Why I Am A Premillennialist
March 16th, 1984
WHY I BECAME A PREMILLENNIALIST
Dr. W. A. Criswell
Dallas Theological Seminary Chapel
I do not know of anything that appeals to me more than to accept the invitation to come and speak to you at this chapel hour. I am going to talk to you about Why I Became a Premillennialist. It was an unusual thing. I never had a premillennial teacher in my life; so far as I know, I never saw one as I was growing up. All of my teachers, all of my mentors, all the preachers that I ever heard when I was growing up were either postmillennial; practically all of them were that or they were amillennial.
What happened to me was, over forty years ago, when I was pastor in Muskogee, Oklahoma, the undershepherd care of the church before I came here to Dallas, for some reason, and I have tried my best to ferret out why, but I can never come up with an answer, for some reason that I cannot understand, I began preaching the Bible at Muskogee, Oklahoma. Where I left off Sunday morning, I started Sunday night. Where I left off Sunday night, I began Sunday morning. And people that came to Muskogee to attend the services, who heard me preach, went away and said, "Why, that man is a premillennialist." That was the most amazing thing that I ever came across in my life. I was just preaching the Bible, that’s all. And they said, "That man is a premillennialist."
I didn’t quite understand what the word connotated; I didn’t know what it meant. I had heard the word, of course, many times, but I had never been introduced to it. My great teacher in Greek was Dr. A. T. Robertson. And our textbook that we studied was that big grammar, about that thick. When we came to the Revelation – we followed his syllabus through the New Testament – when we came to the Revelation, he dropped the syllabus on the podium, like that, made a resounding noise just like that, and he said, "Young gentlemen, in that syllabus you will find the separate theoretical interpretations of the Apocalypse. It will be futurist, it will be preterist, it will be synchronist historical, it will be continuous historical. You choose the one you like." And that was the only course that we had in the Revelation. That was the whole sum and substance of it.
That’s the way I was taught. My predecessor, Dr. George W. Truett, here in the pulpit in Dallas, the greatest preacher our Southern Baptist communion has ever produced, was a postmillennialist. And he never referred to the second coming of our Lord. A funny thing, a strange thing, an unusual thing happened when the pulpit committee here, without my knowing it, when the pulpit committee here in Dallas, the First Church, was considering me, one of the executives of the convention, the association of churches in Texas, wrote to the committee and said, "In all fairness, I think you should know that the man you are considering to be your pastor is a premillennialist." Now the secretary of the committee was a layman; he was the treasurer of the Annuity Board. That’s the name of our pension board in the convention. So, his boss, the executive leader over him, was Dr. Walter R. Alexander, a distinguished Philadelphian. Oh man, he was just the prince of culture and gracious courtesy! Dr. Walter Alexander was a Philadelphian. And Orville Groner, the secretary of the pulpit committee, received this letter, and took it to Dr. Alexander, and said, "Dr. Alexander, a tragedy has overwhelmed us. I don’t know what this is, but one of the men in the convention has written to us saying that this man we’re considering is a premillennialist." And Dr. Alexander looked at the letter, and looked at Orville Groner, and said – now this is a providence of God – he said, "Orville, thank God, praise the Lord. I am a premillennialist." Orville Groner looked at him and said, "You are what?" And Dr. Alexander replied, "I am a premillennialist." And he began to talk to Orville Groner. And from then on you can imagine the force and the drive in the center of that pulpit committee that invited me to be undershepherd of the church here in Dallas.
In any event, after that I began to study what it was I was. Repeating, never introduced to it in my life, never in my life did I have anyone who spoke to me about that. So as I began to study, I learned that the primitive faith, the original faith, the pristine faith of the church was universally premillennial, all of the teaching. And I have here – and I wish we had a long time – I have here the fathers, the early Greek fathers and a few Latin fathers, the great fathers of the church, what they said; and without exception, they were dynamically, positively, wonderfully premillennial. Papias; Clement of Rome, who is doubtless referred to by Paul in Philippians 4:3; Justin Martyr; Irenaeus; Tertullian, one of the greatest Latin fathers that ever lived; Cyprian; Lactantius, who taught the son of Constantine. I have a historical summary of the primitive faith of the church by Edward Gibbon, in his incomparable The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. It’s a magnificent summary of the patristic teaching, premillennial. And I learned that in America the founding fathers of our nation, those Puritans: Increase Mather was a devoted, vocal, verbalizing premillennialist, and his son Cotton Mather was also.
