If St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is all true, then premillennialism is false.
My non-religious readers may have no idea what I’m talking about. I can sympathise. I think (but I could be wrong) that this might be the first time I have ever written about this subject at the blog. I stopped thinking about arguments over things like the “millennium,” the “rapture,” the “great tribulation” and the like some time ago. It’s interesting in a way, don’t get me wrong, but after thinking about theology for some years now those things just feel like they belong in the toybox of Christian theology. That’s not to say there are no truths associated with them, it’s just that they remind me so much of sensational books and relatively pointless squabbles between seminary men in tweed jackets with patches on the elbows in journals like Bibliotheca Sacra in the 70s and 80s (not that I was around when these things happened – I was born in 1975). And yet, it’s a serious subject within Evangelical theology and deserves to be taken seriously when coming to terms with Evangelical theology.
The subject of premillennialism was raised in a recent discussion, and I made the comment that I think St Paul’s view expressed in the first letter to the Corinthians (chapter 15), if true, would rule premillennialism out altogether. Somebody asked me why I thought this, and here you are, reading my answer. I’ll unpack the terminology as we go.
The purpose of St Paul’s discussion here is to exhort the Corinthian believers to believe in the resurrection of the dead and then to offer a brief explanation of what it means and will achieve. Some of the Corinthians, perhaps influenced by a Hellenistic disdain for the body, had denied the resurrection of the dead (so Paul asks in verse 12, “How can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead?”). As I have explained elsewhere, St Paul drives home the point that without the resurrection of the dead there is literally no hope of life beyond the grave, so we may as well give up the faith now if there is no resurrection.
What I want to look at here is the way St Paul places the resurrection of God’s people in history, but first, for the sake of the uninitiated here’s a very simple breakdown of how the various “millennial” views differ from one another. The term “millennium” is taken from the reference to the period of one thousand years in the book of Revelation, chapter 20. In millennialist eschatology,1 there is a future period of time in human history where Christ will reign on earth while evil is suppressed and peace and justice dominate.
It is possible to exist in a thoroughly Christian environment and never discuss the millennium, since the dominant view in most traditional forms of Christianity is amillennial (literally meaning “no-millennial”), meaning that there is no future millennium. Instead, the thousand years alluded to in Revelation, like the vision in which it appears, is highly figurative and refers to a spiritual state of blessedness, namely salvation (and thus, as St John wrote in Revelation 20:6, “the second death has no power over” those who take part in the first resurrection, which is described as the way in which believers enter the thousand year reign). The amillennialist would find confirmation of this view in Paul’s remarks to the Ephesians, saying that we were dead in sin but God has raised us to new life in Christ, seating us in heaven with him (Ephesians 2:1-7). For the record, this is the view I hold.
In a postmillennial view (or at any rate the version of postmillennialism most prominent in history), this thousand year period of time (whether it is literally one thousand years or simply a long period of time) is the culmination of the growth of God’s kingdom in the world in fulfilment of the great commission (that is, Jesus’ command to his followers to preach the Gospel and make disciples of all nations). Because of the influence of God through the church in the world, human society will become more godly and just, to the point where the whole world expresses the reign of God through the church, and then following this extended period of time, Jesus will return and the resurrection of the dead will occur. It is worth pointing out that in more recent times (in the twentieth century), a number of authors have used the term “postmillennialism” to describe their view even though they do not hold the view of historical postmillennialists that the millennium is a specific period of time in history immediately prior to Christ’s return (so Christ returns “post” or after the millennium). Instead they use the term simply because they maintain the belief in the improvement of the state of the world prior to the last day. Strictly speaking, this new variety of “postmillennialism” is compatible with amillennialism, differing from the view of many amillennialists only because of its “kingdom theology,” namely its optimistic view of the future of God’s Kingdom in this world.
Lastly, the premillennial view interprets the “first resurrection” and its context in Revelation as a fairly literal description of future temporal history on earth. In this view, Jesus will return before (i.e. “pre”) the millennium and reign on earth with his followers for a thousand years. When he returns, his people will be raised from the dead. Whereas the postmillennial view sees the reign of Christianity in the world through the church by the power of the Holy Spirit occurring before Jesus returns, in the premillennial view this reign begins when Jesus returns to personally reign as king. At the end of this period, those who have died during the millennium will be raised from the dead along with all of the remaining dead (namely those who died before Jesus returned but were not his people), and then the day of judgement will occur.
