Volume 10, Issue 3: Disputatio
Triumph or Tribulation?
Douglas Jones and Lee Irons
How does Scripture characterize the development of life and culture after the Ascension? What social characteristics dominate? Triumph or tribulation or something else? Though postmillennialism and amillennialism agree on much, they part ways over this question. In short, postmillennialism maintains that the New Covenant era is a radically new world, the progressive, peaceful sanctification of individuals and cultures over millennia, leading to the Second Coming. Amillennialism denies this view as dangerous, and instead sees tribulation and suffering as characterizing the period prior to the end and looks forward to the glorious perfections of heaven.
In the following interchange, the managing editor of Credenda/Agenda, Douglas Jones (postmillennialist), and Lee Irons (amillennialist) discuss these issues. Lee Irons is a graduate of the University of California, Los Angeles (B.A. Greek) and Westminster Theological Seminary, California (M.Div.). He is currently serving as the pastor of Redeemer Orthodox Presbyterian Chapel in the San Fernando Valley (California). Some of his essays critical of postmillennialism can be found on his web page at http://members.aol.com/ironslee/
DJ: Triumphalism has tragically become a dirty word. But the confidence that Christ will ultimately win the world (not just a skulking minority) has been a prominent hope throughout much of Church history. After all, triumph stands at the heart of the Gospel; Christ vanquished His enemies, "triumphing over them" (Col. 2:15). But some have argued that such a hope of worldwide Gospel success is downright dangerous in that it undermines faith and confuses our priorities. But if holy triumph always tends to undermine genuine faith, then every material blessing swaddles a curse within it, and even more, heaven too will have to contain plenty of suffering to dampen the party planned there.
LI: Doug, I couldn't agree more with your statement that the triumph of Christ stands at the heart of the Gospel. That's precisely why I am not a postmillennialist. For if Christ's triumph is defined according to postmillennial criteria, then we must conclude that, so far at least, Christ has been miserably defeated. I can't imagine a position more calculated to destroy hope. But as an amillennialist I can truly sing, "Rejoice, the Lord is King," even when I have no tangible proof but His Word. My faith in Christ's triumph is not shaken just because the medieval ideal of a Christian society is dead, never to rise again.
DJ: Your criticism here involves a misconception. I've never heard any postmillennialist argue that visible success is the basis of our hope. We've always appealed to God's promises, regardless of the century. A long line of amillennial critics, however, has repeatedly pointed to two world wars and the nuclear threat as a reason to reject postmillennialism. Now that's walking by sight. There certainly appears to be a fear of success lurking in the background of such views. Why is it that though God created a world of spirit and matter, the anti-triumphalists insist on restraining the victory to the spiritual side of things, almost as if matter and cultural celebration were a little inferior and dangerous?
LI: Cultural activity is not inherently dangerous, for it is part of God's good creation (1 Tim. 4:4). However, "cultural success" is an oxymoron. For our only success is not found here in this passing world, but in the glory of the age to come, which is eternal (1 Cor. 7:31; 2 Cor. 4:18). This age and its culture is corruptible; the age to come is incorruptible (1 Cor. 15:50ff). This age provides a temporary, earthly city; but we seek an unshakable, heavenly kingdom (Heb. 12:27-28; 13:14). Our treasure is not on earth, where moth corrupts, but reserved in heaven for us (Matt. 6:19ff; 1 Pet. 1:4). Why do you insist on defining "success" in terms of a corruptible treasure? Isn't the hope of heaven good enough?
DJ: I must say that your particular division between "earthly" and "heavenly" certainly gives me the shivers. Doesn't it have the scent of a gnostic divide of matter and spirit, as if Christ can redeem spiritual things but can't have an effect on corruptible, "fleshy" things? But the wonderful news is that God poured out His Spirit "on all flesh"( Joel 2:28; Acts 2:17) so that we have been born again "not of corruptible seed but incorruptible" in this age (1 Pet. 1:23) because God Himself took on a corruptible treasure, "flesh" (John 1:14). So why delight in corruptible treasure? Because God does. He is redeeming His creation and "will be exalted in the earth" (Ps. 46:10), not just some Platonic heaven.