Premillennialism, I discovered, was the original faith. It is not a later doctrinal development. Amillennialism and postmillennialism – those two are bedfellows – is a later doctrinal approach to the Bible. The original one was premillennial.
Well, that’s what I learned in church history. Then I began to study why it was that the church turned from premillennialism to amillennialism or postmillennialism. And the turn in the church was very apparent when you looked at its history carefully. As long as the church was persecuted, it was premillennial. When it became the state religion of the Roman Empire, it turned; and the turn was made possible because of the theological attitude of Augustine. The theology of the Roman Catholic Church is amillennial: they identify the kingdom and the Roman Catholic Church. And it had its origin in the teaching of Augustine.
He taught that the binding of Satan took place during the earthly ministry of our Lord; he spiritualized the fall of Satan. He taught that the first resurrection is the new birth of the believer; he spiritualized the resurrection. He taught that the devil is bound and expelled from the hearts of those who believe in Christ; he spiritualized the binding of Satan. He taught that the reign of the saints in their personal victory over sin and the devil is the great kingdom of our Lord; he spiritualized the coming kingdom of Jesus. He taught that the beast is this wicked world, and his image is hypocrisy; he spiritualized the Antichrist. And he taught that the millennium is this present period of the church age; we’re in it now.
God help us. Can you imagine the glorious prophecies of the Old Testament? "The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid. . .and the lion will eat straw like an ox. . .they will not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain" [Isaiah 11:6-9]. That is now, according to Augustine. We’re living in the millennium now. It is unthinkable! It is impossible!
Now we’re going to speak of what happens to you when you turn aside from the premillennial faith and make the Bible a book of amillennial, postmillennial teaching What you do is, you lose the biblical distinctions that makes for nothing but hermeneutical confusion, absolutely. According to Paul in 1 Corinthians 10:32, there are three divisions of all mankind: the Jew, the Gentile, and the church, made up of Jew and Gentile. 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 merely a piece of antique literature.
Now I want to show that to you. I have here in my hand a beautiful Bible with my name on it; and it is given to me by one of the affluent members of our church. It’s a text book; I mean, this Bible is just the text, published by the Oxford Press, with very large print. I used to preach without any glasses, and this helped me a lot. So, I looked at the Book. And up here in Isaiah 43, it says, and these are the captions, "The church comforted with God’s promises." So I looked down here in the forty-third chapter of Isaiah to read about the church comforted. And what I read is, "But now thus saith the Lord that created thee, O Jacob, and He that formed thee, O Israel, Fear not: for I have redeemed thee, I have called thee by thy name; and thou art Mine."
I turn the page and I read here "The promises of God to the church." And I look down at [Isaiah] chapter 44 to read God’s promises to us in the church. And it says, "Hear, O Jacob My servant; Israel, whom I have chosen: Thus saith the Lord that made thee, and formed thee; Fear not, O Jacob, My servant; and thou Jesurun," lovely nickname for Israel, "whom I have chosen" [Isaiah 44:1-2]. I turn the pages of this unusually fine printed Bible, and I read the caption of the church: "The church’s joy [Isaiah 52], the church’s joy." So I expect to read down here in this chapter the church’s joy; and it says, "O Jerusalem: loose thyself from the bands of thy neck,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]. I turn the page. The caption up here: "Christ’s mercy toward His church." And so I read Christ’s mercy toward His church [Isaiah 63], and it says, "I will make mention of the lovingkindness of the Lord toward the house of Israel,He remembered the days of old, Moses, and his people,Doubtless Thou art our Father, though Abraham be ignorant of us, and Israel acknowledges not: O Lord, our Father, our Redeemer" [Isaiah 63:7, 11, 16]. That’s Christ’s mercy toward His church.
