Historic premillennialism is a view of the end times that believes Jesus Christ will physically return to earth before (pre-) the millennium. The millennium is the thousand-year reign of Christ described in Revelation 20:1-6. Historic premillennialists believe that Jesus will return to establish his millennial kingdom on earth for a literal 1,000 years after which the final eternal state will begin.
This view stands in contrast to amillennialism which sees no literal millennium, and postmillennialism which sees the millennium as occurring before Jesus returns. The “historic” label comes from the claim that many early church fathers like Papias, Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, and others were premillennialists before Augustine popularized amillennialism in the 5th century.
The key aspects of historic premillennialism include:
- The literal return of Christ prior to the millennium
- A future thousand-year reign of Christ on earth (Revelation 20:4)
- A distinction between Israel and the church in God’s end times program
- A post-tribulation rapture of believers when Christ returns (1 Thessalonians 4:15-17)
- A premillennial resurrection of believers at Christ’s return (1 Corinthians 15:23,51-53)
- Satan bound and restricted during the millennium (Revelation 20:2-3)
- A renewed earth during the millennium – not the eternal state (Isaiah 65:17-25)
- Christ governing from Jerusalem with resurrected believers (Jeremiah 3:17)
- Non-glorified mortal believers present on the earth (Isaiah 65:20)
- Cessation of death during the millennium (Isaiah 25:8)
- Rebellion and judgment at the end of the millennium (Revelation 20:7-9)
The Return of Christ
The foundational event according to historic premillennialism is the literal, physical second coming of Jesus Christ. Historic premillennialists hold that Christ will return bodily to earth to rule and reign. This stands in contrast to amillennialism which views Christ’s “return” as happening through progressive triumph of the gospel and the church rather than a definitive event in history. Scripture teaches that Christ will physically return to earth and that this event will precede the millennium (Acts 1:11, Revelation 19:11-21).
The term millennium comes from Revelation 20:1-6 which describes a thousand-year period in which Satan will be bound and Christ will rule the nations with resurrected and glorified believers. Historic premillennialists understand this description of a future kingdom to be a literal thousand-year span of time during which Christ will reign on earth. This temporary messianic kingdom fulfills Old Testament prophecies about Israel’s restoration and the Messiah ruling from Jerusalem and shepherding the nations (Isaiah 60-66, Ezekiel 40-48, Micah 4:1-8).
The timeline will be Christ’s return, followed by the resurrection and reward of the saints, then the establishing of the millennium. Amillennialists do not interpret the millennium literally, and postmillennialists believe Christ will return after a future millennial age overseen by the church. Historic premillennialists interpret Revelation 20 at face value – a real thousand-year reign of Jesus on earth before eternity begins.
Israel and the Church
Historic premillennialism maintains a distinction between national Israel and the New Testament church. God still has covenants and promises for ethnic Israel that will be fulfilled literally during Christ’s millennial reign from Jerusalem (Romans 11:25-29). Old Testament prophecies about Israel’s restoration point to a future time when Israel will turn to the Messiah and experience the fulfillment of kingdom promises (Zechariah 12-14, Matthew 23:39).
This stands in contrast to the views of replacement theology and supersessionism which see God’s purposes for Israel being fulfilled spiritually in the church. Historic premillennialists affirm that redemptive history shows a distinction between God’s program for Israel and the church which will continue into the future.
The Post-Tribulation Rapture
The rapture is the event in which living believers are “caught up” to meet Christ at his second coming (1 Thessalonians 4:15-17). Historic premillennialism understands the rapture to occur after the tribulation at the point when Christ returns to earth. This is the post-tribulation view and it places the rapture as the same event as the second coming. The church will endure the tribulation then witness Christ’s return and be caught up to meet him as he descends from heaven.
This sequence where the second coming precedes the millennium necessitates a post-trib rapture according to historic premillennialism. Mid-tribulation and pre-tribulation views separate the rapture from the second coming which creates difficulty in reconciling with a premillennial sequence.
