Premillennialism: The Friend of Israel
Premillennialism, historically and presently, is a compassionate friend of Israel. In direct contrast, postmillennialism and amillennialism have the reputation of being not only unfriendly to Israel but, on occasion, the Jews’ feared oppressors. Our eschatological interpretation of Scripture is inseparably related to our attitude toward God’s people, the literal seed of Abraham. Premillennialists such as the ancient Justin Martyr and [the late] Tim LaHaye are Israel’s friends, while the ancient Jerome and the contemporary Hank Hanegraaff view the Jews as the aggressors rather than the rightful possessors of the land of Israel.
The premillennialist’s literal interpretation of Scripture causes him to believe that:
- There will be a literal millennial kingdom (1000 years) [Rev. 20:4-6].
- Israel will be re-gathered [Zech. 8:7-8].
- The Jewish people (the physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) have a divinely-given right to possess the land of Israel [Gen. 17:7-8].
- The church does not replace Israel or negate God’s promises to her.
- The scope of the book of Revelation is predominantly futuristic [Rev. 1:1].
The postmillennialist and amillennialist symbolic and allegorical interpretation of Scripture causes them usually to believe that:
- There is or will be a spiritual millennial kingdom.
- God is finished with national Israel.
- The Jews can no longer lay divine claim to the land of Israel.
- The church has replaced Israel as the spiritual Israel.
- The scope of the book of Revelation is preteristic.
Premillennialists are generally associated with terms such as dispensationalist, Biblicist, futurist and chiliast, while many postmillennialists and most amillennialists are distinguished by theological designations such as covenant theology, dominion theology, replacement theology and preterist. (Departure from the literal interpretation of Scripture results in a very wide range of millennial explanations, making an unambiguous definition difficult.) Interestingly these perspectives and their resulting attitudes toward Israel, which are so apparent today, were also present in the first centuries of the church.
The apostolic church, which was most intimately connected with the doctrine and practices of the apostles, was eschatologically premillennial. Justin Martyr, who may have been born as early as AD80 and lived to approximately AD165, declares that his view of the millennium, which was premillennial, came directly from the apostles.
"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 then be built, adorned, and enlarged [as] the prophets Ezekiel and Isaiah and others 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; and that thereafter the general, and, in short, the eternal resurrection and judgment of all men would likewise take place."1
Writing as little as 20 years after the death of John, Justin verifies his source by naming the apostle John and declaring that he was “with us.” Not only does Justin identify John as the writer of the book of Revelation, but he also details the apostle’s literal, premillennial interpretation of that book. Justin places himself as having been in the company of the writer of the book of Revelation; and, possessing the apostle John’s interpretation of the millennium, he describes his understanding as the view of “right-minded Christians.”
Justin wrote during the reign of the Roman Emperor Antoninus Pius Augustus Caesar. Though eight decades had passed, the Jewish state, and Jerusalem its capital, yet bore the gaping wounds from the catastrophic Jewish war. Beginning in AD64 Jewish zealots had fought for independence from Rome. The little country boldly waged a daring and costly fight, but in the end they were no match for the legions of the new emperor, Vespasian. In AD70, after a five-month siege, Jerusalem fell, the temple was burned and the city destroyed. More than a million Jews had lost their lives in the struggle. Sixty-two years later another Jewish uprising under Simon bar Koseba (better known as Bar Kochba) resulted in three and one half years of a heroic but fruitless war, further devastating the Holy Land and leaving another half million Jews dead. The Emperor Hadrian, purposing to curb any further revolt, determined to erase any ethnic and religious identity from the area which was historically the “Land of the Jews.” The Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus was constructed on the temple mount; Jews were forbidden to enter Jerusalem, and Judah was renamed Palestine.
When Emperor Antoninus replaced Hadrian in AD138, the regulation forbidding Jews to enter their Holy City remained in force. The apostolic fathers believed that the Holy Land was the divinely-decreed possession of the children of Jacob; and, echoing the apostles, these early believers greatly pitied the plight of the Jews. They understood with the apostles that a spiritual blindness rested upon God’s people (Rom. 11:8-10, 25) and that Israel had been, and presently was, a “disobedient and gainsaying people” (Rom. 10:21). But the early church fathers desired with the apostle Paul that “they (Israel) might be saved” (Rom. 10:1). They did not believe that God had “cast away His people” (Rom. 11:1). They understood there was a “remnant according to the election of grace” (Rom. 11:5) and rejoiced in the promise of God that all Israel, in an individual and national sense, “shall be saved” (Rom. 11:26).
