Doctrine of the Millennium and the Conversion of Israel


(From Disputed Doctrines [Burlington, Iowa: Lutheran Literary Board, 1933], pp. 31-41, 42-45.)

Doctrine of the Millennium

This doctrine has been the rallying point of heretics and fanatics from the earliest period of the Church down to the present day. It is a characteristic doctrine of the Ebionites and Montanists of the early Church; of the Mystics of the Middle Ages; of the Anabaptists of the Reformation era; and of such modern sects as the Adventists, the Russellites [Jehovah’s Witnesses] and others in our own day. It is a doctrine also on which Lutherans are not a unit. Some reject it altogether; others accept it in one or another of its various forms.

The general doctrine of the Millennium is: That, previous to the day of judgment, Christ will personally return to the earth, and after having raised up the departed saints, or the martyrs, or a definite number of the elect, will set up a theocratic kingdom and reign on earth for a thousand years, during which period Satan will be bound, the Jews will he converted and the wicked everywhere suppressed. At the end of this reign of righteousness and peace, Satan will be loosed again for a little season and will deceive the nations upon earth and gather them together for the final conflict with the armies led by Christ.

While this is the general doctrine, many variations are found. Some place the Millennium after the Second Coming of Christ. According to this view, Christ will at His coming raise up all believers. Then will follow the thousand years’ reign, which they will share with Christ. After this will occur the general resurrection, which will embrace unbelievers only. Here again there is a difference. Some place this reign with Christ in heaven; others assign it to a reign with Christ upon earth. But on one point all millenarians are agreed, and that is, that the 20th chapter of Revelation is the seat of the doctrine.

Therefore the great question to be settled is, Does the 20th chapter of Revelation teach the doctrine of the Millennium in any of its varied forms? Before discussing this question, let us remove from the doctrine of the Millennium those other passages of Scripture which have unwarrantably been pressed into its service. Among the most frequently quoted passages of the Old Testament is Isa. 65:25 (cf. also Isa. 11:6-9): “The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, and the lion shall eat straw like the bullock; and dust shall be the serpent’s meat. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain, saith the Lord.” Another passage likewise used is Isa. 2:4: “And He shall judge among nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”

These passages are applied to the Millennium as proofs of its peaceful character. There is, however, not the slightest intimation that they refer to any thousand years reign of Christ and the saints either on earth or in heaven. Their contexts clearly show that they refer to the Messianic times. How such Messianic prophecies, which speak of physical restorations, are to be understood, we learn from the speech of St. James at the Apostolic Council at Jerusalem, when he says: “Men and brethren, hearken unto me: Simeon hath declared how God at first did visit the Gentiles to take out of them a people for His name. And to this agree the words of the prophets, as it is written, after this I will return, and will build again the tabernacle of David, which is broken down; and I will build again the ruins thereof, and I will set it up; that the residue of men might seek after the Lord, who doeth all these things. Known unto the Lord are all His work from the beginning of the world.” (Acts 15:13 ff.).

In this passage the work of Paul and Barnabas among the Gentiles is declared by James to be a fulfillment of the words not only of the prophet from whom he quoted, but of all the prophets who spoke of the building again of the tabernacle of David and of the setting up of its ruins. According to James the prophets used these physical things sacred to religion as object lessons to portray the future blessings that should come in the Messianic times. It is a fact to be noted, that nowhere in the Old Testament is there any reference to a Messianic reign of a thousand years.

A New Testament passage upon which Millenarians set great store and which they misinterpret and misapply, and without warrant incorporate into their doctrine, is Rom. 11:25-26, concerning the salvation of all Israel. But, as this matter is treated separately elsewhere in this book [see below], it is not necessary to comment upon it here.

Another New Testament passage that is invariably incorporated in the doctrine of the Millennium by its advocates is 2 Thess. 2:3-10. This passage sets forth the doctrine of the Anti-Christ. As Paul nowhere hints of a thousand years reign of Christ with the saints it does not appear why the doctrine of the Anti-Christ should be connected with the doctrine of the Millennium. But Millenarians deem such connection necessary, and, it must be admitted, it adds a dramatic touch to their doctrine. The Anti-Christ is represented by them as a single individual, a monster of iniquity who arises about the time of Christ’s Second Coming and whose destruction will mark the first act of Christ’s Millennial Reign.

