A reminder of a couple of things that we need to keep in mind.
1. Every system of theology is the product of man and will have error. No one description of any system will satisfy everyone. We should look for the system that “does the least violence to Scripture.”
2. Keep Christ clearly in view. The ultimate goal of all creation is the glorify God the Father and the Son. Our view of the end times should seek to keep His glory in its rightful place
Historic premillennialism is one of the systems within the premil category; dispensationalism being the other. Recall the definition of premillennialism by George Ladd, who is recognized by most as the "go-to guy" for this view: "After the Second coming of Christ, he will reign for a thousand years over the earth before the final consummation of God's redemptive purpose in the new heavens and the new earth of the age to come." Here's the basic rule of interpretation (hermeneutic) used by this system: "Natural reading" of Revelation. Context determines whether literal or figurative. Interpret the Old Testament by the New Testament (Hos. 1:9/Rom 9:25-26, Jer.31:33ff/Heb. 8) Millennium must be Christ-Centered and is often seen as a literal 1,000 years, but this latter is not essential to this view.
Ladd's definition reveals what's most important to this view: Jesus returns to earth before the millennium, before the consummation of all things and the making of new heaven and earth. It is important to comprehend this: the earthly reign of Christ comes while sin and death are still present. Secondly, Ladd insists on a "natural reading" of Revelation. We will see what this means and why it's important to him.
In his defense of historical premillennialism (The Meaning of the Millennium), Ladd starts off summarizing his position by saying it's "the most natural reading of Revelation 20." He puts distance between his position and that of dispensationalists, making note that his hermeneutic sounds very much like Amillennialism. In his book, The Last Things, he wrote, speaking of himself, "the present writer feels that he must adopt a spiritualizing hermeneutic because he finds the New Testament applying to the spiritual church promises which in the Old Testament refer to literal Israel. He does not do this because of any preconceived covenant theology but because he is bound by the Word of God." Ladd is guided by a spiritual hermeneutic which takes promises made to literal (physical) Israel and fulfills them in the church in the gospel age because he finds this pattern in the New Testament.
But Ladd is unable to be consistent in this hermeneutic, saying, "there are two passages in the New Testament which cannot be avoided. One is Romans 11:26: "And so all Israel will be saved." It is difficult to escape the conclusion that this means literal Israel." Later in his essay, it becomes apparent Revelation 20 is the other passage. We will take a look at his position on each of these.
Ladd defends his view of Romans 11:26 by reviewing the olive tree metaphor earlier in the chapter. Natural branches are broken off because of unbelief and wild ones are grafted in; and natural branches can get grafted back if they do not continue in unbelief. Verse 24 concludes: For if you were cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these, the natural branches, be grafted back into their own olive tree. Ladd sums up, "This is the context of Paul's statement, that a hardening has come upon (a large) part of Israel until the full number of the Gentiles comes in. "And so [that is, in this way, after a period of hardening] all Israel will be saved."
He then asserts that the "New Testament clearly affirms the salvation of literal Israel," although he merely asserts "literal Israel" is what Paul had in mind without defining this term. Ladd also makes it clear that whoever is in "literal Israel" would be saved in the same way as every other soul - "by faith in Jesus." He admits, "the New Testament does not give any details of Israel's conversion and role in the millennium" and goes to protest that just "because many of the Old Testament promises are fulfilled in the church" doesn't mean "that all of the promises to Israel are fulfilled in the church." It should be noted that it's not as though the church is where the promises are fulfilled, for Paul tells us in 2 Cor 1:20 that every one of God's promises find their "Yes" in Christ Jesus. Not some of the promises or even most of them. EVERY promise of God finds it fulfillment in Christ. The church gains in this because we are His body. Jesus said Abraham rejoiced to see His day, not the church. Abraham was looking for a city whose designer and builder is God as the fulfillment of the promise given him. This heavenly Jerusalem is the bride of Christ. Every identification or scrap of significance we may have is all and only because we are in Christ. He is the focus of redemptive history and in Him ALL the promises of God find their Yes! Seeing promises made to physical Israel being fulfilled in Christ is not a bad hermeneutic. But it will undermine premillennialism if held to consistently.
