THE DOCTRINE OF PREMILLENNIALISM
By Wayne S. Walker
There is a popular religious doctrine which teaches that Bible prophecy contains signs predicting that the world will come to the brink of a great cataclysm, but then the second coming of Christ will occur, when the righteous dead will be raised and the righteous living raptured for seven years in the air while the great tribulation occurs on earth, after which the battle of Armageddon will be fought, all the Jews will be converted to Christ, and return to Palestine, and the Lord will reign with them on earth from His throne in Jerusalem for a literal thousand years. This doctrine is known as Premillennialism. There are several variations of Premillennial doctrine, but certain items are common to most of them. The purpose of this article is to examine a few such items and determine what the Scriptures actually teach about them. Does the Bible really teach these things, or are they simply the products of an overactive imagination?
The Land Promise to Abraham
One of the arguments made by Premillennialists is that the promise made by God to Abraham of a land for his descendants to inhabit was never completely fulfilled, so it will have to be fulfilled when Jesus comes again. To begin, let us notice when this land promise was made. It was first revealed to Abraham in Genesis 12:1-7. The boundaries were later defined in great detail—from the River of Egypt, also known as the Wadi el Arish, to the Euphrates River (Genesis 15:7-21). This same promise was then repeated to Isaac and Jacob (Genesis 26:1-4, 28:10-14).
Next, let us notice if the Bible says whether this promise was fulfilled or not. Joshua led the people of Israel in the conquest of the very land promised to Abraham (Joshua 21:43-45). In fact, Joshua himself said that the Lord had now fulfilled all His promise to Israel (Joshua 23:14). So the inspired history of the conquest of Canaan by Israel in the book of Joshua ends with statements to the effect that the promise made to Abraham regarding a land for his descendants was completely fulfilled (Joshua 24:8-32).
In addition, we can notice where David and Solomon ruled over the entire territory that was promised. David conquered the land all the way up to the Euphrates River (2 Samuel 8:3). Solomon then reigned over all the area from there down to the River of Egypt (Wadi el Arish) which is the border between Canaan and Egypt (1 Kings 4:21). So, again, it is affirmed that the people of Israel did indeed control all of the land from the River Euphrates to the border of Egypt, just exactly as God had promised to Abraham (2 Chronicles 9:26).
Finally, we must notice that while inheriting the land was unconditional, keeping it was conditional. Israel was brought into Canaan not because of their own goodness but because of God’s promise to Abraham. Then He told them that if they were faithful, they would keep the land (Deuteronomy 28:1-10). However, if they were unfaithful, they would lose the land (Deuteronomy 29:15-63). As we know from plain Bible history, they did not remain faithful, so they lost the land (Daniel 9:10-14).
Sometimes Premillennialists argue that following the destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar and the Chaldeans, the Jews never did live in Canaan as an independent state again, so this will occur when Jesus comes and establishes a physical kingdom on earth. However, this thinking overlooks the clear and emphatic Bible teaching that God completely fulfilled the land promise made to Abraham when Israel conquered and ruled over all the land that was described in great detail in that promise. It also ignores the simple fact that Israel forfeited their right to remain there by their disobedience, and that while God promised that a remnant would return, as we shall shortly see, He also said that they would never again regain their former strength and glory.
The Restoration Promise to Israel
In the previous section of this article we discussed whether the land promise that God made to Abraham was fulfilled. The Scriptures answer yes. Yet, Premillennialists still affirm that the Jews must return to Palestine to fulfill prophecy and receive the land promise by God because the restoration promise has not yet been completely fulfilled. Certainly God did promise Israel that after they were destroyed and taken captive, if they would return to Him, a remnant would be restored (Deuteronomy 30:1-3). Thus, we are told, God’s promise of a restoration is still to be fulfilled and so will occur when Jesus comes again. However, we must ask, do the Scriptures teach this idea?
There can be no doubt that a promise was made of a restoration of the Jews to Palestine. Isaiah said that it would occur following their punishment by Assyria, but that only a remnant would return (Isaiah 10:20-22). Jeremiah said that it would be after seventy years (Jeremiah 25:8-10, 29:10). Jerusalem was first conquered by Babylon in 606 B.C. Seventy years would be 536 B.C., and that is exactly when Cyrus issued the decree to return (2 Chronicles 36:22-23). So a restoration promise was made. The question is, has it been fulfilled? The Premillennialist says no.
However, the Bible says that it has been fulfilled. And it was fulfilled at precisely the time when Jeremiah had predicted (Daniel 9:1-19). We have the divinely-inspired record of its fulfillment by Ezra (Ezra 1:1-5). And Nehemiah understood that God had fulfilled His promise to redeem His captive people and restore them to Canaan (Nehemiah 1:8-10). In fact, notice that Nehemiah uses the past tense, “have redeemed.”
