Virtually all who espouse amillennialism embrace the principles articulated in our lesson on the Historic or Non-Dispensational view of the Kingdom of God. Therefore, what follows is built upon the understanding of the people of God and the kingdom as outlined in that study.
A. A Definition of Amillennialism
Amillennialism (hereafter cited as AM) has suffered greatly in the past because of its seeming negative character. In other words, definitions of AM have focused more upon what the view denies (namely, a personal, earthly reign of Christ) than on what it affirms. In order best to counter this negativism, the definition of AM presented here will concentrate on its fundamental affirmations concerning eschatological truth. They are as follows:
1. Contrary to what the name (Amillennialism) implies, AMs do believe in a millennium. The millennium, however, is now: the present age of the church between the first and second comings of Christ in its entirety is the millennium. Therefore, while the AM does deny the Premillennial belief in a personal, literal reign of Christ upon the earth for 1,000 years following His second coming, he affirms that there is a millennium and that Christ rules. However, this messianic reign is not necessarily for a literal 1,000 years and it is wholly spiritual (non-earthly, non-visible) in nature. “This millennial reign is not something to be looked for in the future;” writes Hoekema, “it is going on now, and will be until Christ returns. Hence the term realized millennialismis an apt description of the view here defended--if it is remembered that the millennium in question is not an earthly but a heavenly reign,” (The Bible and the Future, p. 235).
2. As to the precise character of this spiritual rule of Christ, AMs differ:
(a) Some contend that the millennium is restricted to the blessings of the intermediate state; i.e., the millennium as described in Rev. 20:4-6 refers to the present reign of the souls of deceased believers with Christ in heaven. Others would go a step further and restrict the experience of the millennial blessings to the “martyrs” now in heaven with Christ (i.e., those who were slain while on the earth by reason of their testimony for Christ and the gospel).
(b) Other AMs interpret the millennium as encompassing all the inward spiritual triumphs experienced by the church on earth (i.e., Christ ruling in the believer’s heart). By far the more common form of AM is the first alternative under (a).
3. As a direct corollary to ‘2’ above, AM maintains that there will, therefore, be no millennium in the sense of a semi-golden era of earthly prosperity for the kingdom before Christ returns. There will be no visible earthly expression of Christ’s reign over the world as a whole; the church will not make disciples of all (i.e., the vast majority) nations, nor will it gain a dominant or widespread influence throughout the world. Thus it is here, and for all practical purposes only here, that AM differs from Postmillennialism.
4. According to the AM, there will be a parallel and contemporaneous development of good and evil in the world which will continue until the second coming of Christ. As Hoekema says,
“despite the fact that Christ has won a decisive victory over sin and evil, the kingdom of evil will continue to exist alongside of the kingdom of God until the end of the world,” (Ibid., 174).
At the end of the age there will emerge an intensified form of tribulation and apostasy as well as a personal antichrist (the AM, however, does not identify this period of tribulation with Daniel’s 70th Week, as does the Dispensational Premillennialist, nor does he define its purpose as having anything to do with the restoration of national theocratic Israel. It should be noted, however, that some AMs do believe in a mass salvation of ethnic Israel at the end of the age). Christ’s return at the close of this period will synchronize with the general resurrection and general judgment of all men, believers and unbelievers alike, to be followed immediately by the eternal state (i.e., the new heavens and the new earth). In other words, here is the major point of difference between the AM and Premillennialist: the former denies whereas the latter affirms an earthly, visible rule of Christ for 1,000 years between His second coming and the final resurrection, judgment, and introduction of the eternal state.
B. Other Distinctives of Amillennialism
1. The Interpretation of OT Prophecy
Traditionally, all OT prophecies which seem to teach an earthly kingdom were understood by AM not as pointing to future, literal realities, but rather were to be interpreted figuratively. I.e., they describe spiritual blessings now being fulfilled in the church. Recently, however, Anthony Hoekema has popularized (although he did not invent) a view which takes a more serious, or should I say more literal, perspective concerning these prophecies. Concerning such OT texts, Hoekema writes:
“Dispensationalists commonly say that we amillennialists spiritualize prophecies of this kind by understanding them as being fulfilled either in the church of this present age or in heaven in the age to come. I believe, however, that prophecies of this sort refer neither primarily to the church of this age nor to heaven, but to the new earth. The concept of the new earth is therefore of great importance for the proper approach to Old Testament prophecy. All too often, unfortunately, amillennial exegetes fail to keep biblical teaching on the new earth in mind when interpreting Old Testament prophecy. It is an impoverishment of the meaning of these passages to make them apply only to the church or to heaven. But it is also an impoverishment to make them refer to a thousand-year period preceding the final state. They must be understood as inspired descriptions of the glorious new earth God is preparing for his people,” (Ibid., 205-06).
2. The Interpretation of the Book of Revelation
Most AMs interpret the book of Revelation according to what is called progressive parallelism. “According to this view, the book of Revelation consists of seven sections which run parallel to each other, each of which depicts the church and the world from the time of Christ’s first coming to the time of his second,” (Clouse, The Meaning of the Millennium, pp. 156-57). This has also been called the Recapitulation view, meaning that the structure of Revelation does not relate consecutive events but frequently covers the same ground from different perspectives.
