Evaluating Post-millennialism (II)

In my previous article, I began to of fer several objections to golden age post-millennialism, the view that anticipates a future age of unprecedented gospel blessing in history prior to the return of Christ. Two objections were raised in that article. The first objection was that golden age post-millennialism seems to teach that Christ is not presently King in the way in which He will become King in a future millennial age. The New Testament, however, teaches that Christ's kingship is a present reality and comprehends the entire period between His first and second comings. There is no suggestion in the New Testament that we should look for a future kingdom, a kind of interim kingdom, in which Christ’s kingship will be manifested in some unprecedented fashion for an extended period of time (taking the one thousand years of Revelation 20 as a symbol for an expansive period of many centuries).

The second objection was that there is an ambiguity within contemporary post-millennialism regarding the timing of the millennium. Whereas the older post-millennialist position was clearly chiliast in its expectation of a future period of millennial blessedness, some more recent advocates of post-millennialist teaching suggest that the millennium is now and spans the entire period between the first and second advents of Christ. This post-millennialism tries to retain the notion of a golden age, while sharing the basic conviction of amillennialism that there is no distinguishable period in history which is this millennium or golden age. It was my contention that this kind of hybrid postmillennialism is untenable. It is inconsistent to teach that the millennium is now, indeed that the millennium commenced at the first coming of Christ, and yet that the millennium will be a golden age of unprecedented blessing in history prior to the return of Christ.

Now I would be the first to acknowledge that these first two objections to golden age post-millennialism are somewhat difficult and subtle. However, there are further objections to golden age post-millennialism, objections that are more readily understandable. These objections express aspects of the Bible’s teaching about the present age that can hardly be accounted for within a postmillennial framework.

Third objection: what about the “signs of the times”?

The first of these objections can be expressed in the form of the question, what about the signs of the times? In our previous consideration of the Bible’s teaching regarding these so-called signs, I noted that some of them are signs of opposition to Christ and His kingdom. Among these signs of opposition, three are particularly important: tribulation, apostasy and the spirit of the anti-Christ.
In the teaching of the New Testament, each of these signs of opposition to Christ is, to a greater or lesser extent, a typical feature of the period of history in which the church now carries out her work. In this time between the times, in these last days of the preaching of the gospel to the ends of the earth, it is the ordinary circumstance of believers to encounter each of these signs. Though there may be periods or times (even a “little season” like that described in the vision of Revelation 20) during which the believing church will experience great tribulation or apostasy, tribulation and apostasy are typical signs of the gospel's presence in the present age. As the gospel of the kingdom is preached and the nations are disci pled, it is to be expected that this will provoke opposition and conflict between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of the evil one. The testimony of Scripture is that these signs will be the invariable experience of the believing church between Christ’s first and second advents. This can be shown to be the case with respect to each of these signs of opposition to the kingdom of God.

Even were you to restrict the references to “great tribulation” in Matthew 24:21, Revelation 2:22 and 7:14, to the circumstances surrounding the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. and the first century church, there are frequent references to tribulation in theNew Testament that referto the experience of believers throughout thepresent period of history.iIn the opening section of Jesus’ discourse in Matthew 24, for example, thetribulation describedseems to be a general circumstance that will markthe entire period of the church’s preaching of the gospel to the nations (compare Matt. 24:8–9). This is clearly asserted in John 16:33 which records Jesus’ words to His disciples: “In the world youhave tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world.” Similarly, the apostle Paul forewarns Timothy in his second letter, “And indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (3:12). This tribulation may take various forms: insults (Matt 5:11; Heb. 10:33), false accusations (Matt 5:11), persecution (Matt. 5:12; 1 Thess. 1:6), imprisonment (Acts 20:23), poverty (2 Cor. 2:4), and inner distress (Phil 1:17; 2 Cor. 2:4). Such tribulation is said to produce patience (James 1 =:2–4; Rom. 5:3–4) and can have a disciplining purpose and effect (Heb. 12:6) Thus, whether believers and churches suffer one or more of these forms of tribulation, whether they suffer them to a greater or lesser degree or even whether in some exceptional circumstances they suffer them hardly at all — the testimony of the Scripture is that this is the ordinary and common lot of believers in this life.

