Reprint from Word & Work Magazine Feb. 1916

What is Premillennialism? The word looks and sounds formidable, and we get the impression at once that it is one of the many “isms” in the world; the theory of some peculiar sect or cult; or some strange system of doctrine; and that a “premillennialist” is a man who has subscribed to that creed and system. But the impression misleads. Premillennialism and Postmillennialism are simply two alternative positions touching the relative order of the Millennium and Christ’s Coming.

Premillennialism is simply the position that Christ comes before the Millennium; and Postmillennialism contends that He does not come until after the Millennium. And since all professed Christians believe in a millennium of some sort; and all believe that the Lord will come; and none (so far as we have heard) have ever contended that the Lord comes during the Millennium–it follows that there are only two chances, and no third: either the Lord comes before the Millennium or after. If one believes the former they call him a “premillennialist;” if the latter, a “postmillennialist.” And so, every Christian who takes a position at all, is either the one or the other. If he denies the one, he subscribes to the other; if he combats the one he adopts the other.


      The word “millennium” simply means a period of a thousand years–just like the word “century” means a hundred years. But the term, “the Millennium” is used to denote that thousand-year period referred to six times in the first seven verses of Rev. 20. Now, whether this be a period of just this literal length or not, it is identified with that blessed era of which (as all concede) the scriptures speak: a time when Satan shall be bound, when righteousness shall reign; when swords are beaten into plow-shares and spears into pruning-hooks, and the nations shall learn war no more; but the knowledge of the Lord shall cover the earth as waters cover the sea.

     The postmillennial view puts the Lord’s coming beyond that era of righteousness and peace, and therefore a good thousand years off. The premillennialist expects the Lord first. Some who have felt the difficulty of the postmillennial position have tried to remedy it by teaching that the Millennium is going on now–so that the Lord’s return may not be so far off. This latter position will be noticed further on; but I may say here that it is hardly worth serious consideration or refutation.


      Years ago, having never been influenced, so far as I know, by any human teaching on premillennialism, before in fact I even knew the term, I had from the study of the word of God come to the premillennialist conclusion. In 1903, in a Western State, a denominational preacher who was trying to “place” me asked me, “Do you believe in the second coming of Christ?” “I certainly do,” I answered. “Are you pre or post?” “What do you mean?” I asked. “Are you premillennial or postmillennial?” “I do not yet understand what you mean,” I responded; “I am not versed in theological terms.” “Well you believe in a Millennium?” “Surely.” “Then do you believe that Christ comes before or after the millennium?” “Why, I hadn’t thought about it specially,” I answered, “but it must be before; for the Lord told us to ‘watch and be ready for ye know not the day nor the hour.'” “That settles it,” said the preacher: “You are a Premillennialist.” And so, I found out for the first time what I was.


      From each of these two views, the premillennial and the postmillennial, follow certain consequences. I shall not undertake here to do much more than to state them. The postmillennialist expects that day of bliss to come in consequence of the gradual conversion of the world by the means now in use. For in order to have a millennium, truth and righteousness must first prevail. He therefore expects great improvement in the world, and makes much of all signs of progress and betterment. For this reason, he also considers himself “optimistic.” I would, however, point out here in passing that this puts the Lord’s coming more and more interminably into the far-off future; for not only must the millennium come and pass before the Lord comes, but there is evidently a long stretch before us yet before there can even be a millennium.

      The premillennial view, on the other hand, contends that the distinction between the church and the world will exist clear up to the Lord’s return. The church, as its very name implies, is simply an election–a selection: God is taking out from among the nations a people for his own Name; and Christ’s faithful ones will be subject to opposition and persecution until Jesus comes. At the Lord’s coming the world will not be essentially better, but even as to the professed church the last days will be the worst and the darkest.

     The premillennial believer takes no stock in the theory of “world-improvement.” As some have expressed it, “the world is a sinking ship, and it is not our business to try to keep the ship from going under, but to get as many passengers as will to jump into the life-boat;” and that it is not so much our business to put out the fire, as to snatch men as brands from the burning. It must be manifest that this view is very uncomplimentary to the “world.” It lays the world’s pride and pretense in the dust. The world, the worldly, a worldly church, worldly preachers and all those who, like Demas, “have loved the present world,” can in the nature of the case have no sympathy with this teaching. In saying this I do not mean that all who oppose the premillennial view are worldly, for I do not so believe; but that those who are worldly will naturally oppose the premillennial contention.

