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New Testament Eschatology in the Light of Progressive Revelation

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The following rough essay is intended to be something to think about; it is neither a polished piece nor altogether finalized in my own thinking. I welcome interaction and criticisms from all quarters.

Preface

Certain assumptions made by premillennialists and amillennialists about eschatology in the NT may well be wrong-headed. Specifically, both sides tend to flatten out eschatology so that the whole can be seen in any part. Premillennialists tend to see a time-bound earthly kingdom in the OT where none exists; amillennialists tend to interpret the Apocalypse only in the light of previous revelation, rather than allowing that book to govern and guide all earlier interpretation.

Thesis One: Only as revelation unfolds, do we see clearly the distinction between certain eschatological events--such as between the earthly kingdom and the eternal state. (Our main contention is that a time-fixed earthly kingdom is not taught until Rev 20.) We already have such a pattern in Isa 61:1-2 (cf. Jesus’ use of it in Luke 4:18-19, in which he omits the last line of text which speaks of God’s vengeance, because it was not yet fulfilled).

Curiously, most students of the Bible assume progress between the testaments, but deny it within the NT. To be sure, the time frame is much shorter. But there is ample evidence of progressive revelation within the NT about several themes--that is, certain themes are not developed/recognized until after some time (including the deity of Christ and of the Spirit, the idea that our souls go immediately to heaven, the fact of the rapture, etc.).

Thesis Two: Prophetic telescoping is due to prophetic ignorance. That is to say, when there are major gaps in a prophet’s eschatological scheme, this seems to be due to him not knowing of what goes in the gap.

Demonstration

The idea of a time-fixed earthly kingdom is not taught until Rev 20. Reading the Bible chronologically reveals that the millennial kingdom is not clearly distinguished from the eternal state until the last book of the Bible. Amillennialists have argued this for some time; and their point is that therefore Rev 20 needs to be interpreted in light of earlier prophecies. But surely they would not do this with the first and second comings of Christ: that is, even though the two comings are not clearly distinguished in the OT, amillennialists recognize that the Bible affirms a second coming. My point is that progressive revelation shows that just as the two mountain ranges of Christ’s two comings are virtually indistinguishable in the OT, so also the two future stages of the kingdom do not get distinguished until AD 96.

Specifically, the OT texts do not make a distinction between the earthly kingdom and the eternal state (cf. the intermingling of the two in Isa 65:17-25). Only with exegetical gymnastics can one find this distinction between the earthly kingdom and eternity in the Olivet Discourse.1 First Corinthians 15:21-28 is often used as a prooftext for the millennial kingdom, but without Rev 20, no one would see it.2 Hindsight is 20/20. Further, 2 Pet 3:10 seems to view the Lord’s return as ushering in eternity (“But the day of the Lord will come like a thief; when it comes, the heavens will disappear with a horrific noise, and the heavenly bodies will melt away in a blaze, and the earth and every deed done on it will be laid bare.”3) Likewise, 2 Thess 1:9-10 seems to ‘telescope’ the eschaton (in that there is no gap between the Lord’s return and the eternal destruction of the wicked).

In the treatment of such passages, I believe the amillennialists have had a superior exegesis. Premillennialists often have such a flat view of revelation that they see things that are impossible historically. For example, is it really plausible to say, as Leon Wood does in his commentary on Daniel, that we should read Dan 2:44 as “the God of heaven will set up a kingdom which will not be destroyed for an age”?4 The Aramaic term ‘lma’ [lamá] (equivalent to the Hebrew ‘olam) can, of course, in some contexts mean ‘age’ rather than ‘eternity.’ But to argue that here is pure dogma. Wood says, “According to Revelation 20:3, the millennial kingdom lasts 1000 years, the duration of time intended here.”5 There is not a shred of evidence in all of Daniel to suggest that he intended 1000 years. Wood simply argues this from the vantage point of Rev 20.

What am I saying? I am simply arguing that we need to read the Bible in light of the progress of revelation--not only between the testaments but also within each testament. Even within the NT there is progressive understanding. We (i.e., both pretribulationists and posttribulationists) tend to impose a systematic framework on the text, rather than adhering to a biblical approach to exegesis in this instance. Although we would agree that scripture does not disagree with itself, we would be quite wrong to assume that the finality of revelation was known in its details before it was ever recorded.

