This article is an excerpt from my forthcoming book, The Great End Time Debate. That in turn is an abridgment of my previously published book, The High King of Heaven. For further discussion of the various evangelical options in eschatology please consult those works.

 

  1. Exposition

(To view a timeline for Postmillennialism please click here)

The word postmillennialism means after the millennium. Thus, like amillennialism, postmillennialism teaches that Christ will come again after the thousand years of Revelation 20. Nevertheless, the two schools are different, primarily because postmillennarians are highly optimistic about the progress of the Gospel during the Era of Proclamation. The seeds of this persuasion were planted by Augustine, who was quite confident about the redemptive power and future growth of the City of God (i.e., the Church). In Reformation times certain Dutch theologians modified his view, asserting that the thousand years symbolize a later portion of the Church Era, during which time the Jews will be converted and world will be more or less completely Christianized.

Though hardly the majority report of the Church, postmillennialism has had some astute defenders. Most of the American Puritans were postmillennarians. They believed that God would use the American experiment in a special way advance his universal Kingdom. Recent and contemporary postmillennarians include Charles Hodge, Benjamin Warfield, Lorraine Boettner, John Jefferson Davis, Marcellus Kik, Keith Mathison, and Doug Wilson. The disciples of Rousas Rushdoony—the founder of a theological school called Christian Reconstructionism—are also postmillennial. They include Greg Bahnsen, Ken Gentry, Gary North, and Martin Selbrede.

Postmillennarians agree with their amillennarian brothers that the Kingdom of God enters history in two stages: the Kingdom of the Son, followed by the Kingdom of the Father. However, some postmillennarians think of the Millennium as a distinct phase of the Kingdom of Son, in which Christ suddenly binds Satan and triumphantly extends his spiritual reign over the face of the whole earth. Thus, Postmillennialism is not altogether a species of Present-millennialism, since here the Millennium is present with some, but not all, Christians living in the Era of Proclamation.

As for their interpretation of Old Testament Kingdom Prophecy (OTKP), postmillennarians again agree with their amillennarians in interpreting these prophecies spiritually, as being fulfilled under the New Covenant. However, where most amillenarians find the prophets speaking of the World to Come, most postmillennarians find them speaking of the triumphs of the Era of Gospel Proclamation (see e.g., Psalm 72, Isaiah 65:17-25).

Again, postmillennarians differ among themselves about the thousand years of Revelation 20. Some identify it with the entire Era of Proclamation, others with its final thousand years, still others with a season of indeterminate length situated near the end of the present evil age; a season that will commence with a special, latter-day binding of Satan, possibly leading to the conversion of ethnic Israel at large (this is the view I have pictured in the time-line above). All agree, however, that the basic trajectory of Church history, despite occasional setbacks, is one of gospel triumph.

Regarding the Consummation, postmillennarians concede that Revelation 20:7-10 does indeed anticipate a final, global rebellion against Christ and his faithful people. They insist, however, that it will be of very short duration and largely unsuccessful. This painful interlude—so out of character with the preceding years of triumph and blessing—will quickly lead to the Parousia, the various elements of the Consummation, and the World to Come.

Thus, for most postmillennarians the true locus of Christ’s victory over the powers of evil is the Era of Proclamation itself, with Christ’s Second Coming serving largely as a glorious capstone for all that he was able to previously accomplish through the faithful preaching of his Church. Does Scripture justify this optimistic scenario? And does the course of Church History to date confirm it? In the pages ahead we will seek to answer these important questions.

  1. Critique

Again, postmillennialism is a species of amillennialism. Its distinguishing characteristic is the expectation of a Golden Era of universal Christian faith, peace, and prosperity prior to the Last Battle, the Parousia, and the Consummation of all things. With the help of the diagram above, let’s review its understanding of Salvation History.

View of the Kingdom

Like amillennialism, postmillennialism envisions the Kingdom of God as appearing in two stages: the Kingdom of the Son followed by the Kingdom of the Father. Unlike amillennialism, it goes on to posit that the Kingdom of the Son is divided into two stages. In the first stage the Gospel goes out into the world and begins to prosper, but only amidst significant opposition and tribulation. Later in the Era of Proclamation—and at point yet future to us—the second stage begins. Here Satan is bound in such a way that the Gospel now makes unprecedented advances. This is the second and “millennial” stage of the Kingdom of the Son.

Many postmillennarians assert that the Millennium will begin with the conversion of the great bulk of ethnic Israel. Then, according to Ken Gentry, “The Kingdom will grow and develop until eventually it exercises a dominant and universal gracious influence in a long era of righteousness, peace, and prosperity on the earth and in history.” This era could last more than a literal 1000 years, since (unlike Augustine) most postmillennarians regard that number as symbolizing magnitude. Inexplicably, near the end of the Millennium the Golden Era is suddenly overshadowed by a brief, Satanically inspired rebellion, in which the true saints of God will suffer much persecution. However, just as suddenly the Lord will return to reverse the reversal, rescue his own, raise the dead, judge the world, and bring in the eternal Kingdom.

