Few doctrines unite and separate Christians as much as eschatology. For although we agree that Christ indeed will return to Earth, we differ on the when and how.
Our differences are understandable. Passages such as those in Daniel and Revelation do not lend themselves to simple explanations. For example, the one reference to a millennium in Revelation 20 offers tremendous opportunity for speculation. Will this be a period of precisely 1,000 years? Or is this to be interpreted metaphorically as a long period of time? Will Christ return before the millennium or after it? Or is his kingdom already established here on Earth?
We have no intention of answering these questions. Consider the popularity of books written during the past dozen years that established end-times scenarios. In spite of their carefully documented explanations, the questions remain, along with a good deal of confusion and rancor. As historian Robert Clouse points out, this topic has been “one of the most divisive elements in recent Christian history.”
So we asked five scholars to sort through the issues, identify points of agreement, and tell us why eschatology is important and how it can unite rather than divide us.
What follows is an edited transcript of a day-long discussion with representatives of distinctly different eschatological viewpoints. John Walvoord, former president and now chancellor of Dallas Theological Seminary, may be the most recognized contemporary proponent of the pretribulational, premillennial point of view. Gleason Archer, professor of Old Testament and Semitic languages at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, represents the midtribulational, premillennial view, while Alan F. Johnson, professor of biblical studies at Wheaton College, subscribes to a posttribulational, premillennial interpretation. The amillennial view is represented by Anthony A. Hoekema, formerly professor of systematic theology at Calvin Theological Seminary. And John Jefferson (Jack) Davis, professor of systematic theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, espouses the postmillennial view. Institute dean Kenneth S. Kantzer moderated the discussion.
Lively at times but never contentious, their discussion was underscored by the recognition that, regardless of one’s view, all that really matters is that “you were at your post when the inspection came” (C. S. Lewis).
The Purpose Of Prophecy
Kenneth Kantzer: Why are we given prophetic teaching in Scripture? Obviously it’s not just to illuminate our minds and satisfy our curiosity. What are the spiritual purposes that we can glean from Scripture on this point?
Jack Davis: The prophetic writings represent God’s words of judgment and hope. They are addressed to the people of God and bring the judgment of God to the people who have forgotten the covenant and the requirements of God’s law. But they also bring words of hope to God’s people who have fallen into discouragement and despair. Biblical prophecy primarily gives the people of God a vision rather than a blueprint. That’s why it is good to center on the key themes of Bible prophecy rather than on some of the details that lead to so many diverse interpretations.
John Walvoord: Vision is an inadequate description of prophecy. Between one-fifth and one-fourth of the Bible is prophecy. That can hardly be reduced to vision. There are a lot of hard facts in there, and even though conservatives differ as to the millennium, they agree about heaven and hell—primary considerations in a person’s view of the future. On the other hand, I would avoid the term blueprint. I think that’s too extreme the other way.
Anthony Hoekema: I prefer the expressions forth-telling and fore-telling. The word prophet comes from the Greek prophetes, from pro meaning “for,” and phemi meaning “to speak.” The prophet, therefore, is one who speaks for someone else—in this case, God.
The most important role of the prophet is forth-telling, bringing a revelation from God that would include not just the vision, but a great deal more—facts and judgments of God upon the sins of the people, and hope for the future.
Alan Johnson: This whole strain of biblical prophecy has a very theocentric and Christocentric dimension to it. In other words, it isn’t just speculation about the future that the Bible is concerned about. More important, it is concerned about confirming to us the sovereignty of God in history and in eternity. When God speaks his words of judgment and salvation, it confronts us with the Creator, the One who is the Lord of all things.
Kantzer: Doesn’t prophecy also bring a warning from God to all human beings?
Johnson: Yes, and to confront us with the One who calls into existence things that do not exist, as Paul says in Romans 4. In this function, it has an apologetic value. When God predicts something and it comes to pass as he has indicated, there is a certification of both the message and the messenger.
Gleason Archer: There was a young man in Park Street Church [Boston] back in the forties named Edwin Palmer who was going to Harvard. He began to wonder whether the claims of the Bible could be substantiated on an objective basis. He came to me, and I recommended to him John Urquhart’s Wonders of Prophecy, which is a coverage of all the already-fulfilled predictions of Scripture. After he read that book, he said that to be intellectually honest the only position he could take is that the Bible is the objective, infallible revelation from the true God.
Johnson: In a similar vein, one of the purposes of prophecy is evangelism, though too often prophecy is exploited for an evangelistic purpose. But consider, for example, the Book of Revelation. The end of the book is punctuated with evangelistic appeal. We have this tremendous vision of the new heaven and the new Earth with the implicit invitation to be a part of it. And we’re told that God has provided a way for us to enter those gates. So there is a very real value in which the prophetic Scripture can be preached within the churches and to the community of the non-Christians with this dimension.
