RPM, Volume 10, Number 51, December 14 to December 20 2008

Why Not Postmillennialism?

By Lewis Neilson

Many amillennialists and most premillennialists are inclined to believe that there can be left no serious contenders for postmillennialism, and that the only controversy of any semblance of "legitimacy" is between premillennialism and amillennialism. However, postmillennialism is today not moribund and there are sincere and sober evangelical contenders for postmillennialism. Possibly the number of such adherents is actually on the increase.

The truth is that in many respects the evangelical postmillennialist has a more profound understanding of the prophetic and eschatalogical aspects of Scripture than does the premillennialist, particularly the dispensational premillennialist. The evangelical postmillennialist accepts the propositions that the people of God are one, that spiritual Israel and the church are one, that there is only one second coming of Christ followed by general resurrection, judgment, separation, new heavens and earth and hell. He recognizes that the Old Testament prophetic blessings find their fulfillment in the New Testament church and the eternal state. Some may even believe in a last apostasy under Antichrist immediately prior to Christ's return.

The amillennialist asserts that the millennium spoken of at Revelation 20:1-10 is the period from Christ's first advent until a short time prior to Christ's one second coming. Although he recognizes certain New Testament portions of Scripture that have a bearing on the course of the interadvental age, he does not claim to know specifically just how good or evil will be the times or any particular time or times before Christ returns (although he generally believes in a final apostasy and manifestation of Antichrist), or even to what extent the Jews will believe and enter the church. However, from Scripture he does believe that the gospel of Jesus Christ will go to the ends of the earth, that as a general reality the world will hate the church, that the church will face conflicts and perilous times, and that quite likely there will be a general and continuing unrest in the world and occurrences of physical catastrophes. He recognizes the possibility that true Christians may always be a minority, even at times a very small minority. Even though many do not bow to Jesus Christ, the amillennialist sees the world span of the church, regardless of how strong or even weak the church may appear to man's eyes, as indeed the fulfillment of much of Scripture prophesied blessing, a filling the earth with a knowledge of God. Regardless of the external image of its fortunes, the church and kingdom of God are victorious at all times.

The postmillennialist differs from the amillennialist in believing that the Revelation 20 millennium is a unique period within the whole Christian age, whether it be a literal 1000 years or a protracted but indefinite period. There is during this unique period a special binding of Satan and a unique manifestation of the rule of the church in the world, either through the conversion of multitudes beyond anything yet seen, or through the permeating influence of the church or people of God displayed on a scale never yet achieved. He believes that a number of Old Testament prophecies will be fulfilled on earth in a manifest rule of justice and peace beyond any past or present attainment, all the result of Holy Spirit-wrought spiritual, social, governmental, and technical progress within the human race. Some postmillennialists believe that there is yet a great spiritual blessing for national Israel to be obtained by faith in Christ and entry of Jews into the church, even a blessing in the promised land. The postmillennialist pleads that we take the long view of history, and exercise faith in God's promises of a better day, regardless of the bleakness of past or present horizons. The Scriptures in their announcement of hope must overcome any tendency on our part toward pessimism.

I have no difficulty in grasping the contentions of the postmillennialist; nevertheless, I cannot adopt the postmillennial thesis because to me it appears to conflict with my overall impression of Scripture teaching and interpretation of certain specific and relevant portions of Scripture.

Genesis 3:15 tells us of the battle between the seed of the woman and of the serpent. There is reason to believe it will continue as long as the then pronounced curses on man and woman will last — which is until Christ returns. In the Old Testament history, at least, the seed of the woman was greatly outnumbered by the seed of Satan; even it appears, within national Israel. The world and even Israel lay in decay at the time of the first advent of Christ.

Only Noah and his family were contrary to the prevailing evil trend in the period before the deluge, and only Lot and possibly his family were contrary to the continuing wickedness of Sodom and Gomorrah prior to their fiery destruction. Both the flood and the fire and brimstone on Sodom and Gomorrah are judgments advanced in Scripture as examples of the end of the age. If the Old Testament history is any indication of the course during the Christian era, the true church of Jesus Christ will be a remnant, an enclave within even the professing church and the world. To date this has been the character of the Christian era. The true church has been a light in the midst of much darkness; and while Christian philosophy has been an ameliorating influence, still ungodliness has been and is rampant.

However, the postmillennialist will answer that we are no longer in Old Testament times, and that under the new covenant God's grace moves on a grander scale, the dark backdrop of Old Testament history only serving to cast in relief both the prophecies in the Old Testament and an inherent expectancy in the New Testament of a great glory to be achieved in the earth by Christ through the church. We are not shackled by the past; rather there is yet to be a dazzling and visible success of the kingdom of God upon this earth.

In reaching his conclusion the postmillennialist often makes any of the following departures from the general amillennial approach, or at least from the stand taken by the writer in this book:

1. He may contend that all the dark delineations including the announcement of a great tribulation as spoken by Christ in the Olivet Discourse were fulfilled before and in the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. This would mean, as far as the instructive purpose of this Discourse is concerned, that the character of the period from A.D. 70 until Christ's return is not therein disclosed.