Representative of the apostolic era, Justin had a great burden for the salvation of the Jews. Meeting a Hebrew by the name of Trypho, who had recently escaped from the last war in Judea, Justin reasoned from the Scriptures with this spiritually lost son of the circumcision. It was to this Jew that Justin declared the aforementioned biblical truth of the literal millennial rebuilding of Jerusalem. Recognizing the present hardheartedness of the circumcision, the apostolic preacher acquainted Trypho with Christians’ tenderhearted prayers for Israel:
"But so far from that, ye hate and murder us who have believed through Him in the God and Father of all, as often as ye can; and ye curse Him without ceasing, as well as those who side with Him; while all of us pray for you, and for all men, as our Christ and Lord taught us to do, when He enjoined us to pray even for our enemies, and to love them that hate us, and to bless them that curse us." 2
In his First Apology, addressed to the emperor, Justin reminded him of the ruin that had come upon the land of the Jews: “Jerusalem has been laid waste, as was predicted.…And that it is guarded by you lest any one dwell in it, and that death is decreed against the few apprehended entering it, you know very well.” 3 A similar statement was made by Tertullian in his book, An Answer to the Jews, chapter 12. Though Justin was aware that the Jews were suffering temporal and spiritual consequence for rejecting and crucifying their Messiah, he also recognized that in the providence of God the temporary blindness of Israel had resulted in spiritual sight being given to the Gentiles. Justin understood that from the Jews came Christ and from the Jews came the apostles. Justin believed that Israel would not be cast off forever.
The tenderness of the apostolic church toward Israel subtly changed in the generations that followed. The calamitous state of Israel rested heavily upon the hearts of Justin, lrenaeus, Hippolytus and other men who exemplified the premillennial position of the early church. Corresponding with the secular Roman world, which was purposefully endeavoring to purge the Jewish heritage from Judea in order to prevent another Hebrew uprising, Christians had begun to wage war against religious Judaism. Seeking to wash the Roman world of Judaism, Christian shrines replaced Jewish memorials, and the Jew was thrown out with the bath water. Jerusalem, protected from Jewish entry or influence, was now becoming a “Christian” city. Christians were finding it more difficult to think of a literal millennial restoration of Jerusalem as a Jewish city.
Departing from the apostolic method of interpretation during the first half of the third century, Origen was propagating an allegorical approach which allowed for a reinterpretation of millennial promises to Israel. The modus operandi for covenant, reformed and dominion theology had been birthed. Literal Israel was now being replaced by “Christian Israel,” and the biblical and apostolic prophetical distinction between Israel and the church was disappearing.
Nepos, an Egyptian bishop, alarmed by this departure from apostolic truth,
"Taught that the promises to the holy men in the Divine Scriptures should be understood in a more Jewish manner, and that there would be a certain millennium of bodily luxury upon the earth. As he thought that he could establish his private opinion by the Revelation of John, he wrote a book on this subject, entitled Refutation of Allegorists." 4
Any actual writings of Nepos have been lost to history, but the brief report just quoted, left to us by the historian Eusebius, clearly identifies the bishop’s concerns. In a day when “Christians” were replacing “Israel” in millennial promises, Nepos believed “Divine Scriptures should be understood in a more Jewish manner,” and in a day when allegorical interpretation was replacing the literal method, Nepos entitled his book Refutation of Allegorists.
Nepos’ book angered Origen’s student Dionysius of Alexandria (Origen stands in history as the greatest of all allegorists, and in Dionysius’ mind the title of the book would have meant “Refutation of Origen.”) As is so often the case when history and Scripture refute one’s theory, Dionysius questioned the apostolic authorship of the Apocalypse, ignoring both the voice of Scripture and history.
A very revealing note occurs in The Church History of Eusebius (edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace) as an explanation of the origin of Nepos’ eschatology.
"It is interesting to note, that although chiliasm had long lost its hold wherever the philosophical theology of the third century had made itself felt, it still continued to maintain its sway in other parts of the Church, especially in outlying districts in the East, which were largely isolated from the great centers of thought, and in the greater part of the West. By such Christians it was looked upon, in fact, as the very kernel of Christianity, — they lived as most Christians of the second century had, in the constant hope of a speedy return of Christ to reign in power upon the earth. The gradual exclusion of this remnant of early Christian belief involved the same kind of consequences as the disappearance of the belief in the continued possession by the Church of the spirit of prophecy, and marks another step in the progress of the Church from the peculiarly enthusiastic spirit of the first and second, to the more formal spirit of the third and following centuries.” 5
“Philosophical theology” had replaced apostolic, biblical theology; and with this “gradual exclusion of this remnant of early Christian belief,” the church lost the wonderful hope of the imminent return of Christ and the millennial restoration of God’s people the Jews in their Holy City, Jerusalem. The author, who has over a period of many years carefully studied the writings of the early church, can unashamedly state, “The early church is the friend of the biblical dispensationalist and the enemy of covenant, dominion and replacement theologies.”
Many modern writers who reject biblical and apostolic millennialism pursue the argument voiced by Dionysius. It is claimed that since Corinthus, a heretic who thrived during the days of John the apostle, believed that the millennium would be a time of excessive and even licentious fleshly gratification, the millennial promises cannot be interpreted literally. Historically, Corinthus’ perverted view of millennial fleshly gratification reveals the heretic’s carnally perverted heart and is not reason to throw out the literal millennial promises. The fact that he believed in the literal fulfillment of millennial promises is further evidence of the uniform millennial interpretation during the apostolic period. It should be remembered that further pursuit of this line of reasoning caused Dionysius and many who followed him to reject the apostle John’s authorship of the Apocalypse (Revelation).
