In dealing with the issue of the millennium it becomes important from the outset to realise that not only is there three main views as to how the millennium will be manifested but there are a myriad of sub-views that attempt to breakdown the event and in some cases twist it to suit ones own theology.
In the postscript to his book Robert Clouse writes that the reason we need to spend so much time identifying our own position of the millennium is because the answer to that question will in many respects determine the way in which we see the church operating in the world. Not only will the way it operates be determined by this issue but also the mission of the church as we see it will be manifested in different ways.
To start on a topic such as this it is firstly important to compare and contrast the differing views of the millennium as expressed through Revelation 20 and other passages.
Firstly, what is commonly called the amillennial view holds as it basic premise that there is no millennium or period of peace and righteousness through which the church will pass leading up till the last days.
Because of their aversion to matter (based on a Greek understanding of matter and an allegorising of exegesis) the Alexandrian Fathers opposed millennialism, claiming that our hope lay in the heavenly rather than the earthly realm.
Lewis and Demarst list the specific order of events for those holding this view as: “Christ’s present spiritual reign over the church; increasing apostasy on earth; the Great Tribulation; Christ’s second coming with the deceased saints; the destruction of evil powers; the general resurrection of believers and unbelievers; the last judgement; the eternal state”.
This is the view held by such notables as Augustine although he is claimed by both the post and amillennial camps. In the City of God Augustine writes that the millennium should be interpreted as the six thousand year period between God’s creation of man and the second coming of Christ, preferring to assume the symbolic rather than the literal interpretation of Revelation 20.
He goes on to cite the author of The Book of Revelation as intending the thousand years to mean the whole of the history of humankind.
Regardless of whether Augustine is seen primarily as a amillennialist or not he was responsible for moulding the theological thinking on this issue for over a thousand years. Other great theologians from the Latin Fathers such as Leo the Great, Gregory the Great, Albertus Magnus, and Thomas Aquinas all took positions similar to Augustine against what was called the “Chiliasm” or millennialism of their day.
The Amillennial position wants to affirm that at the coming of Christ which is told of in Revelation 20 there will be only one return of Christ, one resurrection and one judgement. Robert Clouse points out that “they also interpret the millennium mentioned in Revelation 20 as describing the present reign of the souls of the deceased believers with Christ in heaven”. This has the strength of dealing with the issue of the saints and what the premillennialists would see as the first resurrection (Rev 20:5).
The binding of Satan for instance is seen not as the total banishment of Satan during this thousand years by banishing him to the pit (Rev 20:3) as per the premillennial position but rather a limitation of his powers that enables the nations not to be deceived against the power of the gospel message. This fits well with their view of good and evil developing side by side till the Lord suddenly returns to carry out the judgment.
The passage most often quoted in defence of the amillennial position is in Matthew 13:24-30,36-43. The story of the wheat and tares existing side by side till the harvest echoes the good and evil that amillennialists talk about.
On the important subject of what position the Jews will hold in the millennium the Amillennialists would insist that the promises and covenants made to Israel are being fulfilled spiritually in the church.
Origen was to reject out of hand any suggestion that the Kingdom of God had any physical qualities to it. He like Augustine was to side with a symbolic interpretation of the millennium.
Secondly, there is the postmillennial stance which holds firmly to the concept that the Kingdom of God is now in force and is being extended towards it fulfilment. Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit the world will be evangelised and ultimately Christianised.
This will all culminate with the return of Christ at the close of a long period of peace and righteousness called the millennium. Thus the world will become a more Christlike place in which to live and evil although it will not be totally obliterated will however be bought under submission to a point where it is negligible. This will be followed by a brief period of apostasy just prior to the advent of Christ during which Satan will let be free.
Again Augustine is credited with holding this position, as mentioned earlier the amillennialists claim to have him among their authoritative experts. However Augustine did in fact teach that the millennium had already began and was to be seen as the entire period of man’s history. This was also a view held by other theologians of the past such as Jonathan Edwards who writes, “this work will be accomplished by means, by the preaching of the gospel, and the use of the ordinary means of grace, and so shall be gradually bought to pass”.
Edwards explains that some will be converted and be used to bring others to faith just as Daniel 2:3 prophecies. Likewise he uses the illustration of the mustard seed in Matthew 13 to show that it will be out of the smallest of nations that the Kingdom of heaven will grow. Quoting Zechariah, Edwards points to a glorious revival through the pouring out of the Holy Spirit.
This is in sharp contrast to premillennialism which would sees the world as not being won for Christ during the present time, rather seeing the millennium as coming after the advent of Christ (of which will be dealt with shortly).
Postmillennialists hold to a similar view with regards to the binding of Satan as the Amillennialists. It will be a figurative binding in which his powers to sway the church and individuals from understanding the gospel will be limited.
In contrast to the fulfilling of the promises to Israel in a spiritual manner (Amillennial), the Postmillennial view is that God has no special place for Israel and that Old Testament prophecies about Israel apply to the church.
Thus the order of events for the postmillennial position would be: “a golden age of increasing righteousness; a brief apostasy; three and a half years of Great Tribulation; the personal return of Christ; the general resurrection of the dead; the last judgment; and the eternal state”.
Finally, there is what has been commonly been called premillennialism. So complex is the series of events that Appendix A has been attached which lists a complete chronological set of events of the last times.
Without a doubt an area where premillennialism strongly disagrees with the other two positions is over the interpretation of Scripture. While both the Amillennial and Postmillennial camps are satisfied to own an allegorical or symbolic interpretation of the Revelation 20 passage and others, premillennialist's hold to a literal one thousand years and a literal confining of Satan to the abyss or pit.
