The Postmillennial View of the Kingdom of God
A. A Definition of Postmillennialism
“We have defined Postmillennialism as that view of the last things which holds that the Kingdom of God is now being extended in the world through the preaching of the Gospel and the saving work of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of individuals, that the world eventually is to be Christianized, and that the return of Christ is to occur at the close of a long period of righteousness and peace commonly called the ‘Millennium.’ It should be added that on postmillennial principles the second coming of Christ will be followed immediately by the general resurrection, the general judgment, and the introduction of heaven and hell in their fullness. The Millennium to which the Postmillennialist looks forward is thus a golden age of spiritual prosperity during this present dispensation, that is, during the Church age, and is to be brought about through forces now active in the world. It is an indefinitely long period of time, perhaps much longer than a literal one thousand years. The changed character of individuals will be reflected in an uplifted social, economic, political and cultural life of mankind. The world at large will then enjoy a state of righteousness such as at the present time has been seen only in relatively small and isolated groups, as for example in some family circles, some local church groups and kindred organizations. This does not mean that there ever will be a time on this earth when every person will be a Christian, or that all sin will be abolished. But it does mean that evil in all its many forms eventually will be reduced to negligible proportions, that Christian principles will be the rule, not the exception, and that Christ will return to a truly Christianized world,” (L. Boettner, The Millennium, p. 14; emphasis mine).
Kenneth Gentry defines PM this way:
“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 [which they identify with the “millennium”] 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 humankind. Hence, our system is postmillennial in that the Lord’s glorious return occurs after an era of ‘millennial’ conditions” (“Postmillennialism,” in Three Views on the Millennium and Beyond, 13-14).
“The postmillennial conception of victory is of a progressive cultural victory and expansive influence of Christianity in history. . . . The personal status of the believer and the corporate standing of the Church in salvation is . . . one of present victory – in principle. . . . The distinctive postmillennial view of Christianity’s progressive victory, in time and history, into all of human life and culture, is postmillennialism’s application of the doctrine of Christ’s definitively completed salvation” (“Whose Victory in History?” in Gary North, ed., Theonomy: An Informed Response [Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1991], 215).
B. Fundamental Tenets of Postmillennial Eschatology
1. The Kingdom of God - The Kingdom of God, according to Postmillennialism (hereafter cited as PostM), is primarily the rule or reign of God spiritually in/over the hearts of men. Thus the kingdom is truly present in this age and is visibly represented by the church of Jesus Christ. In other words, the kingdom “arrives” and is “present” wherever and whenever men believe the gospel and commit themselves to the sovereignty of Jesus Christ as Lord. Several important features of the kingdom in PostM thought are:
a. The kingdom is not to be thought of as arriving instantaneously or wholly via some cataclysmic event at the end of the age (an event such as the second coming of Christ). Indeed, the very name POSTmillennialism indicates that Christ will return only after the kingdom has come in its fullness. The “arrival” of the kingdom, therefore, is gradual (by degrees).
b. The means by which the kingdom extends itself is the gospel of Jesus Christ. The continuing spread and influence of the gospel will increasingly, and in direct proportion thereto, introduce the kingdom. This gradual (but constantly growing) success of the gospel will be brought about by the power of the HS working through the Church. Eventually the greater part, but not necessarily all, of the world’s population will be converted to Christ. As Greg Bahnsen explains, “the essential distinctive of postmillennialism is its scripturally derived, sure expectation of gospel prosperity for the church during the present age,” (“The Prima Facie Acceptability of Postmillennialism,” in The Journal of Christian Reconstruction, III, Winter 1976-77, p. 66). This point is best seen in the PostM interpretation of Revelation 19, a chapter which Amillennialists and Premillennialists understand to be a description of Christ’s coming at the end of the age. B. B. Warfield, a PostM, writes as follows:
“The section opens with a vision of the victory of the Word of God, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords over all His enemies. We see Him come forth from heaven girt for war, followed by the armies of heaven. . . . The thing symbolized is obviously the complete victory of the Son of God over all the hosts of wickedness. . . . The conquest is wrought by the spoken word---in short, by the preaching of the gospel. . . . What we have here, in effect, is a picture of the whole period between the first and second advents, seen from the point of view of heaven. It is the period of advancing victory of the Son of God over the world. . . . 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: and even more richly than Paul, John teaches that this conquest will be decisive and complete. The whole meaning of the vision of Revelation 19:11-21 is that Jesus Christ comes forth not to war merely but to victory; and every detail of the picture is laid in with a view precisely to emphasizing the thoroughness of this victory. The Gospel of Christ is, John being witness, completely to conquer the world. . . . A progressively advancing conquest of the earth by Christ’s gospel implies a coming age deserving at least the relative name of ‘golden,’” (B.B. Warfield, “The Millennium and the Apocalypse,” in Biblical Doctrines, pp. 647-648, 662).
