Why I am a Premillennialist
October 16th, 1980
WHY I AM A PREMILLENNIALIST
Dr. W. A. Criswell
Criswell Bible Institute Chapel
I suppose the oldest story that I can ever remember is this one: at the funeral and at the eulogy, while the preacher was saying all kinds of things about the corpse; and the widow turned to her little boy and said, "Son, would you go up there and look in that casket to see if that’s your pappy?"
You are dear and encouraging and gracious beyond anything I could ever think for, and I love you for it. And in your prayers and intercessions and commitment, with God’s grace and presence and help, we are going to make this school for you, and for those who come like you and after you, an increasingly better place to sit at the feet of Jesus and to learn His blessed Word.
Now, as I announced, tomorrow, the last one, and one of the "why’s" of my pastoral preaching ministry, Why I am a Fundamentalist and Not a Liberal; and today, Why I am a Premillennialist and not an amillennialist or a postmillennialist.
All of this began in my life in an unusual way. Over thirty-six years ago, when I came to Dallas, I came from the First Baptist Church of Muskogee, Oklahoma; that’s a small city in the Cookson Hills in eastern Oklahoma. And for some reason that I cannot recall – I have thought through that so many times I could not count them, why it was I began preaching as I did in Muskogee – but in Muskogee I began preaching the Bible, just the Bible, the Holy Scriptures. That is, I did not preach subject sermons, topical sermons; I began preaching the Bible. Where I would leave off Sunday morning, I would begin Sunday night; and where I left off Sunday night, I would begin Sunday morning, preaching books in the Bible. Now, when I began doing that, an unusual comment was made about me: people, strangers, visitors, coming to the church, listening to me preach, would go away and say, "The man is a premillennialist." I was doing nothing but just preaching the Bible; that was all, nothing else. And they said, "The man is a premillennialist."
The pulpit committee of Dallas showed me a letter that one of the executives of the Baptist General Convention of Texas wrote to the pulpit committee about me, when he learned that they were considering me as pastor of this dear church. And in that letter that the secretary of the committee wrote to me, wrote to the committee, in that letter that was showed me, he said, "I think in all fairness to the church in Dallas that you need to know that that man you are considering in Oklahoma is a premillennialist." Now the secretary of the committee was not a preacher; he was a layman. And when he read that, that I was a premillennialist, he thought it was some kind of tragic contagious infectious disease or something.
So, being the treasurer of the Annuity Board, he took the letter to Walter R. Alexander, who at that time was the executive leader of the Annuity Board, the pension board of the Southern Baptist Convention. And he laid the letter before Dr. Alexander. And here you have an instance of the hand of God. He laid that letter before Dr. Alexander. Dr. Alexander was from Philadelphia, and he looked like a Philadelphia lawyer. He was the epitome of a cultured, scholarly gentleman. He laid that letter before Dr. Alexander, and said, "Dr. Alexander, read this. This is terrible. What shall we do? He says here we ought to know the man is a premillennialist." Well, Dr. Alexander looked at the letter, folded it up, put it back in the hands of Orville Groner, the treasurer of the Annuity Board and the secretary of the committee, and he said to him, "Thank God! Praise God! I can hardly believe what I read. Thank God, Orville," he said, "Thank God. I also am a premillennialist." And Orville Groaner said, "You are one of them things?"
"Yes," said Alexander, "I am a premillennialist." And, of course, from that moment on, you never saw such a dedicated effort to persuade the committee to introduce me to the church as their selection as pastor of the congregation.
Now, where did that come from in my life? I never had a premillennial teacher in all of my days, and I went to school twenty-two consecutive years. From the time I was five years old until I was twenty-seven, every year I went to school. I never had a premillennial teacher in my life, not one. I was never introduced to the premillennial faith, never in my life. Every teacher I ever had was either postmillennial, which included practically all of them, or amillennial.
