Volume 11, Issue 3: Eschaton
Jack Van Deventer
Introduction. Dr. David J. Engelsma is not pleased by the resurgence in postmillennial thinking in the Church and so he (in his own words) "took up the sword against postmillen-nialism" with a very aggressive critique. In a recently released book1, Christ's Spiritual Kingdom, A Defense of (Reformed) Amillennial-ism, this professor at Protestant Reformed Seminary discusses with dismay the rise of postmillennialism and the decline of amillen-nialism.
As with most amillennial books, there's not much affirmation of what amillennialism is all about. But amillennialists can be quite zealous in critiquing other eschatological viewpoints, and this book is no exception. According to Dr. Engelsma, amillennialism is a belief in "no earthly kingdom of Christ." "Positively, this means that the Messianic kingdom of peace and prosperity is spiritual, and present in the gospel." For amillennialists, it seems that just about all the good things in life (spiritually speaking) are relegated to the heavenly realm, and, since not much is known about what goes on up there, there's not a whole lot they can say about it.
Optimism/Pessimism. Amillennialists like Engelsma claim to affirm optimism while denying any basis for it in history. The amillennial worldview is one of despair: "We amillennialists proclaim a gospel that declares the little flock of Christ, that will always have tribulation in the world and whose members are killed all the day long, to be not merely conquerors but `more than conquerors' (Luke 12:32; John 16:33; Rom. 8:36,37). See, this is not pessimism. This is optimism. This is the hugest optimism. This is optimism without any hint of pessimism."2 Later the author declares that the Christian is not only more than a conqueror, but "at the same time, and all the while, `killed all the day long... accounted as sheep for the slaughter.' At the same time, victorious and persecuted!"3
If amillennialists can call this collision of death and despair optimism, how much more depressing would their definition of pessimism be? Perhaps realizing the contradiction, Engelsma adds, "only the spiritual mind, the mind of Christ, understands this."4 It defies comprehension that anyone can define a life of persecution, slaughter, and death as optimism.
Worldview. The amillennial worldview is grim, anticipating that the world will become "increasingly evil and hostile."5 "The ungodly will always dominate. The world's rulers always condemn the cause of the true church. The wicked always oppress the saints. The only hope of the church... is the Second Coming of Christ and the final judgment."6 In other words, unless the Second Coming is right around the corner, the hope of amillennialism is that you get to go to heaven when you die. On earth, Christ's conquering of sin and death at the cross did nothing for the Church, His bride, other than to seal her grim fate.
Critique of Postmillennialism. Engelsma's criticism of postmillennialism involves lots of name calling: it's a "Jewish dream," a "carnal kingdom," a "childish fantasy," "a false doctrine," "a vain and dangerous hope." He attempts to convince his readers that postmillen-nialism is bad because it tends to be associated with "Christian Reconstruction" whose adherents are "cooperating with charismatics to get dominion." The name-calling and the guilt-by-association tactics are not convincing, however. A doctrine is proven false when it can be undeniably demonstrated as such from the Scriptures, which Engelsma fails to do.
Engelsma slips into a common amillennial error involving the gnostic notion that spiritual things (like the Church) are heavenly and good while things on earth are "worldly" and "carnal." Thus, he contends that postmillennialism errs because it involves "earthly victory" which is humanistic or "carnal."7 But Christ said His will would be done on earth as it is in heaven, which contradicts this false dichotomy.
Engelsma contends that postmillennialism offers a false hope and a perverted gospel involving the earthly triumph of Christ's Church.8 He denies that the Great Commission will be successful, affirming rather that "the true church becomes smaller." 9This defeatist attitude fails to recognize that Christ would build His Church, not tear it down. Christ came to save the world, not just a tiny remnant.
With the dispensationalists, Engelsma affirms that "Satan does have `complete control over the nations of the world'" (emphasis his).10 Token affirmation of God's sovereignty is acknowledged, but as far as Engelsma is concerned, restoration of the world through the preaching of the gospel by the Church is a lost cause.
Engelsma's biggest error in trying to refute post-millennialism is that he fails to engage the preterist argument. He cannot reconcile the glorious promises of gospel success with the devastating prophecies of destruction, so he pushes the victory passages heavenward and anticipates earthly defeat. He fails to recognize that (1) the destructive passages in the Olivet discourse and in Revelation have time stamps that point to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., and (2) ongoing gospel success through the preaching of the gospel and the work of the Holy Spirit remains an earthly reality, not a heavenly one.
Conclusion. Dr. Engelsma has courageously provided a defense of his viewpoint, yet he knows he's fighting a losing battle. He laments in six different places that amillennialism is a fading doctrine that is rarely defended anymore.11 He vows to continue to defend his position "lest I be guilty of failing to do what little I can to stop the decline from the truth of amillennial-ism...". Consistent with his pessimism, he surmises that part of the reason for the decline in amillennialism "is the great apostasy" of 2 Thessalonians 2:3 which he presumes to be inevitable, devastating, and near.
In summary, Engelsma believes that amillennialism is a dying doctrine held by a declining remnant and that postmillennialism, the belief that God will conquer His enemies with a victorious gospel, is resurgent. In that, we heartily agree.