c. At what point, then, does the “millennium” begin? Postmillennialists differ: some say the millennium covers the entire inter-advent age (i.e., the whole period of time between Christ’s first and second comings), whereas others conceive of the present age as in some sense blending or merging into the millennium. In other words, some PostMs see the millennial kingdom as present throughout the whole of the current age whereas others reserve the word millennium for the latter day, publicly discernible, prosperity of the Christian Church.
d. This ever-increasing success of the gospel will bring in its wake a reduction (although not a total elimination) of the influence and presence of sin. Righteousness, peace, and prosperity will flourish. Thus, writes Bahnsen, “over the long range the world will experience a period of extraordinary righteousness and prosperity as the church triumphs in the preaching of the gospel and discipling the nations through the supernatural agency of the Holy Spirit,” (Ibid., p. 63).
Davis adds this important point:
"It should be understood that the postmillennial perspective provides a forecast for the global and long-term prospects of Christianity, but not for the local, short-term prospects of denominations or churches in the nation. . . . [Thus] the merits of the argument for the postmillennial perspective are not to be tied to the judgments about the present or near-term prospects of the Christian church in America" (15).
e. The gospel will also sustain a positive influence in every sphere of society: the economic, political, and cultural life of mankind will be vastly improved. Therefore, this triumph or victory of the Church in the present age is not simply the spiritual/invisible victories in the Christian’s heart or the internal blessings privately experienced by the Church. The prosperity is such as will be visibly and publicly acknowledged. Every domain of human activity will be renewed according to Christian principles and thus brought into service for the glory of Jesus Christ. As Boettner expressed it above, “Christ will return to a truly Christianized world.”
(NOTE: the important point to remember is that all of the preceding (pts. a-e) will occur in the present age, before Christ returns; hence His return is POST (after) Millennial.)
f. At the end of the present age, that is, after the kingdom has spread visibly and powerfully throughout the world but just before Christ returns, there will be a brief time of increased Satanic activity and apostasy. This final rebellion will be crushed by the glorious return of Jesus Christ to the earth, at which time there will immediately follow the general resurrection, final judgment, and eternal state.
g. “In short, postmillennialism is set apart from the other two schools of thought [premillennialism and amillennialism] by its essential optimism for the kingdom in the present age,” (Bahnsen, Ibid., p. 66).
(NOTE: it should also be mentioned that many PostMs believe as do most Premillennialists that a mass conversion will occur among ethnic Israelites. Of course, unlike the Dispensational Premillennialists the PostM denies that this salvation of physical Israel has for its purpose a restoration of the nation in a future earthly millennium.)
2. Biblical Texts cited in support of Postmillennialism
(1) In the OT - Num. 14:21; Psalms 2:6-9; 22:27-28; 47; 72:8-11; 110:1-2; 138:4-5 (cf. 102:15); Isa. 2:2-4; 9:6-7; 11:6-10; 45:22-25; 65; 66; Jer. 31:31-34; Daniel 2:31-35; Zech. 9:9f.; 13:1; 14:9.
(2) In the NT - Matt. 13:31-33; 28:18-20; John 12:31-32; 16:33; I John 2:13-14; 3:8; 4:4,14; 5:4-5; Acts 2:32-36,41; Rom. 11:25-32; I Cor. 15:20-26, 57-58; Hebrews 1:8-9,13; 2:5-9; Rev. 2:25-27; 3:7-9; 7:9-10; 11:15; 19:11-21.
