Isaiah (Part 74): Problems with Postmillennialism - 1 (Eschatology intro to Chs 60-66, Part 3)
We will begin our discussion about postmillennialism by letting some well-known postmillennialists define/describe it for us. In these statements, I emphasize certain ideas that truly separate amillennialists from postmillennialists and that mark the points with which I will take issue.
Postmillennialism is “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.’” ... “The changed character of individuals will be reflected in an uplifted social, economic, political and cultural life of mankind.” ... “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.” (Loraine Boettner, The Millennium, p. 14, emphasis mine)
“The thing that distinguishes the biblical Postmillennialist, then, from Amillennialists and Premillennialists 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.” ... “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.” (Greg Bahnsen, “The Prima Facie Acceptability of Postmillennialism,” in The Journal of Christian Reconstruction, III, Winter 1976-77, p. 68, emphasis mine)
"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).” (G. Bahnsen)
"Our goal is a Christian world, made up of explicitly Christian nations.” (David Chilton, emphasis mine)
In our last discussion about premillennialism, I provided ten logical problems with the view. I will present seven problems with postmillennialism. I phrase each problem as a true statement, understanding that if the statement is true, it would prove problematic for the postmillennialist.
Problem #1 – One of the primary experiences that the New Testament teaches will characterize the church and all Christians throughout this present age is suffering with Christ.
I can imagine the postmillennialist reading this first problem and saying, “See! You are a bunch of pessimists!” But before we tackle the future, let’s agree about the past and present. Both amillennialists and postmillennialists (from now on just “AM” and “PostM”) agree that suffering has characterized the church to some degree from its apostolic inception through to our current time. The question then is what will make the suffering cease. Here is where we divide. The PostM says suffering will cease (in huge degree) with the Christianization of the world. The AM argues that suffering will cease when Christ returns. Let’s examine some Scriptures. The first few will merely set the stage. The latter few will make the point.
Acts 14:22 tells us that Paul’s missionary group revisited their converts, “strengthening the disciples by encouraging them to continue in the faith and by telling them, ‘It is necessary to pass through many troubles on our way into the kingdom of God.’” I am not interested at the moment about arguing whether Paul’s statement must be true and continue for all of this age. I understand this is a point of interpretive disagreement. All I intend by quoting this verse is to set the stage that at least in the time of Paul, he expected suffering to occur, and we have seen that same trend up to our current day.
Philippians 1:29 reads, “For it has been given to you on Christ’s behalf not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for Him.” Again, is the statement to be interpreted by Paul only to the Philippians or by God to all Bible readers/believers? Put that question aside for now. Here we note only that Paul again expected suffering for these Philippian Christians just as he did in our previous passage for the Christians of Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch.
First Thessalonians 2:14 and 3:2-5: “For you, brothers, became imitators of God’s churches in Christ Jesus that are in Judea, since you have also suffered the same things from people of your own country, just as they did from the Jews.” “And we sent Timothy, our brother and God’s coworker in the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you concerning your faith, so that no one will be shaken by these persecutions. For you yourselves know that we are appointed to this. In fact, when we were with you, we told you previously that we were going to suffer persecution, and as you know, it happened. For this reason, when I could no longer stand it, I also sent him to find out about your faith, fearing that the tempter had tempted you and that our labor might be for nothing.” So Paul tells the Thessalonians that they should expect suffering, and then he follows up with them having understood that they had suffered. The “we” in these verses could be referring to Paul and his party or to Paul and the Thessalonians together.
Second Timothy 3:12-13: “In fact, all those who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. Evil people and impostors will become worse, deceiving and being deceived.”
All right, then, these passages help settle the fact that the church was persecuted in apostolic times, and did, in fact, expect to be persecuted, relying on Paul’s claim that they were “appointed” to suffering in no uncertain terms. We know also from history that both church persecution and other normal kinds of suffering have continued unabated until now. The PostM insists that his/her suffering will end prior to Christ’s return as the world is Christianized. Is this what the Bible promises?
Let’s examine Romans 8:16-25. That passage begins, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is going to be revealed to us.” Paul is here making a comparison—suffering now versus glory to come. Let’s continue into verse 17: “For the creation eagerly waits with anticipation for God’s sons to be revealed.” Let’s pause here. Paul speaks of creation waiting. Why? What has this to do with the subject of us suffering? Well, we sort of jumped into Paul’s discussion in the middle. If we back up to read everything going on in chapter 8 so far, we find that Paul is providing a strong contrast between “flesh” and “spirit.” And his reason for doing so actually backs up further into Romans 7. Read these two chapters. The flow is as follows. Paul, in chapter 7, is frustrated. He knows that his spirit recognizes and agrees with what is good because it has been made alive by God. However, he finds that he continues to sin in his flesh. In other words, a war is going on within him. His spirit is alive seeking good, but his flesh is corrupt seeking evil. At the end of the chapter, he cries out for salvation from this dying body, and he concludes that Christ will, in fact, free him.
