Archive for May, 2007

Elements of a Biblical Eschatology, Part 8

May 31, 2007

I would not be a premillennialist if Revelation 20:1-10 were not in the Bible.  This is the only passage where the millennial kingdom is explicitly taught.  Critics of premillennialism charge us with holding to a doctrine that is standing on the thin ice of one single passage, especially given the fact that Revelation is a highly symbolic and difficult book to interpret.  My response to that charge is twofold:

1. One biblical passage is enough to establish a doctrine.  I would not believe in the imputation of Adam’s sin to all his descendants if not for Romans 5:12-19.  I would not believe in the future conversion of Israel to Christ if not for Romans 11:26 and the surrounding verses.  Other passages speak to these issues indirectly, but these are the only ones that are explicit with respect to the doctrines that I have mentioned.  The same is true for premillennialism.

2. The book of Revelation is indeed highly symbolic and difficult to interpret at many points.  But it was also given to us by divine revelation for the purpose that we might understand it.  Specifically, it is a book that speaks more directly to eschatology than most others, and we should seek to understand it and take seriously what it teaches.

This post will address only Revelation 20.  The discussion will be more lengthy than my previous posts, but that is the only way I can do justice to the passage.  In the next post I will draw in some other passages of Scripture. 

Revelation 20:1-10 teaches a millennial kingdom on this earth ruled over by Christ prior to the eternal state.  If you really want to follow what I am saying here, then you should have a Bible open to that passage.  In this passage we have several elements that demand explanation:

– the binding of Satan for a thousand years (vv. 1-3)

– the first resurrection, namely, the resurrection of those who have been killed for their testimony to Christ as well as all those who had not worshiped the beast (vv. 4-6)

– the millennial Kingdom, during which time those who have been resurrected reign with Christ (vv. 4-6)

– differentiation between the first resurrection and the second resurrection: the first occurs at the beginning of the thousand years, and the second occurs at the end (v. 5)

– a final rebellion led by Satan at the end of the thousand years, which is quickly put down (vv. 7-10)

– Satan’s final destination: the lake of fire (v. 10)

Postmillennialists and amillennialists (hereafter POM’s and AM’s) usually argue that the binding of Satan refers to what happened to him at Christ’s first coming.  Specifically, they point to verse 3, which reads, “and he [the angel, which some say is Christ himself] threw him [Satan] into the abyss, and shut it and sealed it over him, so that he would not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were completed; after these things he must be released for a short time.”  Since the purpose of Satan’s binding is to prevent him from deceiving the nations any longer, POM’s and AM’s argue that the thousand years refers to the present age (or, for some POM’s a future “golden age” that will gradually develop out of this present age).  Prior to Christ’s first coming, Satan held the nations in darkness, but now that the gospel has gone out to all nations, he has been bound in this one respect.  The nations are no longer held captive to the darkness of ignorance, for the gospel has continually spread around the world.  This means that the present age is “the millennium,” and Christ is reigning over this world right now.  As for the distinction between the first and second resurrections, some argue that the first resurrection refers to regeneration.  Others (more plausibly) argue that the image of a first resurrection is employed to show that those who have died for their testimony to Jesus have not been defeated but reign with him in Heaven during this present age.  It is not a bodily resurrection that is in view but simply a symbolic reference to the ongoing life of the dead in Christ.  At the end of the thousand years (this present age, or for POM’s the golden age of the church), Satan will lead a massive rebellion.  POM’s and AM’s argue that the battle of Revelation 20:7-10 is the same as the battle described in 16:13-21 and 19:11-21, namely, the battle that occurs at the end of the present age at the Second Coming of Christ.  The final judgment and the eternal state follow immediately after Christ’s coming.

This line of interpretation requires that 20:1-10 be identified as a recapitulation, not a continuation of the story from chapter 19.  After all, most are agreed that 19:11-21 describes the Second Coming and Christ’s victory over his enemies at that time.  If chapter 20 simply continues that story, then the millennium comes after the Second Coming, thereby confirming the premillennial view.  But if chapter 20 is a recapitulation, going back and telling the same story in a different way, then either the POM or AM interpretation is correct. 

It would be foolish to deny that the book of Revelation contains a number of recapitulations.  It is not a strict, linear, chronological story laid out from beginning to end.  However, there are several reasons within the context of Revelation itself to reject the claim that chapter 20 is a recapitulation, thereby rejecting the claims of POM’s and AM’s.  When I began to pay close attention to the following details, I could not avoid the premillennial conclusion.

1. The purpose of Satan’s binding is to prevent him from deceiving the nations any longer.  While the POM and AM interpretation has some plausibility from a theological standpoint, how does the book of Revelation itself define Satan’s deceptive work, and when are we to suppose that it is operative?  I am convinced that Revelation has nothing to say about the Old Testament period but instead locates Satan’s deceptive activity in this present age.  In Revelation 12-13, we are introduced to three evil characters, a dark parody of the Holy Trinity: the dragon, the beast from the sea, and the beast from the earth (later identified as the false prophet).  The dragon (clearly identified as Satan) is the power that stands behind the two beasts, antichrist and the false prophet.  Revelation 13:14 speaks of the work of the false prophet by saying, “And he deceives those who dwell on the earth because of the signs which it was given him to perform in the presence of the beast. . .”  This is not a reference to Satanic deception of the Old Testament era that was curtailed by the coming of Christ.  It is a reference to the Satanic powers of deception operative in this present age.  But even nearer to the context of chapter 20, we read in 19:20: “And the beast was seized, and with him the false prophet who performed the signs in his presence, by which he deceived those who had received the mark of the beast . . .”  Again, the false prophet (a puppet of Satan) is referred to specifically in regard to his deceptive work.  The most natural conclusion to draw only a few verses later at 20:3 is that when Satan is bound “so that he would not deceive the nations any longer,” the deception in view must be the deception that was operative through the false prophet and the antichrist.  Satan’s deceptive work ends when the two beasts are thrown into Hell (19:20-21) and he himself is bound for a thousand years (20:1-3).  The story clearly seems to continue at chapter 20 rather than recapitulate.  To suppose that chapter 20 is a recapitulation is to suppose that it the recapitulation tells the same story in a way that is almost diametrically opposed to the way it was told in the previous chapters.  Prior to chapter 20, Satan’s deceptive power is rampant.  How could this same period of time be described as a time during which he is bound so that he may longer deceive the nations?  The best conclusion to draw is that Satan’s deception in this present age is brought to a temporary end at the Second Coming of Christ, which begins the millennial kingdom. 

