Millennialism – One Issue That Won’t Go Away

A friend who has been growing in the Lord wrote me the other day,

“Just by reading the Old Testament, I am a Pre-mil. It never occurred to me to be anything else because the scripture is so clear on the subject.  So when John MacArthur starts explaining [in a sermon] the different points of view I was astonished. … I am so disappointed and disillusioned that this cancer could take root and thrive in the Reformed Church.”

I too have been disheartened by the lack of premillennialists within Protestant evangelicalism. Sadly, Reformed Premillenialists are a dying breed in this generation. But I would stop short of calling other millennial viewpoints a ‘cancer’ in the church.

I was at Shepherd’s Conference back in 2007 when MacArthur fired the shot heard ‘round the Reformed world with his keynote address, “Why Every Self Respecting Calvinist Should be a Premillennialist.” The title was meant to be tongue in cheek – but only slightly. It took social media by storm, and even led to Sam Waldron writing a book-long rebuttal called, MacArthur’s Millennial Manifesto.

Many Christians, even very devoted and scholarly ones, now view the Church as the new or “true” Israel, and believe that Christ’s present rule has begun to fulfill the promises of the Davidic Covenant, and that ultimately it will be fulfilled in the Eternal State. This is called amillennialism. There is no literal thousand year ‘millennium,’ but rather in Christ they say we are already experiencing the firstfruits of the millennium.

Many amillennialists have a high view of scripture and even a high Christology. They are not deliberately anti-Semitic per se, but rather view the State of Israel just like any other nation now. Where they err, I believe, is to read the Old Testament through the lens of the New Testament so deeply that everything becomes about Christ and his church. It is very subtle, because Christ and the church are so central to God’s redemptive plan. But God also made promises to Abraham and his offspring and chose to uniquely bless Israel.

Amillenialists blur the OT and NT together, creating in my opinion too much continuity, and overlooking that God can work in different ways during different eras (dispensations) of his redemptive plan. In light of the wonderful blessings we have in Christ, they forget that the OT contained real promises (land, seed, blessing) to real people (Abraham and his physical descendants). This side of the cross and resurrection, they now spiritualize many of the prophecies given to the Jews and say they are fulfilled in Christ and his church. According to them, any remaining kingdom promises will be fulfilled in the new heavens and new earth of the Eternal State. I believe this is a serious misunderstanding of Scripture.

Yes, the NT extends God’s new covenant blessing to those outside the Jewish covenant community. But God NEVER revokes his original promises to Israel made through the Abrahamic and Davidic Covenant, and repeated throughout the rest of Scripture. That is my position.

Reflecting on John MacArthur’s message at the 2007 Shepherd’s Conference, I think it could have been stronger. A good debater will try to accurately understand and represent both viewpoints, then dismantle their opponent’s arguments one by one. I think MacArthur did this in part, but in some ways, he failed to make a convincing case. Kim Riddlebarger, for example, said the sermon misrepresented his view. Over time, I believe MacArthur polished up his argument a bit and released this article, as excerpted from the excellent book Christ’s Prophetic Plans.

I’ve found over the years that my Amillennialist friends love simplicity. They emphasize the unity or ‘continuity’ of scripture. There is much to admire in their approach, but they go too far. They smirk at our complicated dispensational charts and timelines, instead mapping out a very simple eschatology with one people of God, one single return of Christ, one judgment, one resurrection, etc. It sounds so very nice on the surface. But it does not hold up to Scripture.

The main problem with amillennialism is that the Bible says God made an unconditional promise to the nation of Israel, and we dare not revoke it. God said he would rebuild ethnic Israel. And Christ will reign physically from Jerusalem.

A plain reading of the text (literal-grammatical-historical) necessarily leads to premillennialism. A typological reading of the text (viewing all Scripture allegorically, through the lens of Christ) easily leads to amillennialism. This, to me, is the fundamental difference between the two systems.

My favorite author on the subject is Michael Vlach at The Master’s Seminary. I encourage you to read this article if you’d like to learn more about this ongoing debate.