Dr. Arnold interviews Dr. Storms about the end times.
Topics of conversation include a summary and analysis of the four main eschatological positions held by Christians throughout time:
- Dispensational Premillennialism
- Historic Premillennialism
Dr. Sam Storms is lead pastor of Preaching and Vision at Bridgeway Church in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. He holds a PhD in Intellectual History from the University of Texas at Dallas, and is the author of Understanding Spiritual Warfare: A Comprehensive Guide (Zondervan, 2021), and Kingdom Come: The Amillennial Alternative (Mentor, 2015).
Welcome to Faith Seeking Understanding, a podcast from Phoenix Seminary—helping Christians grow in their understanding of the faith, hosted by Dr. Brian Arnold, president of Phoenix Seminary.
Brian Arnold (00:18):
When I was in high school, a series of books came out that swept across the nation. They were called Left Behind. These books told the tale of the rapture and people who were left behind because they had not placed their faith in Jesus. That fictional series, written by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, sold 80 million copies. People are fascinated by the end times, but seldom understand the complexities of the doctrine. Well, to help us understand end times, we have with us Dr. Sam Storms. Dr. Storms is the lead pastor for Preaching and Vision at Bridgeway Church in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. He earned his PhD from the University of Texas at Dallas in Intellectual History. He’s the author of lots of books, including Understanding Spiritual Warfare, which has just come out, and Amillennialism. Dr. Storms, welcome to the podcast.
Sam Storms (01:06):
It’s good to be with you today. Looking forward to this.
Brian Arnold (01:10):
Big question today is this—when will Jesus return? And I feel like we have to adjust expectations down from the start. So we’re not going to be suggesting—at least I hope—that we’re predicting the date when Jesus will return. Those who do that often look like fools. But the question of Jesus’s returning deals with the doctrine that we call eschatology, the doctrine of last things. Kind of trying to understand the Book of Revelation in particular, and some other places in Scripture where Jesus is telling us when he’ll return, especially in relation to that thousand year reign from Revelation chapter 20. And there’s kind of four main positions that Christians have held throughout time. And Dr. Storms has thought a lot about these issues. I thought he’d be a great guide to help us understand them. So Dr. Storms, let’s begin with what we may call dispensational premillennialism, which I think is the default position of a lot of Americans. In fact, I think a lot of people listening will find themselves kind of in that place—like the Left Behind series kind of held that view. So what do those words even mean? And what does that position hold?
Sam Storms (02:17):
Sure. You’re exactly right. I think it’s the dominant eschatological position. I remember when I was writing my book, Kingdom Come: The Amillennial Alternative, that I went to a local bookstore and I went to the eschatology section and I counted—I can’t remember exactly—I think it was like 127 books that were there for sale. And I think 95% of them were the dispensational, pre-tribulation, premillennial viewpoint. There are a lot of Christians, a lot of godly, Bible-believing brothers and sisters, who are not even aware that there’s another view. That’s the view that they have been taught, it’s the view that took root, especially in America, in the 20th century. It was the view that was expressed by Hal Lindsey’s book, The Late Great Planet Earth, which by the way, I think was the best selling paperback book in America until the Left Behind series eclipsed it.
Sam Storms (03:21):
So, that just shows you what sells. You want to write a book that sells millions of copies, you probably ought to address that particular issue. But dispensations is a word that is used to describe what they believe are distinct periods or ages or epochs, as it were, in redemptive history—the Age of Law, the Age of Promise, the Age of the Church, the Age of the Millennial Kingdom. And they believe—again, this is all dependent on whether you’re a classical dispensational thinker or a progressive dispensationalist—but generally that God relates to his people differently based on which dispensation they find themselves. But probably central to the dispensational, premillennial viewpoint is the distinction between Israel and the church. The idea that God has two covenant peoples, with two promised inheritances, and that we can discern his intentions for the future based upon those distinctions.