2. When you read about the Second Coming in 19:11-19 and then about the doom of the two beasts in 19:20-21, there is one glaring omission that every reader of Revelation should naturally focus on: what happened to the dragon?  We are introduced to the unholy trinity, the three primary villains, in chapters 12 and 13.  This trio wreaks havoc on the world in the following chapters, and then we come to the climactic battle of chapter 19, and the two beasts are sent to the lake of fire.  What about the other villain, the ringleader?  When I read 20:1-3 right after 19:20-21 (keeping in mind that there were no chapter divisions when John wrote this) I am naturally inclined to believe that John intends these passages to form one unit as part of the same story: first he tells us what happened to the two beasts and then what happened to the dragon.  It makes more sense to me that the binding of Satan is of a piece with the doom of the two beasts than the idea that the binding of Satan represents the beginning of a new recapitulation of the same story.  If this reading is on target, then Satan has to be bound at the same time the two beasts are judged, namely, at the Second Coming of Christ, not his first coming.  This reading is confirmed by 20:10, which speaks of the final doom of Satan after the thousand years: “And the devil who deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are also; and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.”  Sam Storms (who is AM), has rightly pointed out that there is no verb in the Greek in reference to the beast and the false prophet.  Literally, it reads, “where the beast and the false prophet.”  Storms argues that the implicit verb should be “were thrown,” indicating that the casting of Satan into the lake of fire corresponds in time with the casting of the beast and the false prophet into the lake of fire.  I disagree.  That idea would not suggest itself to me on a natural reading of the text.  Any reader who has read chapters 19-20 in order would assume that the beast and false prophet were cast into the lake of fire a thousand years earlier and that they are still there when Satan arrives after the millennium.  In addition, in Greek it is much more likely that when no verb is given, then the verb “to be” is the implicit verb.  Greek is much more likely to omit this verb (since it can be understood from the context) than any other verb. 

3. The two resurrections are best understood as bodily resurrections.  Almost everyone agrees that when it says, “the rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were completed” (v. 5), this is a reference to bodily resurrection.  The same verb for “come to life” is used in the previous verse in reference to the first resurrection.  It is difficult to suppose that the same verb could be used in the immediate context to refer to something different.  In addition, the idea communicated here is exclusive.  In other words, if the second resurrection is the only bodily resurrection, then it would include all of humanity, not just “the rest” who were not participants in the first resurrection.  But John phrases it in such a way as to indicate that those who participate in the first resurrection do not participate in the second resurrection.  Therefore, if the second resurrection is a bodily resurrection, the first resurrection must also be a bodily resurrection, or else the category of people who were participants in the first resurrection would never experience bodily resurrection, a manifest absurdity.  I admit that it is difficult to understand how a portion of humanity that has been raised from the dead to an immortal life will share the earth with another portion that hasn’t.  But then we must remember that the Jews never expected that the Messiah would experience the resurrection before everyone else.  Dividing the general resurrection up into distinct phases is an explicitly Christian doctrine.  If Paul can divide it between Christ the firstfruits and those who belong to Christ (1 Cor 15:20), then why should we have any trouble filling in the blank and saying that the rest of the dead will be raised at a later time?  Jesus Christ appeared to his disciples over a period of 40 days after his resurrection.  The new age mingled with the old as an immortal fellowshipped with those who were still under the power of death.  This is how it will be during the millennium.  We already have a category for it in the resurrection of Christ. 

4. Those who participate in the first resurrection will reign with Christ for a thousand years (20:6).  When we read of other references to Christ and his people “reigning” in the book of Revelation, it is always on the earth.  See Revelation 2:26-27; 5:10; 22:5.  The latter reference is to eternity, but it is on a renewed creation.  My point here is not that every reference to the saints “reigning” is explicitly a reference to the millennium, but merely that nowhere do we read of a spiritual reign of the saints with Christ in Heaven.  Such an idea is not too hard to fathom, but it is not a category anywhere in the book of Revelation.

5. Finally, although I have not dealt with the sources directly, I have read in the works of credible scholars that some Jewish apocalyptic writings outside of Scripture envision a messianic kingdom on earth prior to the eternal state.  I do not cite these as religious authorities but rather as evidence that such an idea was not foreign to John’s context, thereby strengthening the plausibility of my interpretation of Revelation 20.

Yes, it is only one passage, but the explicit teaching of one biblical passage is enough to establish a doctrine.  The POM and AM readings of Revelation 20 are simply inadequate.  The premillennial reading makes the best sense of the passage within the context of the whole book.   

In the next post (which will be shorter, I anticipate) I will show how the premillennial doctrine illuminates the broader teaching of Scripture in ways that neither postmillennialism nor amillennialism does. 

