Sunday, June 23, 2019

Don’t Stop Now, You’re Almost There

The devil may be in the details, but far-reaching doctrinal errors are all in the broad strokes and almost never in the minutia. I’m becoming convinced of it.

My test case at the moment is the expanded edition of Kim Riddlebarger’s A Case for Amillennialism: Understanding the End Times (2013), in the event you’re wondering. But I have found the same thing with several books I’ve read recently: they advance a fundamentally flawed major premise. Once you’ve done that, you can pile up the proof texts to highest heaven without successfully proving anything. Your original, glaring defect of thought makes them all irrelevant to the greater argument.

The problem is a bit like the line about not being able to see the forest for the trees, but it’s even more like doing a wonderful job of painting a house: three tastefully chosen, compatible colors applied with skill, dexterity and hard work … and then your employer arrives and you discover you have just finished sprucing up the home of his next-door neighbor.

In this case, we are talking about contrasting beliefs about the millennium.

A Brief Summary

A quick primer for those not up to speed on their eschatology:

The millennium is a thousand-year period described in Bible prophecy during which Jesus Christ reigns on earth. It is characterized by: (1) the binding of Satan; (2) the co-rule with Christ of those who participate in the first resurrection, including judges appointed by Christ and martyrs killed in the Great Tribulation; and (3) the absence of those who did not participate in the first resurrection. At its very end Satan will be temporarily loosed again to deceive the nations. A rebellion will ensue which will be easily quashed, after which the remaining dead will come to life, be judged and cast into the lake of fire along with the devil and his followers.

Premillennialism, then, is the belief that the return of Christ to earth will precede his millennial reign. With few exceptions, premillennialists anticipate a millennium that is literal, future and earthly, headquartered in the city of Jerusalem and literally fulfilling the Old Testament promises God made to national Israel.

Amillennialism is the belief that the millennium is not limited to a thousand years but includes the entire period between the first and second comings of Christ. In other words, you are living in the millennium right now. If the millennium is a present reality, it cannot be either a literal thousand years or a literal earthly reign. Kim Riddlebarger says of his ancestors who died in Christ, “They have come to life and are reigning with Christ for a thousand years.” Further, the promises made to national Israel are fulfilled figuratively in the Church, and not literally on this earth. “[T]rue Israel … has already received the inheritance promised God’s people.”

There are other views about the millennium, and of course there are the inevitable varieties of sub-beliefs within these two major categories, but let’s not complicate things unnecessarily. My own views are premillennial and those of Mr. Riddlebarger are amillennial. If we stick with those two ideas, we should do just fine.

A Blow to the Thesis

With that established, let’s consider a major blow to Riddlebarger’s thesis; one that, ironically, he strikes against it himself.

In chapter 7, which he has entitled “Christ and the Fulfillment of Prophecy”, Riddlebarger asserts that the Old Testament prophecies fulfilled non-literally in the person, life and work of Jesus Christ argue for an equally non-literal fulfillment of any Old Testament prophecies which may appear to remain unfulfilled, and for the non-literal fulfillment of New Testament prophecy. “What Israel sought so earnestly it did not obtain, but the elect did,” he reminds us. And if the apostles viewed the promises to Israel as having been entirely fulfilled in Christ, then, as he puts it, “much of the dispensational case for a future earthly millennium simply evaporates.”

A Figurative Fulfillment

He then goes into great detail to back up his argument. There is, for instance, the servant prophecy of Isaiah 41 and 42. How did the writers of the New Testament view this? Did they anticipate a literal restoration of national Israel? Riddlebarger argues that Christ is the true Israel, fulfilling prophecies in his life and death that only appear to apply to national Israel.

For the record, I take no issue with the notion that in his life and death Christ fulfilled Old Testament prophecies that were originally taken to apply to national Israel, and neither would most premillennialists. I have written about these things at length. Christ is a way better Son than Israel ever was, and premillennialists do not for a moment dispute that. Nor, I think, would most premillennialists argue that a literal fulfillment is intrinsically superior to a figurative, allegorical or “spiritual” fulfillment. We see and appreciate both kinds of prophetic connection.

Where we differ is in this: Riddlebarger is arguing that if Christ spiritually fulfilled Old Testament prophecy, no further fulfillment may reasonably be expected. Post-first-advent, Isaiah’s prophecies may now be stamped “done and dusted” and joyfully filed away. The Church assumes Israel’s blessings in a spiritual sense. Any notion of a literal fulfillment such as was expected by the Jews of Jesus’ day has been permanently and absolutely tabled.

But that case has yet to be made. It is assumed wholly without evidence. In any event, Mr. Riddlebarger has horribly sabotaged it with his preceding chapter. But we’ll get to that.

More Detail

First, there’s more chapter 7 detail. Riddlebarger now considers the land of Canaan, the city of Jerusalem and the mountain of the Lord: Canaan, given to Abraham as an “everlasting possession”; the city of Jerusalem, the prophetic seat of Christ’s millennial government; and Mount Zion, which we are told will be “raised above the hills”.