Choosing Up Sides
Kantzer: There was a time when major battles were fought over millennial views, but in recent years that hasn’t been the case. How do you account for that?
Davis: Part of the reason is in our struggle with both the good and bad of the fundamentalist heritage. We are looking for points of unity where we can hang together as American evangelicals and forge ahead. So I think that has tended to diminish some of the zeal for the intramural debates that marked our past.
Walvoord: I think another reason is that few pastors really understand eschatology. How many seminaries are preparing their graduates to preach on prophecy? I was in a church in a major denomination to speak on prophecy. When the pastor introduced me to his congregation, he told them he hoped to learn something, because although he had a master’s degree from a seminary he had never had a lecture on prophecy. I am frequently in churches where the pastor—even if he holds a position on eschatology—doesn’t preach it. I think there is a sense of inadequacy among pastors, so they just avoid the topic. There is another factor. Practically all seminaries that want to be accredited encourage their professors to get a doctorate. How many schools offer doctoral degrees in prophecy? In some of these schools, prophecy is almost a taboo subject. In fact, in some circles, if you admit you hold a particular view, like the premil view, you are automatically written off as being unacademic. There is a lot of scholarly pressure against a person taking any particular theology of the future.
Kantzer: Could I suggest an alternative explanation, and then get your reaction to it? There is a sense in which the church is facing a tremendous surge of anti-evangelicalism and a fundamental rejection of biblical Christianity. We know this topic of the millennium is important, but in our homes and in our churches, we’re fighting for our very lives. Has this affected our interest in eschatology?
Walvoord: Yes, we seem to be interested in it only when it directly touches our lives. I was to speak on prophecy in a church, and the day I got there Israel was attacking Egypt. The church was packed because a crisis automatically gets people thinking about the future. That’s when they want to know how this fits in with the Bible.
Johnson: That bothers me, because it leads to using eschatology incorrectly. With such recurring problems as earthquakes, floods, volcanoes, and hunger—to say nothing of this huge nuclear thing hanging over our heads—people want to know if they’re living in the last days. Rather than exploit that kind of popular interest, I would like us to use prophecy to turn people toward the great theocentric emphasis that runs through prophetic Scripture. We need to lead them away from an unhealthy speculation and fear about the present, and lead them into a confrontation with the great themes of Scripture about the future.
Davis: But a Christian’s interest in prophecy is predictable and valid. One of man’s basic needs is a sense of meaning in terms of this world’s events. Knowing what the Bible teaches about the future helps us understand what God is doing to further his kingdom.
Kantzer: Do you think the great emphasis a few years back on foretelling future events was a healthy emphasis for the church?
Archer: It might have focused on the calendar more than it should have. Prophecy is important to the extent that it assures us that victory is guaranteed. But trying to understand exactly how events are going to fall out during the seventieth week of Daniel’s prophecy becomes a kind of spiritual one-upmanship.
Johnson: I think one other negative effect would be the unwarranted attachment of certain eschatalogical viewpoints with orthodoxy—that is, that you are not really an orthodox Christian unless you hold X viewpoint on the second coming of Christ.
Kantzer: Wouldn’t you want to use a better word than orthodox? I don’t know of any premil who thinks that amils hold an unorthodox position. What they usually say is that the millennium is an important enough issue to divide us in certain types of activities, but we are still brothers and sisters in Christ.
Johnson: I would agree with qualifying my use of the word orthodox, but I would differ with your analysis as to whether there are premils who feel amils are questionable in their whole Christian orientation. Some groups have taught that those who hold a particular brand of eschatology have a very low view of Scripture and may be suspect in their overall belief as well. And one of the primary reasons for this is that church leaders and others who teach have not distinguished between the major doctrinal belief that the Lord will return and the secondary interpretations regarding how and when. We don’t teach them to discriminate between those two, and therefore they feel the whole matter of the Lord’s second coming is all wrapped up in the particular theological position that has been taught.
Hoekema: I should hope this could be one of the beneficial results of this discussion. We are all one in Christ, regardless of our millennial view. The apostle Paul talked about the fact that through the cross of Christ, Jews had been made one with Gentiles, and the wall of partition had been removed. Well, if that’s true of Gentiles and Jews, it’s also true of premillennialists and amillennialists. We’re all in Christ together. Underscoring our major agreements and our central affirmations should help us realize that in the essentials we are one.