In his book, The Last Things, Ladd devotes chapter 2 to separating his position from dispensationalism, as regards Israel. He makes a wonderful defense of Paul's teaching that believers are the true Jews, true children of Abraham. Here's where we find out what he means by "literal Israel" - "When Paul says "All Israel will be saved," he obviously cannot mean every Jew who ever lived. He is talking about redemptive history. But the day will come when "all Israel," the vast majority of living Jews, will be saved." When premillennials talk about "literal Israel" they mean physical Israel, Jews according to the flesh.
A few pages later, after making the case for the fulfillment of the Levitical religion in the New Covenant faith, Ladd concludes, "Once the types and shadows have fulfilled their purpose, they are discarded in God's redemptive programs." But he cannot see national Israel as part of those "types and shadows", for he continues:
What does this have to do with the present Israeli question? Three things: First, God has preserved his people. Israel remains a "holy" people (Rom 11:16), set apart and destined to carry out the divine purpose. Second, all Israel is yet to be saved. Third, the salvation of Israel must be through the new covenant made in the blood of Christ already established with the church, not through a rebuilt Jewish temple.
Ladd is on the money when he says not every Jew who ever lived is what is meant by "all Israel." But is he on the money by saying "all Israel" means "the vast majority of living Jews" (at the time of Christ's return)? Is he on track with his three things about Israel? Points 2 & 3 flow from his first point, so we'll look at that one. There is no doubt that God preserved national Israel for a time and a purpose - to preserve the promised seed until He came. But once Christ came, the Old Covenant no longer played a role. Just as the religious practices were discarded, so was the people defined by them. Without the religion that YHWH gave them to set them apart from the rest of the world, after the conquest by Nebuchadnezzar in which the genealogical records were destroyed, national Israel lost its distinctive identity. And when the New Covenant came, game over for literal Israel.
Is national Israel described as "holy" in Romans 11:16? Let's read the passage to get some context, Romans 11:13-16 (page 2176)
One can make the case that the "firstfruits" refers to Christ or to redeemed Jews (see Rom 16:5 & 2 Cor 16:15). But there is no basis to claim this passage refers to national Israel. The last part of verse 16 shows us what makes the firstfruits holy - the root, which is Christ! Verse 18 tells us the root supports the branches. No branch can boast. No person is truly holy as God is holy without redemption found only in the Lord Jesus.
With regards to Ladd's claim that Romans 11:26 means "the vast majority of living Jews will be saved," Blake White (a Baptist I count as a friend) has said, " Paul uses very similar language in Romans 10:13 as he does in Romans 11:26. In the former he writes that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. In the latter he says that all Israel will be saved. All Israel consists of everyone who calls on the name of the Lord. They will be saved."
While some have made very credible arguments that "all Israel" in Romans 11:26 refers to the elect Jews (which makes better sense than Ladd's view), considering the extensive teaching about the make-up of true, spiritual Israel and Paul's use of that word to describe Gentiles who are in Christ, and the way both Jew and Gentile believers are portrayed in the olive tree metaphor, it makes the best sense to see his phrase "all Israel" in Romans 11 to refer to true, spiritual Israel. All elect Jews are not "all Israel," all the Jews living at any point in time are not "all Israel," but all the elect from all generations are!
If we back up to verse 7 we see that national Israel failed to obtains reconciliation with God, but the elect within national Israel obtained it. The rest of national Israel was hardened. This ties to what Ladd correctly saw as part of national Israel being hardened; but they are hardened until, or as long as, the full number of Gentiles are being redeemed. Paul is not giving a chronological relationship between these two groups, he's telling us the elect from both Jew and Gentile will obtain peace with God until He returns. Paul uses the same construct in 1 Cor 11 when he says we proclaim the Lord's death until He comes. A remnant of Jews will be saved until the fullness of the Gentiles is brought in, elect from both groups will be brought in until the last of the lost sheep is brought in. This is what Paul is teaching us in Romans 11.
