What will happen when Jesus comes back? What must happen before he comes back? What is the correct view on the millennium? And why does this even matter? The answers to these questions have been the cause of much debate throughout the history of the church, and I don’t plan on solving every issue related to the millennium here. Instead, my aim in this post is to give you a brief introduction to the doctrine of the millennium.
This post merely serves as an introductory level and does not intend to go into great detail on each issue. I’ll share basic information on the three major views associated with the millennium, some strengths and challenges of each position, and resources for further study. 1
For those of you who want to know more about the millennium but (a) don’t know where to start in your study and (b) are too busy to even start a study, this post is for you.
The Doctrine of the Millennium: A Brief Introduction
Before we move on, let’s look at the main text associated with the millennium. Although there are other texts that absolutely must be taken into consideration when coming to a conclusion on where you stand, the key text associated with the millennium is Revelation 20:1-6. You might want to start by reading the text to get a big picture view of the debate.
“Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain. And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, and threw him into the pit, and shut it and sealed it over him, so that he might not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were ended. After that he must be released for a little while. Then I saw thrones, and seated on them were those to whom the authority to judge was committed. Also I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended. This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him for a thousand years.”
Let me also define a few words. None of the views will make sense without understanding the basic terms. Here are some of those terms:
Eschatology: The word eschatology comes from the Greek word eschatos which means “last.” Eschatology, therefore, is the study of the last things. The last things are best taken to mean the events that will occur prior to, during, and after Christ’s return. Theologians differentiate between personal eschatology and general eschatology. Personal eschatology entails future events that will specifically affect persons (e.g., death, intermediate state, etc.). General eschatology entails future events that will affect the world (e.g., second coming of Christ, eternity, rapture, etc.).
Millennium: The word millennium derives from the Latin word mille which means “thousand,” and annus which means “year.” The word millennium, then, means one thousand years. The reference to one thousand years is mentioned five times in Revelation 20:1-6.
Are the 1,000 years literal or symbolic? Will Christ come before or after this 1,000 year period? Could the 1,000 year period be actually happening now? And what is supposed to happen during the 1,000 year period? Much of the debate comes from understanding what this 1,000 year period means in relation to Jesus’ return.
Three Major Views Associated with the Millennium
As we look into the various major views on the millennium, keep in mind the prefix of each word (e.g., “a,” “pre,” “post”). That will help you remember what the view means. “A” means no, “pre” means before, and “post” means after. I’m not covering every view possible, but only a primer on the major ones in alphabetical order.
Major Millennium View #1: Amillennialism
Amillennialism is the belief that there is no millennium in the future, but that the millennium is happening now in and through the church. The millennium started when Jesus rose from the dead and will end when Jesus comes back. Hence, why this view is sometimes referred to as inaugurated or realized millennialism; because the millennium is happening now in and through the church age. The reference to 1,000 years should not be taken literally in a book of the Bible packed with so much symbolism.
How do amillennialists interpret Rev. 20:2-3? According to the amillennial position, Jesus bound Satan during his earthly ministry. Their reasoning comes from texts like Matthew 12:29: “Or how can someone enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man? Then indeed he may plunder his house.” And also texts like Luke 10:18: “And he said to them, ‘I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven’” (Luke 10:18). During his earthly ministry, and even more through his death and resurrection, Jesus binds Satan and thus Satan is unable to hinder the progress of the gospel. The church cannot cease to exist and the gospel cannot be stopped in part because the enemy is bound.
“They came to life,” John says, “and reigned with Christ for a thousand years” (Rev. 20:4b). He continues, “This is the first resurrection” (Rev. 20:5). This a reference to those whom have died with Christ and are currently reigning in the intermediate state with him. Significantly, when Christ returns, the resurrection of believers and unbelievers, judgment, and the new heavens and new earth happens at once. This is the most seamless of the views and commonly held in the Reformed tradition.
Strengths of Amillennialism
•The New Testament in many places seems to indicate the resurrection of believers and unbelievers, judgment, and the new heavens and new earth happening in conjunction upon Christ’s return (1 Cor. 15:22-28; 1 Cor. 15:50-57; Romans 8:18-23; 2 Peter 3:8-13; Matthew 25:31-46; 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10; John 5:28-29).
•The reference to “thrones” in Revelation 20:4-5 is a clear reference to heaven (Daniel 7:9; 22). The mention of “thrones” in the book of Revelation is always associated with heaven, thus revealing the vision that John saw happened in heaven, not on earth.
•Scripture elsewhere teaches one resurrection, not two (John 5:28-29; Acts 24:15; Dan. 12:2). In order to believe in premillennialism, you must believe there are two separate resurrections.
