Millennial Fever

  • Question from JM, United Kingdom

    In light of the Left Behind phenomenon, what is the correct view of the resurrection with regard to pre- or post- tribulation? And how does that relate to Ladd’s Kingdom theology of a first and second resurrection of the dead and the millennium period of God’s reign upon the earth?

    George Eldon Ladd is a twentieth century Christian writer whose central concept, of the Kingdom of God’s existence being in a tension between already present and still to arrive, has proved very popular within charismatic Christian circles. Popularised by notable charismatic leaders like John Wimber, the idea that the Kingdom is both ‘now’ and ‘not yet’ explains some of the difficulties associated with ‘signs and wonders’ Christianity, particularly the difficult puzzle of why some people are healed miraculously, while others are not.

    The term ‘kingdom of God’ was in popular usage in Jesus’ day, referring to the hoped-for Messianic restoration of Israel as an independent nation. Jesus often uses the phrase ‘kingdom of God’ in that kind of context, but also widens the scope to indicate a time in history when God will bring everything to a close (‘the consummation’). It is an interesting facet of New Testament theology that the Incarnation of God in the person of Jesus is regarded as establishing the kingdom, so it is both a historical, concrete reality and yet at the same time something that is going to one day come in fullness, when Jesus returns (the second coming).

    With this in mind, any discussion of the Kingdom of God has to take into account Christian eschatology (a study of the end times, from the Greek word eschaton, meaning ‘end’). It is usually about this point that many people become confused regarding eschatology, so for ease of use, what follows is a quick guide to eschatological viewpoints.

    Lots of terms: The Rapture, the Tribulation, the Resurrection and the Millennium

    Central to most views of the end times are some key themes in the parts of the New Testament that purport to reveal the future (for ease of reference, these sections are usually called ‘apocalyptic’ literature). The Tribulation and the Millennium are periods of time marked out in the book of Revelation. The Tribulation is a seven-year long time of suffering, during which numerous horrible plagues will sweep the globe and the Antichrist will rule the world. The Millennium follows the destruction of the Antichrist, whereupon Christ will rule on Earth for a thousand years. The widespread resurrection of the dead and final judgement is attested to in most of the New Testament books and the earliest Christian creeds. The Rapture is slightly different to the resurrection and involves Christians who are alive at the time being lifted bodily up into heaven.

    There are two differing viewpoints regarding when the Rapture happens, either before or after the Tribulation. Left Behind assumes the former, with the heroes of the story ‘left behind’ when their loved ones all disappear. The fictional series then follows typical fundamentalist theology as the world becomes a police state ruled by the Antichrist, the Jews convert to following Jesus en masse (because God gives his chosen people a second chance and they see the error of their ways) and the political forces of the world centre on Babylon and prepare for a final showdown at Megiddo (Armageddon). This projected series of events has been popular in fundamentalism since the publication of C.I. Schofield’s Reference Bible in 1909.

    Schofield, drawing on earlier evangelical literalist interpretations, almost managed to turn the whole of Scripture into a field-guide to the last days, with nearly everything being interpreted in light of current world events that pointed to the end. This trend continued throughout the twentieth century, especially through the million-selling Christian paperback The Late, Great Planet Earth by Hal Lindsay, published in the 1970s. While there is nothing intrinsically wrong with employing a literalist methodology when interpreting Scripture, Lindsay, and other writers like him, firmly identified key contemporary movements and individuals with figures from Biblical apocalyptic passages. Examples include comparing the “giant locusts” of Revelation chapter 9 to helicopter gunships, identifying “Babylon” with Rome, the Pope as the Antichrist and the nations of “the North” (Gog and Magog in Ezekiel chapter 38) as the Soviet bloc.