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Elements of a Biblical Eschatology, Part 7

May 30, 2007

At one time or another, I have been a premillennialist, postmillennialist, or amillennialist.  I believe all three positions have something valuable to contribute to the discussion.  Premillennialism reminds us of the “earthiness” of the Kingdom of Christ.  Postmillennialism summons us to confidence in our mission to reach the world for Christ and to develop human culture in a way that glorifies God.  Amillennialism draws our focus to the return of Christ as the only hope for this world. 

Growing up I was a dispensational premillennialist because that was what I heard from the pulpit at my home church.  I am now convinced that dispensationalism is basically an incorrect approach to Scripture.  The appeal by dispensationalists to a “literal” hermeneutic is inconsistent and unclear.  In any case, what they often mean by “literal” actually means “wooden,” which is not the correct way to read many passages of Scripture.  Traditional dispensationalism errs in its bifurcation of God’s people into two separate groups with two separate destinies, and I cannot make any sense out of a millennial idea that includes a rebuilt temple with a renewed sacrificial system.  I believe that idea tramples the book of Hebrews to the ground.

Toward the end of my college years and at the beginning of my seminary days, I was a postmillennialist.  I was attracted to the idea that one day the world would be redeemed by Christ (not in the sense that every single individual would be saved, but the world as a whole and in general).  But I have since abandoned that position for two major reasons.  First, there are a number of passages in Scripture that lead me to believe that ungodliness and tribulation will increase and intensify as we near the end (Revelation, Matthew 24, etc.).  Although I flirted with postmillennial explanations of these passages for a while, I am now convinced that they are simply inadequate.  Second, postmillennialism removes from theology the idea of the imminent return of Christ.  But I see that idea in the New Testament as the hope of all believers.  Postmillennialism cannot help but put something else (the golden age of Chrstianity) before us as our nearest hope for the future.  I find this inconsistent with the New Testament teaching about the return of Christ, which is our hope.

That leaves amillennialism and historic premillennialism.  Between these two, historic premillennialism must bear the burden of proof.  Amillennialism is the position with the fewest loose ends, and a number of biblical passages bring together the ideas of resurrection, the return of Christ, the final judgment, and the new creation (see, for example, 2 Peter 3:1-13).  Premillennialism carries a lot of baggage with it: two resurrections separated by a thousand years, a millennial kingdom in which some who have been resurrected live on the earth with others who live and die, a temporal separation between the return of Christ and the final consummation of the new creation.

Until recently, taking these things into consideration, I was an amillennialist.  But now I am convinced, after further study, that historic premillennialism actually does meet the burden of proof from Scripture.  I know that, as a premillennialist, I must affirm some strange things.  That made me reluctant, going in, to embrace this position.  But I am convinced that only the premillennial reading of Revelation 20 does justice to the text.  I will deal with that and with some other passages in the next post, but for now let me offer a brief synopsis of my eschatological position:

1. Jesus Christ inaugurated his Kingdom by his first coming, and he now reigns at the right hand of the Father over it.

2. The church is the visible expression of the Kingdom of Christ in this present age, which is actually a period in which the old age of sin and death overlaps with the new age of life and peace.

3. As we near the end of this present period in redemptive history, evil will intensify.  I believe there is no biblical basis to affirm a literal seven-year tribulation period prior to the millennium.  That is based on a misreading of Daniel 9.  I do, however, believe that this present age is “the tribulation” for God’s people, and that it will intensify as we near the end. 

4. Antichrist is a recurring figure in history, and the concept may include not only individuals but also nations, institutions, movements, etc.  I do believe that there will be one final climax to this recurring pattern, a final, personal antichrist who will wield massive power over this world.  I do not, however, believe that we should try to identify the final antichrist.  We may point to certain individuals and movements as antichrists, but I doubt that we will ever be able to say, “So-and-so is the Antichrist” until after the fact.

5. Jesus Christ will return at the end of the tribulation period.  At his return, all who have died in Christ will be raised, and those believers who are alive at the time will be instantaneously clothed with resurrection bodies.  The first resurrection is only for believers, and we will reign with Christ on the earth.

6. At his return, Jesus Christ will destroy the organized opposition to his Kingdom and send the Antichrist and the false prophet to Hell.  This does not mean, however, that the earth will be rid of all unbelievers (I will discuss this further in the next post dealing with Revelation 20).  The nations, as such, will still be here, and with Christ we will rule over them. 

7. This millennial kingdom may or may not last for a literal thousand-year period.  Given the way Revelation uses numbers as symbols, I am inclined to believe that the thousand years simply means an extended period of time.  But then, why not a thousand years? 

8. During this time the ages will still overlap, but the new age will become much more prominent and dominant over the old, though sin and death will still exist for those who were not part of the first resurrection.  However, due to the fact that Satan is bound for the duration of the millennial kingdom, these powers will be subdued to a great extent.  I think this means that there will be massive evangelistic success.  It may even be that during the millennium the number of the redeemed will finally grow to outnumber those who are unredeemed in the scope of human history. 

9. Nevertheless, as a testimony to the persistent rebellion of the human heart, Satan will still be able to gather a massive rebellion against Christ and his people at the end of this period when he is released.  This rebellion will be put down quickly and will be followed by the final judgment.  At this time the rest of the dead will be raised, including all unbelievers and those believers who, due to the circumstances of time, were not participants in the first resurrection. 

10. After the final judgment all unbelievers will be condemned to Hell forever, and all believers will inherit a new heaven and a new earth.  God will be all in all. 

I have not given the justification for this belief yet.  That would make this post too long.  But I assure you, I have thought this through very carefully and have tried to consider it from every angle.  In part 8 I will make a biblical case for this position. 