And I look across the page, and it says, "The church prayeth to God. The church prayeth to God." And so I look down here for a prayer of our congregation to the Lord, and it says, "Wilt Thou refrain Thyself, O Lord? Our holy and heavenly house, where the fathers praised Thee, is burned with fire. Wilt Thou hold Thy peace, and afflict us?" [Isaiah 64:11-12]. The church prayeth to God; and the prophet here is speaking about the destruction of Jerusalem.
But this one took the cake: this ought to be enshrined in some kind of a museum. It says here, it says here, "The stability of the church. The stability of the church." That’s the great caption, "The stability of the church." And it’s that famous passage in Jeremiah 31: "Thus saith the Lord, as long as that sun shines in the heaven, and as long as that moon and the stars give light by night, just so long will the seed of Israel stay, stand, continue before Me as a nation, forever" [Jeremiah 31:35-36]. And yet that is the stability of the church.
Well, that’s what I began to see as I started to study the Bible. The church is a musterion: it was a secret God kept in His heart. And that’s not an unusual presentation in the Bible; it’s over and over and over again that. It’s found in Romans 11:25; it’s mentioned in Romans 16:25; it’s said in Ephesians 3; it’s said in Ephesians 3:3; it’s said in Ephesians 3:4; it’s said in Ephesians 3:9; it’s said in Colossians 1:26. There is a mystery that God kept in His heart, and the prophets never saw it, never [Ephesians 3:5-11]. There is no such thing as a prophecy in the Bible, in the Old Testament, concerning the church: the church is a subject of revelation, not of prophecy.
This age in which we live is a hiatus, an interpolation, an interlude between the sixty-ninth and the seventieth [weeks] of the Book of Daniel [Daniel 9:26-27]. The prophets never saw it [Ephesians 3:5]. And when you pick up the Bible and read, Israel is always Israel, the Jew is always the Jew, a Gentile is always a Gentile, and a church is always the church. And if you will preach the Bible, and let it say exactly what it says, and let it mean exactly what it purposes, you will have a marvelous introduction to the wisdom and the profundity and the depths of the riches of God in Christ Jesus, revealed to us in this Holy Word. It will fit together like a jigsaw puzzle; every piece will fall in place.
Now, not only when we turn aside from this interpretation of the Bible do we lose our hermeneutical homogeneity, but in the amillennial teaching, that God is through with Israel, that there’s no future for Israel, there’s no remembrance of His people in the mind of God, there’s one thing to be said about it, and that is this: if God breaks His promises to the Jew, how do I know but that He will break His promise to me? Why should I think He is going to keep His promise to me, when He breaks the covenant that He made with His people Israel?
In Numbers 23:19, I read, "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?" If He keeps His promise to the Jew, I have every assurance He will see me through, He will keep His promise to me. And the two go together in my heart and mind. If He breaks the promise in the Old Covenant, I don’t know but that He will break His promise in the New Covenant. So when I read all of those marvelous things that God hath promised to Israel, I’m assured, I’m convinced, I’m persuaded that God will do that for me.
Just look at some of the things God hath promised to Israel: "Verily I say unto you," says our Lord in Matthew 24:34, "this genea" – Peter uses another form of it, genus – "will be here till I come. He will be here, the Jew will be here till I come." Genea, genus, they all come from that same root: it means "species," it means "kind," it means "people," it means "a nation," it means "a race."
Now I want to ask you a little humble thing: in the Bible I read about Hittites, Jebusites, and Moabites, and Ammonites, and all kind of "ites." Did you ever see anybody, who ever heard of anybody, who ever heard of anybody, who ever saw anybody, who ever saw a Hittite, or an Ammonite, or a Moabite, or any of those other "ites"? Did you? You never did. They’ve been gone so many thousands of years that I don’t know when they escaped from the books of history. But God said, "The Jew will be here, till I come" [Mark 13:30-31; Luke 21:32-33]. Man, I can introduce you to thousands of them here in Dallas.
