I wish to continue with my overview of the three main eschatological systems, amillennialism, postmillennialism, and premillennialism. I did a brief overview of amillennialism with my last post in this series, and with this one, I will review the second of the three, postmillennialism.
The prefix in “postmillennialism” provides the basic understanding of the word. “Post” means “after,” so the idea of postmillennialism is that Christ will return “after the millennium.” But, postmillennialism is much more refined than saying “Christ returns after the millennium.” Popular postmillennial teacher, Kenneth Gentry, provides a concise summary when he writes,
Postmillennialism expects the proclaiming of the Spirit-blessed gospel of Jesus Christ to win the vast majority of human beings to salvation in the present age. Increasing gospel success will gradually produce a time in history prior to Christ’s return in which faith, righteousness, peace, and prosperity will prevail in the affairs of people and of nations. After an extensive era of such conditions the Lord will return visibly, bodily, and in great glory, ending history with the general resurrection and the great judgment of all human kind [Gentry, 13, 14].
Just like amillennialism, postmillennialism has its roots with the 5th century church father, Augustine. Some postmillennial writers try to place postmillennial sympathies with patristic sources earlier than Augustine [Mathison, 27,28], but it was Augustine’s theology in his major work, The City of God, that laid down much of the hermeneutical philosophy for the systems of amillennialism and postmillennialism to thrive.
Though some attempt to argue that theologians following Augustine held to the view of an advancing Kingdom of God going forth into the world to subdue it for Christ, the concept of a victorious gospel is not unique to postmillennial theology. The medieval Roman Catholic Church was amillennial, yet it saw itself as being the Kingdom of God on earth and believed the Church advanced the cause of the Gospel through its efforts to bring earthly nations under the dominion of the pope.
The postmillennialism of our modern era is fairly recent in origin. Postmillennialist, A. H. Strong, attributes the first and fullest treatment to English Arminian theologian, Daniel Whitby (1638-1726), [Culver, 1143]. Whitby, who late in his life rejected orthodox Christology for Arian heresy, published an essay in 1703 on the millennium that was part of a widely read book entitled Paraphrase and Commentary on the New Testament [Grenz, 69]. (It was Whitby’s Discourse on the Five Points that the Baptist minister, John Gill, answered in his massive work, For the Cause of God and Truth). Yet, we must not conclude, as some opposed to the eschatology mistakenly do, that because the postmillennialism we know today was first articulated by an Arminian turned apostate that it is to be rejected without question.
By contrast, the vast number of postmillennialists throughout history, and even in our modern day, are Calvinistic in their theology. Early on, postmillennnialism found favor with many pastors within the Puritan Reformation in England, as well as with American Puritan, Jonathan Edwards. The 18th and 19th centuries saw the greatest postmillennial growth. The eschatology was advocated by such important men as William Carey, A. H. Strong, B. B. Warfield, and David Brown to name a few [Gentry, 17-19; Mathison, 37-53].
The 20th century, however, saw a decline in postmillennialism. Two major world wars severely dampened the notion of a righteous peace prevailing over the affairs of nations. But, the last 35 years or so of the 2oth century have witnessed a resurgence of postmillennialism in the publications of writers like Loraine Boettner, Rousas J. Rushdoony, Greg Bahnsen, and Gary DeMar.
Because postmillennialism has its ancestry with Augustine’s eschatological theology, it shares many common features with amillennialism but with slight modifications. I would refer the reader to my previous post on amillennialism to see a fuller treatment of these points, but as a brief reminder,
* Prophetic literature is symbolic and must be interpreted in a non-literal, typological fashion. Postmillennialists believe all prophetic literature in scripture must be interpreted differently than other types of biblical genre. This is especially true with the book of Revelation.
* Revelation 20 is a recapitulation of previous portions of John’s prophecy. The millennium, then, is understood as the church age. The 1,000 years is not literal, in the sense of real days and years, but is figurative for the time the Church accomplishes Christ’s work upon the earth.
* Satan’s binding is a figurative description of the limiting of his authority to hinder the Gospel work.
* The “first Resurrection” described in Revelation 20:4,5, is spiritual regeneration a person experiences at salvation.