2. Some feel that Romans chapter 11, depending on the meaning attached to the word Israel in the statement And so all Israel shall be saved does prophesy during the church age either a glorious revitalization of the church or a great revival among the Jews with a concomitant great effusion of mercy to the Gentiles.

3. The postmillennialist may contend that most of what is portrayed in Revelation chapters 4 through 19, chapters seemingly indicating evil and spiritual and physical conflict on earth, has already been fulfilled, possibly within the first few centuries A.D.

4. He asserts that the millennium of Revelation 20:1-10 is a unique and special time period within the full period between Christ's first and second advents. He contends, as does the premillennialist, that certain Old Testament prophecies, mostly found in the Psalms and Prophets, find their fulfillment in this special time period, although contrary to the premillennialist he believes they are fulfilled in a somewhat different manner prior to Christ's return. For example, the postmillennialist will cite Isaiah 11:9 to the effect that "the earth shall be full of the knowledge of Jehovah, as the waters cover the sea" and assert that this tells us of a time on earth when righteousness shall be triumphant over all the earth. The postmillennialist sees this through the agency of the church indwelt by the Holy Spirit. The premillennialist will see the same reign of righteousness in the earth—but only with the glorified Christ returned and present upon the earth.

5. Finally, he ascribes to those certain Old Testament prophecies, mostly in the Psalms and Prophets, a significance beyond a proclamation of the existence and privilege of the church and its earth-spanning activities. He will not admit that the prophecies are fulfilled regardless of the apparent numerical strength of the church or influence of the church in the world and upon its government and culture. Rather he attributes to these prophecies a pronouncement of dazzling and highly visible success of Christ through the church in earthly life and institutions. There will be a justice, peace, and beneficence transcending anything thus far. Nations en masse will bow to the rule of Jesus Christ, secure from the devastations of war and doing righteously. The triumph of the church will be a visible triumph over society.

I have already dealt with the Olivet Discourse in chapter 11 and explained why I believed the dark delineations in that instruction pertained to the whole course of the age until Christ's return and why great tribulation meant a final onslaught, likely under Antichrist, against the church. Such an interpretation, if correct, does in no small manner tend to undermine the postmillennial position. I believe it accords with other seemingly dark delineations in the New Testament.

Also, even if the postmillennial interpretation of the Olivet Discourse were correct, generally the best it would mean, forgetting for the moment Romans 11 and the most optimistic view of other New Testament passages of foreboding sentiment, is that little is told us in Matthew-Jude about the character of the age until Christ returns. There is little of positive statement in Matthew-Jude to warrant an expectancy of a unique golden period prior to Christ's return. Even assuming that leaven and the mustard tree in Christ's parables of the kingdom symbolize good and not evil, I would not want to read too much of specific outworking into them.

I have in chapter 13 expressed my views on Romans chapter 11, indicating that I did not feel the word Israel in 11:26 referred to the church as a whole and why I did not feel that it prophesied a great evangelization among the Jews. This does not mean that there may not be such an occurrence — just that one is not predicted. I must also state, however, that I discover other matters in the New Testament which tend against such an evangelization. If these verses of Romans 11 did prophesy an amazing evangelization among the Jews, they would probably be the strongest verses in Matthew-Jude for the postmillennialist, although they fall far short of prophesying a golden age of justice, peace, and technological boon.

If chapters 4 through 19 of Revelation apply to the period between Christ's two advents, as I believe they do, then the postmillennial position is weakened for there is definite imagery in these chapters of peril, strife, and physical calamity. Even if the postmillennialist were correct about these chapters, still his contention that Revelation 20:1-10 applies to some unique period occurring after, but not necessarily immediately after, the first few centuries A.D. would not constitute a ringing affirmation for a number of assertions of postmillennialism. Revelation 20:1-10 does not say that there will be great peace and justice upon earth for the 1000 years, nor does it nor the remainder of Revelation state that Old Testament prophecies are to find unique fulfillment in this special period, conceived of as being a discrete time span within the Christian era.

If the 1000 years of Revelation 20 is to be taken literally as 1000 years, then obviously the millennium is a discrete period within the total interadvental period. Postmillennialism in the sense that and unique 1000 literal years is carved out of the Christian era would be correct. However, Matthew-Jude and even the remainder of Revelation would shed little light on the character of such a unique period. Even Revelation 20 itself would be cryptic; stating only that the saints reign as priests and Satan is bound so as not to deceive. The statement that the saints reign as priests would not be precisely instructive inasmuch as Scripture tells us that every saint of the Christian era reigns as a priest with Christ. Revelation 20 does not tell us how the reign in the 1000 years would be any different from the general reign of the saints. What is meant in Revelation 20:1-10 by Satan's being bound that he should no longer deceive? Where in the remainder of Revelation, or in Matthew-Jude, do we find instruction as to the change such a special binding at a certain point in time will make in the character of the whole church age?