But let us examine the passage in question and see whether Paul teaches such a conception of the Anti-Christ as is set forth by the Millenarians. Paul introduces the doctrine incidentally with a view to allay the uneasiness of the Thessalonian Christians arising from a mistaken view of the immediateness of the Day of the Lord.

First of all he tells them that that day shall not come except there come a falling away first and the man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition. It is to be noted that he does not say, “until that man of sin shall come or shall arise,” but “shall be revealed.” The plain inference here is that that only which exists can be revealed. But it is not necessary for us to draw such inference. The apostle tells us expressly, “For the mystery of iniquity doth already work.” He also refers to a certain obstacle which was hindering the revelation of the Anti-Christ, and which would continue to do so until it should be removed.

He further reminds the Thessalonians that when he was with them, he had spoken to them of these matters, and declares that upon the removal of the obstacle that wicked shall be revealed. He speaks of “the man of sin,” “the son of perdition,” as already existing, and uses verbs in the present tense to describe his character, viz., “Who opposeth and exalteth himself above all that is called God, or that is worshipped; so that he as God sitteth in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God.”

And finally he declares that this Anti-Christ will continue until Christ’s Second Advent, “whom the Lord shall consume with the Spirit of His mouth and shall destroy with the brightness of His coming.” In the last two verses of this passage he indicates how the Anti-Christ may be recognized when the obstacle has been removed and he is revealed.

These considerations show that the Anti-Christ described by Paul cannot be a single individual, a monster of iniquity arising toward the end of the world; but must be an institution or party continuing through the centuries. The obstacle that prevented his revelation in the time of Paul’s Epistle to the Thessalonians was unanimously interpreted by the early Church Fathers to be the Roman Empire, or its personification in the Emperor of Rome. Now, as there is historical proof that the papal power rose upon the ruins of the Roman Empire; and that it is the only system that has prevailed through the centuries and gives promise to continue until Christ’s Second Coming, the plain sense of 2 Thess. 2:3-10 is that the papacy is the Anti-Christ, which will receive its condemnation and meet its final doom at the Second Coming of Christ on the Day of Judgment.

And how admirably do the characteristics of the Anti-Christ as given by Paul in this passage fit the papacy! By setting himself above the Scriptures, by making salvation dependent upon subjection to himself, by proclaiming himself infallible, by his assumption to be the viceregent of Christ upon earth, by usurping the divine prerogatives and attributes, “sitting in the temple of God,” i.e., in the Church, “and exalting himself above all that is called God, or is worshipped,” the pope proves himself to be “the man of sin,” “the son of perdition,” the veritable Anti-Christ. Ever since its rise upon the ruins of the Roman Empire, the papacy has throughout its whole history been exhibiting “the signs and lying wonders” of which the Apostle speaks. These may be readily recognized in its angelolatry, in its Mariolatry and saint worship, in its worship of relics, in its shrines of superstition and pretended miracles, in its doctrines of the Mass, of purgatory, of asceticism, of Church traditions, of the treasury of merits and works of supererogation, of the immaculate conception of the Virgin Mary and of her assumption into heaven, of the infallibility of the pope, etc. What more fitting description of these things could be given than the words of Paul: “After the working of Satan with all powers and signs and lying wonders, and with all deceivableness of unrighteousness in them that perish.” This doctrine affords no support to Millenarianism.

Other passages, such as Matt. 26:29, where Christ speaks of His Father’s kingdom, and 1 Thess. 4:17, where Paul speaks of the saints’ being caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, call for no comment, as they manifestly have no reference to the Millennium. Indeed, in the latter passage this is explicitly excluded by the added words; “And so shall we ever be with the Lord.”

