Friday, April 11, 2014

A little bit more on Amillennialism, and why I don't think it is heretical

Amillennialism is the belief that we are currently in the Millennium, that famous "1000 year reign" from Revelation 20:2, 3 & 5.

One (I suppose) obvious problem:  If the Millennium is basically synonymous with the Church Age, and Millennium means 1000 years . . . we are currently living approximately 2000 years after Christ vanquished the devil at Calvary.  So, that proves it's wrong, right?  Because the Church Age has been twice as long as a Millennium already.

This is not a big problem if you read Revelation symbolically rather than literally.  If you take things symbolically, then "Millennium" could just mean, "a very long time."  You may ask, "Why would God call it a thousand years if He did not mean a thousand years?"  I would rejoin, "Why did Ezekiel eat the scroll in chapter 3?  Why did Daniel dream about four beasts, and a ram and a goat?  Why did Amos write about ripe fruit, and Zechariah about a woman in a basket?  Why so many stories about shepherds and sheep throughout both the Old and New Testaments?  Why did Jesus speak in parables?"

I don't think we exactly know the answer to this question, but clearly God makes a practice of using symbols to convey deeper truths.  The whole Old Testament is packed with symbols and pictures that convey truths about the coming Christ, from the Passover, to the tabernacle and the sacrificial system, to all the strange things the prophets had to do.

And speaking of prophets, if you read them, you unveil a pattern: Hebrew rhetoric does not usually follow a straight line.  Hebrew rhetoric is usually circular, circling a topic and looping back, examining it multiple times from multiple angles (aside: this is interesting to think about when you consider that God provided us with four separate accounts of the life of Jesus in the four gospels).

If you apply the idea of circular Hebrew rhetoric to the book of Revelation, you come up with one event, viewed multiple times, from multiple angles, with varied emphases.  One victory, one judgment, one burning of the earth, one gathering in of the saints to glory.  Many different pictures of what it looks like, from many different angles.

I'm not going to lie.  I like the idea of the earth being destroyed once much better than the thought of it being destroyed over and over again.  Just as I sometimes suspect Dispensational Premillennialists of liking their position because they figure they will be raptured out of here before the trouble starts, I could be guilty of liking Amillennialism because the earth only gets burned once.  I will own that.

Going back to Hebrew circular rhetoric one again (aha, perhaps we are using it), it often starts with a preview, or a story, or some sort of introduction to present the issue, and then is followed by deep delving into consideration by these looping circles.

The book of Hosea is a prime example of this.  It begins with the story of Hosea and how God asked him to marry a prostitute, and it narrates what happened.  This all takes place in the first three chapters, although the second chapter explains the symbolism that is developing.  The remaining eleven chapters consider the scenario around and around again as it relates to the relationship between God and His chosen people.

A couple of years ago, we had a pastor who preached a wonderful sermon series on the Sermon on the Mount from the same perspective, showing how Jesus led out with the Beatitudes (in Matthew 5), and then fleshed them out through the rest of the Sermon on the Mount.  He had us study how each of the topics in the Sermon on the Mount related back to the Beatitudes in one way or another, sometimes in multiple ways.

Apply the same principle to Revelation, and you get a book that begins with a vision of the victorious Christ, and seven letters to seven churches, exhorting them to be ready for the end.  Following these letters (Revelation chapters 1-3), the apostle John goes into descriptions of what the end will be like.

He starts, in chapters 4-5, describing a very encouraging picture: God and the Lamb in complete victory, in heaven, receiving the glorious and joyful adoration of the saints.  Chapter 6 switches over and describes judgment poured out.  Between chapters 4, 5 and 6, we have victory, the joy of the redeemed, and judgment on sinners.

Chapter 7 seems (perhaps?) to begin a new cycle of considering the end.  It opens with God holding back judgment until 144,000 of the tribes of Israel are sealed as servants of the Lord.  Now, Dispensational Premillennialists see this as a literal, exact, 144,000 Jewish people.  Do you remember what I said before? "Dispensationalists, in their literal reading of the scripture, always understand 'Israel' to mean national Israel, Jewish people, the descendants of Jacob.  Just bear that in mind.  It is a defining feature of the position.  More on that later."

