Apolitical Postmillennialism

One of the most beautiful elements of optimistic/postmillennial eschatology is its inherent hope. The expectation of God’s kingdom growing has stirred saints in hard times for thousands of years and will continue to do so for many more. But has God told us how He will accomplish His purposes in the future?

When it comes to the past, present, and future, knowledge of the present is easiest to come by. You can read about the news of any country in the world with just a few clicks. Understanding the past is a hazier prospect, unless you give yourself to significant study. Even then, it’s impossible to know everything that led to past events. We know the general movement of history, but specifics over the last six-thousand years are harder to come by. If the past is difficult to understand, knowing the future is even harder. Scripture declares that God’s kingdom will grow,[1] Jesus is reigning until his enemies are made His footstool,[2] and the number of God’s chosen were more than St. John could count.[3] But the Holy Spirit doesn’t give us many more details about how He will accomplish these things.

Many have scoffed at those who twist, stretch, and strain Scripture to fit modern events into biblical prophecy, like Cinderella’s fat-footed stepsisters trying to fit glass slipper. One of my favorite examples is when I was told that Ezekiel’s vision of wheels-within-wheels (Ezek. 1) was actually a prophecy of a modern helicopter. On a larger scale, if there was a dictator in the twentieth-century who opposed the U.S., he was probably suspected of being the Anti-Christ/beast of Revelation.[4] We laugh at these attempts to over-realize a system of eschatology because we have the concrete advantage of hindsight. This, along with historically-sound exegesis, inoculates us against the dispensational rapture-fever that weakens many churches. Yet those of us who are sanguine about the future of God’s kingdom must beware a similar danger. While we would not play “pin-the-prophecy-on-the-dictator,” we can – and at times have – married our political philosophy to our view of the future.

Originally, postmillennialism referred to the belief that Jesus will return after a literal 1,000-year period of gospel growth overcoming the world.[5]  In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, a form of this view was held by many in the Anglo-American sphere, whether Episcopalian, Methodist, or Reformed/Presbyterian. The increase of missions worldwide, the birth and rapid growth of the Pentecostal movement in California, and the decline of hunger and poverty furthered the belief that the glorious millennium was just around the corner.

While not the majority view of eschatology, general millennial optimism it was strong in the Midwest, Northeast, and Western portions of the U.S. The Baptist-dominated South remained largely premillennial. The postmillennialism of that era was often associated with the social gospel, which pursued social and political activism, (welfare programs, societies to restrict vice, etc.) as a means to reduce crime and poverty. They also saw technological advancement, which allowed greater production, travel, and communication, as a harbinger of the golden millennium. Postmillennialists pointed to the progress on these fronts as unassailable evidence that the millennium of Christ was impending.

To further the story, WWI was viewed by many in Europe and America as a holy crusade and potential prelude to the coming millennium. In his book, The Great and Holy War, Philip Jenkins says, “The First World War was a thoroughly religious event, in the sense that overwhelmingly Christian nations fought each other in what many viewed as a holy war, a spiritual conflict. Religion is essential to understanding the war, to understanding why people went to war, what they hoped to achieve through war, and why they stayed at war. Not in medieval or Reformation times but in the age of aircraft and machine guns, the majority of the world’s Christians were indeed engaged in a holy war that claimed more than ten million lives.”

Pastors across the U.S. and Britain, not to mention U.S. President Woodrow Wilson (a ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church) proclaimed the war was God’s work of removing tyrannical government, i.e. monarchies from the world, and ushering in “godly” democratic governments, which they associated with Christianity.[6] Then, after four years of catastrophic bloodshed and no millennial progress, Britain lost her much of her religious hope and churches began to decline. British journalist Peter Hitchens says it this way, “Intellectuals had begun to desert religion long before 1914, but it was Britain’s descent from greatness and wealth to indebtedness and ­triviality that knocked the buttresses away from the Church of England. This descent was hugely accelerated by our involvement in the 1914–18 war.”[7]

Meanwhile the U.S. didn’t face as much loss of life and this millennial optimism wasn’t seen as a problem. Then, within twenty years, the world was at war again, and the U.S. entered this war much earlier. The crusader language of WWII was more muted than in WWI, but still present in the U.S. When the dust settled, people had lived through two world wars, a flu epidemic that killed 33 million people, a worldwide depression, and the advent of communism across Asia and Europe. Their hope for the dawn of a golden millennium was lost in the rubble of war, poverty, death, and half the world drowning in devilish ideology.