Sam Storms (04:25):
So the argument is, for example, that one reason—not the only reason they cite, but one of the primary reasons that they believe in a pre-tribulation rapture—is because God is now calling out the Gentiles to himself and forming the church of Jesus Christ. And when that is done, he will rapture, or translate, living believers into heaven. And he will then once again resume his dealings with national Israel during the tribulation, at the end of which Christ will return and convert many among the Jewish people who are still alive. So that’s kind of the dispensational, pre-tribulational view. And then of course, there also…I don’t know. I don’t think there’s…I’ve never heard, I’m just now saying this for maybe the first time—I’ve never heard of anybody being dispensational who wasn’t pre-millennial. So all dispensationalists, I think I can justifiably say, believe that when Christ returns at the end of the tribulation period, he will inaugurate a literal 1000 year reign on the earth, prior to the time of the new heavens and the new earth and the final judgment that we read about in Revelation 20, 21, and 22.
Sam Storms (05:42):
So that’s dispensational, pre-tribulational—that refers to their view of when the rapture will happen, premillennial—which refers to their belief that Christ will return before, hence the prefix pre-, before the earthly millennial reign.
Brian Arnold (05:58):
And that’s where we get this idea, like the bumper sticker kind of thing—”in case of rapture, this car will be unmanned.” And then you get this seven year period, Israel’s kind of brought back into the picture. What is happening, in their view, during the millennial reign?
Sam Storms (06:14):
Well, they believe that…the first and most important thing they argue is that this is the time during which the Old Testament land promise, and the other promises given to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and David, will be fulfilled literally. Primarily among a restored nation of Israel, but Gentiles, believers in the church, will in some manner participate in those blessings. And again, to what degree and extent would identify you either as a classical dispensationalist or a progressive. So that’s what they think is happening then. Jesus will supposedly rule from the Davidic throne established in Jerusalem, literally there in the middle east, and that he will reign over his people. And of course there are numerous…I have numerous problems with this, simply because part and parcel of this view is that there will also be unbelievers and unglorified bodies living on the earth, still subjecting the natural creation to the curse that was imposed by Adam. I find those some difficult things to swallow. I don’t find them to be entirely consistent with what I see in the New Testament.
Brian Arnold (07:26):
Well, and death in the millennial reign? Who’s populating the kingdom during the millennial reign? Is there a second death for them? If not for them, who else is kind of cohabiting with them, like you mentioned? There do seem to be some significant challenges, all for that discontinuity piece between Israel and the church and what are seen as unfulfilled promises to this point, to Abraham specifically in the land promise, which I suppose we’ll get to. It might be surprising to people to hear that that’s a relatively new position in the history of the church. So dispensationalism came up in the mid part of the 19th century, and it did take over pretty substantially in the 20th century. And in many ways…and let me say this—I think you would agree with this Dr. Storms—my deep appreciation for a lot of these brothers and sisters, who really held the line on some really important doctrinal issues of inerrancy and just conservative Christianity in a time when a lot of people were abandoning the faith.
Sam Storms (08:30):
Exactly. In fact, I argue in one of the chapters in my book, that this is one of the reasons why this particular viewpoint has become so deeply embedded in the minds of so many of God’s people—is because it really took root, especially in the Western world, in the fundamentalist response to theological liberalism at the turn of the 19th into the 20th centuries. And so, liberals—it’s those who deny the authority of Scripture, those who deny the Virgin birth, who deny the miracles in the Bible—also would have embraced a completely different view of eschatology. And so, kind of the dispensational, pre-trib, pre-mil perspective was almost inseparable, in the minds of many, from belief in the Virgin birth, belief in the deity of Christ, belief in his substitutionary death and bodily resurrection. It was just kind of all a package deal.
