Revelations: Millenial Interpretations

Posted by Pastor Greg Allen on February 8, 2003 under Ask the Pastor | Be the First to Comment

A visitor to our website asks:

Question: What are all the views and the Biblical backing for the three main views (premillennial, postmillennial, and dispensational) on how the book of Revelation is interpreted, and what, in your opinion, is the correct view on this topic?


Dear friend,

Let’s start by fine-tuning your question just a little. I think that what you’re asking about is the main approaches to understanding the Bible’s teaching about the end-times, and about Jesus’ future reign. There are mainly three views: amillennialism, postmillennialism, and premillennialism. The thing they all have in common is “-millennialism”, because they’re all concerned with how we understand the millennial (1,000-year) reign of Jesus as it’s described in the Bible (particularly Revelation 20).

You mentioned “dispensationalism” as one of these. To be accurate, dispensationalism is not a view of the millennium in the same sense as these others, but is a system of interpretation of the Bible. Dispensationalists have two main distinctives: they seek to be consistently literal in their interpretation of Bible prophecy, and they see the Church and Israel as two distinct entities. Dispensationalism, then, sees several distinguishable “economies” or “dispensations” in the outworking of God’s plan of redemption; and it sees them unified by the common principle of grace. (Most dispensationalists today see seven such “dispensations” in the Bible: (1) Innocence (in the garden of Eden), (2) Conscience (after the fall), (3) Human Government (after the flood), (4) Promise (after the call of Abraham), (5) Law (after the law was given through Moses), (6) Grace (after the sacrifice of Jesus), and (7) Kingdom (after Jesus’ return). Dispensationalists argue that, if someone is consistent in interpreting the prophecies of the Bible literally, they will be Premillennialists. But the point is that “dispensationalism” should be seen as a distinct thing from the others you mentioned.

Now, let’s talk about those three views of the millennial reign of Jesus. All three are held by competent Bible scholars who reverence the Scriptures. The first one we mentioned is “amillennialism”. This is a name that’s a bit confusing; because the “a-” in amillennialsm suggests that those who hold this view believe that there is no millennial reign of Jesus. Actually, those who hold this view believe that Jesus’ kingdom reign is happening right now. They would say that Revelation 20:4-6 describes Jesus’ present reign of the souls of deceased believers in heaven. The name “amillennialism” is meant to distinguish a view that does not believe there will be a “literal” earthly reign, but only a spiritual one.

Next would be “postmillennialism”. As the prefix “post-” would suggest, this is the view that believes that Jesus’ return to earth occurs after the millennium. That, at first, sounds confusing; but the idea behind this view is that the Kingdom of God is now being expanded throughout the whole world through the preaching of the Gospel, and the work of Gospel missionaries. This view teaches that, progressively, the world will become “Christianized”, which will lead to a long period of unprecedented peace and righteousness on the earth. Following this period of Christian “peace on earth”, Jesus will return to establish a new heaven and a new earth. Postmillennialists do not take the 1,000 years literally; but believe the “1,000 years” is a symbolic way of describing the long, undefined period of peace and righteousness that proceeds Jesus’ return.

The third view would be “premillennialism”; and as you might guess, the prefix “pre-” suggests that, in this view, Jesus’ return is seen as occurring “before” the millennial reign on earth. Jesus return is the event that marks the beginning of this 1,000 year reign. In this view, evil in the world is understood to grow worse and worse until it becomes embodied in a world-ruler named the Antichrist. The Antichrist and his forces are destroyed by the literal return of Jesus Christ to earth; and His return is immediately followed by His literal 1,000 year reign (see Revelation 19-20). There are two branches of this view. One is “historic premillennialsm”, which does not believe in a strict distinction between the church and Israel, and which does not demand a consistent literal interpretation of prophecy. The other is “dispensational premillennialsm”, which does maintain a distinction between the church and Israel, and does seek to be consistently literal in the interpretation of prophecy.

Now that you have a rough overview of the differences between these views, let’s talk about how they impact the Book of Revelation. Amillennialsim tends to see Revelation in strictly “symbolic” or “idealist” terms. Because it holds that the Kingdom reign of Jesus Christ is occurring right now, it sees Revelation as symbolically describing the ongoing struggle in spiritual realms between the Kingdom of God and the kingdom of evil.

Postmillennialism, because it sees the Kingdom of God as being progressively expanded and established by the victorious spread of the Gospel, tends to see the Book of Revelation in symbolic terms as well. Many postmillennialists are “preterist” in their approach (from the Latin word “preter” which means “past” or “beyond”) – that is, they believe that Revelation does not describe future events, but rather describes events that have already occurred in the first century, particularly the fall of Jerusalem to the Romans in 70 AD; at which point the spread of the Gospel throughout the world began. Others take a “historist” approach – that is, they believe that Revelation describes a record of church history in allegorical form.

Premillennialists, because they are generally “literal” in their interpretation, tend to be “futurist” in their approach to Revelation – that is, they believe that it primarily describes literal, “future” events.

I suppose no other book of the Bible is approached in so many different ways. And I think that, in certain places in Revelation, each of those various approaches has validity. I believe, for example, that some portions of Revelation do indeed give us a panoramic view of the history of the church; and that other portions are highly symbolic; and that still other portions were time-bound to the Apostle John’s own day. But I am a dispensational premillennialist in my approach to Bible prophecy; and I believe that the “literal/futurist” approach is the most sensible way to approach Revelation.

I believe that an important interpretive “key” that unlocks so much of Revelation is found in Jesus’ words to the apostle John in Revelation 1:19. Jesus told him, “Write the things which you have seen, and the things which are, and the things which will take place after this.” The “things which you have seen” would most naturally be the things John just saw – namely the vision of Jesus described in 1:9-20. The “things which are” would seem to be the things Jesus says in His seven letters to the seven churches in chapters 2-3. And the “things which will take place after this” would be the things that begin to be mentioned in Chapter 4 and go all the way to the end of the book. (You’ll notice that, in 4:1, John is given a vision of a door standing open in heaven; and he is told, “Come up here, and I will show you things which must take place after this.” What seems to follow is a panoramic view of future events.)

Let me add one more comment on approaching the Book of Revelation. Whenever we read or study this book, we should always keep in mind that its great theme is a wonderful Person – Jesus Christ. It is the “revelation” of Jesus in all His glorious majesty (1:1). We should never let the details distract us from Him. The approach to this book should always be a profoundly reverent one; and it seems to me that the right approach is the one that leads us to a greater sense of worship of Jesus’ majesty. An angel told John, near the end of this book, “Worship God! For the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy” (Rev. 19:10). I think it’s very wise to keep that in mind.

I hope that all of this will encourage you to read Revelation for yourself often. Personally, it’s one of my favorite books of the Bible.

Yours in Christ,

Pastor Greg

(All Scripture quotes are taken from the New King James Version.)

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