Yet, the question is often asked about the “second restoration” (Isaiah 11:11). It is claimed that this passage is talking about what will occur at Jesus’s return and thus is still to be fulfilled. However, the context tells us exactly when this was to happen. Verses 1-5 talk about the coming of Christ, and this was fulfilled at His first coming, as Paul preached in Acts 13:22-23. Verses 6-10 speak of the character of Christ’s kingdom. This is not to be understood literally, but is a figurative description of the peace and prosperity of the King and His rule (cf. Isaiah 2:2-4, Matthew 18:3, 2 Corinthians 5:17, Hebrews 12:18-28).
Thus, we see that this “second restoration” is actually a prophecy of the church. In fact, Isaiah 11:10 is quoted in Romans 15:8-12 as being fulfilled in the church. The second restoration of verse 11 takes place in that same day as the promise of verse 10. These things are fulfilled in Christ and His spiritual kingdom, the church (Romans 11:5). So, Isaiah’s prophecy refers to salvation through Christ (Romans 9:27-29). This second remnant is those of Israel and all others who call upon the name of the Lord and are saved according to His election of grace.
In contrast to plain Bible teaching, Premillennialism alleges that Israel will still return to Palestine and reign with Christ on earth for 1000 years. However, the Bible clearly says that all of God’s promises to Israel have been fulfilled, so there is nothing left for God to fulfill in the future. All that God has for the Jews today is what He has for all mankind, which is to hear and obey the gospel of Christ, receive salvation by Jesus’s blood, and gain the hope of heaven.
The Status of the People of Israel
The previous section of this article discussed whether the restoration promise made to Israel has been fulfilled or not, and the Bible answers this question with a clear yes. However, one reason the Premillennialism teaches that the Jews must still return to Palestine is the belief that the Hebrews or people of Israel are still God’s chosen nation. Hence, it is said that when Jesus comes again, all the Israelites will be saved, go back to Palestine, and reign with Christ over the whole world for a thousand years. Is this true?
God had said that He would reject Israel as a nation with regard to their being His chosen people. This was true even in the Old Testament. In Jeremiah 19:1-11, God’s point in the sign of the broken flask was, “Even so I will break this people and this city, as one breaks a potter’s vessel, which cannot be made whole again…” (emphasis added). It is also true in the New Testament. In Matthew 21:33-43, Jesus tells the parable of the wicked vinedressers and concludes, “Therefore I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a nation bearing the fruits of it.” So the Scriptures frankly teach that national Israel is no longer God’s chosen people.
Well, someone might ask, what about the present-day nation of Israel? Why are they in Palestine if they are not God’s chosen people. The modern state of Israel cannot be God’s chosen nation because they have no covenant—God’s covenant with Israel has been taken away (Colossians 2:14-16). They have no priest, because the Aaronic priesthood is no longer in existence and cannot even be traced (Hebrews 7:11-15). And they have no king, because no son of the last king, Jeconiah, can ever sit on an earthly throne and prosper (Jeremiah 22:28-30). This is why Jesus can never reign on earth (Matthew 1:12-16). But it also explains why the kingdom was taken away from Isreal so that they are not God’s chosen people any longer.
Then, if physical Israel is not God’s kingdom today, what is His kingdom and when was it established? It was prophesied that a descendant of David would sit on His throne (2 Samuel 7:12-14). This prophecy is cited as being fulfilled in the resurrection of Christ, as Peter preached on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:22-36). Thus, the throne of Christ is in heaven, not on earth. What is His kingdom? It is identified as the church that He built, made up of saints (Matthew 16:18-19, Colossians 1:13-14).
Therefore, the church is called spiritual Israel, God’s chosen people today (note Romans 2:28-29, 9:6; Galatians 6:16). The church has the new covenant which God had promised to establish (Hebrews 8:8-13). The church has the priesthood of Christ (Hebrews 4:14-16). And the church has Christ, a descendant of David, as its King (1 Timothy 6:15-16).
Thus, the New Testament definitely shows that the nation of Israel, or the Jewish people, today are not God’s chosen people and as such have no reason to expect anything special from God in supposed fulfillment of prophecy. Such a statement is not intended to be anti-Semitic. If those who are Jewish will accept Jesus Christ as the Messiah and the New Testament as God’s revelation of His will for mankind today, they can be part of God’s chosen people, the church, just as well as anyone else.
The Battle of Armageddon
The previous section of this article examined the idea that the Jews are still God’s chosen people. Premillennialism teaches that when Jesus comes, all the Jews will be converted to Him, return to Palestine, fight the battle of Armageddon, be victorious, and rule with Christ on earth from Jerusalem for a literal 1,000 years. The phrase “battle of Armageddon” is not mentioned a single time in God’s word, and the term “Armageddon” is found only once, in Revelation 16:16. So, this portion of the article discusses whether Armageddon is to be a literal, future battle or not.
First, we must understand that the concept of Armageddon, as well as of the book of Revelation in general, was intended to be symbolic. The word “Armageddon” means the mountain of Megiddo, a real place mentioned in the Old Testament (cf. 2 Kings 23:29-30). However, Revelation 1:1 says that the message of the book was “signified” or communicated by signs and symbols. The mount of Megiddo is thus being used as a symbol for a great battle. There is an actual place named Waterloo where Napoleon was defeated. But whenever we say that someone “met his Waterloo,” we do not mean that he went to that actual place; rather, we are using the term as a symbol of a great defeat.
