The Problem with Pre-Millennialism
During the course of our brief survey of the four major millennial views, I promised to evaluate these views by the standard of the Scriptures. Indeed, this is the most important task that remains so far as the subject of the millennium is concerned, namely, to determine which, if any, of these major millennial views enjoys the support of the Bible. Those who advocate these differing views commonly argue that their view is the biblical one. Thus far I have managed to avoid too much interaction with the arguments frequently presented for one view or the other. The luxury of that kind of avoiding the issue, however, is now over.
In order to organize my evaluation of these millennial views, I will be following an order that roughly coincides with the order in which the four views were presented. In this article, I will begin an evaluation of premillennialism by arguing that the general teaching of the Bible does not support the teaching that Christ's return will occur before the period of the millennium. In several subsequent articles, some of the distinctive features of dispensational premillennialism will be subjected to scrutiny. This will require that special attention be given to the subject of the "rapture" and the teaching of the most important text relating to the millennium, Revelation 20:1-6. Only after dealing at some length with these pre-millennial views will we turn to the differences between postmillennialism and a-millennialism. At that point, I will present a biblical case for a-millennialism, a case which will include a summary of those biblical teachings that are incompatible with the post-millennial view.
The "General Analogy" of Scripture
The common feature of all premillennial teaching, whether historic pre-millennialism or dispensational pre-millennialism, is the claim that Christ's return at the end of the age will take place before or previous to the period known as the millennium. Whatever may be the differences between these two pre-millennial views — and these differences are considerable — this teaching is held in common. Though there are a number of arguments that are offered for this position, two biblical passages are most often cited by pre-millennialists in support of this conviction of the pre-millennial return of Christ. These two passages are 1 Corinthians 15:23-26 and especially Revelation 20:1-6. Revelation 20:1-6 is the more important of these passages, since without its teaching some pre-millennialists acknowledge that 1 Corinthians 15:23-26 would not obviously suggest a return of Christ before the millennium.1
Since I hope to treat Revelation 20:1-6 in some detail in forthcoming articles, my evaluation of this basic pre-millennialist claim will be restricted in this article to two matters. First, I will summarize what might be termed the "general analogy" of the Scripture on the return of Christ at the end of the age, a general teaching that does not conform to the pre-millennialist position. And second, I will evaluate the appeal to 1 Corinthians 15:23-26 and show why it does not lend any real support to the pre-millennialist position.
In evaluating pre-millennialism, one obvious question that cannot be ignored is this: were we to leave aside for a moment the alleged teaching in 1 Corinthians 15:23-26 and Revelation 20:1-6 of a pre-millennial return of Christ, what indications in the general teaching of the Bible is there for this position? Or, to put this question differently, would anyone argue for a pre-millennial return of Christ, were it not for the supposed teaching of a passage like Revelation 20:1-6?
This question raises the issue of the "general analogy" of Scripture on the subject of the return of Christ. It is a commonly recognized "rule of thumb" for Bible interpretation that the "general analogy" of Scripture has more weight in determining the teaching of the Bible than one or two passages that are somewhat more obscure or difficult to interpret. Louis Berkhof, for example, in his Principles of Biblical Interpretation, describes the "general analogy" of Scripture as any teaching that "does not rest on the explicit statements of the Bible, but on the obvious scope and import of its teachings as a whole..."2 Such a general analogy or teaching of Scripture is confirmed and strengthened, when it is supported by a variety of texts in a variety of passages throughout the entirety of the Bible. Furthermore, when this general teaching of the Scriptures is apparently contradicted by a relatively more obscure Scriptural text, it is appropriate to interpret this more obscure passage in the light of the general analogy of Scripture.3
Now it is remarkable to notice how, in the general teaching of the Scriptures and in a variety of different kinds of passages, the usual presentation of the return of the Christ indicates that it is a "consummating event at the close of the age," to employ language used in an earlier article in this series on the Bible and the future. In that article, I noted a number of features of the Bible's teaching regarding the return of Christ that confirm this general pattern of teaching: Christ's coming will be a visible, public event that will bring about the full salvation of the people of God and the realization of the kingdom of God (Matthew 24:27, 33; Luke 17:24; Luke 21:27-28, 31). There is no suggestion that the return of Christ will be merely introductory to another, merely provisional phase in the establishment of God's kingdom (the millennium).
