For several months I attended a church whose doctrinal statement affirmed a belief in premillennialism, the belief in Jesus’ one-thousand-year reign over the nations before the eternal state. My wife and I faithfully attended, all the while assuming the church stood by its statement of faith. It did not.
Later, in discussing prophecy with the pastor, I discovered he described himself as a “covenant premillennialist.” I remained hopeful even then that he believed in a future for Israel and an actual millennium. I later discovered that he did not believe these things.
I have since come to the conclusion that “covenant premillennialism” represents a repackaging of amillennialism. Although its proponents claim to be premillennial, they do not regard Revelation 20:1-10 as literal. In other words, they do not believe in a millennium despite their claim to be “premillennial.”
For example, the statement of faith for The Village Church, where Matt Chandler serves as the pastor, states that Jesus fulfills the kingdom promises in the eternal state. He combines the millennium and eternal state. Andy Stanley similarly believes Jesus has fulfilled all the kingdom promises of the Old Testament and will reign only in the eternal state.
Although both of these popular preachers claim to be premillennial, neither one believes in a millennium. How can one make this claim and yet dismiss Jesus’ thousand-year rule as allegory?
Those who advocate covenant premillennialism claim they differ from amillennialists because instead of saying the church replaces Israel, they maintain Israel continues in the church because Jesus fulfilled all the promises and covenants made to the nation. Despite the difference in terms used to dismiss the role of Israel in prophecy, no discernable difference exists in how the two camps approach biblical prophecy. They both allegorize Scripture to fit with their denial of its promises regarding Israel.
Covenant premillennialists fail in their efforts to distinguish themselves from amillennialists for the following reasons:
Both Reject Historic Premillennialism
Those who ascribe to covenant premillennialism sometimes refer to themselves as historic premillennialists. However, just like the amillennialists, they reject the overwhelming premillennial perspective of the early church fathers, which persisted for the first 300 years of the church.
While it is true that many in the first four centuries of the church believed that God had rejected Israel as a nation, they maintained a belief in a literal thousand-year millennium before the eternal state.
Consider this quote from Justin Martyr (AD 100-165):
- But I and others, who are right-minded Christians on all points, are assured that there will be a resurrection of the dead, and a thousand years in Jerusalem, which will be built, adorned, and enlarged, [as] the prophets Ezekiel and Isaiah declare. . . And further, there was a certain man with us, whose name was John, one of the apostles of Christ, who prophesied, by a revelation that was made to him, that those who believed in our Christ would dwell a thousand years in Jerusalem. . .”[i]
Although Justin Martyr believed the church had replaced Israel, he clearly stated that Jesus would fulfill the words of the prophets regarding His thousand-year rule in Jerusalem. Covenant premillennialists reject the above perspective of Justin Martyr.
Irenaeus was a prominent early church theologian who wrote one of the most significant works of his day, Against Heresies. In his writing, he describes the end of the tribulation and Jesus’ return:
- But when this Antichrist shall have devastated all things in this world, he will reign for three years and six months, and sit in the temple at Jerusalem; and then the Lord will come from heaven in the clouds, in the glory of the Father, sending this man and those who follow him into the lake of fire; but bringing in for the righteous the times of the kingdom, that is, the hallowed seventh day; and restoring to Abraham the promised inheritance, in which kingdom the Lord declared, that “many coming from the east and from the west should sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.[ii]
Irenaeus regarded the time of the antichrist, the return of Jesus in the clouds, and the setting up of the kingdom as future events when he wrote in AD 180. The Romans destroyed the temple in Jerusalem 110 years before Irenaeus wrote about a future antichrist sitting in a future temple in Jerusalem.
Although many historic premillennialists did not believe in a future restoration of Israel, such as we see before us today, they believed Jesus would reign for a thousand years from Jerusalem after a time of great tribulation on the earth and before the eternal state.
Covenant premillennialists reject the millennial beliefs of most early church fathers; they are decidedly not historic premillennialists.