I remember so well Dr. A. T. Robertson, under whom I studied Greek in the Southern Seminary in Louisville. When we came to the Revelation, we had studied Dr. A. T. Robertson’s syllabus, studying the New Testament. When we came to the Revelation, Dr. Robertson took his syllabus, and he dropped it with a bang on the lectern, and he said, "Young men, in this syllabus are presented all of the different theories of the Revelation. Take your choice." And that was all that was ever said or taught about the Apocalypse. In his syllabus, as you will also see in the Criswell Study Bible, there are preterist theories, there are futurist theories, there are synchronist historical theories, and there are continuous historical theories; and that was all.
Now, for the benefit of all of you who are listening on the radio, just a little brief definition of these theological terms: "Pre," of course, means "before," and when we speak of the premillennial faith, we refer to the persuasion that Jesus will come before the millennium. We, who believe that, avow that sin is so deep and desperate, and the earth is so tragically dark and lost, that our only hope for righteousness to cover the earth as the waters cover the sea, and for peace to be universal, lies in the coming of the Prince of Peace, and the Lord Himself setting up His kingdom. He comes before the millennium: premillennialism.
Postmillennial: "post" means "after"; "post" refers to the millennium brought in by the efforts of man, and after the millennium has been established through the preaching of the gospel and the influence of the Holy Spirit, why, Christ will come at the end of that millennial period. This is the, was, the darling theory of the evolutionists. Social evolutionists, political evolutionists, anatomical evolutionists, biological evolutionists, they – and this was the teaching when I grew up as a boy, and it was the only preaching I ever heard – we are getting better and better and better. The world is getting nearer the image of the kingdom of God; and we’re going to preach in the kingdom, and everybody is going to be converted: that was the only preaching I ever heard when I was growing up as a boy.
Now, what happened was, in the First World War there was a tremendous shock to that postmillennial faith; and the Second World War shattered it. I think a man would be a sheer, unadulterated, blithering idiot to stand up today and preach as all the preachers preached when I grew up as a boy, espousing a postmillennial doctrine. The depravity of man is so certainly broadcast and visible and presented to the world today, that for a man to say we’re getting better and better, and we’re going to preach in the millennium, and we’re going to convert everybody would be a misjudgment that would lie in the man’s softness of the brain: you’d think he ought to be taken to a psychiatrist and examined.
Well, what happened was, instead of embracing the premillennial faith, all of these academic people and all of these professors and all of these preachers and all of those people who once were such ardent postmillennialists, what they did, they just washed their hands of the whole doctrine, and called themselves "a." Now in your Greek, you know "a" is a privative, alpha privative; it is a negation, it is a denial. So they called themselves "amillennialists"; that is, there is not any millennium. To them it is a figure of speech. And in order to sustain that and to defend that position, they spiritualize the whole concept and the whole Bible that supports it; they spiritualize it away. It means whatever you want it to mean: that’s what spiritualizing means. Whatever you want the passage to mean, that’s what it means.
Now, what happened to me was, when I was accused of being a premillennialist, I began to study the Bible, really. I began to look at it. Isn’t that a strange thing? I was in the seminary six years, and for the most part we studied about the Bible or we studied ethics, or we studied current events, or we studied the philosophy of religion. Oh dear! how many things did we study; but not a whole lot of studying the Bible itself. Well, I began to study the Bible itself, to look at it itself, just to see what I was supposed to be when they said I am a premillennialist. And as I looked at the Bible, I became more and more convinced that the label they had given me was imminently correct.
For example, in Matthew 24:29-30, in the apocalyptic discourse in Matthew 24, the Lord says, verse 29: "Immediately after the tribulation of those days…" verse 30: "shall appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven." Jesus is coming after the tribulation, He said. He said that. I never said that. "After those tribulation days," and then they are described there – they are awesome days – "Then shall appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven" [Matthew 24:30]. And this sounds exactly like the seventh verse of the first chapter of the Revelation: "Behold, He cometh with clouds; and every eye shall see Him" [Revelation 1:7].
"Then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn, and they shall see the Son of Man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory" [Matthew 24:30]. That’s what the Lord said. I never invented that. I never said that. Jesus said that. First is the great, awesome tribulation; and then immediately, at the close of those days of tribulation shall appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven.
