Four Views of End-Time Bible Prophecy Part III: Postmillennialism

In continuing our study on four of the major views associated with end-time Bible prophecy, we will now consider the position known as postmillennialism. It is important to remember as we consider these four positions that each of them is closely associated with the statements found in Revelation 20:1 – 4 with respect to the 1,000 year reign of Christ, and the binding of Satan.

Now the word postmillennialism is simply “millennialism” with the prefix “post”, which means “after”. In this scheme, the belief is that the Second Coming of Jesus Christ will occur after the millennium, hence the word post-millennialism. In this particular view, the millennium takes place in between Christ’s first coming and His second coming. This is similar to the amillennial position, with at least one key difference: postmillennialists see a political, material, earthly aspect to the millennium, whereas amillennialists see it primarily as a spiritual reign in the hearts of believers, and in heaven.

Postmillennialists see a sort of golden age to be ushered in by the church through the preaching of the gospel. In this scheme, there will be a gradual “Christianization” of the world so that the return of Christ will find the world basically Christianized. Thus, under the postmillennial scheme, there is an earthly, physical aspect to the millennial reign.

Postmillennialists do not see the millennium to necessarily be a strict 1,000 year period. In this scheme, once the millennium (however long it turns out to be) is completed, Christ will return. This will be followed by a general resurrection of both the saved and lost, followed by a general judgment of all people, and then eternity. No separate pre-tribulation Rapture, no distinct literal, future 7-year tribulation period, and of course, no literal 1,000 year reign of Christ on earth following the Second Coming.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, theological developments among Puritans in Britain contributed to the development and growth of modern postmillennial theology. Attention was given to the Old Testament prophecies concerning the restoration of the Jews to their homeland. Thomas Brightman (1562-1607), a Puritan himself, was one who articulated and promoted a belief in the restoration of the Jewish people to the Holy Land. Generally speaking, he adopted a literal reading of Old Testament prophecy regarding the Jews, and a historicist reading of Revelation 20 (which speaks of the 1000 reign of Christ), which means that he situated Christ’s millennial reign in history – not simply in heaven or in the hearts of believers as the amillennial system does. Ultimately, many of the Puritan writers embraced the notion that Christ’s millennial reign would unfold in history on the earth – a gloriously transformed civilization that would be based on Christian principles. But while the Puritans situated the millennial reign of Christ in history – something that amillennialists will not do – they positioned it not after Christ’s Second Coming, but before it. That is, the Gospel would spread, and the kingdom of God would expand globally – and then Christ will return. As we will see next time, this reasoning – that Christ would return after the millennium – seems to contradict the flow of events outlined in Revelation 19 and 20. More on that next time!

When the Puritans came to early America, they brought their postmillennial-type theology with them. Indeed, Puritan preacher Jonathan Edwards (1703 – 1758) adopted postmillennial ideas. In his work The Latter-day glory, is probably to begin in America, Edwards refers to “that glorious work of God, so often foretold in Scripture, which, in the progress and issue of it, shall renew the world of mankind…there are many things that make it probable that this work will begin in America” (Works of Jonathan Edwards, Volume One, Sect II., Christian Classics Ethereal Library, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/edwards/works1.ix.iii.ii.html). Many scholars have ascribed to Edwards the belief that the millennium would be centered in or begin in America (Michael J. McClymond & Gerald R. McDermott, The Theology of Jonathan Edwards). Edwards was one of the key figures in shaping the belief that it was with the Great Awakening of the 1740s – a set of evangelical revivals that particularly impacted the American colonies – that the millennium had commenced (Robert Jewett & John Shelby Lawrence, Captain America and the Crusade Against Evil, 136).

Lyman Beecher (1775 – 1863), an American Presbyterian minister, saw significance in Edwards’ assessment, stating his belief that Edwards saw America as the place where the millennium was to commence:

It was the opinion of Edwards, that the millennium would commence in America. When I first encountered this opinion, I thought it chimerical; but all providential developments since, and all the existing signs of the times, lend corroboration to it. But if it is by the march of revolution and civil liberty, that the way of the Lord is to be prepared, where shall the central energy be found, and from what nation shall the renovating power go forth? What nation is blessed with such experimental knowledge of free institutions, with such facilities and resources of communication, obstructed by so few obstacles, as our own? (Beecher, “A Plea for the West”).

This quote sheds light on a key postmillennial concept: the millennium is to be ushered in partly through the efforts of people. It is to emerge from within history, incorporating the efforts of individuals. Some believed that the millennium had commenced with the successful conclusion of the American Revolution against Britain, and the start of the 19th Century (Jewitt, Lawrence, 136). By the 1830s and 1840s, quite a large group of American Protestants became postmillennialists and believed that the millennial kingdom had begun on the North American continent (Jewitt, Lawrence, 136).

There are problems with the postmillennial view. The order of events in the Book of Revelation argues against the postmillennial position. Revelation 19 presents the Second Coming of Christ, while the millennial reign of Christ is then presented in Revelation 20. Also, Revelation 20 tells us that Satan is bound during the millennium. It is difficult, in light of 1 Peter 5:8 and other passages, to accept that Satan is bound in any real way that fulfills Revelation 20 during the present period in between Christ’s two comings. Can Satan devour today (1 Peter 5:8) but not deceive (Satan will not be able to deceive the nations during the millennium as Revelation 20:3 indicates)? Surely Satan is deceiving today, since as Paul mentions, Satan disguises himself as an angel of light? Postmillennialism does not appear to be a very tenable position. This is a similar argument that is presented against the amillennial position. History also appears to argue against the postmillennial position. The world is presently not becoming more “Christianized”, but is in fact becoming more anti-Christian. And the belief attributed to Edwards that the millennium was to commence in America is difficult – if not impossible – to confirm in Scripture, and in fact seems to contradict Scripture! If one is to adopt the belief in an earthly millennial reign, then Jerusalem, not Washington or New York, is where one can expect to see it begin and centered (Zechariah 14; Zechariah 9:9-10; Isaiah 2:3).

Postmillennialism declined notably in the latter half of the 19th century and into the 20th century. The American Civil War (1861-1865), as well as the two World Wars of the 20th century (Hitchcock, “The End”, 407) have contributed to the shattering of the dream of postmillennial hope. The decline of postmillennial hope in America in the latter half of the 19th century and the early 20th century fed into the revival of premillennialism that especially picked up speed in the late 19th century. Next time, we will look at one form of premillennialism: Historic Premillennialism!

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