The second coming belongs to the essence of the Christian faith. In the church in which I worship it is referred to in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper at every Sunday service (cf. 1 Cor. 11:26). Since it is taught throughout the NT, all Christians ought to believe it. So far as I myself am concerned, I do so gladly. Apart from it my faith would be truncated, lacking both a terminus and a goal.
But the point at issue in this ‘essay’ is not belief in the second coming as such but Jesus’ putative return to earth. During the course of my life the question has been raised on a number of occasions usually through contact with members of the (Plymouth) Brethren who for the most part are Premillennial Dispensationalists. I have always been ready to reconsider the issue and have so far drawn negative conclusions. Apart from my reading of the Bible I must admit to having been encouraged in my rejection of this position by Professor F.F.Bruce who worshipped with the Brethren to his dying day.
Just recently, however, I have been viewing videotapes and reading books by David Pawson, a well-known English Bible teacher of no ordinary ability. He both speaks and writes with ease, clarity and persuasiveness, and it is easy to be swept along by his engaging eloquence. Not surprisingly, he has a worldwide following. Some months ago I read his booklet “Expounding The Second Coming” and discovered that his views differed radically from my own. More recently, having ploughed through all 1343 pages of his “Unlocking the Bible Omnibus” I have been forcibly struck by his strong and repeated insistence on premillennialism and the physical return of Jesus to ‘planet earth’. While I acknowledge his wide reading and learning, his appreciation of the history of the people of God, his acquaintance with the geography of Palestine (Israel) and the Middle East, his Methodist background in the north of England which is similar to my own, his occasional insights which sometimes confirm my own views, and his apparent sincerity, I am convinced that his overall understanding of the plan of salvation is seriously defective. While he is very hostile towards Augustine of Hippo for leading people away from the chiliasm of the early church, it seems to me that he has nonetheless uncritically embraced the Augustinian worldview with disastrous results. As one who is firmly convinced that the most fertile source of error in theology is false covenant theology, I cannot fail to note that DP, who maintains he is a classic premillennialist but not a dispensationalist (Omnibus, p.1342), has virtually nothing to say regarding the Bible’s teaching about the covenants. While he has a fine appreciation of justification by faith and the need for holiness (sanctification), his Arminian stance leads him logically to undermine the grace and sovereignty of God. But let us return to the subject under discussion.
First, the millennium is basic to understanding Christian attitudes to the second advent, so it is important for us to orient ourselves initially by putting the issue in its usual setting. There are three main views relating to the return of Christ. Premillennialists hold that when Christ returns the dead will be raised with new (physical or material) bodies, while believers who are still alive will be raptured or caught up to meet him in the air after which they will return physically transformed to earth to reign with Christ on the throne of David in Jerusalem for a (literal?) thousand years, the millennium. After this period Satan will be released from his imprisonment in the abyss and wreak havoc among the people of God. He will eventually reach the end of his tether, be defeated and cast into the lake of fire. The Great White Throne judgement will then take place and the eternal state will be ushered in. (As I was recently reminded when I received a visit from the JW’s there are various Adventist groups who hold steadfastly to the 1,000 year reign of the glorified Christ on earth.)
Postmillennialists believe that the return of Christ will take place after the millennium, a time or golden age, when God greatly blesses the earth and its people. This view was popular in the nineteenth century when missionary outreach and social improvement went on apace. However, when the evils of the 20th century, not least WW1 and 2, upset current thinking in various quarters, postmillennialism was widely rejected. It appears to remain largely in abeyance to this day.
Amillennialists (an unfortunate term implying denial of a millennium like atheists’ denial of the existence of God) regard the millennium not as a literal thousand years but as the entire period of the church’s, and hence new covenant, influence here on earth (cf. Rev. 1:5f.; 5:10), which, having begun with Christ’s own proclamation of the kingdom, closes with his return to bring history to its pre-ordained triumphant end.
The basic problem with the millennium is the fact that at least so far as the NT is concerned it is referred to only in the highly symbolic book of Revelation and even there only in a few verses (20:2-7). This inevitably raises questions of interpretation. In view of the fact that Jesus spent much of his earthly ministry training the twelve (e.g. Mt. 5:1f.) who were to form the foundation of the church with himself as the chief cornerstone (Eph. 2:20), it seems passing strange that he omitted to tell anyone at the time, and John only (rather late in the piece almost certainly after the martyrdom of the rest of the apostles) about his return to a literal reign on earth. What is also odd is that on the assumption that John was the author of Revelation, this teaching appears to militate strongly against what he taught in his gospel (e.g. 13:3; 14:2f.;16:28). And why Paul who wrote specifically regarding the Jews in Romans 9-11 failed to mention it is a complete enigma.
Since the book of Revelation is replete with both OT and NT references and allusions, it is a reasonable deduction that it is a kind of recapitulation, or pictorial summary couched in apocalyptic terms, of the gospel as expounded in the rest of the NT. This inference would seem to be underlined by the fact that the symbolism is often hard to understand. Indeed, without a profound knowledge of the rest of Scripture much of it is clearly (that is, judging by the history of its interpretation) unintelligible. This being the case, one must have very strong reasons for believing that Revelation is teaching new truth. If it is insisted that it is, it begs the question of why Jesus failed to reveal it earlier and in more readily accessible terms. If the spirit of prophecy is the testimony of Jesus (Rev. 19:10), surely it is to be found in the rest of the NT, in the gospel as expounded by all the apostles, for whom difference of teaching, as Paul intimated, would have been a far more serious matter than difference in practice (cf. Gal.1 and 2). So, like Michael Wilcock (BST The Message of Revelation), to whom I am much indebted for my general understanding of the book of Revelation, I am convinced that the millennium, however it is conceived, must be a symbolic reflection of what has been taught earlier (cf. Eph. 2:20). In other words, I believe that during the church age, or new covenant era, Jesus is present with us in the Spirit (Mt. 28:20) and will not return in person until it is time to bring down the curtain on earthly history. Then he will dwell with his people not in ‘Egypt’, i.e. this world of the flesh which is his footstool, but in the ‘Promised Land’, i.e. heaven which is his throne (Isa. 66:1; Mt. 5:34f.) in his Father’s house (John 14:2f.) where he sits even now at God’s right hand (Mt. 19:28f.; Luke 22:28-30; Acts 2:33; 5:31; Heb. 1:3,13; 8:1; 10:12; 12:2; Rev. 3:21, etc.).
