Prof. Engelsma is professor emeritus of Dogmatics and Old Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary. Previous article in this series: August 2009, p. 448.
The truth of the millennium is corrupted by two, distinct errors concerning the thousand years of Revelation 20. Not only do these two doctrines err in their explanation of the millennium, but they also grossly exaggerate its importance. The millennium, a relatively minor teaching found in only one chapter of the Bible (and that, in the highly figurative and symbolical book of Revelation), comes to dominate all of eschatology and even to occupy an unduly prominent place in the whole of theology.
Such exaggeration of the significance of the thousand-year period of Revelation 20 out of all biblical proportion, thus distorting the millennium (to say nothing of the erroneous explanations themselves of the biblical truth), is millennialism, as pietism is the exaggerated distortion of genuine piety; scientism, the distortion of legitimate science; and Communism, the distortion of necessary human community.
There are two basic forms of this millennialism, differing with regard to the time of Jesus’ second, bodily coming in relation to the millennium. The millennial error that has Jesus returning before the millennium is premillennialism. The millennial error that has Jesus returning after the millennium is postmillennialism.
Although these two forms of false teaching concerning the millennium differ, and in some respects differ sharply, they hold certain, important views of the millennium and its implications in common. Both explain the thousand years of Revelation literally, rather than figuratively, although some postmillennialists feel free to expand the coming period of the millennium to hundreds of thousands of years.
Both expect the literal millennium in the earthly future, within present history, before the destruction and renewal of this world.
Both teach an earthly realization of the Messianic kingdom in history—a carnal kingdom consisting of earthly power, earthly prosperity, and earthly peace.
Both make much of the Jews—physical, racial Jews—in their doctrine of the last things. Premillennialists have the restored nation of Israel in Palestine ruling the world under Christ during the millennium. The millennium is for the Jews. Postmillennialists teach that a mass conversion to Christ of Jewish people will signal and usher in the millennium.
Both forms of millennialism rob the contemporary church of much of Holy Scripture. Premillennialism assigns most of the Old Testament and large sections of the New Testament exclusively to the Jews, supposedly God’s kingdom people in distinction from the church. Postmillennialism contends that all of the passages, especially in the New Testament, that predict perilous times, lawlessness, apostasy, tribulation, and antichrist were intended for the church before AD 70, insofar as they applied to the church at all. Included among the passages that postmillennialism strips from the church today is the entire book of Revelation, except for the last three chapters.
Three errors that both forms of millennialism share are especially damning. Both premillennialism and postmillennialism promise the church and her members that they will escape the great tribulation foretold in Matthew 24:21 and many other passages of Scripture. Premillennialism foists the great tribulation on the Jews in the future. Postmillennialism thrusts it on the Jews in the past, in AD 70.
Both regard the millennium as the victory—the victory—of the kingdom of Jesus Christ.
And both fix the hope of the believing church, not upon the coming of Jesus Christ that raises the dead, judges all men, and brings about the new world in which righteousness, and only righteousness, shall dwell, as the goal (Greek: telos) of history, but upon the millennium within history, in which unrighteousness shall dwell. For premillennialism, the “blessed hope” is the rapture of the church marking the onset of the millennium.
Because postmillennialism appears in the Reformed tradition and is vigorously advocated by Presbyterian and Reformed theologians, I begin my critical examination of the two forms of millennialism with postmillennialism.
Description and Distinctions
Postmillennialism is the doctrine concerning the last things that teaches that the cause of Christ will increasingly prevail in this world in an earthly, visible manner, so that in the future masses of humans will be converted to Christ—likely, the majority of mankind—Christians will dominate the life of nations, and the evils that have plagued mankind—war, social strife, crime, disease, and poverty—will be severely curtailed, if not eradicated. This world will be “Christianized.” Postmillennialism dreams of a “golden age” for the church at the end of history—earthly power, earthly peace, and earthly prosperity.
This culturally, socially, and politically triumphant Christianity will be the Messianic kingdom prophesied by the Old Testament, for example, Psalm 72, in its fulfillment and perfection. Concerning the millennial glory of the church, Iain H. Murray exclaims, “The Church, after all, would be victorious!” (The Puritan Hope: Revival and the Interpretation of Prophecy, Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth, repr. 1975, 97; the enthusiastic exclamation mark is Murray’s. The implication is that prior to the millennium the church has been defeated.)
The finally victorious, Messianic kingdom of Christ will endure for a thousand years (although, as dreams are wont to do, the period of this earthly victory of Christ’s kingdom mightily expands in some postmillennialists to hundreds of thousands of years).