While postmillennialism is biblically sound in teaching a two-staged view of the Kingdom, it errs in its view of the structure of the Kingdom of the Son. Nowhere in the Didactic New Testament (DNT) do we find any suggestion that it is divided into two stages, or that it includes a long, future Golden Era. Quite to the contrary, both Christ and the apostles repeatedly gird the loins of the saints for constant opposition and persecution, though also for measured success as God gathers his little flock through the faithful preaching of the Gospel (Matt. 24:9-14; John 10:16; Rom. 8:30; 1 Thess. 2:2; Titus 2:14; 1 Pet. 4:12; 1 John 3:13, 5:19).

On this score the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares is paradigmatic (Matt. 13:24-30, 36-43). Here the Lord clearly assumes that throughout the entire Era of Proclamation the tares will grow up alongside the wheat. Indeed, so abundant are the tares that the angels regard them as a threat to the safety of God’s crop (Matt. 13:27-28). This is the template of all NT eschatology. Believers live and serve in the present evil age (Gal. 1:4). They constantly struggle against the world-forces of this present darkness (Eph. 6:12). To the very end the world-system lies in the grip of the evil one (1 John 5:19). The Church is a light shining in the ever-deepening darkness of the world-system (Matt. 5:14; John 1:5). Her ongoing experience is one of Great Tribulation (Rev. 7:14). She is making a hard pilgrimage through the wilderness of a hostile world (Rev. 12:6, 13-17). The Last Battle is simply the final and most extreme engagement of this perennial war. Where, in all of this, is there room for a Golden Era of peace, righteousness, and prosperity? 2

View of OTKP

Postmillennarians argue that many OTKP’s predict a global triumph of the Gospel in the Era of Proclamation (Psalms 72, 110; Is. 2:1-4, 45:2-3, 65:17-25; Mic. 4:1-3; Zech. 9:10, etc.). But here we encounter some confusion. Yes, postmillennarians are correct when they assert that these prophecies are fulfilled under the New Covenant and must therefore be interpreted figuratively. But they err when they assert that they are fulfilled in the Era of Proclamation and not at all in the World to Come. The truth is nuanced and accessible only through a careful use of the DNT and the New Covenant Hermeneutic (NCH). As we have seen, the DNT depicts the Kingdom of the Son as a temporary season of measured Gospel success amidst tribulation, and the Kingdom of the Father as an eternal season of complete success following the removal of all tribulation at the Consummation. Under the discipline of this rubric we will understand OTKP’s prophecies well. Apart from it we will we will stumble into error, false optimism, and deep disappointment.

Let us view these principles at work by considering a text especially dear to the hearts of our postmillennial brothers.

In Psalm 72 the writer (likely David) supplies his fellow Israelites with a prayer that they can offer for Solomon and all his royal successors. In so doing he gives us a picture of Israel’s ideal king and of the blessings that must attend his reign. Premillennarians say that he is describing the fruits of the earthly millennial reign of Christ that will come after his (first) return. Postmillennarians say he is describing the fruits of the heavenly millennial reign of Christ that will come before his return. However, amillennarians, operating under the discipline of the DNT, say he is describing the fruits of Christ’s heavenly reign during the Era of Proclamation, at the Consummation, and throughout the World to Come. Yes, the mystery of the two-staged Kingdom was hidden from the eyes of the Psalmist, with the result that there is a seamless vision of the total fruitage of the Messiah’s reign. But having received the gift of the NCH we are able to see its fulfillment at last.

Accordingly, we can see that even now the heavenly King defends the cause of the poor (v. 4; Matt. 5:3; 1 Cor. 1:26-30). Even now he gives deliverance to the oppressed and needy (v. 4, 12; Eph. 2:1-10; 1 Thess. 1:10; Titus 3:3f). Even now he is to his thirsting people as showers that water the earth (v. 6; Acts 3:19; 1 Cor. 12:13; Phil. 1:19). Even now, through the faithful preaching of the Gospel, his far-flung dominion is spreading from sea to sea and to all the ends of the earth (v. 8; Matt. 13:33; Acts 1:8; Col. 1:23).

However, this psalm also anticipates the Consummation, as well as the eternal stage of the Kingdom to follow. At his return the King’s enemies will lick the dust (v. 9; Luke 19:27), all the rulers of the earth will fall down before him (v. 11; Phil. 2:10), and every remaining oppressor, including death itself, will be crushed (vv. 4, 14; Rom. 16:20; 1 Cor. 15:25). Then, in the completed Kingdom of God that he himself has ushered in, the mountains will bring forth perfect prosperity (v. 3; Heb. 12:18f; Rev. 21:10), the peoples will flourish like the grass of the field (v. 16; Rev. 22:2), the saints will praise his name forever (v. 17; Heb. 13:15), and all the nations of the saved will call him blessed (v. 17; Rev. 5:6-14). Long shall he live, and long shall his redeemed Bride and Family live with him in the eternal Kingdom of God (vv. 14, 15; Rev. 1:18, 21:3-4).

