What’s the difference between premillennialism, postmillennialism, and amillennialism? (Part 2)

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?

In the first part of my response to this question, I explained that these terms refer to varying beliefs about the timing of Christ’s Second Coming.   Premillennialism is the belief that his return will be pre-millennial, that is, it will precede the millennium, the thousand-year era of worldwide peace and justice described at the end of the book of Revelation. Postmillennialism is the belief that Christ’s coming will be post-millennial, that is, it will follow this millennium.  And amillennialism 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.

But I also explained that these expectations of when the millennium will occur reflect far more important beliefs within each system about how the millennium will occur–that is, about what, if anything, will create such an era.

Premillennialism is more accurately the belief that Christ’s return will be required to bring about the millennium, because nothing short of this will be sufficient.  In this view, the kingdom of God is an eschatological reality that comes over against history.

Postmillennialism, by contrast, is the belief that Christ’s return will come as the culmination of the millennium, because it will have been brought about previously by inner-historical forces such as the progress of literacy, education, charity, etc.; the advancement of the influence of the gospel on culture; or similar things.  In this view, the kingdom of God is a historical reality that comes within history.

Amillennialism, for its part, is the belief that Christ’s return will take place without a millennium, since from this perspective God does not intend to bring about a worldwide era of peace and justice on earth.  In this view, the kingdom of God is a spiritual reality that comes apart from history.

So which one is right?  My conclusion, after years of research and reflection, is that they are all right.  The kingdom of God is a complex entity that has historical, eschatological, and spiritual aspects.  Each school of millennial thought is looking at one of these aspects.

I was interested to discover in my doctoral research that each view has had its proponents in each major era of church history.  In fact, when one view comes to dominate, it’s not too long (within the grand sweep of history, at least) before the others reassert themselves in a counterbalancing way, often prompted by developments within the life of the church.

For example, the eschatological view dominated during the Roman persecutions, but the historical view largely displaced it when Constantine proclaimed himself a Christian emperor.  Then when Rome fell to barbarian invasions, the spiritual view came to the fore, exemplified by Augustine’s great work The City of God.  This cycle has repeated itself many times throughout church history.

This discussion of the various millennial beliefs has definite practical implications because their adherents tend to see in them “marching orders” for the church.  Premillennialism, an eschatological understanding of the kingdom, tends to emphasize witness.  Postmillennialism, a historical understanding of the kingdom, tends to emphasize service.  And amillennialism, a spiritual understanding of the kingdom, tends to emphasize worship.

All three of these things, of course, are vital to the church’s health and influence.  Whichever one we would most promote, we would do well to recognize and affirm the importance of the other emphases, and the valid insight into one aspect of the kingdom of God that underlies each one.

As for me personally, while I acknowledge the truth in each view, I find that the historical expression of the kingdom of God is the one we need to attend to most intentionally.  I proclaim in full faith, “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ is coming again!”  But I am clearly not in a position to accomplish anything that only his return can accomplish.  And while I treasure the worship life of the church, its ministry of word and sacrament, I sometimes feel that the church would always carry on this life simply as an expression of its own being.  But the historical side of things requires intentionality, to get out of ourselves and into the world to see where we can make a difference.

So if I had to choose one view to emphasize, it would be postmillennialism, to help all of us recognize that the kingdom of God does come, in one sense, within history, and that we can express our faith in what we believe Jesus wants to do when he returns by working for those same things now, even if ultimate success must await his Second Coming.

Along these lines, the particular version of postmillennialism that I find most attractive is what I have come to call “vocational postmillennialism.”  This is the belief that as godly and sincere followers of Christ pursue their divine callings with integrity into a variety of fields of human endeavor, with God’s help they will rise to positions of influence that will allow them to shape the society and culture around them.  This was Jonathan Edwards’ expectation of how the millennium would be brought about, and I think it is a wise and biblical expectation. (It is certainly less fraught with risk than relying on technology and science, or on an emperor such as Constantine or Charlemagne or on any modern nation, to bring about the kingdom of God on earth.)

In my final post in this series I’ll respond to the part of your question in which you ask why some premillennialists accord special status to the nation of Israel.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. 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 Scriptures 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 has an A.B. 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.

4 thoughts on “What’s the difference between premillennialism, postmillennialism, and amillennialism? (Part 2)”

  1. In light of this article I have two main questions.

    Firstly, I’m wondering how it is really possible to affirm all three view on the millennium as being correct? Aren’t they in some way mutually exclusive claims even if they differ a bit in their perspective?

    Being raised in the more premillennial tradition, my second question is specifically in regards to the postmillenial perspective. Historically it seems like Christianity always seems to fluctuate in any given culture with a cycle of highs and lows – for example America currently seems to be on the decline with China on the rise. In light of that and considering humanity’s universal sin nature, is it really realistic to think that there will ever come a time of world peace and prosperity without Jesus radically returning to set the world right? Also, how would one ever really know definitively that the millenium has begun without Jesus’s physical presence?

    Thank you for this interesting article and for your insight in this!

    1. In response to your first question, what I affirm is that each of the millennial views has appreciated some vital aspect of the kingdom of God and how it comes to earth. The program that each one adopts in response is therefore worth pursuing, although not to the exclusion of the other views’ programs. But of course it’s not possible to affirm all three views in terms of chronology. The Second Coming of Christ can’t occur before, after, and without a millennium at the same time!

      In response to your second question, I’d note that all of the millennial views try to argue inductively from history, as you are doing from a premillennial perspective: Things have worked a certain way in the past, the argument goes, and so they’ll continue that way into the future. There are two problems with this approach. First, each view picks and chooses its own historical evidence. If you look at the progress the world has made over the centuries in health, literacy, human rights, etc. you can argue that things have been steadily getting better. But if you look at the persistence of war, violence, poverty, etc., you can argue that things have pretty much stayed the same and we can’t expect them to get better. The second problem is more serious: you actually can’t argue inductively from history. For all we know, something will happen in the future that will be radically discontinuous from history as we have known it. And the millennium is supposed to be precisely that kind of thing. As for knowing that the millennium has begun without Jesus being physically present, it all depends on how you define the millennium and what you’re expecting. To say that you can’t know it has begun without Jesus’ return is really another way of making the classic premillennialist claim that the return of Jesus is required to inaugurate the millennium. And that’s a premise of one view rather than an argument against the validity of the other views.

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