Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Retractions: The Millennium: Why it Matters and Why it Does Not

Retractions: The Millennium:
Why it Matters and Why it Does Not

            In my earlier posts, I wrote about how and why I do not believe in a rapture.  The reason I did this was because of all the baggage associated with the doctrine of the rapture.  I believe that Jesus will physically return to earth, the dead will be raised, there will be a final judgement, and there will be a new heavens and a new earth.  What is missing from this is the belief that between Jesus second coming and the final judgement is that there will be 1,000 years in which Christ will physically reign on earth as king.  This 1,000 year reign is commonly referred to as the millennial reign of Christ of simply the millennium is something I once espoused and now no longer do.

            I once was a solidly pretribulational literal millennium future for ethnic Israel type of guy.  The last part of this system to fall was my belief in a literal/physical millennial reign on earth.  When everything else faded, I found great comfort in the historic premillennial view espoused by George Ladd.  However, I abandoned this as well when confronted with the text of Scripture and how it has been interpreted by the Church through the ages.

            The millennium is a fairly difficult thing to wrestle with.  The biblical support for belief in the millennium is derived from the 20th chapter of Revelation.  The actual text of Revelation 20 does not limit Christ’s reign to a time period of 1,000 years.  The millennium can only be understood to refer to a physical 1,000 year reign on earth, when Revelation 20 is read in light of certain other Old Testament prophetic works.  The interpretation of a 1,000 year physical reign upon earth is then dependent upon one’s understanding of how Old Testament prophecies and promises will be fulfilled.

            The millennium is important because it is a result of how one understands the Bible and also how one understands the working of God with His creation.  Therefore someone who believes in premillennial coming of Christ will understand the millennium to be the time when God will fulfill all the promises of land and such from the Old Testament to ethnic Israel.  Others would still hold to a physical reign of Christ on earth, but would understand the OT promises to refer to the Church and not ethnic Israel.  Then there is what is termed the post millennial view in which the Church will bring about the millennium prior to the coming of Christ through the spread of the Gospel and the advance of the Church bringing peace and tranquility to the earth.  There is also the amillennial view which understands the millennium as primarily a spiritual event.  This view can be divided between the understanding that the millennium is a current reality and those who would posit the millennium is a metaphor for the reign of Christ with His saints in the New Heavens and the New Earth.

            There are many complexities that need to be addressed when considering how to understand the millennium.  The millennium is only mentioned in one passage in the book of Revelation.  There can be some difficulty in rightly interpreting something that is only mentioned once in Scripture.  This difficulty is compounded if that one passage occurs in Revelation and all the more so if it involves a number.  The reason for this is that Revelation is a work that is filled with symbols and symbolism, of which numbers are often used in symbolic ways.  Further complicating this situation are the various theories about how one should read Revelation (predominantly in the past, mix of past/present/future, or predominately in the future).  These factors can be quite dissuasive for those attempting to consider eschatology.  Indeed, part of the reason this post took so long was my own process of wading through these issues.

The Biblical Evidence

            The really fun part is the biblical support for the millennium.  In Revelation 20, the phrase “a thousand years” occurs five times.[1]  Yet none of these occurrences refers to Jesus reigning for a thousand years.  Satan is bound for a thousand years (20:2).  The souls of those beheaded on account of Christ come to life and reign with Christ for a thousand years (20:4, 6).  The rest of the dead do not come to life until after the thousand years (20:5).  After the thousand years, Satan is released from prison (20:7).  From this, we see that beheaded martyrs reign with Christ for one thousand years, but this does not necessitate the interpretation that Christ will reign on earth for 1,000 years.  Indeed, the textual support for this reading is rather thin and requires reading these verses within a larger interpretive framework to arrive at a millennial view.  This what the early Christians did who affirmed a millennial view.  They argued that the seven days of creation were symbolic of the history of the world and that after 6,000 years, 1,000 years of Sabbath rest would follow with the righteous being raised to bodies that would eat, drink, and beget children (click here for my earlier post on this topic).  In a similar manner, most who hold to a millennium at the present would also do so in part because they expect the promises of land made in the Old Testament to be fulfilled in a literal manner to ethnic Israel (to see my view of this consult my earlier post here).

