We Can't All Be Panmillennial
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. Exact details become strikingly debatable (and publishable). 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.
Why is our eschatology important? Can't we just be "panmillennialists"—you know, those who believe everything will pan out in the end?
I'm tempted to say, yes, we can just be "panmillennialists" on the assumption 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 be united 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 what we should be expecting) 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 naysayers 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's 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's 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.
How should local churches handle this issue? Should they require agreement for membership? For eldership?
I believe the only requirement for church membership related to eschatology is confessing 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 bounds of evangelical orthodoxy. They certainly wouldn't be granted membership at Bridgeway Church, where I serve. As for elders, I'd 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 on 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.
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 my views on the Olivet Discourse (Mark 13) were my own and didn't necessarily represent the other elders or pastoral staff. When I've taught our membership classes I communicate that you 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 not "demonize" those who might differ from me.
What are the most significant weaknesses of the premillennial view and why?
That question calls for an entire book! Briefly, once I began to look into this issue more closely I was increasingly unable to reconcile what the New Testament 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 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 became ever more clear to me that this event marks the end of physical death as well as the bodily resurrection and final judgment of all humanity (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 now believe is a superior way of interpreting chapter 20, especially verses 1-6. Of course, much of my book is devoted to unpacking these very themes.
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 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—undermine amillennialism. But I try to demonstrate in Kingdom Come that this isn't the case. I suppose the "weakest points" of amillennialism, to use your term, 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 consistent with amillennialism. The reader will have to be the final judge on whether I accomplish my goal!
Are there any inherent practical implications of amillennialism that differ from other millennial stances?
I'd hope anyone of any millennial persuasion who has his or her hope fixed on Christ's coming might experience the sin-killing and sanctifying influence such an expectation is designed to produce. That being said, a couple areas deserve mention.
For example, there are probably some practical differences between postmillennialists on the one hand and all other millennial views on the other. If one believes Jesus 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, then certain lifestyle decisions and political agendas might be pursued that Christians of other millennial persuasions would find unacceptable or at least unwise.
I think also of those within the postmillennial camp who believe the persecution of Christians and their consequent suffering will progressively diminish as we approach Christ's coming. Believing suffering is here to stay—and likely to intensify as time passes—will have significant practical implications for how we live and pray and eventually respond to what our Christian witness entails.
Moreover, 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 premillennialists—with their views on the rights, status, and future of national Israel—might set them apart from amillennialists and even from many (if not most) historical premillennialists.
But I hope and pray all Christians, regardless of their millennial convictions, might unite in our common witness to the blessed hope of our Lord's soon return.
Editor's Note: See also Storms's TGC article, "Why I Changed My Mind About the Millennium."