Previous article in this series: February 15, 2010, p. 226.
The Postmillennial Interpretation of Revelation 20 (cont.)
Just as Satan has been bound by the exalted Jesus Christ at the beginning of the millennium, so he will be loosed by Christ at the end of the millennium. The loosing of Satan is taught in verse seven of Revelation 20: “And when the thousand years are expired, Satan shall be loosed out of his prison.” In harmony with the truth that the binding of Satan refers to Christ’s preventing Satan from deceiving the nations during the period of the thousand years (Rev. 20:3), the loosing of Satan will mean his deception of the nations: “And shall go out to deceive the nations which are in the four quarters of the earth, Gog and Magog” (Rev. 20:8).
This final feature of John’s inspired vision of the millennium poses a huge problem for postmillennialism. Evidently, even on a postmillennial interpretation of Revelation 20 history will end in a massive, worldwide revolt against the kingdom of Jesus Christ. But this prospect contradicts postmillennialism’s fundamental conviction, and dearest desire, that Christ’s kingdom will enjoy an earthly victory over all its foes within history. Anything else, on postmillennial thinking, would mean the defeat of Jesus Christ.
The problem of the loosing of Satan, to launch a worldwide attack on the kingdom of Christ at the end of the millennium, has occasioned a rift in the ranks of the postmillennialists. In the past, the overwhelming majority of postmillennialists were forced by the clear and conclusive testimony of Revelation 20:7-9 to recognize that the millennium will be followed by a powerful, widespread uprising against Christ and His kingdom. They acknowledged a final apostasy from Christ on the part of multitudes that had confessed allegiance to Christ and outwardly observed His law during the millennium, even though these postmillennial theologians saw that this apostasy at the very end contradicted their notion of a final victory of Christ within history.
Jonathan Edwards recognized that, after the long time of the church’s enjoyment of millennial glory on earth, “a little before the end of the world, there shall be a very great apostasy, wherein a great part of the world shall fall away from Christ and his church.” Edwards based this teaching of a “dark time” for the church towards the very end on Revelation 20:7-9.¹
The postmillennial Presbyterian J. Marcellus Kik wrote that after the “Christianizing” of all nations during the millennium “there will be a world-wide apostasy.” This apostasy will take place “just previous to the second coming of the Lord.” Constrained by Revelation 20:7-9, the otherwise optimistic Kik warned the church of “fearful days…for the Christian Church” towards the end of history. He sounded like a good amillennialist.
That this gloomy prospect troubled the ardent postmillennialist, in view of its drastic tarnishing of his “golden age,” he indicated when he wrote: “It may seem strange that it will be possible to turn a host of happy people, prospering under the blessing of God, into such a world-wide rebellion.” This is indeed strange. But this is by no means the strangest aspect of a final apostasy and rebellion for postmillennialism. The strangest of all is that a postmillennialist thinks that history comes to an end with the overthrow of the postmillennial kingdom of Christ and, therefore, with the defeat of King Jesus. “The apostasy will cover the earth. Only a remnant represented by The Beloved City will remain faithful.”²
Leading Christian Reconstructionist Gary North also was compelled by Revelation 20:7-9 to recognize the breakup of the millennial kingdom of Christ by a vast apostasy towards the very end of history.
There may be a few isolated postmillennialists who deny that this prophecy [Rev. 20:7-9 —DJE] refers to a rebellion at the end of history, but such a view makes little impression on anyone who reads
. Those who accept the plain teaching of
must admit that a rebellion occurs at the very end of history. In fact, this rebellion calls down God’s fire from heaven, which ends history.³
North confronted the “troubling question for postmillennialism” that this scenario raises: “The postmillennialist argues that the kingdom of God is to be progressively manifested on earth before the day of judgment…. Then how can these events take place?”4 To solve this problem, North wrote an entire book. The solution turns out to be an intriguing understanding of the doctrine of common grace.