This pattern of teaching is evident also in respect to the signs of apostasy and the spirit of the anti-Christ Even though there are references to distinct periods of great apostasy either in the past (e.g. Matt. 24:24) or the future (2 Thess. 2:3; Rev. 20), there are also references to on-going apostasy among those who are members of the church of Jesus Christ. In Matthew 24: 10-12, Jesus speaks of "many" who "will fall away, and betray one another, and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because wickedness is multiplied, most men's love will grow cold." The apostle Paul warns Timothy in his first pastoral letter, "But the Spirit explicitly says that in later timessome will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits anddoctrines of demons" (4: 1).Accordingly, there are frequent warnings against apostasy (e.g. 2 Pet. 3:17; Gal 5:4; Heb. 6:6; 2 Pet. 1: 10) as well as assurances of the Lord's preserving grace in keeping His own from falling away (Jude 24). Likewise, though there are indications of the coming of one who is the Anti-Christ (I John 4:2-3; 2 Thess. 2:34; Rev. 17:8), the more common emphasis in the New Testament is upon the recurring expression of the spirit of anti-Christ, that is, of teaching which is against the truth of the gospel as it is in Christ (compare Matt. 24:23-24; 1 John 2: 18,22; 4:23; 2 John 7).

What relevance does this teaching regarding the signs of opposition to Christ and His kingdom have for an evaluation of golden age post-millennialism? They suggest that there is I ittle likelihood, certainly no biblical expectation or teaching, that the circumstance of Christ’s church and those who are believers will typically be one of blessedness and peace during the present age. Golden age post-millennialism teaches that the millennium will be an extensive period in history during which the nations will be converted, the principles of the gospel and law of God will govern the conduct of men, and undisturbed peace and prosperity will prevail throughout the world. The kind of opposition to Christ and His kingdom of which these particular signs speak will be largely absent. Tribulation, apostasy and the spirit of the anti-Christ will be eliminated for the most part during this millennial period. However, the kinds of passages to which I have appealed, indicate that a more restrained and temperate view of the prospects for the kingdom and people of God is demanded.

Fourth obiection: is a servant greater than his master?

One of the great themes in the Scriptures relating to the Christian life is the theme of suffering and cross-bearing. Believers who are incorporated into Christ not only share in all the benefits of His saving work, but also come to participate in some way in His sufferings. They are united with Him in the likeness of His death, and raised with Him in newness of life (Rom. 6:3–6). Just as He, their Lord and Master, suffered the hostility and unbelief of the world, so will all those who are His.

For this reason, the theme of the believer’s suffering in fellowship with Christ was often emphasized in the writings of the great Reformers, Calvin and Luther. Calvin, for example, in his treatment of the Christian life in the Institutes, spoke of cross-bearing as a kind of hallmark of the life and pilgrimage of every Christian. Luther likewise described biblical theology as always a theology of the cross, not a theology of glory.2 From the standpoint of this great theme, triumphalism, the idea that the believer will go from victory to victory in this life, without suffering and distress as a member of Christ. has no place. Just as was the experience of the early church, so it has been the experience of Christ's church through the centuries that it is only “through many tribulations [that] we must enter the kingdom” (Acts 14:22)

Though this theme runs like a thread throughout the New Testament’s depiction of the Christian life, I will only mention a few key instances by way of illustration.

In the teaching of Jesus in the gospels, the emphasis upon suffering as an inescapable dimension of discipleship is unmistakable. I have already cited examples of this emphasis in the preceding section. One of the best known passages is Jesus’ statement about crossbearing as a requirement of anyone who would come after Him: “If anyone wishes to come after Me, let him deny himself. and take up his cross daily, and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life shall lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake, he is the one who will save it” (Luke 9:23–24; compare Matt. 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 14:27). When Jesus prepared His disciples to go to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” He warned them of the opposition they would inevitably face.

Do not think I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I came to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s enemies will be the members of his household...And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me (Matt. 10:34–36,39).

In these passages, there is a frequent stress upon the disciple’s participation in the reproach and shame that was hurled against the Master. No disciple is worthy of the Master, Jesus, unless he is prepared to assume the suffering service that marked His life and ministry. For this reason, greatness in the kingdom of God is measured, not by becoming the first or by lording it over others, but by becoming the last or the least of all (Mark 9:35; compare 10:43; Matt. 20:26). Accordingly, jesus, in the context of His teaching the disciples about His impending suffering, insisted that they too would drink the cup that He was appointed to drink and “be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized” (Mark 10:39). 

