What is historic premillennialism?
Question: "What is historic premillennialism?"
Answer: Historic premillennialism and dispensational premillennialism are two very different systems of eschatology. Here are just a few examples of the many differences between the two:
• Historic premillennialism taught that the church was in the fore-vision of Old Testament prophecy, while dispensationalism teaches that the church is hardly, if at all, mentioned by the Old Testament prophets.
• Historic premillennialism taught that the present age of grace was designed by God and predicted in the Old Testament. Dispensationalism holds that the present age was unforeseen in the Old Testament and thus is a “great parenthesis” introduced because the Jews rejected the kingdom.
• Historic premillennialism taught that one may divide time in any way desirable so long as one allows for a millennium after the second advent. Dispensationalism maintains that the only allowable way to divide time is into seven dispensations. The present age is the sixth such dispensation; the last one will be the millennial age after the second coming. It is from this division of time that dispensationalism gets its name.
As a result, the premillennial theory of the end times is advanced in several different ways. Frankly, it is not an easy task to generalize regarding this system of doctrine. So, for the purposes of this article we will focus mainly on that branch of millennialism that is known as historic premillennialism. However, in looking at historic premillennialism, it’s helpful to understand that this term is one of many that pertain to the study of eschatology, i.e., the study of the end of history from a Christian perspective. The Bible references many prophecies about the future with the New Testament speaking extensively about the return of Jesus to this earth. The 24th chapter of Matthew, much of the book of Revelation, and 1 Thessalonians 4:16-18 are the more salient references to the second advent of Jesus.
There are a host of various interpretations regarding the second coming, both symbolic and literal. A literal interpretation of the Bible shows that four important events are predicted: the Millennium, the Tribulation, the Armageddon, and the Rapture. Nevertheless, biblical passages predicting the future are ambiguous with the events themselves being open to many interpretations. As a result, there is no clear indication of either their timing or sequence. For example, some Christians believe that “millennium” does not mean a time interval of exactly 1,000 years. Rather, it refers to a long period of time. Then others interpret these events as descriptions of real happenings in our future, while still others interpret them symbolically and/or as events that have already occurred.
This leaves the passages open to many conflicting beliefs about the end times. A lot of intra-denominational and inter-denominational strife has resulted from disagreements about end-times prophecy. For example, the Roman Catholic Church and most mainline and liberal denominations do not expect that a Rapture will occur in the way anticipated by many fundamentalist and other evangelical faith groups.
All this, then, brings us to historic premillennialism. Historic premillennialism was held by a large majority of Christians during the first three centuries of the Christian era. It draws its name from the fact that many of the early Church fathers such as Ireneaus, Papias, Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Hippolytus, and others taught that there would be a visible kingdom of God upon the earth after the return of Christ. It taught that the Antichrist first appears on earth and the seven-year Tribulation begins. Next comes the Rapture when Jesus and His Church return to earth to rule for a Millennium. The faithful then will spend eternity in the New Jerusalem, a gigantic cubical structure, some 1,380 miles in height, width and depth, which will have descended to Earth.
The New Jerusalem is also known as the Celestial City, the City of God, the Heavenly Jerusalem, the Holy City, the Shining City on a Hill, the Tabernacle of God, Zion, and so on. It is then that the forces of evil will have been conquered. The faithful will live during this thousand-year period of peace in Jerusalem, while occupying spiritual bodies. After this period, all people are judged.
When Christianity became the official religion of Rome in the fourth century, many things began to change, including acceptance of historic premillennialism. Amillennialism soon became the prevailing doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church.
One of the most influential historic premillennialist works is that of George Eldon Ladd, who was an evangelical New Testament scholar and professor of New Testament exegesis and theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. Ladd was recognized for his enormous appreciation of the redemptive-historic significance of the first coming of the Christ. It was through his work that historic premillennialism gained scholarly respect and popularity among evangelical and Reformed theologians. Other well-known historic premillennialists include ministers and scholars such as Walter Martin; John Warwick Montgomery; J. Barton Payne; Henry Alford, a noted Greek scholar; and Theodor Zahn, a German New Testament scholar.
Various Protestant denominations and other church organizations promote one of many systems of prophecy concerning the end times, of which historic premillennialism is one. Additionally, as we’ve seen, there is the dispensational premillennialism. All of the theories that have been proposed about the timing of the Rapture appear to contradict some passages in the Bible. Current beliefs include the pre-tribulation Rapture, the post-tribulation Rapture, the mid-tribulation Rapture, the pre-wrath Rapture, and a partial Rapture. Generally, all of the premillennialist beliefs mentioned teach that the Tribulation is followed by 1,000 years of peace when all live under the authority of Christ. Afterwards, in a brief, final battle, Satan is permanently conquered.
Recommended Resource: A Case for Historic Premillennialism by Blomberg & Chung
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