LI: The distinction between earthly and heavenly is not mine but Scripture's (Jn. 3:12, 31; 1 Cor. 15:44-49; Col. 3:1-2). However, this is not a Platonic division between matter and spirit but an eschatological contrast between "this age" and "the age to come" (Matt. 12:32; Mark 10:30; Eph. 1:21). Both matter and spirit are part of the creation, both old and new. But the culture of this age will pass away in the age to come: food (1 Cor. 6:13); marriage (Luke 20:34-36); material possessions (1 Tim. 6:7, 19), etc. Enjoyment of culture is not inherently sinful. Only, "those who use the world should be as though they did not make full use of it, for the form of this world is passing away" (1 Cor. 7:31).
DJ: No one denies that heaven and earth differ, but that alone doesn't imply that this age decays inevitably. Your citations force different contexts into one mold. Some speak of the destruction of the Old Covenant system (Heb. 12:25ff), others of persecution (1 Cor. 7), and others of the ethical degeneracy of worldliness (Matt. 6:19, cf. Jn. 17:13ff.; 1 Jn. 2:17). The error is to make one of these contexts—say, suffering—the dominant characteristic of this age. But the victory of Christ also promises the restoration of "all things" (Matt. 17:11), "times of refreshing" (Acts 3:19), and "the times of restitution" (Acts 3:21; cf. Isaiah 65:17ff) so that the Father might gather "all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth" (Eph. 1:10, cf. 1:21).
LI: Are you saying that 1 Cor. 7:31 applies only during times of persecution? Anyway, the Bible clearly teaches that tribulation is the dominant characteristic of this age for believers (Matt. 16:24; Jn. 16:33; Acts 14:22; Rom. 8:18). To teach otherwise is to miss the two-stage pattern of Christ's life: sufferings first, then glory (Luke 24:26; Phil. 2:5-11). As those united to Christ, we cannot expect anything different (Jn. 15:20; 1 Pet. 2:21). We all agree that there will be times of refreshing. But when? At the coming of Christ (Acts 3:19-21; cp. 2 Thess. 1:7). We are to wait patiently for that day, setting our hope fully on the grace to be brought to us at His blessed appearing (1 Pet. 1:13; Phil. 3:20; Tit. 2:13).
DJ: But some of the texts you cite won't allow Christ's earthly glory to be postponed (Acts 3:24; Rom. 8:22). The New Covenant marked the end of the old world and the beginning of the New. The prophets foretold a glorious restoration starting in the "latter days" (Is. 2:2; Micah 4:1; Hos. 3:5; Joel 2:28; Dan. 2). And the apostles taught that their lifetime was that "upon whom the ends of the world are come" (1 Cor. 10:11; 7:31; cf. 1 Pet. 4:7; Heb. 1:2; 9:26; Acts 2:17; 1 John 2:18). Christ's triumph initiated a New Heavens and Earth (2 Cor. 5:17; Heb. 12:26ff.; 2 Pet. 3:13; Rev. 21:5; Is. 65,66). Yet in the midst of this celebration, amils and premils sit worrying about too much fun. Postmillennialists worry that you're gutting the glory of the New Covenant.
LI: Even assuming your wooden interpretation of "until now" (Rom. 8:22), the text still doesn't support your contention, unless all groaning ceased in Paul's day. The "latter days" passages are of no help either, if you understand the already/not-yet dynamic of Biblical prophecy. Christ already reigns from the throne of David, and yet the visible glory of Christ's kingdom is still not yet. We are already raised with Christ, but the bodily resurrection is still future. Your reference to the New Heavens and Earth texts is easily refuted: the NT clearly views Isaiah 65:17 as being fulfilled when Christ returns, not before (Rev. 21:1 and 2 Pet. 3:13). Your reading of OT prophecy is dispensational in its literalism.