The First Resurrection
At Christ’s return, there will be a resurrection of the righteous dead accompanying the rapture of living saints. This resurrection is described in 1 Corinthians 15:23 and Revelation 20:4-6. Historic premillennialists see this as a physical, bodily resurrection that precedes the millennium. Old Testament saints, New Testament saints, and tribulation saints will all take part in this resurrection event when Christ returns.
Amillennialists interpret this resurrection spiritually rather than a literal future resurrection tied to the millennium. But the premillennial view connects the first resurrection with the establishment of Christ’s earthly reign when deceased believers will rise again.
An important aspect of the millennium according to Revelation 20:1-3 is that Satan will be seized, bound in the abyss, and sealed over so that he cannot deceive the nations during this time. With Satan restrained, the millennium will provide a foretaste of life in a world without his destructive influence and deception.
This temporary binding of Satan is necessary according to historic premillennialism because the millennium will still contain mortal believers with sinful natures who require external protection from Satan’s influence. After he is released at the end, Satan will lead one final rebellion before ultimately being defeated and cast into the lake of fire.
Renewed Earth, But Not Eternal State
Though conditions will be ideal during the millennium compared to prior human history, historic premillennialists hold that this age will not yet be the eternal state. Bible passages like Isaiah 65:17-25 and Acts 3:21 describe a renewal of the earth, but not the creation of a new heaven and earth that arrives in eternity (Revelation 21:1). Mortal believers with fallen natures will still be present on the millennial earth.
The millennium will be a blessed time with Christ reigning from Jerusalem, but it will not have the perfect sinless environment of the eternal state. The millennium completes God’s promises regarding the Messiah’s reign on earth, but it precedes the undefiled eternal kingdom.
Christ’s Millennial Reign
Premillennialism affirms that Jesus Christ will be physically present and reigning on the earth during the millennium. Old Testament passages like Psalm 2, Isaiah 2, Jeremiah 23, and Zechariah 14 describe the Messiah ruling from Jerusalem, governing the nations with a rod of iron, and shepherding His people. Historic premillennialists see these predictions fulfilled literally during the earthly messianic kingdom reign of Jesus.
Christ will judge the nations, enforce worldwide peace through the rod of iron (Psalm 2:9), settle disputes between nations, and be the King reigning from Jerusalem. The millennium will be the fulfillment and completion of God’s promises to Israel regarding the Davidic kingdom under the Messiah’s reign.
Mortal Believers on Earth
According to historic premillennialism, the millennial kingdom will include mortal believers who survived the tribulation and entered the millennium in their natural bodies. These believers will yield offspring, repopulate the earth, and experience long lifespans typical of the earliest eras of human history. Scripture teaches that death will continue to occur throughout the millennium but at vastly reduced rates compared to prior eras (Isaiah 65:20).
The presence of mortal believers with fallen natures necessitates Christ’s earthly reign to maintain righteousness and order. But sin and rebellion will still dwell in the hearts of these believers, culminating in rebellion at the end of the millennium after Satan is released (Revelation 20:7-9).
No Death, Disease, Deformity
While mortal believers will still undergo physical death during the millennium, the influence of sin and curse on the world will be vastly decreased. Lifespans will return to antediluvian lengths (Isaiah 65:20), the animal kingdom will live in harmony (Isaiah 11:6-9), beneficial changes to creation will occur (Isaiah 30:23-26), and sickness will be markedly reduced (Isaiah 33:24).
However, these conditions are temporary blessings of the millennial age. They prefigure the eternal state but will transition back to mortality and curse after the millennium ends and give way to eternity. The permanence of Christ’s redemptive work will only come in the eternal state.
Final Rebellion and Judgment
At the close of the thousand years, Satan will be briefly released from his confinement and allowed to deceive the nations into one final rebellion against Christ and His millennial kingdom rule (Revelation 20:7-9). This last uprising will be immediately crushed and judged by God, at which point Satan will be thrown into the lake of fire to suffer eternal punishment.
This final purging of evil demonstrates that even the ideal conditions of the millennium cannot transform mortal humanity’s rebellious inclinations. Lifespans, prosperity, health cannot eradicate the sin nature. God will enact one last judgment on the wicked followed by the arrival of the eternal sinless new heavens and new earth.