When Christ is revealed from heaven, He will bring immediately and simultaneously rest for His beleaguered church and eternal punishment upon the unbelieving and impenitent (2 Thessalonians 1:6-10).
In the New Testament descriptions of the believer's expectation for the future, the common thread is a focus upon the return of Christ as the event which brings the fullness of salvation, beyond which there is no further event on the horizon that will surpass it in redemptive significance (compare 1 Corinthians 1:7, 8; Philippians 1:6, 10; 1 John 2:28; 1 Timothy 4:8; 2 Timothy 4:1). The pre-millennial teaching that Christ's return will introduce a millennial period, whose conclusion will be marked by a new outbreak and manifestation of Satanic opposition to Christ and His people (Satan's "little season" of Revelation 20:3), seems hardly to fit this focus and expectation.
When Christ returns, there will be a "rapture" of the living and the dead leading to the resurrection transformation of all believers and their uninterrupted and undisturbed communion with the Lord from that day forward (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18). Though we will return to this passage and the subject of the "rapture" in a subsequent article, it needs only to be observed that this communion with the Lord, as it is described in this passage, does not fit the conception of the millennium and Satan's "little season" which characterizes the pre-millennial view.
Rather than teaching that the return of Christ will bring a provisional phase of God's kingdom, the millennium, which itself will be surpassed in the final state of God's eternal kingdom, the New Testament teaches that Christ's return will introduce the final state in which there will be a new heavens and a new earth (2 Peter 3:13; Romans 8:17-25).
Moreover, in addition to these features of biblical teaching regarding the return of Christ, there is also the teaching that the resurrection of the just and the unjust alike will occur coincidentally, at one and the same point of time (compare Daniel 12:2; John 5:28, 29; Acts 24:14-15; Revelation 20:11-15). In the pre-millennialist conception of the return of Christ, the resurrection of believing saints is commonly distinguished and separated in time (by at least one thousand years!) from the resurrection of the unbelieving. However, in New Testament teaching the resurrection of believers is said to occur at the "last day" (John 6:40; compare 1 Thessalonians 4:16; Philippians 3:20-21; 1 Corinthians 15:23), the day that marks the close of this present age and the introduction of the (final) age to come.
When considered together, the cumulative effect of these features of biblical teaching regarding the return of Christ is to confirm that, when Christ returns or comes again, His coming will conclude history as we now experience it and introduce the final state. The clear testimony of the New Testament throughout conforms to the natural reading of the Apostles' Creed when it describes the return of Christ "to judge the living and dead." This judgment presumably will prepare the way for the "resurrection of the body and the life everlasting," commencing the final state. Unless there is clear and compelling evidence from one or more biblical text to support the pre-millennialist view, it would seem that we should follow the rule that the general teaching of Scripture has more weight than the alleged teaching of one text, especially when the teaching of that text is not clear and undisputed.4
The Teaching of 1 Corinthians 15:23-26
George Eldon Ladd, one of the most able defenders of the pre-millennialist view, has argued that 1 Corinthians 15:20-28, especially vv. 23-26, teaches that there are three stages in the unfolding of redemptive history. These stages include an interim period which is the equivalent of the millennium of Revelation 20:1-6. Though this passage does not speak expressly of a millennium, it at least corroborates, according to Ladd, the sequence of events clearly set forth in Revelation 20. Ladd nicely summarizes his position as follows:
There is ... one passage in Paul which may refer to an interim kingdom if not a millennium. In 1 Corinthians 15:23-26 Paul pictures the triumph of Christ's kingdom as being accomplished in several stages. The resurrection of Christ is the first stage (tagma). The second stage will occur at the parousia when those who are Christ's will share his resurrection. "Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death." The adverbs translated "then" are epeita, eita, which denote a sequence: "after that." There are three distinct stages: Jesus' resurrection; after that (epeita) the resurrection of believers at the resurrection; after that (eita) the end (telos). An unidentified interval falls between Christ's resurrection and his parousia, and a second undefined interval falls between the parousia and the telos, when Christ completes the subjugation of his enemies.5
Ladd's argument is that, though this passage may not explicitly speak of a "millennial" period, it allows for an intervening period between the time of Christ's coming and the resurrection of believing saints, and the time of Christ's subjection of all His enemies at the end of the age. This intervening period is the millennium of Revelation 20.
