Premillennialism and Amillennialism: A Brotherly Conversation
Typically, our religious education proceeds along the lines of learning to defend a single answer to a theological question against a list of opposing views. While this somewhat Thomistic approach offers the benefit of quick learning and solid grounding in a predetermined doctrinal tradition, it also has its drawbacks. For one, we learn to regard those remote “others” who hold the contrary positions with varying levels of suspicion or contempt. Why don’t they see it our way? Do they not cherish and believe the Bible as much as we do? Are they blind to their own presuppositions? Or are they merely uneducated?
Another drawback is that rarely do we truly understand an opposing view when it is filtered through the protective grid of someone who does not hold that view. So not only do we learn to look askance at those who hold a different position than our own, but we may actually have an inadequate understanding of their position to begin with. This is both ironic and unfair. Moreover, we can end up distancing ourselves from brothers and sisters in Christ with whom we will soon share eternity. Denominational divisions do not always have to mean personal divisions.
Therefore, in a spirit of openness and a sincere desire to learn from others who hold a different theological position, I have invited one of my dearest friends to join me in discussing the nature of the “kingdom” in Revelation 20. Richard Winston is an ordained Presbyterian minister who currently pastors Roebuck Presbyterian Church (PCA) here in SC. Richard is a covenant theologian, but he earned his PhD from Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Plymouth, MN, a traditionally dispensational seminary.
I, on the other hand am a traditional dispensationalist. Yet I earned my ThM at Erskine Theological Seminary in Due West, SC, the seminary of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian (ARP) denomination. Thus, Richard and I share the experience of having sat under the teaching of those “others” who do not hold our position on certain biblical questions. And we would both say that those were tremendous times of growth and nuance of our own understanding.
As a traditional dispensationalist, I believe that the “kingdom” John describes in Revelation 20 is a literal, geo-political kingdom in which the Lord Jesus Christ will reign on this very globe for 1000 years with Satan bound. As an amillennialist, Richard believes that Revelation 20 describes the inaugurated “kingdom of God” expressed through the life of the church and consummated at the second coming of Christ. Here, then, I will briefly set forth four lines of reasoning from the Scriptures that lead me to my conclusion that the “kingdom” is a future, geo-political kingdom. In the post that follows, I will give Richard the opportunity to introduce himself and to set forth his own view. After that we will share posts together in what I hope will be a helpful discussion of the nature of the “kingdom” in the Scriptures that will foster a better understanding of both views.
A LITERAL, GEO-POLITICAL KINGDOM
My reasoning toward a literal understanding of the kingdom proceeds on four lines:
1. A biblical theology of the kingdom. When God created Adam and Eve, he created them to exercise “dominion” over the earth as king and queen (Gen 1:26–30). The first “kingdom” was a garden where Adam was placed to rule. But when sin entered the world, competing kingdoms began to rise. The murderous Cain went east of Eden and built a city whose descendants were marked by violence (Gen 4). After the flood the descendants of Noah built Babel, a kingdom marked by false worship (Gen 11). God’s answer to Babel and all competing kingdoms was to call Abram and promise to make him a great nation, or kingdom (Gen 12). And after God makes the covenant with Abram, the entire OT is taken up with the rise of this kingdom through which God’s righteousness will flourish and his glory will spread throughout the whole earth. So God raised up this nation of Abram’s descendants and led them to a land where they established their rule. He gave them David as their king and promised David that there will always be one from his line to inhabit his throne (2 Sam 7). Under David’s son, Solomon, the kingdom expanded to magnificent proportions, and the knowledge and glory of the Lord began to spread throughout the earth (1 Kgs 10). But because of Solomon’s inordinate affection for other women and their gods (1 Kgs 11), followed by many other kings who failed to follow God perfectly, God split the kingdom and eventually sent the people in to exile. But the prophets promised that one day there would be a renewed kingdom, with a human king who would embody and fulfill the righteous rule that humankind was created to provide for the earth. And the prophets offer geographical proportions for this coming kingdom. Thus, the idea of a literal king in a literal geographical place of his kingdom is what God has always envisioned for the climax of human history in the present age.
2. The multiplicity of specific promises of a literal kingdom in the OT. When the OT prophets speak of the coming kingdom they speak in multiple passages in terms so specific to a literal, geo-political kingdom that it is difficult for me to deny that the prophecies God gave to them as his mouthpieces were none other than visions of a visible, earthly kingdom (e.g., Isa 11; Dan 7).
3. The understanding of Jesus and his followers. At the time of Jesus’s birth, the angel Gabriel promised Mary,
He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:32–33).
Although Jesus refers to the “kingdom” in multiple ways in his teachings, overall it appears that Jesus’s self-understanding is that he is the heir to the earthly throne of the kingdom God has promised. It also appears that Jesus’s followers believed the same. Therefore, James and John approach Jesus and ask to sit on his right hand and his left hand when he comes into his kingdom (Matt 20; Mark 10). But Jesus does not correct their understanding with something like, “No, you don’t understand. I’m not talking about an actual kingdom.” Instead Jesus tells them, “To sit at my right hand and at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father” (Matt 20:23).
Likewise, after Jesus’s death and resurrection, before his ascension his disciples asked, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). Jesus could have answered, “You mean, after all this time you still think that I’m going to bring in a literal kingdom”? But instead he answers, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority” (Acts 1:7).
4. A grammatical-historical interpretation of Revelation 20. In Rev 20:1–7, the number “1000” does not appear to be a passing poetic reference. Rather, the number is used no less than six times to describe the duration of time that Satan is bound (20:2, 3, 7), the time that the resurrected saints will live and reign with Christ (20:4, 6), the time that the dead would remain in their graves (20:5) and the time that separates the “first resurrection” unto life and the “second resurrection” unto death (20:5–6). Furthermore, if Satan’s binding is being fulfilled in some way in the present church era, then we are left to explain why he is still able to blind the minds of the unbelieving (2 Cor 4:4) and actively work in the “sons of disobedience” (Eph 2:1–3).