3. Summary of Postmillennialism
“The thing that distinguishes the biblical postmillennialist, then, from amillennialism and premillennialism is his belief that Scripture teaches the success of the great commission in this age of the church. The optimistic confidence that the world nations will become disciples of Christ, that the church will grow to fill the earth, and that Christianity will become the dominant principle rather than the exception to the rule distinguishes postmillennialism from the other viewpoints. All and only postmillennialists believe this, and only the refutation of that confidence can undermine this school of eschatological interpretation. In the final analysis, what is characteristic of postmillennialism is not a uniform answer to any one particular exegetical question . . ., but rather a commitment to the gospel as the power of God which, in the agency of the Holy Spirit, shall convert the vast majority of the world to Christ and bring widespread obedience to His kingdom rule. This confidence will, from person to person, be biblically supported in various ways . . . . The postmillennialist is in this day marked out by his belief that the commission and resources are with the kingdom of Christ to accomplish the discipling of the nations to Jesus Christ prior to His second advent; whatever historical decline is seen in the missionary enterprise of the church and its task of edifying or sanctifying the nations in the word of truth must be attributed, not to anything inherent in the present course of human history, but to the unfaithfulness of the church,” (Bahnsen, Ibid., p. 68).
4. The Difference between Postmillennialism and Amillennialism
Greg Bahnsen, a postmillennialist, is persuaded that the issue reduces to how one answers this question:
"Will the church age (identical with or inclusive of the millennial kingdom) be a time of evident prosperity for the gospel on earth, with the church achieving worldwide growth and influence such that Christianity becomes the general principle rather than the exception to the rule . . . ? This question separates amillennialists (who answer no) from postmillennialists (who answer yes)."
What is really at stake, says Bahnsen, is the question “of the future prospects on earth for the already established kingdom.” As far as postmillennialism is concerned, its essential distinctive, its sine qua non, is its expectation of gospel prosperity for the church during the present age. Similarly, David Chilton defines postmillennialism as “a solid, confident, Bible-based assurance that, before the Second Coming of Christ, the gospel will be victorious throughout the entire world.” Clearly, then, postmillennialists affirm that the church of Jesus Christ will prosper, in this age, both in terms of numerical size and spiritual vitality. Through the gracious power of the Holy Spirit, the vast majority of the human race will be brought to faith in Christ, resulting in worldwide obedience to his kingdom rule. “Our goal,” says Chilton, “is a Christian world, made up of explicitly Christian nations.”
C. The Advocates of Postmillennialism
Postmillennialism, according to its modern advocates, was far more widespread in centuries preceding our own. Among those whom they say were postmillennialists include, in no particular order, the following: John Calvin(?), Theodore Beza, Peter Martyr Vermigli, Martin Bucer, John Owen, Thomas Boston, William Perkins, Thomas Manton, John Flavel, Richard Sibbes, Samuel Rutherford, William Gouge, Jonathan Edwards(?), Matthew Henry, John Cotton, George Whitefield, Archibald Alexander, Charles Hodge, Joseph A. Alexander, A. A. Hodge, C. W. Hodge, Robert L. Dabney, William G. T. Shedd, Augustus H. Strong, Benjamin B. Warfield, J. Gresham Machen, James Henley Thornwell, Patrick Fairbairn, Robert Baillie, Stephen Charnock, Samuel Hopkins, Robert Haldane, David Brown, E. W. Hengstenberg, John Murray(?), Greg Bahnsen, Rousas John Rushdoony, Gary North, and Kenneth Gentry.
D. Varieties of Postmillennialism
1. Classical Postmillennialism - See John Jefferson Davis, Christ's Victorious Kingdom: Postmillennialism Reconsidered (Baker, 1986); Lorraine Boettner, The Millennium (P&R, 1957); J. Marcellus Kik, An Eschatology of Victory (P&R, 1971); and Jonathan Edwards, Apocalyptic Writings, Vol. 5 (Yale University Press, 1977).
2. Reconstructionist or Theonomic Postmillennialism - See the article (Democracy as Heresy)as well as the books in the Bibliography by Bahnsen, Chilton, Rushdoony, North, and Demar.
E. Misconceptions of Postmillennialism
Why has PostM received such bad reviews? Why has it, at least in the twentieth-century, been so casually dismissed by most conservative evangelicals? The answer is found in taking note of several misconceptions and misrepresentations of PostM.
1. Postmillennialism has been mistakenly linked and often identified with belief in the inherent goodness of man. This has occurred despite the fact that the vast majority of postmillennialists of today (and perhaps even in the past) are Calvinists. The result is that postmillennialism has been perceived as teaching that the kingdom of God would be ushered in by human effort alone, independently of the Holy Spirit. Even a scholar as astute as Kenneth Kantzer has recently fallen prey to this error. In his concluding observations to the debate in the Christianity Today Institute, he writes:
"The greatest weakness of postmillennialism is its failure to take seriously the biblical pessimism regarding man’s efforts apart from God."
