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Volume 7, Issue 5: Eschaton

A Case Against Postmillennialism

Jack Van Deventer

In this installment, I'll attempt a concise but limited overview of the case against postmillennialism. In the next issue I'll investigate the case against premillennialism. Postmillennialism "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, that the world eventually will be Christianized, and that the return of Christ will occur at the close of a long period of righteousness and peace commonly called the Millennium."[1] Note that (1) the expansion of the kingdom is a work of God, not of man, (2) the kingdom is spread by way of gospel preaching, not politics or any other humanistic effort, and (3) so-called human evolution and "the inherent goodness" of man is excluded.

Four main criticisms of postmillennialism appear to recur: (1) appeals to the decline of history, (2) linkage of postmillennialism to heretical groups, (3) passages that seem to indicate a catastrophic end of the world, and (4) passages that suggest few will be saved.
First, the chief (and often the sole) argument used against postmillennialism involves the presumed irreversible decline of human history. Cox appeals to the "general unrest and hatred in the world." [2] Adams claims the prospects for gospel success are "highly unrealistic" because we live "in a day in which the world nervously anticipates momentary destruction by nuclear warfare." [3] Hoyt believes trends "point to the disintegration and demoralization of society." [4]
For justification, these and other critics of postmillennialism point to WWI, WWII, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, tension in the Middle East, the Great Depression, the ecological crisis, the world food shortage, the energy crisis, overpopulation, the rise of Communism, and global warming. Noticeably absent in this line of reasoning is an appeal to Scripture, although it should be noted that postmillennialists who argue their position on the basis of technical, cultural, and spiritual advancements suffer the same weakness. Certainly, it is tenuous to deduce God's plan in human history on the basis of current events rather than on sound biblical exegesis.
Second, critics charge that postmillennialism represents incipient liberalism and claim it tends to lead to heretical views. Representative of this perspective is Lightner's claim that the postmillennial approach to prophecy makes it "almost impossible to stem the tide toward liberal theology. The nonliteral method of prophetic interpretation . . . leaves the door wide open, hermeneutically at least, for the same kind of interpretation to be applied to other biblical matters, such as the deity of Christ, and the authority of the Bible." [5] Critics have sought to link postmillennialism to a liberal social gospel, marxism, messianic socialists, unitarians, "positive confession" charismatics, liberation theology, and the heretical Manifest Sons of God cult. [6] Postmillennialists have even been compared with the radical and militant Fifth Monarchists of the seventeenth century,[7] which is ironic because the Fifth Monarchists were premillennial. [8] As above, appeals to discredit a doctrine apart from Scripture are ineffective. Identifying parallels, even if accurate, is not the same as identifying cause and effect. Indeed, such arguments go both ways: premillennialism could be accused of undermining orthodoxy as "evidenced" by premillennial cults such as the Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses.
Third, critics of postmillennialism deny that the world will become more peaceful. Rather, they point to Scriptures they claim indicate a catastrophic end of the world. Berkhof, for example, refers to passages such as Matt. 24, II Thes. 2:3-12, Rev. 13, etc. to demonstrate a future "time of great apostasy, of tribulation and persecution." [9] Similarly, Hoekema states "The New Testament gives indications of the continuing strength of that 'kingdom of evil' until the end of the world when it speaks about the great tribulation, the final apostasy, and the appearance of a personal antichrist." [10] In response, postmillennialists would argue that their critics err by viewing the destructive prophecies futuristically, because the prophecies called for a "near" and "soon" fulfillment (Rev. 1:1,3), within a "generation" of the time the prophecies were made (Matt. 24:34) as in the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70.
Fourth, critics charge that the Great Commission will end in failure and they reject the idea that the nations will be transformed by the gospel. They cite passages such as Luke 18:8: "when the Son of Man comes, will He really find faith on the earth?," and presume a negative response to the question. Critics also point to Matthew 7:14: "narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it." In the classic essay "Are they few that be saved?" [11] B.B. Warfield counters that such interpretations largely ignore the passages' contexts which focus on Israel's hardness at that time (Matt. 22:11-14) or seek to stress the difficulty of the Christian life (Lk. 13:23ff.; Matt. 7:15ff). "Fewness" interpretations must also be reconciled with passages indicating that those in heaven are "many" (Matt. 18:11; 13:24ff.), "a great multitude which no one could number" (Rev. 7:9).
The revival of postmillennialism in the last decades has surprised its critics, not a few of whom claimed it was a dead system. [12] However, even before the resurgence, those who analyzed the decline of postmillennialism from the 1860's to the 1980's admitted, like premillennialist Erickson, that the reason for the decline was "more psychological than logical." [13]

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