DJ: Now this is a curious response. Earlier you interpreted your "corruption" verses with the strictest literalism ("this world is passing away"), but now you want to exclude other readings for literalism. Which will it be? The passages I cited are gloriously figurative, but of what? You agreed that they symbolize the New Covenant era, but then you ask us to believe that figurative language of earthly restoration, cultural blessing, and worldwide gospel triumph actually symbolize that "tribulation is the dominant characteristic of this age." That's quite an elephant to swallow. And how can the New Heaven and Earth "clearly" and only depict the perfection of heaven if it still includes childbirth, death, and sin? (Is. 65:20ff.).
LI: Your dispensational hermeneutic is evident in the fact that you prefer your literal interpretation of Isa. 65 over the authoritative interpretation of the apostles. You say that Is. 65:20ff teaches that the curse will still be present. John says that there will be no more curse in the New Heavens and Earth (Rev. 22:3). Which will it be—your interpretation or the apostles'? The irony of all this is that you worry that I am "gutting the glory of the New Covenant" because I don't share your ardent thirst for a Golden Age characterized by imperfection, death, and sin.
DJ: I'd still love to hear how restoration language symbolizes inherent corruption. Your claim about the apostles' view just begs the question. Peter taught that "the end of all things was at hand" (1 Pet. 4:7), and so the New Heaven and Earth was imminent (2 Pet. 3:10-14). Jude interpreted Peter this way too. Were they wrong? Like Isaiah, John's vision contains more than the final state, namely, the Incarnation, struggle, earthly neighbors, and the threat of hell (Rev. 21: 3,7,8,24). The "holy city" was present back then (Heb. 12:22), being a kingdom they were "receiving" (Heb. 12:28). Thus we pray, "Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven." Is tribulation, then, also the "dominant characteristic" of heaven?
LI: What's so great about your Golden Age if it involves "struggle, earthly neighbors, and the threat of hell?" Your anemic Golden Age will come to an end. Ours endures forever! Your decrepit Golden Age groans with death and non-glorified bodies. Ours is delivered from the bondage of corruption, death having been swallowed up in victory! Your gloomy Golden Age has struggling sinners threatened with hell. Hope you enjoy it, because that's as good as it gets. My money is on Christ's return and the resurrection of the body! Having hijacked Rev. 21-22 in support of your really neat but still imperfect earth, are there any texts left in your Bible to take me to heaven?
DJ: Help me if I've misunderstood, but it looks as if you've abandoned exegetical arguments in favor of an appeal to personal taste, as if to say, "Scripture may teach postmillennialism, but I think it's nasty." You've again passed on addressing some of my previous challenges—inconsistent literalism? restoration symbolism? the Lord's Prayer? And your "decrepit Golden Age" objection itself confuses parts and wholes. Wheat fields (Matt. 13:24ff.) can have a minority of tares without the whole being "characterized by imperfection." Christ's kingdom proceeds by progressive sanctification, with Christ subduing all His enemies throughout the millennia until the Second Coming, when only death still stands (1 Cor. 15:25,26). What's so great about that? Christ says it's a precious "treasure" (Matt. 13:44).
LI: Postmillennialism is unbiblical because it teaches that this world is not passing away (against 2 Pet. 3:10-13; 1 Cor. 7:31) and that both the glory of Christ's heavenly reign in this present age (the already) and the glory of His return (the not yet) are not enough (against Col. 3:1-4). Postmillennialism's impatient demand for something more in between indicates a disturbing dissatisfaction both with our Savior's first coming and his second. Its need for this world to improve in order for the church to be victorious both belittles her present heavenly-resurrection victory in Christ and contradicts the apostolic command to "fix our hope fully" on the visible consummation of that victory when Christ returns in power and great glory (1 Pet. 1:13).
DJ: It appears that you've never moved beyond your opening claims. I replied to your latest objections in my fourth paragraph, but you didn't engage my answers. Similarly, you have declined to give any answer to my charges that amillennialism involves inconsistent literalism, context equivocations ("world"), and confused symbolism (restoration=tribulation). Amillennialists really need to address these sorts of questions in a credible way that avoids sliding into a veiled gnosticism. Any view that is forced to explain away "Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven" is highly suspect. Postmillennialism merely rejoices that the Father is gathering "all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth" (Eph. 1:10).
Thanks so much Lee for taking part in this discussion. Perhaps it will start others.