Elements of a Biblical Eschatology, Part 6

May 26, 2007

In recent years eschatology has come into much greater prominence among theologians.  It used to be just one more topic, or locus, that was addressed at the end of the discussion, and the substance of eschatological discussion usually pertained to sorting out millennial views.  But now eschatology has become central to the whole task of Christian theology.  As Michael Horton rightly argues in his book Covenant and Eschatology, eschatology should be considered a lens, not just a locus, of theology.  In other words, all of theology should be viewed through the lens of eschatology.  Eschatology sets the framework within which all of theology is done. 

What accounts for this recent change?  There are a number of factors, but I believe the most important one is the discovery of the “already/not yet” tension within the New Testament.  This is what is known as “inaugurated eschatology,” and I don’t believe one can understand the New Testament without, in some sense, understanding this concept. 

Here is a brief historical background.  In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, liberal New Testament scholars argued that Jesus was basically a moral teacher who went around throwing out one-liners and parables as timeless, pithy principles for living.  He did not believe himself to be the messiah or Son of God.  His main purpose was to teach people how to love each other.  The church later distorted Jesus and turned him into a messianic figure and then even a divine figure.  Albert Schweitzer came along in the early twentieth century and rejected this line of thinking.  Although he adhered to the liberal methods of study, he argued for a very different Jesus.  Schweitzer argued that the historical Jesus was an apocalyptic figure who proclaimed the imminent end of the world and the establishment of the Kingdom of God, and this was all bound up with himself.  But here’s the catch: Jesus was wrong.  He thought he was bringing in the Kingdom, but he ended up dying a martyr’s death instead.  In one memorable passage, Schweitzer writes this:

“In the knowledge that He is the coming Son of Man He lays hold of the wheel of the world to set it moving on that last revolution which is to bring all ordinary history to a close.  It refuses to turn, and He throws Himself upon it.  Then it does turn; and crushes Him. Instead of bringing in the eschatological conditions, He has destroyed them.”

Schweitzer rightly identified the strong apocalyptic element in Jesus’ teaching, but his conclusion, one must admit, does not inspire much confidence in Jesus.  Schweitzer’s Jesus is a deluded failure, on par with Jim Jones, David Koresh, and Marshall Applewhite.  Is this the Jesus that we see on the pages of the New Testament, the Jesus who has been worshiped by millions around the world for two-thousand years? 

Around the middle of the twentieth century, scholars began to identify a theme in the New Testament that Schweitzer had not noticed: inaugurated eschatology.  This theme allows us to agree with Schweitzer that Jesus was a strongly apocalyptic figure who proclaimed the imminent coming of the Kingdom of God without following Schweitzer into the unfounded idea that the Kingdom Jesus proclaimed never materialized.  W. G. Kuemmel was among the first among non-evangelicals to argue for this theme, and George Ladd was the pioneer among evangelicals.  Today it has become a virtual consensus among New Testament scholars and theologians that through the coming, ministry, and redemptive work of Jesus, the Kingdom has come, though not in its fullness.  There is an “already” aspect to it as well as a “not yet.”  History is divided into two ages, and right now we are living at the point where these ages overlap.  The old age of sin, darkness, and death persists even as the new age of life, redemption, justice, righteousness, and peace has broken in on it.  The Kingdom of God was established at Jesus’ first coming, but we await his Second Coming for the fullness of it and the complete end of the old age. 

I believe the New Testament clearly teaches an inaugurated eschatology, in contrast both to the postponement theory of dispensationalism and to the “Jesus-as-deluded-failure” idea of Schweitzer.  Classical dispensationalists argue that Jesus offered the Kingdom to Israel but then postponed it when they refused.  I see no offer of the Kingdom in the New Testament.  I see an announcement of the Kingdom.  In Mark 1:15-16, Jesus’ message is summarized as this: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.  Repent and believe in the good news!”  Jesus does not say, “The Kingdom will come if you will have it.”  He says, “It is coming, and that places an obligation upon you.  Repent now and be a part of it, or persist in your sin and be consumed by judgment.”  The evidence of the Kingdom comes about through Jesus’ ministry of teaching, healing, and especially of casting out demons.  The powers of the old age are routed as the King comes to claim his throne. 

But Jesus did not establish the Kingdom the way Israel expected.  He came as a suffering servant, a crucified Messiah whose purpose was to redeem sinners.  Nevertheless, through his resurrection and ascension he has been exalted to the right hand of God, where he now reigns as King over all things.  Paul argues in 1 Corinthians 15:20, “But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.”  By calling Christ the “firstfruits,” Paul identifies the resurrection of Christ as the beginning phase of a much bigger event.  In the resurrection of Jesus, the general resurrection of the dead has begun.  The resurrection of Jesus and the resurrection of all people are not two separate events but are two aspects of the same event.  They may be separated in time (already now almost 2,000 years), but in God’s timetable they are one extended eschatological event.  This means that the whole of the present age is eschatological, since Christ has already been raised.  We have been living in the last days ever since Christ came (Hebrews 1:1-2).  Eschatology must be the lens of theology because all theology must focus on the fulfillment of God’s purpose in Christ, which is an eschatological event. 