•The premillennialist often refers to texts like Isa. 65:13 and Isa. 66:22 to depict a time in history that does not refer to the present life, nor the new heavens and new earth, thus making the possibility of a future millennium reign. These Isaiah texts, curiously, are not mentioned in Revelation 20:1-16 but are mentioned in Rev. 21 and Rev. 22 when John is speaking of the new heavens and new earth.
•Revelation 19:21 says, “And the rest were slain by the sword that came from the mouth of him who was sitting on the horse, and all the birds were gorged with their flesh.” This depicts all non-Christians being executed in the last battle between Christ and his enemies. If all of Christ’s enemies are destroyed by the end of chapter 19, then it is impossible for unbelievers to be in the millennium as portrayed in Rev. 20:1-6.
Challenges of Amillennialism
•The Greek word anastasis for “resurrection” (Rev. 20:5) in the Bible always refers to physical resurrection when used elsewhere. To argue that the word here is in reference to the resurrection of believers is to contradict how the word is used in all other places in Scripture.
•The binding of Satan logic seems like a stretch. Not to mention that there are specific texts that do not picture Satan as bound, but as “the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ” (2 Cor. 4:4). Even more, Rev. 20:2-3 does not merely depict Satan as bound, but as one whom is thrown into a pit, shut, and sealed (Rev. 20:2-3).
Adherents you may know: Augustine, John Calvin, Martin Luther, Louis Berkhof, Sam Storms, Kevin DeYoung, and Tom Schreiner.
Resources on Amillennialism
1. Kingdom Come: The Amillennial Alternative by Sam Storms
2. A Case for Amillennialism: Understanding the End Times by Kim Riddlebarger
3. The Bible and the Future by Anthony A. Hoekema (specifically chapter 17)
4. 7 Reasons Tom Schreiner (Tentatively) Holds to Amillennialism by Justin Taylor
5. Making Sense of the Millennium Part 1 and Part 2 by Kevin DeYoung
Major Millennium View #2: Postmillennialism
Postmillennial is the view that Christ returns after the millennium. The millennium is a time that refers to a golden age in which God will use the church powerfully to spread the gospel during a time of peace, righteousness, and great joy. The gospel will progress in unprecedented success and transform all cultures and societies. During the millennium, Christ is in heaven (not on earth, as the premillennialist will argue) and is working by his Spirit through his church for the success of gospel advancement.
After the millennium – and only for a brief time – Satan will be released, and will attack the church one last time. But then Jesus will return personally, bodily, and gloriously to defeat his enemies. He then will conduct the final judgment and usher in the new heavens and earth. This view posits an extremely optimistic picture of the future.
Strengths of Postmillennialism
•The postmillennial view pictures a high view of creation and culture. Adherents to this view often lead the way in cultural engagement and societal restoration.
•Having a robust view of the great commission, some of the parables in the Gospels, the creational mandate (Gen. 1:28; Gen. 2:15), and texts like Isaiah 9:7 may naturally lead us to believe in worldwide advancement and cultural impact for Christ. Adherents to this view often lead the way in evangelism and apologetics.
•Just look at the world now. Christianity is exploding in places like South America, Africa, and Asia. This is just further proof that a Christian golden age will happen in the future.
Challenges of Postmillennialism
•The nature of the kingdom of God, the essence of the great commission, and the creational mandate does not automatically and inevitably lead us to believe that there will be a Christian golden age in the future.
•The world is clearly getting worse.
•Dismisses the imminent return of Christ (i.e., that Christ could return at any moment).
Adherents you may know: Many of the Puritans, Jonathan Edwards, and Doug Wilson.
Resources on Postmillennialism
1. Heaven Misplaced: Christ’s Kingdom on Earth by Doug Wilson
2. Postmillennialism: An Eschatology of Hope by Keith Mathison
3. The Puritan Hope by Iaian Murray
Major Millennium View #3: Premillennialism
The premillennialist view is broken up into at least two different categories: historic premillennialism and dispensational premillennialism. I’ll describe both, and mention some strengths and challenges of the historic premillennialism view, but I won’t mention the strengths and challenges of the dispensational premillennialism view as it is quite complex and requires a full-length post to unpack. We will mainly focus on the historic premillennialism view here.
Historic premillennialism is the view that Christ will return before the millennium. The reason why it’s called “historic premillennialism” is that, historically, this was the allegedly commonly-held view by many of the church fathers like Iraenus, Pappias, and Justin Martyr. Most premillennialists see the one thousand years as literal, but some do not.