Kantzer: And yet, don’t we think it’s important enough to restrict the faculties of our seminaries to persons holding a particular eschatological viewpoint? Why is this necessary?
Archer: Experience suggests that too much tension on certain issues can make it difficult for the team to work effectively. For the sake of a common approach and shared view of Scripture, it is perfectly legitimate for a specific seminary to decide that on eschatological questions we’ve got to have agreement. Thus, at Trinity we are premillennial and we do not appoint anyone to our faculty who does not hold this view. We work best that way.
Kantzer: Jack, you must have a little different attitude toward this.
Davis: At Gordon-Conwell we don’t require faculty members to subscribe to any particular position on the millennium. We feel it helps students if they can realize evangelicals have a spread of opinions on these issues.
Archer: The problem with that, though, is that students who study under such a faculty may face difficulty when being interviewed by ordaining bodies. They may be considered so neutral on the whole thing that the ordaining council wonders whether they’ve really thought their position through.
Johnson: And yet I wonder if that’s just one way of rationalizing our divisions. In other words, aren’t we simply perpetuating a separation of the churches? The larger issue is whether or not we really are united as Christians. If we are, then perhaps it’s time we put the millennial question in its proper perspective as a secondary issue and focus more on those things that are common to us.
Archer: Instead of secondary, I think it would be wiser to say these are issues in which equally committed Christians may disagree. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re secondary. So far as the far as the Calvinist is concerned, the doctrine of sovereign grace is not secondary, but he may recognize that the Arminian comes at this question from a different standpoint. This is an extremely important issue, but it is an area in which evangelical Christians may disagree. I don’t like to call that secondary.
Eschatology, Evangelism, And Social Action
Kantzer: How does one’s eschatological view affect his concept or practice of social responsibility and evangelism?
Davis: It’s my impression that many dispensationally oriented churches don’t really expect to see renewal in society and its institutions. The opposite was true in the nineteenth century, in which postmillennialism was the dominant evangelical view for much of that century. If you view the world as a sinking ship, as most premillennialists do, then evangelism and social responsibility are futile. Their approach is to go out there, grab as many as they can, and get them saved. But if you believe that Christ is on the throne, the Devil’s not in charge of planet Earth, and the cultural mandate, Genesis 1, is still in force—as well as the Great Commission—then you will believe not only individuals, but also the created order is going to be impacted by the grace of God. That’s how the postmillennialist views his responsibility to the world.
Kantzer: For all of you who are not postmils, is it worth your efforts to improve the physical, social, political situation on Earth?
Walvoord: The answer is yes and no. We know that our efforts to make society Christianized is futile because the Bible doesn’t teach it. On the other hand, the Bible certainly doesn’t teach that we should be indifferent to injustice and famine and to all sorts of things that are wrong in our current civilization. Even though we know our efforts aren’t going to bring a utopia, we should do what we can to have honest government and moral laws. It’s very difficult from Scripture to advocate massive social improvement efforts, because certainly Paul didn’t start any, and neither did Peter. They assumed that civilization as a whole is hopeless and subject to God’s judgment. In fairness to the fundamentalists, however—even the extreme ones—they do not neglect the social needs of persons. Visit any rescue mission, and chances are it’s being run by a premillennialist, and he thinks it’s a worthwhile business. Premillennialists have a pretty good record in meeting the physical needs of people.
Johnson: It’s really a question of emphasis. For example, in the premillennial position, the overemphasis upon pessimism with regard to the current age or the current world situation has resulted in withdrawal from programs that go beyond the simple relief efforts. Yes, the premillennialist will minister to the poor, but he generally does not get involved in trying to correct the structures that caused that person to be poor. The postmillennial view has a much more positive attitude toward that type of reconstruction program within society.
Archer: Not necessarily. I think we are perhaps confusing two things. From the standpoint of God’s plan for the ages, we do know that in the last days men shall become worse and worse. That’s plainly set forth, and therefore the premillennialist would feel that he cannot bring in the millennium by well-meaning human effort.
Davis: Nor does the postmillenialist. I don’t think anybody around here believes we can bring in the kingdom through our own efforts.
Archer: No, but I think that has been the vision of the World Council of Churches, for example. Many who are postmillennialists believe they can create the kingdom here on Earth through their own efforts. Premillennialists, on the other hand, actively promote righteousness much like the prophets of the Old Testament who openly protested evil. It’s thrilling to see a gathering of forces in America against the abomination of infant slaughter in the abortion clinics. This is thoroughly within the perspective of a dedicated premillennialist, but what we need to guard against is the notion that we are going to bring in the millennium by our enlightened progress and our better understanding of how society ought to be run. There’s a radical evil in the heart of man, and we have to recognize that until the Lord comes, this evil is not going to be expelled. That does not mean we’re going to withdraw. It does not mean we’ll not go to the polls and elect people of conviction.
