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James P. Boyce’s response to premillennialism

James P. Boyce, the first president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, rejected the teaching that there will be a one-thousand-year period between the second coming of Christ and the final judgment. In his Abstract of Systematic Theology, he writes:

There is, however, one passage of Scripture which some claim teaches one resurrection of the bodies of the just, and another of those of the unjust; and places them at a wide interval apart, with numerous intervening parts. Those who maintain this view hold that the thousand years of the Millenium succeed the second coming of Christ, and the resurrection of the righteous. This passage constitutes the twentieth chapter of the book of Revelation. It is the record of that vision, in which John saw the angel bind Satan, in the bottomless pit, for a thousand years; during which the souls of the saints lived, and reigned with Christ. “This,” says John, “is the first resurrection.” v.5. On those having part in it, “the second death hath no power.” v.6. When the thousand years have expired, Satan shall be loosed out of his prison, and go out to deceive the nations. When the number of the forces which he gathers, which are like the sands of the sea, surround the camp of the saints, these forces will be devoured by fire from Heaven, and the devil cast into the lake of fire and brimstone. Then appears the great white throne, and the judgement of the dead, both small and great, and the judgement of the dead out of the books. And then death and Hades are cast into the lake of fire. “This,” says John, “is the second death.” v. 14.

It is readily admitted as to this passage that whatever is truly taught in it must be accepted as the word of God. But,

(1.) We must be careful how we receive any interpretation which does not accord with the rest of Scripture. Before doing so, we should examine thoroughly both the interpretation we wish to accept, and the views attained from other parts of the Word of God. We know that Scripture cannot contradict itself, when rightly interpreted. All its parts must, therefore, be carefully compared to see in what interpretation they agree.

(2.) If, after the best efforts to harmonize this with the other portions of God’s Word, it should seem to be irreconcilable with them, the apparent interpretation of this passage should yield to that of others; Not so much because it is one only, as compared with a great number; but because it is found in a book of highly figurative prophecy, in which the literal interpretation is not so justly to be pressed, as in others, which are not of this character, and in which the literal meaning is more apt to be the mind of the Spirit.

(3.) The language of this passage, however, is, at least, in some respects, opposed to the idea of two resurrections of the body; the first, that of the saints to reign with Christ for a thousand years, and the second, that of the wicked to judgement.

(a.) Because those who are represented as belonging to the first resurrection, are not spoken of as clothed in resurrection bodies; but, on the contrary, John declares simply that he saw “the souls of them that had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus, etc.” v. 4.

(b.) It is not only not said that those who partake of the first resurrection are not among the dead, who are subsequently delivered up by death and Hades to be judged, v. 13, but it is implied that they are among these by the universal terms used when John says that he “saw the dead, the great and small, stand before God,” v. 12. But, if this be true, then there must be either two resurrections of the bodies of the saints, or one of the resurrections at least cannot be of the body.

(c.) Especially is it not taught that the resurrection to judgement is confined to the wicked, nor that the first resurrection is of the bodies of all the saints; because along with the books “which were opened,” “another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of the things which were written in the books, according to their works,” v.12; “and if any was not found written in the book of life, he was cast into the lake of fire,” v.15. This language implies that, among those then raised and judged, there were some whose names were written in the book of life. Consequently, reference must here be made to the general resurrection and judgement, taught elsewhere as contemporaneous, and the first resurrection cannot be that of the body; or only some of the saints partake of the first resurrection; or there must be two resurrections of the bodies of the saints. The first of these is the only interpretation that accords with what is elsewhere taught.

(4.) The interpretation of this passage which makes it harmonious with all other Scripture is,

(a.) That the resurrection is a spiritual resurrection of the soul from the death of sin, of which Scriptures elsewhere speak so plainly as being a passage from death unto life. See John 5:24-26; Rom. 6:2-7; Eph. 2:1, 5; 5:14; Phil. 3:10, 11; Col. 2:12, 13; 1 John 3:14; 5:11, 12.

(b.) That the second death, which has no power over those which have part in the first resurrection, constitutes the punishment of those condemned at the judgement day, which consists in their being cast, both body and soul, into a lake of fire.

(c.) The thousand years of the binding of Satan is a period of time, of unknown, perhaps of indefinite length, possibly from the time of Christ’s conquest of Satan, in his death, resurrection, and ascension, or possibly from some other period, even perhaps of a later epoch in the history of Christianity, during which Satan is restrained from the exercise of the power he might otherwise put forth against man; the thousand years terminating at some time prior to the day of Christ’s second coming; at which time Satan shall be loosed to consummate his evil deeds by such assaults upon the saints as shall bring down the final vengeance of God at the appearing of Christ in glory.

(d.) The judgement and the resurrection, in Rev. 20:12, 13, are general, and are those of the last day which immediately follow the coming of Christ.

In our day, those who reject premillennialism are charged with “taking away from the Scriptures” and rejecting a plain reading of the Word of God. Whether Dr. Boyce taught something or not, of course, makes it neither right nor wrong. Still, for those in twenty-first century America where the prevailing evangelical doctrine of the end times is dispensational premillennialism, the words of SBTS’s first president may come as a surprise.