We Can't All Be Panmillennial
I was recently interviewed by Matt Smethurst concerning my new book, Kingdom Come: The Amillennial Alternative (Christian Focus). The interview was posted today on the website of The Gospel Coalition (www.thegospelcoalition.org). Here it is.
We Can't All Be Panmillenial
One day, heaven's risen and reigning King will return—suddenly, physically, triumphantly—to the earth he made. He will extend justice to his enemies and mercy to his ex-enemies. All things will be made new. So Christians have always hoped and believed.
But here the consensus screeches to a halt. . . . Will Jesus secretly snatch away his church seven years prior to his climactic return? Will his return launch a 1,000-year earthly reign before the final judgment and eternal state? Or is the so-called millennium happening now via his heavenly reign? And if so, should we expect the world to become largely "Christianized" before he comes, or not?
In his new book, Kingdom Come: The Amillennial Alternative (Christian Focus, 2013), former premillennialist Sam Storms makes a substantial case for amillennialism—the belief that, among other things, the 1,000 years of Revelation 20 symbolize the reign of Christ and his people throughout the present church age. Regardless of your position, Storms has produced a careful and comprehensive volume that deserves serious consideration.
I corresponded with Storms, lead pastor for preaching and vision of Bridgeway Church in Oklahoma City, about panmillennialism, whether eschatology should be a test of fellowship, weaknesses in his own position, and more.
1. “Why is our eschatology important? Can't we just be "panmillenialists"—you know, those who believe everything will pan out in the end?”
I’m tempted to say, Yes, we can all just be “panmillennialists”, on the assumption that we all affirm the reality of the personal and physical return of Jesus Christ to consummate his kingdom on earth. Far too much time and energy are spent hashing out minute and ultimately unimportant details regarding events surrounding the second coming of Christ when our hearts should unite in the expectation of his return.
However, eschatology is about more than the end of history and the appearance of Jesus. It’s also about fundamental principles of interpreting Scripture, the nature and aim of our Lord’s first coming, the kingdom of God now and not yet, as well as the identity of God’s covenant people and how we should be living and with what expectations as we await our Lord’s return. Failing to grasp what Scripture says on this and other related topics has led many in church history into either fanaticism or fatalism. They become either aggressive activists who frighten Christians with end-time scenarios that have no basis in the biblical text or passive nay-sayers who miss out on the life-changing and sanctifying influence of genuine hope.
I should also mention that eschatology is so deeply and inextricably interwoven into all of Scripture that it is virtually impossible to trace the storyline of God’s redemptive purposes without understanding something of its meaning and direction. Eschatology enables us to see the unified purpose of God in summing up all things in Christ. There is something profoundly edifying and spiritually exhilarating in tracing God’s work from Genesis to Revelation and seeing how the various pieces, people, events, and books of the Bible tie together. And that’s a tall order in the absence of a basic understanding of eschatology.
2. “How should local churches handle this issue? Should they require agreement for membership? For eldership?”
I believe the only requirement for church membership is confession of the personal and physical return of Christ to consummate history. I emphasize the words “personal” and “physical” to indicate my conviction that hyper-preterists are outside the boundaries of evangelical orthodoxy. They would certainly not be granted membership at Bridgeway where I serve. As for elders, I would again call for a consensus only on the issue of the Parousia. On our board, we have differing views on the nature and timing of the rapture, as well as the millennium, and we function quite well. To make any particular eschatological view a requirement either for membership or leadership would elevate what I regard as a secondary issue to the status of primary and foundational.
3. “How should a church teach if there are diverse millennial views among its leaders?”
When I preached through Mark’s gospel I made it clear that my views on the Olivet Discourse were mine and did not necessarily represent the other Elders or the Pastoral staff. When I’ve taught our membership classes I tell them that they don’t have to agree with me to be a contributing member of this local church. My Elders and Pastors know they can disagree with me and not be in trouble. I might add that when I taught Mark 13 I made every effort to accurately represent the alternative views and was careful not to “demonize” those who might differ from me.
4. “What are the most significant weaknesses of the premillennial view and why?”
That’s a question that would call for an entire book! Briefly, once I began to look into this issue more closely I was increasingly unable to reconcile what the NT said about what happens when Jesus returns with the idea of a post-parousia, earthly millennial reign in which physical death continues to occur and where people are still able to come to saving faith in Christ and in which the natural creation remains subject to the curse, among other things. As I read about Christ’s return, it seemed ever more clear to me that this event marked the end of physical death, as well the bodily resurrection and final judgment of all mankind (both elect and non-elect), together with the inauguration of the new heavens and new earth.
Added to this was the clarity I gained on the structure of Revelation as a whole together with what I believe is a superior way of interpreting chapter twenty, especially verses 1-6. Of course, much of my book is devoted to unpacking these very themes.
5. “What do you think are the weakest points in the amillennial position, and how do you answer them in Kingdom Come?”
Contrary to what many think, I don’t believe a purported “failure to consistently interpret the Bible literally” is a shortcoming of amillennialism. Some contend that certain OT texts that appear to describe an intermediate kingdom on earth, greater than what we now know but short of the absolute perfection in the new heavens and new earth, argue against amillennialism. But I try to demonstrate in the book that this isn’t the case. I suppose the “weakest points of amillennialism,” to use your terms, would be the supposed “strongest points of premillennialism.” The latter would probably be the use of anastasis, translated “resurrection” in Revelation 20:5-6, as well as the meaning of Satan’s “binding” in 20:1-3. However, I’m not convinced by the premillennial view on these matters and I try to provide a more cogent explanation that is consistent with amillennialism. The reader will have to be the final judge on whether I accomplish my goal!
6. “Are there any inherent practical implications of amillennialism that differ from other millennial stances?”
I would hope that anyone, of any millennial persuasion, who has his or her hope fixed on the coming of Christ might experience the sin-killing and sanctifying influence that such an expectation is designed to produce. That being said, there are a couple of areas that deserve mention.
For example, there are probably some practical differences that exist between postmillennialists, on the one hand, and all other millennial views, on the other. If one believes that Christ will return to a largely “Christianized” world, and that in conjunction with this global soteriological triumph of the gospel there will be a parallel transformation of society and its many cultural expressions to reflect, in the main, biblical principles, certain life-style decisions as well as political agendas might be pursued that Christians of another millennial persuasion find unacceptable or at least unwise.
I think also of those within the postmillennial camp who believe that the persecution of Christians and their consequent suffering will progressively diminish as we approach the coming of Christ. Believing that suffering is here to stay, and will in fact likely intensify as time passes, will have significant practical implications for how we live and pray and eventually respond to what our Christian witness entails.
If one believes international political convictions and United States foreign policy decisions carry “practical implications” for how the Church fulfills its mission today, the differences between dispensational premillennialism, with its views on the rights, status, and future of national Israel, might set one apart from the amillennialist, and even from many (if not most) historical premillennialists.
But I hope and pray that all Christians, regardless of their millennial convictions, might unite in our common witness to the blessed hope of our Lord’s soon return.