Hoekema: I would like to suggest four ways the amillennialist approaches evangelism and social responsibility. First, if you believe that the kingdom of God is present as well as future, which I do, and that Christians are now citizens of that kingdom and under the rule of Christ as Lord, you will seek to obey Christ in every area of life. Thus, you will practice both social responsibility and evangelism. Second, all Christians agree that the characteristic activity of the present age is mission, but mission work is more than saving souls. It includes the extension of the kingdom of God. We must be concerned both with word and deed, both with bringing people to Christ and with helping to deliver them from grinding poverty and miserable living conditions that are present in many areas.
Third, since there is both continuity and discontinuity between this Earth and the new Earth which is to come, we must not consider the present Earth a total loss. When the Book of Revelation tells us that the glory and honor of the nations will be brought into the New Jerusalem, it is suggested that there will be some sort of cultural continuity. We must therefore be working for a better world now, even though we know it will never be a perfect world on this side of the Second Coming. Our efforts to bring Christ’s kingdom into fuller manifestation today are of eternal significance.
Fourth, and finally, there will be a Day of Judgment. We are saved by grace, but we shall be judged according to works. Keeping this in mind should make us work all the harder to promote God’s kingdom and be obedient to our Lord today.
Kantzer: Are we saying here that the Christian community, whether premil, postmil, or amil, must work both with individuals as well as seek to improve the structures of society? In other words, is there nothing within any of the millennial views that would prevent a believer from trying to improve society?
Walvoord: Well, the Bible says explicitly to do good to all men, especially those of faith. In other words, the Bible does give us broad commands to do good to the general public.
Davis: But generally speaking, the premillennialist is more oriented toward helping those who have been hurt by the system than by addressing the systemic evil, while the postmillennialist believes the system can be sanctified. That’s the basic difference with regard to our relationship to society.
A Christianized World?
Kantzer: In terms of the future, just what do the major views say regarding the betterment of society?
Davis: The postmillennialist envisions a society where Judeo-Christian values are the predominant influence in the public schools, the legal system, the media, and political life. Not everyone will be converted, but the majority may be. That is sort of a postmillennial prediction of what will occur before the second coming of Christ.
Johnson: From a premillennial point of view, there is more emphasis in Scripture, especially in the New Testament, on the permeation of evil within societies. And while I would like to think it’s possible that we could see whole cultures converted to Christ, I don’t see anything in Scripture that hints at that. In terms of how eschatology affects behavior, the posttribulational, premillenial point of view is concerned about preparing Christians for the very hard life that is to come.
Kantzer: As you know, some prominent premillennialists are becoming increasingly active in efforts, through the political process, to bring Christian values back into the mainstream of American society. How are they different from some of the more radical postmillennialists who have an agenda for turning America into a Christian nation?
Archer: There are some very great differences. The more extreme postmillennialists, usually referred to as reconstructionists or theonomists, are really thinking in terms of a takeover of government whereby the whole structure will be modeled after scriptural principles. On the other hand, premillennialists like Jerry Falwell are trying to encourage movement toward biblical standards and justice for society, but within the structure of our current Constitution. There’s a radical difference between the two, even though both are concerned about civic righteousness.
Kantzer: And yet, the reconstructionist view appears to be gaining more support. Do any of you think the postmillennial view will become more popular?
Davis: Of course, the work of Peter Wagner and Ralph Winter and all the statistics they cite about the remarkable growth of the church around the world should suggest that the mustard seed is growing pretty rapidly now. I would distinguish myself from the theonomists, because they have a somewhat different agenda. But their theology of dominion, and willingness to get out and do something to change the world, is attractive. So I think the postmillennial view will have more visibility.
Johnson: How do you explain the rise of premillennialism in the nineteenth century in terms of social forces?
Davis: Just from a sociological perspective, I would think that a premillennial perspective has some attractiveness for a group of the godly who find themselves as an embattled minority in church and society. It provides a way of understanding—if not rationalizing—why we lost the denominations, why we lost the churches, and why society seems to be so ungodly. If you believe biblical prophecy says society will deteriorate, it becomes easy to use certain current events to support your position.
Johnson: So this is more of an interface with the liberalism that was growing at that time. Do you see a connection between the rise of premillennialism in the nineteenth century and the rise of liberalism?
Walvoord: During the last part of the nineteenth century, evolution emerged as an explanation for why things were getting better. In those days, prophecy conferences included postmils, amils, and premils, but it became a battle between the premil view and the evolutionary view that seemed to fit postmillennialism. So premillennialism became a battle against the evolutionist, which ended up as a battle between fundamentalism and liberalism. I’m afraid the postmillennial position is still closely associated with evolution and liberalism.
