Currents within Amillennialism1
by Vern Sheridan Poythress
[Published in the Presbyterion 26/1 (2000) 21-25. Used with permission.]
Is there anything more to say about the millennial debates? Different millennial views have contended for centuries. So we can investigate the various arguments in a host of books and articles.2 We might well expect that all the avenues of exploration would have been exhausted by now. But instead, amillennialist thinking in particular has experienced some significant developments in the twentieth century.
In large measure, these developments spring directly or indirectly from the influence of biblical theology. Biblical theology has sensitized us to the character of inaugurated eschatology in the New Testament. In contrast to these twentieth century currents, amillennial thinking of previous centuries often let the fires of eschatological longing grow dim. Amillennialists sometimes spoke only of prophecy being fulfilled in the church, paying little attention to the consummate fulfillment of those prophecies in the new earth. In many circles people looked forward primarily to death and the intermediate state rather than to the Second Coming, the resurrection of the body, and the new heavens and the new earth, which are the primary focus of New Testament hope.
Amillennialists today must try to be increasingly faithful to the biblical accent, and speak not only of a first stage of fulfillment in the life of Christ, the New Testament age and the church, but also of a second, consummate stage in the new heavens and the new earth. Anthony A. Hoekema’s book The Bible and the Future has set the pace in this area.3
The new appreciation of inaugurated eschatology has already generated an atmosphere where we find some fresh exegetical argumentation in favor of amillennialism. Geerhardus Vos in The Pauline Eschatology offers an exegesis of 1 Corinthians 15 in the light of inaugurated eschatology.4 An article of mine argues that 2 Thessalonians 1 has amillennial implications when read within the eschatological atmosphere of the first century church, in which inaugurated eschatology was normal thinking.5 Meredith G. Kline in “The First Resurrection” interprets Revelation 20 in the light of the larger contextual theme of first and last things.6 The first resurrection is preliminary in character, in contrast to the second and last. It connotes life with Christ as a reward simultaneous with bodily death, and answers the concern in Revelation to fortify martyrs by giving a promise of immediate, as well as ultimate, victory. G. K. Beale in his Revelation commentary develops Kline’s argument within the context of a full-scale technical commentary.7 He also shows that the chronology of Revelation builds on the fact that the fulfillment of large-scale Old Testament salvation prophecies has begun in the life, death and resurrection of Christ. Revelation therefore speaks of “what must soon take place” (Rev. 1:1) in contrast to what for Daniel is a distant future, “what will happen in days to come” (Dan. 2:28).8
Because works like these put forward fresh arguments in favor of amillennialism, one might suppose that amillennialists are drawing apart from their brothers and sisters holding other positions. But, in fact, certain features of inaugurated eschatology have opened doors toward greater friendliness on the part of amillennialists. Let me illustrate. Hoekema’s book maintains that consummate fulfillment awaits the new heavens and the new earth. He places stress on the new earth. And I would stress this as well, because the influence of Platonism and the focus of some people on hope for the intermediate state has encouraged thinking about the future that is otherwise one-sided. As we turn in our minds to our hopes for the future, we may picture a kind of ethereal existence, of vaporous souls playing harps on clouds.
This evaporated, shriveled hope forgets the materiality of the new earth. Jesus’ resurrection body could be touched and handled, and so, by implication, the resurrection of our bodies and the renewal of the world will also include a fundamental materiality (as suggested in Isaiah 65:17-25 and Romans 8:18-25). The problem with the old world is not materiality, but sin. The solution is redemption and transfiguration, not vaporization.
Hope for a new earth thus gives us a picture that is startlingly similar to premillennialism. I believe that Jesus will return bodily to the world, that all people will be judged, and that the earth itself will be renewed. Jesus will reign over the nations and usher in an era of great peace and prosperity. Faithful Jews will possess the land of Palestine, as well as the entirety of the renewed earth. When I hear premillennialists describe what happens in the millennial kingdom, I respond, “I believe that too.” If I may play with words, I would say that I am an optimistic premillennialist. I believe the things that premillennialists typically say about the millennium. But I am “optimistic” in that I believe that what they call the millennium is even better than they imagine. It is so exceedingly good that no evil and no death remain. And it goes on forever. Thus, it is already the eternal state and not “the millennium” as we have traditionally defined it.
I may make the same point by calling myself “an earthy amillennialist.” I am “earthy” in the sense of emphasizing the hope for a new earth that is a renewal of this earth. Of course, it is not merely a return to Eden, but an advance, a transfiguration of the old order of things in agreement with the pattern of Christ’s resurrection, which transfigured the body of his earthly life.9 But this transfiguration still includes profound aspects of continuity with the present order, rather than being a totally new beginning. My challenge to premillennialists is to recognize that the new heavens and the new earth is the great climax of fulfillment; therefore many of the objections that they have had to amillennialism miss the mark when they have to reckon with the new-earth form of amillennialism.
