*Adapted from my series on eschatology
It is not my intention to provide a long, detailed historical review of premillennialism. I merely want to hit upon the important features.
The prefix “pre” provides the central conviction of premillennialism: Christ will return prior to the millennial kingdom. Additionally, rather than saying the “millennium” is a spiritual understanding of the present church age as amillennialism does, premillennialists believe the 1,000 years that define the millennium are real, chronological years. In other words, when Jesus Christ returns, He will establish a Messianic kingdom in which He will rule for 10 consecutive centuries. Or, if we break it down further, 365,000 solar calendar days.
Premillennialism is the oldest eschatological system. This historical fact has been lost due in part to the dominance of Augustine’s amillennial scheme he outlined in his book, The City of God. In the few centuries prior to Augustine’s influence, however, the good number of Christian writers held to a primitive premillennialism, or what was called chiliasm, taken from the Greek phrase in Revelation 20 chilia ete, meaning “1,000 years.”
The chiliasts believed at least four fixed elements that defined their convictions:
1) The notion that a last, terrible battle with the enemies of God was pending.
2) The faith in a speedy return of Christ
3) The conviction that Christ will judge all men.
4) Upon His return, Christ will set up a kingdom of glory on the earth in which the risen saints will reign with Him for 1,000 years [Adolph Harnach, cited in Culver 2005, 1139].
Among the earliest writers advocating premillennial ideas were Barnabas, Papias, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertellian, Methodius, Lactantius, and Hippolytus. A number of chiliast groups came to be known for their “sensual excesses” or what was perceived by Christians who were heavily influenced by the increasingly popular asceticism of platonic philosophy as “evil worldliness.” These chiliasts taught about an earthly millennium where there would be much sensual banqueting and many earthly delights to indulge our pleasures.
As Augustine’s eschatology became the dominant position of the Roman Catholic Church, the chiliastic beliefs began to wane among Christians for several centuries. It wasn’t until the time of the Reformation, when the Reformers returned the church to the authority of Scripture and the importance of exegetical preaching, that the premillennial perspective began once again to see popularity among Christians.
Though it is safe to say all the adherents of the three main eschatological system affirm the authority of Scripture, premillennialists approach the interpretation of the relevant passages with an entirely different perspective than their amillennial and postmillennial counterparts:
The first difference is a significant distinction: premillennialists handle the interpretation of biblical prophecy differently. Rather than approaching prophecy with a hermeneutic that leans heavily toward spiritualizing the exegesis of eschatological passages, premillennialists interpret those passages in a more literal fashion. Yet, this is not an extreme wooden literalism in which symbolic and figurative language is discounted. Instead, premillennialists recognize the use of symbolic and figurative language to illustrate eschatological realities, but do not believe the presence of such language authorizes the wholesale spiritualization of prophectic literature.
Secondly, premillennialists interpret the book of Revelation differently as well. This is particularly noticeable in how they understand Revelation 20 where the millennium is specifically taught. Premillennialists do not read Revelation as a series of recapitulated visions of the church age. They understand the book should be read more in a chronological fashion. So, when they come to Revelation 20, they do not take the amillennial perspective of seeing the chapter as a vision returning the reader back to the beginning of the church age. Instead, they believe the events of chapter 20 follow those in chapter 19 in sequence, thus implying Christ vanquishes his enemies and then establishes His kingdom for a 1,000 years.
This chronological approach to the whole book of Revelation, particularly chapter 20, provides foundational characteristics defining premillennialism (These points are a summary of the first section from Robert Culver’s masterful work, Daniel and the Latter-days.):
The millennium begins with the visible return of Christ in glory to judge and rule the nations. Revelation 19 describes Christ’s return in which He judges the anti-Christ and false prophet by casting them immediately into the lake of fire. The events of Revelation 20, then, follow chronologically.
The millennium will be when Satan is imprisoned. Contrasted to non-premillennialists who believe Satan’s binding in Revelation 20:1-3 is a limitation of his activities, premillennialists believe his “imprisonment” means that Satan is caused to cease entirely from his rebellious activities on the earth for 1,000 years.
The resurrection of the just happens at the beginning of the millennium. The righteous will experience the first resurrection during which they will reign with Christ on the earth. This resurrection is a physical resurrection, not a spiritual “rebirth” or “regeneration” as non-premillennialists argue.
The conversion of Israel to their rightful Messiah and the restoration to the land. The millennium is the fulfillment of the long awaited Messianic kingdom promised by God to Israel in the OT, for example Hosea 3:4,5 and Micah 4.
Premillennialism has developed within two distinct varieties: Dispensational premillennialism and historic premillennialism.
Dispensational premillennialism is derived from the word “dispensation,” as found in the King James Bible in Ephesians 1:10, 3:2 and Colossians 1:25, translated from the Greek word oikinomos that can mean “stewardship” or “administration.” Dispensationalists divide salvation history into a series of eras or epochs in which God tested humanity in respect of obedience to some specific revelation of the will of God [Grenz, 94]. Each epoch entails the revelation of what God requires of human beings as the stewards of that revelation. Humanity is suppose to live obediently to the terms of the dispensation, yet fails to do so. Thus, each epoch ends with the judgment of God.
Earlier dispensationalists identified up to seven dispensations, with the premillennial kingdom being the final one. As the theology has matured and developed, how one understands the number of dispensations and their purposes, has been refined. Still, the one distinguishing factor of dispensational premillennialism is the distinction between national Israel and the NT Church, and a distinct future for national Israel. The millennium, then, is the fulfillment of the kingdom promises God made to OT Israel, with those promises being expanded to include the NT Church.
Historic premillennialism also holds to a future millennial kingdom; however, the system is different from dispensational premillennialism in that it sees the millennium being a golden age, not for a future regathered nation of Israel, but for the Church. Thus, the NT Church is considered to be the “spiritual Israel” that has replaced, or fulfilled, the OT Israel. Those promises of restoration to Israel in the OT, then, are fulfilled in the Church reigning with Christ during the millennium.
Additionally, historic premillennialism also shares much in common with non-premillennial eschatology, especially with how they interpret the prophetic passages. Just like amillennialists, the historic premillennialist believes the coming of Jesus Christ allows for the employment of a “Christological hermeneutic” that reinterprets the OT prophetic literature in light of the NT. This makes their approach to eschatology not as strictly literal as dispensationalism. In fact some historic premillennialists would not believe the millennium is strictly 1,000 calendar years, but are symbolic for an undetermined amount of time.
Craig Blaising, “Premillennialism,” in Three Views of the Millennium and Beyond.
Robert Duncan Culver, Daniel and the Latter-Days.
_______________ , Systematic Theology: Biblical and Historical.
Stanly J. Grenz, The Millennial Maze: Sorting out Evangelical Options.
George Marsden, Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism.
Michael J. Vlach, What is Dispensationalism?. (On-line paper).