January 13, 2009

More on the Millennium: Why?

I must admit that one of my principal objections to the idea of a millennial kingdom has always been that it seems so pointless. It is a doctrine that is only taught specifically in one place (Rev 20), and even there the precise reading is contested. It is consistent with some other themes and teaching in the Old and New Testament, but it certainly isn't required by other discussion of the end times elsewhere in Scripture. So this has always raised the question for me of why there should be a millennium. Why not go with a simple (essentially amillennial) approach that understands Jesus return to be immanent, with his return inaugurating the final judgment, the resurrection to the life to come, and the new creation. And I must admit, even in my recent study on the topic of the millennium, and my own movement toward a "premillennial" position, this has been a nagging objection.

But in my continued reading, I've read what G. E. Ladd has to say about the Apocalypse in A Theology of the New Testament (the discussion is at pp 630-31 in the first edition, and quotations come from there). And there, he discusses very helpfully how we might begin to understand a millennial reign of Christ--he puts some logic to it.

(Now I admit that we don't certainly only believe things that we fully understand, and just because I don't see the reason for something doesn't mean that God can't or shouldn't do something that way; and some things we read in Scripture are that way--God reveals to us his ways and plans. So don't read too much into my objections. But in this case, it is of a bit more validity because the question arises of how we should read Rev 20 in relation to the rest of the NT and of the Bible, seeking to shape the reading of one based on the other, so a fuller canonical understanding of eschatology certainly comes into play at some level.)

Anyway, on to the logic of the millennium. Ladd writes, "There should be no objection to the idea of such a temporal kingdom in principle . . ." And he goes on to explain. First, the idea of a temporal reign (that is, Christ reigning within history and not only beyond it) fits with the fact that Christ is currently reigning now in the church age. There is now a sense in which that reign is not fully revealed or realized, but it is still a reality. And this is one of the theological reasons Ladd points to for thinking about a millennial reign: it is the consummation of Christ's reign on earth, the realization of that which is now only partly manifest. And this reign is millennial (and thus only temporary in some sense) because Christ then turns over his glory and sovereignty to the Father in the age to come. (I admit that there is a certain logic to this, in light of various biblical discussions about the end, but I need to do some more reflection on the trinitarian implications of this, including the idea that Christ is in eternal and final subjection to the Father instead of an eternal coregnant.)

The second logical and theological reason Ladd explores for the millennium has to do with God's justice. The millennial reign of Christ will be a time when Satan is bound and the social environment will be "as nearly perfect as possible." But at the end of this time, Satan will be loosed and will again deceive the nations. Thus, the logic for God's justice goes something like this. Some may say that humans are at least in part not to blame for their sin and their harness of heart due to the environmental and societal factors that come into play. But this objection will be truly and finally demonstrated as false as the millennium demonstrates the true wickedness and hardness of the huaman heart. Ladd writes that "in the final judgment of the great white throne every mouth will indeed be stopped and every excuse voided, to the vindication of the glory and the righetousness of God." In a sense, the millennium is the final proof of God's justice, and provides the backdrop for God's final judgment of all people for all time.

While the logic may not "require" a millennium, it helps make some sense of what God is about. It is certainly food for thought.

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