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The Legal Problem of Premillennialism

One of my favorite things about systematic theology is how it helps us understand the connections between different areas of doctrine. Sometimes, this reveals implications of our theological views that we had perhaps never considered. This refining process can help us grow in our doctrinal depth and precision by improving our understanding of Scripture.

One of the areas that systematic theology deals with is “eschatology,” or what many like to call “the end times.” Of all the doctrinal topics that systematic theology deals with, eschatology should probably be held the most loosely and debated the most collegially; there is far less weight to discussing the order of end times events than there is to debating the validity of justification by faith alone or the deity of Christ.

The most popular eschatological view in America is premillennialism, a position that I once held. However, I had a “domino effect moment” in which one theological domino falling eventually led to my changing my eschatological view entirely. This first domino is something that I suspect many adherents of premillennialism have not considered. Now, while all eschatological positions have their gaps and difficult questions, it is my goal in a cordial and charitable spirit to provide my premillennial brothers some food for thought on the problem of God’s Law and the Millennial Kingdom.

The Basic View of Premillennialism

Premillennialism is the belief (based on a linear reading of Revelation 20:1-5) that after the visible return of Christ, Jesus will set up an earthly Kingdom in which He and the glorified saints reign over the unregenerate nations for a thousand years. John MacArthur describes what this earthly kingdom will look like in a sermon on this passage:

"Then there will be truth in education, then there will be justice in the courtroom. Then there will be moral standards upheld in every area of human life. Then there will be honesty in the newspaper. Then there will not be pollution on the bookstands. Books will be filled with truth. And television will be filled with only that which is true and which carries out the agenda of the Lord Jesus Christ. The saints will be in charge of television, radio, education, social life, the judicial process, the legislative process, every aspect of operation. His saints will reign with Him. What a world that’s going to be. Marvelous. And the saints won’t have to try to figure out what to do because they’ll all be glorified and perfect, and so they will perfectly carry out the will of Christ. What an incredible thought. We won’t be having committee meetings, or any meetings about any - we won’t have to figure anything out, we’ll know everything because we will already have been made to know as we are known. We’ll simply enforce the King’s agenda, which will be abundantly and perfectly clear to all of us." [1]

According to the premillennial position, after this thousand-year kingdom, the unregenerate nations are led by Satan into rebellion against Jesus, which results in their total destruction and final judgment (Rev 20:7-15). After the final judgment, the New Heavens and the New Earth are created, and the eternal rest of the saints in the New Creation begins.

The Demand for Millennial Justice

The premillennial position understands many Old Testament passages to be fulfilled literally, and when these passages are put together, we glean a picture of the kind of civil and moral justice that Christ’s theocratic earthly reign would require. Perhaps some of the most well-known passages that capture this best are Isaiah 2:2-4 and Isaiah 11:1-5.

"It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be lifted up above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it, and many peoples shall come, and say: 'Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.' For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore" (Is 2:2-4).

"There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit. And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide disputes by what his ears hear, but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. Righteousness shall be the belt of his waist, and faithfulness the belt of his loins" (Is 11:1-5).

According to the premillennial position, Isaiah describes an earthly kingdom in which Christ reigns with perfect justice and righteousness, deciding all matters according to the wisdom and counsel of the Holy Spirit. He will judge with equity and faithfulness. As John MacArthur described above, Jesus and His saints will be in control over all of society, even down to television programming. Yet verses like Isaiah 11:4 cannot be overlooked; according to this passage, Christ’s reign over the earth requires the death of the wicked, and His reign will not be soft. Isaiah 11:1-5 describes a theocracy as one would expect: violation of God’s law requires death. And (at the risk of painting with a broad brush), it seems that this picture of the Millennium is one that other premillennialists agree with. David Jeremiah says that:

"We can be assured of this: Rebellion won’t last long. The One who is in charge will know the intent of every heart, and there will be swift justice for every wrong. The Bible says our Lord will rule with a rod of iron. That means there won’t be any long delays in justice— no long waits for trials, no long waits for sentences to be carried out. There will be immediate justice based upon the holy reign of King Jesus." [2]

And it is this demand for absolute and perfect justice (and we would expect nothing less from the glorified, reigning, righteous Messiah) that presents a major problem for the premillennial view. As Isaiah 2:3 says, the law will go forth from Zion during Christ’s reign, and by this law, He will judge the nations and settle disputes. But the question is: which law could possibly be used in such a scenario?

The Mosaic Law?

Some premillennialists seem to suggest that the Mosaic Law will make a full or partial return during the millennial kingdom and that this would be the law of the land. For example, many premillennialists (such as the well-known Charles Ryrie) see Ezekiel 43-44 describing the return of animal sacrifices and the Levitical priesthood during the Millennial Reign:

"Apparently sacrifices will again be offered in a temple which will be built and in operation during the Millennium (Ezek. 40–48). Premillennialists understand these sacrifices as a means of memorializing the death of Christ. Religious holidays will also be observed during the Millennium (46:1–15; Zech. 14:16)." [3]

Likewise, Thomas Ice writes that the Millennial law will be a “mixture of Mosaic-type laws with totally new non-Mosaic laws not found in the 613, under the jurisdiction of the New Covenant.”[4]

However, this seems to be a contradiction of the entire book of Hebrews (which describes the Old Covenant and its laws as “obsolete” and “getting ready to vanish away,” Heb 8:13) as well as Paul’s fairly explicit statements in Ephesians 2:14-15:

"For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace."