Now that the way has been cleared by the removal of passages of Scripture violently pressed into the service of the doctrine, we are ready to examine Rev. 20, the supposed basis of this doctrine. It is admitted without question that the expression “one thousand years” occurs in this chapter, not once only, but five times. But it must also be acknowledged that this chapter is a figurative passage and elaborate in its imagery. It speaks of an angel having a key and a chain in his hand, of a dragon, of a bottomless pit, and of a seal. These are all symbolical terms. The key, the chain, and the seal represent power and authority. The dragon is Satan, and the bottomless pit is hell. Why, in the midst of so many symbolical terms, should “the thousand years” be singled out alone for separate treatment and made to stand for a literal number? The whole context calls for its correspondence with the imagery of the other terms. All the more is this the case, since the expression occurs nowhere else in Scripture in reference to the duration of the Messianic reign. The expression, “a thousand years,” occurs indeed in Ps. 90:4, Eccl. 6:6, and 2 Pet. 3:8, but in altogether different connections, and with no reference to Messianic times.

What then is the meaning of “the thousand years” in Rev. 20? It is a round number, symbolical of a period, the duration of which is definite with God, but unknown to us. The expression designates the period of the Messianic reign, or in other words, the present Gospel dispensation. This view is in accordance with the testimony of Scripture elsewhere and with the general tenor of the Gospel. Jesus Christ came into the world to destroy the devil and his works (Heb. 2:14-15, 1 John 3:8). With Christ’s triumphant resurrection, ascension, and session at God’s right hand, Satan’s power was curbed. He was “bound,” “shut up,” and a “seal set upon him,” so that he could not deceive the nations any more and bring them so exclusively under his sway as he had previously done. Through the Gospel his dominion has been broken and his power more and more destroyed. The end, as designated in Rev. 20, corresponds closely with the statements in other passages of Scripture. Note in particular v. 7: “And when the thousand years are expired, Satan shall be loosed out of his prison, and shall go out to deceive the nations,” etc., i.e., at the close of this period Satan shall again “for a little season” exercise the power which he exerted previous to its coming. This is in perfect harmony with the prophecy of Christ and His Apostles concerning the great apostasy that Christ will find upon earth at His Advent in glory. (Cf. Luke 18:8; 17:26-30; Matt. 34:37-39; 1 Tim. 4:1-3; 2 Tim. 3:1-9; 4:3-4; 2 Pet.3:3-4). These considerations show that the period, “a thousand years,” synchronizes with the New Testament dispensation, or the Gospel age.

But let us see what is meant by “first resurrection” of Rev. 20:5-6. Much is made of this by those Millenarians who hold that this is a physical resurrection of all believers, which will take place at Christ’s Second Coming; that these will then reign with Christ for a thousand years, either upon earth or from heaven; and that at the expiration of this period, the general resurrection, which will consist only of unbelievers, will occur.

With reference to this, it may be said: This Pre-Millennial view is historically of comparatively late origin. It is the view of those who, unable to accept the conclusions of the Post-Millenarians, yet felt that they could not give up the idea of a Millennium altogether. This doctrine carries with it all the odium of a compromise to out-and-out Chiliasts; nor does it fit in even as well as their view with Rev. 20, which in v. 12 represents all the dead as standing before God’s throne for judgment. It also fails to account for the loosing of Satan for a little season. And by separating the resurrection of believers and that of unbelievers by a thousand years, it contradicts the very idea of a general resurrection, denies the accuracy of the picture of the General Judgment drawn by Christ in St. Matt. 25, and flouts the teaching of Christ and His Apostles in many passages. (Cf. St. John 2:24; 5:28-29; 6:40; 1 Cor. 15:22-24; 1 Thess. 4:16-17).

In considering the meaning of the expression, “the first resurrection,” it is to be observed that no mention of the body has been made in the preceding portion of the context. In v. 4 St. John says: “And I saw the souls of them that were beheaded for the witness of Jesus and for the Word of God,” etc. These were the souls of those who had suffered martyrdom for the sake of Jesus and His Gospel. Of them he says: “And they lived with Christ a thousand years.” This is manifestly not a visible reign with Christ on earth, but a living of the souls of the martyred saints with Christ in heaven. These suffered on earth and died as to their bodies; but, as to their souls, they are living and reigning with Christ in heaven and sharing in eternal joys.

