Previous article in this series: August 2012, p. 442.
Having noted the fundamental elements of postmillennial eschatology (doctrine of the last things), I now subject this false doctrine concerning the second coming of Christ to criticism. The criticism is that leveled by Reformed amillennialism, which doctrine I have explained earlier in this series.
I have already criticized the leading doctrinal errors of postmillennialism, centering on its conception of the Messianic kingdom as a temporal, carnal kingdom that must have an earthly victory within history.
At present, I am refuting the main biblical arguments put forward on behalf of postmillennialism by its defenders. I have considered postmillennialism’s appeal to the Old Testament prophecies of the future glories of the kingdom of Christ in the world, especially Isaiah 65. Now I examine the other passages of Scripture that are fundamental to postmillennialism. Matthew 24 is certainly one of these passages.
The Preterist Interpretation of Matthew 24
Matthew 24, as explained by the majority of contemporary postmillennialists, solves one of the biggest problems of postmillennialism. This problem is that the New Testament is filled with warning to the church that future history, like the past and the present, will not be earthly peace, prosperity, and power for her, but abounding evil, apostasy, great tribulation, and fierce persecution, especially under the world-dominion of the Antichrist. This is the message of II Thessalonians 2:3-17; I Timothy 3; the entire book of Revelation; and many more passages. II Thessalonians 2:3 is representative of the entire New Testament. The day of Christ “shall not come, except there come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition.”
All of these passages harmonize with, and derive from, the prophecy concerning the last days, with particular reference to the church and her struggles and suffering, by Jesus Himself in Matthew 24.
If, somehow, the teaching of Jesus about the time leading up to His second coming—teaching about wars and natural calamities (vv. 6, 7); about persecution of the disciples of Jesus Christ (vv. 9, 10); about false prophets, deception, and apostasy (v. 11); about abounding lawlessness (v. 12); about great tribulation (v. 21); and about false Christs, or antichrists (vv. 23, 24)—can be made to refer to another time than that preceding the second coming of Christ and to another people than the New Testament church, then, perhaps, all the New Testament passages that contradict the postmillennial dream of earthly victory for the church in the last days can be dismissed.
Postmillennialism thinks it has found the solution to its huge problem in Matthew 24:34.
In response to Jesus’ declaration that the grand temple in Jerusalem will be destroyed, which implied that Jerusalem itself would be destroyed (v. 2), the disciples asked Him, “Tell us, when shall these things be? And what shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world?”
In answer to this question by the disciples, Jesus taught the doctrine of the last things that is the content of Matthew 24:4-31 (and of Matthew 24:32-51, as also of Matthew 25).
Jesus’ doctrine of the last things is a prophecy of earthly calamities for the entire human race—wars, famines, pestilence, and earthquakes—and, especially, of distress, struggle, and suffering for His church, right up to His second coming. Indeed, the troubles of the church will intensify immediately before His bodily coming, as verses 21-31 indicate.
In verse 34, the all-important text for postmillennialism, Jesus states that “this generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled.” The postmillennialists explain the statement as meaning that everything foretold in Matthew 24:4-31, particularly the tribulation of the church, happened, completely and exhaustively, before and at the time of the destruction of the temple by the Roman legions in AD 70. A generation in the Bible is about forty years in duration. The time of the generation alive when Jesus spoke the words of Matthew 24 would last until about AD 70. Then the temple would be destroyed. And then “all these things” foretold in Matthew 24:4-31 would be fulfilled.
In keeping with this explanation of Matthew 24:34, the postmillennialists contend that everything foretold in verses 4-31 happened, fully and finally, in the time between about AD 33, when Jesus uttered the prophecy of Matthew 24 and 25, and about AD 70, when the Roman army destroyed the temple and Jerusalem.
Therefore, contend the postmillennialists, the passage simply does not apply to the rest of New Testament history. Emphatically, it is not describing the days immediately before the second coming of Jesus Christ. The passage has been fulfilled, completely, in the past. Because postmillennialism’s explanation of Matthew 24 locates the fulfillment of the prophecy in the past (with regard to the church that lives after AD 70), this explanation, not only of Matthew 24 but also of all the New Testament passages that predict tribulation for the church, is known as “preterism” (“preterism” derives from the Latin word meaning “past”).