The framework that I set out in the previous posts now comes into play.  In recent years, as a result of the “already/not yet” emphasis of New Testament scholarship, different camps in the millennial debates have made significant progress in coming together.  Dispensationalists used to view eschatology completely as a “not yet” category.  The Kingdom was postponed and will not resume until the millennium.  Covenant theologians (amillennialists), on the other hand, used to focus almost exclusively on the Kingdom as “already,” and they tended to spiritualize it completely.  Now, with the virtual consensus of both “already” and “not yet” as major New Testament themes held in tension, progressive dispensationalists and modified covenantalists have come to a measure of eschatological agreement.  Now you will find both premillennialists and amillennialists arguing that Christ’s Kingdom has already been established, that Christ is now reigning at the right hand of the Father in fulfillment of the messianic promises, and yet that we are still waiting for the fullness of the Kingdom to come at his return, when the Kingdom will be experienced in much more than a “spiritualized” manner.  Amillennialists have become much more “earthy” in their views of the Kingdom, and premillennialists have become much more open to the present dimsensions of the Kingdom under Christ’s present rule.  I have not studied the history of postmillennialism enough to know whether significant changes have been made among postmillennialists in this regard, but I have seen postmillennial theologians making some of the same observations about the “already/not yet” dimensions of the Kingdom.  For a full discussion of this trend, see Russell Moore’s excellent book The Kingdom of Christ: The New Evangelical Perspective.

So what does this all mean?  It means that we are seeing greater theological unity on the most important matters of eschatology, which in turn relativizes the elements that divide among different views.  What are these most important matters?  I would list them as follows:

1. The Kingdom of God was established through the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

2. Jesus Christ now reigns as King at the right hand of the Father; this is in fulfillment of the messianic promises that one of David’s descendants would rule forever.

3. The present rule of Christ has major implications for the way we live now on this earth; we are to seek to live out a Kingdom way of life in a world that is in rebellion against God.  This way of life consists primarily of gospel proclamation, but it also extends to all aspects of life including social ministry, economics, art, politics, etc.

4. While the Kingdom has been established, the present evil age continues to persist, and the two ages overlap.

5. This means that we are still waiting for Christ to return and gain final victory over his enemies.

6. The return of Christ is the hope to which we must look as we suffer in this present age, and we must be ready for it at any time.

7. The ultimate hope for believers is not a disembodied existence in heaven but a renewal of this creation. 

I believe that if one holds to these elements (of course, presupposing all the essential elements of a Christian eschatology that I outlined in part 1), then questions about the millennium tend to recede into the background.  However, I do believe that questions about the millennium are important and should be answered biblically.  In the next post I will finally reveal what position I hold. 

Elements of a Biblical Eschatology, Part 5

May 26, 2007

Among the varieties of premillennialism, the most popular variety in churches today is known as “dispensational premillennialism.”  Dispensationalism is a theological system that arose in the 1800’s, a major tenet of which is that Israel and the church are two separate peoples with separate destinies.  Jesus offered the Kingdom to Israel in his incarnation, but Israel refused.  Therefore, the Kingdom has been postponed, and God is now dealing with the Gentiles and building the church from among them.  This is a parenthesis in God’s plan.  In the last days God will remove the church from the scene and resume his dealings with Israel. 

Given this framework, dispensational premillennialists overwhelmingly adhere to the idea of a secret rapture of the church prior to the seven year tribulation that will mark the end of this age.  Christ will come for his church, call us all away to be with him, and then the world will experience seven years of chaos and turmoil precipated by the Antichrist.  This will also be a time of intense divine judgment.  At the end of the seven years, Christ will return to this earth to establish the Kingdom that he postponed at his first coming.  It will be a Jewish Kingdom, and Jesus will rule from David’s throne.  The temple will be rebuilt, and the sacrificial system will be reinstituted.  At the end of the thousand years there will be one final Satanic rebellion that will be quickly put down, and then the millennium will give way to the new heaven and the new earth.  Traditional dispensationalists have long held that these are two separate spheres, one spiritual and one earthly, and that the church will be in the new heaven while Israel will be on the new earth forever. 

In recent years there has been a new movement among dispensationalists known as “progressive dispensationalism.”  Progressive dispensationlists do not hold to the strict dichotomy between Israel and the church, nor do they believe that the Kingdom has been postponed.  According to progressive dispensationalists, Christ is ruling over his Kingdom now, which has already come but not yet in its fullness.  They tend to hold to a pretribulation rapture like traditional dispensationlists, but they do not see it as God’s way of getting the church out of the way to get back to his plans for Israel.  I have not studied this movement enough to know how they see the details of the millennial kingdom, like whether or not there will be a new temple and a reinstituted sacrificial system.  I would suspect some variety among adherents.  I do know that progressive dispensationalism is much more “earthy” in its view of eternity.  Israel and the church (which are not two distinct peoples but the one people of God) will inherit a renewed creation under their common Lord once the millennium has ended. 

Finally, there is a variety of premillennialism known as “historic premillennialism,” represented primarily by the New Testament scholar George Ladd and a number of theologians today.  This view is very similar to that of progressive dispensationalism, except for the fact that it tightens the connections between Israel and the church even more.  For example, whereas progressive dispensationalists see a future for Israel as a national, political entity, historic premillennialists would tend to deny any special role for Israel in the millennium.  Historic premillennialists certainly deny that there will be a reinstitution of the sacrificial system, and they also deny that there will be a secret rapture prior to the Second Coming.  On this view, Christ will return at the end of the tribulation period (which may or may not be a literal seven year period).  Even though he is presently reigning now from Heaven, he will at that time establish his rule on earth among his redeemed (who have been resurrected) and over the nations.  At the end of this period (which, again, may or may not be literally a thousand year period), Satan will be released and will lead a final rebellion.  After Satan’s defeat comes the consummation of the new creation, which the redeemed will enjoy forever. 

Now that we have a framework for the discussion, I will finally get around in the next few posts to making some arguments and drawing some conclusions.

Elements of a Biblical Eschatology, Part 4

May 25, 2007

Of the three broad millennial positions, amillennialism is the simplest: this age will end with the return of Christ, and then comes eternity.  Variations within this view normally pertain to what eternity will be like.  For the major part of church history, amillennialists have followed Augustine’s “spiritual vision” eschatology, which views salvation as basically an escape from this world, which will be annihilated.  The redeemed will go to Heaven to be with God forever (their experience of God there is known as the “beautific vision”). 