Though Ladd's argument can be defended on strictly grammatical grounds — the conjunctions used by the apostle Paul, "then ... and then," can be used to express a sequence in which a period of time could intervene — there are several reasons why his proposal demands an unnatural reading of this passage.
First, in all the other New Testament instances where the conjunctions used in this passage ("then ... and then") are found, they are used to express immediate sequence. That is, they are used to describe events that follow immediately the one upon the other, without any protracted period of time intervening (compare Luke 8:12; Mark 4:17; John 20:27). In the immediate context of 1 Corinthians 15:23-26, we find the same conjunctions used interchangeably and there too they seem to express a simple sequence of events (1 Corinthians 15:5-7). Furthermore, the second of these two conjunctions, "and then," is used alone in 1 Thessalonians 4:17 to express an immediate sequence of events. If context and ordinary usage have any bearing upon the interpretation of a text, then it seems evident that these conjunctions ought to be read as expressing a simple sequence of events — when Christ comes, the dead in Christ will be raised and the end state will ensue, when all things have been made subject to him.
Second, in the New Testament generally and in the epistles of Paul particularly, there is a close connection or conjunction between the "coming" (parousia) of Christ and the "end" (telos). However, on Ladd's and the pre-millennialists construction of this passage, these terms in 1 Corinthians 15:23-26 refer to distinct events, separated by a period of one thousand years! In 1 Corinthians 1:8, the apostle Paul speaks of the "revelation of the day of the Lord" which is the "end" to which believers look forward and toward which they will be kept blameless. When Christ is revealed, the "end" will come and the believer's need to persevere in hope will be terminated (compare 2 Corinthians 1:13-14; Matthew 10:22; 24:6,13-14; Mark 13:7, 13; Luke 21:9; Hebrews 3:6, 14; 6:11; 1 Peter 4:7). Thus, treating the "coming" of Christ and the "end" in 1 Corinthians 15:23-26 to refer to events that are closely connected or conjoined is in keeping with the ordinary pattern found in the New Testament. This pattern is broken on Ladd's view.
And third, the believer's victory over death is said in 1 Corinthians 15:54-55 to occur when believers receive resurrection bodies. This coincides with what is said in 1 Corinthians 15:23-26 to occur in conjunction with both the "coming" of Christ and the "end," when the believer's "last enemy," death, will be overcome. The simplest and most obvious reading of these verses in their context, therefore, is that, when Christ comes and believers share in His resurrection, this event will coincide with or introduce the "end," that circumstance in which death has been swallowed up in victory and no longer has any power over the believer.
In short, there are good and powerful reasons to conclude that, though Ladd's reading of this passage is grammatically possible, it is contextually and comparatively impossible. When 1 Corinthians 15:23-26 is read in its immediate context and in the more remote context of New Testament teaching generally, it corroborates the pattern we earlier termed the "general analogy" or teaching of Scripture: when Christ comes at the end of the age, this will mark the closure of redemptive history and commence (with the resurrection of the just and the unjust, the judgment of the living and the dead, and such) the final state. There is simply no evidence in the Scriptures for a pre-millennialist understanding of the return of Christ, with the exception of the alleged teaching of Revelation 20:1-6.
Our Provisional Conclusion
The problem with pre-millennialism is that, with the exception of the alleged teaching of Revelation 20:1-6, there is no evident support for its basic claim that Christ's return will precede the millennium either in the general teaching of the Bible or in a passage like 1 Corinthians 15:23-26. Though this conclusion can only be a provisional one until we have taken up directly the teaching of Revelation 20:1-6, it seems indisputable that, unless this latter passage teaches clearly and indisputably the pre-millennial return of Christ, the general pattern of the Bible's teaching favors the position that Christ's return will occur after the millennium. When Christ returns, He will return at the "end" of the age, at that time known in the Bible as the "last" day, when the "last trumpet" will sound and all things will have reached their appointed end.