It seems to me that unless our interpretation is controlled by the rest of the NT, we are in mortal danger of giving free rein to imagination and of literalising parts of the OT which even in their own setting, because the limits to the prophets’ understanding (cf. Mt. 13:17,35; 1 Pet. 1:10-12; Heb. 1:1), were subject to re-assessment and re-interpretation in the light of the NT revelation (e.g. Heb. 11:8-16).
Problems Associated with Christ’s Return to Earth
Before dealing with the millennium as such, I will focus attention initially on the question of Christ’s return to earth. First, years ago I consulted R.A.Torrey’s “What the Bible Teaches” for biblical references supporting this view. Despite numerous references establishing the second coming, Torrey failed to elicit a single verse in the NT explicitly teaching it (see pp.193ff.). What he did allude to were passages like Zechariah 14:4f. in the OT which he lumped unceremoniously with others from the NT (p.197). The same can be said incidentally with regard to DP. In the two books mentioned above, he nowhere produces NT textual evidence to support his contention. So, while assertions abound, there is a remarkable lack of evidence to back them up. How then does he arrive at his view?
I referred above to the Augustinian worldview which sees the entire originally ‘good’, even perfect, creation as having been placed under a universal curse on account of Adam’s sin. Arising from this is the thoroughly OT idea of restoration. Just as Jerusalem, its temple, its walls and even its people had to be restored or rebuilt, for example, after the exile, so it is assumed that creation as a whole now needs to be similarly restored, regenerated or redeemed. It has to be said, however, that this is not the teaching of the Bible. What needs to be recognised is that even the OT frequently contrasts the perfect eternal Creator with his imperfect temporal creation (see e.g. Isa. 34:4; 51:6; 54:9f., etc.). The latter was ‘made by hand’ (Ps. 102:25-27; Isa. 48:13) and, like the law which was ‘written by hand’ (Ex. 31:18; 32:15f.; cf. Col. 2:14), destined ultimately to pass away (cf. 2 Cor. 3:11; Mt. 5:18; 24:35, 2 Pet. 3:7,10-12, etc.). In other words, both were temporary and provisional expedients until the arrival of something better (see espec. Hebrews), that is, the perfect (cf. 1 Cor. 13:10). Contrary to widespread teaching evident among premillennialists, especially of the dispensationalist variety, who see the church as a kind of parenthesis, the boot is really on the other foot. The old covenant, including the law and even national as opposed to spiritual Israel itself, will finally disappear having served its purpose (2 Cor. 3:11). And what we shall be left with is ‘all Israel’ (Rom. 11:26) or the ‘Israel of God’ (Gal. 6:16), the ‘true circumcision’ (Phil. 3:3) ‘not made by hand’ (Col. 2:11) or the ‘new man’ made up of all believing Jews and Gentiles throughout history (Eph. 2:15) and from all creation (Mark 13:27, cf. Rev. 7:9). Israel as a race may be loved as the elect people of God but many have been, are and will remain enemies of the gospel (Rom. 11:28) and as such are rejected. In other words, the tree has been severely pruned in the past (cf. Mt. 3:12; 8:12; Rom. 11:22, etc.) and will continue to be so to the end. So while natural Israel, like the law it represents (Mt. 5:18), will endure to the end of the world it will then cease to exist.
All this is plainly contrary to the teaching of a physical return of Christ to the earth. For a start, it must be insisted that Christ is no longer physical, i.e. flesh or incarnate, though some apparently insist that he is (e.g. Grudem, ST, p.859.). Paul leaves us in no doubt at all that flesh and blood cannot enter the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 15:50, cf. John 3:6). Certainly at his resurrection Jesus was truly restored physically (cf. John 10:17f.), like Lazarus, and was still flesh and bones (Luke 24:39; John 20:26-29, etc.). So, despite the almost universal view that his resurrection body was his glorified body (cf. DP, The Second Coming, SC below, p.11), we can safely draw the conclusion that he was not glorified until his ascension after which, as the Lord of glory, he sent the Spirit (John 7:39). This he himself implied when he told Mary Magdalene not to cling on to him (John 20:17, cf. 6:62f.).
It is fundamental to the biblical view of man that the resurrection of the dead, except in cases like that of Lazarus and Jesus himself, is accompanied by transformation. Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 15:35ff. and 1 Thessalonians 4:14-17 indicates that both the dead and the living are changed when they ascend to meet their Lord. Thus when Jesus comes again he will not come in perishable, first Adamic flesh but in the glorious body of his transformation (Phil 3:21. cf. 1 John 3:2). As is maintained in Matthew, he who is the exact image of God (Heb. 1:3) will come again in the power and glory of God (16:27, cf. Tit. 2:13), glory which he shared in eternity (John 17:5, cf. Isa. 66:18 with John 17:24). And we know from other biblical teaching that God is both a consuming fire (Dt. 4:24, cf. Ex. 24:17) and dwells in unapproachable light (1 Tim. 6:16). Thus it is inevitable that at his appearing when every eye will see him, disbelievers will die (Isa. 33:14: 2 Thes. 1:7f.; 2:8; Rev. 20:9) and believers will be transformed. Beginning with the book of Genesis it is assumed throughout the OT that whoever sees God will die (Gen. 16:13; 32:30; Jud. 6:22, etc.). But, even more to the point, creation itself will be dissolved (Dt. 32:22; Heb. 6:7f.; 12:27-29; 2 Pet. 3:7,10-12) and, as the book of Revelation itself makes clear, creation, which has by then served its purpose of nurturing the children of God (cf. Rom. 8:18-25, cf. Heb. 6:7f.), will have fled away (Rev. 20:11; 21:1).
