Evaluating Post-millennialism (I)

In my earlier surveys of the four primary millennial views, I promised to valuate each of these views from the standpoint of Scripture. So far I have attempted to keep this promise in respect to the views known as historic premillennialism and dispensational premillennialism. Not only have we considered the basic problem of all pre-millennial views—the unbiblical separation between Christ’s second coming and the close of the present age—but we have also considered a number of objections against dispensationalism. In more recent articles, I have presented an extended treatment of the teaching of Revelation 20, a treatment that was critical throughout of the premillennialist reading of this passage. Now that this evaluation of pre-millennialism and our consideration of Revelation 20 are completed, the time has come to evaluate the millennial view known as postmillennialism.

DEFINING GOLDEN AGE POST-MILLENNLALISM

Before beginning this evaluation of postmillennialism, however, I need to revisit an earlier discussion of what is meant by post-millennialism. The term postmillennialism simply means “after the millennium.” This position teaches that Christ’s return will occur after the millennium at the end of the present age. In this broader sense of the term, it serves, like the term pre-millennialism, to cover two distinct millennial views: what I would call golden age post-millennialism and a-millennialism. Though these two distinct views are commonly termed post-millennialism and amillennialism, it should be noted that they share a basic feature in distinction from all pre-millennial views: that the return of Christ will come after the millennium and conclude the present period of history.

For the purpose of this evaluation, I will be using the term post-millennialism in the narrower and more limited sense, to refer to the view that post-millennialism looks for an unprecedented period or golden age between the times of Christ’s first and second coming. Though variously described and understood by post-millennialists, this period or golden age will be marked by an unprecedented triumph of the gospel on the earth. The nations will be converted and honor the requirements ofthe Word and law of God. Prosperity and peace will prevail in the earth. This unprecedented period will endure for a thousand years, not in a literal sense but in the sense of a great and expansive period oftime. Only at the conclusion of this millennial period will there be a brief period of Satanic rebellion and apostasy, the “little season” of Revelation 20.

Among post-millennialists, there are some differences of opinion regarding the commencement of this golden age or unprecedented period of gospel triumph in the earth. Some suggest that this period will commence gradually and incrementally. As the gospel progressively penetrates the nations and brings about their conversion, the millennium will eventually come to full manifestation. Others suggest that the millennium will commence more abruptly and suddenly in the context of a future revival and conversion of the nations by an unprecedented working of the Spirit through the gospel. Opinions also vary as to the place and service ofthe civil magistrate in the realization of this millennial kingdom. One wrinkle that complicates matters even further is the tendency today among some postmillennialists to identify the entire period between Christ’s first andsecond advents as the period of the millennium. Though this latter tendency amounts to a position all but indistinguishable from a-millennialism (though perhaps more optimistic in its expectation), it retains the characteristic emphasis upon a coming golden age.1

It is this fundamental feature ofa golden age or future period ofunprecedented gospel blessing that is most characteristic of all post-millennialist views. Therefore, it is this feature which will be the focus of my evaluation of post-millennialism in what follows.
In order to organize my evaluation of post-millennialism, I will proceed by raising several objections to this position in the form of questions. In this article, I will only be able to consider the ftrst two of these objections. In a subsequent article, I will consider several further objections to post-millennialism. After having considered each of these objections, I will then conclude with a more general comment or two on the strengths and weaknesses of this millennial position.

First objection: When does Christ become King?

The ftrst objection to postmillennialism can be stated in the form of the question when does Christ become King? Golden age postmillennialism seems to suggest that the kingship of Jesus Christ is not so much a present as it is a future reality. The coming of Christ in the fullness of time, though it inaugurated a new and decisive period in the history of redemption, does not by itself constitute the great turning point in history, so far as the kingdom of God is concerned. Rather, it commences a series of events which, only later and in terms of subsequent developments, lead to the millennial kingdom. However the millennium commences, whether suddenly or progressively over a longer period of time, it does not commence until some time after the great redemptive events attested in the
New Testament Scriptures. Or, to state the matter somewhat differently, the birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ, together with the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost, initiate a chain of events that will eventually lead to the millennial kingdom. But these events are not themselves events that coincide with the commencement of the millennium.

The problem with this construction is that it compromises the testimony of the New Testament that the reign of Christ commences with His fIrst advent and installation at the right hand ofthe Father after His resurrection from the dead. Though the manifestation or evidence of Christ’s rule and dominion may vary throughout history so far as the circumstances of believers and the church is concerned, the entire period between Christ’s resurrection and His return at the end of the age is the period in which He has all authority (Matt. 28:16–20) and exercises kingly dominion in the earth. The preaching of the gospel to all the creation
and the discipling of the nations—these are the great tasks ofChrist's church in this present period of history and they express His present rule as King.

