Thursday, July 31, 2008

Not the end of the world

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)

19 comments:

  1. Daniel Newman5:44 pm

    Thank you for bringing this one up, Daniel. I would contend that for the postmillennialist, the millennium needn't be 1000 years (or thereabouts), but that, as with lots of the numbers in Revelation, it is symbolic. I do, however think, that this is likely to be a very, very long time. Thank you also for warmly introducing postmillennialism.

    A couple of things to start discussion: what exactly is wrong with identifying Christ's presence and work in the world now with the church, which as you observe has an exalted status? What's wrong with that exalted status? You can say things like it reminds you of Roman sacramentalism, but on what basis do you say this is wrong from Scripture? The Roman problem isn't so much that it attributes too much to the church, but that it identifies the church too much with the sacerdotal hierarchy.

    Christ is present powerfully in the midst of his church (Matthew 18.20) and it is therefore through the ministry of the church that the binding and loosing of sinners in heaven occurs (Matthew 18.18, John 20.23).

    Yes, there are ups and downs, but what is the overall trajectory? Take a look at the history of the church in the past 2000 years, in 500 year chunks.

    What is more to the point, I am a postmillennialist because I'm persuaded that in Scripture God has promised the blessing of gospel success before the return of Christ.

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  2. I *think* I agree with Mr Newman. (Although I sit on the fence between postmillennialism and amillennialism, I suspect.) No matter: the real reason I comment is to ask whether or not the Roman problem you identify is actually a Roman problem at all. It might be a distortion which is particularly possible within Romanism; but then there are distortions which are similarly possible within Reformation evangelicalism.

    Christ is present now - in word and in the sacraments (both of them!) because he is at work by his Holy Spirit. We don't just live after the Resurrection. We live after Pentecost.

    This is naughty (and possibly even unjustified, but I am being deliberately provocative), but does this plank of your argument against postmillennialism arise from an insufficient pneumatology such as can be observed in certain Anglican evangelical contexts? ;-)

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  3. The more I read on this issue the more I become convinced that we should hold to a 'realised eschatology', that the resurrection of Jesus brought the future into the present and that it is the role of the Church to spread the kingdom of God upon the earth:

    Psalm 2:7, 8 "The king proclaims the Lord’s decree:
    The Lord said to me, You are my son.
    Today I have become your Father.
    Only ask, and I will give you the nations as your inheritance,
    the whole earth as your possession."

    Psalm 110:1, 2 "The Lord said to my Lord,
    “Sit in the place of honour at my right hand
    until I humble your enemies,
    making them a footstool under your feet.”
    The Lord will extend your powerful kingdom from Jerusalem;
    you will rule over your enemies.

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  4. Thanks, gents, for useful comments. To deal with a few minor points: indeed, no-one need be committed to a literal 1000 years, and probably only some rather literalistic (and probably dispensationalist) premills actually are; regarding the course of history, I find it hard to chart any particular progress in any spiritually significant category (technology and science are the only areas I could unequivocally agree to have advanced); great success is indeed promised to the gospel, but if the Lord returned today I think we would have to say that the millions saved would constitute great success, and so I am not sure that counts much to the argument; and I am not sure whether my pneumatology is inadequate, but I trust that any deficiency does not derive from any association with Anglicanism, God rest it.

    The key point that you all raise is the status of the church. From Mr Beadle, who professes to be a Barthian, I would have expected better ;o) I will post something further on this subject very shortly, as soon as I've pulled my thoughts together.

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  5. Post-mil site; please visit/comment.

    TheAmericanView.com

    JLof@aol.com

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  6. Golly, John, with the greatest respect, your website scares me quite a lot. Maybe it's just that I'm not American and don't get a lot of it. Maybe it's the defence of a slave-holding south during the Civil War? I dunno.

