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The Thousand Year Itch

February 5, 2009

I’ve been listening to the online lectures of the always edifying Dr. Kim Riddlebarger entitled Amillennialism 101, which are available on his blog. Perhaps this will come as a shock, but his main point of disagreement is with Dispensationalism, the eschatology of his youth. It seems when he became a man he put away chiliastic things.

His point is well taken that a “my verses can beat up your verses” approach fails to get below the surface to the underlying differences in hermeneutics and presuppositions. One particular limitation is that he mainly takes on the Classical Dispensationalists, which allows him to Evel Knievel over not only ten centuries to come but also the past half century of doctrinal development in the premillennial camp. If there is something of a “fish-in-a-barrel” quality to the discussion, it comes from his drumming on the old Dispy claim of “consistent literal” interpretation. Now, it seems to me that even way back in the mid-80s at DTS, this claim was seriously open to question.

Dr. Riddlebarger counters with the analogia fidei, Scripture interprets Scripture, with the odd intimation that Amillennialists employ this principle but Dispensationalists don’t. In my ever humble opinion, I suggest that the truth is that we have two competing rules of thumb. One: the literal sense should prevail unless there is an indication otherwise, with which Dr. Riddlebarger is in full agreement. Two: that the best indication of what Scripture means is Scripture itself, which I happen to know Dispensationalists also believe. It appears to me that in practice, the Amil application of the analogia fidei ends up not only harmonizing but homogenizing and often flattens out the details of various prophetic texts. I call it their “Infinite Elasticity Principle” that does away with those pesky facts that don’t fit the theory. He advocates Amillennialism in part because he states it is the view that covers the greatest number of passage with the least amount of “tweaking.” I only have audio, but I am given to understand that he says this with a straight face.

The Dispensationalists’ self-identification with “consistent literal” interpretation I take to be a reaction against the Amils’ tendancy to leap before they look into a figurative interpretation. It is all well and good to say an Old Testament prophecy to Israel has been fulfilled in Christ, but we still have to exegete the passage. If it is figurative, what are the figures? What do they mean? So Dispensationalists have tended to hug closer to my principle one (above) than two perhaps, even if the claim to being consistently literal cannot be sustained.

I wouldn’t insist on this, but it seems perhaps: Amillennialists exegete like theologians and Dispensationalists theologize like exegetes.

If I am making this sound like a situation where balance would come in handy, that is the beauty of Progressive Dispensationalism. It shares a great deal with Covenant Theology, but is (IMO) still distinctly Dispensational. (My suggestion to rename it “D-formed Theology” has not really caught on).

No matter what we say about any other parts of the Bible, even the names of the various eschatological views come down to how each understands Revelation 19-20, the famous 1000 year passage. Whether the 1000 years is literal is not the point, but if chapter 20 flows from the Second Coming in chapter 19 and continues with a millennial reign of Christ followed by the New Heavens and New Earth, then the text is not consistent with Amillennialism. Accordingly, the Amils state that there is a break at chapter 20 and that from this point it refers to the first coming and that the thousand years is the time between the first and second advents. Now, I find this far from obvious in the actual text, and it helps the Amils if you don’t look too closely at it. And it is all too easy to dismiss, discount or ignore the book of Revelation. As you are doubtless aware, it has a reputation for being almost impenetrably incomprehensible.

Yet this is an exaggeration. One complication of Revelation is that it presents two layers, two communication events with very different properties. The first layer is the visionary experience given to John (and indirectly to us). This is where the difficult symbols occur that present a challenge for interpretation. This layer is non-literary; the vision itself is not John’s composition. That we so often try to interpret it as if it were is a problem.

The second layer is John’s account of what he saw, which he was commanded to write in 1:11. This literary layer in itself presents few interpretive difficulties: John, the narrator sees this, hears that, various entities come and go, do this, say that. The characters are often bizarre, sometimes hard to picture, but on the whole the action is straightforward and the language visual and concrete. It is much like a drama, or a film that plays out before him, and he describes this to us.