Consistent with jesus' teaching about the suffering service that will mark the lot of all who are His disciples, the apostles themselves often spoke of their participation in the sufferings of Christ. In his extended discourse in I Corinthians 3 and 4 on the service of those who are ministers of Christ, the apostle Paul admonishes the Corinthians for their arrogance and unwillingness to recognize that it is God’s preferred method to magnify His power through human weakness.

For, I think, God has exhibited us apostles last of all, as men condemned to death; because we have become a spectacle to the world both to angels and to men. We arfools for Christ's sake, but you are prudent in Christ; we are weak, but you are strong; you are distinguished, but we are without honor. (I Cor. 4:9–10) That this is no incidental or unusual feature of the Christian life becomes apparent, when the apostle Paul speaks of his and every believer’s readiness to “know Him [Christ], and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death” (Phil. 3:10; compare Col. 1:24). In the service of every believer,
there is a conformity to the likeness of Christ’s suffering, a participation in Christ that inevitably includes the elements of self-denial, shame and loss.

To cite but one other example of this emphasis, it is striking that the apostle Paul describes the whole creation in Romans 8 with language which speaks of its participation also in the suffering of this present age. Echoing language used by jesus in His Olivet discourse regarding the signs of the times (Matt. 24:8), this passage speaks broadly of the “sufferings of this present time” which are “not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (v. 18).

For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now (vv. 19–22).

What is most striking about this passage is that the present age is typified by suffering, not only on the part of those who are members of Christ, but also on the part of the whole creation which, like a woman in childbirth, is travailing until the time of her deliverance. Not until the revelation of the sons of God, that is, the close of this present age and the beginning of the age to come, will this circumstance be removed. Therefore, it belongs as an inescapable feature of this time between the times of Christ's coming and His return in glory that suffering mark the circumstance of believer and creation alike.

The point of my citing these passages is not that every believer and church in this present age will suffer in the same way or to the same extent. Nor is it to show that at many times and in various places the cause of Christ’s gospel and kingdom will not enjoy the most wonderful success and blessing. No doubt— as believers have already witnessed — nations will be disci pled, kingdoms opposed to Christ will topple, and kingdom standards will transform the life of men and peoples. The passages I have cited do not contradict any of these things. They certainly do not teach, for example, that believers who enjoy prosperity and peace are somehow guilty of unbiblical compromise or accommodation. But they do teach that, in this present age, the believer and the church must always expect and anticipate some fellowship in the sufferings of Christ. As the gospel is preached and the kingdom advances, it always calls forth a countergospel, a reaction of unbelief and opposition. And so believers learn obedience through their suffering, just as Christ their Lord and Master did (Heb. 5:8). They understand firsthand the meaning of Hebrews 13:12–14: “Let us go out to Him outside the camp, bearing His reproach. For here we do not have a lasting city, but we are seeking the city which is to come” (compare Heb. 12:3).

I cannot escape the conclusion that golden age post-millennialism mutes, if not silences, this biblical teaching about the fellowship in suffering between Christ and His disciples. No matter how it is qualified or described, the millennium of post-millennialist expectation excludes these dimensions of what it means to be a follower of Christ in the present age. Consequently, postmillennialism betrays a kind of triumphalist theology of glory that prematurely anticipates in history what will only be the circumstance of God’s people in the day of their vindication and rest. Not until Christ comes again will there be an end to the trouble that marks out the Christian’s pilgrimage in the kinds of suffering and distress that often mark this present age? Is it the expectation that in the course of history the gospel will so triumph in the earth, the standards of the kingdom of God will be so honored among men and nations, that there will be a protracted period of millennial blessedness? Does the expectation of a future millennial era serve as a point of reference to comfort the believer in his anticipation of the future?

It is not difficult to show rather that the biblical focus is upon the return of Christ as the great event on the horizon of the future. In Romans 8, a passage we have already had occasion to consider. the apostle Paul speaks of the hope that believers have in the context
this life as he anticipates the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God. No less than Abraham and all the saints of the past is the believer today able to find his rest and home in the present age.

Fifth obiection: what is the focus of the believer’s hope for the future?

The fifth and final objection that I would register against golden age postmillennialism is that it alters the focus of the believer's hope for the future. Whereas the New Testament depicts the church in this present age as a church continually participating in the sufferings of Christ and eagerly awaiting the return of Christ at the end of the age, the post-millennialist view encourages an outlook for the future that is focused on an anticipated period of largely undisturbed blessedness in the millennial kingdom. The expectation and hope of the believer for the future focuses upon the millennium rather than the return of Christ. The golden age post-millennialist has his sights fixed upon the coming golden age rather than the return of Christ at the end of the age.