I guess we've arrived at "later."

This is where the difference between Dispensationalism and other interpretations becomes very clear.  I am going to try to explain it briefly.

Non-dispensational views see "Israel" as meaning the chosen people of God. In the Old Testament, Israel was a nation, a family of people who came from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, especially Jacob whom God actually renamed, "Israel."  This group, or family, or race of people was chosen by God for a special purpose: to bring Messiah to the world to be our Savior.  This purpose is first stated in the covenant God made with Abraham in Genesis 12, where God told Abraham that through his seed all nations would be blessed.  The seed of Abraham is Christ, as Paul makes clear in the New Testament in places like Galatians 3 and Romans 4.

"The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed.  The scripture does not say, 'and to seeds,' meaning many people, but 'and to your seed,' meaning one person, who is Christ."  (Galatians 3:16 NIV)

"If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise."  (Galatians 3:29 NIV)

"Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham's offspring--not only those who are of the law, but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham.  He is the father of us all."'  (Romans 4:16 NIV)

God made a covenant with Israel, but those Israelites who broke their part of the covenant (which is most of them) have no claim to it.  However, the Old Testament traces a remnant all through its pages, a remnant of Israelites who believed in God and lived by faith, like the faith of Abraham.  Do a word study on "remnant" in the Bible sometime, and see what you find.

The remnant of Israel seeded the beginning of the church, which began among Jews, but soon spread to Gentiles, as you find when you study the book of Acts.  This is no disrespect to the Jewish believers; indeed, all of the early church leaders were Jewish.  Jesus was Jewish.  God loves Jewish people.  However, unless they stand by faith in Christ, they are no more saved than anybody else (this is the main point of Romans 2, where Paul uses the term "Jew" to mean true Israel, the Israel of faith).

All of God's promises to the nation of Israel were fulfilled (see Joshua 21:45 and 23:14).  I think we can say that God's promises to Israel will also have a new fulfillment, in a spiritual sense, for spiritual Israel, the church, God's children by faith (see Galatians 3:29).  Many of these spiritual promises have already been fulfilled, but some will yet come to pass.

God also made promises to David, some of which were not fulfilled in a literal way to Israel, the nation, but have been fulfilled spiritually through Christ. "I will raise your offspring to succeed you, one of your own sons, and I will establish his kingdom.  He is the one who will build a house for me, and I will establish his throne forever," (1 Chronicles 17:1-12, NIV).  If this only applied to the throne as a succession of thrones (from father to son, over and over) God would have said, "I will establish your throne forever," because he was talking to David about David's son.  But God was not talking about the succession of a family.  Clearly not, because the national line of Davidic kings ended when Israel was exiled to Babylon.  No, God was talking about Christ, the Son of David, who would reign on the throne forever.

According to Amillennialism, Christ does reign on the throne, even now, since He has overcome the devil, and the grave, and hell itself (see Ephesians 1:19-22).  This is the age of His reign with His saints (see Revelation 20:3-6, really, please look it up).

All this discussion is simply to differentiate national Israel--the bloodline of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, the nation chosen by God to receive His law and dwell with His presence in their midst--from spiritual Israel--the children of God by faith.  A Dispensationalist reads, "144,000 of the tribes of Israel," and thinks, "144,000 literal Jews, 12,000 from each of the twelve tribes."  A non-dispensationalist is more likely to read, "144,000 of the tribes of Israel," as a symbol.  144,000 is a very large, complete, cubic number.  It could stand for the complete and perfect number of all the redeemed whom the Lord has called into His Kingdom (Romans 11:26 tells us that all Israel will be saved).  The fact that they are "Israel," means that they are indeed the chosen ones, sealed by the Holy Spirit, the treasure of the Lord.

"But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light."  (1 Peter 2:9 NIV)

Another thing.  Remember my post about when we go to heaven?  Amillennialism answers this question quite neatly: saints (believers) who die during the church age (which, remember, we are considering to be the same as the Millennium in this discussion) go immediately to reign with Jesus.  The New Heaven and the New Earth have not yet come into being, but the saints who die are ushered into the presence of God and reign with Christ who sits on the throne.