And by the way, could I remark, that, when it speaks of the clouds, "Behold, He cometh with clouds; and every eye shall see Him, and they that pierced Him: and the kindreds and the families of the earth shall lament and wail because of Him" [Revelation 1:7], those clouds are not vapor clouds, they are not rain clouds, they are not water clouds: that is the shekinah glory of God. The Lord clothes Himself in shining garments, and they look like clouds to those who see it. When the Lord was taken up into heaven, "a cloud received Him out of their sight" [Acts 1:9]. God’s chariot of glory enveloped Him, and took Him back to heaven from whence He came. "Now He is coming," the angel said in the first chapter of Acts, "in the same way that ye saw Him go away" [Acts 1:11]. He is coming enveloped in those clouds, the raiment, the shekinah, the clothing of God’s glory: the garments of God.
Well, when I turn to the Revelation, this is what I read. In Revelation 1:19 is the outline of the book. The Lord, who is glorified, says to John, "Write the things which thou hast seen," now that’s Roman numeral I; and the things which he had seen are beautifully, dramatically pictured in the first chapter of the Revelation. "Write the things which thou hast seen" [Revelation 1:19]; he had seen the vision of the glorified Christ [Revelation 1:13-18]. Second, Roman numeral II: "And the things which are"; the things which are, are the churches. And in Revelation 2 and 3, you have the presentation of the seven churches of Asia, which represent the fullness of all of the churches of Christendom through all time. So the second part of the Revelation is, "Write the things which are" [Revelation 1:19]; the age of the church, the church age, these things that are here and now. We are a part of that; we live in that age, "the things that are." Roman numeral III: "And write the things which shall be meta tauta, after these things" [Revelation 1:19]; after the age of the church, after this present age in which we live. Roman numeral III: "Write the things which shall be meta tauta, after the church is gone."
Now, when I read the Revelation, it follows that divine outline exactly. Roman numeral I: the things that he has seen; the vision of the glorified Lord. Roman numeral II: the things that are; this church age in which we now are. Roman numeral III: and the things which shall be meta tauta. So I turn to Revelation 4, after the age of the church, and it begins exactly as the outline has been given. Look at Revelation chapter 4: "After this, meta tauta" – the third great numeral of the Revelation; meta tauta, the things after these things – "and a door was opened in heaven: and a voice said to me, Come up hither" [Revelation 4:1], which is a type of the rapture of the church. And the church does not appear again until the Lord comes with His saints in Revelation 19 [Revelation 19:11-16]: just exactly as the Lord outlines in the Book.
So I read that in the Bible. And of course, what I say to you now is just a little summary, a little hint of days and years of studying.
Now another thing that I wanted to know, which was very manifest, very easily found, is this thing of the premillennial faith, is this a new-fangled fanaticism? Is this a new development in theology, premillennialism? In my studying, I learned that the premillennial faith was the faith of the Christian church without exception for the first three hundred fifty years. All of it, in every segment of it, in every part of it, in all of its preaching, all of it was premillennial, all of it. Now I have here – and I don’t have time to read it – I have here copied out of Papias, who was born around 80 AD. He was pastor of the church at Hierapolis; that’s just across the Lycus River from Laodicea. And he, along with Polycarp of Smyrna, were disciples of John, the sainted John. I have here what Papias says: premillennial.
I have here what Clement of Rome said – almost certainly that is the Clement mentioned in Philippians 4:3; he was born about 40 AD – I have here what he says: premillennial. One of the great witnesses of the Christian faith was Justin Martyr, who was born about 100 AD, and pastor of the church at Samaria. I have a whole page here, all of it premillennial. Irenaeus, the pastor of the church at Lyons, a friend of Polycarp, a disciple of Polycarp, born about 120 AD, I have a whole page here, all of it premillennial. Tertullian was the greatest of the Latin apologists, defenders of the faith, born about 150 AD. I have what he says; all of it premillennial. Cyprian, another church father born about 195 AD – all of it premillennial. Lactantius, a learned, one of the most learned of all the Latin fathers, he was born about 250 AD; he was the mentor, the teacher of Constantine’s son. I have two long passages from Lactantius, all of it is premillennial.
