It was the best of times, it was the end of times.
In the world of Bible Study, there is one topic that rather consistently appears near the top of most student’s List of Fascinating Subjects, the topic of Eschatology. Eschatology is simply the study of end things. When you study Eschatology you are looking into the pages of Scripture and asking the question, “Where is this world headed?” The good news for Bible students is that God’s Word is not silent on this topic. All through the Scriptures are passages intended to give the believer clarity about what is to come.
While the study of Eschatology may seem like an academic endeavor cut off from any real world meaning and significance, in reality what we believe about God’s plan for the future has deep significance for how we live our life today. In this short blog post I certainly cannot give a thorough overview of the three primary beliefs about where this is headed. Rather, I want to lay out an abbreviated Biblical case for my position and demonstrate why this topic is not only worthy of attention and study, but vitally important for laying the proper foundation for how we go about living our lives as Christians today. As I do this, I also just want to note that I do so with utter humility, knowing that the position I take will be different from the position many others take. I have learned and continue to learn a great deal from thinkers all across the board on this topic. I could be wrong, but I don’t think I am, bahaha. Let’s jump in.
The position I argue for is historically referred to as Postmillenialism. I prefer to use the phrase Optimistic Amillenialism as I think that phrase helps capture the idea better. If those two words seem like they are absolutely foreign, allow me to explain. In the book of Revelation (the last book of the Bible) there is a verse that refers to a thousand year period where Satan is bound from “deceiving the nations.” One of the big questions that must first be asked is, “What is that thousand year period referencing?” Some believe it is a reference to a literal future thousand year period on Earth where Christ will reign in physical presence from Jerusalem. The entire thousand years will be primarily focused on ethnic Israel and fulfilling many of the promises made to them in the Old Testament. Others (like myself) see the thousand year reference as a metaphor for a long extended period of time referring to the Church Age, the age we are currently living in right now.
This view that I argue for is sometimes critiqued as not reading the Bible literally enough. I am sensitive that critique because I argue for a strict literal reading of Scripture. To read the Bible literally is to believe that the text means what the author meant the text to mean. So if we are going to read the Bible literally we have to ask what was the author intended to say. When we read the entire Book of Revelation we understand quickly that the whole book is designed with images and metaphors which are used to essentially communicate insider truths to Christian readers of John’s day. We read of, “beasts coming out of the sea,” and people placing, “marks on their foreheads.” These are metaphors and symbols referring to actual event. Nobody actually reads about the beast coming out of the sea and thinks a literal monster is going to come out of the Mediterranean Sea. It’s written symbolically and meant to be read symbollicaly. We read in Revelation 12:3, “Then another sign appeared in heaven: There was a great fiery red dragon having seven heads and ten horns, and on its heads were seven crowns.” Based on the context of chapter 12 and chapter 13, this beast is clearly metaphoric language for the Roman empire. The list could go on of symbols and metaphors used throughout Revelation. What I am trying to say is that it is a literal reading of Scripture to recognize that Revelation was written intentionally with metaphoric language in order to speak about current political events (in John’s 1st century) in a way that Christians would be able to interpret, and that outsiders would be confused by.
What this means is that it not over-spiritualizing the text to recognize that all of Revelation has symbolic overtones. Rather it is a literal reading to understand that the author used the thousand year period to refer symbolically to a lengthy time period, to the age you and I still live in, the Church age. That view, is historically either referred to as amillenialism or postmillenialism. In these view we realize that Jesus Christ is ruling and reigning right now. His reign does not start at some point in the future. He reigns now. Remember Jesus said, “All authority has been given to me in heaven and on Earth (Matt. 28:18).” We believe that Satan has been bound from “deceiving the nations.” This means that as Satan’s ability to blind Gentiles from believing the gospel has been broken. He is bound now! Therefore as we send missionaries out to every country across the globe we can do so with a genuine belief and knowledge that the gospel will prevail.
The question then becomes whether we should be optimistic about where the world is headed or pessimistic. Will Christ’s Kingdom truly grow during this Church? And to what extent? Or is it pretty much downhill from here?
Let’s consider some Bible verses. The Bible teaches that Jesus will have victory over all of his enemies. Psalm 22:27, “All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD, and all the families of the nations shall worship before you.” God’s Kingdom will grow to all the ends of the Earth. Psalm 72:8-11 reads, “May he have dominion from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth!… May all kings fall down before him, all nations serve him!” God’s Kingdom will eventually cause all Kings to bow before the one true King. One of our favorite Christmas verses Isaiah 9:6-7 reads, “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given… Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore.” What are these verse saying if not that under the reign of Christ, the Church age that we are currently, Jesus reign will expand progressively. His rule and reign over the Earth will increase over time. Daniel 2:35 speaks prophetically of the messiah’s kingdom reading, “But the stone that struck the image became a great mountain and filled the whole earth.” The stone is Jesus and the mountain is His Kingdom. Daniel tells us that Gods’s Kingdom will grow to fill the whole Earth. When Jesus taught us to pray he said, “Pray then like this: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven (Matt. 6:9-10).” When we pray this prayer we are literally asking that Earth would become like heaven. That every knee would bow to Jesus, that sin would be eradicated, that God’s will would be done here on this Earth. In a sense, whenever we pray this we are praying as if we are postmillenialists. Isaiah 11:9 reads, “… the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.” This is not speaking about heaven, it is speaking about the Kingdom of God that Jesus established, it is speaking about where we are headed as an Earth.