     The other side, however, retorts upon the premillennialists that they are “pessimistic.” But they insist that the postmillennial position is really the pessimistic one, in that it can offer no better hope than that which the past centuries have believed and proved vain; its prospect points ahead to an endless, weary stretch of years of doubtful world-improvement. Its hope of world-conversion has not the least corroboration from experience, for there has never been such an acceptance of the gospel by even one nation, one land, one city, not even where the gospel has been preached most thoroughly that would lend the lent appearance of probability, or sustain the faintest promise of the thought that the world can be or will be so converted. But the premillennial view looks not to earthly developments, but to an event from heaven: its hope is from above, bound up in the appearing of a glorious Lord and Savior who will adjudge, avenge, and adjust all things at his coming and bring about that better day.


      It may be said further that the premillennial view rests upon a careful and strict construction of the prophetic word; whereas the postmillennial necessitates a figurative and spiritualizing interpretation of most of the Old and New Testament prophecies. It puts upon these scriptures that vague and “highly-figurative” construction which to a great extent leaves every man free to read into the Word whatever he wishes to see in it; or to waive the whole prophetic revelation as something too deep and mysterious for him to decipher. For the postmillennial position does not comport with any strict and faithful construction of the prophetic portions of the Word of God. The premillennial position on the other hand depends upon a strict acceptance of what the word of God says. It goes on the assumption that the word of God is inspired; that therefore it means what it says; that when interpreted according to the laws, that govern the interpretation of language it is to be absolutely relied on; and that scripture explains scripture.

      It is not strange, therefore, that among all the infidel higher critics there is not one premillennialist to be found. They are all and every one, in so far as they believe in any millennium at all, postmillennialists. Nor do they recruit their numbers from premillennialist ranks, but their unbelieving doctrines gain their [75] entrance in postmillennial ears and hearts. It is surely significant that among the scholars, theologians, university professors, etc., who hold the premillennial view (and there are a number of them) not one “destructive critic” can be pointed out; and that on the other hand the “destructive critics” are invariably postmillennialists.

      This is not saying, of course, that all postmillennialists are infidel critics; but only vice versa. This thing however is evidently true: that the postmillennial view is compatible with the infidel criticism of our day, and that the premillennial teaching is not compatible with this infidelity, inasmuch as a strict and faithful acceptance of the word of God is its very soul and basis


      It is again evident that the postmillennial view cannot be conducive to making a man watchfully expectant of the Savior’s coming. If a millennium of universal peace and bliss is to intervene before the Lord’s coming, how could one “wait” for that? Or, still less, how could one “look” for it? or, still less, “watch” for it? It is only natural that death should have been substituted as the goal of our hope and the event for which to prepare, in the place of the Lord’s coming–an exchange which is common with postmillennialists, but which the New Testament never makes. In fact, the postmillennial position would naturally incline Christ’s servant to say, “My Lord delayeth his coming”–a thought which leads to a careless life and which we are especially warned against.


      Some, as pointed out before, who felt this difficulty, have tried to put it that the millennium is in progress now; and since, of course, in that case we could not know just when it would come to a close, it would behoove us to watch and be ready. This is a bit better so far as that point goes, but raises a host of other difficulties. This the Millennium?! With nearly half of all humanity involved in the most terrible war of all history? Satan bound? In Peter’s day he went about as a roaring lion. (1 Pet. 5:8). Is he bound now? We are told that Satan is “being bound” now. But that does not satisfy the case. Before ever that thousand years’ reign begins Satan is bound, and not only bound, but imprisoned. Is he so bound now? Is he imprisoned now? What would the world then be if he were turned loose? But enough of that.

      One other evidence already touched upon, of the premillennial coming of the Lord lies in the fact that the last days are the worst. It is not so much the question with the inspired writers whether the world will get better or worse. The world lieth in the Evil One (1 John 5:19) however it may outwardly improve. But the professed church, the very salt of the earth, will corrupt (2 Tim. 3:1-5) and it will not be much faith that the Son of Man when he cometh shall find on the earth. The mystery of iniquity was already working in Paul’s day, awaiting only a release from restraint to come to its full manifestation of the Man of Sin, an individual with whom the Lord will personally clash at his coming. (2 Thess. 2). This sufficiently shows that no era of universal peace and world-wide conversion and righteousness precedes the coming of the Lord.

      But the premillennial expectation of the Lord, (which was the all but universal expectation of the church for several centuries) –needs to meet no such difficulties. It makes watchful and zealous. It fixes our hope on an event ever imminent, in which our whole hope is bound up, and weans our hearts away from the world unto the surpassing glory of “That Day.

R. H. Boll (1875-1956) was  Editor of Word and Work 1916-1956 and  Preacher for the  Portland Avenue Church of Christ in Louisville, KY 1904-1956