Amillennialism views the millennial kingdom as a present reality, while acknowledging that some elements associated with the millennium are still future. Thus, amillennialists view the age between the first and second advents of Christ as fulfilling the prophecies of both the tribulation and the millennium. Typically they view Satan as having been bound at the cross, the resurrection in connection with the kingdom as occurring when the graves of some of the saints were opened at the resurrection of Christ, Pentecost as being the sign of Christ’s kingdom come on earth, and the persecution of the early church as fulfilling, at least in part, the prophecies of the tribulation period. The question is: “How do they arrive at such an allegorized view of the kingdom?
In order to understand amillennialism, we must first understand the nature of the kingdom program as it unfolded in the gospels. Obviously, there could be no physical kingdom unless it began as a spiritual kingdom. The reason is that there can be no physical kingdom unless there are spiritually regenerate people to whom the promises of the kingdom can be fulfilled; thus it should be evident that any promise of a visible (physical) kingdom made in the Old Testament implied an initial preparatory spiritual component. In fact, that idea is explicit in a number of Old Testament passages (Isa. 44:1-5; 21-23; Jer. 3:15; 23:14-18; 31:1, 27-34; Ezek. 11:19-20; 20:1-44; 36:25-32; 37:11-14, 21-28; 43:6-9; Hos. 6:1-3; 14:4-8; Joel 2:12-17, 28-32; Mic. 7:18-20; Zech. 13:7-9). Therefore, it should come as no surprise that the initial step in Christ’s work of establishing his kingdom was spiritual, and consequently the initial manifestation of the kingdom was spiritual. Of course, that initial work was rejected by Israel; hence the spiritual element of the kingdom has yet to be implemented as far as national Israel is concerned; it can only be fully implemented when Israel comes to faith in Christ (in the future). Since the physical kingdom cannot be manifested until the prerequisite spiritual aspect is in place, the physical/visible stage is in abeyance, awaiting the spiritual regeneration of Israel. Thus the picture of the kingdom presented in the gospels is limited to the spiritual element, since the kingdom program did not advance beyond that point during Christ’s earthly ministry.
Amillennialists make a critical error in constructing their concept of the kingdom primarily on information from the gospels, rather than the broader context of the Old Testament (i.e., the antecedent theology of the kingdom). Since the kingdom program as presented in the gospels never moved beyond the initial spiritual phase, amillennialists incorrectly assume that phase defines the totality of the kingdom idea in the New Testament. In other words, they assume that the gospels present a complete picture of the kingdom, one that is essentially spiritual in character, rather than the initial spiritual beginning of a more fully developed kingdom to come. Since that picture doesn’t conform to the picture given in the Old Testament, amillennialists are forced to argue that the Old Testament concept of the kingdom must be “re-interpreted” in the light of the New Testament (i.e., the picture presented in the gospels). This essentially redefines the Old Testament concept of the kingdom to conform to the amillennialist’s reductionistically flawed view derived from reading the gospels in isolation from their antecedent Old Testament theological background. Of course the book of Revelation is problematic in that it was written well after the statements made in the gospels, and still presents a picture of the kingdom that in every respect is the same as that presented in the Old Testament. The amillennial approach to dealing with the inconsistency between their view of the kingdom and Revelation is to insist that unclear prophetic portions of scripture (i.e., Revelation and Old Testament prophecy) must be understood in the light of clearer passages (i.e., their view of the kingdom as derived from the gospels). Thus, the spiritual element of the kingdom presented in the gospels becomes the sum of the amillennialist’s conception of the kingdom. In this article three amillennial assumptions will be challenged: first, the priority of the New Testament in the interpretation of the Old Testament; second, the accuracy of amillennialism’s spiritual conception of the kingdom; and third, amillennialism’s disregard of the plain implications of the book of Revelation.
The amillennial assumption of the priority of the New Testament in the interpretation of the Old Testament
Amillennialists insist that Old Testament eschatology is framed in “pre-messianic” terms and must be translated into messianic terms (see: A Case for Amillennialism: Understanding the End Times, by Kim Riddlebarger. p. 37). In other words, “Israel” in the Old Testament must be understood as “the Church,” and the physical kingdom pictured in the Old Testament must be understood as the spiritual kingdom referred to in the gospels.