For this reason, in those passages which speak of Christ’s kingship and dominion, the point of reference is always to the entirety of the present age subsequent to Christ’s ascension and prior to His return at the end of the age. Thus, in Philippians 2:9–11, after the well-known description of Christ’s self-emptying and humiliation, the apostle Paul describes Christ’s exaltation in these words:

Therefore also God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, that at the name ofJesus every knee should bow, of those who are in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

This description of Christ’s exaltation defInes His present standing and glory, and not an exaltation that is reserved to the future in any new or distinguishable sense. In a similar passage, Ephesians 1:22–23, the present authority and dominion of Christ are described in the strongest terms. According to this passage, God the Father has “put all things in subjection under His [Christ’s] feet, and gave Him as head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fulness of Him who fills all in all” (compare Col. 1:15–18; 1 Pet. 3:22). According to this passage, Christ has been seated at the right hand of God “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion ...
not only in this age, but also in the one to come” (vv. 20–21, emphasis mine). No suggestion is made that this present reign of Christ is to be distinguished into a non-millennial and a millennial phase, both of which are to be distinguished from the age to come. Something quite different is affirmed: Christ’s reign is distinguished between the present age and the age to come, with no other age intervening or being inserted. As I have noted in prior articles, the only passages in the New Testament that might appear to teach a distinction between Christ’s present kingship and His kingship during a millennial period in the future are 1 Corinthians 15:22–26 and Revelation 20:1–6. Upon careful study, however, neither ofthese passages teaches such a distinction.

In 1 Corinthians 15:22–26, we read the following:

For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the fIrst fruits, after that those who are Christ’s at His coming, then the end, when He delivers up the kingdom to God and Father, when He has abolished all rule and all authority and power. For He must reign until He has put all His enemies under His feet. The last enemy that will be abolished is death.

This passage teaches that, subsequent to His resurrection from the dead, Christ has been installed as King and is presently reigning over all things. This present reign of Christ will come to an end when all of His enemies have been brought into subjection under His feet, including the last enemy, death. There is a no suggestion in this passage of the kind of unprecedented period of Christ’s millennial reign that will intervene between the present reality of His reign and the final state, when all His enemies, including death, have been defeated. This passage simply leaves no place for a golden age between the present age and the age to come. Rather, it teaches that the (millennial) reign of Christ encompasses the entirety of the present period of history, only to be concluded at the time of the final conquest of all of Christ’s enemies at the end of the age.

With respect to the vision ofthe millennium in Revelation 20:1–16, I do not wish to revisit the arguments of a previous article in this series.2 In that article, I provided a number of reasons why I believe the vision ofthe millennium in Revelation 20 encompasses the entire inter-advental period between the first and second comings of Christ.

There are two things that need to be proven in order to support the view of a future golden age in history from Revelation 20. The first is that the events depicted in the latter part of Revelation 19:11–21 refer, not to the second coming of Christ, but to a transitional period in history leading up to the beginning of the millennium of Revelation 20. A much simpler and straightforward reading of Revelation 19:11–21 suggests that it refers instead to the return of Christ at the end of the present age. The second is that the events depicted in the vision of Revelation 20:1–6 must take place after the events recorded in the vision of Revelation 19:11–21. But, as I have also previously argued, this is not able to be proven and is, in fact, quite unlikely. There is, accordingly, no biblical support for the idea that Christ’s kingship will enter a new and distinct phase with the inauguration of a future millennium or golden age. Christ is King now! And He has been King from the commencement of His mediatorial rule at the Father’s right hand.

Second objection: Is the millennium now or a future golden age?

In reply to this claim that postmillennialism's golden age compromises the present reality of Christ’s reign, some present-day post-millennialists will insist that there is no difference in kind (only of degree) between the present and future manifestation of the kingdom of Christ. Christ is already King, but His reign will become increasingly manifest as the gospel progressively comes to triumph on the earth. Thus, some present-day postmillennialists will concede that the millennium is now, that it began with the advent of Christ and will be concluded at His coming at the end of the age. According to these post-millennialists, the only basic difference between post-millennialist and a-millennialist views is that the former has a more optimistic and biblical expectation of the power and success of the gospel in this present age than the latter. Typically, those who argue in this fashion will criticize the a-millennialist for an unbiblical pessimism and lack of confidence in the promised success of the church’s discipling of the nations.3

The curious thing about this argument is that it seems to abandon the traditional post-millennialist claim that there is a future golden age, an unprecedented period of gospel blessing that is distinguishable from the remainder of the period between Christ’s first and second advents. It abandons what I would call the chiliasm of classic post-millennialist expectation: the view that the millennium of Revelation 20 is a distinct period in history which begins some time after the first advent of Christ. However, this abandonment of chiliasm or a future millennial era represents a major concession to amillennialism. Indeed, it leads to a position that is formally amillennialist, at least in the sense that it denies a distinct millennial period in history. Like a-millennialism, this modified post-millennialism identifies the millennium of Revelation 20 with the entirety of the period between Christ’s first and second advents.