There are obvious contrasts in the optimistic vision of liberal Christians a century ago and recent conservative manifestations.[8] The most obvious is that conservative postmillennialists are leery of putting trust in princes, that is, political programs.[9] There are other differences, for instance they don’t anticipate the millennium being a literal 1,000-year period. But there are also parallels between the two groups. When we point to extra-biblical accomplishments as evidence of God’s kingdom, we assume the risk of discrediting our beliefs when those accomplishments are lost or abused. Basing our eschatological hope on consistent human endeavors and extrapolating our achievements is to trust in a form of wealth, which has a tendency to vanish at the most inopportune times (Prov. 23:5).

On the other hand, some postmillennialists have an apocalyptic expectation that a major event, such as financial meltdown, major war, etc. will bring the country to its knees and usher in the rise of free-market and Christian rule. Dr. Gary North expected this in the late 1990’s, thinking Y2K to be the event that would cause the collapse. This expectation for the future is similar to the communist vision of Karl Marx, as documented by North in his book, Marx’s Religion of Revolution.[10] Marx taught that the industrial capitalist economic system would eventually be overturned through worldwide revolution of the workers (proletariat) against the middle class (bourgeoisie). This would “clear the deck” socially and economically and bring in a peaceful, egalitarian world. From the beginning of the U.S., there have been many confident proclamations that the country will collapse. Eventually there will be a decline and/or collapse of the U.S., but nowhere do we find Peter, Paul, or John praying for the collapse of the corrupt Roman government.

Those who hitch their eschatological hope to the political schemes of man, whether by way of government involvement or of the free-market rising from ashes of the old regime, will find themselves disappointed. That’s partially why Augustine wrote The City of God. The vision of hope we offer should be no more tied to improved technology, politics, or economic systems than it was for Roman Christians in the 4th century when the Barbarian invasion wrecked all three of those. That resulted in many technological advances being lost, the political institutions shifting, and economic system drastically decentralizing.

This is no call for Christians to publicly disengage from their communities. We are called to participate in every area of life to the glory of God. Our Christian witness is tied to our love for our neighbors and love for God. This demands that we develop a clear political perspective and act accordingly. But we should be clear when we proclaim the reason for our eschatological hope that we are trusting God to work His plans out in His ways, whether or not he uses my business, my political ideas, or my country.

The world longs for hope; people want to know history is going somewhere. Scripture offers that hope, but we must not over-politicize it. On the last day the victory of Christ will be complete. The plans and predictions of mortal men will be revealed as mostly straw. But our Savior, the prophecies of His kingdom, and all those in union with Him, will be vindicated. This is our final hope.

Matt Carpenter is the Associate Pastor at Trinity Reformed Church. He taught history for fifteen years and has served in pastoral ministry for eleven years. He is married to Amanda and they have four children: Phoebe, Simeon, Emmaline, and Olivia. In his spare time he enjoys cooking, reading, hiking, and fishing. 

[1] Mark 4:31-32

[2] Psalm 110:1, I Corinthians 15:25

[3] Revelation 7:9, “After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, with palm branches in their hands…”

[4] Benito Mussolini, Adolph Hitler, every Soviet leader from Lenin to Gorbachev, and the initial leaders of the European Union were all considered for this dubious honor. It’s interesting how the dictators who were supported by the U.S were never considered bestial suspects.

[5] See Loraine Boettner, The Millennium

[6] See James Kurth, “The Protestant Deformation and American Foreign Policy.” https://phillysoc.org/kurth-the-protestant-deformation-and-american-foreign-policy/

[7] https://www.firstthings.com/article/2016/05/a-church-that-was

[8] See, for example, Kenneth Gentry’s He Shall Have Dominion, https://www.garynorth.com/freebooks/docs/pdf/he_shall_have_dominion.pdf

[9] Psalm 146:3, “Put not your trust in princes, nor in the son of man, in whom there is no help.”

[10] North actually claims that postmillennial eschatology is the biblical, positive version of Marx’s secular vision of the future. See his books, Is the World Running Down, and Absolute Surrender.