Previous article in this series: November 15, 2011, p. 80.
The second error of postmillennialism with regard to the victory of the Messianic kingdom concerns the time of the perfecting of the victory. Postmillennialism locates the time of the perfecting of the kingdom within New Testament history—during the thousand years that precede the coming of Jesus Christ. This is the meaning of the millennium for postmillennialism: it is the consummate victory of the kingdom of Christ, the “golden age” of the kingdom.
An Untimely Victory
Postmillennialists affirm that the millennium will be the perfecting of the victory of the Messianic kingdom, indeed the perfecting of the kingdom itself, by the extravagant claims they make for the millennium: conversion of the vast majority of the human race; “Christianizing” of all the world; universal, earthly peace; material prosperity for all; deliverance of mankind from crime, sickness, and even, to some extent, from death, for physical life is to be lengthened to hundreds of years. To paraphrase a contemporary secular author, “Methusaleh ain’t in it.” Consistent with postmillennialism’s literal interpretation of Old Testament prophecy, particularly Isaiah 65:25, is Christian Reconstruction’s extension of the victory of the Messianic kingdom to the animal world. During the millennium, under the beneficent sway of Christ through His reigning saints on earth, wolves will not prey on lambs, and lions will cease being carnivorous.
The conviction of all postmillennialists that the millennium will be the perfecting of the victory of the Messianic kingdom is evident in their glowing descriptions of the glorious conditions that prevail on earth during the thousand-year reign of the saints. One outdoes the other in painting a picture of godliness, peace, prosperity, dominion, and bliss.
Jonathan Edwards is typical. All the Old Testament prophecies of the latter-day glories of the kingdom of Messiah will be fulfilled in the millennium. The millennium will be the sounding of the seventh trumpet of Revelation 11:15: the kingdoms of this world will become the kingdoms of Christ.
Most humans will then be saved, and possess “vital religion.” All heresies will disappear. The Roman Catholic Church and Islam will be destroyed. Paganism will be no more. All “visible wickedness” will be “suppressed.”
Proving that the Christian Reconstructionists are by no means the only postmillennialists to interpret Old Testament prophecies of the coming Messianic kingdom literally, so that the fulfillment is carnal, Edwards forecasts extraordinarily long life in the millennium, in realization of the prophecy of Isaiah 65:20: “There shall be no more thence an infant of days, nor an old man that hath not filled his days,” etc.
The saints and Christianity will be “uppermost in the world.” The church will have (earthly) dominion.
There will be universal (earthly) peace. Wars will cease.
All (earthly) social relations will be “lovely.”
The world will then be one—a world of united nations. “All the world shall then be…one orderly regular, beautiful society.”
There will be great “temporal prosperity”: health, wealth, and long life.
What is this state of affairs but the perfect, or at least most nearly perfect, victory of the kingdom of Christ? Edwards candidly announces it as such. “This is most properly the time of the kingdom of heaven upon earth…[indeed] the principal time of the kingdom of heaven upon earth.”¹
Enthusiastic as Edwards is on behalf of the perfecting of the victory of the Messianic kingdom in the millennium, it falls to a leading Christian Reconstruction postmillennialist, Martin G. Selbrede, fully to develop postmillennialism’s conception of the perfection of the victory of the millennial kingdom and at the same time to indicate the intensity of postmillennialism’s deter-mination that the kingdom be perfectly victorious in history.
Selbrede is responding to the criticism that, despite postmillennialism’s glowing account of the victory of the kingdom of Christ during the millennium (as described, for example, by Jonathan Edwards), that victory is, in fact, a poor and pitiful thing. There will still be sin and death. There will be hordes of ungodly men and women, kept under only by threat of punishment, ready in the little season of Satan’s loosing to rise up in rebellion against Christ and His kingdom.