And God said in that famous passage we looked at in Jeremiah 31, "As long as that sun shines in the sky, and as long as that moon and the stars gives light by night, just so long will the nation of Israel be a nation before Me" [Jeremiah 31:35-37]. God said that. And God said another thing: He said the land of Palestine is his forever. In Psalm 105, beginning at 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.
That’s God. And the land of Canaan, the land of Palestine, the land of Israel belongs to him; it’s his. God said so in an everlasting, unbreakable, enduring, eternal covenant.
And you know, there’s something strange about that land and the Jew; something that just dumbfounds me and amazes me! I had just returned from Israel, and I was in Panama, where the Panama Canal is, the country of Panama. And in Panama City, I went into a silk shop to buy some silk for my wife, to bring back to her from my journey down there in South America. And I looked at the silk merchant, and I said, "You are Jewish, aren’t you?" He said, "Yes." Well, I said, "In this previous journey this year, I went to Israel."
"Oh?" he said, "you have been in Israel?" I said, "Yes." Well, he said, "How is it there?" And I began to tell him the things that were developing in the recovery of the land, the nation blossoming like a rose, and all of the wonderful things that were happening in Israel. And my young men, as I talked to that man the tears flooded down his cheeks – in Panama, he’d never been to Israel. It is a phenomenon: the love in the Jew for Israel, whether he’s ever been there or not. They’re all like that. There is a profound enduring affection for Israel in the heart of every Jew. And to my amazement, for the most part over there he’s a farmer. I never saw a Jewish farmer in my life until I went over there to Israel. They go together.
The Bible says – and I haven’t time even to read the passages – he will return to Palestine to dwell forever, and he will return in unbelief [Ezekiel 36:24-28]. And the Scriptures say he will be converted; going to accept the Lord. In Zechariah chapter 12, in Romans 11, he is going to be a fellow Christian with us one of these days [Zechariah 12:10; Romans 11:25-27]. When Paul says he was born at ektroma before the time, he is referring in that beautiful word in 1 Corinthians 15:8, he is referring to the fact that someday when the Lord appears to all Israel, his people, they’re all going to be saved [Romans 11:25]. But he was saved before the time, before the time.
The Lord appeared to His brethren, to James, to Jude, who write in the Bible. Why should I think it unusual the Lord should appear to His people? And they look upon Him whom they have pierced, and they will weep, and mourn, as they did in Hadad Rimmon" [Zechariah 12:10-11]; and they’ll be saved. It’s a wonderful thing, what God purposes for His people.
Oh dear! I have here the confirmation of the word of prophecy in history. The death of postmillennialism: it’s gone; you’ll never see a postmillennialist. These world wars have stopped his unbelieving mouth; and you never see one. The birth of the nation of Israel; and the effective message and messenger of the man who is a Bible-believing premillennialist – there came here to Dallas two men about the same time to preach. Billy Graham came, who is a premillennialist, and a believer in the inerrancy of the Word of God. Billy Graham came here to preach. And thousands – you went out there, Cotton Bowl, and finally to the Texas Stadium, came here twice – thousands were moved to the Lord. It was a Pentecostal visitation from heaven. At the same, Paul Tillage came here to Dallas. Paul Tillage is, was, dead now – thank the Lord – Paul Tillage, Paul Tillage came to Dallas. He was the darling of the liberal neo-orthodox for years and years and years, professor at the Union Theological Seminary in New York. I talked to one of the leading elders in the Presbyterian Church where Paul Tillage spoke. And he said to me, he said, "I don’t want to belittle the man, but," he said, "I listened to him every time he spoke for a solid week, and to this moment I cannot tell you a thing that he said. I have no idea what he was talking about." I’m just avowing to you that when a man is a premillennialist, he’ll move more and more and more in closeness to the Word of God. When a man is an amillennialist, he’ll move further, and further, and further, and further away from the Word of the Lord.