Now, rather than reading that, which I haven’t time, there is an historical summary of those church fathers in Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which is doubtless the greatest history that’s ever been written. Now I quote from Edward Gibbon. He was an infidel; or, at the kindest, an agnostic. He certainly wasn’t a Christian. Now this is his summary of that ancient teaching, quote:
The ancient and popular doctrine of the millennium was carefully inculcated by a succession of fathers, from Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, men who conversed with the immediate disciples of the apostles, down to Lactantius, who was the preceptor, the teacher, of the son of Constantine. It appears to have been the reigning sentiment of all orthodox believers. It was productive of the most salutary effect upon the faith and practice of Christians.
Now, no Christian wrote that; that’s Edward Gibbon’s summary of the entire doctrinal position, faith, preaching, teaching of the Christian church for the first three hundred fifty years. Without exception it was premillennial.
Well, what happened? What happened is very, very obvious: after the conversion of Constantine, and after the state church relationship with the Roman government, there appeared a tremendous mind, a devout man of God, a gifted man, by the name of Augustine, who lived in the 400s. And Augustine identified the kingdom with the Roman Catholic Church. And in order to do that, as you are going to see in this study, in order for Augustine to identify the kingdom of God with the Roman Catholic Church, he had to spiritualize the concept of the millennium. And that he did. And amillennialism begins with Augustine.
Now, I have here a study that we’ll not go into, concerning the religious faith of America. Increase Mather, who lived from 1639 to 1723, has a long discussion on the premillennial faith; and he was an ardent premillennialist. His son, Cotton Mather, who followed him, 1663 to 1728, he has a long discussion about premillennialism. And Cotton Mather was a premillennialist. Premillennialism was the original faith. It is not a later doctrinal development. Amillennialism and its yokefellow postmillennialism is a later development. The original development was, the original faith was premillennial.
Now the change from premillennialism to amillennialism was the theological confrontation to the millennial faith which was born in the Roman Catholic Church. That’s where amillennialism came from, which teaches, as I say, that the church is the kingdom. This was made easy, of course, after the church became the state religion.
Let me take time to point out to you what Augustine did. Augustine died in 430 AD. And here’s what Augustine thought, taught – now you watch it – one: he taught that the binding of Satan took place during the earthly ministry of our Lord. He spiritualizes the fall of Satan. Number two: Augustine taught that the first resurrection is the new birth of the believer. He spiritualizes the resurrection. Three: Augustine taught that the devil is bound and expelled from the hearts of those who believe in Christ. He spiritualizes the binding of Satan. Four: Augustine taught that the reign of the saints in their personal victory over sin and the devil, that is the personal victory we have over sin and the devil, He spiritualizes the whole concept of the kingdom: there is no kingdom coming of universal peace and the reign of Christ. He spiritualizes it in our victory over sin and the devil. Number five: Augustine taught that the beast is this wicked world, and his image is hypocrisy. He spiritualizes the Antichrist. And last: he taught the millennium is this present period of the church age. He spiritualizes the whole concept. Augustine taught that we are in the millennium, now! And all amillennialists preach that, that we are in the millennium now.
Now to me, again, these people are soft in their theological heads. If I am in the millennium now, I need waking up because this world looks dark and foreboding and evil and filled with sin and death. It looks that way to me. And if I’m in the millennium now, I need somebody to awaken me. And yet all amillennialists teach that and preach that: we are in the millennium now. No such concept as that is ever found in the Word of God, and yet practically the entire academic theological world teaches that.
Now I want us to see this morning what happens when we turn aside from the premillennial faith and make the Bible a book of impossible jumbled enigmas. You will never find any real basic continuity of interpretation in the Bible when you turn aside from that premillennial faith and adopt the amillennial position.
All right, first of all, what happens to you when you turn aside from the premillennial faith and embrace an amillennial position? You lose the biblical distinctions that the Bible makes between – and then we’re going to name some of them here – and it makes for hermeneutical confusion. All right, the first thing: you’re going to lose the distinction that the Lord God makes in all mankind. God divides the human race, all the human race, into three categories: according to 1 Corinthians 10:32, there is the Jew, there is the Gentile, and there is the church. Premillennialism will keep those three distinctions all the way through the Bible. But if you embrace amillennialism, all of those distinctions are obliterated. Amillennialism is the tragic human interpretation that loses sight of these distinctions. It makes the Bible increasingly meaningless; and the Scriptures are finally looked upon as a jumbled mass of antique literature, the heads and the tails of which no man can figure out.