One of the clearest verses is in 1 Corinthians 15 where Paul writes, “Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. “The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Cor. 15:24-26).” Here we see an order to things very clearly. During Christ’s reign (that is right now) every enemy that stands against Christ and His Kingdom will be destroyed. Once that has taken place, Christ will return and destroy the last enemy that stands against humanity, death itself.
I gave a short smattering of verses above, but quite literally the entire Bible is filled with this kind of language. The big idea is that Jesus established His Kingdom during his ministry defeating sin and satan at the cross and through the resurrection. With Satan bound (meaning greatly limited in capacity and stripped of authority and power) he is unable to stop the progressive growth of the Kingdom of Christ as the gospel goes out in power to the nations. As Jesus said to Peter, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it (Matt. 16:18).” As the Church goes out and proclaims Christ and established His Kingdom ethic, Satan will be powerless to stand against.
What the Big Dogs Have Said
[Please note, most of the quotes I use in this section were first compiled by Greg Bahnsen in his book ‘Victory in Jesus.’]
Now, just in case you think I’m in wacky-land, its helpful to realize that what I write in this post has been the standard of thinking and interpretation of the Bible through most of history, and especially since the Reformation. By and large, most of the theologians that have helped shape and mold Christianity as we know it held to the same view. John Calvin was highly optimistic in his view of the expansion of Christ’s Kingdom on this Earth prior to Christ’s return.”God not only protects and defends [the kingdom of Christ]’, but also extends its boundaries far and wide, and then preserves and carries it forward in uninterrupted progression to eternity…” and later he says, “While the fullness of days began at the coming of Christ, it flows on in uninterrupted progress until he appears the second time for our salvation (Commentary on John 13:31).” Most of the Reformers of Calvin’s day and their successors held to this view, in fact it was this view of the progressive growth of Christ’s kingdom that fueled the Reformers with such bold courage. Zwingli, Bibliander, Martin Bucer, Theodore Beza all held this same view.
Samuel Rutherford wrote, “Yet we are to believe, Christ… shall reign a victorious conquering King to the ends of the earth. O that there were nations, kindreds, tongues and all the people of Christ’s habitable world, encompassing his throne…” He was sure to be clear that he was not referring to a future physical reign of Christ, but rather to this Church age. The list continues through most of the Puritan writings such as Jonathan Edwards and John Owen. Owen wrote, “Though our persons fall, our cause shall be as truly, certainly, and infallibly victorious… This greatly comforts and refreshes me.” Again some of the great theologians such as Louis Berkhof and Charles Hodge, BB Warfield, and Abraham Kuyper all held and wrote extensively on this topic. Charles Hodge wrote, “As emphatically as Paul, John teaches that the earthly history of the Church is not a history merely of conflict with evil, but of conquest over evil… A progressively advancing conquest of the earth by Christ’s gospel implies a coming age deserving at least the relative name of “golden.“
The point of this section is simply to highlight that in the world of orthodox, trusted, Biblical study, this optimistic view of Christ’s Kingdom was not only present, but was the primary lens of interpreting scripture. It is only in fairly recent history that the pessimistic view of the trajectory of Christ’s Kingdom has gained such prominence.
So What – Make it Practical
As I began by saying, this optimistic belief of where we are headed actually does have very real world practical applications and implications. If I were a pre-millenialist, I would hold to a fairly negative and pessimistic view of where the world is headed. Most pre-millenialists believe that the world will get worse and worse until Christ returns. Under this view there is very little firm foundation or true belief that what we do as a Church, and how we labor as Christians will have an impact. We essentially end up working against ourselves. We proclaim the gospel and fight for justice and God’s ethic all while believing internally that its a waste of time and that no true change will ever come. That’s not necessarily a reason to believe pre-millenialism is not true, it is simply the way it works.
The postmillenialist on the other hand has a bold courage in this world fueled by an actual belief that what we do in this life actually matters. With the belief that God’s Kingdom will progressively grow, Christians are emboldened to proclaim the gospel knowing that their proclamation will be effective. Christians are emboldened to step into Biblical injustices and abominations, such as abortion, knowing that at some point in the future all of God’s enemies will be put under his feet. This means that we can have real firm hope that we will be victorious in our fight to see the evils of abortion ended. While it may not happen in our lifetime (in fact, while it might get worse in our lifetime), ultimately Christ’s Kingdom wins. Far from simply trying to just help culture be a little bit better and a little nicer before it all burns, the postmillenialist established everywhere they go an uncompromising rule and reign of Christ knowing firmly believing that great prayer, “on Earth as it is in heaven.“
You can see how this changes everything. With this optimistic victorious mindset the Reformers and the Puritans boldly developed Christian culture wherever they went. They built nations! The established hospitals. They developed new forms of Government that had never existed. They sought to make unjust laws just. They established university for the study of God and the proclamation of his gospel. This is what happens to a heart that reads the scriptures and is convinced of God’s progressive growth of His Kingdom. Will there be hardships along the way – yes of course! Will there be persecutions along the way – yes of course! Might seasons of world history make it seem like Christ’s Kingdoms is failing – perhaps. Yet – God’s Word never fails.
I hope this post serves as a starting point for you. I suspect some will read this and be utterly confused. That’s okay. A great book to begin the journey of learning on this topic is Victory in Jesus by Greg Bahnsen. Enjoy!