, the amillennial view, and the postmillennial view each briefly defined as follows:
Premillennialism (“Pre-mill”) is that view, which holds that Jesus will return to the earth to establish a literal kingdom, over which He will rule supreme for a period of a literal thousand years. The “pre” designates the belief that Jesus will return before the thousand-year kingdom begins.
Amillennialism (“A-mill”) is that view which holds that Jesus is presently ruling in Heaven where proponents claim He is seated on the throne of David. According to the amillennial view, Jesus will at no time rule on the earth. The thousand years recorded by John in Revelation 20 is suggested to be symbolic of Jesus’ present heavenly reign, that extends from the Resurrection of Christ into the Eternal Age.4 Thus the term amillennial (without a millennium, or no millennium) holds that the thousand years of Revelation 20 is understood to be symbolic of a long period of time rather than a literal duration of a thousand years.
Postmillennialism (“Post-mill”) is that view, which holds that Jesus is presently ruling in the Church (especially in the hearts of believers), who, empowered by the Holy Spirit, will Christianize the world and usher in a golden age of peace, prosperity, and health. The thousand-years of Revelation 20 is understood symbolically to represent this utopian age, which will last a long period of time, after which, Jesus will return to initiate the Eternal Age. “Post” then means that Jesus will return after the golden age is established by the Church.
Which View Makes the Most Sense?
Today we find all three millennial interpretations represented in the Church throughout the world. Our view is that the Pre-mill view offers the best interpretation of the disputed verses in Revelation 20. It harmonizes the kingdom prophecies in the Old and New Testaments in a literal sense without torturing the meaning of the text to fit a predisposed doctrinal position. In addition, the Pre-mill view is the only interpretative model that employs a consistent literal hermeneutic as noted by Geisler:
The ultimate proof that Old Testament prophecies should be taken literally and not spiritually (or allegorically) is that of its 113 messianic predictions that Christ has already fulfilled, all were fulfilled literally. If the predictions surrounding Christ’s first coming are to be taken literally, then by logical extension there is no justification for spiritualizing predictions about His second coming.5
Where then do the A-mill and Post-mill interpreters find support for an allegorical interpretation that denies Christ His rightful throne? We suggest that the answer is found in an unwarranted affinity to Church tradition over and above the clear declaration of Scripture. By tradition we mean the historical interpretation of Scripture introduced by Augustine in the 4th century.
Both-And, not Either-Or
So is the kingdom of God a future literal kingdom on earth, or a present spiritual kingdom in the hearts of believers? In our opinion, the answer is “yes”. That is, we agree with Gerhardus Vos and George Ladd that what seem to be contradictory statements made by Jesus are best understood to mean that the Kingdom of God is “already but not yet”.6 That is, the kingdom is already here in a spiritual sense as Jesus proclaimed when He said, “the kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21). Additionally, the Kingdom of God is at the same time not yet as Jesus has not yet personally returned to establish the literal kingdom promised by the Old and New Testament prophets. Thus, believers are called to acknowledge Jesus’ rule in their lives presently while looking forward to the future day when Jesus rules the world from Jerusalem.
Paul Lester is the Director of Admissions and teacher of the Revelation course at Calvary Chapel Bible College.
1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are taken from the New King James Version.
2. Matthew S. DeMoss and J. Edward Miller, ed., Zondervan Dictionary of Bible and Theological Words (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002), 153.
3. The earliest writers in Church history spoke of the 1,000-year reign of Christ as the chiliasm, Greek for “thousand”. However, with the exception of direct quotations, I will use the Latin millennium in this article for clarity.
4. A-mill proponents hold various views with regard to the starting point of the millennium. Augustine was not specific as to exact date but held that the 1,000 years was literal and began before the birth of Christ. Contemporary A-mill advocates such as H.B. Swete point to the triumph of Christianity during Constantine’s reign as the beginning of the millennium, while others such as Berkhof hold that Christ’s death and resurrection ushered in the kingdom age.
5. Norman Geisler, Systematic Theology: The Church and Last Things, Vol. 4 (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House, 2005), 426.
6. The aphorism “already not yet” is often attributed to both men, however, it is not found in their writings. Rather, it seems that advocates and critics of the doctrine use the expression as a slogan to capture the foundational element of their teaching. Additionally, we reject the unwarranted extreme to, which some have taken the teaching found among proponents of the so-called “Kingdom Now” theology.