How the drama progresses is one of the main interpretive questions, but it moves generally toward a climax, clearly—the all-time climax of the New Heavens and New Earth. Events do not necessarily occur in Jack Bauer real time. Neither is it Groundhog Day; suggestions of recapitulation are significantly overplayed. Starting about chapter 11 we have a sort of Dramatis Personae where major characters are introduced, and these will interact through chapter 20.

I think there are several lines of evidence that demonstrate a continuous narrative from chapter 19 to 20. There are no mathematical proofs in exegesis, but I suggest that a unbiased reading of the chapters is highly inconsistent with the idea of a chronological backshift at 20:1. Tracking the references to the characters is illuminating:

The beast is described in chapter 13, and it is given authority by the dragon (v. 4) and the false prophet reflects the dragon in its speech (13:11) and exercises delegated authority from the beast (13:12) and by this power it deceives the people of the earth. In 16:13 these three are said to send out deceiving spirits to bring about the war of Armageddon.

In 19:11 the Word, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords arrives on a white horse and defeats the armies assembled by the dragon, the beast and the false prophet. His weapon is a sword from his mouth (v. 15), and then we are told, “he will rule them with a rod of iron,” the isolated future tense here being consistent with an understanding that the reigning of 20:4 is chronologically subsequent. 19:20 continues: “And the beast was captured, and with it the false prophet who in its presence had done the signs by which he deceived those who had received the mark of the beast and those who worshiped its image. These two were thrown alive into the lake of fire that burns with sulfur.”

Two of the three instigators of the war are dealt with here, and the third, the dragon is incarcerated three verses later. However, three verses later takes us into chapter 20, and there really is no indication of a shift in perspective at all. Yet the Amils maintain that at 20:1 the real-life historical reference is now at the time of Christ’s first advent rather than the second. Verse 20:2 is the first reference to the thousand years, and verse 3 contains a back reference: “so that he might not deceive the nations any longer,” connecting to the “deceived” of 19:20 as the most recent of several repeated references to deception by the dragon’s power.

In verse four there is a back reference to the beast and to its mark: “Also I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands.” It is stating the obvious to say that this occurs at least after the beast has begun to afflict the saints, and it would appear to be most consistent with a situation after it has been defeated. Reference to the beast does not occur again, except after the thousand years in a reminder that it and the false prophet are in the lake of fire (v. 10)

These souls are said to come to life and reign with Christ for a thousand years (v. 4), an event called “the first resurrection” (v. 5). According to Amillenniarians this resurrection symbolizes, not bodily resurrection but either regeneration (passing from spiritual death to life) or the death/translation to heaven of believers, or both of these. That such concepts are symbolized by individuals that in the drama are (1) already Christians and (2) already dead (absent from the body, present with the Lord) does not appear to dissuade them. It makes me scratch my head, however.

Furthermore, from the first advent to the second, people are born again and die and go to be with the Lord on an ongoing basis, and at least some Amillennialists (Dr. Riddlebarger included) see the beast as symbolic of an ongoing opposing presence throughout the present age. This situation we are told is pictured in Revelation by a resurrection that occurs only at the beginning of the thousand years: all the raised saints reign for the entirety of the thousand years, and we are told explicitly that no more dead are raised in all that time (v.5).

Finally, the dragon (now referred to as the devil) is released, causes a war and gets thrown in turn into the lake of fire (v. 10), and at this point another back reference occurs to the events of 19:20: “where the beast and the false prophet were.” These two are not mentioned as being involved in this war, but are mentioned as being in the lake of fire. We are told by the Amils that this is the same war as before, but I suggest that it is far more consistent with the details of the text to see two wars one before and one after the thousand years.