If we are look at Romans 11 as Ladd presents it, we see God presented as a respecter of persons, as He is portrayed as favoring one ethnic group over another. This is flatly denied in Scripture as regards salvation. While national Israel was highly favored in many ways (see Romans 2), it was not in any way related to being reconciled with God. When Simeon, a righteous and devote man saw the infant Jesus, he said, "this child is appointed for the all and rising of many in Israel." This is clearly a reference to national Israel and also clearly reveals that some Jews will be raised up and others will fall, with the anointed one as the rock of offense over Whom many will stumble.
In another place, the apostle says Gentiles (who were foreigners to the covenants of promise and without God) have been brought near and that in Christ Jesus, both groups, Jew and Gentile, are one man - having torn down the wall of hostility (Ephesians 2). And in Galatians 3:28-29 we read, There is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, heirs according to the promise. What sense would it make to back-track on all this and elevate a generation of people that put stock and confidence in their flesh? True Israel is the Lord Jesus and all His sheep. And in the same way as Jews and Gentiles were saved in Paul's day, without regard to fleshly genealogy, by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, all Israel will be saved - as the Gentiles are also brought into His sheepfold.
On to Ladd's second passage that cannot be overlooked, Rev 20. In introducing this topic (The Meaning of the Millennium), he presents a vigorous and glorious view of the second coming of Christ. No secret rapture that some teach, but "divine invasion in which the majesty and glory of God will be revealed." He emphasizes that Rev 19 teaches the return of the Lord Jesus; this is central to his position on Rev 20. In typical premillennial form, Ladd claims Revelation "chapters 19-20 form a continuous narrative announcing the marriage of the Lamb, the victorious return of Christ and his victory over his enemies." Chapter 20, he says, describes Jesus' victory over the devil in which he is bound and shut up in the "bottomless pit" for a thousand years, "that he should deceive the nations no more," and at the end of the thousand years he is cast into the lake of fire. He then writes, "This is to me the only admissible exegesis of Revelation 20:1-6. The exegesis of the passage depends upon one's interpretation of verses 4-5." (page 2492)
Of these two verses Ladd says, "The entire interpretation of the passage hinges upon the question of whether the first "coming to life" and the "coming to life" of the rest of the dead mean the same thing, namely, bodily resurrection." He and others argue that the Greek word for "came to life" clearly means bodily resurrection in the latter occurrence so it must mean in the first occurrence. Ladd does not deny that the Bible teaches spiritual resurrection, and points out a passage in John 5 that teaches the spiritual resurrection precedes the bodily resurrection (page 2032 vs 25-29). But Rev 20 cannot be communicating that because there is no contextual clue within Rev 20 to tell us such; there is in John 5. Ladd cannot accept the same pattern in Rev as he found in John 5 because it undermines his system. "At the beginning of the thousand years some of the dead come to life; at the conclusion, the rest of the dead come to life. The passage makes perfectly good sense when interpreted literally." Ladd demonstrates what another author warned about: "An expositor's interpretation of the meaning of "the first resurrection" will be directly related to the presuppositions he brings to the text."
The clear teaching in several other places that show a spiritual resurrection first, then a bodily resurrection (he cites Eph 2:1-6 and John 5:25-29), leaves Ladd unconvinced that we should see Rev 20:4-5 in the same light. His presuppositions - literal Israel will be saved and the first resurrection is physical - will not allow him to follow the pattern established elsewhere in Scripture. This is a recurring them in most of the eschatological systems: an unhealthy focus on the temporal, with varying degrees of ignoring the spiritual.