Both Deny a Future for Israel
Both amillennialists and covenant premillennialists deny a future for the nation of Israel. Although they use different terminology, they arrive at the same place. They both assert that God’s current restoration of Israel does not fulfill biblical prophecy and does not indicate we live in the last days.
Both use allegory to interpret Old Testament prophecies regarding Israel in precisely the same way. In other words, Zechariah’s prophecies of a future repentance for Israel (verses 12:10-13:1) and a worldwide kingdom for Jesus (chp. 14) do not really mean what the words say. Both viewpoints change the sense of these passages in a way that retrofits their interpretation to the same covenant mentality.
Furthermore, both must contort Romans 11 to mean something other than what Paul intended. The apostle clearly states that God has not rejected Israel (11:1-2). Throughout this chapter the apostle proclaims that the Lord has future plans for the nation of Israel. Neither amillennialism nor covenant premillennialism can be true if the apostle’s words in Romans 11 mean what they say.
Both Deny a Literal Tribulation
The amillennialists and covenant premillennialists maintain an identical approach to the book of Revelation. Both relegate most of the book, if not all, either to history or allegory.
John’s choice of words refutes the allegorical approach that both camps use to dismiss the literalness of John’s description of the tribulation and Jesus’ millennial reign. The apostle uses the word “saw” 44 times by itself and 12 times with the word “looked.” He uses the word “heard” 30 times to indicate he was writing down words he heard. John tells us in no uncertain terms that he is writing Jesus’ revelation to us, whether directly or through visions of the future.
John does not employ the language of allegory but rather that of someone communicating God’s message given to him through both words and future events. Both teachings discussed here subtract from the message of the book of Revelation, something the Lord warned against doing (Rev. 22:18-19).
Amillennialism and covenant premillennialism relegate all Scriptural prophecy regarding the tribulation to allegory and thus remain blind to the abundance of signs pointing to its imminent arrival.
Both Believe in Jesus’ Reign During the Eternal State
As mentioned earlier, covenant premillennialists believe Jesus fulfills the promises of His millennial kingdom during the eternal state. This does not differ from many amillennialists who also see Jesus reigning forever; they just do not refer to His reign in the eternal state as the fulfillment of the millennium.
The only advantage for the covenant premillennialists stems from their claim that they represent premillennialism when in fact they reject it. How can one deny the millennium and still claim to be premillennial? It’s an oxymoron at best; you cannot be premillennial if you discard the teaching of the Bible regarding the millennium.
This assertion poses another critical problem for covenant premillennialists. On the one hand, they maintain Jesus fulfilled all the covenants and prophecies of the Old Testament during His earthly ministry. On the other hand, however, their basis for moving Jesus’ kingdom reign to the eternal state seems to come from the very passages they say are symbolical and do not mean what they say.
How does one strip away all the language of the Old and New Testaments pointing to the millennial reign of Jesus and then at the same time maintain Jesus fulfills kingdom promises in the eternal state. It seems contradictory to me. I believe covenant premillennialism contradicts itself by basing its kingdom view of Jesus on passages they claim to be allegory.
Yes, I have been quite hard on those who espouse this false view of future things. I dislike covenant premillennialism because it enables its proponents to claim they are premillennial when in fact they do not differ from amillennialists in any meaningful way. When I talked with the pastor who described himself in this way, he quickly defended amillennialism when I criticized it.
I grieve because of the damage this so called “premillennial” view has caused to the body of Christ. It has allowed teachers and pastors to infiltrate seminaries and churches with premillennial statements of faith and then teach a brand of covenant theology that does not differ from amillennialism in any noteworthy way.
Covenant premillennialism is amillennialism repackaged.
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[i] Martyr, Justin, “Dialogue with Trypho,” The Ante-Nicene Fathers, 10 vols. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1979) Vol. 1, pp. 239-40
[ii] Irenaeus, Against Heresies, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, 10 vols. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1979) Vol. 1 p. 560