A Case for Historic Premillennialism: An Alternative to “Left Behind” Eschatology

Craig L. Blomberg, Sung Wook Chung Baker Academic, Grand Rapids February 1, 2009
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Blomberg and Chung define premillennialism as “the conviction that Christ will return at the end of human history as we know it, prior to a long period of time, depicted in Revelation 20:1–7 as a thousand years, in which he reigns on earth, creating a golden era of peace and happiness for all believers alive at the time of his return, along with all believers of past eras who are resurrected and glorified at this time” (p. xii). This book is intended to defend historic or classic premillennialism, sometimes defined as posttribulationalism (see the essay by Craig Blomberg, “The Posttribulationism of the New Testament: Leaving ‘Left Behind’ Behind,” pp. 61–87). They lament that “no one has emerged as [George Eldon Ladd’s] successor in championing classic premillennialism” (p. xvi). This book is intended to take “a new look” at this view (ibid.).

As is clear from the subtitle and in every essay, this book is not simply a defense of the posttribulational view. It is also a response to or argument against the pretribulational view as represented by dispensational premillennialism. The editors describe dispensational premillennialism as a “new form of premillennialism” that began in the nineteenth century “with the founding of the Plymouth Brethren denomination in Great Britain and Ireland by J. Nelson Darby,” who “developed the first unambiguous articulation of a ‘pretribulational’ rapture, thereby separating the rapture and Christ’s second coming into two discrete events” (p. xiii). Classic or historic premillennialism, although “resurrected” in the twentieth century by George Eldon Ladd at Fuller Seminary is, these writers argue, the premillennialism of Christian tradition (ibid.). Almost completely absent from this book is any treatment of other premillennial positions.

Eight essays, by historians, exegetes, biblical scholars, and theologians, make up the book. All except one are written by defenders of the historic premillennial position. The one exception is “Premillennial Tensions and Holistic Missiology: Latin American Evangelicalism,” by Oscar Campos, a premillennial dispensationalist. Campos argues in this essay that “dispensational premillenialism is foundational to the missiological practices of most evangelical groups in Latin America related to North American faith missions” (p. 149), and “dispensational premillennialism was the theological framework that supported the missiological approach of the dispensational evangelicalism that went to Latin America through the faith missions movement” (p. 152). He concludes that dispensationalism remains “relevant not only for American premillennialism but also for Latin American dispensational evangelicalism in its quest for a biblical framework that would provide theological support for its holistic view of ministry (missiology)” (p. 168).

The authors of these essays are excellent scholars and their arguments in support of their views are presented well. They defend a legitimate Christian eschatological position and they do so competently. Readers who expect a vigorous and careful engagement with other positions will be disappointed. The foil in nearly every essay is dispensational premillennialism and the treatment of dispensationalism is sometimes disappointing. For example Timothy Weber concludes, “Perhaps, in the end, what separates the two versions of futurist premillennialism is that dispensationalists simply have a better story to tell. Laying all matters of truth aside, in a popularity contest the pretribulation rapture is always going to easily beat the posttribulational rapture” (p. 21). Surely Weber does not mean to reduce dispensationalism’s popularity to an attractive story. Later, he asserts, “When once fervent dispensationalists tire of their movement’s lowbrow excesses or can no longer accept its exegetical arguments, they move to historic premillennialism, which is the most logical fallback position for those who want an alternative” (p. 22).

Richard Hess concludes his essay, which began with the story of his own disillusionment with pretribulationism, with a not-too-subtle rebuke of the position: “If we do not expect our faith to be tested, we do not know the God of the Bible and we cannot testify to his faithfulness and holiness. Only through such experiences will God’s people then find the millennial promises fulfilled just as they were made so long ago and just as the first generation who heard them looked forward to them” (p. 36). Blomberg seems to attribute the popularity of pretribulationism to wishful thinking: “One can immediately appreciate the attractiveness of such a doctrine. Who in their right mind would want to experience the worst times in all of world history? It is beyond doubt that many people in our contemporary world, including many Christians, believe a variety of things primarily because they want them to be true, not because there is much (or sometimes any) supporting evidence” (p. 64). Of course it is true that people often believe in views without sufficient supporting evidence, but such an unsubstantiated assertion seems unduly pejorative toward those who believe that there are compelling biblical reasons to hold to pretribulationalism. Donald Fairbairn writes, “Modern dispensationalism shies away from asserting that God would allow his people to suffer severely, and this attitude is part of the reason for affirming a pretribulational rapture of the church” (p. 122). This is an assertion not an argument, since no dispensationalists, modern or otherwise, are cited in support of this claim. Further, many dispensationalists have not only written on suffering but have experienced it, thus providing evidence against the claim Fairbairn has made.

The authors tend to treat dispensational premillennialism as monolithic. Repeatedly the Left Behind series and the views presented in those books are used to summarize dispensational teaching. Also minority views are sometimes cited as representative of dispensational theology. For example Fairbairn asserts that dispensationalists believe that “the ‘apostasy’ of 2 Thessalonians 2:3 is a reference to the rapture of the church” (p. 124). This is an extremely minority view among dispensationalists, as even a cursory survey of dispensational writers reveals. Blomberg quotes the prophecy of Jesus that “two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left” (Matt. 24:40–41) and insists that “proponents of a pretribulational rapture regularly appeal to this picture as an illustration of how believers will suddenly be taken away to heaven” (p. 78). Although there are some who have done this, within scholarly dispensational works this too is a minority position. Dispensationalists generally agree with Blomberg that “Matthew’s larger context suggests that this interpretation has it backward” (ibid.).

One should note, however, that dispensationalists deserve some of the criticism found in this book. It is perhaps true that “to the uninitiated, these books [in the Left Behind series] might appear as if they were the most important items for Christians to read, perhaps even more so than the Bible” (p. xi). There perhaps has not been an adequate discussion of the role of suffering for the Christian in dispensational theology. Some dispensationalists have an escapist tendency and have viewed the rapture as justification for lack of concern for social ethics. Some dispensationalists did reject or neglect emphasis on the physical and societal needs of people, as Campos argues was often the case in Latin American missions (pp. 155–59). Many dispensational premillennialists today would agree with the editors’ conclusion: “To some degree, only hinted at in the Scriptures, all our God-guided efforts to make this world a better place (as the Scripture defines ‘better’) will not be in vain. . . . God will not have to start again from scratch, ignoring our contributions, nor is this age as good as it will get, nor may we naively look forward to completely creating the kingdom of God on earth without the incredible impetus caused by Christ’s visible and public return to reign on earth. Now there is a vision that can keep us hopeful in the bleakest of times and humble in the most joyous” (p. 172).

This book is a helpful explanation and defense of posttribulational premillennialism. It is a good introduction to the biblical and historical support for that position and serves as a good place to start for those who desire to understand it better. It achieves its purpose of providing a “new look at classic premillennialism” (p. xvi). Some readers will wish there had been more interaction with other eschatological positions and that the treatment of other premillennialists had been less confrontational or antagonistic. 

—Glenn R. Kreider

April 1, 2011
 

Biblotheca Sacra

This review appeared in the Apr-Jun 2011 vol. 168 no. 2 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.

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