One way to get at this objection is to ask the question: What is the focal point of the believer’s hope for the future in New Testament expectation? What is held out to the believing church as a source of consolation, in the midst of of the whole creation's groaning as a woman in travail:

And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body...But if we hope for what we do not see, with perseverance we wait eagerly for it (vv. 23, 25).

The writer of Hebrews, in the midst of his encouraging words to those believers in the early church who were in danger of falling away, speaks of the coming of Christ “a second time for salvation without sin, to those who eagerly await Him” (9:28). Or again, in the words of the apostle Peter addressed to those who mocked the certainty of the coming again of Christ:

Since all these things are to be destroyed in this way, what sort of people ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness, looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God, on account of which the heavens will be destroyed by burning, and the elements will melt with intense heat! But according to His promise we are looking for new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells (3:11–13).

In these and many other passages, the second coming of Christ is described as the blessed hope of the believing church (compare Tit. 2:13; 1 Pet. 1:3–7). As the believer faces tribulation and distress in this present age, as the church meets with opposition to Christ and His cause — the one great promise that brings unspeakable comfort is the promise of the return of Christ and the final vindication of His cause at the end of the age.

One particularly striking illustration of this expectation is found in a passage we have had occasion to consider before, 2 Thessalonians 1. Writing to a church that had known tribulation and persecution from its earliest beginnings (v. 4), the apostle Paul holds out the promise of rest or relief at Christ’s revelation from heaven.

For after all it is only just for God to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to give relief to you who are afflicted and to us as well when the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with His mighty angels in flaming fire, dealing out retribution to those who do not know God and to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus (vv. 6–8).

In the context of all the troubles and distresses experienced by the believers in Thessalonica, the apostle assures them that, when Christ is revealed from heaven, He will bring them rest from their enemies who trouble them. At the coming of Christ, those who trouble them will be troubled, and they will enter into the rest promised them in the gospel. Nothing is said about a future millennial era which will bring to a close their present distresses or afford them the quietness and rest they so desperately desire. Only the revelation of Christ from heaven will bring them the salvation for which they long. Only then will they have occasion to see Christ “glorified in His saints” and “marveled at among all who have believed” (v. 10).3

This too is the pattern of teaching throughout the New Testament. A contrast is drawn between the sufferings and distresses of this present age and the joy and rest of the age to come. Between this present age and the age to come, there is no millennial age which might draw the attention away from the return of Christ Again and again, what holds the believer's attention, what captures the believer’s expectation, what fuels the believer’s longing — is the great event of Christ’s return. Nowhere is the expectation of a future millennial age set forth as a substantial point of reference or occasion for expectancy. Certainly, no promise is held out for a period of uninterrupted and undisturbed blessedness in the midst of history prior to the revelation of Christ at the end of the present age.

SUMMARY OBSERVATIONS

Now that I have considered various biblical objections to golden age postmillennialism, I would like to conclude with two summary observations. I offer these observations, not to withdraw or to downplay in any way my objections to this view, but to place them in an appropriate context.

First, though golden age post-millennialism is inconsistent with the kinds of biblical emphases and themes that I have discussed, I have not argued, nor do I believe, that this position is unReformed in the sense of being opposed to the explicit teaching of the three Forms of Unity or the Westminster Confession of Faith. The only Reformed confession of which I am aware that explicitly condemns some form of golden age post-millennialism is the Second Helvetic Confession, a confession written by Heinrich Bullinger and one of the historic standards of the Swiss Reformed churches.4

I make this observation in order to caution against any kind of exaggerated criticism of the post-millennial view among those who hold to these Reformed confessions. As I have previously noted in my survey of various millennial views, many who have subscribed to the Westminster Confession of Faith ,for example, have advocated one or another form of post-millennial teaching. In doing so, they have not contradicted or compromised any part of the biblical system of doctrine summarized in this confession. Though the Reformed confessions are clearly incompatible with dispensational pre-millennialism and, to a lesser degree, with historic pre-millennialism, they are compatible with the two forms of post-millennialism I have identified as a-millennialism and golden age postmillennialism.5 The debate between amillennialists and post-millennialists, accordingly, is an intramural one. The differences between these views are on the order of differences of theological emphasis within a common confessional bond.

