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Volume 7, Issue 6: Eschatoon

The Case Against Premillennialism

Jack Van Deventer

Premillennialism is the doctrine that there will be an earthly reign of Christ established by His second coming. His coming will initiate a 1,000 year period, the millennium, in which peace and righteousness will be the rule.

This article deals with dispensational premillennialism which has been the dominant eschatology among evangelicals in the U.S. since at least the early 1900's. One prominent radio preacher noted, " Most people are dispensational, but they don't know it." 1The premillennial eschatology filling most Christian bookstores is the dispensational variety forewarning readers of holocaust, Armageddon, and rapture. However, the heyday of this form of premillennialism seems to be waning; even adherents admit that their doctrine has come under severe attack in the last decade.
Principal criticisms of premillennialism involve (1) its claim to superior (literal) hermeneutics, (2) its claims of historicity, (3) the transitional and disintegrating theological foundations of dispensationalism, and (4) the timing of the millennium and related events.
(1) Dispensationalists pride themselves in their belief in the literal interpretation of the Scriptures. They contrast this claim of literalism against others who allegedly use a spiritualizing or allegorizing method of interpretation. Charles Ryrie argues that since all prophecies concerning the first coming of Christ were fulfilled literally, it stands to reason that all prophecies concerning the second coming will also be literal.2The problem for premillennialists is that this is simply not true. A review of the prophecies concerning Christ reveal that only 34 of the 97 (35%) were fulfilled literally.3The rest were analogical or typical fulfillments. Some premillennialists have begun to admit that such exclusive claims to literalness have been exaggerated. 4 Critics maintain that hermeneutics did not determine dispensational premillennial theology but rather the reverse. The inconsistencies of this view are well documented 5 and have undermined its credibility.
(2) Ryrie has claimed "premillennialism is the historic faith of the church." 6 Lightner comments that premillennialism is "the oldest of the three millennial views" and prevailed "virtually unchallenged until the time of Origen (185-254) and his allegorical and nonliteral methods of interpretation of Scripture." 7 Both Ryrie and Lightner were professors at Dallas Theological Seminary where Alan Patrick Boyd completed his masters thesis on the eschatology of the early church fathers. Boyd wrote "It is the conclusion of this thesis that Dr. Ryrie's statement is historically invalid." 8 "These churchmen were not literalistic; drew no essential distinction between Israel and the Church; did not have a dispensational view of history; . . . did not hold to imminency and pretribulationism; and their eschatological chronology was not synonymous with Dispensationalism's."9Boyd's thesis stated Ryrie changed his opinion on the historicity of premillennialism but lamented that published corrections had not been made. Despite Boyd's findings and documentation by others, Lightner continued to claim this as late as 1990.
(3) Dispensational premillennialism is undergoing an identity crisis. In the last 30 years, many books have been written challenging dispensationalism's claims of biblical legitimacy. Despite being the dominant eschatology among evangelicals, dispensational theologians are now quick to admit that their system lacks definition and meaning.10The theological transitions have many dispensationalists expressing uncertainty about their own system. In the context of defending dispensationalism, one theologian urged "the dispensational community to publish decisive clarification of the significant issues of dispensationalism in terms of its history, its essential identifying element s . . . and the decisive issues that distinctly set dispensationalists apart from covenantalists. Dispensationalists must seize the present opportunity to state what is and what is not essential to dispensationalism . . . and how dispensationalism of the 1990's differs from that of past decades."11
And why will dispensationalism of the 1990's differ from the past? Because dispensationalists realize some past doctrines are largely indefensible; thus they are having to redefine their system's most essential tenets. They are quick to point out that all eschatological systems have undergone developments and refinements, and this, of course, is true. However, the upheaval within dispensationalism has rocked its very foundation.
(4) The Bible teaches that the great future events (the resurrection, final judgment, and the end of the world) all coincide (Matt. 13:37-50; John 5:25-29; 1 Cor. 15:22-26; Phil 3:20-21; 1 Thes. 4:15,16). Premillennialists teach multiple resurrections, multiple judgments, and multiple, literal second comings. However, there is only a single day of judgment: "He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained" (Acts 17:31a, cf. Dan. 12:2; John 5:28,29; Acts 24:15). Christ's second coming and "the end" will occur at the same time (that is, no 1,000 or 1,007 year gap): "Then comes the end, when He delivers the kingdom to God the Father; . . . He must reign till He has put all enemies under His feet" (1 Cor. 15:24-26).
The future direction of this form of premillennialism is currently uncertain as proponents are dividing into traditional and progressive dispensationalism, with others adopting a classical premillennial view. But despite their short history (about 160 years), dispensational premillennialists do deserve praise for upholding the Bible as the inerrant word of God, and for combatting liberalism when the Church at large was falling into apostasy. Indeed, the bulk of evangelism in the last century has been accomplished by godly premillennialists, and I am among those personally indebted to their proclamation of the Word of God.

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