What’s the difference between premillennialism, postmillennialism, and amillennialism? (Part 1)

Q.  I’d be thankful if you could expand a little on the following schools of belief:  Premillennialism, Postmillennialism, and Amillennialism.  Which one are you inclined to believe, and why? Also, why do some of the people who believe in Premillennialism tend to treat Jews with special significance and Israel as a separate state (and not as the whole body of believers) even today? Doesn’t this go against what Paul said in Galatians 3:28-29?

I really appreciate this question, because the Christian doctrine of the millennium was my main focus of investigation during my doctoral program.  While I did my dissertation on Jonathan Edwards’ theology of history, I researched and wrote my comprehensive exams, by way of background and preparation, on the various millennial views as they have found expression in each era of church history.  So I’m glad to have this opportunity to recall this research and explain in this series of posts what is meant by the terms premillennialism, postmillennialism, and amillennialism.  (In the course of the series I’ll also answer your questions about my own personal beliefs and about why some premillennialists give special significance to Israel.)

In terms of their derivation, these terms refer to varying beliefs about the timing of Christ’s Second Coming.  Specifically, they answer the question of when this will take place relative to the millennium, the thousand-year era of worldwide peace and justice described at the end of the book of Revelation.

Edward Hicks, The Peaceable Kingdom (1826), a depiction of the millennium coming through developments in history and culture. This view would be known as “postmillennial” today.

From the 1600s to the early 1900s, the prevailing view among Protestants in Britain and America who considered the Bible to be the inspired word of God was that Christ would return after the millennium.  The expectation was that he would come back as king, but if the world had not yet been transformed according to his wishes, it was argued, he would have no kingdom to rule over, so the millennium had to come first.  As the English Puritan theologian John Owen insisted in a 1652 sermon to the British parliament (which was then controlled by his fellow Puritans), “Antichrist not destroyed, the nations of the world generally wrapped up in idolatry . . . will the Lord Christ leave the world in this state, and set up his kingdom here on a molehill?”

By the middle of the 1800s, however, another view had developed, that Christ’s return would actually be required to bring about the millennium, and so it had to take place before. This view was articulated in David Brown’s 1858 book Christ’s Second Coming: Will It Be Premillennial?  This is where the term “premillennial” originated.  The term “postmillennial” was coined in response, to describe the view that had formerly dominated eschatological thought so completely that it didn’t need a separate name.

So in terms of derivation, premillennialism is the belief that Christ’s coming will be pre-millennial, that is, it will precede the millennium.  Postmillennialism is the belief that Christ’s coming will be post-millennial, that is, it will follow the millennium.  And amillennialism, for its part, is the the belief that Christ’s coming will be without a millennium, that is, that there be no world-wide era of peace and justice at the end of history.  (This view interprets the description of the millennium at the end of Revelation symbolically.)

But these expectations of when (if at all) the millennium will occur relative to the return of Christ are really only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to these systems of thought.  Far more important are their beliefs about how the millennium will occur–indeed, about what the millennium will be.  (We’ve already had a hint of this in the explanation that premillennialism arose from a belief that Christ’s return would be required to bring about the millennium.)  I’ll explore this aspect of these systems, which is really their much more important dynamic, in my next post.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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