The concept of the re-interpretation of the Old Testament by the New ought to be highly disturbing to those who think about it, and it indicates that covenant theology is headed toward a crisis in its understanding of biblical inspiration and canonicity. Why? Because if one must re-interpret the Old Testament in light of the New Testament, it is implicit that the Old Testament revelation, at face value, is inconsistent with the New Testament. However, one of the principal considerations for the inclusion of the New Testament books into the canon of Scripture in the first place was that their teachings were thoroughly consistent with the truths previously taught and accepted from the Old Testament. When the covenantalist claims that the Old Testament must be “re-interpreted” to conform its teaching to his narrow covenantal view derived from reading the New Testament in isolation from its predisposing theology, he or she is calling into question the validity of New Testament inspiration and canonicity. You can’t have it both ways, either the New Testament books have the same concept of the kingdom as the Old Testament, in so far as the Old Testament speaks, or those books don’t belong in the canon. Since it has already been determined that the New Testament books do belong in the canon, we may correctly deduce that the early church viewed those books as literally conforming, doctrinally, to the teachings of the Old Testament.
If the historic criterion upon which the New Testament canon was received is valid, (i.e., that all subsequent writings for which inspiration is claimed must be consistent with all prior inspired writings), then it stands to reason that the Old Testament cannot be re-interpreted in light of the New Testament without invalidating the New Testament claim to inspiration. This does not mean the New Testament may not shed further light on a subject, or introduce additional truths as long as the original truth is conserved in the process. Historically and theologically the Old Testament is not dependant on the New; rather, it is determinative. That is to say, New Testament truth must conform in every respect to Old Testament truth. On the other hand, the New Testament, as a subsequent revelation is dependant, which explains why the New Testament writers were so careful to link their teachings to the determinative truths of the Old Testament, which is the principle use of the Old Testament in the New, not re-interpretation as claimed by covenantalists. When amillennialists state that the New Testament must be seen as the final authority in the interpretation of the Old, what they actually wish to do is to disconnect the New Testament from its antecedent Old Testament theological context, which determines its meaning, so they can then interpolate New Testament eschatology according to their own covenantal assumptions and their reductionistically limited perspective of the kingdom derived from a particularly narrow reading of the gospels, and then pour that reformulated eschatology back into the Old Testament and forward into the book of Revelation.
So, what is the relationship of the New Testament to Old Testament eschatology? Is the New Testament the final authority in interpreting the Old? Yes, in theory. I say “in theory” because the New Testament almost never “interprets” the Old Testament. The usual use of the Old Testament in the New is as proof-texts, which implies that the meaning of the Old Testament is obvious at face value, which explains why so often quotations are made without any explanation of the quoted material at all. So let me put it this way: If one finds an actual interpretation of an Old Testament passage in the New Testament, the interpretation is definitive, and it will always be literal! There simply are no instances where the New Testament re-interprets the face value meaning of the Old Testament. Of course there are many passages in the New Testament that allude to Old Testament texts simply to illustrate a concept or support an element in the premise of an argument, or by way of allusion, but such uses do not constitute interpretations, and often have little or no bearing on the actual interpretation of the Old Testament text. In a much overworked example, some amillennialists point to Peter’s use of Joel 2:28-32 in Acts 2:16 as proof that since Peter declared the Joel prophecy to be fulfilled at Pentecost, it must have been fulfilled non-literally, and thus the true meaning of the Joel passage can only be understood in light of the New Testament use, requiring re-interpretation or spiritualization of the passage. However, the flaw in this case is that Peter did not say that the prophecy of Joel was fulfilled at Pentecost. Peter, in an effort to explain the phenomena of tongues simply said that “this” (i.e., the tongues phenomenon, cf. v. 15) was the same thing Joel described; thus, validating the use of tongues based on a literal understanding of the statements in Joel. To suggest that the other elements of Joel’s prophecy (blood, fire, smoke, etc.) are to be understood allegorically because they were not literally fulfilled at Pentecost is to forget that sometimes the fulfillment of some elements of a prophecy may be separated in time, just as the first and second advents of Christ were separated in time, though often viewed within the same prophecy from the Old Testament perspective (cf. Isa 61:1-3). Does the use of Joel 2:28-32 in Acts 2:16 justify the re-interpretation of the Old Testament in light of the New? Absolutely not. In fact, it confirms to us the literal understanding of Old Testament prophecy by the New Testament speakers and writers. Take another look at Peter’s argument. His argument is that the literal statements in Joel’s prophecy explained the literal phenomenon of tongues. Peter didn’t “spiritualize” or “reinterpret” Joel’s prophecy in any way. In fact, Peter simply assumed that merely quoting this passage with its obvious literal meaning, and completely without any further explanation, would suffice as Old Testament validation of the Pentecost phenomena. If anything, Peter’s use of the Joel passage illustrates that the New Testament is build upon a common normal/objective understanding of the Old Testament, including prophecy.