Argh.  Out of time.  Out of space.  Although, this is a pretty decent explanation of how the theory of Amillennialism fits with what we read in scripture.  We just didn't get to finish outlining the book of Revelation.  Ha.  As if anybody could outline the book of Revelation.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Some more on eschatology: historic premillennialism, postmillennialism, and amillennialism

When I began to address this subject, I explained that there are three main events that Christians agree will take place, and the differences in opinion arise from how we understand the order of the events to unfold.

Simply speaking, there are three main end time events that the Bible alludes to in various places.
  1. The Tribulation--a time of great trouble, when wars and natural disasters will be rampant on earth.  (See Matthew 24, Revelation 6:12-17, Revelation 8:5-9:21, Revelation 16, etc.)
  2. The Rapture--when Jesus gathers His followers ("the elect" or "brothers") to be with Him.  (See Matthew 24:30-31 and 1 Thessalonians 4:16-18.)
  3. The Millennium--a time when Christ will rule on earth for a thousand years.  (See Revelation 20:4-7.)

I am going to try to do some "nutshell" explanations of the different positions today.  I will not thoroughly discuss where each position gets its basis, according to scripture, but each one can be supported by selected Bible verses.

As we consider the different views, I think it is important to maintain a humble heart and remember that Jesus said,
"But about that day or hour no one knows, 
not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son,
but only the Father." 
(Matthew 24:36 NIV)

We already discussed Dispensational Premillennialism, which is somewhat complicated, compared to some of the other views, probably because of the way it works hard to make sense of Biblical prophecies of the End Times from a very literal point of view.

Historic Premillennialism is similar to Dispensational Premillennialism, in that it agrees with the general order of events, the important point being that those who hold to this position believe that there will be a Tribulation, followed by the Millennium, followed by the coming of the New Heaven and the New Earth.  As I understand it (I could be wrong about this), proponents of Historic Premillennialism are undecided as to when the rapture occurs.  Some believe that the rapture comes before the tribulation, some believe that it happens in the middle of the tribulation, and some think it happens at the end.  Some straight-out admit that they do not know when it will happen.  

Regardless of the timing, Historic Premillennialists differ from Dispensational Premillennialists in this:  they believe that the rapture is a grand and unmistakeable event that nobody will miss.  They do not hold to the idea that people will simply disappear from the earth, leaving  those who are "left behind" mystified as to where their Christian cohorts have gone.  They believe that the rapture will happen in great glory and the almighty power of God, for all the world to see:  
"Then will appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven. And then all the peoples of the earth will mourn when they see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory.  And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other." (Matthew 24:30-31 NIV)

Postmillennialism is the view that I understand the least, although parts of it make a certain amount of sense to me.  Whereas in the premillennial views, the Tribulation happens before the Millennium, in the Postmillennial view, the tribulation comes at the end of Millennium, culminating in the last battle (of Gog and Magog), the great judgment, and finally the New Heavens and the New Earth.

In the Postmillennial view, the Millennium is a time when the church marches forward in victory, proclaiming the truth of the gospel to all nations.  The nations are happy to receive the gospel and receptive to it.  At the end of this victorious age, the tribulation, rapture and final judgment will usher in the New Heavens and the New Earth.  I believe that part of this view stems from their reading of Matthew 24:14, "And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come." (NIV)

Quick Review
Historic and Dispensational Premillennnialism both hold to the idea that the Rapture and, especially, the Tribulation happen before the Millenium, hence the use of the prefix pre- in Premillennial.  Dispensational Premillennialists believe that it is a literal 1000 year reign of Christ on earth, with His believers, while Historic Premillennialists are undecided as to whether it is a literal or symbolic time frame.

Postmillennialism espouses the idea that the tribulation and rapture happen after the Millennium, hence the use of the prefix post- in Postmillennial.  People who hold to this view are divided on whether they believe that it is a literal or figurative 1000 years.

One belief, or assumption, that all these views share in common is that the Millennium is a period of time that we look forward to in the future.

Amillennialism is a much maligned view, poorly named and poorly understood by many, often not spoken of by the people who believe in it.  This may be because many conservative evangelicals have often adopted a dogmatic and condemning attitude toward those who do not share their Dispensational Premillennial viewpoint, sometimes accusing them of heresy.