Exegetical descriptions from Revelation 20

            Exegetically speaking, the millennium is set forth as a time when the devil has been bound and (a possibly select group of) martyrs reign with Christ.  The text does not explicitly affirm that Christ’s kingdom will last for one thousand years.  This is important because it means that the idea of a physical 1,000 year reign of Christ on earth is derived by implication and not direct assertion. 

            Also I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for   the word of God, and 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 (Revelation 20:4-5).

Reading the text literally, the only saints who come to life and reign with Christ while the devil is bound are those who have been beheaded as martyrs.  Again, reading this at face value, this means that martyrs who died by means other than beheading do not partake of this millennial reign.[2]  This subset of beheaded martyrs also experience something very unique.  They are the only ones (we are explicitly told) who experience the first resurrection.

            This level of a literalistic reading cannot find support in any of the Church Fathers (amillennial or premillennial), and does not make the most sense out of the text of Revelation.  In Revelation 6:10-12, we read about the martyrs under the throne calling out for vengeance.  This group of martyrs is in no way circumscribed by their mode of death like the martyrs in Revelation 20 are.  These two groups of martyrs share great similarity.  They were killed: “because of the word of God and the testimony” (6:9) and “because of their testimony for Jesus and because of the word of God” (20:4).  However, there are many more details in Revelation 20 that are lacking from the martyrs in Revelation 6.  Indeed, the patristic consensus is that those who come to life with Christ are not only the martyrs, but all the righteous.[3]  Therefore, the two groups of martyrs are understood to be the same group of martyrs and that they represent the whole number of the saints who come to life in the millennium.

            Perhaps one of the most interesting portions of Revelation 20 is how it speaks about both a first death and a first resurrection as well as a second death and a second resurrection.  The first death is not explicitly identified for the rather obvious reason that we are all familiar with the definition of physical death.  John is kind enough to identify the second death: “This is the second death, the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:14).  The second death then takes place after the final judgement. 

            The interesting part comes when trying to understand what is meant by the first and the second resurrections: “They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years.  5 The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended. This is the first resurrection.  6 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” (20:4-6).

            The second resurrection is implicitly defined as the universal resurrection before the final judgement.  The difficulty is then in how we understand the first resurrection.  Irenaeus and Tertullian both argued that the discussion of two resurrections pointed to an order of how the righteous were raised in the millennium.[4]  The greater the deeds of a Christian, the sooner one would be raised from the dead to enter into the millennial reign.  Needless to say, this view required a physical millennial reign and fell out of favor with the premillennial view.

            The key to understanding the “first resurrection” is the description of those who experience this first resurrection, “Over such the second death has not power.”  This means that those who experience this resurrection will not be subject to the second death which awaits those whose names were not found in the Book of Life.  Some have sought to posit that this first resurrection is baptism on the basis of Romans 6:5 “For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection”; and 2nd Timothy 2:11-12: “This is a faithful saying: For if we died with Him, We shall also live with Him. If we endure, we shall also reign with Him.”  There is some validity to this position.  Augustine understands this “first resurrection” is applied to the Church militant, because they reign with Christ in His kingdom at the present, and to the Church triumphant, because they are commemorated at the altar at each Eucharist service.[5]  In saying this, Augustine is relying upon lengthy exegesis of multiple passages (of which a summary would take around a page) and the practices of the Church to form his interpretation.  To the vast majority of Protestants, the commemoration of the deceased has never been experienced in a liturgy.  Despite its absence from current Protestant worship, it was a universal practice in the early Church in the time of Augustine and likely had been since the 100’s.[6]  In so doing this, Augustine implicitly affirms the idea that the first resurrection is baptism with his understanding that only the baptized elect are reigning with Christ.

Christ’s reign limited to 1,000 years

            What is utterly lacking from Revelation 20 is the idea that Christ’s reign is in any way limited to a one thousand year time period.  If anything, the reign of the saints and the binding of satan are the only two things limited to a one thousand year period of time.  Indeed, there are exegetical reasons to affirm that Christ’s reign does not end.  This can be seen in a couple of passages:

“And in the days of those kings the God of heaven shall set up a kingdom which shall never be destroyed: and his kingdom shall not be left to another people, but it shall beat to pieces and grind to powder all kingdoms, and it shall stand for ever (Daniel 2:44).

“And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:33).