The skilled use of the NCH enables us to open up all the other texts to which postmillennarians appeal. For example, Psalm 110:1-3 does not picture a universal reign of Christ through the advance of the Gospel, but rather the ongoing spiritual warfare of the Church Militant and the real but measured evangelistic success that the High King will grant. Isaiah 2 and Micah 4 do not refer to the universal triumph of the Gospel prior to the Parousia, but to the progress of the Gospel in the first stage of the Kingdom, and its final triumph in the second. Isaiah 65:17-25 is not, as postmillennarian Marcellus Kik avers, a picture of “the moral and spiritual revolution in human affairs fostered by the Gospel.” Rather, it is a picture of the new heavens and the new earth, cast in the familiar tropes of the OT (1 Pet. 3:13, Rev. 21:2). Zechariah 9:10 will not be fulfilled in the Era of Gospel Proclamation, but at the Consummation, when Christ will speak peace to all the nations of the redeemed, and his dominion will extend to the ends of the earth.

Again, it is not that OTKP’s could not be understood to promise Golden Era of gospel prosperity; it is that the DNT requires us to interpret them otherwise. The OT does indeed promise a universal reign of Israel’s Messiah and Israel’s God. But that reign will overspread the earth in part through the preaching of the gospel, and then in fullness at the Lord’s return. In that day the OT prophets will rejoice, for the Golden Age of Israel’s ideal King will have come at last.

View of the Consummation

Fundamentally, the postmillennial view of the Consummation is sound since it looks for a single Consummation at the Parousia of Christ. Nevertheless, there are a number of problems.

First, many postmillennarians anticipate a latter-day conversion of ethnic Israel prior to the Millennium (i.e., the Golden Era of gospel prosperity). But this is not the teaching of the NT, which looks for Israel’s conversion at the end of the Millennium (i.e., at the end of the Era of Proclamation). This is a serious error since it robs the Church of an important sign of the imminence of the Parousia: the grafting of ethnic Israel back into the vine of Christ, after which we she may soon expect “life from the dead” (Rom. 11:15).

Secondly, postmillennialism vitiates biblical teaching on the Last Battle. Yes, postmillennarians confess that a Last Battle will occur prior to the Parousia. But by placing it on the far side of their Golden Era they leave the Church looking first for a Golden Era (that will not come), and only then for the Last Battle (which, for postmillennarians, will come all too soon). In other words, this teaching effectively cuts the nerve of several powerful NT texts warning us that the Last Battle could swiftly fall upon us, and that we must always be ready for it (2 Thess. 2:1f; Rev. 16:15). It leaves a naively optimistic Church vulnerable to the shock of the sudden rise of the Antichrist, and to all the spiritual disillusionment that must flow from it. Again, this dire consequence is rooted in postmillennialism’s failure to see that the entire Era of Proclamation is a season of gospel combat and conflict, a season of “great tribulation” (Rev. 7:14).

Finally, postmillennialism tends to trivialize the Last Battle and the Last Judgment. Both are profoundly solemn events, events that will engulf huge swaths of humanity. Postmillennialism pictures the Last Battle as an unfortunate ripple upon a sea of millennial bliss. Similarly, it minimizes the gravity of the Last Judgment by implying that in virtue of the Golden Era of gospel progress relatively few souls will be lost.

On both counts the NT sharply disagrees. Our Lord said that throughout the Church era, and especially at its end, his disciples will be hated by all nations (Matt. 10:16ff, 24:9). John relates that the number of those who wage war against the eschatological camp of the saints will be “like the sand of the seashore” (Rev. 20:8). As for the ratio of the saved to the lost, I believe we are wise to eschew undue speculation (Luke 13:22f). Nevertheless, it is sobering to recall that wide is the gate and broad the way that leads to destruction, and that many go in by it (Matt. 7:13, 13:24-40, 36-43); that Christ refers to his Church as “a little flock” (Luke 12:32); and that those will follow him upon the slopes of the eternal Zion are the first fruits (i.e., the smaller part) of the total harvest of God and the Lamb (Jas. 1:18, Rev. 14:1-4, 14-20).

We find, then, that despite its welcome nod to orthodoxy, postmillennialism gives us a flawed and potentially injurious view of the Consummation. 