The Millennium and Biblical Prophecy
According to historic premillennialism, the millennium represents the culmination of God’s kingdom program on earth. The Old Testament is filled with prophecies regarding the Messiah’s reign, the restoration of Israel, Jerusalem exalted as capital of the nations, and conditions of peace, justice, and holiness under the rule of the Messiah (Isaiah 2, 9, 11, 60-62, Ezekiel 37-48). These prophecies have not yet been fulfilled in history.
Amillennialism and postmillennialism interpret the kingdom as being fulfilled now in the church age or awaiting a future fulfillment in eternity. But historic premillennialism says these prophecies will be literally fulfilled in the future earthly reign of Christ from Jerusalem during the millennium. This temporary messianic kingdom will complete God’s plan for Israel under the Old Covenant.
The Premillennial Sequence
In summary, the chronological sequence according to historic premillennialism is:
- The present church age continues until the tribulation (our current era)
- The worldwide tribulation occurs (Matthew 24:4-28)
- Christ bodily returns to earth (Revelation 19:11-21)
- The rapture – living believers “caught up” to meet Christ (1 Thessalonians 4:15-17)
- First resurrection – Old Testament & Tribulation saints raised (Revelation 20:4-5)
- Satan bound and cast into the abyss (Revelation 20:1-3)
- The millennium – 1000 year earthly reign of Christ from Jerusalem (Revelation 20:4-6)
- Satan’s final rebellion defeated (Revelation 20:7-9)
- Satan thrown into the Lake of Fire (Revelation 20:10)
- Second resurrection of the wicked for the final judgment (Revelation 20:11-13)
- Current heavens & earth destroyed, new heavens & earth created (2 Peter 3:7-13)
- Eternity begins – the eternal state (Revelation 21-22)
Strengths of Historic Premillennialism
1. It takes Revelation 20 literally – Unlike amillennialism, it does not deny that a temporary earthly reign of Christ is described. It sees Revelation 20 at face value – predicting a future thousand year period when Jesus will rule the nations from Jerusalem after His second coming.
2. It affirms OT prophecies about Israel’s restoration – Dozens of Old Testament prophecies predict a glorious future for Israel being restored under the Messiah. Historic premillennialism understands these as predictions about the future millennial kingdom and believes God still has plans for the nation Israel.
3. It connects the resurrection with Christ’s return – Passages like 1 Corinthians 15 and 1 Thessalonians 4 connect the resurrection of the righteous dead with the return of Christ. Historic premillennialism interprets the first resurrection as a real future event when Christ descends to initiate His kingdom.
4. It allows for the most literal interpretation of prophecy regarding God’s kingdom – The historic premillennial timeline provides a chronology that harmonizes both Old Testament and New Testament passages about the Messiah’s reign on earth. This view consistently interprets Scripture in the most plain, natural sense.
Criticisms of Historic Premillennialism
1. It requires a literal 1000 years – Critics argue that the “thousand years” in Revelation 20 may be symbolic rather than a precise number. Amillennialists see it as imagery for the church age.
2. Its end times chronology is complex – The detailed sequence of events during Christ’s second coming has led some to criticize historic premillennialism as overly complex in its eschatology.
3. It projects some discontinuity between this age and the eternal state – Having a future millennial age between Christ’s return and eternity may introduce unnecessary discontinuity in God’s plan of redemption.
4. It could diminish urgency for evangelism – Believing that a millennium precedes eternity may foster complacency about the mission of the church and urgency of evangelism in this age.
Historic premillennialism offers a consistent literal interpretation of the Bible’s teachings about the end times, focusing especially on the second coming of Christ ushering in a future thousand-year messianic kingdom centered in Jerusalem. This view harmonizes Old Testament prophecies about Israel’s restoration with New Testament teachings on the resurrection, the millennium, and Christ’s return. While not without criticism, historic premillennialism strives to develop its eschatology directly from Scripture interpreted in its most plain sense.