After a brief summer break, some controversy to kick us off again. Why not?
Amongst those Christians who talk about such things, there are three basic views of what happens at the end of the world, which are roughly as follows:
Premillennialism - the idea is that Jesus returns to the earth, where he reigns over an earthly kingdom for 1000 years. A good time will be had by all, but at the end of this period there will be a rebellion, leading to the final victory over evil and the judgement.
Postmillennialism - on this view, the spread of the gospel enjoys such success that the world gets gradually 'better'. Christian influence grows and grows, as does the church itself. After 1000 years (or thereabouts) of this blessing, Christ returns and initiates the events leading to the final judgement.
Amillennialism - essentially, a denial of the two previous positions. No future 1000 year period of any significance, and only one really significant event: the return of Christ, which will be accompanied by final judgement, and then the inauguration of the new creation.
That is a gross over-simplification; for more detail, consult Grudem's Systematic Theology, and particularly his rather helpful diagrams.
All three of these views are very much within the bounds of orthodoxy. (There is a subset of premill views associated with dispensationalism which I think push the envelope. Their view of the covenant seems heterodox to me. But let us leave them to one side). Varieties of each sort of view have been maintained by eminent theologians through the centuries. Nobody needs to go excommunicating anybody over disagreements of this sort. It's not the end of the world if we disagree about the end of the world.
Nevertheless, I think that one of these systems has serious problems theologically, which I mention because I detect that it is on the rise in certain circles. Yes, I speak of postmillennialism, the view that the world is getting, or at least will get, better through the influence of the Christian Church.
This view has much to recommend it. Postmills are optimistic about the gospel - they really believe in its power to transform. They are also committed to making the world a better place, something which is certainly commendable in a Christian but absent in many (or at least playing second fiddle to evangelistic concerns). Postmills have also often thought deeply about important issues, like the role of the state, or the extent to which one can insist on Christian morality being given legal sanction - issues which many of us push to the sidelines. They are committed to the gospel and committed to the world, and thus far huzzah for them.
My issue is at exactly the point where postmills part the ways with their pre- and amill brethren. Postmills divide two things which the other views hold together, namely the presence of Christ and the blessing of the world. The world is blessed, on the postmill scheme, and becomes decisively improved, in the absence of the Lord Jesus Christ. And that is theologically unacceptable.
To anticipate two potential rejoinders...
Of course Christ is not utterly absent for any Christian - he is present by his Spirit. Might it not be the case that Christ brings about the subjugation of the nations by the power of his Spirit at work in the Church? Well, it might be, and I could be wrong. But note how exalted a status this gives the Church. And note how easy it is on this scheme to identify the work of Christ with the work of the Church. I would contend that this assigns too large a part in the redemption of the world to human beings, and exalts the Church as the vehicle of Christ's redemptive activity in a way that reminds me of Roman sacramentalism.
And of course, the world does not consistently and continuously get worse. There are ups and downs. The church does, and should, have an influence for good. But that influence waxes and wanes in so far as powerful people listen to the church. Because the church merely witnesses to a salvation to be bestowed at Christ's return. In no other way does she mediate that salvation. She goes from being the martyr Church to being the Church of Constantine happily enough, but she must always be prepared to go back again. Because without Christ, no ground on this fallen world can be taken and held. The battle rages, but it won't be won until Jesus comes back.
Oh, and I think premill is wrong too, I'm just less uptight about that one right now ;o)