There are theological stances that are worth making standards of faith. Increasingly, one’s view of the “millennium” is becoming one of the stances that schools, seminaries, universities, and church bodies are making a standard of faith. I cannot emphasize this enough: this is a terrible mistake.
When I was getting my graduate degree, I signed off on a doctrinal statement with reservations for the school I was attending. That statement, at the time, allowed one to disagree with the school’s position (premillennial dispensationalism) so long as they were willing to learn about that position. I was and am Lutheran and hadn’t learned much about any endtimes position, so was perfectly willing to agree to learn about their own teachings on the topic. That school’s statement of faith has hardened on eschatology, to the point where it now seems to imply that their own particular brand of premillennialism is one of those make or break, in or out views related to sound Christian teaching. It’s not.
One thing that immediately struck me as I was learning about the eschatological position of millenarianism more generally (reading some multiple view books, for example, to try to understand the different positions) was that the supposed plain and simple reading of the text I was told led to premillennial dispensationalism strangely yielded an untold number of divergent charts, timelines, and theories about exactly how it would all play out. One author was absolutely certain some events would happen in a seven day period, while another would say it would take place over 7 years, and another would have a timeline showing how the 7 days were correct but that they were not consecutive days. It was bewildering, coming from an outside perspective, trying to even understand the basics of why anyone would hold to such a view. Surely, if one’s view of eschatology and even the timeline of events of Revelation (usually borrowing selectively from parts of the Old Testament to bolster one’s case) is the clear reading of Scripture that anyone who was being honest about the Bible should come to, it shouldn’t be the case that basically every single adherent of the position would have slight or major differences in something as simple as when a major event should occur.
Of course, logically, divergence of opinion does not necessarily entail that a position is wrong or unclear. However, on the face of it, if someone makes a claim that something is clear and simple, and all the evidence at hand suggests that virtually no one can come to agreement on what this clear and simple fact means, then there seems to be very good reason to doubt that the initial claim of clarity is correct. And this, in part, is why I think we need to say “Down with milllenarianism.” Look, I have no problem with someone who wants to read about rapture theories or make some extensive timeline in which they splice a verse from Daniel into a prediction from Isaiah in order to clarify what sort of military hardware might exist in the endtimes. Go for it! But the problem is when people insist that everyone else must also do the same or else they’re rejecting God’s Word–that’s when it needs to be cut off (if not before). Here are some reasons I think we ought to be extremely skeptical of basically any form of millenarianism.
- Millenarianism is unnecessarily divisive. The fruit of the Spirit does not seem to include divisiveness. Moreover, it seems like millenarianism is producing “bad fruit” if it means that churches and people are splitting when they need not be.
- The forms of eschatology united with millenarianism are fairly recent innovations. In one theology class I took (I can’t remember which), the professor would often say that if some aspect of theology is new, it’s probably heretical. While it’s true that theological innovation continues to happen, when an entirely new way of reading portions of Scripture comes onto the scene that insists on being the one true teaching about the end times, we ought to be highly skeptical. While attempts are made to tie premillenialism to early church theology (see the Wikipedia page on premillennialism, for example, which humorously refers to Irenaeus as an “outspoken premillennialist”), these attempts are misguided and tend to read views back onto historical figures that they did not have. Shared theological statements on eschatology does not mean that an historical figure is a premillenialist. Premillennialism is a system of thought that makes numerous claims, and attempting to ground it in early church history either makes one confused or dishonest.
- Millenarianism reads Scripture poorly. Attempting to go through today’s headlines and find where they might be shoehorned into Scripture is effectively the exact opposite of how we ought to approach applying the Bible to modern times. Any number of books on eschatology, particularly those which attempt to elucidate the exact events of the supposed “Millennium,” do this constantly. Moreover, most forms of Millenarianism insist upon reading prophetic literature “literally,” despite overwhelming evidence that these writings were not intended to be read in that way whatsoever.
I think I could probably continue this list for quite a while, and each of these points will probably be endlessly debated, but this is the core of my objection. Millenarianism is divisive, a poor reading of Scripture, and suspect given its theological history.
I’ve written before about how I’m reconstructing faith. For me, a complete rejection of millenarianism is part of that. It is important to take God’s word seriously, and I think it’s time to take it seriously enough to reject the poor readings that most forms of millenarianism require. Insisting on reading the Bible in a way that it was never intended is to do damage to the word of God.
Reconstructing Faith– Read other posts as I search for truth and navigate the messiness that is faith.
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It’s endlessly fascinating, not to mention frustrating, how much energy some Christians will spend constructing elaborate endtime scenarios and timetables (as you describe the seminary doing) when even Jesus himself shrugged his shoulders and admitted ignorance about the question. That’s my flip response, I guess. My more thoughtful response might be that each of the biblical images for the eschaton should be taken on its own as one angle on a multi-faceted truth we will never fully understand until it happens (e’en so, Lord Jesus, quickly come!); and that, in this context, Jesus’ admonition to focus on living faithfully today, “for the day has enough troubles of its own,” takes on added weight! Thanks for this interesting post, J.W.