Kantzer: If we were to see an extended period of social involvement, would evangelicals shift back to the postmillennial view?
Walvoord: I don’t see how it could happen worldwide. It might occur in one country, but to do it worldwide would be quite an undertaking.
Johnson: I think the postmil position will have more visibility in the coming decades primarily as a result of things happening on the mission field, and perhaps the whole charismatic dimension. But I don’t see it becoming the predominant view.
Major Or Minor Doctrine
Kantzer: Just what level of importance ought to be placed on the whole area of eschatology?
Johnson: Too many have used eschatology to create a major doctrine out of something that ought to be minor. Eschatology is important in certain areas of our faith, but it isn’t one of those major cornerstones. One of the ways to distinguish major doctrines from minor doctrines is to return to the historic creeds. You will not find a particular millennial view within any of those creeds.
Hoekema: The Belgic Confession, however, one of the Reformed creeds, is definitely amillennial. Actually, we have two different areas here: church order and fellowship. Now, when you ordain pastors, their eschatological view becomes important. But this doesn’t mean you can’t have fellowship with other Christians. Remember, all evangelicals are agreed on at least two basic eschatological elements: the second coming of our Lord, and the eternal state of blessed fellowship on the new earth. Those are the major elements, and all else is secondary.
Johnson: I wouldn’t even use one’s view of the millennium as a test of ordination for the ministry. It’s one thing to say that Christ is going to return and we’re all going to enter the eternal state, but exactly how is secondary.
Kantzer. Do any of you feel one’s millennial view is of sufficient importance to make it a test of church membership?
Archer: Ideally it should be, but there’s a certain strategy involved in encouraging people to come in and hear some teaching with the expectation that their views may straighten out in the course of time. Prudentially, it would be well not to enforce that as a condition of membership, but certainly as a goal for those who will share in a teaching ministry within the church.
Hoekema: What if I came to a church at which you were pastor and you preached to me and I listened but never changed my eschatology. Then what would you do?
Archer: I would continue to love you and pray for you. But I wouldn’t put you in as an officer because there is a hermeneutical principle that’; very important. If a person approaches Scripture from a different point of view than the rest of the church, he is not ready for church leadership.
Johnson: I would like to take a little different viewpoint here. It may be a matter of emphasis but I don’t really think that the difference between the amil and the premil is that important to the entire interpretation of the Bible. I would grant that it does have importance in some places but it’s not all that important. I served recently as final editor on the New International Version Study Bible. My task was to examine all the work that was done on that particular study Bible, for accuracy and balance of theological positions. There were very few places in that study Bible where we had to elaborate the different eschatological views because it bore on the meaning of the text. It’s important to distinguish things that are essential from things that are important from things that are good. And the question is whether or not the secondary theological elaborations of eschatology are really essential to the Christian faith.
Points Of Agreement
Kantzer: What do the different eschatological convictions have in common? Are there points of consensus that might help build bridges?
Hoekema: There are major eschatological teachings on which all evangelicals agree. That Christ will come again is certainly more important than specific details as to the events that will precede or follow the Second Coming. Another point on which we all agree is the eternal state of glory on the new earth. It seems to me that more should be done with this great biblical teaching. Proponents of postmillennialism, for instance, should agree that the golden age they say will precede Christ’s return will be far less wonderful, far less important, than the final state of perfection on the new earth. Premillennialists should also agree that the glorified, eternal, perfected state of believers on the new earth is far more important than the millennial period that is said to precede it.
It has often struck me when reading dispensational books and articles that far more attention is given to the millennium than to the final state. But should not these emphases be reversed? Should we not lay major emphasis on the major matters? Amillennialists have not always laid sufficient stress on the new earth, sometimes giving the impression that believers will spend eternity off in space floating from cloud to cloud plucking golden harps. I believe a greater emphasis on biblical teaching about the new earth can bring dispensationalists and amillennialists closer together. May I just add that I think we are drawing closer together.
Archer: However, you’ve got to remember that if people agree 95 percent on an issue, they will spend their time talking about the 5 percent. That’s human nature.
Walvoord: It’s also true that in terms of verses devoted to eschatology, there are whole chapters devoted to the concept of the millennium, but only Revelation 21 and 22 tell us about the new heaven and the new earth. That’s very little. The large biblical context supporting the idea of a millennium concerns premillennialists.
Hoekema: I don’t happen to agree with that. The many Old Testament prophecies that dispensationalists apply to the millennium I understand as a description of the new earth.