Second, my criticisms of golden age postmillennialism should notbe misunderstood as an argument for a kind of pessimistic and limited expectation for the gospel of the kingdom in this presentage. My objections, as stated and argued in the foregoing, are aimed at what I have been calling golden age post-millennialism or the view that looks for a distinct period in history during which the gospel will prevail upon the earth. I have not been arguing against the often legitimate insistence among post-millennialists that we have the greatest possible confidence in the victory of Christ’s cause in history.

Too often the position known as amillennialism has been popularly associated with a pessimistic view of history. In this view, the expectation is often that things will inevitably go from bad to worse throughout the course of history. If the church does not grow in number or the standards of God's kingdom are not acknowledged in society, the response is often one of resignation and defeat. Expectations for the growth and triumph of Christ's kingdom are diminished. Little interest or attention is given to the claims of Christ as King in all areas of life.

My critical comments about postmillennialism should not be misunderstood as a endorsement of this pessimistic and cramped view of the cause of Christ’s kingdom during this present age. In my judgment, there are ample biblical arguments for the most robust expectation for the success of the gospel. Christians ought to be people who live under the banner of Christ’s commission, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth; go therefore and make disciples of all the nations...” They ought to live out of the full expectation that Christ shall have dominion throughout all the earth, that the nations will undoubtedly be given to Him as His rightful inheritance. They ought to seek the kingdom of God and its righteousness in every area of Christ's dominion. Nothing less than the bringing of every thought captive to Christ will satisfy. Nothing less than the subjection of all things to the will and reign of Christ will do.

The problem with golden age postmillennialism is not that it has emphasized these things. The problem is that it has not also provided a balanced account of other biblical themes as well, including those outlined in this and my previous article.

FOOTNOTES

1. I am referring here to a common strategy used by post-millennialists to address the references to tribulation and other signs of opposition to Christ’s kingdom in this present age. This strategy includes the preterist view that these references to “great tribulation” relate to events in the past, particularly events that occurred in the first century at the time of the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Many post-millennialists will also refer many of the signs of opposition to Christ to Satan’s “little season” after the millennium. Neither of these positions as such is untrue. However, postmillennialists tend to downplay the additional evidence in the New Testament for the continued presence of these signs throughout the entire period between Christ’s advents.

2. Interestingly, Melanchthon, in his first draft of the Augsburg Confession, included persecution and suffering as a mark of the true church. The Belgic Confession in Article 29, addressing the difference between the true and the false church, speaks of the false church as one that “persecutes those who live holily according to the Word of God and rebuke it for its errors, covetousness, and idolatry.”

3. The pattern exhibited in this passage and many others is well captured in the language of Lord’s Day 19 of the Heidelberg Catechism. In answer to the question, “What comfort is it to you that Christ shall come to judge the living and the dead?” this catechism says: “That in all my sorrows and persecutions, with uplifted head I look for the very same Person who before has offered Himself for my sake to the tribunal of God. and has removed all curse from me, to come as Judge from heaven; who shall cast all His and my enemies into everlasting condemnation, but shall take me with all his chosen ones to Himself into heavenly joy and glory” (emphasis mine).

4. In Chapter XI, this confession makes the following statement: “We further condemn Jewish dreams that there will be a golden age on earth before the Day of Judgment, and that the pious having subdued all their godless enemies. will possess all the kingdoms of the earth. For evangelical truth in Matt., chs. 24 and 25. and Luke, ch. 18, and apostolic teaching in II Thess.. ch. 2, and II Tim., chs. 3 and 4, present something quite different.” 5 [have previously noted that D. H. Kromminga, professor of church history at Calvin Theological Seminary, brought a request to the synod of the Christian Reformed Church in the 1940’s regarding historic pre-millennialism. Kromminga. who was an advocate of historic pre-millennialism. raised the question whether his view was in keeping with the Three Forms of Unity. particularly the statement in the Belgic Confession. Article 37. which speaks of the number of the elect being “complete” at the return of Christ. Because Kromminga died before the synod was able to answer his request, the matter was never officially settled. It would seem, however. that the historic premillennia list position is incompatible with the statement to which Kromminga referred in Article 37.

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

 

Outlook Index
2019
2018
2017
2016
2015
2014
2013
2012
2011
2010
2009
2008
2007
2006
2005
2004
2003
2002
2001
2000
1999
1998
1951