There are finer details and distinctions to make, but these do not matter for my purposes here. My claim is not that a variation of premillennialism has some difficulty addressing some aspects of what St Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15, requiring me to explain all the varieties of Premillennialism that might exist (e.g. dispensationalism, a post-tribulational view etc). Instead, I say that like a sledgehammer, St Paul’s point of view expressed in this passage – if we take it to be correct – utterly smashes all possible varieties of premillennialism to dust, so that no matter which particular flavour you might choose, it is hopelessly doomed.
… like a sledgehammer, St Paul’s point of view expressed in this passage – if we take it to be correct – utterly smashes all possible varieties of premillennialism to dust …
Faithful to his Jewish background (as Jesus was to his), St Paul believed in the resurrection of the just and the unjust. But here in 1 Corinthians 15 he says nothing about the unjust. In fact he is explicit that he is talking only about those who are “in Christ” (verse 22), a group that he equates with “those who belong to Christ” (verse 23), and in the resurrection he describes, Paul says that immortality, incorruptibility and glory will come to those who take part in it (verses 50-54). The premillennial view is that St Paul is here describing the resurrection of the saints just prior to the millennium, and then later, at the end of the millennium, after the final rebellion of evil and its final defeat by God, those who died during the millennium as well as all non-believers will rise from the dead and be judged.
But look at how St Paul locates the resurrection of believers and the final victory of God. There are two parts of this passage in particular that appear to address matters of timing: Verses 21-26 and then verses 51-55. I will quote both of these sections here:
For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.
(And now the second section)
Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”
The first section paints with a broader brush, referring to Christ’s resurrection and then the resurrection of believers and the “end.” The second section zooms up closely on the resurrection of believers. Reading both of these sections together, here is Paul’s way of viewing history: First, Christ was raised from the dead as the “first fruits,” an agricultural term referring to the first of a harvest, with the rest to follow. Then, Christ will come at some point and those who belong to Christ will be raised.
They will be raised immortal and imperishable, and when that happens, the victory over death will be complete.
Once we step back and see the series of events that Paul envisages here and compare it to a premillennial view of the future, it is at once clear that they are incompatible. In the premillennial view, remember, Christ was raised from the dead, and then at some point in the future Christ will return and believers will be raised, and then there will be an extended period of time on earth during which evil is suppressed and Christ reigns (the millennium), and then the rest of the dead will be raised, then the end will come and the eternal state will be ushered in.
But there simply is no space for a millennium here in 1 Corinthians 15. When the saints are raised immortal, that is the time when death has been defeated, and death, Paul has said, is the last of all God’s enemies to be shown the door.
It is courteous, if not mandatory, to let the accused in such disputes offer a defence. In light of what looks like a clear expression from St Paul of the conviction that, at some point in the future, God’s people will be raised from the dead in glory and immortality, bringing about a time when death has been finally and forever defeated as the last of God’s enemies and the culmination of Christ’s reign, what do premillennialists have to say about the passage before us? What do they say it means? I will let premillennial theologian George Eldon Ladd answer for them. After very frankly acknowledging the apparent absence of the idea of a future millennium from most of the New Testament and no indication at all in the Gospels in particular, he says:
There is, however, one passage in Paul which may refer to an interim kingdom if not a millennium. In 1 Corinthians 15:23-26 Paul pictures the triumph of Christ’s kingdom as being accomplished in several stages. The resurrection of Christ is the first stage (tagma). The second stage will occur at the parousia when those who are Christ’s will share his resurrection. “Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” The adverbs translated “then” are epeita, eita, which denote a sequence: “after that.” There are three distinct stages: Jesus’ resurrection; after that (epeita) the resurrection of believers at the resurrection; after that (eita) the end (telos). An unidentified interval falls between Christ’s resurrection and his parousia, and a second undefined interval falls between the parousia and the telos, when Christ completes the subjugation of his enemies.2
Here is the passage on which Ladd was commenting, 1 Corinthians 15:22-26.
