Premillennialism, by placing the inauguration of Christ’s Kingdom in the future, encourages the Church to keep circling the runway in a perpetual holding pattern until Jesus returns. This has led to all kinds of ecclesial passivity where the Church’s mission is not something we do today but rather an appeal for divine intervention. It is like a child waiting for the parent to clean the room for them. Jesus did not commission us to such a petulant posture.
Hello everyone, and welcome back to our new series called A Practical Postmillennialism, where we are talking about the end-times doctrine called postmillennialism. We will define that term and see a Biblical case for that doctrine in the weeks ahead. Still, in these early episodes of this series, we need to look at the other eschatological views and show how they are not only deficient but actually contribute to a defeatist mindset that has hampered the Church in the modern world, caused her to retreat from culture, expecting an imminent return of Christ who will come and rescue a bruised and beaten up church. This inglorious view has done much to harm the bride of Christ and immobilize her for mission. So before we get to the Biblical view of the end-times and the good news that postmillennialism puts forward, we have to wade through the dirty waters of eschatological defeatism, identifying it for what it is, and flushing it back to where it belongs.
In our first blog, called Defeating Defeatism, we tackled the most egregious of the end-times perspectives, a relative newcomer among the positions on eschatology, which is called Dispensationalism. There, it was shown how Dispensationalism is a theological system of fragmentation, slicing the Bible up into seven arbitrary and totally made-up epochs, which have little to nothing to do with each other. Like ripping a chapter out of seven different books, combining them together, and trying to create a cohesive story, Dispensationalism produces only incoherence and (as a viewpoint) inspires no one to do anything. This does not mean all Dispensationalists are lazy couch potatoes who are merely eeking their way through life. But, it does mean that whenever dispensationalists do any Kingdom work, evangelizing and making disciples, building and planting churches, they are not operating consistently within their own frame of reference. If the sky is always falling, there is no time to build. Which means whenever they do build, they are betraying their own view.
Furthermore, by destroying the unity of Scripture, assigning the Church to an arbitrary era that is doomed to fail, and by punting all of the promises of Jesus’ Kingdom to an indeterminate epoch we will never see in the future, proponents of this view naturally withdraw from culture, because frankly, what’s the point? We will never win; we will only lose, and our only hope is to be slingshotted out of here in an unbiblical rapture. The consequences of this action are devastating. While they have removed themselves from culture, society has supremely decayed, becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy for the prophecy pundits. Instead of seeing the clear and obvious truth that society has worsened because the Church has failed to engage it (as the salt and light as Jesus commanded), dispensationalists continue to avoid culture. It continues to worsen because of that, and their fever to escape the mess they have created ever increases. Like a fussy child who uses meltdowns to manipulate the parents, refusing to clean his room because it has gone from bad to worse, knowing mom will eventually step in and perform the rescue mission, dispensationalists frantically adopt increasing levels of mania over society and the future, much like the prophets of Baal, attempting to get Christ to come and take them home. This “winning” view has produced a landscape of losers, and it is high time for us to discard it.
In our second episode, I invited renowned Bible teacher and scholar Gary Demar onto the PRODCAST to help us understand how, Biblically, this view does not work. For over an hour, Gary took us through one passage after another, proving how a rigid commitment to futurism does not account for what we see in the text. He showed us how wars and rumors of wars, famines, earthquakes, the abomination of desolation, the great tribulation, and others are not signs of a future tribulation period under a European Antichrist. But actual historical events that happened in the lead up to the destruction of Jerusalem. And as I said, Gary Demar took on one passage after another for over an hour, completely and totally undermining that view. I highly recommend you go and check out that episode.
