Postimillennialism: An Exposition and Critique
This article is an excerpt from my forthcoming book, The Great End Time Debate, which is an abridgment of a previously published book, The High King of Heaven. For further discussion of the various evangelical options in eschatology please consult these two works.
(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 differ, primarily because postmillennarians are highly optimistic about the progress and societal impact 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 Era of Proclamation, during which time the Jews will be converted and the 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 to advance his universal Kingdom. Recent postmillennarians include Charles Hodge, Benjamin Warfield, Lorraine Boettner, John Jefferson Davis, Jeff Durbin, Marcellus Kik, Keith Mathison, James White, 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.
By way of review, here is the postmillennarian take on the four underlying issues of the Great End Time Debate: The Kingdom of God, the interpretation of OT Kingdom prophecy, the meaning of the Millennium, and the nature of the Consumation.
Postmillennarians agree with their amillennarian brothers that the Kingdom of God is a direct spiritual reign of the triune God, and that it enters history in two fundamental stages: the purely spiritual Kingdom of the Son, followed by the spiritual and physical Kingdom of the Father. But as we just saw, 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. For these interpreters, postmillennialism is not altogether a species of present-millennialism, since here the Millennium is present with some, but not all, Christians who live in the Era of Proclamation.
As for their interpretation of Old Testament Kingdom Prophecy (OTKP), postmillennarians again agree with their amillennarian brethren in interpreting these prophecies typologically, and as being fulfilled under the New Covenant. There is, however, a crucial difference: In texts where amillennarians find the prophets speaking of the World to Come, most postmillennarians find them speaking of the triumphs of the Era of Gospel Proclamation. More on this in a moment.
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. In the latter case, this season is held to 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 linked 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. This painful interlude—so out of character with the preceding years of triumph and blessing—will quickly lead to the Parousia, the several other elements of the Consummation, and the advent of 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 upon all that he was able to previously accomplish through the faithful preaching of his Church.
Does Scripture justify this optimistic scenario? Does the course of Church History to date confirm it? In the following critique we will seek to answer these important questions.
With the help of the diagram above, let’s review the postmillennarian 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 typically 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, resulting in a deeply beneficial impact upon world culture and society. 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 here 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 that is 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 commence after his (first) return. Postmillennarians say he is describing the fruits of the heavenly millennial reign of Christ that commenced on Pentecost and will conclude at 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 who live in “these last days” 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 Christ himself will usher 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 these OTKP’s cannot be understood to promise a 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 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 during 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 a multitude 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 spirits 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).
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 rather 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 outstanding 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.