            The interpretation that Christ’s kingdom will have no end is the creedally preserved interpretation.  The Nicene Creed concludes with the statement: “His kingdom shall have no end.”  The problem regarding the millennium is that the support for the view that Christ will reign for one thousand years on earth and then that kingdom will end with the end of this earth is not explicitly stated in the texts of Scripture whereas the affirmation that Christ’s Kingdom will have no end is clearly affirmed and understood to be the definitive interpretation of this issue.

An argument for the millennium

            The strongest biblical argument for the millennial view is the description of how Satan is bound for 1,000 years.  This is a commonsensical argument:  It does not appear as though Satan is presently bound.  Therefore, the millennium is still yet to come.  However, this view of the binding of Satan does not quite with what Jesus had to say about his ministry and the interpretation of the early Christians.

            There is a passage in all three synoptic Gospels (Matthew 12, Mark 3, and Luke 11) in which Jesus spoke about how he had bound Satan.  Jesus cast out a demon and the Pharisees

said, “This fellow does not cast out demons except by Beelzebub, the ruler of the   demons.”  But Jesus knew their thoughts, and said to them: “Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation, and every city or house divided against itself will not stand.  If Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then will his kingdom stand?  And if I cast out demons by Beelzebub, by whom do your sons cast  them out? Therefore they shall be your judges.  But if I cast out demons by the Spirit of God, surely the kingdom of God has come upon you. Or how can one enter a strong man's house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man? And then he will          plunder his house.” (Matthew 12:24-29, New King Jimmy Version)

Jesus here refutes the idea that he cast out demons by the power of the devil.  Rather, he spoke about himself as the one who bound the strong man (the devil) and plundered his goods.  This interpretation is affirmed repeatedly in the writings of the early Christians.[7]  Indeed, there are two points at which they would note that Jesus had bound the devil.  In His incarnation and in His resurrection.  In both of these actions, the devil is bound and Christ frees those who were under the power of the devil and his minions.[8] 

            Therefore, with Satan already bound, the Church reigning with Christ, and Church being the New Israel who have inherited the promises made to Israel, a physical and literal millennium is superfluous and awkward.  In this sense the millennium does not matter.  At the same time, we are living in the millennium.  As such, Christians ought to conduct themselves in the knowledge that Christ has bound Satan and that they have experienced the first resurrection in baptism.  Not even death can separate a Christin from reigning with Christ.

[1] Revelation 20:1-20:15 Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain.  2 And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, 3 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.  4 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 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.  5 The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended. This is the first resurrection.  6 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.  7 And when the thousand years are ended, Satan will be released from his prison  8 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.  9 And they marched up over the broad plain of the earth and surrounded the camp of the saints and the beloved city, but fire came down from heaven and consumed them, 10 and the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.  11 Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. From his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them.  12 And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done.  13 And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done.  14 Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire.  15 And if anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire. 

[2] Historically speaking, the believers who would have been beheaded for the sake of Christ in the Early Roman Empire would only have been Roman citizens who were martyred.  Thus at the time when John first penned these words, his audience would have considered this to be a reference to martyred Roman citizens such as the Apostle Paul.  This anecdote offers some clarity as to how John would have understood this.  It is perhaps ironic that the citizens of the Empire of John’s age who are killed for their perceived treachery against the Empire are the very ones who are seen to reign with Christ for one thousand years.

[3] Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho 82; Irenaeus, Adverus Haereses, 5.32.1; Commodian, Instructiones adversus Gentium Deos pro Christiana Disciplina 45.

[4] Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses 5.36.2-3; Tertullian, Adversus Marcionem 3.24.

[5] Augustine of Hippo, City of God 20.9.
[6] This is a prime example of how worship forms theology more than theology forms worship.  For an example of this see the Martyrdom of Polycarp and how the Early Christians treated Polycarp’s remains (Martyrdom of Polycarp 18).
[7] A few examples: Cyril of Alexandria Commentary on Luke Homily 81; Chrysostom Sermons on Matthew Homily 41, Augustine of Hippo Harmony of the Gospels Homily 21 and City of God 20.7; Cyril of Jerusalem Catechetical Lectures 8; see also Irenaeus of Lyons for how Christ bound the demons in His resurrection Proof of the Apostolic Preaching 83.

[8] See also Revelation 12 when the devil is thrown out of heaven around the same time as Christ ascended into heaven.

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