Johnson: Here again, though, I think there is possibility for agreement. The millennium, on the one hand, is a historical event. But it is also the transition into the new heaven and the new earth. So we don’t have to view the millennium as an entirely distinct period in time, and the characteristics of it are entirely different from that of the new heaven and the new earth. So this would allow a lot more talking about characteristics that apply to both.
Kantzer: A key theme in eschatology is the kingdom of God and how this relates to Christians Howard Snyder and many Third World evangelists have been writing a lot about this lately. Is this emphasis good, or is it a return to the social gospel?
Davis: The kingdom of God is certainly a biblical concept and was central to Jesus’ proclamation as we find it in the synoptic Gospels. It has the further advantage of reminding evangelicals that the lordship of Christ has the public dimension. It’s not limited to personal piety. The language of the kingdom also reminds us that Chris is the Lord of politics as well as my heart. So I would welcome this emphasis.
Johnson: This emphasis becomes strictly a social gospel when the kingdom is divorced from Jesus Christ. In other words, the kingdom is Christ and it cannot be divorced from his salvation and from everything he represents redemptively.
Hoekema: The social gospel as we know it is something man does on his own—following Christ’s example to bring about a new kingdom on Earth. The emphasis from Snyder and others suggests we can only enter into the kingdom through God’s grace. The focus is on God, not man.
Kantzer: How is this different from liberation theology?
Davis: The drive of many liberation theologians seems to be toward the establishment of freedom from want and the liberty to live as you like; salvation is completely of this world. They seem to minimize the recognition of depravity and guilt, and the need for redemption. Their theology appears to be concerned with establishing a very nice utopia here on Earth.
Hoekema: That may be a bit harsh. Liberation theology is not totally uniform. There are many liberation theologians who are Marxists, and therefore their view is not biblical. But there are others who start with the Bible, who are evangelical theologians, and who believe in sin, grace, and redemption through the blood of Christ. They feel the gospel must have an impact on all of life. But they are not denying the cardinal truth of the gospel. They’re not all in the category you mentioned.
Kantzer: Can Christians do anything to hasten the return of the Lord?
Walvoord: I’m enough of a Calvinist to think that we’re not going to change the dating of Christ’s return very much, though I suspect one could argue that by spreading the gospel to all the ends of the Earth we will pave the way for it.
Davis: I’d make a distinction between what we as believers can do in an instrumental sense and what we can do in a determining sense. I believe God sovereignly determines the future, but he uses us instrumentally to fulfill his purpose.
Walvoord: I sometimes preach on 2 Peter, where it says the Lord doesn’t wish any to perish. And I point out that the reason the Lord hasn’t returned is because he is waiting for some to hear who haven’t heard, and waiting for others to respond who have heard. So in that sense, we have a role to play. But it’s God’s plan and timing, not ours.
Kantzer: What different emphasis in spirituality tends to come from each eschatological view?
Davis: A postmillennarian point of view would tend to encourage what I would call a world-affirming spirituality, and a type of understanding of spirituality that would acknowledge our cultural as well as ecclesiastical involvement. That is, God is concerned for all of creation, which opens up spirituality to a lot of areas. There’s room in my life for culture as well as individual church and family.
Johnson: The premillennial tradition tends to view the times as growing progressively worse. Unfortunately, that teaching has made premillennialists develop a tendency to pull back from an active participation in societal issues and concerns. I would argue, however, that premillennialists really ought to have the greatest involvement in society because they believe very firmly that redemption takes place within history.
Hoekema: As an amillennialist, I believe we are already new, but we are not yet perfect. Already the kingdom is here, but it’s not yet here in perfection. Therefore, we should be positive and expectant that the Lord will work in us and through us within our culture.
Walvoord: Well, I personally object to the idea that premillennialism is pessimistic. We are simply realistic in believing that man cannot change the world. Only God can.
Davis: What would the mainstream dispensational point of view be on this question? Will the percentage of Christians in the world increase or decrease as history goes on?
Walvoord: Well, for nearly 2,000 years it has decreased.
Davis: So what would the projection be for the future? Will it continue to go down?
Walvoord: All I know is that when the Bible talks about the end times, it says things will get worse and worse. However, that doesn’t deter me from preaching the gospel. It doesn’t deter me from saying that abortion is wrong, or that we should feed the hungry. I think premils have been maligned in this respect.
When Will Christ Return?
Kantzer: Jesus told his disciples he would return again soon. How are we to interpret that?