Furthermore, with its abandonment of the older postmillennialist idea of a future golden age, this modified view actually undermines the very idea ofthe millennium as a golden age. If the entire period of history between Christ’s first and second advents is the millennium of Revelation 20, the golden age of the millennium no longer seems as golden as first advertised! On this view, Satan’s binding coincided with the first advent of Christ and has characterized the history of the church from the first century A.D. until now. How, then, can advocates of this kind of post-millennialism continue to describe in the most glowing of terms the anticipated glory of a coming millennial era? Doesn’t the glory of this anticipated millennium start to tarnish and fade, when it is admitted that the millennium has been a reality since the beginning of the Christian church of the new covenant era. Ifthe millennium includes the nearly two thousand years of the church’s history thus far (and who knows how many more years to come), during which the church has experienced times of great prosperity as well as adversity, then there seems little reason to expect that this pattern will be radically different in the future. Simply put, once the idea of a future, distinguishable millennium is abandoned, there remains no place for an expectation of a coming period of unprecedented blessing.

In some respects, the difficulty faced here by post-millennialists is the same difficulty faced by any chiliast doctrine, one which argues for a distinct millennial age in the midst of the history of redemption prior to the end of the age. That difficulty is this: how to account for or to explain the need for such an interregnum (interim kingdom), such a period of the victorious reign of Christ in history among the nations before the state of consummation or the eternal form of the kingdom. This insertion of a millennial age into history between the times of Christ’s first and second advents, seems to be a kind of unnecessary complication in history. For it intrudes into the picture a new age that is neither the present age nor the age to come in the biblical sense of these expressions. Perhaps this is the reason why, when some contemporary post-millennialists describe the millennium, they alternate between descriptions that echo what the Bible ascribes to the new heavens and the new earth and descriptions that seem indistinguishable from what has been true throughout the entirety of the present period of history.

CONCLUSIONS

Though these objections are not a sufficient basis to reject golden age postmillennialism, they do raise serious questions regarding the biblical basis and consistency of this position. Does the Bible anywhere clearly teach that Christ is not presently King in the way in which He will in the future become King during the millennial or golden age? And, if it is conceded that Christ’s present kingship is ofa piece (not different in kind) from His future kingship (because the millennium is now), then what becomes of the expectation for a golden age, a distinguishable and unprecedented period in the future? These questions—so it seems to me—constitute serious objections to golden age postmillennialism.

However, there are further objections to golden age post-millennialism, objections to which we will turn in our next article.

FOOTNOTES

1. In these last sentences, I am reflecting the position most commonly found among reconstructionists and theonomists. The term reconstruction refers to a program of rebuilding and reordering of all of life in its various spheres (ecclesiastical, civil, judicial, economic, familial and others) according to the teachings of the Word and law of God. The term theonomy refers to an understanding ofthe continued normativity of the Old Testament civil or judicial law (including its penal sanctions) for the administration of justice by the civil magistrate. Recent proponents of:this position include Rousas John Rushdooney. Gary North, Greg Bahnsen, Kenneth Gentry, David Chilton, Ray Sutton and Gary De Mar. Though not all post-milennialists are reconstructionist becanse their advocacy of and expectation for the realization of Christ's dominion in the earth depend upon what they sometimes prefer to call an optimistic eschatology. The complication here, however, is that many of these reconstructionist post-millennialists tend to identify the millennial period with the entire period between the first and second advents of Christ. In that respect, their position is formally similar to a-millennialism. However, because they insist upon the progressive realization of the kingdom of Christ, including a golden age of unprecedented kingdom blessing, their position might better be regarded as a kind of hybrid version of post-millennialism. For a presentation of this position, see Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., He Shall Have Dominion (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1992). In this and what follows, I am partially dependent upon a good summary and evaluation of this position by Richard B. Gaffin, Jr. (“Theonomy and Eschatology: Reflections on Postmillennialism,” in Theonomy: A Reformed Critique [William S. Barker & W. Robert Godfrey, eds.; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990], pp. 197–224).

2. See my “What About Revelation 20?: The Revelation of the Visions of Revelation 19 & 20,” The Outlook 47/8 (September, 1997), pp. 20–23.

3. The following statement of Norman Shepherd is representative: “Both post-and amillennialists argue for the unity of the eschatological complex of events, against prernillennialists, on the ground that the relevant passages (Matt. 24 and parallels; Rom. 8:17–23; 1 Cor. 15:22–28, 50–58; 1 Thess. 1:4–10; 4:13–18; 2 Pet. 3:3–15) do not allow for the insertion of a millennium between advent and consummation. Amillennialists also espouse the postmillennial timing of the advent, but differ sharply from postmillennialists on the nature of the millennium” (“Postmillennialism,” in The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible [Merrill C. Tenney, gen. ed.] Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1975,1976), p. 822. The interesting thing about this statement of postmillennialism is that it is formally a-millennialist, that is, it rejects a distinct interim kingdom or millennial period within the period between the advent and consummation. Oddly enough, however, in the earlier section of this article, Shepherd summarizes the post-millennialist position as one which looks for a “future period” or “millennial era” in which there will be an unprecedented time of peace, prosperity and spiritual glory. It is this ambiguity which I am addressing in the following.

Dr. Venema teaches Doctrinal Studies at Mid-America Seminary in Dyer, IN.

 

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