View of the Revelation

Like premillennarians, postmillennarians generally teach that the events described in Revelation 20 follow those described in Revelation 19:11-21. This means, of course, that Revelation 19:11-21 cannot be speaking of the Parousia/Consummation. Accordingly, Loraine Boettner argues that this text gives us “ . . . a vision setting forth in figurative language the age-long struggle between the forces of good and the forces of evil in the world, with its promise of complete victory.” In other words, it gives us Christ triumphing in the Era of Proclamation through the preaching of the Word of God. This results in a special binding of Satan, which in turn inaugurates the golden millennial era (Rev. 20:1-3). In that era, the world will allegedly experience “the first resurrection,” by which postmillennarians mean a “ . . . restoration and vindication of the cause for which the martyrs died” (J. J. Davis), or “a rebirth of the martyr spirit” (A. Strong). Vast numbers of millennial saints, now fully subject to the Spirit of the High King of Heaven, will reign victoriously on a peaceful and prosperous earth (20:4-6). At the close of the Millennium, this global victory will seem, for the briefest of moments, to end in defeat, as Satan is released from his prison and leads multitudes against the faithful people of God. However, at his Parousia, Christ will swiftly intervene to destroy his enemies (Rev. 20:7-10). This brings on the Last Judgment (Rev. 20:12-15), which in turn brings in the new heavens and the new earth (Rev. 21:1-22:21).

By my lights this is a serious misreading of the Revelation. As I argued earlier, Revelation 20 runs parallel to Revelation 17-19, and does not follow it chronologically. Revelation 19:11-21 most certainly does give us the Parousia, as do Revelation 6:12-17, 11:11-19, 14:14-20 and 20:10-15. The binding of Satan took place at the beginning of the Era of Proclamation, through Christ’s work on the Cross; it is not still future, even to us who live 2000 years into that era (Matt. 12:29; John 12:31; Col. 2:15; 1 Pet. 3:22, Rev. 12:7f)! The first resurrection is not a revival of the martyr’s cause or spirit, but entrance upon the joys of the Intermediate State by the spirits of the saints who die in the Lord (Rev. 14:13). And finally, the millennial reign of the saints does not take place upon the earth, but rather in heaven, where the sprits of the saints reign in life with Christ, even as they await the final triumph of life at “the second resurrection”: the resurrection of the body on the Day of the Lord Jesus Christ (Rom. 5:17; 1 Cor. 15:1f; Rev. 20:11-15).

Conclusion

Certainly we can be grateful to our postmillennarian brethren when they remind us that God has predestined the Gospel to redeem a great multitude of believers out of every tribe, tongue, people and nation (2 Cor. 2:14; Rev. 5:9, 7:9). And certainly we can join them in affirming that the advance of Christ’s Kingdom will leaven the evil world-system in such a way as to have positive impacts on its various institutions, whether cultural, political, or economic (Matt. 5:13-16). By all means, then, let individual Christians serve the Lord in every legitimate sphere of life, and let them be grateful for whatever good their presence accomplishes, whether great or small (John 17:15).

Nevertheless, the Church should regard postmillennialism as a seriously flawed eschatology, and perhaps even a dangerous one. Its root problem is that it misunderstands God’s true purpose in the Era of Proclamation, which is not to Christianize the Domain of Darkness, but rather to rescue a chosen people out of it and transfer them into the Kingdom of his beloved Son (Gal. 1:4, Col. 1:13). This means that from start to finish Christ’s Kingdom and Satan’s kingdom are in constant contact and conflict, and that the Era of Proclamation is, above all else, a spiritual battlefield upon which a great war is being fought for the souls of men. “Even to the end there will be war; desolations are determined” (Dan. 9:26).

If it is received, the unbiblical doctrine of a future Golden Era will seriously undermine the spiritual health of the saints. It sets them up for disappointment and frustration, since the Era they dream of will never come, no matter how hard they toil for it. It distracts them from their true mission, which is not to transform the world-system, but simply to preach the Gospel so that God may gather his elect out of it. It distorts the believer’s hope, focusing it upon an illusory stage of Church history rather than upon the Consummation at Christ’s return (Tit. 2:3; 1 Pet. 1:13). It fails to prepare the Church for inevitable persecution, and also to warn her against the perils of the rising tide of lawlessness that will characterize the last of the last days (Matt. 24:12). And again, it effectively robs her of the three great signs by which she can know that the Coming of her Lord is at hand: the fulfillment of the Great Commission, the conversion of ethnic Israel, and the Last Battle.

For all these reasons I would invite my postmillennial brethren to come home to your true birth mother: the amillennial eschatology of the classic Reformation. Truly, she has prepared her table well, and is eager to forgive, forget, and savor all good things with her beloved sons.

 

“Let not your hearts be troubled.”
–John 14:1

 

It is Sunday, March 22, 2020. Here in Santa Rosa, California, we are “sheltering in place,” seeking to avoid contact with the coronavirus that, for many, has proven deadly. In portions of Africa a terrible plague of locusts is currently devouring harvests and threatening famine. In Utah, just days ago, there was an unusually strong earthquake. In Australia, just weeks ago, there were unusually destructive fires along the densely populated coasts.