The tragedy of the position opted for by premillennialists like DP (SC, p.33) is that
(a) it fails to recognise that creation, though ‘good’, i.e. useful, is naturally (that is, apart from sin) corruptible and futile (Mt. 6:19f.; Rom. 8:19ff. Note 1 Tim. 4:3f., cf. 1 Cor. 10:26,31, where Paul tells us that it is still ‘good’). Having had a beginning, it must inevitably have an end (cf. Heb. 7:3,16,24f. etc.); it is temporal and not eternal. Thus, since first Adamic man who as part of creation springs from the earth is flesh, he is also temporal and naturally corruptible. And if like a sinless animal he panders to the flesh as opposed to the Spirit, he will inevitably die like the rest of creation (Gal. 6:7f.; Rom. 8:13). Even Jesus aged (John 8:57) and would have died naturally had he continued to live long enough on the earth. But God’s intention from the start was to give corruptible man, made in his image, the promise of eternal, heavenly, incorruptible life conditional on his keeping the commandment or law (Gen. 2:17; Lev. 18:5, etc.). Jesus, the man, sought incorruptibility (Rom. 2:7,10, cf. Heb. 2:9), kept the law, inherited eternal life (Mt. 3:17), fulfilled all righteousness (Mt. 3:15) and, having been perfected (Mt. 5:48; Heb. 2:10), finally ascended to the Father. But prior to that, since the rest of us are utterly incapable of keeping the law to gain the righteousness which is the indispensable precondition of life (Lev. 18:5, etc.), in his great love, grace and mercy he died in our stead. He thus provided us with the righteousness necessary for us to inherit the promised eternal life (Phil. 3:9) in the presence of our righteous God (1 Pet. 3:18, etc.).
(b) They fail to make the critical distinction between a ‘natural’ body of flesh (cf. Col. 1:22), which is dust, and a ‘spiritual’ (1 Cor. 15:44,46) or heavenly (2 Cor. 5:1f.) or ‘supernatural’ (Fee) or ‘super-earthly’ (Thiselton) body. DP repeatedly argues that those who adopt a view contrary to his are governed by the Greek dismissal of the body as evil (cf. SC, p.33). This is to misunderstand the issue. The biblical view is that even the body of flesh is not evil in itself (if it were then God would be guilty of sin for creating it and Jesus would be guilty because he ‘tabernacled’ in it!). However, the natural body is, first, the seat of temptation and hence prone to sin, and, next, naturally, that is apart from sin, weak and corruptible. Even Jesus in the flesh was weak (2 Cor. 13:4), temptable (Mt. 4:1-11; Heb. 4:15) and susceptible to death (1 Pet. 3:18, or he could not have died! Cf. Heb. 7:16). But the wonder of his life was that he conquered the world, the flesh and the devil by living sinlessly in the flesh (cf. Rom. 8:3) and giving his life for those who believe in him. Contrary to Greek thinking, he did not become a mere Platonic idea or mere intellect, but was transformed into the gloriously embodied God/man whose ‘face’ we shall be able to see in heaven (Rev. 22:4).
(c) DP, like others in his camp, then wants to eternalise the flesh (see SC, p.11). It needs to be stated categorically that this is impossible. Paul tells us that the naturally perishable, or corruptible, cannot inherit the imperishable (1 Cor. 15:50). In 2 Corinthians 5:1 he indicates that the flesh is destroyed like the Jewish material temple (cf. Mark 14:58 where the Greek terminology is remarkably similar, as P.E.Hughes has strongly stressed in comment on 2 Corinthians, p.164) which is spiritualised (1 Cor. 3:16f.; 6:17,19; Rev. 21:22). DP, like N.L.Geisler in his “The Battle for the Resurrection”, also seems to think that if man is not flesh in heaven he is no longer man. (Logically, of course, this denies the biblical distinction between earth and heaven.) This is to misunderstand the goal of salvation which is corporeal as well as spiritual perfection (cf. 2 Cor. 3:18; 5:5; Phil. 3:21). It cannot mean physical or material perfection which is clearly achieved here on earth by all those who live to maturity. After all, the acorn becomes the oak, the lamb the sheep, the baby the man or woman, and so forth. It clearly misses the point of what Paul teaches in 1 and 2 Corinthians (15 and 4-5 respectively). God never intended that we should live forever in the flesh. The flesh, which stems from the earth, is adapted to living on the earth (why else the incarnation – Cur Deus Homo?); the spiritual or supernatural body is what is required for living in heaven as God’s children which is the point of Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 15:35ff. and Jesus’ in John 3:1-13. At the moment our treasure is in ‘handmade’ earthen vessels (Job 10:3,8f.; Ps. 119:73; 2 Cor. 4:7) which, being naturally corruptible, are headed for destruction, but then in a heavenly building significantly ‘NOT handmade’ (acheiropoietos, 2 Cor. 5:1, cf. 1 Pet. 1:3f.), not of this creation (cf. Heb. 9:11,24).
(d) If it is argued that Jesus was glorified at his resurrection, where is the evidence for it? I have already alluded to Jesus’ prayer in John 17. There we read that his wish was that his people should be with him (cf. John 14:2f.) and that they should see his glory (v. 24, cf. Isa. 66:18). In the event, we are given no physical description of him on earth at all. Rather we are led to believe that he underwent no change, apart from natural growth (Luke 2:41-52), and that, in the words of Isaiah, “he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him” (53:2 ESV). Strangely, even DP in one place in his “Omnibus” refers to Revelation 1:12ff. (cf. 2:18; 19:11ff.), but in SC (p.11) he informs us a la Justin: “When he returns, his body will be no older, still in its prime, still thirty-three – except that his hair will be snow-white (Revelation 1:14), a symbol of his sharing the nature of the Father, the ‘Ancient of Days’ (Daniel 7:13)”! He then goes on to say that we too will have ‘glorious bodies’ just like his. My problem here is twofold: first, we are given no indication of his glory, and, second, I am well past my prime and have no desire to come back as I am. When I was younger I gather I was the proverbial ‘tall, dark and handsome’. But now! I hardly dare contemplate eternity in the flesh! Think of the eternal fate of the ugly and repulsive, not to mention our appalling fleshly habits including frequent visits to the toilet (cf. Mt. 15:17)! Thank God that according to Jesus perishable food and water will be gone forever (John 4:13f.; 6:27). We shall not live on material bread at all but on every word that proceeds from the mouth of God (cf. Rev. 22:1f.).