Bless their hearts, Amillennialists do advance evidence for seeing chapter 20 as a recapitulation: war and judgment at the end of both, can’t see how people are deceived after a thousand years of Christ’s victory. They cite “And I saw” or a “descending angel motif” in 20:1 as a transition marker, suggestions which are dubious, and certainly do not signal a backward time shift. At least LOST gives us a “whoosh.” Where is the Amil who will stand up and say, “Besides, we really need it to say that.”

I hesitate to employ so bad a line here as “the devil is in the details,” but it seems to me that close attention to the particulars of the text make the Amil take on the passage extremely unlikely. Where does anologia fidei stop and eisegesis start? I think that if you have to tweak the gehenna out of it, that ought to be a clue.


4 Comments leave one →
  1. February 16, 2010 10:55 pm

    The devil is in the details; so here is one: As you remind us, we are told of only the first resurrection at the beginning of the 1000 year period. I have yet to hear a fair explanation by a Dispy or a progress Dispy explain where the second Resurrection is? To focus on exegesis, where in the text is it? Why resurrect some first and others later? We know that there is a resurrection unto death, but where is the resurrection of the others who supposedly believe and die throughout the period? I’m not sure if I made my question clear, but I’ll let it stand.

    Speaking of “End Times” we need to move beyond Rev. 19-20 and build this passage into a consistent biblical framework. Christianity is an “eschatological” religion. The center of that religion is the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. If the Resurrection of Christ is not considered in this discussion, and neither is the doctrine of incorporation, we have run a fool’s errand and end up creating wild and untamed theories. Exegesis must be considered within the context and framework of the whole and the intent of the Divine Author must be considered as much as the intent of the human one.

    That framework – in my opinion – has been well brought to light by Oscar Cullmann’s Christ and Time. Unfortunatley, Progressive Dispensationalist Marvin Pate (as an example) fumbles the ball all over the place by failing to grasp what the Already/Not Yet principle teaches as it centers on Christ, and instead he tries to turn it into a principle of “double-fulfillment” – which it has nothing to do with.

    One further challenge put forth here is that I have yet to read a Dispy or a progress Dispy explain the Amil view without caricaturing it to death, as I think you’ve done above. It is difficult when you don’t hold to a view to express it as if you did for accuracy sake; but it would be nice to see this done on occasion.

    P.S. I am a Amillennialists with Postmillennial gleanings. I grew out hardcore dispensational but when I discovered the Covenant of God and the scarlet thread this brings to unite the scriptures as a whole – that God is no longer arbitrary and that his calling of Israel served a purpose, that he actually shows no favortism and so on. Well, these wild fantasies I had of dispensationalism had to go. And what do you know, even Revelation begins to make sense.

  2. February 16, 2010 11:08 pm

    Here’s irony for you, but am I correct that this blogger (asphalea) is Marvin Pate?

    I just discovered this as I was about to leave (note to self, always read “About” before leaving a comment).

    In any case, if I came off harsh, my apologies. I read your book, What Does the Future Hold? and you sacrificed too much accuracy for simplicity in my opinion, not making a clear enough distinction between Historic Premill and Dispen and caricaturing both the Postmill and the Amill position.

    I found that annoying but appreciate the effort to make the various views of eschatology accessible to the average Christian. In your revised edition I would appreciate a more “non-partisan” approach before closing off with your own view.

  3. asphaleia permalink*
    February 18, 2010 7:15 pm

    Derek, thanks for reading and for your comments. It is entirely possible that I unfairly characature the Amil position. I don’t wish to, though I might claim fairness to do so, since at times it seems characturizing Dispensationalism is practically taken for the national passtime in some quarters. I’ll mull the resurrection question, though I’m not quite sure at this point how Christ’s own resurrection must be here in the picture. It is the report of a vision, of course, and what is meant by “first” may have to be considered in this light.

    And I am NOT Marvin Pate. I must be the OTHER Marvin.


  1. Guest Blogger Marv : The Thousand Year Itch | The Bible Archive

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