How are Christians to understand such things? How are we to avoid debilitating fear and panic? How are we to comfort our non-Christian neighbors, as they—who are sitting in darkness, and in the land and shadow of death—secretly endure existential dread? How are we to quarantine our minds against doomsday scenarios that prompt us to quit our jobs, move to another country, stockpile rations, or buy up guns and ammunition? In short, in the midst of calamity, how are we to keep our cool till the end of the world, thereby fulfilling both our ministries and our highest calling, which is to glorify the Lord?

I am so grateful that the Lord himself has anticipated all these things: the earth-shaking events, the unique temptations, the unavoidable questions, and the special evangelistic opportunities they represent. And I am grateful for the provision he has made for us to face them with a wise, calm, compassionate, and God-honoring spirit. In this post I would like to consider his provision at some length. My focus will be on two biblical larders that are filled to the brim.

The Shepherd and His Apostle on Keeping our Cool

Our first text is Matthew 24:1-8. Here we have the opening lines of Jesus’ Olivet Discourse, our Lord’s definitive teaching on the end of the world, the events that will precede it, and everything we need to know to keep our cool and glorify our God until that Day comes. Listen carefully to the voice of the Good Shepherd:

Now after departing from the temple, Jesus was going his way; and his disciples came up to him and called his attention to the temple buildings. But he said to them, “Don’t you see all these things? I tell you the truth: Not one stone in this place will be left on another: Every one of them will be thrown down.” So as he was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, “Tell us: When will these things happen? And what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” In reply, Jesus said to them: “See to it that no one leads you astray, for many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Messiah,’ and will lead many astray. You will also hear of wars and rumors of wars: See that you don’t give way to fear, for these things must take place, but the end has not yet come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; and in various places there will be famines and earthquakes. But all these are only the beginning of the birth pains. –Matthew 24:1-8

Our second text was written by the apostle Paul to the Thessalonian Christians. Like the first, it too gives us the voice of the Good Shepherd supplying his people with wisdom and urging calm:

Now in regard to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to our being gathered together to him, we urge you, brothers, not to be alarmed or suddenly shaken from your presence of mind, whether by a spirit, an utterance, or a letter supposedly from us, claiming that the Day of the Lord has arrived. Let no one deceive you in any way, for that Day will not come until . . . –2 Thessalonians 2:1-3

It is important to note at the outset that both of these texts really do deal with the end of the world. So do dozens of others found in the Old and New Testaments. Indeed, more than any other book ever written, it is the Bible that has planted in the minds of people everywhere an expectation of the end of the world, however little they may understand what the expression actually entails. This special providence supplies Christians with an excellent platform for Gospel testimony in troubled times. It also requires that they know for sure what the end of the world will involve!

When the disciples questioned the Lord Jesus, they already had definite views on this subject, views that the Lord would have to correct and supplement. In the Olivet Discourse he made a fulsome beginning; after Pentecost, his holy apostles and prophets would make a fulsome end. With their passing and the closure of the biblical canon, divine revelation about the last things would be complete. Henceforth, all that people know or ever can know about the end of the world will be found in the pages of Holy Scripture, and especially in the New Testament. May the Spirit of illumination help us to understand these precious revelations, and to explain them clearly!

I believe we can do so by coming to grips with one of the great themes of biblical eschatology: the Consummation. When Jesus taught his disciples on the Mount of Olives, this was his ultimate theme. Notably, they inquired about three of its central elements: The Coming of Christ, the signs of his Coming, and the end of the age. Concerning these subjects, we now know that the disciples had one thing in mind, and Jesus quite another. They expected Jesus to rise up in the power of God as a national deliverer and king, even as David of old. Jesus, however, expected something very different and vastly greater: that he would die for the sins of the world, rise again to eternal life, ascend into heaven, sit down at the right hand of God as Prophet, Priest, and King, pour out the Holy Spirit upon the Church, send her out into the world to preach the Gospel, and, at the end of the age, come again in the power and glory of his Father, with all his holy angels, to effect the Consummation.