The Didache for instance writes of a time when false prophets and lawlessness will abound, to be followed by a time during which the Antichrist will deceive the world with wonders and signs. This sounds clearly like the period of the Great Tribulation as expected by the premillennialist's.
Clouse notes that during history there has always been a definite leaning to one of the three positions outlined here. Premillennialism was for the first three centuries the predominant view.
Premillennialism has been divided into two distinct streams with historical premillennialism being the predominant view held up until the second half of the nineteenth century when a new form was introduced and articulated by J.N. Darby. This was to be called dispensational premillennialism. For the purpose of this essay the main thrust will be looking at historic premillennialism but it is important to note that the dispensationalist (see Appendix B.) position divides Christ’s return into two phases and places a big emphasis on the conversion of Israel. This will become evident in it’s importance when the view of the millennium and the mission of the church will be looked at later in the essay.
One main point of contrast of the three positions A, Post and Premillennial is that the latter divides the resurrection into two phases. This can be seen in the series of events outlined in Appendix A. It has been noted earlier that both the Amillennialist's and the Postmillennialist's hold that there will be only one general resurrection at which all the believers and unbelievers will be raised.
The premillennialist's see the world gradually disintegrating as it travels towards the time of Great Tribulation. In this amillennialism agrees with premillennialism that the Scriptures do not promise the conversion of the world through the preaching of the gospel. Yet it agrees with postmillennialism that the coming of Christ ushers in the last judgement and the eternal state.
There is also agreement between Amillennialism and Premillennialism that the return of Christ is imminent, however the postmillennialist's hold that Christ cannot return until the world is converted or at lest the majority has come to accept Christ as Lord.
Signs are another important element of the Premillennial view point as they would expect the rise of the Antichrist and the Great Tribulation to occur prior to the millennium being ushered in.
As for Israel, it has already been seen that the Amillennialist's would hold to a spiritualising of the promises to Israel while the Postmillennialist's sees no special place for Israel as distinct from the church.
Turning now to what place Israel holds in the theology of the premillennialist it is found that they are divided over this issue. Some asserting that no future is to be found for national Israel while others see a distinction between prophecy directed to the nation of Israel and prophecy directed to Israel as the people of God (the church).
To try and bring some kind of order to this it becomes important to highlight the major points over which there is disagreement between the three positions.
In summary, there is disagreement over the interpretation of the passage (literal or not), the fate of Satan, the fate of Jews and if and when they will be saved, whether there will in fact be a millennium at all, the number and timing of the resurrections, the time of Christ's return and the future of the church (does it gradually grow like the mustard seed or will the world gradually overtake the church).
It is now to this latter aspect that the thrust of this essay will turn. How will their view of the millennium affect their view of the mission of the church?
Robert Clouse points out that an individual who takes a premillennial view will generally be more pessimistic about society. As the only hope for the world lies in the second coming of Christ they tend to try and read the signs of the time and to bring about certain things in an effort to hasten the day.
This is especially evident with the dispensational emphasis on the need for the evangelisation of the Jewish people.
Social action for instance is for the premillennialist low on their agenda because they see no hope for the lost of humankind in this world. They would tend to hold a low view of the Kingdom of God and it’s presence in the world to day, preferring to save a persons soul but failing to save the person from social injustice and oppression.
From personal experience it has been seen in this authors local church that the vast majority of members over the years have held a strong dispensational position and have as a result been big on the second coming but have failed historically to evangelise and build into the church the lost and hopeless.
This was also evident in a major inner city Sydney Baptist church which had held a strong premillennial view and was eventually closed due to becoming irevelant in it's context. This church meet for only one and half hours each Sunday and had no social action with the community in which it was located. Instead the emphasis was on saving the soul or calling them to judgement so as hasten the day of the Lord’s return.
This attitude is in contrast to the dual aspects of the Kingdom of God. The here and not yet element holds the secret for Holistic ministry not just as a service to human souls.
Premillennialist's also tend towards a separatist view of the church. Holding that it is contaminating to have contact with culture and thus would avoid learning of the Arts etc.
In contrast those of the postmillennial persuasion see the world as a mission field in which to work, evangelise and build people into the church. The fact that they see evil being gradually overcome by Christ means they are much more optimistic in their outlook and more inclined to become involved in social action and to take stands against oppression and inequality.
When looking at the Eighth Century prophets the theme of failing to stand for the oppressed was held as one of the reasons for the judgement of the nations and Israel alike.
Amillennialism like Premillennialism has the inherent problem of a very pessimistic view of life and as such would suffer some of the inadequacies of premillenniumism.
Interestingly, Albert Schweitzer held to the Amillennial position and believed that Jesus would reveal himself to those who would obey his commands. His view of Christ although somewhat distorted however pushed him towards mission to the underprivileged and lost.
It is the inaugurated eschatology held by many Amillennialist's that can give hope for the church of today. The now and not yet aspect of the kingdom of God points the church towards it’s responsibility to not only save a persons soul but to carry out Holistic ministry here on this earth while we wait for the Lord’s return.
It would appear that the position that has the most to offer in today’s world with a view to ministry is the one that allows the Old Testament teaching of social justice and the New Testament command to take the gospel to all the nations.
It could be said in conclusion, that if a proper detailed analysis of the mission of the different churches in any country and their view of the millennium were to be carried out, the success that that church had in fulfilling the great commission would be intricately tied their millennial view point.