Heaven Misplaced: Christ’s Kingdom on Earth, by Douglas Wilson. Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2008. Pp. 136. $19.00 (cloth). Reviewed by David J. Engelsma.
In the form of “lyrical theology”—a “theology couched in poetry, hymns and songs, and liturgy,” the author tells us (11)—Douglas Wilson promotes the standard Christian Reconstruction postmillennial doctrine of the earthly future. I speak of “earthly future” rather than “last things,” because for Wilson and the Christian Reconstructionists the “last things” are past. They happened in the days leading up to and including the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70.
Wilson expresses the optimism of postmillennialism quite un-lyrically and dogmatically:
This world, the one we live in now, will be put to rights, before the Second Coming, before the end of all things. The only enemy not destroyed through the advance of the gospel will be death itself,
and even that enemy will be in confused retreat,
He advocates all the elements of Christian Reconstruction postmillennialism: a literal fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies of the Messianic kingdom as an earthly kingdom; the complete fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecy of the end in Matthew 24:1-35 in the destruction of Jerusalem (AD 70); the preterism that interprets the entire book of Revelation except the last three chapters (especially chapter 20) as completely fulfilled in the past and that necessarily dates the writing of Revelation prior to AD 70; and playing the foolish, arbitrary game with the number of the beast inRevelation 13:18, so as to arrive at “Caesar Nero” by counting the value of the letters in this combination of title and name, in the Hebrew language.
There may be no Antichrist and no great tribulation for the church in the future. These would be a “great damp,” in the words of postmillennialist Jonathan Edwards, on the optimism that dreams of earthly dominion. Presenting his advocacy of postmillennialism as lyrical theology enables Wilson to propose his doctrine without consideration of the Reformed amillennial objections to it. Lyricists, poets, and hymn-singers do not engage in serious theological controversy. They simply woo their audience with “lovely” prospects, which would be “glorious if this really were true” (11). They do, however, interrupt their singing for the obligatory Christian Reconstruction, satirical jab at “pessimistic Calvinists,” who restrict the extent of the atonement to “a few hundred people,” and for the characteristic Christian Reconstruction mockery of Reformed amillennialism: “In this view, the world is God’s Vietnam, and the return of Christ consists of the few lucky ones helicoptered off a roof during the fall of Saigon” (9, 10).
Recourse to lyrical theology also permits Douglas Wilson to advance his postmillennial doctrine without doing the necessary exegesis of crucial concepts. Wilson bases his prediction of a “world transformed by His resurrection,” a world of converted nations, on the biblical texts that teach that God loves the world and that Christ is the Savior of the world. But he never explains what and who this world is. So strongly does he leave the impression that the world loved by God and saved by Christ is every human without exception that he finds it necessary to assure his readers that he does not hold universal salvation.
But what is the world of John 3:16; John 4:42; and John 6:33, 51(all texts adduced by Wilson in support of his postmillennial doctrine)? Does it include the billions of humans who have already perished outside of Jesus Christ? Does it include the millions dying in unbelief during the lifetime of Douglas Wilson? Is the world of these texts in the end a majority of the human race? Is it a majority of humans alive at some future date? Is it, as some of Wilson’s more optimistic colleagues are now teaching, all humans without exception who will be alive at some future time?
Wilson does not tell us. Much less does he prove from Scripture the understanding of “world” that is so important to his postmillennial doctrine, whatever his understanding may be. He does not even show any awareness of the longstanding controversy between universalists and Arminians, on the one hand, and Reformed orthodoxy, on the other hand, over the word and concept “world” in John 3:16 and other places.
Apparently Wilson assumes that “world” in the texts he cites is a majority, perhaps all, of the citizens of all nations, who will be converted and dominate national life at some time in the future (prior to the coming of Christ), and the nations’ life of obedience to the law of God that results from this dominion. He then insinuates this assumption into the thinking of his readers by making the assumption a ground of his postmillennial doctrine, even though his assumption has never been proved, or even stated.
This may be good lyrical theology. It is bad Reformed theology.
The fault of Douglas Wilson’s advocacy of postmillennialism is serious. As Wilson reminds us, again and again, his book is a piece of “historical optimism” (93). “Historical optimism” is the expectation of good times—earthly good times—for the church and the believer in the earthly future, before the return of Christ. It expects the conversion of almost everyone; a “Christianized” world of nations; a presumably almost perfectly sanctified church dominant over all of human life worldwide; and a long period of earthly peace, earthly prosperity, earthly power for the church.
“Historical optimism” is possible, indeed demanded, argue Wilson and the Christian Reconstruction postmillennialists, because Scripture’s prophecy of apostasy, Antichrist, and great tribulation has been fulfilled in the past, in AD 70, and because Jesus Christ is now lord and savior of the world.
“Historical optimism” has not been validated by the history of the New Testament church during the past nearly two thousand years. This history of the church,after AD 70, has been one of apostasy and persecution. The “mystery of iniquity,” which will finally usher in the lawless one (II Thess. 2:7, 8), has been working within, upon, and against the church over the past centuries, after AD 70. Immediately after the disappearance of the office of the apostles, heretics deceived many regarding the truths of God, Christ, and the natural condition of fallen mankind. The institutional church of the Middle Ages became increasingly and desperately corrupt in doctrine and life. Hundreds of thousands of Protestant saints suffered exile, torture, and death at the hands of Rome during and after the Reformation. The huge Roman Catholic Church has hardened herself in her false gospel. Since the Reformation, much of Protestantism has fallen away into the unbelief and lawlessness of theological liberalism.