Regarding Jesus, I always assumed that his ‘glorious’ body implied among other things visible majesty and splendour (cf. Heb. 1:3; Rev. 4 & 5). Thiselton has something to say about this in his massive commentary on the Greek text of 1 Corinthians 15:40f. (pp.1269f.) and, having suggested that glory implies weight or impressiveness, refers to the variety of beauty and radiance in creation, and rightly draws the conclusion that God is quite capable of providing us with bodies suited to our new environment.
But there is more to be said. The plain truth is that Jesus’ resurrection body was both visible (John 20:18) and tangible (John 20:27). We are then forced to conclude that it was not in its permanent, glorious state since, if it were, it would be invisible to the physical eye (2 Cor. 4:18, cf. Rom. 8:18,24f.). This brings up the question of the vision experienced by Paul which occurred after Jesus’ ascension. What he saw apart from dazzling light we do not know, but in harmony with the Bible’s teaching that death was the normal consequence of seeing God (cf. Rev. 1:17), he was completely overwhelmed and temporarily blinded. Doubtless he was partially protected, as Moses was long before (Ex. 33:17-23).
The idea that only renewed physical bodies will suffice for living on earth during the millennium brings with it yet more confusion (SC, p.14). According to DP these bodies, like that of Jesus, are equally at home in heaven and on earth. Apart from the fact that this erodes the distinction between heaven and earth, this is an impossible position to hold. The reason given for the need of regeneration is not sin, as Augustinians have traditionally held (though note Tit. 3:3-7), but nature (John 3:6). The flesh is inherently unsuitable for heaven (1 Cor. 15:50) and hence ultimately unprofitable (John 6:63, cf. Mark 8:36). So since Jesus had himself undergone incarnation, he also needed to be born again of the Spirit (cf. Mt. 3:13-17, etc.) in preparation for his return to and embodiment at his Father’s side. This necessarily involved bodily or corporeal transformation.
This last comment raises another point. Jesus clearly had to undergo transformation in the form of incarnation at his initial descent to earth (cf. Phil. 2:5-11). If his return to his former glory was a reversal of his incarnation (cf. John 6:62; 13:3; 16:28, etc.) and hence involved re-transformation, on the assumption that his second advent involves coming back to live on earth, he will need to be re-incarnated! Since God creates in the womb, originally the earth (Ps. 139:15) he has no other alternative (cf. John 3:4; Isa. 44:2; Jer. 1:5, etc.). The mistake involved in this scenario is two-fold: first, we are told in Acts 13:34 that Jesus will not return again to corruption, i.e. the flesh. Next, at his first advent he came as corruptible man, that is, in the flesh; at his second, though still man perfected forever in the divine image (Mt. 5:48; Heb. 1:3; 7:28), he will come as God, or Lord, and in his glory (Mark 8:38, etc.).
(e) Again, according to DP, at the second coming which takes place before the earthly millennium, living saints ascend to meet the Lord in the air and then return with him to earth still in the flesh (cf. Torrey, p.197)! Once more, it must be pointed out that the impermanent naturally corruptible body cannot inherit incorruptibility (1 Cor. 15:50), so how do saints like David (Acts 2:25ff.), who have already died and succumbed to corruption and dust (cf. Gen. 3:19) regain their fleshly bodies? According to the Bible their original source was the earth (Gen. 2:7; Job 4:19, etc.); more proximately it is their fleshly parents (John 1:13). So if the dead are going to live again in the flesh, they will have to re-enter their mothers’ wombs, as, given his assumption, Nicodemus correctly saw (John 3:4, though apparently some of his commentators who denigrate him do not). The problem here is that they too have experienced corruption. So we are bound to conclude that the clock will have to be turned back and the whole process of creation repeated! Restoration with a vengeance! Thus, DP tells us that “God’s purpose will not be fulfilled until the entire universe has been restored to its original condition” (p.35)! Apart from noting once more that this is like going back to Egypt (which we might remind ourselves was also a land flowing with milk and honey, Num. 16:13), it is intrinsically impossible, as we shall see further below. The truth is, of course, as Jesus indicated and Paul implied (1 Cor. 15:37,46), that the second birth is not fleshly at all but spiritual, precisely because flesh and blood cannot enter the kingdom of God. It is by its very nature permanently excluded.
So whatever problems we may have with the word ‘spiritual’ (Gk pneumatikos) regarding the composition as opposed to the character of our transformed bodies (1 Cor. 15:44,46), they will certainly not be first Adamic dust, clay, flesh (1 Cor. 15:47-49). The contrast made by both Jesus and Paul is too pointed to allow it, as indeed is that of the rest of the Bible (e.g. Ps. 78:39; 103:14; Isa. 31:3). The flesh, like creation in general, is inherently defective or inadequate (John 6:63. See Fee, and espec. Thiselton who rejects out of hand the view of Justin, apparently accepted by the premillennialists, that “we expect to receive again our own bodies, though they be dead and cast into the earth”, Omnibus, p.1281).
The Finished Work of Christ
In light of the strong emphasis on the finished work of Christ in the NT, one is left wondering why the notion of Christ’s returning to earth is ever entertained. Has not Jesus sat down (note the word) at God’s right hand (Heb. 1:3; 8:1;10:12; 12:2, cf. Acts 2:33; Rom. 8:34; Eph. 1:20, etc.). Since the author of Hebrews tells us that Jesus has already dealt with sin, all that remains for him to do is to rescue those who are eagerly waiting for him (1:3; 9:28, cf. John 14:3; 1 Thes. 4:17. Cf. Moses’ return to Egypt.). In other words, there is no point in his coming to rule on earth. Since his work at his first coming was complete, accomplishing all that the Father intended (John 17:4), there is nothing left for him to do.