A main purpose of the Mosaic Law (in its civil and ceremonial components) was to divide Israel from the surrounding Gentile nations, yet Paul declares that Christ Himself removed this dividing wall and distinction by abolishing the “law of commandments expressed in ordinances” to make one new man. If Christ abolished the civil and ceremonial ordinances and commandments of the Mosaic Law under the Old Covenant, why would He bring these ordinances and commands back to reign over the nations in the Millennium? This would be an undoing of His redemptive work and, in some sense, a minimizing of the Gospel and the uniqueness of the New Covenant.

But, some might argue, while that may be true regarding the civil and ceremonial components of the Mosaic Law, what about the Moral Law? Could Christ use the Moral Law to rule in the Millennium?

The Moral Law?

The Moral Law, according to Reformed theologians, is that component of God’s law that is unchanging and abiding and unchanging because it reflects the moral character and standard of God Himself. The Moral Law is commonly said to be expressed in the contents of the 10 Commandments. It has not been abolished along with the civil and ceremonial aspects of the Old Covenant but reflects God’s moral expectation for mankind. According to Paul in Romans 2:15, this law has been written on the heart of every human being, beginning with Adam. Could the Moral Law be what Christ uses to judge the nations in the Millennial Kingdom?

Let’s briefly review the abbreviated 10 Commandments (Exodus 20:2-17):

• “I am the LORD your God. You shall have no other gods before me.”

• “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God.”

• “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain.”

• “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.”

• “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.”

• “You shall not murder.”

• “You shall not commit adultery.”

• “You shall not steal.”

• “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.”

• “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.”

These commandments are good, right, and morally pure and serve as a guide to the believer’s sanctification. However, are these moral elements sufficient to govern an entire global theonomic society? There is a reason, after all, that there were 603 other commandments given to the people of Israel regarding topics ranging from worship to loans to various case laws: a society in which unregenerate people are the subjects will encounter an endless possibility of problems and issues, and the 10 Commandments deals with some but not all that is necessary for sinners to live in a cohesive and just social fabric.

On top of that, and more importantly in my mind, Jesus Himself in the Sermon on the Mount declares that the external keeping of the Moral Law is not what God is ultimately concerned about:

“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire” (Matthew 5:21–22).

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:27–28).

Jesus clearly states that the heart can violate the Moral Law internally with just as much guilt as the body can externally. So while punishing homicide and adultery seems necessary in the Millennial Kingdom, what about the sinful operations of the heart: lust and anger? Jesus obviously will be aware of such things, but will He simply choose not to punish the internal rebellion of those under His reign? Such a concept seems to diminish the strength of His justice on earth (since sin still goes on unpunished in men's hearts) and implies that only the externals matter in Jesus’s Kingdom, a pseudo-return to the theonomic system of Old Testament Israel. If that is the case, this seems like a major theological step backwards to a system that the New Testament sees as obsolete, typological, and already fulfilled in Christ.

No, it would seem more consistent with all of Scripture that if there is indeed a perfect earthly Millennial reign, true and full justice would require the punishment not just of external sins and crimes, but of internal ones too. And if this is the case, all of the unregenerate people on earth (who somehow survive the second coming of Christ) would be executed immediately after His reign is set up anyway, as soon as they had a sinful thought or desire. After all, the wages of sin is death (Rom 6:23). If adultery would result in judgment by Christ, why wouldn’t lust? Why wouldn’t greed? Why wouldn’t jealousy?

No, it would seem that the Moral Law would not be a viable legal option in the Millennium either.

The Implications

It could certainly be possible that there are reasonable and theologically sound answers to my statements above, but it seems to me that the premillennial scheme simply cannot stand in light of this legal problem. If there is some new law code that Jesus enacts when He reigns on the earth, then the same problem inherent in the Moral Law would apply there too: Jesus, to be truly just on earth over unregenerate people to the degree that Premillennialists interpret Scriptures regarding His reign, would still have to punish even the sins of the heart. And if this is true, premillennialism cannot possibly stand:

1. Christ is perfectly just and will judge sin on the earth perfectly righteously.

2. There are unregenerate sinners living under the reign of Christ.

3. There is no law that would be suitable under Christ’s perfect justice to allow for unregenerate sinners to live without punishment.

4. Because of their violations of God’s law (externally or internally), all unregenerate sinners would be slain according to Christ’s perfect justice within moments of His visible return.

5. If there are no sinners left within moments of Christ’s return, there can be no rebellion 1,000 years later.

6. The premillennial scheme is untenable.

As my premillennial brothers and sisters often argue that their interpretation of the Old Testament and Revelation 20:1-5 is the most literally accurate, this issue leads me to ask: is an interpretation really the most accurate if it leads to inconsistencies and compromises on the requirements of God’s Law?

On the other hand, the amillennial position seems to deal with this question in a much better way; if the Millennium is Christ reigning either through His Church or in the hearts of His people, then the legal application of His righteous reign is a spiritual matter, which is wholly appropriate in the context of the heart or the Church. As Paul writes,For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom 14:17). Christ’s Kingly reign prior to the New Creation, then, is not over unregenerate people, but over His regenerated saints, who by the Spirit do submit to the Moral Law, to the “Law of Christ” (Gal 6:2). In the amillennial position, then, there is no legal problem for those redeemed from the curse of the law, over whom Christ reigns spiritually at His Father’s right hand until He makes His enemies a footstool under His feet.


[1] [2] [3] Charles Caldwell Ryrie, Basic Theology: A Popular Systematic Guide to Understanding Biblical Truth (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1999), 595. [4]


Daniel Ruben (MDiv, Midwestern Baptist; working on MA in Biblical Counseling) is a pastor at Fellowship Bible Church in Carson City, NV. He is husband to Shaelby and father of two.


Note: The views expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of other contributors on this site.


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