Though controversial and debated, any study of eschatology worth your time must include an examination of the views of the millennium. So to set the stage for a brief overview of these views we must examine the passage dealing with the millennium most explicitly, Revelation 20.
“Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain. And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, and threw him into the pit, and shut it and sealed it over him, so that he might not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were ended. After that he must be released for a little while. Then I saw thrones, and seated on them were those to whom the authority to judge was committed. Also I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended. This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him for a thousand years. And when the thousand years are ended, Satan will be released from his prison and will come out to deceive the nations that are at the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them for battle; their number is like the sand of the sea” (Revelation 20:1-8).
Throughout the history of the Church there have largely been three positions concerning the millennium. Among the many distinctives these positions hold the chief distinctive (from which these positions derive their name) is when the second coming of Christ will occur. For the Premillennial it will occur before the millennium, for the Postmillennial it will occur after the millennium, and for the Amillennial, well there is no literal millennium, but we’ll get to that in a moment.
The Premillennial position has not always assumed the same form throughout Church history, so there is a need to distinguish between Historic Premillennialism and Dispensational Premillennialism.
Historic Premillennialism believes Christ’s kingdom began after the ascension of Christ with the work of the apostles. They call this first phase the Church age. In this age the Church of Christ will be successful in many ways but will ultimately fail in its mission and succumb to complete apostasy. This fall into apostasy will be a steady decline as history progresses toward the end of the Church age. After this Church age the great tribulation will begin, which marks the beginning of the end times or last days. During this great tribulation believers will suffer greatly from the antichrist and unbelief will reign on the earth. After the tribulation is over Jesus will return to rapture His Church away and reward the righteous. Jesus will then descend to earth with His glorified Church, fight the battle of Armageddon, defeat Satan, and bind him for 1,000 years. This thousand year period is the millennium in which Jesus will set up His kingdom in full measure on the earth from Jerusalem. At the end of this millennium Satan will be freed from his bonds, he will deceive the nations, but he will ultimately and finally be defeated by God’s wrathful judgment. It is this moment of final judgment where God will also judge the wicked and rescue the Church fully and forever.
Dispensational Premillennialism is a different belief system. The term was coined in the mid 19th century by Lewis Sperry Chafer, Finnis Dake, C.I. Scofield, and other various theologians. This system is known for two things. First, a belief that redemptive history is separated into varying dispensations where God deal with His people in different ways. Second, there is a sharp distinction between Israel and the Church as two separate peoples with two separate promises from God. To the dispensationalist, all of the Old Testament prophecies about Israel will be fulfilled in the current Jewish geo-political nation state of Israel. They believe the entire Old Testament sacrificial system will be reinstituted in a rebuilt temple in Jerusalem.
In the dispensational view, Christ’s kingdom is entirely future and comes after the church age, whereas in the historic view Christ’s kingdom began after the ascension. In lines up with the historic view at this point when it says the Church will be successful in many ways but will ultimately fail in its mission and succumb to complete apostasy as history progresses toward the end of the Church age. At this point most dispensationalists believe the rapture will occur to remove the Church from the world before the tribulation begins so they won’t have to face such turmoil. I say ‘most’ because some believe the rapture not be here but will occur in the middle of the tribulation, while others believe it will occur after the tribulation. All dispensationalists divide the tribulation into two equal periods of three and a half years. The first three and a half year period called the tribulation, is where the antichrist is revealed. The latter three and a half year period called the great tribulation, is where the antichrist will take up power, persecute what’s left of the Church, set up his own kingdom, and sit down to rule and be worshiped in the Jerusalem temple. After this seven year tribulation Jesus will return, destroy the antichrist, bind Satan, and set up his kingdom and will reign on the earth for 1,000 years. After this millennium Satan will be released, he will attack vigorously, but Jesus will call down judgment from heaven and destroy His enemies. Then the final judgment will occur.
This is the most popular millennial view in the Church today, probably due to the mass production and popularity of end times material published throughout the past generation, culminating in the Left Behind novels and movies.
