Years ago, an academic colleague of mine was asked by his tenure committee about his views of the Millennium—the thousand-year reign of Christ described in Revelation 20. Was he a premillennialist, meaning that he thought that Jesus would return before this literally understood thousand-year period, or was he an amillennialist, believing the thousand-year reign refers symbolically to Christ’s rule from heaven now? My friend gave his view—I don’t remember what it was—then said, “But I’m not sure I would hold onto that under persecution.” The committee erupted in laughter.
The Millennium is not a primary or secondary or maybe even tertiary doctrine of the Christian faith. Those committed to the same robust orthodoxy have held varying views—and maybe have all the way back to the days of Origen and Irenaeus. I was always on the side of the premillennialists. I even wrote a chapter in a book defending the view and taught it to my students every semester for 20 years.
Many have referred to the past couple of years as an “apocalypse.” Some use the word just to mean “akin to a dystopian movie.” But others, mostly Christians, have pointed to the word’s actual meaning—an unveiling. We have seen awful things uncovered. People we thought were prophets and pastors turned out to be predators. Thousands of our neighbors died gasping for air, while others screamed at one another about whether to wear masks or get vaccines. Churches and denominations and even families split in a way we never would have imagined a decade ago—not over modernism versus fundamentalism, but over our differing views about a minor character in the movie Home Alone 2.
But that’s not all that was revealed. We’ve seen our brothers and sisters in Christ overcoming, as Jesus said, even under the seemingly existential threat of Chinese Communists or European authoritarians or Latin American despots or Iranian ayatollahs. We’ve seen those with the most plausible case for leaving the church altogether—those who experienced abuse within it—rising up to hold institutions accountable in order to make church a place where no one goes through what they did.
And we have watched up close as, every week, those with terminal cancer or deserting spouses or disappearing paychecks lined up to hear, “This is my body, which is broken for you.” Sunday by Sunday, all over the world, we’ve seen sinners like us baptized into the old-time newness of life.
In these apocalyptic times, I find myself spending more time with the Apocalypse. And what I see Jesus showing the apostle John from “behind the veil” looks strangely familiar. For a church seemingly under the heel of an imperial Rome, Jesus contrasts the power of a self-exalting humanity, “the Beast,” against the way of the Cross. The coercive, animal strength of humanity is there in the open. But we also see a different power: Beheaded saints sit on thrones, the ones who “loved not their lives even unto death” (Rev. 12:11).
The Devil is, in a sense, the “god of this age” (2 Cor. 4:4), but in another sense he’s a strong man bound while the gospel plunders his house (Mark 3:27). And this is written to a people who face, as the hymn puts it, “fightings within and fears without”—all the church rot we contend with, plus the very government that crucified their Lord.
It would be too much to say that the pandemic killed my premillennialism. But I can say that I found myself turning more and more to Revelation 20, not just for reassurance of future hope, but for a picture of the way things are right now in ways hidden to our perception.
The old Augustinian view of Revelation 20 makes more sense to me now as an answer to the question of whether the times we live in are light or darkness, whether grace is everywhere or everything is falling apart. Both are true.
That reality is more important than how we line up our prophecy charts. After we argue over Revelation 20, we can turn the page and see how everything sad will come untrue, as Tolkien wrote. I’m willing to be corrected as my mind mulls the Millennium. The future is bright, transfiguration-level bright. But the present is too, if we just know where to look. Because Jesus reigns.
And that’s worth holding onto, even under persecution.
Russell Moore is Christianity Today’s chair of theology.
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