Sam Storms (09:35):
And so if you were to question that dispensational perspective, it was almost as if you were questioning orthodoxy itself. I mean, I can remember distinctly when I was in Dallas at a church, on which I was a staff member, and I had embraced a post-tribulational rapture. And honestly, you would have thought that I had denied the bodily resurrection of Christ. I mean, it was…that was such a dear doctrine to their heart, and they thought it was an indication that I was going soft on Scripture. So yeah, it’s deeply entrenched in the minds of so many evangelicals. And again, like you said, I was taught in my seminary education by dispensational, pre-tribulationists, and I love those men. And they were incredibly godly. Most of them are now with the Lord, which tells you how old I am. But I have nothing but the highest respect for them, even though I do differ with them on these issues now.
Brian Arnold (10:34):
And we still see it entrenched in a lot of church statements, colleges and seminaries—that even on some other issues aren’t as tight in their language, but when it comes to this, it is very much a litmus test for many of those places, because of the issues you mentioned. So it may be surprising to people, again, that this is a relatively newer position. In fact, of these four, it’s the newest. So the earliest position in the history of the church, we may call historic premillennialism. So this is the position laid out by Irenaeus in book five of Against Heresies. And one of the things I love about Irenaeus, is he was discipled by Polycarp, who was discipled by John. That doesn’t mean necessarily that his view—obviously, not being in Scripture—is the right view. But it is an ancient view. What does historic premillennialism hold?
Sam Storms (11:27):
Sure. Well, historic is used, precisely for the reason you just pointed out—because it has been present in the early history of the church. Whether or not it was the dominant view is a matter of ongoing scholarly debate. But basically these are individuals who are premillennial, but they don’t embrace the dispensational, pre-tribulation perspective that I outlined earlier. So in other words, these are people who believe that the church will remain on the earth through a period of tribulation, whether it’s seven years long, or seven months, or, you know, three years. Who knows how long, but the church will be present on the earth for that. And that the rapture will occur simultaneous with the Second Coming. But these individuals still believe that there will be a literal 1000 year reign of Jesus, based in Jerusalem, over a literal, unredeemed earth. Now again, there are varying perspectives within historic premillennialism, and it all pretty much centers around the question of—will that millennial reign be primarily Jewish in its orientation, where Christ rules in the midst of a restored national Israel? Or will it be all of God’s people—believing Gentiles, as well as believing Jews, who together inherit those promises?
Sam Storms (12:50):
And that’s a point of differentiation among historic premillennialists. They don’t all agree on that particular point, but they are all non-dispensational. They don’t see such a rigid distinction between Israel and the church, and they’re post-tribulational when it comes to the timing of the rapture.
Brian Arnold (13:08):
And in their view, what is happening in the millennial reign? I think…so we’re going to drop our cards on the table here in a moment, and you’re going to argue for the amillennial position. But if you were to argue the best you could for historic premillennialism, what is the purpose of the millennial reign?
Sam Storms (13:28):
Well, first of all, even if they can’t answer the question, what is its purpose, they would say, “we believe the Bible teaches it,” and they would point to Revelation 20 as the one text which they think demonstrates that there will be a 1000 year period of Christ ruling, subsequent to his Second Coming. Most of them will say that it is—very much like a dispensationalist—it is a time during which the Old Testament promises will be fulfilled on the earth. But they don’t restrict it, as I said just a moment ago, they don’t restrict that just to believing Jews. They would include believing Gentiles, the church, as the true Israel of God who will inherit those promises. Sometimes you’ll hear them say that, “Well, we need a thousand years of Christ actually, literally on the earth to demonstrate the true nature of mankind.” Because all premillennials believe that at the end of the thousand years, there will be a massive rebellion led by Satan in a final attempt to overthrow the kingdom of Christ.
Sam Storms (14:30):
And this millennial reign will demonstrate that, even in the presence of Jesus himself, that sin is still pervasive and human beings are still morally depraved. But aside from that, it is a little bit difficult to find out from an historic premillennialist what the purpose of that 1000 year reign is actually going to be. Now, I will point this out—I didn’t mention that the dispensational premillennialists also, at least many of them, believe that the temple will be rebuilt, sacrifices will be restored during the time of the 1000 year rule. Which I find…not only do I object to that, I find that highly offensive, given that the once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus on the cross is enough. And that Jesus is himself the temple, and we his body, Paul says repeatedly, are the temple of God in whom the Holy Spirit dwells. So those are…again, those are a number of the tangential issues that come up in each of these views.