Walvoord: If we knew Christ could come any day, it would be the driving force in encouraging us to be active in the Lord’s work. All the exhortations regarding the Second Coming have this element of serving while we are waiting. Further, they express the idea of encouraging one another. 1 Thessalonians 4 and 1 Corinthians 15 are tied to the fact that the Lord is coming. If we can agree on anything, I think it would be the necessity for all believers to work as if the Lord were coming tomorrow.
Davis: Speaking as postmil, I have four comments to make about the question of imminency, an idea that certainly is supported in the New Testament. The first is that the New Testament also warns of the delay of the Lord as well as the soonness or nearness of his coming, and that’s paradoxical language. I think that has to be kept in balance. Second, I allow the theoretical possibility that my entire hermeneutical structure could be wrong. In other words, I’m firmly committed to a certain eschatological view, but not with the certainty that I have of the deity of Christ and the Virgin Birth, and other doctrines. So I have to allow the theoretical possibility that I could be wrong there.
Kantzer: You’re saying there that the return of Christ could occur at any second, but that you don’t really think it will?
Davis: Exactly. I don’t affirm my own position with the same degree of certainty that I affirm my position on other matters. Then there’s always the practical possibility that I could die at any moment, which motivates all of us to behave as if Christ were returning tomorrow. But my fourth comment draws a distinction between a Christological sense of nearness and a calendrical sense of nearness. For the writers of the New Testament, the Resurrection and presence of the Spirit were already beginning to be present in the church, so there was a sense of a nearness of the end through the presence of the Spirit. You might even call this inaugurated imminency. In other words, we are now living in the time of the end, but we also allow for prophetic foreshortening here. What’s a thousand years to the Alpha and Omega?
Johnson: I want first of all to question the definition of imminency. It is not a biblical term. In terms of eschatological wording, it’s not biblical as far as I know. The word imminency does not necessarily mean it will occur at any moment, but rather it means it is likely to occur at any moment. The New Testament doctrine is more the idea of the impending advent of Christ. And impending means something that is constant or indefinite, confronting us and keeping us in suspense. In that sense, I don’t have to believe Christ may return at any immediate moment in order for it to have a very positive effect on my spiritual life. We can’t be certain that in Revelation, John was referring specifically to a seven-year period of tribulation. It could be a very short period of time, and in that sense, when I see the signs of the man of sin and I see other things that are referred to in Scripture, I can still be expecting the Lord’s return very soon.
Walvoord: Well, basically, I interpret imminency as meaning any moment, but that doesn’t necessarily mean soon. As far as our knowledge is concerned, it could occur at any time. God has the day fixed. It could occur today.
Johnson: In periods where there are abuses of the different millennial views, it is primarily due to the lack of spiritual vitality in the Christian communities rather than the doctrinal position they hold. Thus, our concern should not be so much with pushing a particular view, but in emphasizing the continuous need for spiritual renewal. A spiritually alive church, whether pre-, post-, or amillennial, will be busy reaching out to the spiritual and physical needs of persons.
Kantzer: I recall one of my teachers saying that anyone whose hermeneutics led him to an amillennial or postmillennial position would be able to use that same hermeneutic to wipe out the bodily resurrection of Christ and other major doctrinal issues. He argued that the conclusions one reaches about the millennium aren’t as important as the hermeneutical principles applied. Is that really the reason why this issue is so important?
Walvoord: Generally speaking, most premillennialists are also strong proponents of inerrancy. Now, with all deference to Dr. Hoekema, if a person is amillennial, you really don’t know a thing about his view of Scripture because he’s denied the millennium. He could be very conservative and orthodox, believing almost entirely the same as the premil except for the eschatology. Or he could be an extreme liberal, because most liberals don’t believe in a millennium. The word amillennial, by its very nature, is a negative term. When you say a person doesn’t believe something, it doesn’t leave any residue of what he does believe.
Hoekema: I don’t like the term amillennial either. Jay Adams has coined the term realized millennialism, which is kind of a cumbersome term but a little more positive. We amillennialists do believe in the millennium, only we believe it’s present now and the souls of deceased believers are currently reigning with Christ. This is our understanding of the millennium. We do not take literally every passage that a premillennialist would, but a premillennialist doesn’t take everything literally, either. So it’s really unfair to say the amillennialist has a lower view of Scripture.
Johnson: But there is this sense that the premillennial position carries with it all the overtones of orthodoxy. Which is why I keep raising the question as to whether or not these distinctions are really that vital to the ongoing work of the church. To me, they are not, and I’m concerned that the next generation of leaders find ways to bridge the gulf between these distinctions.
Walvoord: I concede that you can’t be absolute about this issue, because any sensible person can find nonliteral statements in the Bible. The Bible contains almost every figure of speech, so it becomes a question of judgment when you come to a statement like Genesis 12:7: “Unto thy seed will I give this land.” Here you run smack into the question, Does land mean land? and who are the seed of Abraham? Obviously, you could divide here over several possible interpretations.
