Where do the Dead go? Another Problem for Premillennialism
More needs to be said about the difficulties presented by the premillennial belief that physical death will continue beyond the time of the second coming of Christ. Continue reading . . .
More needs to be said about the difficulties presented by the premillennial belief that physical death will continue beyond the time of the second coming of Christ. Let’s be sure, once again, that we understand what is necessarily entailed by all forms of premillennialism, whether dispensational, historical, or other. Premillennialists believe that during the 1,000 year earthly reign of Christ following his second coming (the existence of which I concede here only for the sake of argument!), there will be countless men, women, and children living on the earth in their natural physical bodies. These people are typically seen as coming from one of two groups, or perhaps both.
On the one hand, perhaps not all unbelievers are killed when Christ returns in triumph at the battle of Armageddon. Those who survive this war will thus enter the millennium in their natural, physical, unglorified bodies. Aside from the fact that Revelation 19:11-21 appears to say that all enemies of Christ are destroyed at the time of the second coming (something Paul appears to affirm in 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10), how could they be permitted to enter into an alleged phase of the kingdom of God that is designed for the blessing of God’s people and the promotion of righteousness?
On the other hand, some premillennialists argue that many will be converted at the time of Christ’s second coming but will not be resurrected or glorified at that time. They will remain in their natural bodies and enter the millennial kingdom susceptible to the presence of disease and death. It really matters little, for our present purpose, how they make their way into the millennium. The only relevant issue is that premillennialism requires that there be people living on the millennial earth in their natural, unglorified bodies.
The reason for insisting that unglorified, mortal people will enter the millennial kingdom is that the premillennialist believes that a massive, global rebellion by unregenerate men and women will occur at the close of the millennium (Rev. 20:7-10). Thus there must have been present during this 1,000 year period a significant number of people (whether regenerate or unregenerate) who marry, reproduce, and whose descendants remain in unbelief and are present at the close of the millennium, susceptible to Satan’s deception and thus participants in his final rebellion.
This, however, is not my primary concern (as problematic as it is). What concerns me is the presence on earth during this alleged millennial reign of men, women, and children who are born anew and come to saving faith in Christ. After all, Jesus is himself personally and physically present on the earth during this time. No premillennialist of whom I am aware has ever denied that men and women will be saved during the millennial reign of Christ. Of course, I have also argued that this, too, is problematic, in that the NT consistently portrays this present church age as the time of salvation, a time and opportunity for repentance and faith that ends when Christ appears. But I digress.
Our Lord, so they say, will be personally present in his resurrected and glorified body. Gone are the days of his humiliation and weakness. Gone are the days when people wondered at his identity or mocked his teachings. Gone are the days when an argument could be made that there was insufficient evidence to support his claims. Jesus will be bodily and visibly present to all, his omnipotent power and divine nature fully and unmistakably revealed (so says the premillennialist). All people will have immediate access to the undeniable proof that he is who he claimed to be. There will be no doubt or ambiguity as to the meaning of Scripture that bears witness to him. There will be no question as to the way in which he fulfills the Old Testament prophecies regarding a coming Messiah. I say all this simply to remind us that if the premillennialist is correct (and again I only concede that he is for the sake of argument), it is difficult to understand how anyone would not come to saving faith while standing for a lifetime in his glorified presence. In any case, all premillennialists admit that many, if not all, will come to faith.
My question is this: What becomes of these born again believers who die physically during the millennial age? The premillennialist insists that conditions will prevail during the millennium such that physical life will be unusually prolonged, much as it was in the days preceding the flood of Noah. Be that as it may, physical death will still occur. So what becomes of those who die in faith? Where do they go? What do they experience?
The apostle Paul makes it clear in both Philippians 1 and 2 Corinthians 5 that when a believer dies he/she immediately enters the presence of Christ. To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. We rejoice in knowing that our friends and family who know Christ and have died are now with him in what theologians refer to as the intermediate state. They are even now in the presence of their Savior, gathered around the throne of the Lamb in festive worship and celebration (Hebrews 12; Revelation 4-5).
But during the so-called millennial age, Jesus is not in heaven. He’s on earth. So where are those who have died during this time period? Are we to envision them continuing to exist in a disembodied state, floating around, as it were, somewhere in the vicinity of the earth where Christ is physically present? Will their presence be known and seen by those who are still in their physical, unglorified bodies? What relationship will they sustain to believers who are on the earth in their resurrected, glorified bodies? Or will these who have died in faith during the millennium be escorted into some heavenly realm, away from Christ, there to await the final resurrection of the body?
Some premillennialists may respond by insisting that each time a born again man or woman dies during the millennial age he/she immediately receives a resurrection body. In other words, they do not wait for the final resurrection of the dead as described in Revelation 20:11-15 but are, upon their physical deaths, instantly resurrected and glorified and thus live with Christ on the millennial earth together with others who have already received their glorified bodies.
But if that is what will happen, we must then conclude that countless thousands, perhaps even millions, of bodily resurrections are occurring all through the 1,000 years of the millennial kingdom! I have argued elsewhere that the NT appears to argue for a single, unified, consummate resurrection for all mankind, both believers and unbelievers. Premillennialists, on the other hand, must embrace the existence of multiple resurrections. Pretribulational premillennialists believe that some are resurrected at the time of the Rapture, another resurrection occurs at the second coming, seven years later, and yet another resurrection at the close of the millennial age. Historic premillennialists must affirm at least two resurrections: one at the second coming of Christ, before the millennium, and another at the close of the millennium, prior to the final judgment.
But we now see that if premillennialism is true, there may well be thousands, if not millions, of bodily resurrections happening all the time, throughout the course of this millennial age, each and every time a Christian passes away.
Is it not evident that premillennialism necessarily entails a scenario that is simply bizarre, not to mention without biblical warrant? Is it really the case that the Bible teaches an earthly reign of Christ in which millions of physically dead believers hover in his presence, strangely mingling with physically alive unregenerate people, as well as physically alive but unglorified regenerate people, as well as resurrected and glorified people? For the premillennialist, the alternative to this bizarre and unbiblical scenario, as noted, is to assert, without the slightest hint in the Scriptures, that untold multitudes of individual bodily resurrections occur repeatedly throughout the “millennial” age as believers continue to die physically.
If you are finding it difficult to make sense of this, that is precisely what happens when you embrace premillennialism! This eschatological system necessarily entails such bizarre and unbiblical ad hoc developments and explanations that it stretches credulity beyond the breaking point.