The Throne of David
Another plank in the premillennial platform is the throne of David which it is generally admitted Jesus will occupy in Jerusalem. It is immediately apparent in view of what is taught in Luke 1:32f. that this did not happen during the time of Jesus’ incarnation, so it must occur in the eternal kingdom of God. This is borne out by the teaching in Acts 2:34f. Jesus sits on David’s throne in heaven and he does so till all his enemies have become his footstool (cf. 1 Cor. 15:27f., cf. Rev. 20:11-15). As Leon Morris says commenting on Luke 1:32f., “It is not a temporal kingdom, an earthly realm, but God’s kingly rule” (Luke, rev. ed. p.81, cf. Dan. 2:44). Again the rebuilding of David’s fallen tent (Amos 9:11) is not fulfilled literally but spiritually. It is great David’s greater Son who, in contrast with David himself, did not see corruption but underwent resurrection, exaltation and heavenly session at God’s right hand (Acts 15:16f.). As F.F.Bruce puts it in comment on Hebrews and Psalm 110, ”the throne of David is now absorbed in the heavenly throne of glory and grace” (This is That, p.79). He goes on to point out that in the book of Revelation Jesus is, like David in Psalm 89, “the firstborn”, that is, the firstborn in resurrection, “the ruler of kings on earth”, the “Lion of the tribe of Judah” and the root of David whose victory was achieved not by force of arms but by the sacrifice of his life.
Jesus himself in his encounter with Pilate before his crucifixion indicated that his kingdom was not of this world (John 18:36). Pilate, like one of the executioners (Luke 23:47), apparently accepted this though, perhaps to spite the Jews, had the title ‘King of the Jews’ displayed on the cross (John 19:19-22). Even before this, Jesus had resisted efforts to turn him into a military-style king who would drive the Romans into the sea (John 6:15). In the event, how different he proved to be from his forefather David, a man of blood! Again we are forced to draw the conclusion that Jesus will never be king on earth. This is further borne out by the author of Hebrews who, first, indicates that the angels worship him in the heavenly realm (1:6) which is subject to him rather than to the angels themselves (2:5). Furthermore, at Jesus’ disposal are the powers, e.g. the Holy Spirit, of the age to come which make their impression on the present evil (Gal. 1:4) age (Heb. 6:5; 10:29, cf. John 7:39) not yet passed away (1 Cor. 7:31; 1 John 2:17, etc.). Thus, in conformity with this teaching, we learn that those who have received Jesus as their Messiah (King) replace national Israel as a kingdom of priests (1 Pet. 2:9) and rule on the earth under his heavenly direction (Rev. 1:6,9; 5:10). Note also Ephesians 2:6 and Revelation 20:6 which point to the saints heavenly reign.
(DP is strongly opposed to what he calls ‘replacement theology’. His quarrel is, however, with the NT itself. See espec. Mt. 21:43. Cf. Acts 1:6 where there is obvious lack of understanding on the part of the disciples).
The Heavenly High Priest
If Jesus, though a son of David, was never made King on the earth, neither was he appointed a priest. Here the author of Hebrews goes into some detail. He points out that Jesus was excluded from the earthly priesthood because he was not a Levite but belonged to the tribe of Judah. He was not appointed by the law but by the oath. Thus his priesthood was of a different order, that of Melchisedek (Heb. 7:3, cf. vv.13f.; 8:4). Why? There are at least three basic reasons. First, the law (itself in the process of becoming obsolete, Heb. 8:13) by which the Levites were appointed was incapable of bringing perfection (7:18f.); secondly, the sacrifices they offered needed constant repetition; and, thirdly, the priests themselves were subject to death and needed constant replacement (!, pace DP). In contrast, Jesus had the power of ‘indestructible life’ and having made a once-for-all perfect sacrifice entered the very presence of God in heaven where he ever lives to intercede for his people. Clearly, if Jesus is to reign on the throne of David on earth, his intercession in heaven must cease!
One of the doctrines of Scripture most neglected among Christians over the years has been the teaching on perfection. Historically, it has been hidden by Augustine’s misunderstanding of the early chapters of Genesis which has given us a false worldview involving degeneration (from an initial perfection) rather than development. In more recent times, fear of Wesleyan perfectionism has also contributed to modern blindness in relation to it. For all that, it is basic to our understanding of man. Because perfection is usually associated with sinlessness, its more biblical meaning, that is, completeness or maturity (James 1:4), has been lost to view. Jesus, like all the men and women he came to save, may have been born like Adam innocent, i.e. he knew neither good nor evil (Isa. 7:15f.), but certainly not mature (see Luke 2:40ff.). I have already mentioned how trees, animals and the rest achieve physical maturity. But it was fundamental to Jesus who was “created” in the image of God like the rest of us to take on his likeness by growing and developing in all aspects of human life, especially on the level of the spirit, until he attained perfection (maturity) in the likeness of his heavenly Father (cf. Mt. 3:15; 5:48; 19:21). In the event, he became the perfect man (cf. James 3:2), the exact imprint of God (Heb. 1:3, cf. John 14:9) and we in him (Eph. 4:13). As Paul indicates in Philippians 3:14 (cf. Heb. 3:1) perfection is the culmination of our heavenly call (Rom. 5:2; 8:29f.; 1 Thes. 2:12; 1 Pet. 5:10). In other words, it terminates through resurrection in the presence of God in accordance with the divine plan of salvation (Eph. 1:4; Heb. 2:5-10).
Why the Gathering of the Saints?
Premillennialists tell us that we shall rise to meet Christ in the air in preparation for returning to the earth to rule for a thousand years. On the contrary, what the Bible teaches is that we shall all meet together in order to be perfected together (Heb. 11:39f.) and presented together (1 Cor. 15:24-28; 2 Cor. 4:14; 11:2; Eph. 5:27; 2 Thes. 2:1, etc.). Thus Hughes comments, “The inference is clear … that the Church of the New Testament, which is the bride of Christ, is continuous with the Church of the Old Testament, which is the bride of Jehovah. Hence Paul elsewhere describes the Church as ‘the Israel of God’ (Gal. 6:16; cf. Gal. 3:7ff.,29; Rom. 2:29, 4:6ff., 9:6ff.; Phil. 3:3)” (Paul’s Second Epistle to the Corinthians, p.375). The plain truth is that before the wedding banquet is celebrated in the kingdom of heaven, the earthly city, like Sodom, is burned (Mt. 22:7, cf. Jos. 8:8) along with its mob of murderers (cf. Jos. 7:24-26) some of whom belong to national Israel (Mt. 8:11f.; John 8:44).