If you consider the term, amillenial, the prefix, a-, generally means "not," or "no."  Amoral means without morals.  Atypical means not typical.  Atheist means someone who maintains that there is no God.  So, one would assume that Amillennial means that the people who hold this view think that there will be no Millennium.   However, this is not the case.

Amillennialism is similar to Postmillennialism in that both views figure the tribulation and rapture are coming after, not before, the Millennium.

The big difference between Amillennialism and Postmillennialism is that unlike Postmillennialists, Amillennialists do not think the Millennium is something that will come to pass in the future.  They believe that it is the church age that we are living in right now, that the good news of the gospel is currently going out in the power of the Holy Spirit.  They believe that the Millennium began when Jesus triumphed over Satan, over sin and over death at Calvary, and rose again.  They believe that the Millennium will continue until Jesus comes again in the clouds to gather His believers and to judge the living and the dead.

Amillennialism uses a symbolic approach to interpret the book of Revelation.   Rather than understanding the prophecy as a sequence of chronologically unfolding events, they see it as a telling and retelling of one story of victory, judgment and rewards.  Jesus is coming back in victory, and when He does, the wicked will be punished and His elect will be rewarded and ushered into eternal bliss in the New Heavens and the New Earth.

I would like to discuss Amillennialism further, but for today, I have lingered here too long.  

I will just close with some scripture, scripture that focuses on what Jesus has accomplished at the cross and lends credibility to the idea that we are already reigning in victory with our Lord:

When you were dead in your sins 
and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, 
God made you alive with Christ. 
He forgave us all our sins,  
having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, 
which stood against us and condemned us; 
he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross.   
And having disarmed the powers and authorities, 
he made a public spectacle of them, 
triumphing over them by the cross. 
(Colossians 2:13-15, NIV)

But thanks be to God! 
He gives us the victory 
through our Lord Jesus Christ. 
(1 Corinthians 15:57, NIV) 

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Where we begin to explore some eschatology

Wow.  I am terrible at "writing more" on this blog.  One post in March.  One.

That post was about heaven, and when we go there.  I threw out the idea that I would try to explain some eschatology here, in terms that are simple enough for a housewife like me to understand.  Obviously, my posts will not cover everything.

Eschatology:  The study of the End Times.  Specifically, it is the study of what is going to happen at the end of time, according to the Bible, when Jesus returns as the angels promised (Acts 1:6-11) and judges all the people of the world.

Simply speaking, there are three main end time events that the Bible alludes to in various places.
  1. The Tribulation--a time of great trouble, when wars and natural disasters will be rampant on earth.  (See Matthew 24, Revelation 6:12-17, Revelation 8:5-9:21, Revelation 16, etc.)
  2. The Rapture--when Jesus gathers His followers ("the elect" or "brothers") to be with Him.  (See Matthew 24:30-31 and 1 Thessalonians 4:16-18.)
  3. The Millenium--a time when Christ will rule on earth for a thousand years.  (See Revelation 20:4-7.)
We will start with the most popular and probably the most familiar interpretation of how this all works:  Dispensational Premillennialism.

Dispensational Premillennialism is popular and familiar, primarily because of the books in the Left Behind series, with which you may be familiar.  If you aren't, you can google them if you are interested.  I am not going to link to them.  They also made a (terrible) movie based on these books.

Premillennialism adopts the understanding that in the end times, the order of events goes like this:

Rapture----->  Tribulation----->  Millenium----->  Last Battle----->  New Heaven and New Earth

Dispensational Premillennialists take a completely literal interpretation of the book of Revelation.  The only time they accept anything in Revelation as a symbol is when the writer (John) specifically defines it as a symbol.  All else is understood to be literal truth.  In addition to understanding all the language literally, they read the book chronologically, as one long sequential thread.  This view and method of interpretation arose in the late 1800's when many scholars were moving to interpret all of scripture as mythology.  In a reaction against liberal scholars who who were teaching that all of the Bible is fable and allegory, from Noah's flood to the miracles of Jesus, Dispensationalists swung hard in the opposite direction.  They were good, God-fearing, scripture-loving people.  However, as with many reactionary movements, they may have swung a bit farther than was right and good.  Revelation is a book of prophecy, and prophecy is by nature poetic, symbolic and allegorical.  While much of the Bible is literal truth, one must take into account the type of writing one is dealing with (history, law, poetry, prophecy, etc).  Jesus Himself taught in parables, which are allegories and useful for pointing us to truths beyond themselves.

