A Response to Historic Premillennialism

Below is the first of 4 posts interacting with the prominent views of the millennium (and eschatology) as they are included in the book: The Meaning of the Millennium: Four Views.  For a discussion on 3 of the millennial views, please see the following video post: An Evening of Eschatology .


hispreSeveral months ago (maybe a year?), I purchased an older out-of-print book entitled The Meaning of the Millennium: Four Views.[1] It was part of an early series that allowed four theologians holding different views on a particular doctrine to present their own view and then offered them the opportunity to critique and interact with the other views, not too dissimilar from the “Evening of Eschatology” video I showed last time. This counterpoint series continues today, though this particular volume has been updated. In this work, the four theologians, George Eldon Ladd, Herman A. Hoyt, Loraine Boettner, and Anthony Hoekema each present their various positions on the millennium, which is a reference to the thousand year period mentioned in Revelation 20. In the 4+ years I’ve been writing on this blog, I don’t think I have one post that mentions anything about the end times, or the period leading up to the end times (also known as eschatology or the study of last things). This has been due in large part to my lack of understanding or really my lack of desire to devote attention to this massive subject, hence the book referenced above. Since this book presents the 4 main views on the thousand years, Historic Premillennialism, Dispensational Premillennialsim, Postmillennialism, and Amillennialism, I won’t take the time here to describe each position, but I’d like to devote a post interacting with each essay from the book.

In reading The Meaning of the Millennium the first essay is written by George Eldon Ladd and he represents his view called “Historic Premillennialsim” (hereafter HP). Ladd describes Premillennialism as the “doctrine stating that after the Second Coming of Christ, he [Christ] will reign for a thousand years over the earth before the final consummation of God’s redemptive purpose in the new heavens and the new earth of the Age to Come.”[2] While even that definition might sound complex, largely this view is based on an understanding that Christ will return prior to the 1000 year period described in Revelation 20:1-6 and establish His earthly kingdom, reigning on an earthly throne until the period of 1000 years ends. The “Historic” addition to the doctrinal name distinguishes it from Dispensational Premillennialism and the widespread belief is that many of the early church fathers (Ireneaus [140-203], Polycarp [69-155], Justin Martyr [100-165], and Papias [80-155])[3] held to a form of this position, though at the time it would have been called “chiliasm”.

This was my first exposure to the writings of Ladd and I can safely say he is an enjoyable read and a knowledgeable theologian. His writing style is smooth, logical, and flows well. He would have nearly convinced me of his position had it not been for his interpretation of Revelation 19 and 20. There is much to commend in Ladd’s explanation of HP. He begins with an overview of the position followed by a section on Hermeneutics[4] (the science of interpretation) wherein he begins to draw a line in the sand between HP and dispensationalism.[5] He states, “Dispensational theory insists that many of the Old Testament prophecies predict the millennium and must be drawn in to construct the picture of Messiah’s millennial reign. This view is based upon the hermeneutic that the Old Testament prophecies must be interpreted literally.”[6][7] Perhaps a better term than literal interpretation would be “grammatical-historical interpretation”.[8] By stating this, Ladd goes on to point out that dispensationalism sees the distinction between Israel and the Church.[9] This becomes a major focus for Ladd, and rightly so, as he must distinguish his position from the position that shares a similar view on the 1000 years. The dispensational view sees God as having two distinct plans and peoples, Israel and the Church. However, as Ladd points out, this is where the “literal” hermeneutic of dispensationalism begins to focus too narrowly on the prophecies of the Old Testament while failing to see their fulfillment in the New Testament. To describe this, Ladd states that the opposite to a literal hermeneutic, or what some might call a straightforward/natural interpretation, of the Old Testament is a “spiritualizing” hermeneutic.[10] This is my first real disagreement with Ladd. There is no “opposite” to a grammatical-historical hermeneutic, but there are valid options such as a redemptive-historical hermeneutic utilized by Christ and His apostles. Ladd appears to advocate for this particular way of interpreting the Bible without actually naming the method. He states, “The fact is that the New Testament frequently interprets Old Testament prophecies in a way not suggested by the Old Testament context.”[11] (emphasis his) He adds that the Old Testament is often “reinterpreted” in light of the person and work of Christ.[12]

In reaching his conclusion on this section, Ladd realizes that while much of the Old Testament, in its context, focuses on national Israel, the reality is that much of the New Testament takes many of these OT references and applies them to Christ and the Church. In this way he views the Church as the “spiritual Israel”.[13] With this conclusion I am in much agreement with Ladd. He summarizes this section with the following, “Dispensationalism forms its eschatology by a literal interpretation of the Old Testament and then fits the New Testament into it. A nondispensational eschatology forms its theology from the explicit teaching of the New Testament.”