No Going Back
Jesus warned us to remember Lot’s wife (Luke 17:32). Why? To all intents and purposes, she went back to Sodom and paid the penalty. Going back is reprobated throughout the entire Bible (see attached essay), and returning to ‘Egypt’ is regarded as one of the most heinous sins in the OT (Dt. 17:16; Ezek. 17:15; cf. Acts 7:39). Thus, to argue that Jesus is coming back in fleshly form to rule on earth is not merely to misunderstand the nature of salvation (rescue) from this present age (cf. Gal. 1:4) but to participate in this very sin.
Bible typology helps us to glimpse the true picture. Though he had earlier left Egypt Moses reluctantly went back because he was commanded to do so by God (Ex. 3:10). But far from returning to rule as the adopted son of Pharaoh’s daughter (cf. Heb. 11:24-27), he went to rescue his people by means of the exodus and to pronounce judgement on the Egyptians and their gods (Ex. 12:12). Jesus will do the same. Having completed his own exodus (cf. Luke 9:31 where the same word is used) and gone back to heaven, he will, on the one hand, come back to destroy both “the people that dwell on the earth” (Rev. 6:10, etc.) and their habitat as God did at Sodom (Gen. 19, cf. Luke 17:29f.) and, on the other, to rescue his own so that they may be glorified with him forever (1 Thes. 4:17; 5:10; Rom. 5:2; 8:17; Heb. 2:10). What is more, we learn from Hebrews 7:26 that having ascended into heaven transformed, Jesus is forever separated spatially from sinners just as the Israelites were first made distinct and separated from the Egyptians (cf. Ps. 11:4; 18:6; 103:19; Isa. 57:15; 66:1, etc.). So, to contend that he will return to earth to live among them until their final rebellion under the leadership of Satan is a deep misunderstanding and an imposition on Scripture, something that the book of Revelation warns us explicitly against (22:18f.). Apart from putting his enemies under his feet (like Joshua before him, Jos. 10:24f.) and completing their destruction, Jesus has finished with rebellious sinners (Heb. 9:28).
While doubtless much more could be written on this issue, before dealing with the millennium as such and offering an exposition of Revelation 20, it is appropriate at this point to draw some conclusions.
Principles of Interpretation
First, the basic problem with premillennialism is its hermeneutical principles and methodology. Its literalistic approach to the Bible, especially the OT, has the inevitable tendency to give it an authority it was never meant to have for Christians. If it is true with respect to the two testaments that the New is latent in the Old and the Old patent in the New, then it is absolutely vital that we interpret the Old in the light of the New, and what is obscure by means of what is clear. And where symbolism is involved, as in Zechariah and Revelation for example, if this rule is not applied we lack an adequate canon of judgement. Since they lived before the coming of Christ the prophets’ vision was unavoidably limited (1 Pet. 1:10-12). What is more, the people as a whole were inevitably earthbound and largely materialistic in their thinking. (This was apparently the reason why Augustine turned against Chiliasm in the early church.) They saw heaven largely in terms of earth as even we by force of necessity do to some extent. And it needs to be said that that overworked term, the new heavens and a new earth (2 Pet. 3:13; Rev. 21:1,5), which certainly refers to heaven, emanates from the OT (Isa. 65:17; 66:22).
(It has to be said in fairness that G.E.Ladd, a classic premillennialist whom DP recommends, strongly repudiates the excessive literalism of Dispensationalism. For all that, he himself does not emerge unscathed. In my view, his essay “Historic Premillennialism” in “The Meaning of the Millennium” ed. Clouse, can only serve to encourage amillennialism. In his concluding paragraph, he comes close to admitting that his case is weak. (Cf. M.J.Erickson, Christian Theology, who does the same but, like Ladd, unaccountably opts for premillennialism, p. 1217.) The problem that he feels is constituted by the millennium in Rev. 20 appears to arise (a) out of his insistence on a literal interpretation which (b) unavoidably adds to the apostolic gospel as revealed in the rest of the NT. By contrast, it is perfectly intelligible if it is interpreted, as by amillennialists, in accordance with the NT revelation in general.)
Next, as I mentioned earlier, I am convinced after over 40 years of reading theology that the most prolific source of misunderstanding and error throughout the Christian world is failure to develop a proper covenant theology. The literalistic bent that characterises premillennialists, and especially dispensationalists, would be counteracted if they had one. What I believe to be true covenant theology demonstrates beyond question that the old covenant was temporary, provisional and obsolescent (see especially Heb. 7:18f.; 8:7,13 and 2 Corinthians 3). Just as the moon must yield to the greater glory of the sun, so must the law give way before the word of the oath. While the law terminates at the end of the world (Mt. 5:18), the words of God (Christ) will never pass away (Mt. 24:35).