Brian Arnold (15:33):
And I agree, I think that’s a huge one—the temple rebuilt, sacrifices resumed…the whole book of Hebrews seems to argue against that being even a possibility.
Sam Storms (15:44):
Yeah. In fact, when people ask me, “Sam, what can I read that would point out to me the errors of dispensationalism, I say, read the book of Hebrews.” You don’t have to go buy a book in a bookstore. Just read the Bible, specifically the book of Hebrews.
Brian Arnold (15:58):
Yeah. I think Hebrews does have a case to be made against that position. Well, let’s get you a bit more even into your wheelhouse and hear what amillennialism is. I think this will be very new to a lot of the people listening who have not heard this position. But it too shares a lot of antiquity, at least going back to Augustine. And like you said, maybe even before then.
Sam Storms (16:22):
Sure. Well, the reason…when I was in seminary, I was a dispensational, pre-tribulational, premillennialist. And what swayed me into amillennialism came about four or five…a couple of years after I graduated. And what I did was I sat down and read the New Testament, and took note of every text that describes what will happen when Jesus Christ returns at the time of the Second Coming, or what we call the Parousia. And it seemed to me that consistently it said that when Christ returns to consummate his kingdom, all physical death will end. Death will be swallowed up in victory, 1 Corinthians 15. That the resurrection of all the dead, both the elect and non-elect, will occur at the time of the Second Coming. That the judgment of both elect and non-elect will occur simultaneously at the time of the Second Coming. That the curse imposed on the natural creation will be lifted, and the earth will experience its redemption at the time of the Second Coming.
Sam Storms (17:27):
I also saw that it seemed rather clear that the opportunity to be saved terminates when Jesus returns. This is the day, this is the age of salvation, and when he returns, there is no hope beyond that point. And then finally, I kept running across texts that seemed to indicate that when he returns, the new heavens and the new earth were inaugurated. Now people who are listening to us will say, “well, what’s the big deal?” Well, here’s the big deal—if you’re a premillennialist, you can’t believe any of those things, because in premillennialism, physical death continues to exist during this 1000 year reign. The resurrection of the righteous and the unrighteous are separated by 1000 years, they’re not simultaneous. Same thing with the judgment of all. The earth still suffers from the curse, because unbelievers will be present during this purported 1000 year reign.
Sam Storms (18:24):
People will still have the opportunity to come to Christ, and the new heavens and new earth won’t happen for 1000 years after the coming of Jesus. And so I was sitting there looking at that, and I thought, “wait a minute, how can I believe in this 1000 year period following Christ’s return, when it seems to me, the New Testament consistently says this is what happens when he comes back? And what happens precludes the possibility of a 1000 year reign on earth, subsequent to his second coming?” At least that’s the conclusion I drew. And that’s how and why I embraced an amillennial perspective. Let me say something about the label amillennial. I don’t like that label, even though I’ve had to embrace it, because it suggests that I don’t believe in Revelation 20. And I do. I just believe that the 1000 years of Revelation 20 is a figurative expression for the entire present age in which we live, primarily describing the reign of the saints, those who have died in Christ, with him in heaven right now. So for example, I can say that Jonathan Edwards, and J. I. Packer, and my own dad and mother are reigning with Christ in the intermediate state. And that that is the 1000 year reign that John is talking about in Revelation 20.