North assured his readers, especially his postmillennial readers, that “the final rebellion” of Satan and hordes of humans “at the end of the millennium is no testimony against postmillennialism.”5
Some of North’s postmillennial cohorts are not convinced. It seems to them that a worldwide rebellion against the millennial kingdom of Christ towards the very end of history represents the defeat of Christ and the refutation of a, if not the, fundamental principle of postmillennialism. Writing in the Winter 1998 issue ofThe Journal of Christian Reconstruction, leading Christian Reconstructionist Martin G. Selbrede revealed that the father of Christian Reconstruction, Rousas J. Rushdoony, called the admission of a final rebellion against the Messianic kingdom, by his own disciples, “an amillennial hangover.”6 This was an odd figure for one who was himself intoxicated with the heady wine of an earthly victory of a carnal kingdom of Christ in history. But this dismissal of the teaching of a final apostasy and rebellion as the after-effects of amillennial drunkenness did indicate that Revelation 20:7-9, rightly understood, confirms the amillennial doctrine of the last things. History will come to an end, not with an earthly victory of the kingdom of Christ in a “golden age,” but with a massive assault upon Christ’s kingdom. Rather than a world-dominating empire, the true church will be a beleaguered city. Selbrede himself took sharp issue with his postmillennial allies over their doctrine of a final apostasy on the basis ofRevelation 20:7-9. With what in postmillennial circles is a damning indictment, Selbrede condemned Gary North’s defense of a final apostasy as “an ultimately pessimistic postmillennialism.”7
Selbrede refused to recognize a final apostasy that will break up and follow the millennial kingdom of Christ, if only for a short time. On the contrary, according to Selbrede, the millennial kingdom of Christ on earth will go from strength to strength until every human then living will be regenerated and obey the law of God from the heart. Selbrede predicted “the conversion of the total population of the world” prior to the second coming of Christ.8 “There simply [will not be] any unregenerated people around…. The number of unregenerated as a percentage of the world population will be steadily decreasing down to zero.”9
To such a world, in which absolutely every human without exception is a born again, sanctified, law-abiding citizen of the kingdom of Christ, Jesus Christ will return.
This optimistic view of the grand finale of history (characterized by Selbrede as “unbounded optimism”), Selbrede called “eschatological universalism.”10
The phrase “eschatological universalism” and the doctrine of the last things it describes, namely, the salvation of every living human, are derived from the Presbyterian theologian Benjamin B. Warfield. Selbrede appealed to Warfield. The rejection of a final apostasy and the startling teaching of the eventual salvation of every living human are not merely the vagaries of some unboundedly optimistic Christian Reconstructionists. The sober Presbyterian Warfield taught that sometime in the distant future, prior to the coming of Christ, every living human will be saved. Explaining Romans 11:25ff., concerning the “fullness of the Gentiles” and the salvation of “all Israel,” Warfield wrote: “The prophecy promises the universal Christianization of the world,—at least the nominal conversion of all the Gentiles and the real salvation of all the Jews.” He went on to speak of “the converted earth.”11
In a sermon on John 1:29, “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world,” Warfield described Jesus’ taking away the sin of the world as a process in history. The process will climax in the salvation of all living humans:
In the end, when the process is over, no unfruitful trees will be found growing in God’s garden, the world, no chaff be found cumbering God’s threshing-floor, the world. The vision he brings before us, let us repeat it, is the vision of the ultimate salvation of the world, its complete conquest to Christ.12
Warfield called this postmillennial expectation of the future, before the coming of Christ, “eschatological universalism.” It is not the teaching of the final salvation of every human who ever lived, but the teaching of a future salvation of every human alive at that time. “The Scriptures teach an eschatological universalism…. In the age-long development of the race of men, it will attain at last to a complete salvation, and our eyes will be greeted with the glorious spectacle of a saved world.”13
So extreme was Warfield’s postmillennial fervor, and so consistent his theological thinking, that he wondered whether the salvation of every human might not include the “perfecting of the world”—the “complete elimination of evil from the world”—at the height of the “golden age.”
Whether they [the biblical passages Warfield is considering—DJE] go so far as to say that this winning of the world implies the complete elimination of evil from it may be more doubtful. In favor of the one view is the tremendous emphasis laid on the overthrow of all Christ’s enemies, which must mean precisely his spiritual opponents—all that militates against the perfection of His rule over the hearts of men.14
The state of earthly affairs envisioned by eschatological universalism is simply heaven on this earth, apart from the presence of Jesus Christ at His coming. It is complete deliverance from every reprobate ungodly foe and virtual deliverance from sin, apart from the destroying and cleansing work of Jesus Christ at His return in the body.
Why would one living in those heavenly days even desire the coming of Christ?
It is evident that those carried away by this vision of the earthly future—Warfield, Rushdoony, and Selbrede—do not fervently long for the coming of Christ. Rather, their hope is fixed on the “golden age.”
That B. B. Warfield held these fantastic, thoroughly unbiblical notions is significant. Such eschatological fancies are not merely the dreams of wild-eyed “Fifth Monarchy Men” in Cromwell’s England or of rambunctious Christian Reconstructionists in Tyler, Texas and Moscow, Idaho. Rather, they are the logical implications of the basic tenet of postmillennialism: Christ’s kingdom must have dominion within history, and the dominion must be earthly, visible, and complete.