In contrast to the Premillennial position the Amillennial position believes Christ’s kingdom began with the first coming of Christ. This time we’re now in is synonymous with the end times or last days. This reveals one of important underlying foundational beliefs, namely, that the 1,000 year millennium spoken of in Revelation 20 isn’t a literal thousand years, but the time where Christ is ruling and reigning between His two advents. This is why the label, coined in the early 20th century, begins with ‘a’. For the amil believer there is no millennium, because we’re in the symbolic millennium now and have been for almost 2,000 years already. There is also a large covenantal, as opposed to dispensational, view of redemptive history where there is no distinction or separation between Israel and the Church in regard to the promises made by God to His people. Amillennialism sees the Church as the fulfillment of Israel. This new and true Israel of God is made up of all believers. “It is not an ethnically, politically, geographically defined people any longer. It has no geographic center. It has no single ethnic identity. It is not a political nation state. It has no system of sacrificing animals, no tabernacle, no succession of priests, no divinely authorized feast days, no requirement of circumcision or dietary particulars. All of these Old Testament patterns were temporary. Jesus has fulfilled them and ended them” (John Piper). And it will not ever return to these things any time in the future. Though these beliefs are prominent in the Amillennial view, the view does leave an opening for Jews to return to Christ in the end. There are varying opinions on this within the amil camp but it is agreed upon that if they’re to return to Him they will come to Him by faith alone.
As to how the Amillennial believes redemptive history will play itself out, here’s the structure. Satan was bound during the earthly ministry of Jesus, and where the gospel is preached and embraced Satan’s influence is held at bay. Believers, therefore, have a true impact on this world and even on the culture in which they live. But they will not ultimately transform the culture. Because, like the premil position, Amillennialism believes the Church will succumb to apostasy, grow in evil, and listen to the antichrist in the very end of days. But Christ will return once to end history, raise the dead, judge all men, and usher in His kingdom in full measure in the New Heavens and New Earth, which is a glorified earth.
Postmillennialism is very similar to Amillennialism and very different from Premillennialism. Rather than seeing the second coming of Christ as coming before the millennium, the postmil position sees the second coming of Christ after the millennium. In regard to the millennium most postmils believe it to symbolic while a few believe it will be a literal thousand year period. The Postmillennial view believes Christ’s kingdom began with the first coming of Christ and that the time we’re now in is synonymous with the end times or last days. It holds to a covenantal view of redemptive history along with the Amillenial view, and sees the New Testament Church as the fulfillment of Old Testament Israel. You may ask, what then is the difference between the amil and postmil views? There is one large difference that has been the one distinguishing belief of the postmil position that sets it apart from all the others. While both the premil and amil believers think the great commission will ultimately fail and that the Church will fall into apostasy, the postmil believer thinks the great commission will succeed and that the Church, though persecuted at times, will win in the end. So much so, that by the time of Jesus’ second coming the earth will be Christianized.
So we have Premillennialism, Amillennialism, and Postmillennialism. These three views have been and likely will continue to be hotly debated within the Church. I hope you can see that with each position comes not only a view on what the millennium is all about in Revelation 20, but how one ought to approach, interpret, and apply the whole of God’s Word to the whole of God’s people today.
After my own study I have come to embrace the Amillennial position, because I think this view not only has the most evidence throughout Scripture, I think this view is the only one of these views present in Scripture. I do think Premillennialism has an over exaggerated view of the nation of Israel as well as a thorough misunderstanding of how the two Testaments relate to one another. I also admit, I want Postmillennialism to be true! But I don’t see evidence for an ultimate triumph by the Church throughout the world. I see great things for the Church, but I also see great error in the Church as well as the rise of unbelief in our world.
So, for better or for worse I am an Amillennial.
I say this fully convinced but knowing I may be truly wrong about this. Many of the theologians I admire and have learned much from hold to views I don’t. One thing is 100% sure, God did not inspire His Word in order to give us options of belief about Him and His ways in the world. Whatever position you hold, hold it strongly with deep conviction. Panmillennialism, the belief that it will all ‘pan out’ in the end is not an available option.