What the Millennialists Have Right

Back in the days when theologians in the world of conservative Protestantism got excited about the differences among premillennialists, postmillenialists, and amillennialists, it was not uncommon for someone to make light of the controversies by saying, “I don’t know whether I am premil, postmil, or amil, but I do know that I am pro-mil–whatever the millennium is, I am for it!” I have never been able to dismiss the arguments quite that easily, although I do pretty much fall into the agnostic camp on the subject. But mine is a deeply puzzled agnosticism. I have long had the sense that there are important issues at stake in those controversies. This sense was reawakened recently by reading Luke Timothy Johnson on the subject.

Professor Johnson is a theologian that I always read carefully. His work on fidelity to the ancient creeds and his insights on the importance of religious experience to New Testament scholarship have helped me much on these topics. Even when I disagree with him, as I do on the subject of same-sex relationships, I always benefit from reading him.

A piece he wrote recently in the May 22, 2009, issue of Commonweal is no exception. Under the title, “How Is the Bible True? Let Me Count the Ways,” Professor Johnson offers some wise advice on the need to read the Bible with what he labels “literary imagination.” In the course of making his case, he goes after “the hermeneutics of millenarianism,” a pattern of thought very familiar to us in the evangelical world. He rightly notes the silliness in the ways many “Bible prophecy” buffs have found the number 666 hidden in the names or titles of folks like the Pope, Hitler, Stalin, Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. (One that he missed, that got some circulation back in the 1970s, was the thesis, supported by numerous biblical references, that Henry Kissinger was the Antichrist!)

All that is fair game, as is Johnson’s further observation that these ways of connecting passages in Revelation and Daniel to today’s headlines are frequently used to support “reactionary social values and political activism.” There are many of us on the evangelical side who will add our “Amens” to these observations.

So here is the part that troubles me in the way he illustrates his overall case. Johnson not only goes out after the silly stuff but he treats the silliness as if it were essential to “millenarianism” as such–to the belief that the one thousand year reign of Christ referred to in Revelation 20 points to an actual millennial period that will occur in human histor y, before the ushering of the complete newness of eternity.

Let me say right off that I lean toward the “amillennial” perspective: the view that sees Revelation’s millennial reference as a symbolic portrayal of the perfect Kingdom of Christ, established by his atoning work and, while presently hidden, will someday be fully realized in the new heavens and the new earth. Of the two other perspectives, I am least taken with the “postmillennial view” that Christ’s return will be preceded by a new era of peace and justice made possible by the increasing influence of the church in the world. That view, given much impetus during the 19th century due to that era’s fascination with “progress,” seems to me to have been discredited by the horrible “regressions” of the 20th century.

The “premillennial” view is a different story for me. I am not convinced of it but I do take it seriously. For one thing, I have long been fascinated by the fact that serious thinkers, ones who are otherwise much aligned with the overall Reformed theology that I endorse, have nonetheless held out for the notion of a future literal thousand-year reign of Christ on earth before the ushering in of the eternal Kingdom in its fullness. My sense of the complexity of the issues at stake here was reinforced by my reading, around the same time that I read Professor Johnson’s article, of an excellent book by R. Todd Mangum, The Dispensational-Covenantal Rift: The Fissuring of American Evangelical Theology from 1936 to 1944 (Paternoster, 2007). In this study (a revision of his Dallas Seminary doctoral dissertation), Mangum unravels several strands of premillennial thought, making it clear that not all that went by that label was essentially tied to the kind of popular dispensationalism associated with the Scofield Bible–nor did all those who endorsed a premillennial hermeneutic (many of them prominent Presbyterians) see themselves as departing from the basics of Reformed covenantal theology. Those of us who know a bit of Christian Reformed history will remember that Dietrich Kromminga, longtime historical theology professor at Calvin Seminary, was a committed premillennialist–and even though some insisted that this placed him in conflict with the Belgic Confession, he was never convicted of heresy.

But here is my basic concern with Professor Johnson’s critique of millennialist thought: at the heart of the insistence on a literal millennial period is a fundamental insight that I find compelling, and is often missed by millennialism’s critics. The late George Eldon Ladd, himself a premillennialist who had a distinguished career at Fuller Seminary, expressed this insight succinctly in his A Theology of the New Testament: “Christ is now reigning as Lord and King, but his reign is veiled, unseen, and unrecognized by the world… His reign must become public in power and glor y and his Lordship universally recognized.”

I see Ladd exercising in this comment the very “literary imagination” that Johnson insists is lacking in millennial thought. Undergirding the literal-millennium conviction, Ladd is saying, is the profound sense that the concrete realities of the reign of Christ have to be seen in very visible ways within human history. And the underlying conviction is this: that at some time or another we have to see it. How could the Bible make so much of the very visible and concrete correctives that God wants to bring about in our broken world and yet never guarantee that these realities will be made visible on a grand scale? Will there ever be a highly visible display of the mighty being knocked from their thrones, the poor being exalted, the hungry being satisfied with good things, and the corrupt rich being sent empty away? Somehow, some way, we have to see it in the kind of world where we presently see the opposite happening. This need for a universal seeing-of-it is obviously on the mind of the writer of Revelation as he offers his opening salutation:

Look! He is coming with the clouds;
every eye will see him, even those who pierced him;
and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail.
So it is to be. Amen.
(Rev. 1:7)

We have to see it. More importantly, the unbelieving world has to see it. The dictators, war-mongers, those who buy and sell precious human beings in the international sex-slave trade–people like that have to see it, and “wail” because of what they are seeing. Some time, some place along the way–this Kingdom thing in its fullness has to be made visible, concrete.

Those of us who lean toward amillennialism need to absorb that emphasis. We have often been content with a “symbolic” portrayal of the fullness of the Kingdom, arguing that the reign of Christ shows up in human history in small incremental ways. We have been content simply to sing, “with deeds of love and mercy, The heav’nly kingdom comes,” and let it go at that.

I’m not happy staying there. The millennialists have stirred my “literary imagination” too much on the subject for me to stick with a perspective that deals only with a hidden Kingdom. Not that I am ready to concede that I need a literal millennium in the course of human history to satisfy me theologically on this subject. But I am grateful to millennialists for prodding me to think about what I do need theologically to capture their fundamental insight. And I suspect that Luke Timothy Johnson, too, would be helped by having his literary imagination stirred up a bit by the millennialists.

Richard J. Mouw is the president of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California.