Of the rest of the dead St. John says: “But the rest of the dead lived not (not, “lived not again”) until the thousand years were finished,” i.e., to say, that souls of those who died in their sins do not enter into the realms of bliss, but are doomed to everlasting death.

But of the heavenly life of the martyrs according to their souls, St. John says: “This is the first resurrection,” and “Blessed and holy is he that hath part in the first resurrection: on such the second death hath no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with Him a thousand years.” And just as it was not said above of “the rest of the dead” that they ever lived afterwards, so here it is not said that the reign of the martyrs with Christ will cease at the end of the thousand years. The implication is that they shall serve God and Christ world without end, and that for them the thousand years are but preliminary to the time when they in glorified bodies shall live and reign with their Lord forever and ever. Surely this happy state of the soul is well worthy of being called “the first resurrection,” and the benediction pronounced upon them is fully justified! The first resurrection pertains to the soul and furnishes no support to Millenarian views.

Specific objections to the doctrine may be enumerated, as follows:

The doctrine of the Millennium is against those passages of Scripture that assert that no man can know beforehand the precise time of Christ’s Second Coming, or fix a definite period within which it may not occur (cf. Acts 1:7; Matt. 24:36; 1 Cor. 10:11).

It stands in contradiction to such passages of Scripture as describe Christ’s kingdom as a spiritual kingdom standing out in strong contrast to all earthly kingdoms (John 18:36; 2 Tim. 4:18; Heb. 1:3; Eph. 1:20).

It is opposed to Christ’s characterization of the nature and the consummation of the Gospel age as set forth in the parables of the Wheat and Tares (Matt. 13) and of the Pounds (Luke 19).

It presupposes a flourishing condition of Christ’s kingdom at the time of the Second Advent in direct conflict with Christ’s own declaration and that of His Apostles (cf. Luke 18:8; Matt. 5:4,10; Acts 14:22; 2 Tim. 3:12; Rom. 8:17; Rev. 21:4).

The hopes and aspirations of Christians are never directed either by Christ or by His Apostles to a Millennium, but to their eternal home in heaven. And neither Christ nor His Apostles leave any room for a Millennium previous to the Second Advent (cf. Matt., chapts. 24-25; Mark 13; Luke 21; Acts 1:11; 2 Thess. 1:9-10; 1 Thess. 4:17; 2 Thess. 2:1-12; 1 Cor. 15:51-52; 2 Pet. 3:12; Jude 14; Rev. 22:20).

The Pre-Millennial theory is likewise opposed by many passages of Scripture, which represent the General Judgment as immediately followed by the distribution of eternal rewards (cf. Matt. 25:46; 2 Cor. 5:10; Rom. 2:5-6).

Accordingly we conclude that the doctrine of the Millennium finds no support from Rev. 20 and is also without any Scriptural support. In many respects it stands in actual contradiction to the clear statements of Scripture. It implies a third coming of Christ, of which the Scriptures know nothing. Nowhere in the Scriptures do we read of two future comings of our Lord, one for establishing a Millennial reign and the other for Judgment.

The doctrine of the Millennium is a man-made doctrine and has no foundation in the Holy Scriptures.

The Conversion of Israel

This is the doctrine supposedly based on Rom. 11:26, “And so all Israel shall be saved.” It is a doctrine that is usually incorporated into the doctrine of the Millennium, although there is no warrant for any such connection. The doctrine is, however, accepted by many who reject all Millenarian views. The passage above referred to is supposed to teach the conversion of Israel en masse, although by most of the advocates of the doctrine of the conversion of the Jews in the last times, the word “all” is interpreted to mean a large number.

To arrive at the right meaning of the expression in Rom. 11:26 it must be studied in connection with its context. In Rom. 10:19-21 Paul had spoken of the rejection of Israel as a nation. In the beginning of chapter 11, which immediately follows, he asks the question, “I say then, hath God cast away His people?” To this he himself makes answer: “God hath not cast away his people which He foreknew.” As proof of this he instances his own case first of all, then the example of the remnant in the great apostasy in the time of Elijah. Following this he draws the conclusion in v. 5: “Even so then at this present time also there is a remnant according to the election of grace.”

