Why Every Self-Respecting Calvinist Is NOT A Premillennial Dispensationalist: A Concise Case For Reformed Amillennialism

In 2007, Pastor John MacArthur, a premillennial dispensationalist, gave a controversial lecture at the Shepherd’s Conference entitled Why Every Self-Respecting Calvinist Is A Premillennialist. In his speech, he made the controversial assertion that if you’re an amillennialist, you’re saying “The kingdom as identified in the Old Testament and promised to Israel will not happen.” The lecture was regarded by Reformed theologians as an inaccurate and embarrassing straw man argument against amillennialism. This caused MacArthur to lose a great deal of credibility in the Reformed community.

Having been a student at The Masters University, I’d always wanted to believe in premillennial dispensationalism. I struggled with its inconsistencies and pleaded with professors and fellow cohorts “Please convince me!” Yet, after hearing the best arguments over a two-year period, I was unconvinced. I came to believe the most consistently biblical and Christ honoring view of eschatology is amillennialism. In this post, I will be focusing on the top five reasons a Christian should hold to amillennialism.

Laying the Ground Work

For those new to this topic, let me define some words and phrases for you (from the Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms):

  • Eschatology refers to the doctrine of last things.
  • The Millennium refers to a 1000-year period of time.
  • Premillennialism believes the Second Coming of Christ precedes the millennium. The word chiliasm was used in the early church for this position.
  • Dispensationalism is the belief that God has a distinct plan for Israel separate from the church and that the prophecy of the Old Testament needs to be interpreted literally.
  • Amillennialism is the belief there is no literal 1000-year kingdom on earth before the Second coming. Amillennialists believe the millennium refers to the heavenly reign of Christ and the departed saints during the Church Age.
  • Hermeneutics is the art and science of Biblical interpretation.

What is the Reformed Hermeneutic?

Dispensationalists have a great appreciation for the “Literal hermeneutic.” They believe in taking Scripture as literally as possible, unless the text explicitly says to take it as something else. How does the Reformed hermeneutic differ from this?

A Reformed hermeneutic is one that considers the genre of literature, the grammatical words used, the book’s historical situation and it’s place in in redemptive history. Most importantly, however, the Reformed hermeneutic emphasizes the analogy of Scripture, in that difficult or unclear passages should be interpreted by comparing them with clearer passages on the same topic. The best interpreter of Scripture is Scripture itself. This is why Reformed hermeneutics gives priority to the New Testament in interpreting the Old Testament, and not vice versa (Luke 24:27).

With these terms set in place, what are the five strongest reasons for amillennialism?

1. The Old Testament teaches Amillennialism

What did the Old Testament teach about the millennium? The short answer is: literally nothing. The phrase for a thousand years, “chiliasm,” only occurs in one passage in the entire New Testament (Revelation 20:1–6). There is ZERO said about a thousand-year earthly kingdom. In fact, the Old Testament describes the Messiah’s kingdom as an everlasting kingdom that cannot be destroyed (Daniel 2:44).

2. The Gospels teach Amillennialism

Second, the gospels teach amillennialism. The disciples walked and talked with Jesus for three years. Like many of the Jewish Pharisees in those days, they may have longed for a political Messiah who would drive the Romans out of Palestine. On one occasion, Jesus was specifically asked “when the kingdom of God would come.” He answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming in ways that can be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you” (Luke 17:20–21). Jesus was adamant that the kingdom of God is not found in a re-established Davidic earthly kingdom, but in Himself.

On another occasion, Pontius Pilate asked Jesus if he were a king. Jesus didn’t deny it and He also described what kind of kingdom it is, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting” (John 18:36). Again, Jesus taught that His kingdom is not an earthly kingdom in which He replaces Pilate as emperor. As Herman Bavinck noted, “Jesus nowhere predicts a glorious future on earth before the end of the world.”

3. The Apostles teach Amillennialism

Thirdly, all of the apostles taught amillennialism. The verses mentioned above are why Paul exhorts Christians not to seek an earthly political kingdom, but to set our “minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Colossians 3:1). This world is not our home. We’re pilgrims and sojourners as we travel through the Christian life. Like the author of Hebrews wrote, Abraham wasn’t looking for a prime piece of real estate, but “was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God” (Hebrews 11:10). This should be our vision too.