Amillennialism’s view of the kingdom is admittedly inconsistent with the Old Testament, as well as book of Revelation. The amillennial conception of the kingdom is derived from a combination of covenant theological assumptions about the nature of the Church and a reductionistically flawed concept of the kingdom as essentially spiritual. This tragic mistake made by amillennialists could have been avoided had they observed the simplest of all principles of biblical theology: that antecedent truths are determinative, and subsequent statements must always be understood in light of truth that has already been established. However, amillennialists have turned the process of biblical theology on its head, and as a result they have reaped, and continue to perpetuate great theological error.
Amillennialism’s spiritual conception of the kingdom
The fact that amillennialists concede they must re-interpret or “spiritualize” Old Testament prophecies of the kingdom is prima fascia evidence that their conception of the kingdom is fundamentally at odds with the plain statements of the Old Testament, and with the New Testament book of Revelation. As we have seen, the amillennial concept of the kingdom is based entirely on the initial spiritual nature of the kingdom presented in the gospels. The fallacy amillennialists make is in misidentifying “the part” as “the whole.” It is true that the gospels and the New Testament letters say virtually nothing about the millennial kingdom. However, the prophetic expectation of the physical kingdom was so well established in Old Testament theology as to have been axiomatic in Jesus’ time. Jesus clearly had no interested in the establishment of the physical kingdom at his first advent because to have done so would have precluded his redemptive work, which was in itself a pre-requisite to regeneration, and thus to the establishment of the kingdom in all of its apsects. The promise of the kingdom could never be fulfilled to an unregenerate people, and if Christ had not been rejected and died on the cross there would have been no redemption, and no regeneration. However, to base one’s view of the broader kingdom idea on the perspective of the gospels, disconnected from their Old Testament context is incredibly shortsighted, particularly in light of the fact that the book of Revelation, written after the discourses recorded in the gospels took place, teaches precisely the same concept of the physical kingdom as does the Old Testament.
Amillennialism’s disregard of the book of Revelation
In considering the book of Revelation it is important to remember that it was Christ who was the Revealer in this book, and his revelation is thoroughly consistent with the material presented in the gospels. While there are symbols used in the book, it is unreasonable to suppose that the underlying structure of the book itself is symbolic, especially since it comports in every detail with both the Old Testament and to Christ’s teaching in Matthew 24-25. The sequence of future events presented in Revelation is this: the tribulation prophesied in Daniel 9:24-27, the second coming of Christ, the destruction of all opposition to him, the resurrection of the dead, and the rule of the resurrected saints with Christ during the millennium. Whatever symbolism may be employed in describing the nature of these events, the underlying reality of the events and their sequent relationships cannot be symbolic, otherwise there would be no underlying reality to which the symbols in the book could be correlated, in that case the book would be completely devoid of doctrinal meaning. In other words, whether we understand the symbols or not, the events they represent are real and their sequent relationships are generally clear, and it is highly significant that with respect to the events in common, the relationships are precisely the same as given in both the Old Testament, as understood in accordance with normal/objective interpretation, and in Christ’s Olivet Discourse in Matthew 24-25. Any theology that fails to adequately account for this fact is turning a blind eye to the truth, and this is certainly the case with amillennialism. Even supposing that due to the symbolic nature of the book we knew nothing about the particulars of the tribulation, the second coming, the resurrection, and the millennium, we would at least know that the millennium follows the second coming and the resurrection, and only the premillennial view is consistent with that observation.
The fact that Revelation presents a solidly premillennial picture of the future is all the more significant when we realize that it is the final prophetic statement of the New Testament, and in terms of its basic eschatological structure it is unchanged from the picture presented in the Old Testament. What is the implication here for amillennialism? Simply this: They have misunderstood the general nature of the kingdom, because they have rationalized the nature of a part, the spiritual aspect, for the whole, which includes both the spiritual and the physical aspects. This has led to the need to deny the patently premillennial teachings of both the Old and New Testaments, and to allegorize those teachings so as to conform them to erroneous amillennial, and covenantal, assumptions.
(Originally published by Sam A. Smith, BiblicalReader.com, 2005. Revised and republished 2017, BiblicalReaderCommunication.com. For additional information on amillennialism versus premillennialism, and covenant theology versus dispensationalism, see: What the Bible Says About the Future, second edition, by Sam A. Smith. For the print edition click or tap here. For the PDF edition click or tap here.)