Also known as historic premillennialism, this view predicts that Christ will return in a single event after the period of intense persecution of the church known as the Tribulation. Immediately after Christ returns, the Antichrist and his followers will be destroyed and Israel will repent and be saved. The promised messianic kingdom (millennium) will be established for 1,000 years, after which the rest of the dead will be raised, the final judgment effected, and the new heaven and new Earth will begin.
According to this view, three things must happen before Christ returns: the gospel must be preached to all nations, the Antichrist will be revealed, and the Great Tribulation will run its course. (A variation of this view, midtribulational premillennialism, places the Rapture at some point during the Tribulation.) The Rapture and the appearing of Christ will take place simultaneously, thus the church of that generation will be exposed to the final trial of the Antichrist.
Unlike dispensational premillennialism, this view does not teach two covenants (one for the church and one for Israel). As such, it regards Israel less sympathetically, and holds to a less futuristic view of Revelation 4–22.
Matthew 24:30–31; Matthew 25:31–46; Luke 17:30–37; 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18; Revelation 1:7
Henry W. Frost. The Second Coming of Christ. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1934.
Alan Johnson. Revelation (Vol. 12 of Expositor’s Bible Commentary). Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981.
George E. Ladd. The Blessed Hope. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1956.
George E. Ladd. The Presence of the Future. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1974.
J. Barton Payne. Encyclopedia of Biblical Prophecy. New York: Harper and Row, 1973.
Nathaniel West. Studies in Eschatology; The Thousand Years in Both Testaments. New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1889.
Amillennialists do not believe in a literal thousand-year earthly reign of Christ following his return to Earth. The kingdom of God is viewed as both a present reality and a future hope. The kingdom began with Christ’s birth and will be consummated at his Second Coming. As such, amillennialists distinguish between an inaugurated eschatology and a future eschatology.
As far as the thousand years mentioned in Revelation 20 are concerned, amillennialists believe we are now in the millennium. The souls of all believers who have died are now living and reigning with Christ in heaven. The resurrection of both believers and unbelievers will occur at Christ’s return to Earth.
In terms of the future, the Second Coming will be a single event rather than as a series of events—the Rapture, a period of tribulation, and the return of Christ—understood by premillennialists. Believers who are alive will be transformed and glorified, meeting Christ in the air and then returning to Earth with Christ. At this point, the final judgment will send those who have rejected Christ to hell. Believers will enter into everlasting glory on the new earth. Heaven and the new earth will then be one.
Isaiah 65:17–18; Matthew 12:28; Luke 17:20–21; Matthew 7:21–23; Romans 14:17.
Oswald T. Allis. Prophecy and the Church. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1977 (reprint).
G. C. Berkouwer. The Return of Christ. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1972.
Floyd E. Hamilton. The Basis of Millennial Faith. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1942.
Anthony A. Hoekema. Created in God’s Image. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1986.
Archibald Hughes. A New Heaven and a New Earth. Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1958.
Albertus Pieters. The Seed of Abraham. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1950.
This eschatological outlook anticipates a period of unprecedented revival in the church prior to the return of Christ. This great revival will be characterized by the church’s numerical expansion and spiritual vitality. As a result, the entire world will experience conditions of peace and economic improvement that will gradually improve until Christ returns. During this millennium, Christian values and principles will dominate, though not every person will become a Christian.
Postmillennialism was the dominant eschatological view among conservative Protestants for much of the nineteenth century. It is grounded fundamentally in a Christology that acknowledges the victorious reign of the resurrected Lord, actively extending the kingdom in the world through the power of the Word and the Holy Spirit. Indeed, a key theme of this view is confidence in God’s power to change the world.
Of the major eschatological views, postmillennialism is the least popular among Christians, largely due to the apparent worsening of conditions throughout the world. Recently it has attracted significant attention, especially among those who hope to structure society after biblical law.
Psalms 2; 22; 72; 110; Isaiah 2:22; Isaiah 11:6–10; Matthew 28:18; Ephesians 1:19–23
Loraine Boettner. The Millennium. Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1987.
John Jefferson Davis. Christ’s Victorious Kingdom. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1987.
Charles Hodge. Systematic Theology. New York: Scribner’s Sons, 1888.
Marcellus J. Kik. An Eschatology of Victory. Nutley, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1974.
James H. Snowden. The Coming of the Lord. New York: Macmillan, 1919.
B. B. Warfield. Biblical Doctrines. New York: Oxford University Press, 1929
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