Riddlebarger once again points us to “spiritualized” fulfillments of these prophecies. He claims the promise of Canaan to Abraham was later reinterpreted by Isaiah as the new heaven and new earth, the “fruit of the eschatological victory won by the suffering servant and conquering king.” Likewise, the glories of a future Jerusalem are not literally realized. “You have not come to a mountain,” he writes, quoting Hebrews, but “you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God.” If we have come there already in spirit, Riddlebarger postulates, “the heavenly Jerusalem has already come, even now.”

Again, no premillennialist of my acquaintance would dispute his non-literal interpretation of these prophecies. The difficulty with his position lies elsewhere entirely, and his assertion that many, most, and perhaps all Old Testament prophecies are most perfectly and most praiseworthily fulfilled in the person of Christ is not in the least contestable.

There is much more to chapter 7, all along similar lines, much of it quite agreeable to premillennialists.

The Heart of the Matter

But see, here’s the problem. In chapter 6 of the same book, our erstwhile amillenarian friend has already cut the legs from under his well-developed and otherwise-compelling argument.

Here’s how. In scripture, prophetic perspective is a tricky thing. Both premillennialists and amillennarians concede this. Mr. Riddlebarger certainly does. It is the subject of this sixth chapter. Here’s a great quote:
“A simple analogy may be useful. As I stand in the greater Los Angeles basin and look toward the mountains to the northeast, I see a single mountainous ridge on the horizon. Yet, if I were to drive directly toward the mountains, I would soon realize that what appeared to be a single ridge was actually a series of hills, valleys, and mountains separated by many miles. So it is with some Old Testament prophecies.”
Oddly, this “mountain ridge” analogy is common among dispensational premillennialists. I was taught it repeatedly growing up.

The Principle of Multiple Fulfillment

That’s because the prophetic principle Riddlebarger is explaining is genuinely present to be observed in scripture, and nobody who has paid attention to prophetic writ argues about it. Many prophecies have multiple fulfillments, I gratefully and absolutely insist.

So does Mr. Riddlebarger:
“There are specific instances in the Scriptures when a prophet foretold what appears to be a single future event, but as history unfolded it became clear that the original prophecy referred to multiple events. Certain prophecies may have double or multiple fulfillments.”
Thanks. We’ll take that.

This being the well-established nature of Old Testament prophecy, it is utterly incoherent for our friend to argue in his very next chapter that any biblical event or combination of events to date must ipso facto be the indisputable terminus of all prophecies which are alleged to concern them. Why would it be? With centuries more human history to come, there is no good reason there may not be many more fulfillments to come, either literally, figuratively or both.

Layers Upon Layers

It may well be the case — and the premillennialist argues it is — that certain prophecies about the nation of Israel that were fully intended to be literally fulfilled in some future day were also fulfilled spiritually in the first century during Christ’s ministry, or have been later fulfilled with respect to the Church in the present age. Their spiritual fulfillment in Christ may be, and probably is, their primary purpose in scripture and the interpretation we most need to come to grips with. But that fact absolutely does not in any way abrogate their inevitable literal fulfillment for national Israel.

Moreover, the fact that the apostles and writers of New Testament scripture opt to dwell primarily on spiritual applications of Old Testament prophecy rather than any potential future literal interpretation is entirely predictable: their audience is us. The Church. The people for whom the spiritual interpretation of any given Old Testament prophecy would be most relevant for the next two thousand-plus years of human history. With rare exceptions, they are not writing about Jewish national hopes. Where they are, as in Romans 11, they say things that are exceedingly difficult for amillennarians to deal with. But when addressing a Christian audience, what else would they talk about than specifically Christian applications of the Old Testament promises?

Really, the only obvious difference (on this subject at least) between me and Mr. Riddlebarger seems to be that he has drawn a wholly-arbitrary line across history and said, “All possible fulfillments of this particular subset of prophecies relating to Israel stop right here, in the first century.”

I would encourage him to look past that line. Apart from the preconceptions imposed on his thinking by his systematic theology, there is no reason not to.

No valid scriptural reason anyway.


  1. My research shows this:

    From Wiki:

    The Antichrist's deception already begins to take shape in the world every time the claim is made to realize within history that messianic hope which can only be realized beyond history through the eschatological judgment. The Church has rejected even modified forms of this falsification of the kingdom to come under the name of millenarianism, especially the "intrinsically perverse" political form of a secular messianism.
    —Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1995[16]

    I thought you might be interested in reading this Catholic Q & A posted on (concerning millennialism):

    From above link:

    "An approach which is more common in the Catholic Church and finds support with the great St. Augustine, among others, is that the 1,000 year reign represents the period of the life of the Church, however long that may be, which extends from the establishment of the Church on Pentecost (see Acts) until the end of the world as we know it and return of Christ. In other words, we are living in the millenium or 1,000 year period NOW."

    1. Right. So Catholicism is officially amillennial. I had read that somewhere I think ...