But not one evangelical postmillennial scholar has ever suggested that the kingdom of God can be advanced by “man’s efforts apart from God.” This sort of misrepresentation must end. What postmillennialists do affirm is what they see as “the biblical optimism regarding man’s efforts through God.”
2. Related to the above is the fact that postmillennialism has been mistakenly identified with the notion of evolutionary optimism and other secular notions of historical progress. This view, writes Boettner, “presents a spurious or pseudo Postmillennialism, and regards the Kingdom of God as the product of natural laws in an evolutionary process, whereas orthodox Postmillennialism regards the Kingdom of God as the product of the supernatural working of the Holy Spirit in connection with the preaching of the Gospel.”
3. Postmillennialism has been mistakenly identified with theological liberalism and the so-called “social gospel”. Thus the kingdom it espoused came to be perceived as some sort of secular utopia that replaced the return of Jesus as the true hope of the church. Iain Murray explains:
"Instead of dependence on divine grace and upon the powerful operations of the Holy Spirit, the new idea of progress substituted concepts of a universal fatherhood of God and of a human race basically good and therefore capable of unlimited improvement. In the same way emphasis was moved from the promises of God as the only basis for the expectation of success to the philosophy of evolution. It is not therefore surprising that when the new teaching which thus reduced the gospel to the human and temporal became prevalent, evangelical Christians came to suspect all teaching [i.e., postmillennialism] which viewed future history as hopeful. They assumed that any belief in the world-wide success of the gospel must rest on the same errors upon which liberalism relied, and that, just as this naturalistic optimism destroyed faith in eternal salvation by giving Protestantism the false goal of an earthly Utopia, so any outlook which offers an assurance that the victories of the Church will yet be far more extensive in the world must similarly cease to represent Christ’s coming as the glorious hope. But these assumptions rested upon a failure to distinguish between two different and indeed inimical schools of thought."
Hope for this earth that is inspired by belief in the power of the Holy Spirit fulfilling the redemptive purposes of God through His church must never be confused with a hope inspired by belief in the power of human legislation, education and moral reform. Not all Christians, though, have been able to distinguish between the two. As Bahnsen points out,
“in their zeal to stand against the liberal tide, large numbers of Christians threw the baby out with the bath. In disdain for the evolutionary social gospel, sincere believers were led to reject Christian social concern for an exclusively internal or other-worldly religion, and to substitute for the earlier belief in a progressive triumph of Christ’s kingdom in the world, a new, pessimistic catastrophism with respect to the course of history.”
4. Postmillennialism has been mistakenly charged with teaching salvific universalism. Whereas postmillennialists do indeed look forward to a day in which vast numbers shall turn to faith in Jesus Christ, at no time do they expect that all will be converted or that sin will be entirely eliminated prior to the eternal state. Evangelical postmillennialists believe no less fervently than premillennialists and amillennialists in the doctrine of hell and the irreversible damnation of those who die without Christ. Let us not forget that Jonathan Edwards, author of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” was himself a postmillennialist of the highest order.
5. Postmillennialists have been accused of being naive and unrealistic. Appeal is often made to extrabibilical events and historically catastrophic occurrences such as World War I, World War II, the nuclear arms buildup, and the ever-disintegrating moral fabric of Western society. To the minds of many, such facts discredit postmillennialism and confirm the philosophy of history espoused by premillennialism. David Chilton and other postmillennialists have labelled this approach to prophecy as “newspaper exegesis” - “studying current events rather than the Bible for clues to the future.” But of course “the question is not whether current conditions seem favorable for the worldwide triumph of the gospel; the question is only this: What does the Bible say?”
John Jefferson Davis reminds us that the postmillennial perspective “provides a forecast for the global and long-term prospects of Christianity, but not for the local, short-term prospects of denominations or churches in the nation.” Says Davis:
"It is quite immaterial, then, to an assessment of the postmillennial outlook whether world conditions improve or decline in the short or intermediate term. Christ’s kingdom will continue to expand, because the living, risen Christ now is reigning victoriously at the Father’s right hand, subduing his foes (1 Cor. 15:25) and empowering the church in its mission (Matt. 28:20). Whatever the immediate course of history might be, the believer’s fundamental outlook remains confident and hopeful, because the crucified One now lives and reigns forevermore, the King of kings and Lord of lords (Rev. 19:16). ‘Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns’ (Rev. 19:6)."
F. Weaknesses of Postmillennialism
1. Postmillennialism minimizes one of the primary experiences that will characterize the church and all Christians throughout this present age: suffering with Christ.