    Anyhow, I'm not sure your site is the best advert for postmill views. It is a good advert for being British ;o)

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  7. Interesting: I have noticed that postmill'ism is on the rise - now is that a self-fulfilling prophecy? Ahem. I just come across premill'ism more, in American fundamentalist-influenced Evangelical org's / churches in Europe. Frustrating mostly because it is taken as something to excommunicate someone on, since - reacting to early C19th liberalism - it's taken as the indicator that you believe the Bible. Rather gets in the way :-|

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  8. Steve Palmer5:05 pm

    Hello,

    I confess to being slightly confused that so little of this millenial discussion refers to Rev. 20, the chapter where the millenium is introduced. I am an amillenialist, and this for the simple reason that I think that the other views are inconsistent with Rev 20.

    e.g. Rev. 20:4 speaks of those who have been martyred for their testimony for Jesus being raised to life during that 1000 years. Do postmillenialists think that will physically happen? Or is this a non-physical resurrection? if so, are we sure that the 1000 years should be referring to what happens on earth rather than what happens behind the scenes of history (in heaven)?

    2nd e.g. Surely verse 3 and the binding of Satan so that the nations are no longer deceived most logically refers to the gospel going to the whole world throughout the period post-Pentacost!?

    This does not mean that the gospel could not be successful pre-Christ's return (as Daniel N wrtes). If success simply means it going to all corners of the earth, then I believe strongly in the success of the gospel now. And even if it means more than this, it is not inconsistent with the amil interpretation of the millenium passage.

    In summary, I am not convnced that most modern postmils have to be postmils - rather they could simly be gospel optimists, who could just as easily go under the description "optimistic amillenialists", and this would be easier to reconcile with the most obvious interpreations of Rev 20.

    Am ready to be shot down on this :o)

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  9. Tuppy1:17 am

    Ah, but this doesn't defend anywhere your belief that everything is simply going to get worse and worse until Christ returns.

    That is a gospel of despair - and so not really a gospel, or good news, at all. And regardless of what millenialism one plumps for, or not, I don't think that should have a place in it.

    I'm a gospel optimist against my own inclinations, but not a full-blooded postmillenialist by any means. Indeed I'm probably soundly pre. But I don't try and read the inscrutable face of Providence in predicting the trajectory of human or church history before this point. It will come when it comes. If it comes after a very long, almost postmillenialist, period of great peace and revival, Amen (and my mistake doesn't matter). If it comes in the midst of the severest persecution, Amen. If it comes tomorrow, Amen.

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  10. etrangere: indeed, when eschatological views are turned into 'deal-breakers' there is a problem. My reading of the current trends is that postmill is growing in popularity amongst 'intellectuals', whilst (dispensationalist) premill is growing elsewhere. I'm actually more alarmed by the latter, particularly as its exponents do seem very willing to excommunicate anyone who doesn't agree...

    Steve: hello. I concur that the exegesis of Rev 20 counts against postmill views. I've never heard a postmill try to exegete it..? But then, I've never heard any convincing exegesis of this passage, which makes me think we shouldn't hang to much on it. Doubtless, whatever it is describing will become clear when we get there. The main reason I hadn't raised the actual exegetical concerns here was simply that my concern was with a theological point which I saw as connected to postmill theology, rather than really with postmill thought itself. I concur that the amill/postmill dividing line is a fuzzy one, and actually may be more of a continuum than an either/or.

    tuppy: I think I could offer exegetical support for the idea that things on earth get worse as we move toward the parousia. What baffles me is why you think that my saying that things won't substantially improve until Christ returns is 'despair' and 'not really a gospel'? It seems to me very good news indeed that Jesus is coming back to fix our broken world, redeem creation and rescue those who are waiting for him. To your general comments (i.e. the last paragraph) I can only add my 'Amen, Come Lord Jesus'!

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  11. Steve,

    Most postmills are simply "optimistic amillenialists". Most don't hold to a literal future 1000 years or any such thing.

    I would point out A Study of American Postmillenialism by Kim Riddlebarger

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  12. Tuppy9:43 pm

    It is a counsel of despair. It robs God of sovereignty. It vests faith in darkness.

