Who Cares What View of the Millennium You Have, Right?
Jun 18, 2012 by Craig Blomberg | 3 Comments
“I saw thrones on which were seated those who had been given authority to judge. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony about Jesus and because of the word of God. They had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years.” (Rev. 20:4)
“What view of the millennium do you hold?” the one seminarian asked another one. “Panmillennialism” came the reply. “What? I’ve never heard of that one,” the first student countered. “You know,” the other one answered, “it’s the belief that it’ll all pan out in the end.”
Many Americans think that way today, whether or not they’ve actually heard this very old joke. But not in Korea. I just returned from being one of four plenary speakers at the “International Scholarly Conference on Historic Premillennialism,” held at a major Christian conference center in Seoul last week. Sounds like a real yawner, right? Think again. 1500 people crammed into a 1200-seat auditorium and 500 more were turned away at the door (though at least they got the book with the printed text of the four plenary papers and two responses). 90% were pastors from all the major evangelical denominations and churches around the country.
Why such interest? Korean Christians have been burned multiple times by the Harold-Kamping-like date-setters, all of whom have been dispensationalists convinced that they could see the fulfillment of Revelation in current events. (Will Christians ever learn to stop making such predictions?) Amillennailism and postmillennialism are perceived as foreign imports, sometimes also associated with theological liberalism. (Never mind that all of Christianity is a theological import to Korea, but the early missionaries were primarily historic premillennialists so later arrivals seem more foreign to them.) But today, because Presbyterianism is the largest denomination in Korea, more and more Koreans studying abroad are going to schools like Westminster where they get “corrupted” by amillennialism. Korean Presbyterians counter by pointing out that Calvin just inherited amillennialism from Catholicism, didn’t give it much thought, and therefore it never got reformed like it should have.
If today’s Americans in general underestimate the significance of the millennial question, and Koreans in general possibly overestimate it, is there a balance? I think there is. We need not divide in fellowship or ministry over the issue, but if the church age is the millennium (as in classic amil), then this is as good as it gets, short of the eternal state. Had the early church felt that way, Christianity might never have spread to become the world-influencing religion that it became. It was really only after Catholicism was well entrenched in the Roman empire and especially due to the writings of Augustine that “amil” became the prevailing view in Christianity.
Not surprisingly, the great century of missions in the nineteenth-century was motivated by a lot of postmillennialism, but the horrors of the world wars, genocides, and record numbers of Christian martyrs in the twentieth century made that view seem overly optimistic. At the popular level, dispensationalism has prevailed in the last half-century thanks to the fiction and pseudo-fiction of Hal Lindsey, Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, and now Joel Rosenberg. Yet each decade of dispensationalists suffers from collective amnesia as all the false prophecies of who would be the antichrist and what specifics would usher in Armageddon of the last round of popular writers is quickly forgotten when the next round emerges. It’s sure good for such authors that we no longer stone false prophets in the New Testament age. But we really should stop listening to them and buying their tapes and books!
Historic premillennialism is the one eschatological system that adequately accounts for the amazing growth of the church and the advancement of God’s kingdom on earth through Christians filled with the Holy Spirit, while at the same time not playing down the power of the evil forces amassed against us. The millennium is not the same as this present age, nor will it come about prior to Christ’s return, but neither do we have to view the world as a sinking ship with no task left but to save as many people from it as possible. If we really take seriously that no one knows when Christ will return, we will stop making even the vague, pious-sounding remarks like, “but I’ll be surprised if it doesn’t happen at least within my kids’ lifetime.” The moment Jesus comes back there will never again be the possibility of any person’s conversion, so we really shouldn’t be that eager for the end to come. Who in the first century could ever have begun to envision a tiny fraction of the good Christians would do and the major world faith into which Christianity would turn? If God wants to give us another two thousand years to replicate that process again, we should rejoice.
As Leith Anderson once put it nicely, God is the only omniscient being; Satan is not. Satan doesn’t know the time of the end any more than we do, which means he has to have an antichrist ready in every generation. Little wonder every generation of Christians has been able to speculate that the end could occur in their day. To date 100% of all such speculations have proved wrong. That unbroken track record really should inspire much greater humility in all those who are so sure it’s happening in our lifetime or soon thereafter. If God so decrees it, then praise be to him, and we will welcome his intervention. If he doesn’t, it’s because we’ve still got too much work to do here, with his empowerment, so let’s get on with doing it!