Now I want to show that to you. I have in my hand one of the most beautiful Bibles. It is very large print. And until they placed in my hand the Criswell Study Bible, out of which I now preach, I preached out of this Bible for twenty-five or more, thirty years. I have worn [it] out. This is the third one that has been given me. Beautifully made for me, and it has my name on it. It is just a textual Bible. Now, as you know, in some of these Bibles, up at the top they will have, they will have headings. A man, an editor, will put headings in there. I want to show you how you lose the distinction that God makes in the unfolding of His revelation and His elective purposes for mankind. I want to show you how you lose that distinction when you depart from the premillennial faith. Here in Isaiah, on top of what is numbered as chapter 44, up here is printed "The Church comforted with God’s promises." So I read that up here at the top in big, bold letters. And I look down to see what the Bible says about the church comforted with God’s promises, and this is what I read: "Hear, O Jacob; and Israel, whom I have chosen [Isaiah 44:1-2]: Thus saith the Lord that made thee, and formed thee from the womb; Fear not, O Jacob; and thou, Jesurun" – that’s a pet name – "whom I have chosen." Man, how are you going to get any sense in the Bible, when up here "The Church comforted with God’s promises," but down there I’m reading about Israel and about Jacob?
All right, I turn the page again. On page 1304, in Isaiah 52, up here: "The Church’s joy in Christ’s free redemption," the church’s joy. So I look at Isaiah 52 to read about the church’s joy, and this is what I read: "O Jerusalem: loose thyself from the bands of thy neck, O captive daughter of Zion,Break forth into joy, sing together, ye waste places of Jerusalem: for the Lord hath comforted His people, He hath redeemed Jerusalem" [Isaiah 52:2, 9]. That’s what I read; when up here they say I’m going to read about the church’s joy, I’m reading about Jerusalem and Israel.
All right, look over here in Isaiah 63, page 1318. Up here at the top it will say, "Christ’s mercy towards His church." And I read down here, expecting to read about Christ’s mercy towards His church, "I will mention the lovingkindness of the Lord. . .and the great goodness of God toward the house of Israel,Doubtless Thou art our Father, though Abraham be ignorant of us, and Israel acknowledge us not: Thou, O Lord, art our Father, our Redeemer; Thy name is from everlasting" [Isaiah 63:7, 16]. I read about Israel.
Now on the next page, Isaiah 64, up at the top: "The Church prayeth to God." And this is what I read: "Thy holy cities are a wilderness, Zion is a wilderness, Jerusalem is a desolation. Our holy and beautiful house, where our fathers praised Thee, is burned up with fire: and all our pleasant things are laid waste. Wilt Thou refrain Thyself for these things, O Lord? wilt Thou hold Thy peace, and afflict us very sore?" [Isaiah 64:10-12]. That’s supposed to be a prayer to God from the church. It’s an appeal to God from Jerusalem, from Zion, from Israel.
May I just take one other? In Jeremiah 31, up here at the top is written "The stability of the church," the stability of the church. So I look down here to read about the stability of the church. And in Jeremiah 31, instead I read, "The Lord God says, As long as the sun shines in the heavens, and the moon and the stars shine by night, just so long will Israel be a nation before Me" [Jeremiah 31:35-36]. And yet that is labeled "The stability of the church."
When you depart from the premillennial faith, you get so jumbled up in the enigmas of the Bible, until it finally becomes a hodgepodge of meaningless antique literature, and you finally, first spiritualize it, and then throw it away.
Now, the Bible plainly teaches that the church is a musterion. Ephesians 3, the whole chapter is about that. The prophets never saw it [Ephesians 3:3-11]. You can’t find the church in the Old Testament. Daniel never saw it. Isaiah never saw it. Jeremiah never saw it. And to put the church back there in the Old Testament with these headings is of all things confusing. There is a hiatus between Daniel’s sixty-ninth and seventieth week. Daniel pulls that last week apart, puts it in another paragraph, discusses it in another piece of prophecy [Daniel 9:27]. And in that hiatus is this whole [age]. No prophet, no Mosaic legislator, no psalmist, nowhere in the Old Testament is the church ever seen. It was a musterion. Paul calls it, "which is a secret God kept in His heart until He revealed it unto His holy apostles" [Ephesians 3:5].