There will be death in that world [of postmillennialism’s millennial kingdom of Christ]…. There will be sin in the postmillennial kingdom…. There will be hordes of ungodly in this postmillennial kingdom, on the admission of even the most optimistic postmillennialists themselves. They will hide it. Outwardly, they will conform to the law of God…. But in their hearts they will hate God. They will be rebels inwardly against the Christ. At the end of the millennium they will rise against the Lord (Rev. 20:7-9)…. What is even more distressing for the Reformed amillennial believer is that this postmillennial kingdom is supposed to be the culmination and final form of the Messianic kingdom…. As regards the kingdom of Jesus Christ, that’s it! That earthly reign by means of the church, filled with sin, death, and unregenerate reprobates who hate and curse Christ morning, noon, and night, is the climax and conclusion of Christ’s kingdom. Behold…a dismal flop! If that is the Messianic kingdom at its very highest and greatest, Christ is destined to be displayed publicly as a royal failure…. Is their earthly kingdom with its sin, death, and sinners the best that Christ can do as king? That Christ is a sorry failure.²
Selbrede’s response to this criticism is revelatory of postmillennialism’s zeal on behalf of the perfection of the victory of the Messianic kingdom within history, and astounding. Having quoted this criticism of postmillennialism “to illustrate the seriousness of the amillennial challenge—a challenge made tenable because postmillennialists have themselves given their opponents the ammunition they needed,” Selbrede takes up the challenge.
It is precisely this idea of a “dismal flop,” a “royal failure,” that has given pause to more thoughtful postmillennialists (e.g., Boettner, Chilton, Rushdoony, etc.), who recognized the legitimacy of this challenge, and the internal tension it represented in postmillennialism as traditionally formulated. Recognizing that a problem exists is the first step toward rectifying it. Some have taken to portraying this defect as a beneficial feature (e.g., North), others acknowledged its undesirable aspects but admitted their inability to work past the problem (e.g., Chilton). The only fully satisfactory solution to Engelsma’s pointed challenge was the one provided by Warfield, the viewpoint defended throughout this study: eschatological universalism. Every single spear thrown by Engelsma can be shown to bounce off Warfield’s shield. There is no “royal failure” in Warfield’s eschatology, neither a dismal flop serving as his-tory’s capstone. The “stone cut without hands” suffers no such indignities as Engelsma envisions. God’s law will one day be universally (and voluntarily) observed: no cause of grief as Engelsma rightly charges in the case of traditional postmillennial models. Engelsma’s other primary concern (that postmillennialism de-emphasizes the glories of the consummation and terminates the Messianic kingdom at the Parousia) is likewise handled masterfully in Warfield’s model. In Warfield’s view, as rehearsed at length herein, the last enemy Christ is to conquer is Death itself, which synchronizes with the Parousia and not one minute earlier. The present heavens and earth pass away only on condition that all the law’s jots and tittles have been accomplished in the earth.³
Selbrede’s response to the criticism, that the highly vaunted victory of the millennial kingdom leaves much to be desired, and his answer to the amillennial challenge, is “eschatological universalism.”4 What this means, according to Selbrede (leaning heavily on B. B. Warfield), is that during the millennium every living human being, without exception, will be regenerated and saved; every human will be sanctified, if not perfectly, then to such an extent that “their lives will be a perfect transcript in act of the law of God, a perfect reflection of the will of God in life”—all men will “completely…keep the completed law”; and, especially, there will be no final apostasy, as most postmillennialists have previously been constrained to acknowledge on the basis of Revelation 20:7-9.5
All of this, it must be remembered, is to take place on earth, within history, before the second coming of Christ.
Selbrede certainly practices what he preaches to reconstructionists and, by implication, to all postmillennialists: “It is time that reconstructionists jump the final hurdle,” that is, whatever detracts from the perfection of the victory of the Messianic kingdom in history.6 As he himself sums up his doctrine of this victory, “[The millennium] is the period in which the world is conquered to Christ in its totality.”7
Postmillennialism insists that the millennium will be the perfecting of the victory of the Messianic kingdom also by its teaching that with the close of the millennium the Messianic kingdom comes to an end. Thereafter, the kingdom will be, not the kingdom of Christ, but the kingdom of the triune God. According to postmillennialism, either the full and most glorious victory of the Messianic kingdom is achieved within history, during the millennium, or it is not achieved at all.
… to be continued.
¹ Jonathan Edwards, The History of Redemption (Grand Rapids: Associated Publishers, n.d.), 311-324. The book was published in 1773. Edwards preached the book as a series of sermons in 1739.
² David J. Engelsma, Christ’s Spiritual Kingdom: A Defense of Reformed Amillennialism (Redlands, CA: The Reformed Witness, 2001), 107-109. The content of the book appeared ear-lier as editorials in the Standard Bearer. Selbrede (in 1998) was responding to my criticism as it appeared in the SB.
³ Martin G. Selbrede, “Reconstructing Postmillennialism,” Journal of Christian Reconstruction: Symposium on Eschatology 15 (Winter, 1998): 203, 204.
4 Ibid., 163.
5 Ibid., 146-218.
6 Ibid., 180.
7 Ibid., 194.