Brian Arnold (19:42):
I think that is a really helpful clarification—that it’s not just like you’re jettisoning part of Scripture, but you just have an interpretation of it that—in a book that’s highly figural—that makes great sense of it. But let’s talk about maybe just an objection or two that somebody might raise against us, especially because it’s going to be so new to many of our listeners. Maybe even the 144,000 from—was it Revelation 7?—where it seems to be like there’s going to be…you know, that’s been kind of a classic in that dispensational, premillennialism approach. You know, the rapture happens, and then there’s going to be this salvation of Israel in this period. How would you address a passage like that from your position?
Sam Storms (20:28):
Well, we have to ask the question—why the use of these particular numbers? 12 times 12,000—144,000…the number 12 is highly symbolic throughout. In fact, I believe every number in the book of Revelation is symbolic of some theological truth. I think the 144,000 are a reference to the entire body of Christ, both believing Jew and Gentile. And you know, I go into detail on…I have a section in my book Kingdom Come on why I embraced that particular viewpoint, but if I hear any objection, any one pushback to my view of amillennialism, it is this idea that they think what I believe is that all the Old Testament promises have been spiritualized. In other words, the promise of the land to Abraham is really just a symbolic reference to this super spiritual place that we call heaven. That there’s no actual substance to it.
Sam Storms (21:31):
And I believe, firmly, that the land promises given to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob will be literally fulfilled on earth. On soil. With grass and trees and rivers and lakes. I just believe it’s the new earth where that will take place, not this present, unredeemed earth. So I think the Old Testament promises will come to pass, even—although I’m not real wild about the word literal—in a very literal way. But it will be in the new earth, not the old earth. And so the idea that somehow we amillennialists spiritualize, or we explain away, or we say that everything is symbolic—that’s just simply not true. We believe that these things will in fact come to pass, but it will be on the redeemed earth, as described in Revelation 21 and 22.
Brian Arnold (22:22):
Again, I think that’s a really helpful clarification, because your view does seem to be caricatured often. In ways that are not really helpful to the view itself. And so thanks for laying that out for people. We did promise them four views, and I wish we had another half hour to go into some of these, but I’m going to give you about 15 seconds, maybe just a touch more, to discuss post-millennialism.
Sam Storms (22:48):
Sure, I can do it very quickly. The post-millennial view is essentially the amillennial view that has a high, optimistic, expectation for the transformation of culture and society. In other words, the post-millennialists call me a pessimistic amillennialist, and I call the post-millennialist the optimistic amillennialist. So they…both of those views deny the idea of a 1000 year rule subsequent to the coming of Christ. Post-millennialists believe that, through the power of the gospel, through the power of the Holy Spirit, that there will be progressively and perhaps even in some sort of a climactic way, a transformation of the structures of society, of institutions, of government, of education, and that the world will be progressively “Christianized,” is the best way I know how to say it. And again, the reason why this view has been so dismissed by evangelicals, is because many theological liberals and evolutionists of 150 years ago embraced this, because they believed that mankind was basically good, and eventually, given enough time and education, he would improve society.
Sam Storms (24:05):
And so post-millennialism was identified with liberalism and evolutionary development. But the evangelical post-millennials today are solid, Bible-believing people, and they just take several Old Testament texts, particularly in the Psalms, that seem to say to them that prior to the Second Coming of Christ, we will see a transformation in the broad sectors of society. And many post-millennialists, because I used this language just a moment ago, would say that Christ will return to a Christianized world. It doesn’t mean everybody will be born again, it’s not universalism. But perhaps the majority of those living when Christ returns will have come to faith in him.
Brian Arnold (24:47):
Well, that is a lot of positions really quickly explained. Those, like you said, have hundreds of books written on each of them, but thank you for taking the time to explain that. I think it’s important for everyone to remember—we may not know when Jesus will return, we may not have all the details understood clearly from Scripture, but we do know that he told us to watch and to wait. He’s coming back, just as he promised. Dr. Storms, thanks so much for laying out those positions for us today.
Sam Storms (25:16):
Well, it’s been my pleasure. And I look forward to the Second Coming of Jesus with you and all other believers.
Brian Arnold (25:21):
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