Third, though premillennialists point the finger of accusation at Augustine for denying early church chiliasm, they seem nonetheless to have swallowed his manifestly false worldview hook, line and sinker. Augustine posited the original perfection of creation, the original righteousness of Adam, the Fall, original sin imputed to all his posterity and a universal curse on creation. The result of this is that they teach not just the restoration of fellowship between God and man through Christ but the restoration, redemption or regeneration of the entire creation as well! DP writes: “… if God once made a universe that was good in every way, he can surely do it again” (SC, p.42). But if he has to do it again, it could not have been perfect in the first place (see Hebrews again). A perfect natural world is, biblically speaking, a contradiction in terms not least because it was (a) temporal, and (b) required man to exercise dominion over it. In any case, to argue creation’s perfection, ruin and redemption has catastrophic consequences for soteriology or our doctrine of salvation. For it logically brings under suspicion the validity of Christ’s sacrifice which, according to the author of Hebrews, being perfect, never needed to be repeated. It was once for all (10:10,14)! DP goes on, “And if the purpose of redemption is to restore creation, he will surely do it again” (SC, p.44). In reply to this it must be asked where such an impossible idea is taught in the Bible. The fact is that the redemption of creation is as alien to Scripture as is the regeneration of the flesh (cf. John 3:4), which is creation in miniature. What is intrinsically temporal, like the law, was never intended to last forever but to be replaced by the eternal (cf. Heb. 9:11; 10:9, etc.). DP suggests that the new creation emerges (Phoenix-like?) from the ashes of the fire referred to in 2 Peter 3:10 (p.49) and that God is going to vacate his eternal throne in heaven to live on the temporal dust and ashes of earth (p.50)! Apart from the fact that what is for us the new creation already exists (John 14:2f.; Gal. 4:26, etc.) and God rested long ago from physical creation, it must be asked how the temporal can house or accommodate the eternal. Even Solomon knew better than to ask such a question (1 K. 8:27). It needs to be laid down as firmly as possible that everything in this world was subjected by God to futility and decay in hope (Rom. 8:18-25), and in accordance with that hope Christ came, abolished death and brought life and immortality (incorruption, Gk aphtharsian corresponding with acheiropoietos) to light (2 Tim. 1:10). This says Paul is his gospel, and the premillennialists by insisting on a repetition of Christ’s earthly rule (cf. Heb. 2:6-9) are in effect denying it (cf. Gal. 1:6-9). Are they suggesting that Jesus did not effectively overcome the world, the flesh and the devil after all (John 16:33; Rev. 3:21, etc.)?
Finally, it must be stressed that the basic plan of God for man is precisely his perfection, which inevitably involves advance, progress, development, growth, and maturation until it is finally consummated in heavenly ascent. And in Jesus, the second Adam, the pioneer of our salvation (Heb. 2:10) it was fully achieved (Heb. 9:24), for he alone went forward and not backward (Jer. 7:24), up and not down (Dt. 28:13; John 6:62). So, it is no wonder that in the early church it was maintained that “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved (Acts 4:12).
As mentioned above the millennium appears only in Revelation 20:2-7 and nowhere else (except arguably in the OT). If it refers to a literal reign on earth, it raises problems far beyond some of those already referred to above. DP tells us that we need to live on earth a second time (p.32). If this is true, we have never been perfected, but worse, neither has Christ (cf. Heb. 2)! As Hebrews in particular teaches us, repetition is the hallmark of imperfection (cf. repeated sacrifices). Yet our author tells us that both Christ (7:28) and his people have been perfected forever (10:14, cf. 2 Tim. 4:6-8, 18, etc.). Repetition is out of the question.
Restoration and Redemption
Then DP believes that we need to be restored to our original condition (p.32)! In plain terms, that means going back to the beginning, returning to childhood (1 Cor. 13:11), even babyhood (John 3:4) not progressing to mature manhood (1 Cor. 14:20; Eph. 4:13-16). Adam and Eve may have had adult bodies but like babies who did not know the law they knew neither good nor evil. While they were created in the image of God, they clearly had not taken on his likeness. In contrast, this is precisely what Jesus, the second Adam, did (Heb. 1:3) – and we do in and through him (Rom. 8:29; Eph. 1:5). We are complete at death, though not before (cf. Phil. 3:12), as Jesus himself was (John 19:30), and as believers we inherit the crown of life (Jas. 1:12).
As already mentioned, Premillennialists are obsessed by the OT idea of restoration (cf. SC, pp.33-35,43f.) and the redemption of creation. DP argues on page 49 that by returning to planet earth for the millennium Christ will have done all that is necessary to make this possible. “He will have completed the saints, converted the Jews, conquered the devil, commanded the world and condemned the ungodly.” A little Bible study will soon reveal that he did this in principle before his ascension and does not need to repeat it (see, e.g., Heb. 10:10,14; Rom. 11:25f.; Heb. 2:14-18; 1 John 3:8; John 16:33; Heb. 2:9; John 16:8-11, etc.). The main battle is already won; Christ’s work on earth is finished and on that basis the work of the Spirit continues. All that remains to be done is to put all his enemies under his feet and destroy death itself (1 Cor. 15:24-28). The very idea that Jesus needs to supplement his finished work on earth (John 19:30, cf. Ex. 40:33) in some way inevitably suggests failure. As I distinctly remember J.I.Packer stressing at a Midland Terminal Conference in Birmingham when I was a student, to add to the gospel is to subtract from it. And this is precisely what premillennialism does.
Note on Romans 8:23 (cf. DP p.34)
In Romans 8:23 Paul clearly refers to the redemption of the body. Are not our bodies part of creation? So if the body needs redeeming then logically so does creation. Must I now eat my words?
Commentators like F.F.Bruce tell us bodily redemption means the resurrection (Romans, rev. ed. p.165). I suggest that there is more to it or Paul would not have used this word. Why does he? The answer is implied in the promise of life first made in Genesis 2:17 (cf. Lev. 18:5, etc.). Clearly that life was eternal life which Adam did not have and which could not have been lived out on the temporal earth in the flesh in any case. It was clearly intended to be lived in the presence of the eternal God in heaven. We have only to consider the case of Jesus. He, in contrast with Adam who relapsed physically into the dust, met the condition of life by fulfilling the law. As a consequence, he did not die but ascended bodily to be transformed in heaven. In other words, since he never died on account of his own sin, his body did not undergo corruption (Acts 2:29ff.; 13:34-37). In contrast, the bodies of the rest of us who are sinners like Adam do experience corruption and we are left naked (cf. 2 Cor. 5:1-5). So then, our bodies, with the exception of those of the saints at the end who ascend as Christ himself did (1 Cor. 15:51ff.; 1 Thes. 4:17), have been forfeited (Rom. 8:10) and destroyed (2 Cor. 5:1) and we are left naked (5:3). In the circumstances, what is required is not just resurrection but redemption. It is worth noting here that Paul refers to the redemption of our bodies and says nothing about the redemption of the flesh. And it is a reasonable inference from this alone that those who argue for a redemption of creation from which the flesh derives have missed the point. Creation does not need redemption: by its very nature it is perishable and impermanent, like the law and the old covenant, and must in the end give way to heaven (cf. 2 Cor. 3).
There seems to be some difference of opinion among premillennialists regarding the bodies of the saints during the millennium, and no wonder. If the dead are raised transformed (though remarkably still in the flesh!), their bodies will arguably be different from those of the saints who are raptured when Christ returns to earth. There is a mass of confusion here.