While Revelation contains elements of narrative and epistle content, it is primarily an apocalyptic work, full of signs and symbols. We are told in the very first verse of this book that God made the revelation known by signifying it though His angel to John. The Greek word behind "signifying" is used in linguistic, medical science, and literature to describe communication through signs; such as sign language used to communicate with deaf people. Since we see that this is the device YHWH has told us He used to reveal this bit of the redemptive story to our brother and partner in the tribulation, kingdom, and endurance that are in in Jesus (verse 9), what basis would we have to interpret it "naturally" or "literally"? If the book is symbolic by design, we should insist on clear indications that a piece of it should be taken literally, or physically. Even the letters sent to the 7 churches are mainly symbolic, although they represent historical facts that are rightly taken literally. One theologian has discovered that of the 81 Old Testament prophecies which are interpreted by the New Testament, 70 of them (86%) are fulfilled spiritually! The kingdom of God is a spiritual kingdom.
Later in his argument, Ladd admits "the New Testament nowhere expounds the theology of the millennium;" but he says, "in some way not disclosed in Scripture, the millennium is part of Christ's Messianic rule by which he puts all his enemies under his feet (1 Cor 15:25)." And then, "The order of the Age to Come will involve a new heaven and new earth, and will be so different from the present order that we can speak of it as beyond history. The millennium will reveal to the world as we now know it the glory and power of Christ's reign." This is the tension of the premillennial system - recognizing the Bible does NOT expound a theology of the millennium but being compelled to sketch out a theology of the millennium, for without it, your system would fall apart.
Since death and rebellion are part of the millennium in Ladd's system, how effective is the glory and power of Christ's reign? He agrees Jesus reigns now, but can be seen only by the eye of faith. Does not that agree with the entire nature and design of the gospel? We preach Christ crucified to a world that cannot see Him and does not believe in Him. Yet the gospel is the only thing given that is the power of salvation to those who are being saved. Luke 16:31 ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’ Another round of earthly presence of Christ Jesus with Him as earthly king sounds like Jewish dreams. He was clear - His kingdom is not of this world; it is of the one to come.
The Scripture speaks of the spiritual nature of the kingdom in numerous places, including 1 Peter 1:3-4; 1 Thess 4:17; 2 Cor 5:1; John 17:24 (Jesus says His sheep will be with Him where He is, not another place.) Col 3:2; Heb 12:22; 2 Pet 3:13; John 14:2-3. Our destiny is tied to Christ, secured by our union with Him. It is not tied to a place on earth, no matter how one defines the millennium.
In his lengthy argument about our identity in Christ, in Romans 5 & 6, Paul describes the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus and our relationship with Him. Since we have been united with Him in a death like His, we will certainly be united with Him in a resurrection like His. We have died to sin with Christ and we will live with Him for sin and death have no dominion over Jesus and, therefore, no dominion over us! Do not allow sin to rule over you but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life. This is the change that takes place in every sinner brought to faith in Christ - resurrection from spiritual death to eternal life! In the present age.
Ladd is emphatic that Rev 19 reveals the second advent of Christ Jesus. We find this climax to the great eschatological battle: (Read 14-16, page 2491). In Rev 20 we see, during the present gospel age, Satan bound from deceiving the nations so the saints can go to all the nations with the Lord's gospel. And then, at the end of the millennium, Satan is released to deceive the nations and lead the people of the world to their eternal defeat. The battle in Rev 20:7-10 shows the same revolt against the Lord and His Christ as we read in Rev 19 (page 2493). Another author, R. Fowler White, has observed that the binding of Satan to keep him from deceiving the nations (as found in Rev 20) would be superfluous if it followed the battle of Rev 19:11-21 in chronological sequence. But if Rev 20 is parallel to Rev 19, describing the same basic themes from a slightly different perspective, then we the same redemptive plan of God reinforced by the retelling.