Jesus Christ has been lord and savior of the world from AD 100 to the present day. According to Douglas Wilson, all the New Testament prophecies of hard times for the church in the world, including the first nineteen chapters of Revelation, were fulfilled in AD 70. Why then does not the history of the past two thousand years lend any credence to the “historical optimism” of Christian Reconstruction?
As the lyrical theologian of Moscow, Idaho looks out upon the ecclesiastical scene at the beginning of the twenty-first century, what does he see? Hundreds of millions who have fallen away from Protestantism altogether and are thoroughly secular, worldly people. More millions of liberal Protestants, who deny all the cardinal doctrines of the Christian faith. A powerful Roman Catholic Church of a billion lost souls. Muslims and other non-Christian worshipers of false gods, innumerable. Evangelical churches with millions of members in thrall to unbiblical mysticism and under the bondage of the false gospel of Arminianism. Yes, and Reformed and Presbyterian churches, very definitely including Wilson’s Confederation of Reformed Evangelical Churches, yielding to, or championing, the federal vision’s heresy of justification by works—a heresy that Wilson coyly promotes in the book.
What does he see in the world of nations? The nations of the East as entrenched in idolatry as ever they were. And the nations of the West eradicating the last vestiges of the once powerful influence of Christianity upon them; deliberately working out their rebellion against God to the last ditch in the approval, encouragement, and legalizing of the perversion of sodomy; and deifying Man, especially in the omnicompetent, omnipotent Savior-State—godless, lawless, antichristian, threatening.
And Wilson sings us a sweet song of “historical optimism.”
“Historical optimism” is refuted by Scripture, clearly and decisively—Scripture that even a Douglas Wilson must recognize as referring to the future. In vain would I appeal to most of the passages in the New Testament foretelling apostasy and persecution of the church against the “historical optimism” of Douglas Wilson. He would dismiss them as having been fulfilled in the past in connection with the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. But he cannot thus dismiss Revelation 20:7-9. This is the chapter of utmost importance to postmillennialism regarding the earthly future. It is the one passage in the Bible that speaks of the millennium. Wilson recognizes Revelation 20 as one of only three chapters in the book of Revelation that refer to the future. “The book of Revelation, with the exception of the last three chapters, was fulfilled two thousand years ago” (107). For Wilson, Revelation 20promises the thousand-year “golden age” of the earthly victory of the Messianic kingdom and the earthly dominion of the church, in the future.
And how will the millennium close, prior to the second coming of Christ? How will history come to its very end? What will be the state of the church and of the nations when Christ returns? What will be the numbers, so important to “historical optimism,” of the citizenry of the Messianic kingdom in comparison with the numbers of the citizenry of the kingdom of Satan?
And when the thousand years are expired, Satan shall be loosed out of his prison, and shall go out to deceive the nations which are in the four quarters of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them together to battle: the number of whom is as the sand of the sea. And they went up on the breadth of the earth, and compassed the camp of the saints about, and the beloved city: and fire came down from God out of heaven, and devoured them,
Everything “historical optimism” dreams of is shattered on the passage. History comes to its end with a rampant Satan; multitudes of ungodly; a world war against the church; a beleaguered church; deliverance of the church by a wonder, which is catastrophic for the wicked world; Christ returning to a world dominated by the ungodly and as unlike a glorious, earthly kingdom of Christ as could possibly be conceived.
On the basis of Scripture and in light of the realities of history, the Reformed Christian is not optimistic about the earthly future of the church or himself.
But neither is he pessimistic.
He is hopeful.
Douglas Wilson and the Christian Reconstructionists are optimistic. The Reformed believers and their children are hopeful. There is a difference.
Scripture and the Reformed creeds do not proclaim optimism. They do not proclaim postmillennialism. They proclaim hope. And the hope they proclaim is not an earthly kingdom of carnal dominion within history. They proclaim the hope of the resurrection of the body, the glorification of the entire church (not only of those who happen to live during a “golden age”), and the establishment of the victorious kingdom of Christ everlastingly in the new creation at the coming of Jesus Christ (Rom. 8:23; I John 3:2, 3; II Thess. 1:4-10; II Pet. 3).
The hope of the church, in AD 2010 as in AD 33-70, is the second coming of Christ. “Come, Lord Jesus,” she prays with urgency, in response to His promise, “Surely I come quickly” (which promise is found inRevelation 22—a chapter that Wilson himself acknowledges concerns the future).
This hope has application to the life of believers in this world and to the church in history. For believers, it is the certainty that, in all their struggles and tribulation, especially their struggles against sin, God will preserve them and their children in covenant salvation unto eternal life and glory; will provide all their needs, physical and spiritual; and will make all things work together for their spiritual and everlasting good.
For the church in the world, hope is the assurance that Christ, by His word, will gather, defend, and preserve His elect church—a multitude finally that no man can number, but always a remnant—in truth and holiness unto the day of His appearing.
The grave errors of Wilson’s book are advertised by the title. The book locates the public, visible, glorious, final victory of the Messianic kingdom within history. In fact, the final victory of the kingdom is the goal of history at the coming of Christ, and then by the wonder of His appearing.
The book thus takes the hope of the church and the believer off the coming of Christ and directs it, now refashioned as mere “optimism,” to an earthly kingdom in history. This error is deadly. Basic to it is Christian Reconstruction’s conception of the kingdom of Christ as earthly, political, carnal. Christ’s kingdom on earth is spiritual, not only in the means of its coming, but also in its nature: the reign of Christ by His gospel and Spirit in the true church and in the hearts and therefore the lives of elect believers and their children.
Read “this little book as though it were a work of fiction,” Wilson exhorts in his introduction (10).
Because this is what it is.