The 7 sections are: (1) chps. 1-3; (2) chps. 4-7; (3) chps. 8-11; (4) chps. 12-14; (5) chps. 15-16; (6) chps. 17-19; (7) chps. 20-22. Therefore, according to this view Revelation 20:1 is not to be thought of as following in chronological order chapter 19 (which describes the Second Coming of Christ). Rather, it takes us back once again to the beginning of the NT era and recapitulates the entire present age. By doing this the AM is able to interpret (a) the binding of Satan in Rev. 20:1-3 as having occurred during our Lord’s earthly ministry, and (b) the 1,000 year reign (i.e., the millennium) of Rev. 20:4-6 as describing in symbolic language the entire inter-advent age in which we now live. Therefore, the thousand-year period is no literal piece of history; it is a symbolic number coextensive with the history of the church on earth between the resurrection of Christ and his return.
Addendum on Covenant Theology
This note on Covenant Theology should not be taken as an assertion that all AMs are Covenant Theologians. In point of fact, there are Covenant Premillennialists and non-Covenant Amillennialists (although admittedly the latter are rare).
The word “covenant” denotes a compact or agreement between two parties, mutually binding them to certain responsibilities, each one to the other. In Covenant Theology the whole of Scripture is read and understood as being an expression of two such covenants: (1) the covenant of works, and 2) the covenant of grace.
I. The Covenant of Works- the two parties in the covenant of works were God and Adam. The promise was life; the stipulation was obedience; the penalty of failure was death.
II. The Covenant of Grace- as we know, Adam fell. To save men from the consequences of his disobedience, a second covenant came into effect, one planned from all eternity: the covenant of grace. In this covenant there are two aspects, one God-ward, one man-ward.
(1) The God-ward, or divinely oriented aspect of the covenant of grace is often called the Covenant of Redemption. In this covenant the parties involved are God the Father, God the Son, and God the HS. The Father contracted with the Son to secure unto Him an elect company of people out of the fallen mass of humanity; the Son contracted with the Father to secure for the elect all the unfulfilled obligations of the covenant of works, i.e., obedience to the precept of the law and suffering of the penalty of the law; and the HS contracted to apply the redemption secured by the Son to those elected by the Father and to generally oversee the administration of the covenant in all its parts.
(2) There is also a man-ward aspect to the covenant of grace, wherein the parties are God and the believer. The promise of the covenant is eternal life; the stipulation is repentance and faith, a repentance and faith, it should be noted, which Christ has secured for his people in the discharge of his responsibility to the Father under the Covenant of Redemption. Thus Berkhof defines the Covenant of Grace as “that gracious agreement between the offended God and the offending but elect sinner, in which God promises salvation through faith in Christ, and the sinner accepts this believingly, promising a life of faith and obedience,” (Systematic Theology, p. 277).
Covenant Theology understands the “dispensations” (in the non-technical sense of that term) of Scripture as but phases of the one purpose of God expressed in the covenant of grace. In other words, the dispensations or historical periods of the Bible are to be seen as different and progressive applications of that one all-governing, determinative covenant. Berkhof explains:
“On the basis of all that has been said it is preferable to follow the traditional lines by distinguishing just two dispensations or administrations, namely, that of the Old, and that of the New Testament; and to subdivide the former into several periods or states in the revelation of the covenant of grace,” (Ibid., p. 293).
Thus the biblical covenants such as those with Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David are simply historical developments, varying forms of administration, or phases of the one eternal covenant of grace as defined above. Thus, in effect, the Covenant Theologian argues that God has one central purpose, the salvation of the elect, and that all the dispensations are essentially the fulfillment of this purpose.
An effective way to illustrate or better define Covenant Theology is to consider the emphasis that its adherents place on the unity of the covenant, especially as reflected in the doctrine of infant baptism. As mentioned, the covenant theologian believes that throughout the Bible the covenant of grace is one, a unity, all the while recognizing the many variations and expressions in the administration of it. The most significant of these “administrations” in the OT was that which took effect via God’s relationship with Abraham (the Abrahamic Covenant). In that covenant God contracted with Abraham to be a God to him and his seed forever. The sign and seal, i.e., the visible ratification of the covenant, was physical circumcision, much as the ring is the seal and token of the marriage covenant between man and wife. The next step in the argument is obvious:
There is but one covenant of grace, administered in the OT as the Abrahamic covenant; administered in the NT as the New covenant. The sign and seal of the covenant of grace in the old dispensation was circumcision. The sign and seal of the covenant of grace in the new dispensation is baptism. Circumcision was administered to infants in the old, therefore baptism should be administered to infants in the new. In summary, the one covenant of grace is thought to stand above/outside history and is reflected/expressed in the historical covenants. Since infants were included in the Abrahamic administration of the covenant of grace, why should they not be included in the new administration of that same covenant?