To see how Armageddon fits into the symbolic picture of Revelation, we need to look at the overall drama of the book. Chapters 1-11 set the stage by proclaiming Christ’s victory. Chapters 12-22 describe in figurative language the achievement of that victory. In Revelation 12:3 the devil is called a great red dragon. Is this to be understood as literal? After he failed to devour the man-child, Christ, he turned his fury against the radiant woman who represents God’s people. In this persecution, the dragon is then joined by three allies.
The sea beast represents the civil power of the Roman government (Revelation 13:1). The land beast, later called the false prophet, represents the false religion of the Roman empire which involved emperor worship (Revelation 13:11-13). And the great harlot or scarlet woman, called Babylon, represents the city of Rome with all its worldliness (Romans 17:1-6). This leads up to the beginning of the battle symbolized as Armageddon. The battle is not actually fought in Revelation 16; the way is simply being prepared. The armies are led by three frogs. Again, is this literal?
Revelation then concludes with the defeat of each of these enemies of the church. Babylon falls in Revelation 18:1-2. Then there is war in Revelation 19:19. Here is the actual depiction of the battle symbolized as Armageddon. The result is that the beast and the false prophet are cast into the lake of fire. Finally, there is the fall of the dragon, which will be described in more detail in the next section. If Satan is not a literal dragon and the leaders of his forces are not three literal frogs, why would anyone think that Revelation is depicting a literal, future battle with Armageddon?
While the idea of a literal, future battle of Armageddon is integral to Premillennialism, the Bible teaches no such thing. It is simply symbolic of the great spiritual battle between good and evil, especially as demonstrated in the persecution of the early church by the Roman empire, culminating in the final victory of Christ and His forces. Every generation has had some historical event which speculators thought at the time was Armageddon, or at least the beginning of it. However, when Jesus does come, the earth will be destroyed (2 Peter 3:9-11). Therefore, there will be no place for such a battle to occur.
The Thousand Year Reign
Premillennialism is the doctrine that Jesus will return before His supposed thousand-year reign over the earth from Jerusalem. There are many different forms of Premillennialism, but by definition all forms include a belief in this literal thousand-year reign of Christ after His second coming. The only passage of Scripture which says anything about a thousand-year reign, and hence is the main proof-text which Premillennialists use to try to substantiate their doctrine, is Revelation 20:1-10. What does this passage actually teach?
First, we must continue to keep in mind that the whole book of Revelation was “signified” or communicated in signs and symbols. Rather than looking at the passage as a literal description of what will happen, we must recognize the figurative nature of the language and seek to let other Scriptures help us to determine what the signs and symbols represent. In verses 1-3 we have the triumph of God and the binding of Satan where an angel who has the key to the bottomless pit comes and binds the dragon with a chain and casts him into the abyss for a thousand years. Again, is Satan a literal dragon? Can he really be bound with a literal chain? The binding of Satan simply represents the fact that he has no power over the faithful Christian (1 Corinthians 10:13, James 4:7). Therefore, the thousand years must also be symbolic. Numbers are often used as symbols (e.g., “ten days” in Revelation 2:10). The thousand years simply refers to an undetermined but long and full period of time (2 Peter 3:8).
In verses 4-6 we have the reign of the saints. They live and reign with Christ. This reign must be in heaven, rather than on earth, because that is where Christ is now reigning (Acts 2:29-33). Also, they are “souls,” nor resurrected bodies. This is called the “first resurrection.” It does not imply two bodily resurrections, because Jesus said that all the dead would be raised at the same hour when He returns (John 5:28-29). In fact, Revelation chapter 20 does not even mention the second coming of Christ. Rather, drawing from Ezekiel 37:1-14, it would most likely represent the resurrection of the cause espoused by the martyred saints (Revelation 6:9-12). And the duration of this reign is a thousand years, the same as the binding of Satan. So, now we have further identification of this undetermined but long and full period of time when Satan will be bound. It will also be the time when the martyred saints reign with Christ.
In verses 7-10 we have the destruction of Satan. First, Satan is loosed from his prison. This should not be understood as some kind of chronological progression, but as a symbol like the other things. Satan is bound so far as faithful Christians are concerned, but he still goes around seeking whom he can devour (1 Peter 5:8). He deceives the nations, Gog and Magog, which from Ezekiel 38:2 symbolize the enemies of God, and gathers them to battle, symbolizing the constant warfare that always has gone on between the people and those dominated by Satan, and always will so long as this earth stands (Ephesians 6:10-12). This will continue until that time when Satan himself will be destroyed and be cast into the place of eternal punishment (Matthew 25:41). There follows the final judgment scene, along with a figurative picture of the new heavens and new earth. Revelation is not intended as a roadmap of signs leading up to the second coming and some literal, thousand-year reign of Christ on earth, but as a symbolic portrayal of the victory of Christ and His people over evil, especially as it pertained to the saints persecuted by Rome in the first few centuries.
—taken from Faith and Facts Quarterly; Jan., 2014; Vol. 41, No. 1; pp. 2-11