E.g., consider 2 Corinthians 4:7-12. Here Paul "effectively distances himself from the (postmil-like) view that the (eschatological) life of (the risen and ascended) Jesus embodies a power/victory principle that progressively ameliorates and reduces the suffering of the church. . . . Until the resurrection of the body at his return Christ's resurrection-life finds expression in the church's sufferings (and . . . nowhere else--so far as the existence and calling of the church are concerned); the locus of Christ's ascension-power is the suffering church" (Richard Gaffin, "Theonomy and Eschatology: Reflections on Postmillennialism," in Theonomy: A Reformed Critique [Zondervan, 1990], 212).
See also Romans 8:17-18. How long will this experience of suffering with Christ last? How long will the groaning under the weight of weakness last? According to vv. 19,21,23, it will last until the day of our redemption, the return of Christ. Says Gaffin:
"Until then, at Christ's return, the suffering/futility/decay principle in creation remains in force, undiminished (but sure to be overcome); it is an enervating factor that cuts across the church's existence, including its mission, in its entirety. The notion that this frustration factor will be demonstrable reduced, and the church's suffering service noticeably alleviated and even compensated, in a future era before Christ's return is not merely foreign to this passage; it trivializes as well as blurs both the present suffering and future hope/glory in view. Until his return, the church remains one step behind its exalted Lord; his exaltation means its (privileged) humiliation, his return (and not before), its exaltation" (214-15).
"as Paul reminds the church just a few verses after the Romans 8 passage considered above (v. 37), not 'beyond' or '[only] after' but 'in all these things' ('trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword,' v. 35), 'we are more than conquerors.' Until Jesus comes again, the church 'wins' by 'losing'" (216).
"Any outlook that tends to remove or obscure the (constitutive) dimension of suffering for the Gospel from the present triumph of the church is an illusion. The misplaced expectation, before Christ's return, of a 'golden age' in which, in contrast to the present, opposition to the church will have been reduced to a minimum and suffering will have receded to the periphery for an (at last) 'victorious' Christendom -- that misconception can only distort the church's understanding of its mission in the world. According to Jesus, the church will not have drained the shared cup of his sufffering until he returns. The church cannot afford to evade that point. It does so at the risk of jeopardizing its own identity" (217-18).
Kenneth Gentry responds to Gaffin by insisting that the “suffering” in view in these texts need not be generalized beyond the experience of the apostles and the first century church. He does not argue that suffering connected with indwelling sin and creaturely mortality will be eradicated, but he does insist that, as external opposition to the gospel progressively diminishes, suffering for the faith (i.e., persecution) will be reduced to negligible proportions.
2. Postmillennialism undermines the NT emphasis on the church's imminent expectation of Christ's return. That is to say, PostM undermines the element of watchfulness that is essential to the NT church. See 1 Cor. 16:22; Rom. 13:11-12; Phil. 4:5; Js. 5:8; 1 Pt. 4:7; 1 Jn. 2:18; Rev. 1:3; 22:20.
3. The OT identifies the "golden" age of consummate success and triumph with the New Heavens and New Earth which come only after the millennium of Rev. 20 (Rev. 21-22).
4. The NT seems to anticipate that the number of those saved when Christ returns will not be as great as the PostM suggests, and that conditions will be decidedly bad, not good. See Mt. 7:13-14; Lk. 18:8; 2 Thess. 2:3-4; 2 Tim. 3:1-5,12-13; 4:3-4. In the parable of the Tares in Mt. 13:36-43 "Jesus taught that evil people will continue to exist alongside of God's redeemed people until the time of harvest. The clear implication of this parable is that Satan's kingdom, if we may call it that, will continue to exist and grow as long as God's kingdom grows, until Christ comes again" (Hoekema).
5. PostM's interpretation of Rev. 19-20 seems forced and artificial. See the later lesson for an exegesis of these texts.
6. Scripture (esp. the NT) nowhere explicitly teaches the progressive and eventual wholesale reconstruction of society (arts, economics, politics, courts, education, etc.) according to Christian principles prior to Christ's return. Of course, there may be relative success in this regard in isolated instances.
Gary North contends that essential to any notion of Christians “reigning” in history is “Christians’ possession of the judicial authority to impose negative civil sanctions or the private economic power to impose both positive and negative cultural sanctions [in particular, those given in Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28]” (Millennialism and Social Theory, 87).