    It is all wrong. The world around us and the coming judgement is bad enough to frighten men gladly into the arms of Jesus - as it frightened me. We don't need to contrive new horrors and pessimisms. Without God the whole world will go to Hell. All will fall apart. But it makes no sense, therefore, to recommend God, if you think the whole world will still pretty much go to Hell. Of course, you'd admit that if the whole world - or much more of it than now - chose God, they wouldn't go to Hell. Things would surely improve, else a lot of pastors would have a lot of explaining to do. Basically, then, your belief is simply capping your faith in the gospel and the scope of any evangelism's success. You're essentially saying we won't get very far in converting the nations: therefore things will keep getting worse.

    If the apostles had that attitude, I doubt anyone outside Palestine would be a Christian.

    I'd be interested to know which scriptures you'd use to make your case. I'm not saying you can't make it. But the one I have most often seen - the "days of Noah" one - doesn't naturally read as many would like. Marrying, giving in marriage, and all that, seems to suggest - along with the images of workers in the field etc - life being utterly normal and unaware of the impending event, not inexorable dystopia.

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  13. 1. Point of clarity:
    Lots and lots and lots and lots of postmills do not and never have (even J Edwards apparently) believed in a literal 1K resurrection. read Mathison, read Gentry, they basically agree with (what has come to be seen as) a-mill exegesis of Rev 20. We're in the rev 20 millenium now etc. etc. Seriously, rev 20 is not really a key text for postmills at all with regard to establishing an exegetical basis for the success of the gospel.

    Therefore, the difference often between postmills and optimistic a-mills is to do with the extent of the optimism. Postmills go for majority converted for definite before Christ returns, a-mills go for 'it'll be lots and lots but the bible doesn't promise a majority.' Postmills believe in a majority converted earth prior to Christ's return - that's the postmill distinctive, nothing else.

    2. Point of theology:
    I agree that the presence of christ is required for consummation, but I don't believe it is necessary for progress.

    Since this is the case for the progress of the gospel within someone's own life (justification, sanctification both take place without Christ's presence, only final glorification requires us to see him as he is and so be made like him) why do you (Daniel) find it alarming when post-mills say that this is the case for the gospel's global progress. One of my theological problems with a-millenialism (of the pessimistic variety) is that it demands that the progressive dynamic of salvation be limited to the life of the individual. It is not theologically strange or troublesome to believe that the gospel should progressively conquer and change the globe.

    (as an aside, I wonder if there is a link between conservative evangelical neglect of the doctrine of sanctification and eschatological pessimism?)

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  14. Tuppy: I think we'll have to agree to disagree. My case for seeing the world get worse rather than better is not based on any particular proof text, but on what I take to be the general tenor of the NT and the apostles' teaching to the young churches about Christ's return. He is portrayed as returning as a Saviour, to rescue his people - 1 and 2 Thess are the classic loci. To me that says that Paul does not expect the world to be a pleasant place when Christ returns. If you take Revelation to be a picture of the way the world will generally be between Christ's ascension and return (as I do), then that too seems to point to things getting worse.

    Of course things getting worse isn't good news! But the return of Christ is. Note also that I don't think this necessarily means that only a few will be saved (although doesn't Jesus strongly imply as much?) as per my next comment in reply to Pete...

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  15. Pete: thanks for clarifying, as I say I've never heard a postmill on Rev 20. A question that occurs to me is whether it is really the case that the extent of conversion is really the only issue between amill and postmill, or whether there is also something about the effect that widespread conversion will have on culture generally? For example, on a pessimistic amill scheme there could be many, many Christians, but still oppressed by unbelievers in power...

    The point of theology I must go away and ponder, but see my comment to Tuppy above...

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  16. Would be interested in what those skeptical of the Postmil position say re: Acts 3:21:

    "And he shall send Jesus Christ, which before was preached unto you:
    Whom the heaven must receive until the times of restitution of all things, which God hath spoken by the mouth of all his holy prophets since the world began" (KJV)

    Also:

    "and that He may send Jesus, the Christ appointed for you,whom heaven must receive until the period of restoration of all things about which God spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets from ancient time." (NAS)

    Also, it seems to me preposterous to believe that Jesus came, announced the Kingdom was at hand, and then the Kingdom began shrinking!