According to this view, there will be a time of great suffering and persecution on earth, often referred to as the “tribulation.” Christ will come after the tribulation to usher in the millennium. The millennium is a time when Christ will reign on earth for one thousand years (either literally or symbolically) with glorified believers in a time of peace and righteousness and great joy. During the millennium, Satan will be bound and not have any influence, after which he will be tossed into the lake of fire. Christ will usher in the final judgment and new heavens and new earth after the millennium.
Historic Premillennialism Strengths
•This view provides the most straightforward reading of the text. It gives the clearest exegesis of Revelation 20:1-6.
•The reference of “coming down” in Revelation 20:1 is a clear reference to activity on Earth.
•There are several Old Testament passages that don’t seem to fit either the present church age nor the eternal age (Isaiah 65:20; Isaiah 11:6-9; Isaiah 11:10-11; Psalm 72: 8-14; Zech. 14:5-17). Not to mention, 1 Cor. 15:20-28 strongly suggests a millennium age. This Bible is messy, and therefore we must make room for these texts and not ignore them, nor assume that they are all symbolic.
Historic Premillennialism Challenges
•It seems unwise to build an entire doctrine from only six verses that explicitly mention a millennium.
•If you’re a premillennialist, you must believe that, when Christ returns to usher in the millennium, the following will still exist: death, people who can come to saving faith in Christ, the subjugation of creation to the fall, and the delay of the new heavens and earth (along with the sentencing of eternal condemnation for all unbelievers) until after the millennium is over (adapted from Sam Storm’s Kingdom Come (p. 135-137).
Adherents you may know: Wayne Grudem, D. A. Carson, John Piper, and Al Mohler.
Resources on Historic Premillennialism
1. A Case for Historic Premillennialism: An Alternative to “Left Behind” Eschatology edited by Craig Bloomberg and Sung Wook Chung
2. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine by Wayne Grudem (specifically chapter 55)
3. The Blessed Hope: A Biblical Study of the Second Advent and the Rapture by George Eldon Ladd
A key distinction of dispensational theology is a regular literalism in interpreting the Bible and, probably more significantly, a distinction between Israel and the church. This view is sometimes referred to as pretribulation premillennialism, i.e., that Christ will return before the millennium and before the great tribulation. This view is curiously quite popular, although it only started gaining popularity in the 19th and 20th centuries.
In Systematic Theology, Grudem writes: “This position is similar to the classic premillennial position mentioned above, but with one important difference: it will add another return of Christ before his return to reign on earth in the millennium.” A key text for this position is 1 Thess. 4:16-17. This second return of Christ is thought to be a secret return, where he will rapture his people out of the world. After Christ returns to heaven with those whom he raptured, there will be a great tribulation for seven years. At the end of the tribulation, Christ will return to reign on earth for one thousand years which, of course, should be taken literally.
Adherents you may know: John MacArthur.
General Resources on The Millennium
This is a great quick place to start if you want to learn more about the millennium. Schreiner does a great job of breaking down each view. Schreiner is an amillennialist.
Likewise, Sproul does a great job of explaining each view on the millennium in the video below. It’s a bit longer than the video Schreiner is in above, but it is still a great place to start. Interestingly, Sproul does not take a side but just explains each view.
Here is a conversation with Jim Hamilton (historic premil), Sam Storms (amil) and Doug Wilson (postmil). John Piper is the moderator (who himself is a historic premillennialist but does not engage much in the debate). This conversation is a little combative, but it’s educational nevertheless.
Another helpful resource is The Millenial Maze: A Panel on the Millenium by Andy Naselli. There you’ll find yet another discussion on the doctrine of the millennium, along with a host of resources at the bottom of the post for further study.
What should you do next if you’d like to learn more?
I suggest two things:
1. Read and re-read Revelation 20:1-6. Read it over and over again. Read the footnotes in multiple study Bibles. As you notice cross-reference texts in your study Bible, read those texts too. Cry out to the Lord for insight as you read.
2. Select one (or multiple) of the resources in this post and read or watch it.
I want to make a plea that we have conversations about the millennium in a civil and charitable manner. Although it’s good to have strong biblical convictions, it’s uncalled for to be dismissive and antagonistic towards those with whom you disagree. This is a secondary issue. There’s a possibility you could be wrong. While evangelicals will not all come to the same conclusion on the doctrine of the millennium, there is one thing we can all agree upon, and that is this: Christ is coming back!
A note on the charts used above: Taken from Systematic Theology by Wayne Grudem Copyright © 1995 by Wayne Grudem. Used by permission of Zondervan. www.zondervan.com
- In writing this post, I was helped by chapter 55 of Wayne Grudem’s book Systematic Theology, the ESV Study Bible, and the NIV Zondervan Study Bible. When it comes to the strengths and challenges provided, some of them are things upon which we should all agree, but some of the points are admittedly my own personal opinion. ↩