For as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then [epeita] at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then [eita] comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.
If I am reading Ladd’s explanation of this passage correctly, his claim is that epeita and eita, often translated “then,” do not necessarily mean “immediately” or even “soon after,” but can indicated a later point in time, perhaps many years later (as in the case of the delay between Christ’s resurrection and then the resurrection of God’s people, still in the future). And therefore, this passage in 1 Corinthians 15, says Ladd, actually indicates that there will be substantial but unspecified period of time between the time when the saints are raised and the “end,” and that period of time is the millennium. And therefore this passage supports a premillennial view, because it depicts the resurrection of the saints, followed by a long period of time, followed by the end.
With all due respect, this is a surprisingly bad argument. It is true that eita (εἶτα) does not specify a particular length of time and only means “then” in the sense of “afterwards.” But quite obviously this does not show that the word suggests a long period of time. Indeed there are times in the New Testament where it is used in a context where there is immediacy. For example:
Mark 8:23-26, when Jesus healed a blind man: “He took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village; and when he had put saliva on his eyes and laid his hands on him, he asked him, “Can you see anything?” And the man looked up and said, “I can see people, but they look like trees, walking.” Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he looked intently and his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly.”
John 19:26-27, as Jesus is on the cross: “When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother”.”
It is mistaken, then, to infer that because eita can be used in cases where there is a delay, it somehow means that there is a delay. In fact the word is no more or less specific than our English word “then.” Ladd appears to have argued from the mere possibility that there is a delay when this word is used to the claim that in fact there is a delay here. Whether there is a delay or not (and how long the delay is) must be determined by context if it can be determined at all.
And that leads to the more serious problem with Ladd’s appeal to 1 Corinthians 15. The context, as we have already seen, indicates that there is not a delay here – and certainly not a whole millennium – between the resurrection of the saints and “the end.” As Ladd sees, “the end” here in verse 24 is the time when all of Christ’s enemies have been defeated, the last of which being death. But St Paul located the final victory over death at the time when God’s people are raised immortal. Here it is again in verses 52-55.
For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”
To reiterate: The resurrection of the saints that Paul describes here, according to his view at least, is the time when death is finally defeated, or to use his phrase, “death is swallowed up in victory.” This is “the end.”
In fact, although Ladd made reference to the fact that eita, translated “then,” can refer to a space of some time, there’s another word at play here. When Paul says “When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled,” it is evident, even in English, that “then” refers to something immediate. When the saints are raised, that will fulfil the saying about death (which is the final enemy) being swallowed up in victory. But as if to nail the lid on premillennialism’s coffin very firmly shut, the word translated “then” here is tote (τότε). I would not see the need to drill down into the Greek here were it not for Ladd’s effort to do so. This word, unlike eita, always refers to an event that happens at that specified time, as opposed to expressing the fact that something happens later in time. Eita generally expresses a thought like “this happened, then this happened,” where the point is that there was a sequence of events. Tote however is not generally used this way. Here are a few examples, all of which indicate that something occurs at a specified point in time:
1 Corinthians 4:5 “Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive commendation from God.”
Colossians 3:4 “When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.”
2 Thessalonians 2:8 “For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work, but only until the one who now restrains it is removed. And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will destroy with the breath of his mouth, annihilating him by the manifestation of his coming.”
We have a similar usage here in 1 Corinthians 15:54 – “When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: “Death has been swallowed up in victory”.” When will death be swallowed up in victory? Then. And when is “then”? When this perishable body puts on imperishability. There is no thousand years following this, after which death, the last enemy is defeated. Consequently, a premillennial view of the future is false if St Paul is right.
- Eschatology is a word commonly used in theology to refer to a view of history and how things will end in this age and transition into eternity. [↩]
- G.E. Ladd, “Historic Premillennialism” in Robert G. Clouse (ed.), The Meaning of the Millennium: Four Views (Downers Grove: Intervarsity, 1977), 38-39. The year of publication, 1977, is indicative of the era in which such discussions were interesting to a wider Evangelical audience A book like this would not warrant publication now. [↩]