If, however, the 1000 years is not to be taken literally, but rather symbolically (and I have given reasons in chapter 18 for so taking it symbolically), then with respect to amillennialism versus postmillennialism there is no cogent New Testament reason for considering the 1000 years to be other than practically the full span of the church age. Exegetically what Revelation 20 says of the millennium can, as I have shown, apply to any part of the whole church age prior to the releasing of Satan. Hence we have already been in the millennial period for about 2000 years. Revelation 20 states that saints reign during the millennium. They have been reigning since Pentecost. Therefore, it is likely that the millennium commenced at least back then.

From the New Testament itself, unless the 1000 years must absolutely be taken literally, there is little to indicate that there is any special period of unusual righteousness during the church age or that the gospel will produce either a peak or plateau of remarkable world-dominating success and influence. Rather we are told to keep to the task of evangelization and teaching disciples and that out of the hearers some will believe and some will not believe; we are to contend earnestly for the faith in a world that will produce false prophets and mockers. In fact, in chapter 16 of this book entitled Course of the Age, I have indicated that the prevailing New Testament impression is one of an evil and adulterous age until Christ returns. There is no explicit or clear teaching in the New Testament, and there are no New Testament summarizations of Old Testament teaching, which tell us that the Old Testament spoke of some unique or culminating period in the Christian era. Instead we are specifically told that events in the church in New Testament times were fulfillments of Old Testament prophecy and continuation of those conditions would be on-going fulfillment.

For example, the following are descriptive of fulfillments of Old Testament prophecies. Luke 1:68 tells us that the Lord God of Israel has visited us and accomplished redemption for his people, and Luke 2:30-32 tells us that the salvation prepared in the presence of all peoples and a light of revelation to the Gentiles has come. What has transpired for the last 2000 years has been part of that on-going fulfillment. If we could quantify the sweep of the gospel over the last two millennia, a continuation of the same, without any unique period, would be, at least as far as the New Testament seems to speak, a fulfillment of the prophecies.

In a sense the postmillennialist, consciously or unconsciously, does, but not to the same degree, what the premillennialist does: tend to exalt certain prophecies of the Old Testament above the teaching, or even absence of teaching, in the New Testament, and take Old Testament prophecies in a more literal sense and accept the premise that the nature of their fulfillment is sufficiently apparent on their face or evident from a reading of the words employed. Further, the postmillennialist may apply certain prophecies to the church age which may really be prophecies of the new heavens and earth.

The New Testament, by its statements and even by its silences, is still the best interpreter of the Old Testament and the overall impression created by Matthew-Jude, particularly if the Olivet Discourse and Romans 11 are to be interpreted as specified in this book, is nonconformatory of postmillennial assertions about the meaning of Old Testament prophecy. Even if the Olivet Discourse should be interpreted in the manner contended by many postmillennialists, Matthew-Jude would still be nonconfirmatory. Apart from Revelation 20:1-10 the book of Revelation is nonconfirmatory. I have already indicated why the "rule with rod of iron" verses of Revelation are nonconfirmatory.

What I have said in chapter 17 on the millennium about a presumption against major new doctrine in Revelation, and in chapter 29 on premillennialism about God's revelation being discernible to the mind and not requiring special inner revelation, also applies to Revelation 20:1-10 and postmillennialism. We should not expect that highly symbolical portion of chapter 20 to introduce to the New Testament some major new doctrine not elsewhere taught in the New Testament. The postmillennial interpretation would be the introduction of a major new doctrine. However, we have seen that Revelation 20:1-10 can scripturally be interpreted in accord with the Matthew-Jude impression which is preponderantly amillennial. As against the amillennialist the postmillennialist has to hang his argument on the meaning of the words bound and deceive in Revelation 20 and there is nothing in the New Testament to certify a meaning other than that claimed by the amillennialist.

We have noted how the amillennial model comports with Genesis and the remainder of the Pentateuch. There is no convincing postmillennial foundation in those books for the psalmists or prophets to build upon. We have seen that the Prophets can integrate with an amillennial model built both upon the New Testament and the earlier books of the Old Testament. Even if the prophecies of triumph in the Prophets should assume a fulfillment that could be called a "golden age" on earth before Christ returns, that would not at all be contrary to the amillennial model, although it might be contrary to some expectancies declared by some Amillennialists. For none of us knows just how dazzling will be God's work in the church and for how long. The amillennialist just claims that Revelation 20:1-10 does not single out of the interadvental period any unique period of peace and justice.

I see history thus far as perfectly in accord with the amillennial model and I see no adequate scriptural reason to expect a future divergence. The amillennialist does not have to say that there cannot in the future be some fantastic victories for Christ on earth, even beyond any to date; rather he states that Scripture does not clearly prophesy such glorious and irenic times. If the Scriptures do not clearly prophesy such times, then we continue to abide by both the consolations and warnings of the New Testament pertaining to our age, keeping to the task, and leaving the exact degree of righteousness obtained thereby in the hands of the Lord. A proclamation of the postmillennial theory, I believe, is beyond the bounds of scriptural instruction and authority.

This article is provided as a ministry of Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill). If you have a question about this article, please email our Theological Editor.

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