Postmillennialism: Exposition and Critique
This article is an extract from my book, The Great End Time Debate: Issues, Options and Amillennial Answers. Because a number of contemporary postmillennarians also embrace Partial Preterism, you may also wish to read my article on Preterism, available here.
Here is a key to some of the abbreviations you will encounter as you read:
GETD = Great End Time Debate
DNT = Didactic New Testament (i.e., the teaching portions of the gospels, the book of Acts, and the epistles)
OTKP = OT Kingdom Prophecy (OT prophecies of the coming Kingdom of God)
NCH = New Covenant Hermeneutic (the NT method for interpreting the OT in general, and OTKP in particular)
(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 “1000 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 first 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 large numbers of Jews will be converted and the world will become largely Christian.
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. More 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.
Very briefly, here is the postmillennarian position on the four underlying issues of the GETD.
The Kingdom of God
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 again, some postmillennarians think of the Millennium as a distinct phase of the Kingdom of Son, in which Christ suddenly binds Satan and then triumphantly extends his spiritual reign over the face of the whole earth. Thus, for these interpreters, postmillennialism is not really a species of present-millennialism, since here the Millennium is present with some, but not all, Christians who live in the Era of Proclamation.
The Interpretation of OTKP
Once again postmillennarians agree with their amillennarian brethren in interpreting OTKPs typologically and figuratively, as being fulfilled under the New Covenant and among its people, the Church. There is, however, a crucial difference: In OT 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.
The Meaning of the Millennium
On this issue postmillennarians differ among themselves. Some identify the 1000 years of Revelation 20 with the entire Era of Proclamation, others with its final thousand years, still others with a season of indeterminate length situated towards 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 (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 (i.e., the Last Battle). 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.
We find, then, that 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 previously to accomplish through the faithful preaching of his Church and the activism of Christian citizens.
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 time line above, let us critically examine the postmillennarian understanding of Salvation History, paying special attention to the four underlying issues we have just identified and discussed.
View of the Kingdom
Amillennarians divide the Kingdom of God into two simple stages: the temporary Kingdom of the Son, followed by the perfect and eternal Kingdom of the Father (Matt. 13:24-30, 36-43; Col. 1:13). But as we have seen, most postmillennarians go on to divide the Kingdom of the Son into two sub-stages: an initial stage of real, difficult, and partial Gospel progress, followed by a millennial stage of enormous Gospel progress. Postmillennarian Ken Gentry speaks for many when he says of the Millennium: “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.”
But this view of the Kingdom of the Son is not supported in Scripture. Nowhere in the 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, we find both Christ and the apostles repeatedly girding the loins of the saints for constant opposition and persecution, though also for a real measure of success as God gathers together 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 ever live and serve in the present evil age (Gal. 1:4). The must redeem the time, for the days are evil (Eph. 5:16). 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). Always and everywhere the Church is a light shining in the deepening darkness of the world-system (Matt. 5:14; John 1:5; Phil. 2:15). Her ongoing experience is one of Great Tribulation (Rev. 7:14). She is constantly 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?
View of OTKP
Postmillennarians argue that many OTKP’s predict a global triumph of the Gospel in the Era of Proclamation (see 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 serious confusion. Yes, postmillennarians are correct when they assert that these prophecies are fulfilled under the New Covenant, and that we must therefore interpret them typologically and figuratively. But they err when they assert that the prophecies are largely 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 NCH. The DNT always depicts the Kingdom of the Son as a temporary season of partial Gospel success leading up to the Consummation, and the Kingdom of the Father as an eternal season of complete success following the removal of all evil at the Consummation. Under the discipline of this rubric we will understand OTKP’s prophecies well. Apart from it we will will stumble into error, false optimism, and deep disappointment.
Let us apply this principle to 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 coronation prayer that they can offer to God in behalf of Solomon and his royal successors. In so doing he gives the world a picture of Israel’s ideal king, and of the blessings that will attend his reign. Premillennarians say that here David is describing the fruits of a millennial era that will begin after Christ’s return. Postmillennarians say he is describing the fruits of a Golden Era that will occur before his return. 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 eternal World to Come. They understand that the mystery of the two-staged Kingdom was hidden from the Psalmist’s eyes, with the result that the latter gives us a seamless vision of the total fruitage of the Messiah’s promised reign.
With the help of the NCH we can see exactly how the vision is fulfilled. For example, 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 (vv. 4, 12; Eph. 2:1–10; 1 Thess. 1:10; Titus 3:3–7). Even now, to his spiritually thirsty people, he is like 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 that will 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 that he himself has ushered in, the mountains will bring forth perfect prosperity (v. 3; Heb. 12:18–24; 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).
It is not that OTKPs 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 themselves will rejoice, for the Golden Age of Israel’s ideal King will have come at last.