4. The Book of Revelation Teaches Amillennialism

Fourth, the book of Revelation doesn’t allow for the millennium to be viewed as a literal earthly Jewish kingdom. As mentioned earlier, Revelation 20:1–6 is the only passage in the entire Bible that references a 1000-year period, called “the Millennium” by theologians. The book of Revelation is packed with symbolic numbers. In Scripture, the number 10 often refers to a time of completeness (Job 19:3; Ecclesiastes 7:19). This gives us a good reason to believe the number 1000 should be interpreted in a non-literal way.

As we delve into Revelation 20:1–6, there are a few questions we need to answer:

Who is participating in the Millennium?

According to Revelation 20:4, it’s “the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God.” It’s a picture of believers who have died in the faith. We see no mention of non-resurrected Christians ruling with Christ in an earthly Jewish kingdom, having children, and ruling over non-resurrected people. This is something a premillennial dispensationalist is inserting into this passage.

Where is the millennium taking place?

The millennium isn’t solely a future event, but is one occurring now. Christ is reigning now! In believers, He rules through His Word and Spirit, and with the souls of deceased believers, He reigns with them in heaven (Revelation 6:9 and 20:4 speak of this). Perhaps this is why Jesus could tell the thief on the cross, “Today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43).

These two points (the who and where) show the millennium mentioned in Revelation 20:1–6 is a picture of the “intermediate state.” Knowing our souls will be in heaven with Christ after we die, and prior to the bodily resurrection, gives us hope. This is why Paul comforted himself as he neared death, knowing his soul would “depart and be with Christ” (Philippians 1:23). Our citizenship is in heaven (Philippians 3:20).

Where is Satan during the Millennium?

He is bound and on a short chain (Revelation 20:1–3). Being bound means Satan can no longer deceive the nations as he did prior to Christ’s first coming. This has enabled the church to go forth to preach the gospel and make disciples of all the nations. However, we’re on borrowed time!

5. The Ancient Creeds and the Reformed Confessions teach Amillennialism

The fifth reason to hold an amillennial view is that the Nicene and Apostles’ Creed, as well as the Reformed Confessions, teach amillennialism.

In the Apostles’ Creed, we confess that Jesus sits at the right hand of God and “will come again to judge the living and the dead.” In the Nicene, that “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead and his kingdom will have no end.” There’s no wiggle room in the creeds to insert a premillennial earthly kingdom prior to Judgment Day.

The same can be said of the Reformed Confessions, which are explicitly amillennial. Perhaps the Second Helvetic Confession, Article 11 rejects the premillennial dispensational view most bluntly:

“We condemn the Jewish dreams, that before the day of judgment there shall be a golden age in the earth, and that the godly shall possess the kingdoms of the world, their wicked enemies being trodden under foot.”

Second Helvetic Confession, Article 11

Jesus said the “gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (Matthew 24:14). Jesus connects His Second Coming with Judgment Day. He never speaks of a 1000-year earthly kingdom interlude taking place.

What did Calvin think of Premillennialism?

What did John Calvin think of premillennialism (chiliasm)? John MacArthur once quipped, “If Calvin were here, he would join our [premillennial] movement.” Honestly, nothing could be further from the truth! In Calvin’s day, premillennialism was known as chiliasm and he had a strong opinion about it:

“This fiction is too puerile [childishly silly] to need or to deserve refutation. Nor do they receive any countenance from the Apocalypse, from which it is known that they extracted a gloss for their error (Rev. 20:4).”

– Institutes of The Christian Religion, 3.15.5

Calvin rightly looked at chiliasm as a “great…insult…to Christ and his kingdom” (Institutes 3.15.5).

Herman Bavinck agreed with Calvin and said, “Chiliasm is not of Christian but of Jewish and Persian origin. It is based on a compromise between the expectations of an earthly salvation and those of a heavenly state of blessedness.”

Concluding thoughts

I understand that many people reading this come from an evangelical background and have been taught that premillennial dispensationalism is just a basic belief of Christianity. But please thoughtfully consider the points made in this post.

To me, a Reformed Christian or “self respecting Calvinist” should not be a premillennial dispensationalist because it’s unbiblical, unorthodox, divisive (bringing back the dividing wall between Jews and gentiles), and it brings dishonor to Christ (in saying that there is sin and failure in His Kingdom).

In contrast to this, the case for amillennialism is very compelling. It’s a view literally taught by Jesus, Paul, the book of Revelation, the Nicene and Apostles’ Creed, as well as the Reformed Confessions. It’s a view that truly gives all glory and honor to Jesus Christ and nothing else. All the promises and prophecies of the Old Testament “find their Yes” in Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 1:20). Christ is reigning right now and has “made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever” (Revelation 1:6).