Good Bereans, who search the Scriptures daily to discover God’s eschatological truth, know these things (Acts 17:10-11). They also are familiar with the various elements of the Consummation: The Second Coming of Christ, the Resurrection of the Dead, the Glorification of the Living Saints, the Great Assize of All Sentient Beings before the Judgment Seat of Christ in the air above the Earth, the Last Judgment, the Destruction of the present Earth and its Works by Fire, and the Creation of New Heavens and a New Earth, the eternal home of the redeemed. When Christians hear talk of the end of the world, they think of all this; they think of the Consummation, and they rejoice. When unbelievers hear talk of the end of the world, they really don’t know what to think; yes, some may mock, but deep down all shudder. Christians have a precious balm to pour into the trembling hearts of their neighbors. God grant us the grace to offer it, and our neighbors the grace to receive it.1

This brings us back to the subject at hand: keeping our cool till the end of the world. Both Jesus and Paul know that the Consummation is coming. They know that certain things must happen before it does. They know that in the midst of those things there will be a great potential for deception, misunderstanding, and panic. Their burden is identical: to protect the flock of God from them all. And what is their prescription? I would sum it up in three exhortations: avoid deception, anchor to truth, and keep on keeping on. Let us take a moment to consider each one.


Avoid Deception: It Only Leads to Fear

Note carefully the very first words on Jesus’ lips as he responds to his disciple’s questions: “See to it that no one leads you astray!” Note also those of Paul: “We urge you, brothers, not to be alarmed or suddenly shaken from your presence of mind, whether by a spirit, an utterance, or a letter supposedly from us . . . Let no one deceive you in any way.”

Again, these shepherds know their sheep. They know how easily sheep are deceived. They know how swiftly deception leads to fear. And they also know how in days ahead the prince of the power of the air will flood the atmosphere of the world-system with fear-inducing lies and errors. Accordingly, from the very outset they urge upon the saints the greatest possible caution: “Avoid deception. Be careful about the voices you listen to. When popular notions about the dreadful course of current events knock insistently at the door of your mind, think twice before opening. Test all things, hold fast to what is good. It is easier than you imagine to be deceived and shaken from your steadfastness of mind.”

In a season of world history when electronic floods of “knowledge,” “expert opinion,” and “scientific consensus” sweep over us daily, we must take these words to heart. We must, of course, beware of distortions of biblical teaching about the Consummation. But if we are to walk without fear, we must also avoid non-biblical forms of deception. Other faiths have their own beguiling eschatologies. Secularists have their own doomsday scenarios and intoxicating panaceas. Whether intentionally or not, philosophers, scientists, and politicians can fill our minds with lies, errors, and half-truths, thereby flooding our hearts with doubt, confusion, and fear. We all have heard their trumpet blasts: man-made climate change, eco-disaster, overpopulation, economic collapse, gun violence and anarchy, aliens ominously streaking through our skies. The list goes on.2 But as deception and dread beckon, the saints must hear again the word of the Lord: “See to it that no one leads you astray . . . See that you don’t give way to fear!”


Anchor to Truth: It Always Leads to Peace, Confidence, and Eager Expectation

First the Lord and his apostle tell us to avoid deception. Then they tell us how to do it: Anchor yourselves to truth, for it always leads to peace, confidence, and an eager expectation of the return of Christ, who will replace the present evil age with a glorious World to Come.

Each of us will have to develop a case-sensitive strategy for honoring this command. Nevertheless, speaking broadly, I cannot doubt that it will involve saturating ourselves with the Scriptures. God has granted his people to be born from above. He has given them the Spirit of Truth. He is eager to guide them into truth, and to anchor them to truth, if only they will dig deep into the Word of Truth. The Good Shepherd identified himself as the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Once the flock has heard his voice in the Scriptures, they will have an ear for the truth, and so become deaf to deception. Then, when they hear the voice of a stranger, they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers (John 10:5).

To walk steadfastly at all times, we shall have to be mastered by all of God’s truth. To keep our cool till the end of the world, we shall have to be mastered by a certain species of his truth—eschatological truth: truth about the Consummation, and in particular, truth about the historical signs that point ahead to it. Again, each of us must study these things for ourselves. By my lights, they fall into two categories: signs of the beginning of cosmic rebirth, and signs of the imminence of cosmic rebirth. Let us take a moment to look at them both.

1. Signs of the Beginning of Cosmic Rebirth

In our first text, the Lord himself prepares and steadies his disciples by teaching them about “the beginning of the birth pains” (Matthew 24:8). This is a fabulously rich metaphor. He has in mind certain signs—signs that will recur throughout the entire remainder of the present evil age. As we shall see, many of them are judgments of God. For this reason the signs could aptly be called “death throes,” since they signal the death of the world as we now know it. Jesus, however, prefers to call them birth pains. That’s because, at a deeper level, the signs point, not simply to judgment and death, but also and ultimately to redemption and eternal life. Thus, he likens the world to a pregnant woman. The disciples are to know that because of her sin, painful judgments will indeed come upon her. But more importantly, they also are to know that the judgments herald a great blessing: the return of Christ, the Consummation, and the birth of a new and glorious World to Come!

