Very much more elaborate than anything known in the church until quite recent times is the convoluted eschatology of those who belong to the “dispensationalist” school. Many of these seem to regard the premillennial creed as an authenticating mark of those who are acceptable as fully orthodox. Indeed, it has become customary for dispensationalist authors to adduce the assertion of Justin Martyr (quoted above) — “I and others, who are right-minded Christians on all points, are assured that there will be a resurrection of the dead and a thousand years in Jerusalem” — as proof conclusive that premillennialism was “the criterion of a perfect orthodoxy” in the post-apostolic church, though they can do so only by the really inexcusable suppression of Justin’s qualification in the same passage, namely, that “many who belong to the pure and pious faith and are true Christians think otherwise.” No more impressive is it to cite the names of liberals, romanists, and unitarians whose outlook has been other than premillennial, as though this suffices to demonstrate that premillennialism and soundness of faith belong inseparably together. The device of guilt by association proves nothing and can readily become a boomerang, since it is easy to retort that the premillennial position has also been that of heretics and deviant sects, from Cerinthus in the time of the apostles to the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses in our day. But this is the way of pride and triumphalism, and it ill becomes those who ought humbly to be seeking an understanding of the sacred text.
Briefly, it is the contention of dispensationalists that the Old Testament did not foresee or foretell the coming of this present age of the Christian church, but that its expectation was focused on the setting up of the messianic kingdom which would be the proper inheritance of the Israelites, or physical descendants of Abraham, as distinct from the Gentiles, though blessings were intended for the latter also; that the teaching of Jesus concerning the kingdom, whether in parables or other forms of discourse, was directed exclusively to the Jews; that the Jews turned away from the kingdom that was then offered to them, with the result that the offer was withdrawn and the establishment of the kingdom postponed to a later occasion; that meanwhile the period of the church was inaugurated as a “parenthesis” in the divinely revealed sequence of events, but a period which, as we have indicated, is outside the scope of biblical prophecy and to which Christ’s kingdom teaching has no application; that at the close of this church age Christ will come for his saints, who will be caught up to meet him in the air; that there will follow an interval of seven years during the first half of which many Israelites will accept Jesus as their Saviour and Messiah and will carry out a massive program for the evangelization of the world, while the latter three-and-a-half years will be a time of intense persecution known as “the great tribulation”; that at the end of these seven years Christ will come again, this time not for but with his saints (this event generally being described as his second coming proper), in order to reign upon earth for one thousand years; that thus, the church parenthesis now a thing of the past, the prophecies of the messianic kingdom will achieve fulfilment and his own kingdom teaching be observed; that, with a resplendent Jerusalem as his capital, the temple demarcated by Ezekiel will be constructed and the Levitical priesthood and sacrifices reinstituted; and that in this millennium of peace, order, and prosperity his sovereignty over all the earth will be established for all to see.
Such are the anticipations of dispensationalists. There are of course many more details and intricacies that could be added, and it is not surprising that there are numerous differences of opinion on matters of interpretation and the manner of the outworking of their scheme. Our purpose in writing this essay is not polemical, however, and we do not intend to discuss these divergences here. But we fear that the dispensationalist method of interpretation does violence to the unity of Scripture and to the sovereign continuity of God’s purposes, and cavalierly leaves out of account a major portion of the apostolic teaching — that, chiefly, of the Acts and the Epistles — as unrelated to the perspective of the Old Testament authors. We shall limit ourselves here to a consideration of the premillennial conception of the significance of the thousand years, and shall also attempt to set forth our own understanding of the meaning of Revelation 20:1ff., which all, surely, must admit holds a number of difficulties for the interpreter.
Philip Edgecumbe Hughes was Visiting Professor at Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia and Associate Rector of St. John's Episcopal Church, Huntington Valley, Pennsylvania. His other works include Theology of the English Reformers, Commentary on II Corinthians, But for the Grace of God, and Confirmation in the Church Today.
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