Today, we will look at the more reasonable older sister of Dispensationalism, Historic Premillennialism. By Premillennialism, I mean that Jesus will return pre (which means before) He institutes His millennial reign. Unlike Amillennialism and Postmillennialism, which see Jesus currently reigning on His throne in heaven, Historic Premillennials await Christ’s future and physical reign on earth, which will last for a thousand calendar years. To properly examine this view and to show how it is deficient, I will need to move quickly, painting with broad strokes, and I will not be able to be exhaustive. My goal is to show that this view is not Biblical and actually produces anti-Biblical attitudes in the Church, which has led to the mess we are currently in in this country. That’s right, I believe Premillennialism (both Historic Premillennialism and its red-headed Dispensational heifer) is one of the chief reasons that society is murdering a million babies a year, why men are trying to become women, why our political elites are embracing Marxism and running our country into moral chaos, and so much more. How can I say that? Because when a view so successfully undermines the Church’s mission, causing her to retreat, to stop making disciples, to stop advancing, and to cease holding culture accountable, should we be surprised when pagans run into all kinds of rank and disgusting errors? If you leave raw hamburger meat out on the counter it putrifies. That is what meat does when it is not preserved in the refrigerator. In the same way, Premillennialism left society to hide in the eschatological basement, waiting for her rapture. Sadly, while the Church has been waiting for fifty years at the rapture bus top, hands in pockets, doing little else, the meat of American culture has turned a slimy green, and the moral maggots have crept in and totally infested it.
I hope this series, in some small way, can be a part of changing that. With that, let us begin our time today by describing the history of Historic Premillennialism.
The History of Premillennialism
The Ancient View
Among the end-times positions, two schools of thought go back to the ancient and apostolic Church. After the canon of Scripture was closed, all of the apostles died, and as the early Church began to spread in a hostile world, there began to be prominent and influential Christian thinkers who weighed in on a variety of theological subjects to help the Church become robust in her thinking. Unfortunately for us, eschatology was one of those doctrines that took significantly more time to systematize, which means we only have scant statements and underdeveloped postulations of what the earliest Christians living in the first three centuries believed about the end-times. But, of our information, two basic views rise to the fore.
The first view, set forth most prominently by Augustine of Hippo, is that when Christ ascended into heaven, He sat down on His throne to reign. As proponents of this view attested, he was not waiting for a future period where He would return to reign for a thousand years. He is reigning now, which made the thousand years described in Revelation 20 a non-literal number of years. To be clear, this group believed Jesus was reigning from the moment He ascended into heaven and would continue to reign over His Kingdom, the Church, until He was finished building His Kingdom.
The other view, represented in the ancient Church, is that Jesus would return at some point in the future to reign physically on earth for a thousand years. This end-times view shows up in fragmentary form quite early in the writings of church fathers (such as Papias, Justin Martyr, and Tertullian) and was laid out most fully by a man named Irenaeus of Lyons in his work called Against Heresies in 180 AD. This view, bolstered by a commitment to a literalistic hermeneutic, tried to explain Old Testament prophecies of worldwide peace, prosperity, and global justice as a future, physical period on earth that would commence after the Messiah’s return.
In fact, this is where postmillennialism and Premillennialism agree, seeing those Old Testament prophecies as coming physically to the earth under the reign of Christ. Postmillennialists understand these things coming gradually and increasingly upon the earth through the Church as Jesus reigns victoriously over her in heaven. The Premillennialists, however, see the current age we are living in collapsing in fantastic defeat, the Church being unsuccessful in her task to disciple the nations, which will prompt Jesus to return to a world filled with evil, to put it away, to be crowned as its new King, to reign bodily on earth for a thousand years, and near the end of that rule, a group of people will rebel against Him, and He will win a final battle. Premillennialists understand the reign of Christ to be a future event. Postmillennials understand the reign of Christ as happening now.
The Middle Ages
As the Ancient Church began to gain ground in the Roman world, Premillennial thought also began to wane. With later apostolic fathers (such as Origen) promoting an allegorical view of the millennium, Augustine of Hippo’s towering theological influence, and Christianity becoming the official religion of the Roman empire, Premillennialism faded from the majority opinion to the minority report in the 4th century AD.
Augustine, in particular, was influential in this transition. He argued that the millennium described in Revelation 20 was not a literal number of years, in the same way, that God does not own the cattle on a literal thousand hills, but on all hills. Instead, according to Augustine, the one thousand years represented the ongoing reign of Christ over His Church. This became the prominent view in the early Roman Catholic Church and remained the majority position in Christendom until the 16th century when a few radical offshoots of the Reformation gravitated back to premillennial thinking. For context, the view that Christ is currently reigning over His Church and not waiting for a future return for that reign to ensue has been the dominant position of Church history, especially between 400 and 1600 AD.