This “preterist” interpretation of Matthew 24:4-34 is of tremendous importance for postmillennialism. For one thing, it gives postmillennialism a basis for relegating all New Testament prophecies of rampaging wickedness, false doctrine, apostasy, Antichrist, and tribulation to the time of the destruction of Jerusalem—in the past, as far as the church today is concerned—and to dismiss all such prophecy as having been realized upon the Jews in AD 70.
Even the book of Revelation is explained as referring to the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 and to the misery mainly of the Jews at that time. This explanation of the book of Revelation, of course, requires a dating of the writing of the book prior to AD 70, contrary to the church’s recognition of the date as about AD 96, the time of John’s sharing in the persecution of the church by the Roman emperor, Domitian, long after Jerusalem was reduced to rubble and the stones of the temple had been thrown down.
Christian Reconstructionist, postmillennial commentator David Chilton writes: “The Book of Revelation is not about the Second Coming of Christ. It is about the destruction of Israel and Christ’s victory over His enemies in the establishment of the New Covenant Temple.”1 Chilton set the table for this peculiar analysis of Revelation by asserting an early date of the writing of the book. “The Book of Revelation is primarily a prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans. This fact alone places St. John’s authorship somewhere before September of A. D. 70.”2
Escape from Tribulation
Publisher Gary North frankly states the practical motivation on the part of Chilton and of the other Christian Reconstructionists for their early dating of Revelation and for their applying the book to the Jews in AD 70:
If . . . these passages of imminent doom and gloom relate to the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A. D., then there is no legitimate way to build a case for a Great Tribulation ahead of us. It is long behind us. Thus, the Book of Revelation cannot legitimately be used to buttress the case for eschatological pessimism.3
So basic is the preterist interpretation of Matthew 24 to postmillennialism that the leading postmillennial theologians conclude that the “last days” of Scripture do not refer to the entire new dispensation, much less to the period shortly before the second coming of Christ, but to the time between Christ’s prophecy of Matthew 24 and AD 70. The “last days” are past.
1 David Chilton, Days of Vengeance: An Exposition of the Book of Revelation (Ft. Worth, Texas: Dominion Press, 1987), 43.
2 Ibid., 4. In asserting an early date for the writing of the book of Revelation, in the interests of their theology of a future “golden age” in history, the postmillennialists are refuted, not only by the internal evidence of the book itself and by the history both of the world and of the church after AD 70, but also by powerful external evidence, evidence for the dating of an old book that would be conclusive in the realm of secular scholarship. Writing in about AD 185, the church father Irenaeus, a disciple of Polycarp, who was a disciple of the apostle John, said about the book of Revelation, that John had seen the vision that is the content of the book “no very long time since, but almost in our day, towards the end of Domitian’s reign” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies 5.30.3, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, vol. 1, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, repr. 1987, 559, 560). This statement, by a reliable witness, without a theological ax to grind, places John’s vision and, therefore, the writing of Revelation in about AD 96, long after the destruction of Jerusalem.
3 Gary North, “Publisher’s Preface,” in ibid., xx. “Pessimism” is North’s and his cohorts’ derogatory description of the amillennial view of the entire present age, from Pentecost to the second coming of Christ, because amillennialism does not allow for an earthly victory of Christ’s church in the world. With regard to history from AD 70 to the present day, even North and his optimistic Christian Reconstructionist colleagues would be forced to admit that the amillennial viewpoint has been proved to be realistic, not pessimistic. History, including the history of Christ’s church, has so far been exactly as amillennialism describes the history of the world and of the church. There has not been an earthly victory of the church. To this day, the church has been a remnant (a concept foreign to Gary North)—hated, reproached, for example, as “pessimists,” assaulted by heretics, troubled by false doctrine, including postmillennialism, weakened by apostates, and persecuted for her confession that Jesus is Lord. On the other hand, the past 2,000 years of history expose the postmillennial view as a fantasy. In spite of energetic efforts in Munster, in Tyler, Texas, and in other places over the centuries, the Messianic kingdom of the postmillennialists has not achieved earthly dominion. Amillennialism is not “pessimistic” regarding the future. Neither is it optimistic. It is hopeful. The future is bright with the victory of Jesus Christ and His elect church on the day of Christ’s second coming—the goal of history. In the sure hope of that victory—which will include our being glorified with Christ, to reign with Him over all the new creation forever—we amillennialists labor and patiently suffer with Christ in the present age (Rom. 8:17).