More recently, amillennialists such as Anthony Hoekema and Vern Poythress have argued for an “earthy” amillennialism, which understands the eternal state as a renewed creation.  Christ will return, not to take us away from here and annihilate this world, but to renew it so that the redeemed might inherit a new creation forever. 

Some amillennialists believe that Israel will turn to Christ collectively at the end (Romans 11), and some believe that Paul’s reference to “all Israel” in Romans 11:26 is a reference not to ethnic Israel but to the people of God as a whole, (i.e., the elect Jews and Gentiles from all nations).  Some amillennialists believe there will be a definite tribulation period with a personal antichrist just prior to the return of Christ, and others view these terms as symbols of more general realities in the period between Christ’s two comings.   

Amillennialism has been the dominant view of church history, particularly in its “spiritual vision” variety.  Augustine set the trajectory for medieval theology in this regard, and the Reformers also embraced an amillennial eschatology.  It has also been the dominant view among covenant theologians up to the present day.  (Covenant theology is a major strand of Reformed theology that views the biblical storyline as the story of two covenants: the covenant of works made with Adam and Eve, which they broke, and the covenant of grace made with God’s covenant partners throughout redemptive history under various administrations.  According to covenant theologians, the one grand covenant of grace is the underlying unity of the covenants made with Noah, Abraham, Israel, David, and the church). 

Elements of a Biblical Eschatology, Part 3

May 24, 2007

Postmillennialism is perhaps the easiest position to describe in terms of internal variety, because there really isn’t much.  Earlier postmillennialists (I am thinking especially of many of the Puritans) believed that the millennium would begin at some future point when the gospel started to spread and prosper at a pace never seen before.  Many of them believed that the mass conversion of Israel (Romans 11) would be the event that got the millennium started.  The millennium itself would last for (perhaps) thousands of years, given the fact that it was expected to last much longer than the period prior to the millennium (which to this point is around 2,000 years).  At the end of this period (which does include one last Satanic rebellion), Christ would return to usher in the eternal state.

Postmillennialists these days tend to view it a little differently.  They identify the entire present age between the two comings of Christ as the millennium of Revelation 20.  Even though the gospel faces many challenges now, postmillennialists rightly point to the remarkable progress that has been made in terms of the spread of the gospel in the last 2,000 years. They envision that it will continue to gain momentum until it reaches worldwide dominance.  After a lengthy golden age of Christianity, Satan will lead a final rebellion that will be quickly put down, and Christ’s return will begin the eternal state. 

So that’s pretty much the main varieties you will find in regard to postmillennialism.  Some (more traditional) postmillennialists will say that the millennium is yet to begin.  Most today, however, say that we are living in it now and have been since the coming of Christ.

I should mention the liberal version of postmillennialism here as well, though I do not consider it a real Christian theology.  According to some liberal theologians such as Harry Emerson Fosdick and Shailer Matthews, the Kingdom of God will come by a gradual process of evolutionary human progress.  The visible, bodily return of Christ to this earth is denied, and most of the emphasis in the transformation of this world into the Kingdom of God comes about through social action.  Evolutionary postmillennialism holds to an optimistic view of human nature.  Humans are basically good, but they are oppressed or corrupted by bad social structures.  Once those structures are corrected, humanity will flourish and we will see the Kingdom of God gradually coming to a position of dominance.  The whole idea is basically naturalistic.  The twentieth century, especially its two world wars, the holocaust, and the later threat of nuclear disaster, for all practical purposes put this sub-Christian idea to rest.  The naive, naturalistic optimism that was rooted in an Enlightenment way of thinking has now given way to a much more chastened and pessimistic postmodernism. 

(By the way, I hope you like these short posts.  I’m thinking about permanently changing my posting style to make posts shorter and more frequent.  I think that will keep you readers coming back more often and not getting overwhelmed by posts that are too lengthy to digest at one time).   

Elements of a Biblical Eschatology, Part 2

May 22, 2007

In order to establish a framework for this discussion, I will here lay out the three broad categories of Christian eschatology.  Keep in mind that eschatology is a much more encompassing subject than questions about the millennium, but laying these positions out here will help us navigate the subject.

 The three broad categories of Christian eschatology are as follows:

1. Premillennialism.  Broadly speaking, this is the view that there will be an intermediate kingdom on earth ruled over by Jesus Christ prior to the eternal state.  Jesus Christ will return prior to this millennial kingdom, hence the name “premillennialism.”  The resurrection of the dead occurs in (at least) two stages, one at the beginning of the millennium and one at the end.  Most premillennialists have affirmed that the intermediate kingdom is literally a 1,000 year period, though this is not an essential feature of the position.

2. Postmillennialism.  Broadly speaking, this view anticipates a “golden age” of Christianity here on earth prior to the return of Christ.  The “millennium” is not a literal thousand year period but simply an extended period during which the influence of the gospel grows to a position of dominance over the world.  Christ will return at the end of this period, ushering in the eternal state.  Because the return of Christ happens after the “millennial” period, this position is known as “postmillennialism.” 

3. Amillennialism.  Broadly speaking, this view is basically the same as postmillennialism, but without the golden age.  The church will bear witness to Christ until the end of this age, but there will be no worldwide dominance of Christianity.  When Christ returns, he will usher in the eternal state.  The name “amillennialism” is something of a misnomer, since amillennialists do not deny the millennial teaching of Revelation 20 but simply interpret it as a reference to the present age, either in reference to the reign of dead believers in Heaven with Christ or in reference to the church here on earth. 