    John Lofton, Editor, TheAmericanView.com

    JLof@aol.com

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  17. Daniel, you wrote,

    'A question that occurs to me is whether it is really the case that the extent of conversion is really the only issue between amill and postmill, or whether there is also something about the effect that widespread conversion will have on culture generally? For example, on a pessimistic amill scheme there could be many, many Christians, but still oppressed by unbelievers in power...'

    Ah yes, that would be the defining difference perhaps if you looked at british a-mills and british postmills. Over the water in the Us the situation is v. different, as it has been historically too. There are (and have been) many a-mills who believe in the ongoing relevance of the cultural mandate, the need for Christians to engage in and transform culture, and are relatively optimistic about how much might be done.

    You're right though, that the cultural stuff sits far more happily with the postmill position, due perhaps to the ambiguity of a-mill'ism. But 'on the ground' it's not that really a great marker of the difference between the two positions.

    On the 'things getting worse' note, I must say personally speaking that I became a preterist (at least with regard to revelation and sections of the gospels) before I became a postmill. I think a really consistent, biblical, exegetically serious postmillenialism requires it. Or to put it the other way round, I think the exegetical soundness of preterist readings points us towards postmillenialism.

    I'm slightly bothered by the fact that postmillenialism gets your goat (so to speak, no disrespect intended!) more than pre. I think it's 1-text doctrine that just might be ruled out by the ancient creeds (Christ returns to judge the living and the dead, his return brings general resurrection day does it not?). Without somewhat wooden interpretations of rev 20 where would premillenialism be? You must surely grant that at least postmilenialism has a go at doing biblical theology and systematics?

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  18. Probably my last comment on this thread...

    Mr Lofton: I would simply interpret that verse as saying that Christ is in heaven until the time to restore all things comes, at which point he will return and do the restoring. Seems very compatible with amill or even premill to me. Vis a vis the growth of the kingdom, it isn't shrinking nor will it: the church storms the gates of hell. Doesn't mean she has an easy ride, though...

    Pete: a preterist reading could well point to postmill. I've never come across anything written from a preterist position: I've only seen it mentioned to be summarily dismissed. I have to say, I have found the dismissals convincing. Anything I could read that might persuade me otherwise?

    I do think postmills often have better theological reasoning on their side than premills. But I also think that the most important thing in eschatology is that we be looking forward to and longing for the return of Christ to rescue us from the present evil age. I think it's correct to say that Christians ought to always be expecting this and hoping for it. I have a strong feeling that postmill views will blunt that hope by directing us toward a hope of bettering society etc. without Christ's return (although obviously still hoping for the final consummation at his return). And I think postmill tends to be a theology of glory in the Lutheran sense.

    But having said all that, still not the end of the world if I'm wrong ;o)

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  19. Daniel,

    Gentry's 'he shall have dominion' argues for preterism in one or two passages, as does Mathison's 'Postmillenialism.'

    I have a feeling that the popularity of the idea that daily expectation of Christ's imminent return is essential to piety is a recent phenomenon. Obviously this proves nothing (texts, texts, texts), but I have a feeling that it is something that amillenial has imbibed from premillenialism (dominant in the US and not that unpopular in the UK in the 20th century). Most of 'us' are working within a fuzzy-ish amill framework whilst having breathed in premill/semi-dispensationalist molecules that have been floating around the atmosphere of popular evangelicalism. And we bring those things with us as we read the scriptures. Previous generations of brothers and sisters weren't always the same.

    P'millenialism is not a theology of glory anymore than any other theology that believes in personal conversion and the doctrine of sanctification. It seems odd that, in order to not be a theology of glory, we must set numerical limits on the power of the gospel.

    Anyway, you said this was gonna be yr last so I ought to shut up now. And agree that it's not the end of the world whichever of us is wrong (or indeed if both of us are!).

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