This article is a critique of premillennialism.

Source: The Outlook, 1996. 4 pages.

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.


  1. ^ E.G.: George Eldon Ladd, "Historic Pre-millennialism." in The Meaning of the Millennium: Four Views, ed. by Robert G. Clouse (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity, 1977), p. 38. Unlike many dispensational pre-millennialists who find the doctrine of the millennium in many biblical passages (though not in so many words!), Ladd acknowledges that only Revelation 20:1-6 speaks expressly of the "millennium." Therefore, he admits that 1 Corinthians 15:23-26 only confirms a pre-millennialist position, when this position has already been established from the clear teaching of Revelation 20:1-6.
  2. ^ Baker Book House, 1950
  3. ^ It is interesting to observe that Berkhof cites Revelation 20:1-4 as an instance of a relatively obscure passage that may not be used to contravene the clear teaching of Scripture throughout on the subject of the return of Christ. Because most (all?) pre-millennialists believe the teaching of Revelation 20:1-6 to be plain and clear in its support of their position, they would insist that Berkhof has misapplied this rule of interpretation in this particular case. In their approach, the teaching of those passages that speak of Christ's return must be understood in the light of the clear pre-millennialist teaching of Revelation 20:1-6.
  4. ^ We shall see in our forthcoming articles that there is probably no more disputed text in all of the Bible than Revelation 20.1-6!
  5. ^ Ladd, Historic Premillennialism, p. 39.

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