If we were to chart out the progress of revelation according to the time of the prediction, we would see the following:

Old Testament prophecies taken as a whole: mixture of earthly kingdom and eternal state (cf. Isa 65; Dan 2, 7; Jer 31:31-40)6; resurrection of the righteous and wicked occurs simultaneously at the end of the tribulation (Dan 12:1-2).

Olivet Discourse (AD 33): eternal kingdom on earth = eternal life; perhaps other ‘confusions’ such as: tribulation/Jewish war as prelude to Lord’s return; judgment of the nations (Matt 25) seems to encompass two judgments: Great White Throne Judgment (at end of the millennium) & a preliminary judgment to determine who goes into the millennium (cf. Dan 12:1-2).7 When one reads of this judgment in Matt 25:34-46, only unpacking it later in light of Rev 20, it seems probable that two distinct judgments really are in view.

1 Thess 4:13--5:11: Resurrection of Christian believers seems to take place pretribulationally; while resurrection of OT saints is still posttribulational, along with the resurrection of the wicked dead.

2 Thess 1:9-10 (AD 49): Immediately after the Lord returns, eternal judgment is meted out on the ungodly. There is no hellish holding tank; the Great White Throne Judgment (though not called by that name) takes place at the Lord’s advent.

2 Pet 3:1-13: new heaven and new earth come when the Lord returns. The eternal state is thus earthly and heavenly.

Rev 20:1-6: earthly kingdom is 1000 years and is clearly distinguished from the eternal state which is to follow; resurrection of the wicked dead occurs after the millennial kingdom.

By comparing these various passages, one can see that, as time goes on, earlier melting pot prophecies get unpacked and sorted out.

Implications

It is not valid to argue against premillennialism simply because the distinction between the eternal state and the earthly temporary kingdom is not made until Rev 20. Earlier revelation must yield to later revelation in this matter, just as it does in other theological areas (such as the Trinity). What gives us a right to argue for a thousand-year kingdom? The 1000 years are mentioned both in the prophecy and its interpretation. When this is the case in Revelation, we must seek no other interpretation.

If the first coming--second coming matrix is at all paradigmatic for the remainder of prophecy, then we all must be less than dogmatic about both date-fixing and claims of thorough comprehension about certain eschatological events. Many prophecies that look like single events may well be multiple events. How can we be sure? Only as we get closer to the mountain peaks off in the distance can we distinguish them. In the case of Jesus’ first coming, it was not even distinguished by his disciples until after he died and rose again.

Surely there are other areas of biblical theology where we have imported our finalized conclusions without giving the historical situation of the text in question its due. Much profit can be gained from looking at scripture through the historical lens as opposed to the systematic lens of centuries of formulation. These two must be complementary, though, not contradictory.


1Note that Matt 25:34 (“inherit the kingdom”) and 25:46 (“the righteous [will enter] into eternal life”) are, most naturally, speaking about the same event. Yet, if we try to distinguish the millennium from the eternal state in this discourse we have something of a contradiction. Further, it is equally difficult to distinguish the tribulation before the Lord’s return from the Jewish War. I strongly suspect that Jesus himself was unaware of such distinctions (cf. Matt 24:36).

2Cf., e.g., Fee’s NICNT commentary, loc. cit. The most we can get out of 1 Cor 15:21-28 is that there may be some time for Christ to do his ‘clean-up operation’--that is, to bring everything, including death, under submission to his sovereignty. But to read into this text a one thousand year period is unwarranted. Indeed, it seems equally plausible to extract from this text the notion that Christ is now reigning and is bringing everything under his submission (v 25). “Then comes the end” (v 24), in this scenario, would support a postmillennial/amillennial position. Suffice it to say that the millennium is anything but clear in this text.

3 NET Bible translation.

4L. Wood, A Commentary on Daniel, 71.

5Ibid., 73.

6 There are other potential confusions in the OT such as in Ezek 38-39 where the prophecy against Gog and Magog is usually taken to refer to the great battle at the end of the millennial kingdom. But it could also refer, as a sort of pre-fulfillment, to the great battles during the last half of the Tribulation.

7 Premillennialists tend to see this judgment as at the beginning of the millennial kingdom and the Great White Throne Judgment as at the end.

Related Topics: Eschatology (Things to Come)