Then toward the end of the chapter in vv. 25-26, he says: “I would not, brethren, that ye should be ignorant of this mystery, lest ye should be wise in your own conceits, that a hardening in part hath befallen Israel, until the times of the Gentiles be come in; and so all Israel shall be saved, even as it is written. There shall come out of Zion the Deliverer; He shall turn away ungodliness from Jacob: And this is my covenant with them, When I shall take away their sins.”

Let us note carefully Paul’s argument here. It is, that while Israel as a nation has been rejected, this rejection is not to be regarded as so absolute or all-inclusive that no Jew hereafter can be saved. The mystery here revealed to Paul was that the hardening which had befallen Israel was “in part,” and by no means of so sweeping a nature as to include every individual among the Jews.

On the other hand, this hardening is not represented as about to cease, either in the near or the far distant future, but as continuing “until the fulness of the Gentiles be come in,” i.e., until the end of the present dispensation; for we have no right to conjecture that the full number of the elect among the Gentiles will be gathered in before that time, or that there will ever be a period before that time when no Gentile will any longer be saved.

In the Gospels where the corresponding phrase, “the times of the Gentiles,” occurs (cf. Matt. 24:14; Mark 13:10; Luke 21:24), this expression is at once followed by the immediate signs, which indicate the near approach of the General Judgment. The expression is consequently equivalent to the entire period of the present Gospel dispensation.

We should note also the particular wording used by the Apostle in the expression which follows his reference to the coming in of the fulness of the Gentiles. He does not say, “And then all Israel shall be saved,” but, “And so all Israel shall be saved.” This means “in this manner,” or “in this way”; and the whole context shows this to be by faith.

Now faith is fundamental with Paul, as it is throughout the Scriptures. It is also always represented as a personal or individual matter, not as a matter pertaining to people in the mass, or to races or nations. Further, faith is wrought through the means of grace; but never have the means of grace met with universal acceptance on the part of those to whom they were administered. The universal conversion of Israel would, accordingly, be a miracle of grace of so extraordinary a nature as to overthrow the Divine plan of salvation hitherto existing, and would introduce a doctrine of predestination, as far as Israel is concerned, found nowhere else in the New Testament Scriptures.

We therefore conclude: Paul does not teach a universal conversion of the Israelitish nation, or even one in which a large part, or the great majority of the nation shall be converted in the last times and saved.

We have the key to what Paul means by “all Israel” in the preceding part of the Epistle, in Rom. 9:6, where he says: “For they are not all Israel which are of Israel”; and from Rom. 11:5, where he says: “Even so at this present time also there is a remnant according to the election of grace.” “All Israel” accordingly refers not to the nation of the Jews, or to the Jewish people as such; but to the true Israel, the elect remnant, or as Paul elsewhere expresses it, “the Israel of God” (Gal. 6:16).

The meaning of the Apostle is simply this: When the Gospel has finished its work among the Gentile nations and the full number of the Gentiles, among whom the Jews are scattered, is gathered in, the end will come, and will usher in full, eternal salvation for all true believers as constituting the true Israel, the spiritual children of Abraham (Rom. 4:16).

The teaching of Paul is, that Israel as a nation will remain hardened in part unto the end; that the Jewish race will be scattered among the Gentiles until Christ’s Second Coming, only a remnant of them being saved during the New Testament dispensation.

Proof apart from Paul’s writings that this application of the term “Israel” is Scriptural is furnished in the Old Testament prophets (cf. Ezek. 20:40 with Ezek. 20:38, and Isa. 19:25 with Isa. 10:21).

Carroll Herman Little (1872-1958) was the son of a Tennessee Synod minister and a native of Hickory, North Carolina. He graduated from the General Council’s Mount Airy (Philadelphia) Seminary in 1901, received the honorary degree of Doctor of Divinity from Lenoire-Rhyne College in 1914, and in 1928 received his Doctor of Sacred Theology degree from Chicago Lutheran Seminary. Little served pastorates in Nova Scotia and Ontario, and from 1917 to 1947 was professor of theology in the Evangelical Lutheran Seminary of Canada in Waterloo, Ontario, an institution of the United Lutheran Church in America.

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