Once again, these particular signs are unique in that they appear throughout the present evil age, an age that began with the fall of man in Eden, but which now has been invaded by Christ and the Gospel. Accordingly, these signs reflect the clash of the Kingdom of God with the kingdom of Satan, a clash that will continue throughout the entire era of Gospel proclamation (Rev. 12:1ff). All past generations of Christians have seen them; all future generations of Christians can expect to see them. Jesus tells us that they are indeed signs of the end: of the Consummation. But he also tells us that they are signs that the end has not yet come (Matthew 24:6). More on this in a moment.

The beginning of the birth pains is itself twofold. On the one hand, it includes what are manifestly judgments of God: wars, rumors of war, famines, earthquakes, pestilence, and other such calamities. Yes, the decisions of sinful men often contribute to them. But like the events themselves, those decisions are also under the control of Providence. Because of men’s sin, rebellion, and idolatry, God hands them over to a debased mind. Professing to be wise, they become fools. As a result, they make foolish decisions, all of which lead to the judgments of God (Romans 1:18f). I live in California, where thousands of abortions occur daily, where suicide is legal, where sexual immorality is rampant, where “gaming” is widespread, and where marijuana production and distribution is currently classified as an “essential industry.” Not surprisingly, our state is also the site of all manner of disasters: crumbling infrastructure, gang warfare, homelessness, deep pockets of poverty, destructive fires, and now the spread of the coronavirus. Politicians try to blame their opponents and their policies. Christians know to ascribe them to human sin, divine providence, and the judgments of God.

Very importantly, these particular judgments are not final. They do indeed point to the Last Judgment, but they are not the Last Judgment itself. They point to the end of the world, but they will not accomplish it. Rather, as the apostle John saw, they are trumpets of God, warning of the coming Consummation (Revelation 8:1f). Therefore, alongside the judgments, and mitigating the judgments, there appears another sign, a sign of God’s great mercy and love: the preaching of the Gospel. Believers must take this to heart. It is only through the ministry of the Church that terrified sinners, staggering under the judgments of God, can behold what the judgments portend. And it is only through this same ministry that they can behold the God-ordained City of Refuge, to which they may flee for safety (Numbers 36:6f; 1 Thessalonians 1:10).

The Lord also warns that the beginning of the birth pains includes what are manifestly acts of Satan: the emergence of false Christs, false prophets, and false teachers; the apostasy of false believers; and the persecution of the true spiritual Church at the hands of an unbelieving world (Matthew 24:4-14). The latter is especially significant in the economy of the present age. Persecution elicits the urgent prayers of the saints, who plead with God to grant them justice against their adversaries. Jesus assures them that though God seems to delay in answering, he will not do so for long (Luke 18:1-8). Though silence seems to reign in heaven, it is only for half an hour. Moreover, throughout that half hour the cries of the persecuted are mingled with his grace, and rise like incense before his throne. Soon the angel will cast fire upon the earth. Soon there will be claps of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning, and shakings of the earth. Soon the trumpets will sound again. Soon there will be more judgments in the earth: signs and warnings of a Consummation that will not sleep, and that has long been on its way (2 Peter 2:3; Revelation 8:1f).

But again, if the saints are to keep their cool till the end of the world they must hear well the Lord’s warning: “Such things must happen, but the end is still to come” (Matthew 24:6). Yes, the beginning of the birth pains tells us that the end is fast approaching (Revelation 12:12). But these same signs also tell us that the end is not yet here. In other words, the Church is to understand that the Consummation will not come by means of these signs. It will not come by ordinary providence, and it certainly will not come at the hand of man (e.g., man-made climate change, germ warfare, nuclear holocaust, etc.). Rather, it will come at God’s appointed time, and in God’s appointed way. It will come at the return of the High King of Heaven, and it will be effected by his Word, his Spirit, his angels, and his people (Daniel 7; Revelation 19). Until then, the signs that point to cosmic rebirth will continue. Like a woman in labor, the world will groan, then rest, then groan again. Judgment will fall, blessing will follow, and judgment will fall again. Turmoil will explode upon the scene, business as usual will ensue, and turmoil will again explode upon the scene (Genesis 8:21-22; Matthew 24:36-41; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11). So shall the cosmic labor continue throughout the remainder of this age, with the contractions increasing both in strength and frequency, until at last the World to Come is born and the Bride of Christ is filled with everlasting joy (John 16:21, Revelation 21:1f).

In all of this the mission of the Church is clear. The judgments of God are meant to lead the world to repentance and faith. The blessings of God are meant to lead the world to repentance and faith. And the Gospel preaching of the Church—in which both the judgments and the blessings are interpreted and applied—is meant to lead the world to repentance and faith (Romans 2:4). Accordingly, the Lord’s disciples must never allow themselves to be distracted or unsettled by the beginning of the birth pains. Rather, they must anchor to the truth, keep their cool, and occupy till their Lord comes. In particular, they must seize every God-given opportunity to advance the cause of Christ; and as they do, they must make wise use of “the signs of the time” (Matthew 16:3).