Ladd transitions from his view on Israel and the Church to a discussion on the millennium, namely his understanding of Revelation 20:1-6, by providing the New Testament context for the millennium, particularly that of Christology or how it relates to the person and work of Christ. I found this section extremely helpful. In laying out his view, Ladd refers to this as the “heavenly session of Christ”.[14] Biblically we would find a reference to this in Hebrews 1:3, “He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (emphasis mine). See also: Heb. 2:7-8; Heb. 10:12-13; Psalm 110:1; Rev. 3:21; 1 Cor. 15:24-26. This passage speaks clearly of Christ’s reign as Messianic King. The reason Ladd points this out is because the dispensational premillennialist view sees the millennium as the 1000 year literal reign of Christ as he sits on David’s throne in Jerusalem. As Ladd states, “The New Testament does not make the reign of Christ one that is limited to Israel in the millennium. It is a spiritual reign in heaven which has already been inaugurated, and its primary purpose is to destroy Christ’s spiritual enemies, the last of which is death.”[15] Ladd states his belief that Christ’s reign “is a spiritual reign in heaven which has already been inaugurated.”[16] He confirms this by pointing out Peter’s inspired reference to Psalm 110:2 in Acts 2:34-35, “For David did not ascend into the heavens; but he himself says, “The Lord said to my Lord, Sit at my right hand, till I make thy enemies a stool for thy feet’.” [17] Ladd interprets this to mean that Peter, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, has transferred the throne of David from Jerusalem to Zion, i.e. heaven. [18] This position sounds very similar to that held by amillienialists, but again I find myself in agreement with Ladd.

With this established, Ladd moves toward his discussion on the millennium and begins with the assertion that “a millennial doctrine cannot be based on Old Testament prophecies but should be based on the New Testament alone. The only place in the Bible that speaks of an actual millennium is the passage in Revelation 20:1-6.” [19] Ladd is quick to point out the apocalyptic genre of Revelation and its use of highly symbolic language. This brings up a secondary question of the validity of a dispensational “literal” hermeneutic applied to a largely symbolic text. Are we to expect literal dragons and beasts? Hardly, and while this is an oversimplification, it goes to show that one must allow the genre and the context of God’s Word to speak.

Summarizing Ladd’s view on the millennium, he first notes that the events of Revelation 20 follow the vision of the Second Coming of Christ (19:11-16). He points out that Christ returns with the only weapon mentioned, the sword, which He uses to smite the nations (Rev. 19:15). [20] There is something to note right away in Ladd’s interpretation. Notice that he fully recognizes that Christ destroys the nations by the sword in Revelation 19:15. If Ladd is correct in his assumption that Revelation 20 follows the vision of Christ’s second coming in Revelation 19 and at that second coming He is wielding the sword, who then are the nations that Satan is to deceive in Revelation 20? There is no indication that Christ puts His sword away and prepares for a 1000 year period of peace because the context goes on to say, “And I saw the beast and the kings of the earth with their armies gathered to make war against him who was sitting on the horse and his army. And the beast was captured, and with it the false prophet who in its presence had done the signs by which he deceived those who had received the mark of the beast and those who worshipped its image. These two were thrown alive into the lake of fire that burns with sulfur. And the rest were slain by the sword that came from the mouth of him who was sitting on the horse, and all the birds were gorged with their flesh.” Revelation 19:19-21 If, as Ladd states, Revelation 20 follows chronologically upon the second coming of Christ in Revelation 19, who then is left to comprise the nations that Christ has just slain? The deception of the nations has taken place; they have the mark of the beast, have worshipped him and have now suffered their due punishment at the hand of Christ. This is a question that Ladd has not answered using his interpretation.

The trajectory of Ladd, which I have been in much agreement with up to this point (except where mentioned above) begins to take a turn in his remaining interpretation. While Revelation 19:6-10 discusses the marriage supper of the Lamb with His bride, Ladd is forced to insert a gap period between this (re)union and a later reference to the bride in Revelation 21:2. He is forced to insert this gap in order to make his understanding of the millennium fit. It doesn’t seem to be the natural reading of the passage. The order of events seem clearly laid out in chapter 19 with no need to insert a gap. This must call into question the meaning of the millennium in Chapter 20. Ladd, like all premillennialist, believes that upon Christ’s return He seals up Satan in the pit and then begins His 1000 year reign at the conclusion of which, Satan is loosed, deceives the nations (weren’t they destroyed already in Chapter 19?), and leads a rebellion against the enthroned Christ.