I will explain the story of The End, according to Dispensationalist Premillennialism, and with the interjection of my own opinion.

In this view, the first thing that happens is a completely unexpected and surprising rapture of God's people, which is also somewhat a secret event.  I believe that this idea comes from Matthew 24:40-41.  If you have read the Left Behind books or seen the movie, this is where we get the idea that people will suddenly, unexpectedly disappear out of cars, planes, etc. leaving a chaotic and confusing situation across the earth.

The really nice thing about this way of looking at things is that we-who-are-believers can figure that we get safely out of here before all the wars and earthquakes and water turning to blood.  So, if it turns out that these folks are correct, I won't be complaining about it.  However, scripture doesn't seem to suggest that such would be the case, as evidenced by repeated statements that encourage us to remain firm and steadfast until the end, with the promise that "He who stands firm to the end will be saved," (Matthew 24:13).

However, the story continues.  In this interpretation, after the Christians are raptured, horrific events pour out upon the earth where the Bible is still around, along with 144,000 Jews who have not sinned.  Between the Bible and the Jews, more people find salvation during this time, as the earth is battered, bloodied and burned to a crisp at least three times.

Finally, Jesus brings all of us now-immortal saved people back to earth (remember, we've been raptured up to be with Him in the clouds for the past seven years), where He sets up a kingdom and rules for 1000 years, and immortal souls that we are, we reign with Him.  During this time, even more people turn to follow Christ, but not all.  At the end of the 1000 years, Jesus lets Satan out of the pit for one last battle.  Fire from heaven will come down and consume Satan's ranks as they assemble to fight, and the devil and the beast (Satan and his earthly henchman) will be thrown into hell forever.

Then all the dead will be raised and judged, and every individual will be sent either to eternal glory or eternal damnation (Revelation 20:11-15, Matthew 25:31-46).

After the damned are sent away, the New Heaven and the New Earth will be revealed as the perfect, beautiful dwelling place of God's children for all eternity.

I have some serious reservations about this interpretation.

  1. It presupposes that we will escape the tribulation.  While this is a very nice idea, it is not particularly scriptural, and I think it leaves people unprepared in the event that (as scripture suggests) we are going to face persecutions and tribulations before we get to heaven.
  2. What are we doing all the time the tribulations are being poured out on earth?  Are we floating in the clouds?  Are we watching the disasters unfold on earth?  This sounds very scary and very far from the perfect peace we usually trust we will have once we are together with Christ.
  3. Why, once we have all been taken away from earth, would Jesus bring us all back to earth, especially to a not-completely-redeemed earth, but to a still-imperfect earth?  How does a 1000 year reign of Christ over imperfection, leading up to the eventual loosing of Satan, fit with anything else that we read anywhere else in scripture?
  4. How many times does Jesus actually return?  This isn't just a view on the Second Coming of Christ.  He comes halfway here to rapture us, then He comes to rule for 1000 imperfect years, and finally He comes to take the redeemed as His bride.  So depending on how you look at it, we could actually be talking about up to three returns of Christ in this view, which makes four comings when you include the Christmas story.  Wow.
  5. It seriously undercuts the message that is in the rest of scripture:  Be alert and be ready, for there will be a sudden cut-off, when there will be no more second chances for people who have rejected Christ (look into Matthew 25, for instance).  According to the Dispensationalist Premillennial view, if you miss the rapture, you can convert during the tribulation.  And if the tribulation doesn't convince you, you can convert during the millennium.  It's sort of a nice, gracious way of looking at things, full of hope.  However, based on what I see in scripture, it's a very dangerous premise to operate under.

Anyway, that's Dispensational Premillennialism, and those are my feelings about it.

One other thing I want to say, just a seed I need to plant in your head for later:  Dispensationalists, in their literal reading of the scripture, always understand "Israel" to mean national Israel, Jewish people, the descendants of Jacob.  Just bear that in mind.  It is a defining feature of the position.  More on that later.