Is the binding of Satan found in Rev 20 part of the future or is it now? Jesus asked, "How can anyone enter a strong man’s house and carry off his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man? Then he can rob his house" (Matt 12:29). The Greek verb deö, to bind, here translated "ties up" is the very same verb used of Satan’s binding in Rev 20. Those who object that Satan is still struggling to carry out his deceptive work overlook that the binding implies a restriction, not total neutralization. For example, the very same verb (deö) is employed of John the Baptist’s binding by Herod (Matt. 14:3), which nevertheless didn’t prevent John from sending his disciples to Jesus (Matt. 11:1-7). Another example of this verb used to depict a relative restriction is found in Romans 7:2, "For the woman who has a husband is bound by the law to [her] husband as long as he lives." This binding is not complete or comprehensive in its normal use in the New Testament. Neither the context in Rev 20 nor the similar uses in the Bible indicate we should view as comprehensive in Rev 20. The strong man is Satan; Jesus has spoiled his house, taken over his dominion, and restrained him from certain actions. All of this was accomplished during the Lord's first advent, being consummated by His propitiating death and glorious resurrection and ascension.
Kim Riddlebarger, in A Case for Amillennialism, sums it up: "God's restraint of satanic deception of the nations (Rev 20:1-3) is a description of the present age of gospel preaching and is not a reference to a future millennium. This is the gospel dispensation when Satan is bound, and the gospel will go to the ends of the earth until the thousand years are over (Acts 17:30-31 page 2123; Eph 3:4-6). Only then, God's restraint upon Satan is lifted, so that he can deceive the nations and organize them against Christ's church, the supreme act of rebellion which brings about the final judgment." We will review this concept more fully when we discuss amillennialism, but mention it here to demonstrate that the premillennial view is not the only one possible - and may not do the least violence to Scripture.
In his critique of Ladd's essay, Loraine Boettner, postmil, observed, "When Christ returns in his own glory and that of the Father, with all the holy angels, certainly no mere man, who by comparison is but a worm of the dust, shall be able to stand before him. His period of humiliation is over, and his divine glory forbids the approach of those who are tainted with sin. No mortal man can come into that presence and not be overwhelmed by it. This world and the people in it cannot stand such glory."
In his critique of Ladd's essay, Anthony Hoekema, amil, asks questions that premillennialism opens up but does not answer: Why should believers be raised from the dead to live on an earth which is not yet glorified and is still groaning from sin, rebellion, and death? Why should the glorified Christ have to come back and rule over sinful people and endure rebellion? Was not this phase finished during His time of humiliation? Is Christ no coming back in the fullness of His glory to usher in, not an interim period of qualified peace and blessing, but the final state of unqualified perfection?
Is Revelation a book of the future, as premillennialism asserts, which their view of the millennium demands? In 8 statements of Jesus throughout Revelation, the Lord emphasizes the present tense of His identity, using expressions that transcend their physical or literal meaning and describe Jesus metaphorically or spiritually as the "I AM."
Revelation 1:8 I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending, saith the Lord.
Revelation 1:11 I am Alpha and Omega, the first and the last.
Revelation 1:17 Fear not; I am the first and the last.
Revelation 1:18 I am he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore.
Revelation 2:23 I am the One who examines minds and hearts.
Revelation 21:6 I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End.
Revelation 22:13 I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.
Revelation 22:16 I am the Root and the Offspring of David, the Bright Morning Star.
This is the focus of the whole Bible and the Apocalypse revealed to John. Just as Ladd's focus on literal Israel in Romans 11 led him to depart from the apostolic hermeneutic he recognizes elsewhere as God describes His elect as spiritual Israel, so in Rev 20 he departs from the spiritual hermeneutic he recognizes elsewhere as God fulfills physical promises spiritually in His redeemed. This is the tendency of our human condition - focusing on the physical rather than the spiritual. Consistently in Scripture we are instructed to think heavenly, where we are seated with Christ in this present age - during the millennium of Rev 20. That's where Ladd would have ended if he had been consistent with his hermeneutic.