2. Signs of the Imminence of Cosmic Rebirth

There is a second category of signs: signs pointing to the imminence of cosmic rebirth. We see this in the further words of Christ and Paul. Blending predictions of the imminent destruction of Jerusalem with predictions of the Consummation, Jesus speaks of several of these signs (Matthew 24:15-28). In 2 Thessalonians 2 the apostle Paul speaks speak of two in particular: a final world rebellion against the Law and Gospel of God, coupled with a final world leader: an imitator and opponent of the true Christ, who is therefore called the Man of Lawlessness and the Antichrist (2 Thessalonians 2:3-12; 1 John 2:18, 4:3). Other New Testament texts give us a few more.

These signs are different from the beginning of the birth pains: They do not appear throughout the entire era of Gospel proclamation, but only towards, or at, its end. Yes, they are birth pains, but they are the final pains. Here, the cosmic birth process reaches transition. Here there is great agony, but also great ecstasy just on the other side. Awareness of these signs is of great value to the pilgrim Church. Until she sees them come to pass, she knows that the end is “still to come.” When she sees them come to pass, she knows to endure bravely and with great expectation: the shout of the Bridegroom will soon be heard ringing throughout the universe!

By my lights the following biblically predicted events fall into this special category of signs:

  • The completion of world evangelization (Matthew 24:14; Rev. 5:9)
  • The conversion of the great mass of world Jewry (Genesis 45; Luke 21:23-24; Romans 11:11-32)
  • Extraordinarily deep and widespread spiritual darkness (Matthew 24:12; Luke 17:26-30; 2 Thessalonians 2:3)
  • The rise of a satanically controlled and empowered personal Antichrist; the advent of a one-world government, religion, and economy, all of them more or less completely under his control; and a brief but fierce persecution of the true spiritual Church at his hand (Matthew 24:15, 21; 2 Thessalonians 1ff; 1 John 2:1; Revelation 11:7-10, 16:12-16, 19:17-21, 20:7-10)
  • Extraordinary disruptions in the heavens, on the earth, and in world society (Daniel 12:10; Matthew 24:21-22; Luke 21:25-26).

Yes, when the Church sees all these things coming to pass, she may confidently say, “He is near, even at the door!” But will that be a license for her to panic? Far from it! For in that day, by the Spirit of grace, she will find herself doing exactly as her heavenly Husband instructed: Despite all her suffering, she will straighten up, lift up her head, and know that her redemption—even the Consummation of all things—is drawing nigh (Luke 21:28)!

Keep on Keeping On

Why have the Lord and his apostles given us all this trustworthy eschatological truth? The answer is clear: to provide an anchor for our souls, so that when we see the beginning of the births pains—things like the coronavirus, or a plague of locusts in Africa, or raging fires in Australia, or severe earthquakes in Utah—we will not give way to fear, or be shaken from the peace, confidence, and eager expectation that is ours in Christ.

Rather, watching carefully for the true signs of the imminence of the Lord’s Return, we will keep on keeping on. We will faithfully take our nourishment as we journey through the wilderness of this present evil age (Revelation 12:14). We will resolutely abide in the Vine (John 15:4-5). We will diligently follow the Lamb wherever he goes (Revelation 14:4). We will patiently exercise our spiritual gifts (Romans 12:6-8). We will prayerfully and practically love one another (John 13:34; James 2:16; 1 John 3:19). And as we do all these things, we will make every possible Spirit-led effort to love our neighbor, calm his fears, anchor him to the truth, and—God willing—give him a hand up into that great Ark of eternal safety, the Lord Jesus Christ.

Thus shall we keep our cool till the end of the world, and thus shall we glorify the Lord.

 

NOTES

1. For a closer look at the Consummation, please click here.
2. Here is a short article illustrating how long the list can be.

Here is a re-worked article addressing the question of the proper interpretation of OT prophecies of the Kingdom.

My friend Shawn McGrath, at his new amillennialism website, has posted it there as well.

I would encourage you to visit this site: It’s slowly filling up with some really helpful articles, sermons, and videos, all explaining and defending amillennial eschatology. To judge from the number of visitors, the Lord is stirring his people’s curiosity afresh about eschatology.

Makes sense: We are clearly RACING towards “the end of all things,” but more than that, to a glorious new beginning of a glorious new World to Come!

 

This essay is another extract from my book, The High King of Heaven: Discovering the Master Keys to the Great End Time Debate (Redemption Press, 2014).

Here I attempt an exposition of one of the most challenging texts in the NT, Romans 11:11-36. In this passage Paul discusses one of the great biblical signs of the imminence of the return of Christ and the Consummation of all things: the large-scale conversion of ethnic Israel in the last of the Last Days. 

Paul calls this a mystery, and by my lights it is a great one. I hope you enjoy and profit from my humble attempt to plumb its amazing depths.

To read the essay, click here.