One important area where postmillennialists are different from their amillennial kinfolk has to do with their overall approach to interpreting the book of Revelation. A good portion of postmillennialists interpret John’s Revelation according to a preterist perspective.
Preterism holds to the idea that most of the prophecies written in Revelation were fulfilled in the first century before the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. For instance, “the beast” would be identified with the Roman emperor Nero, or the hail stones described in Revelation 16:21 are the catapult projectiles hurled by the Roman armies besieging Jerusalem. Only the second coming of Christ awaits any future fulfillment, which of course takes place after the Gospel has gone through out the earth bringing all nations under His authority.
The theology behind postmillennialism can be outlined with three specific arguments:
God’s creational purposes. God created the world to be a paradise that reflects His glory. Man’s sin plunged the world into death and decay. The purpose of redemption is not only to bring man to salvation, but is also to restore paradise lost.
God’s sovereign power. God will sovereignly accomplish His purposes and the means He uses to do so is the proclamation and authority of the Gospel.
God’s provision. Additionally, the Church has been empowered by the Holy Spirit to accomplish those means to demonstrate God’s sovereign power, [Gentry, 23,24].
Those theological arguments are built upon numerous passages in both the Old and New Testaments where the Scriptures directly tell of how the Messiah’s kingdom will gradually bring nations under the authority of the Gospel and grow to fill the entire earth. Looking first to the OT for example, there are plenty of Messianic passages in the Psalms and the prophets where God’s Kingdom is seen as overtaking the earth. In the Psalms, Psalm 2, 22:27, 72, for instance, speak of the Messiah’s reign going forth over the earth. Psalm 2 specifically speaks to the nations raging against the “Lord’s anointed” but He will break those nations who oppose Him.
In the prophets, Daniel 2 is one passage in which God reveals through the dream of a pagan king how His kingdom will be like a stone cut without hands and will break in pieces the great nations which opposed Him and His purposes, and then the stone grows into a massive mountain that fills the whole earth. The picture is one of God’s Kingdom gradually filling the whole world, and this is accomplished by the victorious preaching of the Gospel.
Coming to the NT, many of the parables of Jesus speak of the Kingdom of Heaven as gradually having victory over the earth. For instance, in Matthew 13:31, 32, Jesus tells how the Kingdom is likened unto a mustard seed, the smallest of seeds, but it will grow into becoming a great tree where the birds take shelter. The parable of the leaven in Matthew 13:33 compares the Kingdom of Heaven to leaven, which fills the entire loaf of bread with its influence. In the same manner, so too will the Kingdom of Heaven influence the entire earth.
The final words of Jesus to His disciples in Matthew 28:18-20 is that all authority has been given to Him, and He commissions His disciples to go forth into all the world to teach the nations to keep Christ’s commandments. Acts 1:8 adds that the disciples will be given the power of the Holy Spirit for them to accomplish this duty throughout the world. The giving of the Spirit is fulfilled in the next chapter of Acts as the Church is empowered to do the task of evangelizing the nations. The remainder of the book of Acts is a testimony of the victorious gospel winning the hearts of men as the Church faithfully labors with bringing the gospel to the entire world.
In like manner, the modern Church continues to labor for this great commission, and in spite of opposition it faces from a hostile world not yet subdued, the promise of victory by the working of the Holy Spirit is the hope we have to see the nations come to Christ and live in righteousness.
Robert Duncan Culver, Systematic Theology: Biblical and Historical. (Christian Focus, Great Britain, 2005).
Millard Erickson, Contemporary Options in Eschatology: A Study of the Millennium. (Baker Books: Grand Rapids, MI, 1977).
Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., “Postmillennialism” in Three Views of the Millennium and Beyond, ed. Darrell Bock. (Zondervan: Grand Rapids, MI, 1999).
Stanly J. Grenz, The Millennial Maze: Sorting out Evangelical Options. (Inter Varsity Press: Downers Grove, IL, 1992).
Keith A. Mathison, Postmillennialism: An Eschatology of Hope. (P&R Publishing: Phillipsburg, NJ, 1999).