    Of course, the sudden collapse of communism in the early 1990s forced a rethink over branding a now-destitute and ailing country as an aggressive force of evil. But in Left Behind chapter one, post-Soviet Russia has been resuscitated and as ‘Gog and Magog’ naturally attack the nation of Israel. Similar predictions of Russian revival have now been built into ‘end times’ literature. It would be easy to point out the flaws in this kind of fundamentalist interpretation. One key problem is that spiritualising ideological conflict blinds a person to more obvious realities. It could be argued – quite sanely – that the Soviet Union was an enemy of Israel because the United States was Israel’s staunch ally, not because of any divinely authored plan for the end of the world.

    If there is debate over whether Christians will avoid the Tribulation through being conveniently raptured, or will suffer along with the rest of humanity, the real debate then unfolds regarding the Resurrection in relation to the Millennial reign of Christ. The most common view in evangelical and fundamentalist circles is pre-Millennialism, the idea that after the tribulation Jesus will return to Earth to reign, coinciding with the resurrection of the Christian dead. Both resurrected and living believers will be given transformed, eternal (‘resurrection’) bodies and will rule with Christ for a thousand years.

    Unbelievers still living on Earth will presumably become believers, but regardless of their belief will be subject to Christ’s kingly rule. At the end of the Millennium, a second resurrection will take place of everybody who has ever lived and they, and those still living on Earth but refusing to acknowledge Jesus as Lord, will be judged and punished accordingly. At this point believers will take their place in the ‘New Heaven and New Earth’ as depicted in the book of Revelation. The two-stage resurrection seems to be implied in Revelation chapter 20, verses 4-5, but elsewhere in the New Testament only one resurrection, of both believers and unbelievers who will be separated out on judgement day, is mentioned.

    Post-millennialism differs from this. It assumes that the Church has a mission and divinely-given mandate to convert the world to Christianity. As a result of an increase in the number of Christians, human society will more closely resemble God’s ideal and eventually a ‘millennial age’ of peace and righteousness will occur on Earth, at the end of which Christ will return to a glorious church, believers and unbelievers will both be raised at the same time, Christ will pronounce judgement and those who have acknowledged him as Lord will join him in the new Heaven and new Earth. Post-millennialism is therefore much more optimistic about the future and was very popular in the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, until the carnage of the First World War, followed in a few short years by the Final Solution and the development of nuclear weapons; all things that breed pessimism regarding human achievement and progress.

    Another eschatological point of view is that of a-millennialism. This would be the declaration that there will be no millennial reign on earth before judgement day and the institution of a new Heaven and a new Earth. The benefits of the a-millennial view is that it hold to Jesus’ eschatological declarations (e.g. ‘the Son of Man coming like a thief in the night’ in Luke chapter 12, verse 39) and it does not rely on one, fairly obscure Bible passage to construct a complicated theological system. The Millennium is only explicitly mentioned in Revelation chapter 20, verses 1-6 and a-millennialists would interpret the passage to mean that Jesus’ earthly ministry ‘bound Satan’ as found in verse 1 of that passage. Elsewhere the New Testament implies that all the events of the end times happen at about the same time. A-millennialism also dispenses with the troubling idea that during the earthly reign of Christ, unbelievers could still persistently live sinful lives.

    Ladd’s ‘Kingdom theology’ was developed within a pre-millennial framework. His book The Blessed Hope advocates the post-tribulational, pre-millennial standpoint. The sudden return of Christ parallels His original advent and in terms of waiting for the Kingdom to be fulfilled, pre-millennialism fits neatly into the idea that Christians are currently caught ‘between the ages’, the ‘now and the not yet’. However, Ladd’s idea can be applied to Christian experience regardless of the eschatological viewpoint adopted.

    There is an old joke that when faced with the choice between pre-millennialism, post-millennialism and a-millennialism, most people opt for pan-millennialism: the hope that it will all pan out in the end. In many respects this is the truest interpretation of apocalyptic literature. In trying to make it fit projected timelines of the end of the world, the central point is missed. Biblical apocalypses indicate one thing: no matter what happens, God is still in control. That is the kind of affirmation that Ladd makes in his assertion that the Kingdom is both here and also still to come, even if it does not feel like it right here, right now.

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