Postmillennialism

An optimistic type of theology which predicts a “golden age,” a Christianized millennium of predominantly human achievement before the Second Advent and the subsequent eternal realm. The prophetic form of it is devout, the liberal form purely humanistic. An early exponent was Joachim of Fiore,* who in the twelfth century divided historical ages into an OT dispensation under the Father, a NT and early church one under the Son, and the Eternal Evangel (age of the Spirit) to begin in 1260. The modern term was popularized by the Unitarian freethinker Daniel Whitby,* later enjoyed immense vogue in Britain during the prosperous century from Waterloo to World War I, but was thereafter increasingly discredited by postwar realities, and even more so after World War II.

See also Millenarianism.


POSTMILLENNIALISM. A theological term derived from the reference to a thousand years in Revelation 20, designating the view that Christ will return at the end of an extended period of righteousness and prosperity (the millennium).

Theological formulation.

Representative postmillennialists differ on questions of detail as do representatives of other systems, but the basic features are clear.

The pivotal event of world history is the life, death, Resurrection, and Ascension of Jesus Christ. His mediatorial accomplishment ended the administration of grace in terms of the old covenant, but the Church that He established is the Israel of the new covenant. God will continue to carry out His sovereign gracious purpose in terms of the new covenant until it is fulfilled and Christ returns as judge. The judgment will immediately issue in the eternal state.

Jesus established the kingdom of God in a new and powerful way as He began to defeat opposition to divine rule and brought men into willing subjection to Himself. He gave His Church the task of proclaiming the Gospel of sovereign grace on a worldwide scale. The Church can pursue this task in the confidence that men will turn to Christ in repentance and faith because the king of the Church reigns in power and adds daily to the number of the saved.

According to postmillennialism, the major factor contributing to the observed impotence of the visible Church is the common assumption that the Gospel proclamation will not meet with success or that conditions will deteriorate before the advent. This attitude prevents the Church from laying hold sincerely upon the resources that Christ has placed at its disposal.

The postmillennialist is confident, however, that God will accomplish His purpose to save the world, and therefore does not think of the world as lost and only individuals as saved, but rather of the world as saved and individuals as lost. Concretely, he expects a future period when revealed truth will be diffused throughout the world and accepted by the vast majority. The millennial era will therefore be a time of peace, material prosperity, and spiritual glory.

The millennium will be of extended duration though not necessarily a precise 1,000 years. Because it is established through means presently operative, its beginning is imperceptible. Some postmillennialists provide for a gradual establishment of the millennium; others for a more abrupt beginning. Most, but not all, allow for a brief apostasy or resurgence of evil just prior to the advent and in preparation for the judgment. Even during the millennium, the world will not be entirely without sin, and not every person will be converted.

Biblical basis.

Both post- and amillennialists argue for the unity of the eschatological complex of events, against premillennialists, on the ground that the relevant passages (Matt 24 and parallels; Rom 8:17-23; 1 Cor 15:22-28, 50-58; 1 Thess 1:4-10; 4:13-18; 2 Pet 3:3-15) do not allow for the insertion of a millennium between advent and consummation. Amillennialists also espouse the postmillennial timing of the advent, but differ sharply from postmillennialists on the nature of the millennium.



Confirmation is found in the NT. The terms of the great commission imply its successful completion (Matt 28:19f.) and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit signalizes the beginning of that process (Acts 2:16-47). The parable of the leaven points to the universal extension of the kingdom (Matt 13:33). Romans 11 holds forth the prospect of the extensive conversion of both Jews and Gentiles. All of this is in keeping with the fact that the object of Christ’s redemption is the world (John 3:16, 17; cf. Rev 11:15).

Matthew 24 can be interpreted as describing events already past or in progress; Revelation 20 describes a future binding and loosing of Satan. The Lord’s question, “Nevertheless, when the Son of man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Luke 18:8), does not imply that He will not find faith but is designed to stimulate the disciples to perseverance in faith.

The postmillennialist counters the objection that he “spiritualizes” the prophecies by charging his opponents with “literalizing” them. He seeks to allow the text to interpret itself without the imposition of extra-canonical hermeneutical criteria.

History.

Although some theologians of the post-Reformation period might be classified as postmillennialists, the viewpoint became prominent in the latter half of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Leading theologians such as the Hodges (C., A. A., and C. W.), W. G. T. Shedd, R. L. Dabney, and B. B. Warfield are to be reckoned as postmillennialists. The events of recent history, including two world wars, contributed to the rapid decline and virtual demise of postmillennialism as a viable option, but there is some evidence of revived interest (cf. the bibliography below).

The theology of the social gospel (e.g., W. Rauschenbusch, S. J. Case) has been labeled postmillennialism, but must be distinguished radically from orthodox postmillennialism. Instead of a millennium wrought by the power of God, the gospel of social betterment offered an optimism rooted in naturalistic evolution culminating in a man-made utopia. This is, in effect, a demythologized postmillennialism, no longer popular in its original form, but reasserting itself in new forms from time to time.

Bibliography

C. Hodge, Systematic Theology, Part IV (1872); D. Brown, Christ’s Second Coming (1882); W. Rauschenbusch, A Theology for the Social Gospel (1917); B. B. Warfield, “The Millennium and the Apocalypse,” Biblical Doctrines (1929), 643, 664; J. M. Kik, Matthew Twenty-Four (1948); R. Campbell, Israel and the New Covenant (1954); L. Boettner, The Millennium (1958); J. F. Walvoord, The Millennial Kingdom (1959).