After this “golden age” of a thousand years, Jesus Christ will return to raise the dead, conduct the final judgment, and renew the creation. Some postmillennialists hold that Christ will return to a world under the dominion of Christians. Others, with an uneasy eye on Revelation 20:7-9, the loosing of Satan for a little season after the thousand years, are compelled to acknowledge that the earthly reign of the saints will be broken up at the very end by hordes of the ungodly, so that Christ will return to a world convulsed by war. Herein lies a huge problem for the advocates of the coming earthly victory of the church, to which I will return.
The postmillennialism that appears in the Reformed tradition demands to be distinguished from the old, theologically modernist and unbelieving notion of a coming millennium of peace and plenty for the human race. David Chilton complained that
the dominion outlook [postmillennialism as it appears in the Reformed tradition—DJE] is equated with the liberal “Social Gospel” movement of the early 1900s. Such an identification is utterly absurd, devoid of any foundation whatsoever. The leaders of the Social Gospel movement were evolutionary humanists and socialists, andwere openly hostile toward Biblical Christianity (David Chilton, Paradise Restored: A Biblical Theology of Dominion, Tyler, Texas: Reconstruction Press, 228).
The modernist, or liberal, message of a future millennium proclaimed that this utopia (literally, “no place”), which modernism called “the kingdom of God,” would come by the cooperating energies of irresistible evolutionary development and strenuous human effort. Nature and man would bring about the “kingdom of God.”
Early twentieth-century Protestant theologian Walter Rauschenbusch gave expression to the modernist conception of the millennium. “We need a restoration of the millennial hope,” he wrote. The millennium hoped for would be “a social life in which the law of Christ shall prevail, and in which its prevalence shall result in peace, justice and a glorious blossoming of human life…the brotherhood of man…expressed in the common possession of the economic resources of society.” The way in which the millennium will come, according to Rauschenbusch, is “development.” This powerful “development” is God Himself immanent “in history…working toward redemption and education.” The church must “cooperate” with this immanent deity (who is nothing other than Darwin’s evolutionary force applied, with unwarranted optimism, to social progress and the material welfare of the human race) to realize the “kingdom of God.”
Of course, for theological modernism there can be no coming of Jesus Christ in the body after the millennium, since Jesus, if He ever existed, remains dead and buried. Rauschenbusch was at pains to insist that his eschatology “of historic development has no final consummation.”
It is often said that this mod ernist hope of future millennial peace and prosperity shattered on the hatred, strife, and devastation of World War I. But Rauschenbusch wrote his book and proclaimed his message of millennial hope in 1917, when World War I was very much in progress. In fact, Rauschenbusch took the war into account, not as a damper on his dream, but as part of the development of the human race towards the coming millennium: “The Great War is a catastrophic stage in the coming of the Kingdom of God” (Walter Rauschenbusch, A Theology for the Social Gospel, Nashville, Abingdon Press, repr. 1978, 208-239).
As deaf to the testimony of history as it is to the witness of Scripture, theological modernism still stubbornly entertains the hope of a “golden age” for mankind by means of evolutionary development and the efforts especially of preachers, politicians, scientists, and teachers in the state schools. Rome has its French Jesuit philosopher, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, liberation theologians, and, as his recent encyclical, “Charity in Truth,” indicates, the present pope.
Protestantism has its Paul Tillich and hosts of pastors whose message every Sunday morning is love for mankind (referred to as humankind), tolerance of everyone and everything (except uncompromising confession of the truth and unswerving obedience to the law of God), and the uniting of all the nations and peoples of the world (excluding the holy nation, which is the true church).
Natural men and women are moved by this hope of an earthly paradise—a carnal “kingdom of God.” American politicians seek votes with the vision of “a new world order.” Lenin and Stalin won the hearts of millions, including liberals in the United States, by their announcement of the coming of the millennium in the form of Communism, regardless of Communism’s avowed godlessness, mass murders, and dictatorial cruelties. Hitler bewitched virtually all of Germany, including multitudes of German Christians, with the prospect of the “thousand-year Reich”—the millennial kingdom of the messianic Fuhrer—reared up though it was by war, bloodshed, and terror.
With his millennium, Antichrist will seduce the world, including many nominal Christians, who do not have their heart set on the spiritual kingdom of Christ, revealed in the sound doctrine of the gospel (II Thess. 2). The seduction will be the arrival, at long last, of the millennial kingdom of God and Christ (as Antichrist’s prophet, the beast out of the earth [Rev. 13:11ff.] will describe it) in its full, carnal, bedazzling, beguiling splendor and beneficence.
From this conception of the millennium, the Reformed postmillennialists are anxious to distance themselves.
Well may they be anxious also that their conception of a carnal kingdom not play into the program of the “king of fierce countenance,” who “by peace shall destroy many” (Daniel 8:23-25).