These questions and answers are not new. We can point to similar responses in nearly every era of the history of the church, and especially during the Reformation. During the 16th century, interest in prophecy and the end times was commonplace among the Protestant Reformers. Beginning with Martin Luther’s break with the Roman Catholic Church, Europe entered a period of great turmoil as the result of intense political rivalries, unprecedented social disruption, and many bloody wars. For Protestants, these events were framed in apocalyptic terms, especially once Luther boldly identified the papacy as the fulfillment of the prophecy of the Antichrist. Consequently, the Reformation was understood as a cosmic struggle between good and evil, or, more precisely, between God and the Devil.
In Zurich, Switzerland, the successor to the great Reformer Ulrich Zwingli was Heinrich Bullinger (1504-1575). Well known during his time as “pastor to the Protestant refugees,” Bullinger ministered to many exiled Protestants, especially those arriving from England, fleeing the reign of “Bloody Mary.” Beginning in 1555, Bullinger preached a series of 101 sermons from the book of Revelation. The sermons were later published and dedicated to all the Protestant refugees in Europe.
In his exposition of Revelation 20, the famous passage referring to the reign of Christ for 1,000 years (the millennium), Bullinger introduced a peculiar interpretation. Unlike Augustine and possibly Calvin, he did not interpret the millennium as a non-literal symbolic description of the entire church age. For Bullinger the millennium was not a future event, similar to a premillennial position. Instead, Bullinger believed the millennium was a literal period of 1,000 years that had already passed.
Bullinger’s understanding of the millennium may seem to us like quite a novel interpretation. How could the reign of Christ be over by the 16th century? And if it was indeed over, when did it occur in history? Bullinger gave three possible options for the period of the millennium:
- Beginning in AD 34 with the ascension of Christ and ending in 1034 with the reign of Pope Benedict IX.
- Beginning in AD 60 with the preaching of the Apostle Paul and ending in 1060 with Pope Nicholas II.
- Beginning in AD 73 with the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem and ending in 1073 with Pope Gregory VII.
In all three of these options, Bullinger was describing the period of the early church when the gospel advanced with phenomenal success. For him, this extraordinary expansion of the gospel fit with the description in Revelation 20:2, where Satan is bound for 1,000 years. The binding of Satan made possible the flourishing work of the gospel in the early church. The end of the 1,000 years was marked by the rise and corruption of the office of the pope in the Roman Catholic Church. Why is the office of the pope significant? Because Bullinger agreed with Luther that the papacy was the Antichrist, and the appearance of the Antichrist marked the end of the millennium.
Revelation 20 describes at the end of the millennium: “Satan will be released from his prison and will come out to deceive the nations that are at the four corners of the earth.” Bullinger believed that since the millennium had ended, Satan was released to deceive the nations. For Reformers like Luther and Bullinger, Satan’s greatest deception was to introduce a false gospel into the church through the one who is supposed to be the head of the church and Christ’s representative on earth—the pope. Hence the Reformation sought to recover the doctrine of justification by faith alone, and subsequently the true gospel.
With the millennium over and Satan released, Bullinger believed the next event would be the great battle of Gog and Magog and the imminent return of Christ to defeat his enemies (Rev. 20:9-10) and usher in the great day of judgment (Rev. 20:11-15). For 16th-century Protestants, this was a great assurance filled with comfort and hope in a time of fear and uncertainty. This was the message of Bullinger’s sermons dedicated to the Protestant refugees: Jesus Christ is returning soon, and all his enemies finally will be defeated. Bullinger’s interpretation was so persuasive that it was included in the popular Geneva Bible, first published in 1560.
How Then Must We Live?
While I and most other evangelical theologians today do not follow Bullinger’s specific interpretation of the millennium, in many ways, Christians in our day are no different from Bullinger and other 16th-century believers. We diligently try to understand these difficult prophetic passages through careful study and prayer. Many Christians today attempt to make sense of these prophesies in light of current world events such as the onslaught of secularism in North America and Europe, the rise of violent persecution in the Middle East, and the oppression from totalitarian governments in Asia. At the same time, we long for the return of Christ to bring the new heaven and new earth.
How then should Christians today live in light of the new heaven and new earth? Let me offer three simple suggestions.
First, we should follow the example of the Reformers and turn to Scripture. Let us diligently study the whole Bible and not just the passages that contain prophecies. The Bible teaches us more about who we are in Christ and how we should live in Christ, than about what events precede his second coming. I am not suggesting that we ignore the prophecies, but we must understand these difficult and often challenging prophecies in the context of what is more clear. No matter what happens in this world, or when the return of Christ will be, we live as those who belong to Christ, walking by the Spirit in faith (Gal. 5:16-25).
Second, many different interpretations persist about the end times both in the history of the church and today. At the same time, all Christians confess foundational doctrines about the end times. Whether you are a postmillennialist, amillennialist, or premillennialist, we all believe that Jesus Christ will return again, defeat his enemies, bring final judgment, and inaugurate the new heaven and new earth. This is the hope of all Christians in every era of church history, and it should be our hope as well.
Finally, as the apostle John teaches us in Revelation 22:20, we should pray, “Come, Lord Jesus!” We earnestly pray for the return of Christ. It is easy to get caught up in things of the world. But to see our Lord and Savior is the greatest longing of our hearts. The new heaven and new earth is our ultimate home, and what a joy it will be when we arrive there.
Editors’ note: Jeffrey K. Jue, G. K. Beale, Lane Tipton, and Ligon Duncan will participate in a panel discussion on “The Gospel & Eschatology: Why Heaven Matters Now” at 3 p.m., Tuesday, April 14, at The Gospel Coalition 2015 National Conference in Orlando, Florida.