Ladd spends several pages discussing the translation of “they came to life” in Revelation 20:4. This is where an understanding of the biblical mention of a 1st and 2nd resurrection is helpful, as mentioned in Revelation 20:5. Ladd rightly asks, “Is it literal, a resurrection of the body, or spiritual, a resurrection of the soul?” [22] The answer to this question, he states, is the key to the solution of the millennial question. Ladd goes on to say that the spiritual interpretation cannot be discarded because elsewhere the Bible speaks of a spiritual resurrection, i.e. Ephesians 2:1-6. Referencing John 5:25-29 Ladd points out the emphasis on spiritual resurrection and bodily resurrection in the same context. He states that nonmillenarians argue that Revelation 20 should be interpreted in a way analogous to John 5. An argument that I’m not certain Ladd adequately defends nor does it seem can be easily dismissed. The Apostle John is the writer of both his Gospel and Revelation and it would seem that his understanding of the resurrection would be consistent. Pointing out this example would not seem to justify Ladd’s view, but actually could serve to hurt it. Continuing through his explanation of the first and second resurrections mentioned in Revelation 20:4 and vs. 5 respectively, Ladd concludes that this passage, “4 And they lived and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. 5 But the rest of the dead did not live again until the thousand years were finished. This is the first resurrection,” is referring to a literal, physical resurrection. [22] For me, this discussion deserves additional attention, because I’m not sure Ladd has impressed upon me the importance of proving a literal resurrection here as a proof for the premillennial position.

As Ladd begins to conclude his position, he points out that the strongest argument against the millennial position is that the 1000 years is only mentioned in Revelation 20. [23] It would seem precarious to build a major doctrinal position on such a difficult and isolated passage as Revelation 20, but the burden of proof rests on the millenarian. In conclusion of reviewing Ladd’s historical premillennial view, I’d like to provide some questions that Ladd raises in his concluding remarks: 1) Upon death, Scripture is clear that the righteous inherit eternal life and the wicked eternal punishment; the premillennial view however, would lead either to the position of no death in the millennium or that upon death a believer enters back into the millennium in their glorified bodies, neither of which is supported in Scripture. Ladd states, “Eternal life (from Matthew 25:46) is not the millennium but the eternal life of the Age to Come.” The logical conclusion from this statement would seem to undercut his position of the millennium and his explanation of a literal resurrection prior to the millennium. 2) From Ladd, “I can find no trace of the idea of either an interim earthly kingdom or of a millennium in the Gospels.” Interestingly the phrase Kingdom of God is used some 50+ times in the Gospels, not to mention the use of Kingdom of Heaven 30+ times, yet according to Ladd neither is ever in used in relation to a millennium. A point so critical to the fulfillment of the person and work of Jesus Christ, as the millennial kingly reign would appear to be, and yet Jesus never mentions it one time. 3) “The New Testament nowhere expounds the theology of the millennium, that is, its purpose in God’s redemptive plan.” As Ladd points out in this quote, this is among the most serious difficulties with the premillennial position.

These questions (and others) would lead one to ask, if the millennium serves no purpose in “eternal life”, has no clear reference to the Kingdom and reign of Christ in the Gospels, and is never clearly developed as a doctrinal position nor connected to God’s redemptive plan in the New Testament, what then is the purpose of the millennium? Ladd seemingly concludes that it is to “reveal to the world as we know it the glory and power of Christ’s reign” [24] and upon the release of Satan to lead the rebellion of men, it serves to “commend the justice of God in the final judgment.” [25] Neither of these reasons seem compelling to convince me of the historic premillennial position, as both reasons have been progressively answered/revealed throughout the pages of Scripture into the present.

Next: A Response to Dispensational Premillennialism

[1] Ladd, George Ladd, et.al. The Meaning of the Millennium: Four Views. Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1977.

[2] Page 17

[3] http://www.monergism.com/directory/link_category/Eschatology/Millennial-Views/Historic-Premillennialism/ (accessed June 29, 2013)

[4] Page 18

[5] http://www.monergism.com/directory/link_category/Dispensationalism/ (accessed June 30, 2013)

[6] Page 18

[7] For a discussion on the difficulty of defining “literal interpretation” see Vern Poythress’ article “What is Literal Interpretation?” available here: http://www.the-highway.com/literal1_Poythress.html

[8] Grammatical-historical interpretation may be defined as: “an objective procedure for determining the meaning intended by the human author through an examination of the language of the text and its historical circumstances.” See: http://www.frame-poythress.org/the-presence-of-god-qualifying-our-notions-of-grammatical-historical-interpretation-genesis-315-as-a-test-case/

[9] Page 19

[10 Ibid.

[11] Page 20

[12] Page21

[13] Page 25; He cites Romans 4:11, Romans 4:16, Galatians 3:7, Galatians 3:19, Romans 2:28-29, and Galatians 6:16 as a few examples.

[14] Page 29

[15] Page 29-30

[16] Page 30

[17] Page 31

[18] Ibid.

[19] Page 32

[20] Page 33

[21] Page 35

[22] Page 37

[23] Page 38

[24] Page 39

[25] Page 40

About the author

Christian saved by grace through faith.


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