Indicating the appeal for postmillennialism of Warfield’s rejection of a final apostasy and proposal of eschatological universalism, if not the necessity of these notions on postmillennial principles, is the adoption of these ideas by the Presbyterian Loraine Boettner in the later, 1984, edition of his popular advocacy of postmillennialism in the book The Millennium. In the original, 1958, edition of the book, Boettner taught a final apostasy on the basis ofRevelation 20:7-9, although, by his own admission, he “wanted to accept Dr. Warfield’s position that there would be no final apostasy.” But in the later edition, Boettner “adopted the view of Warfield without apology…debunking the final apostasy doctrine.”15
Also Norman Shepherd, at the time an Orthodox Presbyterian theologian teaching at Westminster Seminary, was open to Warfield’s postmillennial doctrine, teaching it to his students as a “plausible” eschatology.
Norman Shepard (sic)…felt that “Warfield’s arguments were very persuasive, and that the interpretation, far from being inadmissible, is in fact quite plausible.” He informed me [Martin G. Selbrede—DJE] that he did indeed mention Warfield’s view in class at Westminster, classifying it as both possible and plausible.16
It would not be surprising that a postmillennialist propose the resurrection of the dead saints prior to the coming of Christ. Why should the dead saints miss out on the glories of the millennial kingdom? Why should not Christ’s victory in history extend also to His dead citizens?
Optimistic as those who reject a final apostasy may be, they must still reckon with Revelation 20:7-9. How do they evade the teaching of this passage that “when the thousand years are expired, Satan shall be loosed from his prison”?
¹ Jonathan Edwards, The History of Redemption (Grand Rapids: Associated Publishers and Authors, n.d.), 325-328. The nineteenth-century Scot postmillennialist David Brown likewise taught a final apostasy on the basis of Revelation 20:7-9 (see his Christ’s Second Coming: Will It be Premillennial, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1983, 440-449).
² J. Marcellus Kik, An Eschatology of Victory (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1971), 234-245).
³ Gary North, Dominion & Common Grace: The Biblical Basis of Progress (Tyler, Texas: Institute for Christian Economics, 1987), x. The book is of particular interest to Protestant Reformed readers. The learned Christian Reconstructionist agreed with the Protestant Reformed Churches regarding common grace: “God also shows no favor to the non-elect, covenanted followers of Satan” (ibid., 37). Courageously violating the code of silence of Reformed theologians regarding Herman Hoeksema, North praised Hoeksema as “perhaps the most brilliant systematic theologian in America in this century” (ibid., 6). Dr. North has his moments. The trouble is that they are not eschatological.
4 Ibid., 250, xiv.
5 Ibid., 178.
6 Martin G. Selbrede, “Reconstructing Postmillennialism,” The Journal of Christian Reconstruction: Symposium on Eschatology 15 (Winter 1998): 204.
7 Ibid., 161.
8 Ibid., 222.
9 Ibid., 154.
10 Ibid., 152.
11 Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield, “The Prophecies of St. Paul,” in Biblical Doctrines (New York: Oxford University Press, 1929), 624.
12 Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield, “The Lamb of God,” in The Saviour of the World: Sermons Preached in the Chapel of Princeton Theological Seminary (Cherry Hill, New Jersey: Mack, repr. 1972), 62.
13 Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield, The Plan of Salvation (Boonton, New Jersey: Simpson, 1989), 105.
14 Warfield, “The Millennium and the Apocalypse,” in Biblical Doctrines, 663.
15 Selbrede, “Reconstructing Postmillennialism,” 148, 149. “We cannot believe that at the end God…will suddenly and purposefully throw away that victory [of the earthly kingdom of Christ of postmillennialism—DJE] and permit the Devil a world-wide triumph even for the briefest time” (Loraine Boettner, The Millennium, Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed, rev. ed., 1984, 74, 75).
16 Ibid., 150. It becomes increasingly clear that the formerly Orthodox Presbyterian and presently Christian Reformed theologian Norman Shepherd has been, and is still today, a powerful advocate of the theology and world-reconstructing purposes of the federal vision, especially as it is found in Christian Reconstruction. Not only does he teach justification by faith and works—salvation by law—but he is also a proponent of postmillennialism in its most extreme, “unboundedly optimistic” form: no final apostasy, but the salvation at some future time of all humans then living.