With the church claiming the promises God had made to Israel and Jewish monuments covered by “Christian” edifices, Israel’s greatest fear was not the secular state, but “Christians.” The Jewish population received a brief reprieve under Diocletian, who mercilessly persecuted the church. But with the Christianizing of the empire under Constantine, the Jewish fate was sealed. Premillennial eschatology, the friend of Israel, was largely forgotten for centuries, to be resurrected by biblical fundamentalists in the 19th century.
The sad but true tale of history is that the sons of Jacob did not find their worst adversary in Assyria, Babylonia or the ruthless Antiochus Epiphanes. Israel’s cruelest foe has been the “Christian Church” which claimed Israel’s promises. The Council of Nicea would speak of the Jews “spoiling their hands with the most monstrous crimes.” Brief reprieve would usually come not through “Christians” but unbelievers like Emperor Julian, the apostate who succeeded Constantine.
The otherwise honest Bishop Chrysostom uttered vile lies about the Jews, and Jerome spoke of the Hebrews as “wretches.” The fall of the Western empire brought no deliverance to the Jews. The choice of forced baptism or expulsion began to echo through Europe. The sons of Jacob fled from “Christian” country to “Christian” country, only to again be relieved of their possessions and often their lives. Many found safe haven in Islamic countries where they were beyond the reach of “Christians.”
The “Christian” crusaders spilled the blood of the multiplied thousands who would not submit to Christian baptism. Pope Urban II called upon “Christians” to liberate Jerusalem. As the first crusade passed through Mainz, Rabbi Isaac ben Moses was the first to have his head removed. After the “Christian” crusaders left the city, wagons would carry 1300 Jewish corpses for burial. Twelve thousand Jews in the Rhine provinces were killed. The bloody path to Jerusalem was but a foretaste of what would happen in the Holy City. The “Christian” host conquered the city on July 15, 1099, and “non-Christians,” Moslems and Jews alike, were slain. Bodies were piled in the streets which literally flowed with blood. The crusades that followed would inflict again and again the same carnage upon the Jews. As fugitive Jews wandered from “Christian” country to “Christian” country, distinguishing badges, marks and clothing were required. In 1492, when Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue, Christian royalty, Ferdinand and Isabella, expelled all Jews from their kingdom.
The greatest inferno of all occurred in the 20th century as those calling themselves “Christian” enacted the “Final Solution” — extermination of the Jewish race by gas and bullet. The death camps Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, Treblinka, Mauthausen, Majdanek, Sobibor, Dachau and Buchenwald left millions dead. Stripped of their clothing and any remaining jewelry, God’s people, the Jews, were herded into the “shower baths” where Zyklon B gas poured out in the place of water. The corpses were looted; gold was collected from the teeth, and body tissue and hair were foraged. When the allies had silenced the Nazi guns, the gates were swung open, and the horrific crime temporarily shook the civilized world to its senses.
With the atrocities fresh in their memories, on November 30, 1947, the United Nations, with the approval of the United States and 32 other nations, established a Jewish homeland in the land for which the sons of Jacob had divine title. The modern nation of Israel was born.
With the revival of premillennial eschatology among biblical fundamentalists in the 19th and 20th centuries came a rebirth of pity and genuine love for God’s people. To this day, as in the apostolic era, the premillennial Biblicist remains the friend of Israel. The heart of the premillennial believer rejoices as he meditates upon God’s promises to the descendants of Jacob:
"Sing and rejoice, O daughter of Zion: for, lo, I come, and I will dwell in the midst of thee, saith the Lord. And many nations shall be joined to the Lord in that day, and shall be My people: and I will dwell in the midst of thee, and thou shalt know that the Lord of hosts hath sent Me unto thee. And the Lord shall inherit Judah His portion in the holy land, and shall choose Jerusalem again. Be silent, O all flesh, before the Lord; for He is raised up out of His holy habitation (Zech. 2:10-13)."
The true believer and the Jew should rightly fear those whose incorrect methods of biblical interpretation and erring history have caused them to abandon premillennialism. Professing Christians like Hank Hanegraaff, who are again questioning Israel’s right to the land of Palestine and classifying Zionism as a “racist political philosophy,” 6 cause a chill to run down the spine of the true student of the Bible and history. Their thoughts are not new. The church has been there before. The results were both shameful and terrifying. Let us pray that history will not repeat itself in the 21st century.
1. Roberts, Alexander and James Donaldson, eds. Ante-Nicene Fathers: The Apostolic Fathers, Justin Martyr, lrenaeus. Hendrickson Publishers, vol. 1, 239- 240.
2. Ibid., 266.
3. Ibid., 178
4. Schaff, Philip and Henry Wace, eds. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Eusebius. Hendrickson Publishers, vol. 1, 308.
6. Hanegraff, Hank. The Apocalypse Code. xxiii.
— Written by Pastor Mark Cowles of the Highway Bible Church in Placerville, CA. This article originally appeared in Foundation magazine, Issue 4, 2008.