Then comes chapter 8. In this chapter, Paul explains that this contrast of corrupt flesh and cleansed spirit continues within himself. He calls his flesh dead, but his spirit is alive in the righteousness (covenant faithfulness) inherited from Christ. And then, in verse 11 he argues that just as Christ was raised from the dead, we too, who have spirits alive in Christ, will also have our mortal bodies come back to life—in other words, be cleansed in resurrection. Thus, verse 17 says, “we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him.” Again, in other words, we suffer in this corrupt, dead physical body of flesh, so that when our cleansed/resurrected bodies are realized, we will be glorified with Christ, who is the firstfruits of the resurrection.
Now with this background, we go back to our passage of 8:18-25. Now in following Paul’s argument so far, it is no longer so odd for Paul suddenly to speak of “creation.” This creation is the corrupted physical world of which our bodies are composed and about which Paul has been discussing throughout the chapter so far. Having told us that our physical bodies would be resurrected, he is about to tell us when this will occur. The point of verse 19 (quoted above) is that creation (the physical world) is linked to our bodies. That surely is no surprise. The source material God used to make Adam was this earth, and Eve was made from Adam. And we know scientifically as well that our bodies are made up of elements from this earth. So, of course, our bodies and physical creation share composition as well as the curse of sin that Paul has been discussing. And that is precisely what verse 20 goes on to say—all of physical creation (world and our bodies) is under that same curse of sin (Gen 3:17: “The ground is cursed because of you.”). Paul goes on to describe how the whole earth is groaning (v.22) and how we are groaning (v.23—reflecting back to Paul’s groaning of chapter 7). But why did Paul say in verse 19 that creation eagerly waits for God’s sons to be revealed? It is because the resurrection of our physical bodies is linked to the earth, and thus the earth will be resurrected at the same time.
Now, PostMs believe this—that at Christ’s coming both our resurrection and all creation’s resurrection (new heavens, new earth) will occur. So, this is not a new concept to them. But notice the implication. In verse 18, Paul was contrasting present suffering with the glory to be revealed. And he has spent all this time to show that suffering will cease at the time of the resurrection! PostMs argue that suffering will cease long before the resurrection. But if that were true, it would destroy Paul’s whole argument of contrast and hope in this passage.
So we find that the New Testament does teach that suffering will continue through this present age. And it will be at the resurrection—at the coming of Christ—when suffering ceases and everlasting, uninterrupted, and perfect peace and joy begin.
Romans 8 is not an isolated passage giving us this view. Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 4:7-18 precisely the same thing. He begins there saying that our treasure (spirit made alive) exists in clay jars (corrupted, dead flesh). Through several verses Paul explains the experience of continued suffering because of the physical world’s corruption by sin. Then Paul provides the same resurrection example starting in verse 14. He says just as the firstfruits Jesus was raised physically from the dead, so also will our physical bodies be raised from the dead to end this suffering and to experience the eternal weight of glory. Paul ends the passage by saying that we do not focus on the temporary (i.e., these corrupted bodies of death), but we rather focus on what is unseen and eternal. Remember the PostM David Chilton’s comment? He said, "Our goal is a Christian world, made up of explicitly Christian nations.” It seems to me that Paul is arguing that that is a wrong goal. Our goal does not rest in corrupted flesh and world. Our goal—our hope—is in resurrection!
One more passage on this point: Revelation 21:1-4. The passage begins telling us about “a new heaven and new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth has passed away.” This, then, is after Christ’s return. This is after the resurrection of our bodies and all physical creation. And it is in the following verses, especially verse 4, in which we learn that finally now tears are wiped away; death no longer exists; grief, crying, and pain no longer exist. So, then, prior to this, there was no golden age of absence of suffering. Suffering continued until we reach the resurrection of creation. We experience an end to suffering precisely because “the previous things have passed away.”
Problem #2 – Suffering by Christians is inextricably tied, in the New Testament, not just to life experience, but to the triumph of the church.
This may seem odd. If the perfect (new heaven, new earth) has no suffering and if that is our hope, why would we be talking about triumph necessitating suffering? Let’s begin by looking at a couple passages. First, Acts 5:40-41 tell us that John and Peter were flogged for preaching Christ. But they left the Sanhedrin “rejoicing that they were counted worthy to be dishonored on behalf of the Name.” Okay, keep that in mind as we move back to Romans 8 but this time to verses 36-37. There we find that Paul says in our suffering we are “more than victorious.” And in 2 Corinthians 12:5-10, Paul talks about his thorn being necessary to keep him from exalting himself. Further, he says that power is perfected in weakness. And then he concludes saying that when he is weak, then is he strong.
Why should these weaknesses and suffering be seen as triumph in this life? Well, if we link our first point to this, we recognize that the corruptible flesh is with us constantly until the resurrection. Therefore, since we live in this amalgamation of cleansed spirit and sinful flesh, embracing suffering does indeed maintain a putdown of the flesh. We notice that in life, persecutions tend to draw the church closer to God, while times of ease tend to ease the church away from God. Of course, this should not be so, but it is so precisely because of our still corrupted flesh. That’s why the Bible tells us that tribulation works patience and on to hope (Romans 5:3-5).
So, the idea is not to be cast down concerning suffering. But it is also not to determine that wishing suffering away while we still live in this corrupted world and these corrupted bodies will necessarily be the best thing for us. Paul implies that life of ease within this corruption tends to take us away from God. It is in the suffering that we may triumph in our dependence on Christ. PostM look at suffering and its expectation as negatively pessimistic. But God uses this as means to lead us into maturity.