Then there is the question of continuing sin during the millennium which, since the devil is totally incapacitated in the abyss, argues for continuance in the flesh as presently experienced (cf. Rom. 7:14, etc.) rather than for its metamorphosis (SC, p.34).
This in turn raises the question of sin in the presence of our glorified Saviour who, having dealt with it (Heb. 9:28) is, according to Hebrews 7:26, now permanently separated from sin (cf. 1 K. 8:27,30; Ps. 11:4; Acts 7:49; 17:24). How can he possibly tolerate it if he is ruling as he should be (cf. Hab. 1:13)? This is a mystery that premillennialists seem unable to answer, all the more so when we consider that the devil has been put under lock and key. In blatant contrast, in heaven the devil, sin and curse have disappeared forever (Rev. 22).
Then there is the issue of the devil’s final revolt. If this is seen in the light of the antichrist and the man of sin in 2 Thessalonians 1 and 2 in a world where good and evil grow and come to maturity together (Mt. 3:12; 13:30; Rev. 14:14-20, cf. Gen 15:16) it makes good sense, but hardly as the prelude to the end of the millennium. After all, while ruling with his saints on the earth, should not Jesus have gained complete ascendancy over and obliterated evil? Didn’t he come originally to destroy the devil and all his works (1 John 3:8)? That he didn’t and does not during the millennium suggests inadequacy, a failure to count the cost and recognise the strength of his enemies (Luke 14:28-32). Sad to say, this reminds us of what Jesus says in Matthew 12:43-45. During the millennium the unclean spirits will have been cast out only to return and make the situation worse than it was before!
The Binding of the Devil
This brings us back to the question of the binding of the devil in Revelation 20:2-7. If we assume that the entire book is a reflection of the rest of the NT we have no difficulties with it. It is clearly taught in Matthew 12:28f., Mark 3:27 and Luke 11:21 and implied in Luke 10:18; 13:12f.,16; John 12:31; 2 Thes. 2:6f.; Hebrews 2:14f.; 6:5 and 1 John 3:8. It is a plain fact of both the Bible and history that the devil’s goods have been extensively plundered since the coming of Christ (cf. Acts 26:18; Col. 1:13; Rev. 3:8,20, etc.) and they continue to be so. And it is only by means of an excessively literal interpretation of Revelation 20 that we can deny this. There is another point. The essence of the binding of the devil would appear to be the limitations placed on his ability to deceive (20:3, cf. 12:9). After all, at the moment the gospel is freely available to millions and the Bible distributed worldwide (cf. Col. 1:23). But many choose to ignore its message and so are without excuse. They both deceive and are deceived even before Satan makes his final bid for power through the antichrist (2 Thes. 2:9-12). In other words, the power of the prince of this world (John 12:31) over deliberate disbelievers (cf. 2 Cor. 4:4; 1 Pet. 5:8; 1 John 5:19) remains secure, and we don’t need a millennium to prove to us the basic wickedness of the human heart.
Interpreting the first and second resurrections and the first and second deaths is somewhat more difficult. Arguably the first resurrection is conversion and regeneration (cf. John 5:24ff.), but, given its setting, it might well be the resurrection of life from the dead in which case the second resurrection would refer to the resurrection of judgement (cf. Rom. 14:10; 2 Cor. 5:10) where for believers there is no condemnation and hence no second death.
An Exposition of Revelation 20:1-10 in Light of the Rest of the NT
John saw Jesus descending from heaven like an angel armed with the strength to deprive the devil of what was previously his universal power over mankind (Rev. 12:9, cf. 1 John 5:19). As the one who has the key of David (Rev. 3:7f.), and is the light of the world, he prevents him from deceiving the nations throughout the gospel age. Towards the end, however, Satan is permitted to recover some of his former power and succeeds in deceiving all who refuse to love the truth but take pleasure in unrighteousness (2 Thes. 2:10f.; 2 Tim. 3:1ff.).
Then John saw thrones of judgement (1 Cor. 6:2f.) on which sat the saints and martyrs who had not given in to the world but had kept the commandments of God and borne testimony to Jesus. They lived and reigned with Christ (cf. Rev. 3:21) both on earth (Rev. 1:6) and in heaven (Eph. 2:6, cf. Phil. 3:20) during the time of witness. This is the first resurrection and those who share in it are blessed and holy. Since for them there is no condemnation (Rom. 8:1), they are not liable to the second death. However, they serve as priests of God and reign with Christ at God’s right hand (Rev. 3:21).
(The rest of the dead, that is the disbelieving wicked, did not come to life until after the gospel age.)
At the end of the gospel age Satan is permitted to regain some of his former universal ascendancy over men and women who reject the message of truth, indulge the flesh and submit to the Godless world system (2 Thes. 2; 2 Tim. 3:1-5; 2 Pet. 2; Jude). They band together to annihilate the saints, but after a short while (Mark 13:20-22), the Lord Jesus suddenly intervenes and destroys them with the breath of his mouth (2 Thes. 2:8f., cf. Rev. 19:11-16) as God had destroyed Sodom long before (Luke 17:29f.). The arch-deceiver, the devil himself is finally thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone to share the company of the all who loved this world and falsehood. There they will endure torment forever (cf. Mt. 25:41,46).
The Plan of Salvation
Finally, I would stress that the plan of salvation involves among other things our gaining access to and knowledge of our Father in heaven (John 14:6;17:3; Heb. 9:24; 1 Pet. 3:18) from whom we have received a heavenly call (Phil. 3:14; Heb. 3:1). As one who was brought up in the Methodist Church, DP ought to take a cue from John Wesley who once wrote:
“I want to know one thing, the way to heaven …. God himself has condescended to teach the way …. He hath written it down in a book. O give me that book: At any price give me the book of God! … I read His book; for this end, to find the way to heaven …. And what I thus learn, that I teach.”
And as the hymn writer expressed it at a later date:
“He died that we might be forgiven,
He died to make us good,
That we might go at last to heaven,
Saved by his precious blood.”
Cecil Frances Alexander