View of the Revelation
As a rule, postmillennarians teach that the events described in Revelation 20 follow those described in Revelation 19:11–21. But since Revelation 20:7–15 clearly speaks of the Consummation, postmillennarians conclude that Revelation 19:11–21 must be speaking of something else. According to many preterists, it is the providential “judgment-coming” of the Lord in AD 70, when Titus destroyed Jerusalem. Loraine Boettner argues that this text is giving 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, Revelation 19 is giving us Christ winning a fair measure of Gospel success during the first stage of the Kingdom of the Son, which, in time, will lead to a special binding of Satan, which in turn will inaugurate a millennial era of extraordinary Gospel success (Rev. 20:1–3). In that day, say the postmillennarians, the world will experience “the first resurrection.” That is, it will experience a “. . . restoration and vindication of the cause for which the martyrs died” (John Jefferson Davis) and “a rebirth of the martyr spirit” (Augustus Strong). Accordingly, vast numbers of millennial saints, now fully subject to the Spirit of Christ, will reign in victory over sin on a peaceful and prosperous earth (Rev. 20:4–6). Yes, at the close of the Millennium this global triumph will seem, for the briefest of moments, to end in defeat, as Satan is released from his prison and gathers multitudes against the faithful people of God. But at his Parousia, Christ will swiftly intervene to destroy his enemies (Rev. 20:7–10). This will lead to the Last Judgment (Rev. 20:12–15), which in turn will lead to the advent of the new heavens and the new earth (Rev. 21–22).
But again, the DNT does not support this teaching. As we have seen, Revelation 20 runs parallel to Revelation 17–19, and does not follow it chronologically.1 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 2,000 years into that era (Matt. 12:29; John 12:31; Col. 2:15; 1 Peter 3:22; Rev. 12:7–12). The first resurrection is not a revival of the martyr’s cause or spirit, but rather the perfection of the spirits of the saints as they enter upon the joys of the Intermediate State (Rev. 14:13). And finally, the millennial reign of the saints does not take place on 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 in Christ: the resurrection of their bodies at the Parousia of the High King (Rom. 5:17; 1 Cor. 15:1–58; Rev. 20:11–15).
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. There are, however, some weighty problems.
First, many postmillennarians anticipate a latter-day conversion of ethnic Israel prior to the Golden Era of Gospel success. But this is not the teaching of the DNT, which, by my lights, looks for Israel’s conversion near the end of the Millennium; that is, near the end of the Era of Proclamation. Here the postmillennial error is of real concern, since it robs the Church of an important sign of the imminence of the Parousia: the grafting of (many) ethnic Jews back into the vine of Christ, after which we may soon expect “life from the dead” (Rom. 11:15).
Secondly, Postmillennialism vitiates biblical teaching about the Last Battle. Yes, postmillennarians confess that a Last Battle will occur just 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 a Last Battle (which, for postmillennarians, will come all too soon). Thus, Postmillennialism cuts the nerve of NT teaching, which warns that the Last Battle can swiftly fall upon the Church, and that she must always be ready for it (Mark 13:37; 2 Thess. 2:1–10; 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 such a disappointment. These dire consequences are rooted in Postmillennialism’s failure to see that the entire Era of Proclamation is a season of Gospel combat, conflict, and “great tribulation” (Rev. 7:14).
Finally, Postmillennialism tends to trivialize the Last Battle and the Judgment. Both are solemn 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 Judgment by implying that in virtue of the Golden Era of Gospel progress, relatively few souls will be lost.
On both counts the DNT disagrees. Our Lord said that throughout the Church Era, and especially at its end, his disciples will be hated by all nations (Matt. 10:16–25; 24:9). John relates that the number of those who will wage war against the eschatological camp and city of the saints will be “like the sands of the seashore” (Rev. 20:8). As for the ratio of the saved to the lost, we are unwise to engage in speculation (Luke 13:22–30). Nevertheless, it is sobering to recall that wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and that many go in by it (Matt. 7:13; 13:24–30, 36–43); that Christ refers to his Church as “a little flock” (Luke 12:32); and that those who 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 (Matt. 3:11–12; 13:36–43; James 1:18; Rev. 14:1–4, 14–20). We find, then, that despite its welcome nod to orthodoxy, Postmillennialism gives us a marred and potentially harmful view of the Consummation.
Certainly we can be grateful when our postmillennarian brethren remind us that God has promised to redeem a great multitude of believers out of every tribe, tongue, people and nation (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; let them speak prophetically to the powers that be, urging full conformity to the law of God; and let them be grateful for whatever temporal good their presence may accomplish, whether great or small (John 17:15).
In the end, however, they are wise to view Postmillennialism as a seriously flawed eschatology. As we have seen, it misconstrues the primary purpose of God for the Era of Gospel Proclamation, which is not to Christianize the Domain of Darkness, but rather to rescue a chosen people out of it, and to transfer them into the Kingdom of his beloved Son (Gal. 1:4; Col. 1:13). Its unbiblical doctrine of a Golden Era bleeds into its interpretation of OTKP, distorting the true sense of these precious OT texts. And the same is true concerning the Revelation. But above all, Postmillennialism distorts the believer’s Blessed Hope, focusing it upon an illusory stage of Church history, rather than upon the true signs of the times and the Consummation at Christ’s return (Titus 2:13; 1 Peter 1:13).2
For all these reasons I would urge my postmillennial brethren to come home to your spiritual 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.