Ezekiel's extensive vision of a restored temple (Ezek. 40-48) is a source of great confusion. It has been described as the "Achilles heel" for dispensationalism, because self consistency is seemingly impossible, viz.
- The explicit details given by Ezekiel argue for a literal interpretation. The temple will be rebuilt, according to Ezekiel's exacting specifications, in the millennium. This is the strongest part of the dispensationalist's argument.
- The details, however, turn out to be a two-edged sword that gets the dispensationalist into trouble quickly. As we will see (and have seen) Ezekiel's description would seem geographically impossible.181 Since one could always ague, without possibility of refutation, that God will simply, even though scripture is silent on the event, alter the geography (placing large mountains and mighty rivers where presently there are none) this problem can be swept under the rug. The more serious problem comes from the detailaded description of atoning animal sacrifices. Dispensationalists disagree on how to handle this (while fairly pointing out that non-dispensationalists cannot agree on a figurative interpretation of Ezekiel's temple). The two common dispensational interpretations are:
1) Yes there will be animal sacrifices, but they are commemorative, not atoning, and are necessary because the heightened spirituality and paucity of sin in the millennial kingdom will put its inhabitants at risk of forgetting that a blood sacrifice was required for their ransom.
2) The reference to sacrifices is not to be taken literally. 182
The second view is a candid admission of a deviation from literalism. However, the first view also deviates from literalism, for while it acknowledges that there must be sacrifices, since Ezekiel describes them, it ignores the fact that he describes them not as commemorative but as atoning, e.g: you shall give to the Levitical priests of the family of Zadok, who draw near to me to minister to me, declares the Lord GOD, a bull from the herd for a sin offering. (Ezek. 43:19)
The postmillennial position is part negative, part positive. The negative part is to demonstrate how the vision cannot be taken literally. Here are some of the reasons:
- The temple site is on a very high mountain (Ezek 40:2) . There are no high mountains in the vicinity of Jerusalem.
- There is a river so vast that its fresh water desalinates the Dead Sea and leaves it teeming with life (Ezek 47:6-12). This requires a flow rate far beyond any known river, and clearly there is nothing resembling this source in the vicinity of Jerusalem.
- There are many references to atoning sacrifices and ceremonial laws (Ezek. 40:39; 43:19; 43:21; 43:22; 43:25; 44:27; 44:29; 45:15; 45:17; 45:22; 45:23; 45:25; 46:20) that have been disestablished by the New Testament, e.g. Now where there is forgiveness of these things, there is no longer any offering for sin. (Heb. 10:18). See also Heb. 7:27; 0:26; 10:1-14.
- Circumcision would be re-instituted: "Thus says the Lord GOD: No foreigner, uncircumcised in heart and flesh, of all the foreigners who are among the people of Israel, shall enter my sanctuary. (Ezek: 44:9) This also contradicts New Testament teaching (Acts 15; Rom. 2:26-29; 4:9-12; 1 Cor. 7:18-19; Gal. 5:2-6; 6:12-15; Phil. 3:3; Col. 2:11; 3:11).
The last two bullets show the literal-temple view to be retrogressive. "Such a position is guilty of Judiazing our Christianity, instead of Christianizing the adherents of Judaism."183
What do postmillennialist say?
They say that the description of the temple as a vision of the present church age. For example, take the description of the great river:
1Then he brought me back to the door of the temple, and behold, water was issuing from below the threshold of the temple toward the east (for the temple faced east). The water was flowing down from below the south end of the threshold of the temple, south of the altar.
3Going on eastward with a measuring line in his hand, the man measured a thousand cubits, and then led me through the water, and it was ankle-deep. 4Again he measured a thousand, and led me through the water, and it was knee-deep. Again he measured a thousand, and led me through the water, and it was waist-deep. 5Again he measured a thousand, and it was a river that I could not pass through, for the water had risen. It was deep enough to swim in, a river that could not be passed through
8And he said to me, "This water flows toward the eastern region and goes down into the Arabah, and enters the sea; when the water flows into the sea, the water will become fresh. 9And wherever the river goes, every living creature that swarms will live, and there will be very many fish. For this water goes there, that the waters of the sea may become fresh; so everything will live where the river goes. (Ezek: 47:1, 3-5, 8-9)
The argument that this is a figurative description of the New Testament church is bolstered by comparison to New Testament passages. Mathison writes: 184
The New Testament provides the keys necessary to understand the references to water in this prophecy. In John 7, Jesus declares that from the innermost being of those who believe in Him "shall flow rivers of living water" (7:38; cf.3:5; 4:13-14). In the next verse, John explains that this water is a reference to the Holy Spirit. Earlier in John's gospel, Jesus declares Himself to be the true temple (2:19-21). Jesus, then, is the true fulfillment of the temple prophecy of Ezekiel. And He is the One who, after His ascension to the right hand of God, sends forth the Spirit as the river of living water (cf. Acts 2:33). The river in Ezekiel begins as an ankle-deep trickle and gradually deepens until it reaches the depth of a large river. This is an astounding representation of the [postmillennial teaching of] gradual increase of the Spirit's work in the present age.
And Gentry would add: 185
John 4:21 anticipates the removal of the temple order: Jesus declared, "Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. Various other Old Testament prophecies are found to transcend the Mosaic pattern of worship in the temple environs. (Isa. 19:19; Jer. 3:16; Zech 14:21; Mal. 1:11) Which shall we follow? References that transcend temple worship or those that reintroduce it?
In short, the postmillennial view is that Ezekiel's visionary temple represents the church or, more accurately, Christ Himself. The temple represented the presence of God, or at least the covenantal relationship with God. Christ is the presence of God. This is what Ezekiel meant when he wrote: And the name of the city from that time on will be: The LORD is There . (Ezek. 48:35)
Christ acknowledges that He is indeed a temple when he declares:
18Then the Jews demanded of him, "What miraculous sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?" 19Jesus answered them, "Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days." 20The Jews replied, "It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?" (John 2:18-20)
"We heard him say, 'I will destroy this man-made temple and in three days will build another, not made by man.' (Mark 14:58)
The stone which the builders rejected Has become the chief cornerstone. (Matt 21:42)
Everything that was approximated by the temple was realized in Christ, the perfect temple. There simply is no need for a third temple, and Ezekiel's detailed vision foresaw, in terms the Jews could understand, a temple that far exceeded either of those built by man.
181 Not unlike John's vision of a New Jerusalem in Revelation 21: And he measured the city with his rod, 12,000 stadia. (~1380 miles) Its length and width and height are equal. (Rev. 21:16) Thus the city is a perfect cube with a base about 2/3 of the continental U.S. and a height 4-5 times higher than the space shuttle's orbit
182 The New Scofield Reference Bible, note on Ezek 43:19 suggests the non-literal possibility
183 David Brown, Christ's Second Coming: Will it be Premillennial?, (Still Waters Revival),  1990, p. 352.
184 Mathison, Postmillennialism, an Eschatology of Hope, pp. 91-92.
185 Kenneth L. Gentry, He Shall Have Dominion, p 368.