The Modern Era
During the Protestant Reformation, Augustine’s eschatological allegoricalism was a decisive influence upon the magisterial reformers. This meant that the overwhelming majority position on eschatology in the Reformation was that Christ was currently reigning over His Church, not awaiting a physical reign on earth at some point in the distant future. At the same time, a few radicalized offshoots of the Reformation, such as the Mennonites and Anabaptists, departed from the allegorical view of the millennium and began constructing various end times positions. Some groups began returning to premillennial thinking, reinvigorating the discipline in seed form, which the Plymouth brethren would later take up in the 19th century. From this group, we get John Nelson Darby, who became the father of dispensational Premillennialism and is responsible for bringing Premillennialism back into the forefront of Christian eschatological thinking.
Before the Reformation, Premillennialism was mostly unattested for nearly a thousand years of Church history. After the Reformation, it was only slightly reinvigorated through a few Reformation offshoots to become a marginal position in a predominantly Amillennial and Postmillennial world. Yet, by the 19th century, under the influence of John Nelson Darby, Dispensational Premillennialism would explode to become the primary view of eschatology in Evangelical America, still influencing most people’s views on the end-times to this day. This is not a credit to Dispensational Premillennial thinking or how accurately it conceptualizes Scripture. But, it is what happened in the history of its development.
Dispensationalism was always a flawed view and was never really adopted among Reformed churches. Churches that held tightly to the theology of the Reformation and adopted its confessions almost entirely avoided dispensational thinking since it so clearly deviated from covenant theology and a proper hermeneutic for understanding Scripture. This was until George Eldon Ladd, a 20th-century theologian, revived Historic Premillennialism from the ashes of history, giving some Reformed thinkers a possible third option for eschatological schemas, especially among various strains of Baptists.
Unlike Darby, who divided the Bible into arbitrary dispensations, Ladd rightly saw the Bible as one unified redemptive story, seeking to reintegrate it into His theological work. This included reintegrating Israel and the Church, whom Ladd saw as distinct redemptive peoples, yet one under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. He also rejected the rapture-driven escapism of Dispensationalism, adopting instead a posttribulational view of the rapture where the faithful suffer right alongside the pagans in Antichrist’s seven-year reign of terror before Jesus Christ returns. Ladd also correctly identified that the pietism and purely allegorical interpretation among some amillennialists did not do justice to the prophetic promises given in the Old Testament, which describes these events as future realities that will come to pass on earth and not just spiritually in heaven. All these modifications by Ladd and others were improvements and certainly reinvigorated a return to true historic Premillennialism that had been dormant since the second-century days of Ireneaus. Yet, while it was an improvement, the entire system was still built upon an entirely flawed premise.
A Plank in the Eye Called Futurism
We are all products of the world to which we were born. Modern Premillennialism is no different. It was born into a world of German higher critical thinking, the rise of secularism and theological liberalism, and a gamut of academic disciplines seeking to undermine the sanctity and sufficiency of Holy Scripture.
Few places in the Scriptures canon where these attacks were leveled more ferociously than onto the person and work of Jesus Christ. From accusations that He never existed and was a failed messianic upstart to Him being a false prophet who did not come back in the time frame that He had given, secularists were continually attacking the credibility of Jesus more ferociously than piranhas on a hambone. This was not a foolish strategy. If you can invalidate the author and perfecter of the Christian faith, if you can remove the cornerstone from the structure, then you can dismantle the entire structure of our faith.
Of all the places critical scholars aim the barrel of their criticisms most effectively, it was at Jesus’ predictions contained within the Olivet Discourse. If they could show that Jesus was a false prophet, that what He predicted to happen had not come true, then they could dismiss Jesus as one of a legion of gods that were invented by mortal men. In doing that, they could live however they wanted without being held accountable to an absolute sovereign.