Postmillennialism and amillennialism both view the return of Christ as the beginning of eternity and therefore deny an intermediate kingdom here on earth.  Premillennialism views the return of Christ as the beginning of an intermediate kingdom, which then gives way to eternity.

 Premillennialism and amillennialism both affirm that the return of Christ could come at any time.  Postmillennialism denies this because, according to this view, Christ cannot return until after the “golden age” of the dominance of Christianity throughout the world. 

Next up: variations within each view.

Elements of a Biblical Eschatology, Part 1

May 20, 2007

Eschatology (the study of last things) is a very controversial subject.  There are a number of different views on how this present age will end and what will happen from the end of this age and on through eternity.  My purpose in this post is to identify the essential elements of a biblical eschatology, followed by a theme that I would consider almost as important.

 Any Christian eschatology that hopes to be orthodox must adhere to these elements:

1. The personal, visible, bodily return of Jesus Christ to this earth.

2. The resurrection of all people, both the righteous and the unrighteous (how this occurs is a matter of debate, but the resurrection itself should not be).

3. Final judgment of all people, which leads to

4. A final separation between believers and unbelievers in Heaven and Hell, respectively.

5. I would also add that with regard to personal eschatology (what happens to individual persons), one should also affirm, in addition to the resurrection of the body, the intermediate state of the soul between death and resurrection, which includes blessedness for those who are saved and torment for those who are lost.

To deny any one of these elements is to put oneself outside the orthodox tradition of Christianity.  There is, however, one more theme that I would like to mention here.  Not all Christians have held to it.  In fact, a large number of them haven’t, so I don’t think I can claim that it is essential to Christian orthodoxy.  However, it is very biblical, and I believe an understanding of it is essential to a solid grasp of a truly biblical eschatology.  That theme is the new creation.  God’s purpose for us and for this world is not to have immaterial spirits in an immaterial existence forever.  This creation is not destined for annihilation (nor are our bodies) but for renewal.  I believe the new creation, which we will inhabit for eternity, will be like this one in many ways, but without sin, death, suffering, evil, etc.  We will be embodied people.  I envision that we will continue to exist in space and time, with life and activities.  The new creation will probably be much like Eden.  There will be agriculture and art and music and recreation and architecture and all kinds of things that we take part in now, only they will be far better than anything we can imagine here.  The orthodox tradition has always maintained that God will raise our bodies from the dead.  Unfortunately, not all Christians have affirmed what seems to be a necessary corollary of that: God’s renewal of this world as the eternal dwelling place of the embodied redeemed.

In Part 2 I will address different eschatological views within the orthodox tradition.     

The Pain of Ministry

May 10, 2007

“The Kingdom of God is like this,” He said.  “A man scatters seed on the ground; he sleeps and rises–night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows–he doesn’t know how.  The soil produces a crop by itself–first the blade, then the head, and then the ripe grain on the head.  But as soon as the crop is ready, he sends for the sickle, because the harvest has come.”–Mark 4:26-29

The Kingdom of God is like a seed.  It begins small and grows gradually, mysteriously, and outside of human control.  Ministry in the Kingdom does not operate according the predictable patterns of the world or the free market.  If we ever perceive that the growth of the Kingdom of God is predictable, laid out for us on a market projection, and completely under our control as we manipulate various factors, then what we have is not really the Kingdom of God but a man-made substitute.

The Kingdom of God overthrows conventional wisdom.  Once in a meeting with fellow ministers I heard this comment: “The definition of insanity is to continue to do the same thing and expect different results.”  His point was that churches have to reinvent themselves continually in order to produce fruit.  But that is to assume that the church is basically a business with a commercial product that must be continually repackaged in order to appeal to a wider consumer base.  Yes, this conventional wisdom works in the business world, but the gospel is not for sale.  To assume that we have to reinvent ourselves constantly is to deny the mysterious, sovereign power of God to work when, where, and how he pleases.  Yes, we are responsible for our efforts as those who work for the spread of the Kingdom.  But the mindset that places all hope on our techniques is short-sighted, earthly, and devoid of faith. 

Ministry is not about marketing techniques.  It is about the gospel, the Scriptures, prayer, love, people, and a subversive spiritual army that infiltrates enemy territory largely under the radar.  And it is about pain.  Not being able to manipulate the results can be painful.  Not being able to hold up a graph that maps out growth over the last quarter as a vindication of your leadership can be painful.  Opening yourself up to people, praying for them, investing yourself into them, pouring energy into their growth in Christ, only to see them foolishly walk down a path toward sin can be very painful.  Ministry is never done. 

In some ways, I envy the man who mows our church’s lawn (which is our lawn too, since we live in the parsonage).  He has a job, he does it, and it’s done.  He can step back and look at it as an accomplishment.  Pastors don’t get to do that.  Never will I be able to step back, look at my church, and say, “Now, there’s a completed task!”  The task will go on until Jesus returns, and it will always contain a healthy dose of failure, messiness, and forgiveness.  It will grow in a mysterious way, beyond my ability to comprehend, beyond my ability to control, like a seed that sprouts up out of the ground.  But even here the analogy breaks down.  Farmers, though they do not manipulate their crops directly, do have some level of predictability based on yearly cycles.  The Kingdom of God is not that kind of crop.  It grows by God’s power and God’s decision, according to God’s mysterious will, not according to regular climate patterns. 

