What is premillennialism?
In Christianity, premillennialism is a viewpoint on the end times, which teaches that the Second Coming of Jesus Christ will occur before the 1,000-year "millennial" period, as described in the Bible (cf. Rev. 20:1-6).
Unlike amillennialism and postmillennialism, premillennialism interprets the number 1,000 literally, not figuratively. Additionally, premillennialists believe that the 1,000-year millennial kingdom will be located on earth and that the curse of sin (cf. Gen. 3:1-19) will be removed at that time. After the millennial kingdom is completed, the eternal state will be established.
Within the premillennial belief system, adherents are divided into “historic” (also called “covenant”) premillennialists, and “dispensational” premillennialists. Both of these groups fall under the heading “premillennialism” because they both believe that the Second Coming will occur prior to the 1,000-year millennial period. One significant difference between the perspectives regards their understanding of the nation of Israel. Below is a deeper discussion on these views.
Differences between covenant and dispensational premillennialism
It's important to understand that covenant premillennialism holds that Old Testament prophecies regarding Israel were fulfilled by Israel's New Testament "replacement," which is the Christian Church. This means that the nation of Israel no longer holds a unique place in God's redemptive plan. The nation of Israel today is like any other nation that needs the gospel of Jesus Christ, but they are no longer God's unique and holy instrument.
Unlike dispensational premillennialists, who hold that Christians will be taken from the earth in order to avoid the seven-year tribulation in an event called "the rapture," covenant premillennialists hold that believers will go through the seven-year tribulation period. Theologian Paul Benware explains:
"Covenant (“historic”) premillennialism does not make a sharp distinction between the church and Israel, and it regularly spiritualizes the Old Testament. On these major points it is much like amillennialism and significantly differs from dispensational premillennialism. Because of this approach, covenant premillennialism generally believes that the church will remain on the earth during the period of the Tribulation, not being raptured out of the world until after this seven-year period of trouble."
Historic premillennialism graph
Christ Rapture/Second Coming __||____|____|_____ Church Age The Tribulation The Millennium The Eternal State
A major element separating covenant and dispensational premillennialism is the later believes in the rapture, which is a term derived from the Latin word “rapturo,” meaning “to seize” or “rescue”. The rapture refers to the sudden and supernatural removal of Christians prior to the seven-year tribulation period. A key biblical passage for dispensationalists regarding the rapture is 1 Thessalonians 4:15-19, which reads:
According to the Lord’s own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord Himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.
Since Christ will not return to the earth completely, but meets believers in the air, dispensationalists hold this passage does not refer to the Second Coming, but to the rapture.
Dispensational premillennialism graph
Christ Rapture Second Coming |__|__|____|___ Church Age The Tribulation The Millennium The Eternal State
Premillennialists observe a simple chronology in the book of Revelation that serves as the framework for interpreting the passages:
- First, Revelation 19, tells of the Second Coming of Christ.
- Second, Revelation 20:1-6, tells of the 1,000-year millennial period.
- Third, Revelation 20:7-22:21 tells of Satan’s eternal destiny, the judgment of the dead, the new heavens and the new earth, the vision of the New Jerusalem, and the river of life, which all positions agree refers to the eternal state.
As a result of this reading, premillennialists will ask, why interpret Revelation 20:1-6 out of chronological order when the passages before and after it are in sequential order? Furthermore, why understand the passage in a spiritual, figurative manner, when the passages before and after it, although using descriptive imagery, are understood literally by all positions?