The so-called dispensationalist premillennial interpretation of Revelation, which in spite of being popular in modern evangelicalism has no provenance in the church, came about in the 19th century as a result of the teachings of Darby and Scofield. Its proponents may claim that it is a literal understanding of the text in contrast to what they perceive to be non-literal spiritualized approaches. Although I would agree, as all orthodox Protestants, that the Bible should be read and understood literally, I believe we must distinguish a literalistic interpretation from a literal one. As the divine Turretin taught, there is only one literal sense, that which is intended by the Holy Spirit, but this may be proper or figurative. I believe that dispensationalist premillennialism falls over in that it interprets Revelation literalistically, thereby missing its literal sense, whereas this system’s flaws are discovered by comparison to other passages of Scripture (in determing the true literal sense of any passage, we must let Scripture be its own interpreter). I will focus on two points of doctrine in this article.
Are there two resurrections or one?
Because Revelation 20 refers to a first and a second resurrection, dispensationalist premillennialists teach that there are two actual resurrections. There are other places in scripture, however, which teach that the resurrection of the dead, both the righteous and the unrighteous, is a single simultaneous event. As formerly in Daniel 12:2, John 5:27-29 says that “all that are in the graves shall hear his voice, and shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation”. John 6 also teaches that the elect will be raised up at the last day, i.e. the day of judgement, which takes place after the tribuation.
Furthermore, I have yet to see any place in the Bible which implies a secret coming of Christ before His coming in glory (this being a prerequisite to a “pre-tribulation rapture”); to the contrary, when He comes it will be as the lightning flashing from the east to the west (Matthew 24:27), and every eye will see Him, including those who have pierced Him (Revelation 1:7). Where it is stated in Matthew 24:40 that one shall be taken away and one shall be left, we only have grounds to make a distinction between the elect, who are caught up to glory, and the reprobate, who are passed over to be judged for their sins. There is no mention here of any period of tribulation between these events and no indication that the elect will be spared from tribulation (indeed, the church has already undergone, and continues to undergo, tribulation).
In light of this belief in a single resurrection and a single second coming, historicists (following the classical Protestant interpretation of Revelation) believe that the resurrection spoken of in Revelation 20:4 is a spiritual event rather than physical. Given that the genre of prophecy elsewhere uses such figures to refer to spiritual truths, as with the dry bones coming to life in Ezekiel 37, we are not failing to interpret the text literally. Dutch Reformed divine A Brakel also argues in his commentary that because the actions in Revelation 20:4 are ascribed to souls as opposed to people (i.e. not yet reunited with their bodies), they cannot refer to a bodily resurrection. Rather, in his words, these souls “triumphed over the Antichrist and all enemies; they are free as kings, glorious, brave, and immense because of the glory of Christ, which he has endowed upon them through His Spirit and power. And through Him, they are part of His reign”. The “rest of the dead” is taken to mean the godless enemies of the church who, like Satan, will be constrained for a thousand years and therefore unable to oppress the church. “The first resurrection is the glorious state of the church after the battle at Armageddon and the destruction of the Antichrist. The second resurrection is the blessed resurrection and positioning at Christ’s right hand, after the revolt of Gog and Magog.”
At what point will Christ return?
Premillennialists believe, based on the saints’ reigning with Christ a thousand years (Revelation 20:4-6), that Jesus returns at the beginning of this millennium. Postmillennialists and amillennialists believe that He will return at the end of the millennium. Significant issues arise with the former interpretation: Christ suffered humiliation at his first coming, yet He ascended into heaven and is now seated at the right hand of the Father. The millennium, while we can expect it to be a time of unprecedented gospel advance, unity, and purity of doctrine and worship (a spiritual reign of Christ and the saints through the church on earth), is clearly not a sinless time, as it precedes the final apostasy (when Satan is loosed from his bonds) and the final judgement. It is inconceivable that a glorified Christ should again be humiliated by His leaving the right hand of the Father and dwelling for a thousand years on an earth where sin and death remain and where Satan has not been permanently defeated. The Bible states clearly that Christ will sit at the right hand of the Father till His enemies are made His footstool (Psalm 110:1). He will return in glory to judge the living and the dead once and for all.