Now, all the way through Scripture, the Jew is a Jew, Israel is Israel, a Gentile is a Gentile, all the way through Scripture. And the church is the church all the way through Scripture. And if you will keep those things distinctly apart, the Bible will unfold to you as a beautiful, and precious, and continuous, and homogenous revelation. That’s premillennialism.
All right, another thing that happens to us. The first thing, when we depart from the premillennial faith and become amillennialists, the Bible distinctions are lost, and the Bible becomes an enigmatic confusion to us, and its hermeneutical presentation in beautiful harmony is lost forever. All right, number two: the amillennialists teach that God is through with Israel; that there’s no future, no remembrance, no anything concerning the Jew. That’s what the amillennialist teaches.
I want to point out to you that the Bible is filled, I mean filled, with promises to the Jew. And if God breaks those promises to the Jew, how do I know but that He will break His promise to me? Numbers 23:19 says, "God is not a man, that He should lie; neither the son of man, that He should repent: hath He said, and shall He not do it? Or hath He spoken, and shall He not make it good?" God says many things about the Jew.
Number one: he’ll be here when Jesus comes again. And if I had time to read forty dozen passages, we would read them this morning. The Jew will be here when Jesus comes again. Back yonder when He lived, there were Hittites, and Hivites, and Jebusites, and Moabites, and Ammonites, and all the rest of the "ites" – even termites, I suppose. Did you ever see anybody who ever saw anybody, who ever heard of anybody, who ever saw a Hittite, or a Hivite, or a Jebusite, or a Moabite, or an Ammonite, or any other of those "ites" back there? Did you ever? But God says the Jew will be here when He comes back [Matthew 24:34-35; Mark 13:30-31; Luke 21:32-33]. If you want to go with me down the streets of practically all the great cities of the world, I can show them to you by the thousands; and here in Dallas. All right, that’s the first thing God says about the Jew. The amillennialist says he’s just like those Hivites and Hittites; but the Bible says he’ll be here.
Number two: Jeremiah 31:35, that I referred to while ago, he’ll be a nation forever. The Jew will be a nation. All you got to do is go with me over there to Israel and look at it. God said he’ll be a nation as long as the sun shines and the moon by night [Jeremiah 31:35-37].
Number three: God says that the land of Palestine is his. That’s what God says. May I read to you out of Psalm 105:8-11? Psalm 105, verse 8:
God hath remembered His covenant forever, the word which He commanded to a thousand generations.
Which covenant He made with Abraham, and His oath unto Isaac;
And confirmed the same unto Jacob for a law, and to Israel for an everlasting covenant:
Saying, Unto thee will I give the land of Canaan, the lot of your inheritance.
Our lot is over here in America. The British lot is up there in those islands. The Hottentots’ lot is down there in the center of the Dark Continent. But the lot of the earth that God has given to Israel is in Canaan! And by an everlasting covenant, God hath sworn that it belongs to Israel forever. The land of Palestine is his! And wherever you will find a Jew, you’ll find the land of Israel in his heart.
I was in Panama, down there in that canal country; I was down there in Panama City. And coming back home from a long mission trip, I went into a piece goods store, a dry goods store, where they sold bolts of cloth. And I was buying some beautiful silk cloth for my wife. And as I bought it, and talked to the man that owned the store: it was very evident to me that he was Jewish. So I asked him, "Aren’t you Jewish?" And he said, "Yes." I said, "Well, have you been to Palestine? Have you been to Israel?" And he said, "No. How is it?" I had just been there. "How is it," he asked me. And I described to him Israel: the desert was blossoming like a rose, and how Jerusalem was being rebuilt, and how the whole land was fertile, growing oranges, and all the things that you see in those gardens, and the date palms, and the herds, the herds and the flocks. And I want you to know, as I talked to that stranger in Panama about Israel, he stood there, and the tears began to roll off of his cheeks and fall unashamed on the floor.