Sympathetic listening between dispensationalists and nondispensationalists may have also opened up room for exploration concerning the future of the Jewish people. As I indicate in the revised edition of my Understanding Dispensationalists,10 I think that earthy amillennialists should find no problem in affirming that all faithful Jews will join with Abraham in inheriting the land of promise and fully enjoying the blessing of God in the new world. Amillennialism should not be understood as disinheriting Jews, but rather affirming the incorporation of Gentiles into the family of promise through their union with Christ. Hence, Gentiles also will share with Jews as coheirs in Christ (Eph. 3:6; Rom. 8:17). The question is not whether Jews will come into possession of the wealth of privileges of Old Testament promises (they will), but whether a new middle wall of partition will be erected by granting them some unique priestly or religious status from which Gentiles are excluded (Eph. 2:14).
Reflection on the significance of Christ’s role as the last Adam may help us here. Geerhardus Vos may have been the first to point out that Christ’s headship over a renewed humanity, as expounded in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15, has great importance in Pauline theology.11 Richard B. Gaffin, Jr. built on Vos by emphasizing that Christ’s resurrection transformed his human nature and inaugurated the new order of existence as heavenly man.12 Dan G. McCartney has shown the repeated emphasis in the New Testament on Christ as the human ruler over the world, fulfilling the creation mandate to Adam.13 If Christ now rules as man over the world according to Ephesians 1:20-21, he rules also as a Jew and as a son of David, because all other human rule on earth is derived from the fundamental Adamic rule. All the promises are “Yes” in Christ (2 Cor. 1:20), so all enjoyment of all blessings can come only in union with Christ, both for Jew and for Gentile, both now and in the future.
I may also speak sympathetically about postmillennialists. If postmillennialists think that the great hope is for a millennial period before the Second Coming, I disagree. The great hope is for the Second Coming, the resurrection of the body and the new heavens and the new earth. But if they too, influenced by inaugurated eschatology, shift the focus of hope to consummate fulfillment in the new earth, then the remaining differences begin to seem minor. Postmillennialism, it seems to me, finds its greatest strength when it stresses an optimism based on the Great Commission. Jesus’ promise to be with us until the close of the age means that the Great Commission is not a commission futilely to proclaim the gospel to people who will all refuse it. The commission is to make disciples, which implies that some respond in faith. Because “the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world” (1 John 4:4), we can be fundamentally optimistic about the spread of the gospel and the growth of the church.
I find one remaining difficulty with postmillennialism. Most postmillennialists appear to me not merely to have this gospel optimism, but to claim that the Second Coming of Christ cannot take place just yet, because we have not yet seen a sufficiently broad and deep triumph of Christianity worldwide. But I find no way to quantify what sort of victory there must be before the Second Coming. I therefore call myself a “nonquantitative postmillennialist.” “Postmillennialist” indicates my appreciation for optimism about the gospel. “Nonquantitative” indicates that I do not find grounds for postponing the Second Coming. In fact, the Achilles heel of postmillennialism lies precisely here. The first century church had a keen expectation for the Second Coming, an expectation encouraged by the Apostles. Postmillennialism, when it becomes quantitative, finds it almost impossible in practice to maintain such fervency, because it shifts its practical focus to the prospect of millennial prosperity rather than the Second Coming.
Thus differences still remain between millennial positions, and debates will and should continue. But we may be grateful for the degree to which we can find ways of affirming genuine biblical insights that have hitherto usually been associated with a position other than our own. Biblical theology and inaugurated eschatology promises to continue to produce fruitful insights not only among amillennialists but among those in other positions as well.
1 An earlier form of this article was presented under the title “The Kingdom of God and the Millennium: Amillennialism,” for the panel “The Kingdom of God and the Millennium,” at the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society (Danvers, MA, November 1999).
2 A number of good books survey the options: Loraine Boettner, The Millennium (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1957); Robert G. Clouse, The Meaning of the Millennium: Four Views (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1977); Millard J. Erickson,Contemporary Options in Eschatology: A Study of the Millennium (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1977); Stanley Grenz, The Millennial Maze: Sorting Out Evangelical Options (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1992).
3 Anthony Hoekema, The Bible and the Future (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979).
4 Geerhardus Vos, The Pauline Eschatology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1953) 226-260.
5 Vern S. Poythress, “2 Thessalonians 1 Supports Amillennialism,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 37/4 (1994) 529-538.
6 Meredith G. Kline, “The First Resurrection,” Westminster Theological Journal 37/2 (1974-75) 366-375; see also J. Ramsey Michaels, “The First Resurrection: A Response,” Westminster Theological Journal 39/1 (1976-77) 100-109; Meredith G. Kline, “The First Resurrection: A Reaffirmation,” Westminster Theological Journal 39/1 (1976-77) 110-119; Gregory K. Beale, John’s Use of the Old Testament in Revelation (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998) 356-393.
7 Gregory K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans; Carlisle: Paternoster, 1999) 972-1031.
8 Ibid., 181-183; 152-177; Beale, John’s Use, 129-294.
9 See Michael D. Williams, “The Confession of an Eschatological Reactionary,” Presbyterion 25/1 (1999): 13-20.
10 Vern S. Poythress, Understanding Dispensationalists, 2d. ed. (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1994), 132-137.
11 Vos, The Pauline Eschatology.
12 Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., Resurrection and Redemption: A Study in Paul’s Soteriology (2d ed.; Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1987). Note also the Christ-centered emphasis in Williams, “Confession,” 18-19.
13 Dan G. McCartney, “Ecce Homo: The Coming of the Kingdom as the Restoration of Human Vicegerency,” Westminster Theological Journal 56/1 (1994): 1-21.