I strongly believe that what God has been showing me over the last eight years of unimpressive ministry (in terms of numbers, I mean) is that I am an expendable component of his plan.  He does not need me.  I am not God’s gift to the world.  I used to harbor naive illusions about the kind of impact I might have for the Kingdom.  Just the other night I preached a sermon at a community gathering of four churches, and one of the old ladies told me at the back of the sanctuary afterward, “I know you’ll go far.”  I appreciated the compliment, and I know she meant well.  But I have to say that trying to predict “how far I will go” based on hearing a sermon is just plain wrong.  An effective ministry cannot be guaged by the talent (or lack thereof) of the minister.  God does as he pleases.  If he wants to use me to impact millions, then I am thrilled to be his servant.  If he wants to use me to impact a handful of people in rural northern Kentucky, then I am thrilled to be his servant.  I am not the key factor here.  He could dispense with me at any moment, and he would be no worse off for it.  The Kingdom grows apart from me and outside my control and understanding.  I am utterly expendable.

And that may be the deepest cut of all in ministry.  The wound of an ego hurts the most.  But once it is cut down to size, no amount of pain in the world can ultimately derail a servant of Christ.  When I get myself out of the way, I have better clarity of vision to see the incredible God I serve.  And so, whatever he decides, I will serve him gladly.    

Concerning the Name

May 5, 2007

Hi, welcome to my new blog, The (Re)Publican.  Let me explain what that means.  In Luke 18:9-14, Jesus tells a parable about a Pharisee and a tax collector.  Both went up to the temple to pray.  The Pharisee prayed an arrogant prayer of thanksgiving for his own righteousness, but the tax collector simply prayed, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”  Jesus then makes his point: “I tell you, this one went down to his house justified rather than the other; because everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” 

In the King James Version, the tax collector is called a “publican.”  I want to identify myself with this man.  I am one who has no claim upon the favor of God.  All I can do is pray that he will be merciful to me, a sinner.  And he has been.  Of myself I am nothing, but grapsing Christ as my righteousness, I too go down to my house justified. 

I want to embody the spirit of the publican.  In a sense, I want to relive in my time what he represented to the first century readers of Luke’s Gospel.  Hence, I am the (Re)Publican.  But of course, you can’t miss the political reference as well.  I am also a Republican, and I do post on political issues from time to time. 

I believe there is a connection between these two themes (theology and politics).  My political views flow out of my understanding of God, the world, and especially human nature.  The primary reason I am not a Democrat is because I am convinced that Democrats misunderstand the way the world works due to a misunderstanding of human nature as fallen, sinful, selfish, and corruptible.  Hence, I oppose big government.  I harbor no misconceptions that the problems confronting our society can be solved by higher taxes, the redistribution of wealth, or the consolidation of power into the hands of a centralized government.  Government is wasteful and inefficient.  It is like an ever-growing monster (you might say a Leviathan) that must be kept under restraints at all times, lest it subdue and eventually destroy human liberty.  Therefore, the people of a democratic society must continually press government to restrict itself to providing only those protections and services that cannot be provided by private citizens. 

Preeminent among these protections is protection from enemies of our nation.  Thanks to the leadership of Ronald Reagan, we saw the collapse of the Soviet empire.  Peace was achieved through strength.  Appeasement was the strategy of the doves on the left who raked Reagan over the coals day after day.  Appeasement didn’t work.  Military superiority did.  The left misread the whole situation.  They thought that good faith measures on our part would lead our enemies to peace.  Reagan saw that strategy as nothing more than feeding a bear.  And if you feed a bear, he will always want more.  Appeasement does not work.  Peace is achieved through strength, through victory.  The left is naive about the enemy we are currently facing, just as they were naive about the Soviets.  I am a Republican because I believe the war on terror is an offensive war, not a defensive one.

So, how can I be both a Publican who believes in grace and forgiveness and a Republican who believes in strong defense measures against national enemies?  How can I plead the grace of God for my own sins while arguing that the government should not extend grace to those who have broken the law or attacked us?  The answer to this is that God has ordained the church and the state to operate according to different principles.  The church proclaims the gospel of grace and forgiveness and wields the sword of the Spirit.  The church has not been given the power of the civil sword.  The state, by contrast, has been given the power of the sword, and its duty is to protect those under its authority and promote justice, so that life in this world may go on.  Both spheres of operation are gifts of God’s grace.  One pertains to the maintenance of creation, and the other to the renewal of creation.  The state, as an agent of God’s common grace, acts in such a way as to restrain sin in order to keep it from destroying us all.  Without this civil restraint, life on this earth would not be possible.  We are so thoroughly corrupted by sin that we would have no hope of survival if God did not delegate the power of the sword to civil authorities.  But God also sent his Son to redeem this world, and he has committed the message of the gospel to the church.  The church proclaims that anyone and everyone can be saved by faith in Jesus Christ.  Yes, that includes Islamic terrorists.  One of the major challenges of theology (and of politics) is keeping these two spheres of operation separate.  The government should not be in the business of forgiving sins.  If that were the case, there would be no justice, and society would be doomed to complete chaos.  The church should not be in the business of compulsion.  Faith in Christ cannot be compelled, and while the church should have disciplinary measures, these are internal measures only.  The state keeps creation from plunging into complete ruin.  The gospel, as both event and message, announces and effects a new creation, where God will be all in all.   

So, that’s me, the (Re)Publican.  But I am much more of a Publican than I am a Republican.  Political parties will come and go.  In fact, I’m not entirely happy with my party right now.  Many Republicans have been caught up in scandals lately.  Even though they claim to be the party of small government and fiscal conservatism, Republicans in Congress basically operate according to the same principles when it comes to pork barrel spending (but, of course, we the voters deserve that because we vote for candidates who bring federal dollars to our communities).  And currently, the Republican race for president doesn’t look so hot.  I’m not the most enthusiastic Republican, but I am an enthusiastic conservative and a redeemed sinner who is even more enthusiastic about grace.