In the last post, I quoted Jim Jordan to the effect that amillennialism is racist, and pre- and postmillennialism have more in common with each other than they do with amillennialism. I then noted that the ecclesiastical, organizational and confessional lines tend to be drawn the other way, lumping amillennialism and postmillennialism together on one side of the fence, with premillenniallism on the other.
Some people — I know a number — have fled to the premillennial side of the fence precisely because they were unable to make their peace with amillennialism. Usually the point of serious discontent is the way amillennialism spiritualizes away the promise of kingdom victory over the evils of this world.
However, it has to be said that a great number have fled the other way, from premillennialism to postmillennialism, for very similar reasons.
Premillennial thought understands that Messiah’s kingdom only comes about when Messiah Himself is personally present to set it up. Until then, human sinfulness presents an upper boundary to the world’s maturation. That thought, taken by itself, lends itself to a story in which the world descends into the abyss until Messiah appears to save the day and set up His kingdom, and thence to a lifestyle not unlike the amillennial mentality Jordan skewered in last week’s post. Hence the great number of dispensational premil folks who are “just hanging on until the Rapture.” They don’t get involved in cultural endeavor because that’s “polishing the brass on a sinking ship.”
This breeds a defeatism, a sense that the gospel cannot have meaningful impact on a whole culture. The depressive Christianity that comes of this drives people from the premillennial camp to postmillennialism, because they can’t believe that the gospel could be so ineffective.
They’re right to be repulsed; defeatist Christianity is biblically false, historically unsustainable, intellectually stultifying, morally bankrupt, and just plain nauseating. You’d have to be a gnostic to find any encouragement in it at all…and hey! Guess what? Most conservative American Protestants are closet gnostics, so there you go.
If the only choices were culturally vibrant postmillennial Christianity and defeatist premillennial gnosticism, I’d be a postmillennialist too.
But these are not the only choices.
Consider the mentality that gives rise to premillennial defeatism: “We’re not going to bring about the kingdom in any case, and Jesus will do it when He comes no matter what, so why invest in culture now?” Suppose a Christian were to approach his personal sanctification the same way: “I’m not going to become perfect in this life anyway, and Jesus will make me perfect in the next in any case, so why struggle against sin now?” The biblical answer, of course, is that we are supposed to anticipate and image the life to come in our lives now — and that answer applies at a cultural level as well as an individual level.
But is that compatible with premillennialism?
Sure — just as a sanctified life is. Premillennial eschatology sees that Jesus’ presence on earth as king is necessary to setting up His earthly kingdom, and nothing less will suffice. But it’s a far cry from that to saying that obedience to the dominion mandate now is worthless. Jesus is Lord, and He knows far better than I what value my cultural contributions may have, so simple obedience is sufficient as a motive. But beyond that, consider: what has been the impact of Christianity on Western culture? Is Western culture measurably better than those cultures that have never had the benefit of 1500 years of Christian cultural hegemony?
Cultural endeavor is not polishing brass on a sinking ship after all; it’s continuing repair and improvement of a ship that will always need bilge pumps until the Lord returns. Sometimes she floats pretty well; other times, she’s listing to starboard and the water line is two feet above the deck.
Presently, the ship of Western Christendom is a shattered ruin, and even what remains is slowly falling apart. But Christendom gave us the neonatal respiratory ventilator, modern science, and an outpouring of philanthropy unparalleled in the history of the world. God is pleased when those made in His image snatch the helpless from the jaws of death. God is pleased when we cultivate the earth as He commanded. God is pleased when we care for the poor, the weak, and the downtrodden.
But what if it all disappears? What if the whole culture sinks beneath the chaotic sea as if it had never been? I mean, isn’t that what premillennial eschatology tells us? I’m not certain that it is, necessarily, but let’s consider it as a worst-case scenario: Christendom 1.0 disappears as if it had never been, and “round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, the lone and level sands stretch far away.” Then what? What was the point?
Then we will know that the words Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes are true, that all our labor under the sun really is shepherding wind.
By the same token, we will know that to fear God and keep His commandments is man’s all, and we will be glad to have done it.
So let us labor as Solomon labored to build the temple, now long destroyed. If it was worth doing then, it’s worth doing now. We are the church of Jesus Christ; we believe in resurrection from the dead. We live in light of eternity, and can afford to wait and see how God will resurrect all that has died to a brighter and yet more glorious future.
He is Risen!
Would you elaborate a bit on your statement about Western Christendom being a shattered ruin..?
I am in agreement with your statement but would appreciate your views.
I’m not sure I have much to say on the topic that will really be enlightening. Starting with Constantine’s conversion, the West grew increasingly Christian-dominant, until the old gods were so thoroughly dead that no one worshipped them anymore — Thor, Saturn, Brigid, etc.
In short, the gospel triumphed, and a genuinely (although not at all perfectly) Christian society blossomed and began to mature. For a millennium and a half the culture was so thoroughly Christian that to say you were an atheist was to advertise yourself as a menace to society.
With the triumph of the ‘Enlightenment’ all that came to an end. It is still acceptable to be a Christian, of course, but religion — by which I chiefly mean Christianity — has been banished from the public square. To approach a public policy discussion with a pointedly Christian position will automatically be perceived as bigoted, small-minded, stupid and generally mean, whereas a ‘secular’ (read: functionally atheist) approach will encounter no such prejudices. See the intelligent design debate for an example of this.
The good news is that Christianity is on the rise in the developing world. Africa is 50% Christian, Korea is 30%, and so on. It will be generations before those cultures begin to show the full effects of the gospel on them — and generations also before the effects of Christian virtue begin to be felt economically — but that seems to be where Christendom 2.0 will arise, if it’s coming.
We live between the two, taking shelter in the ruins of the first Christendom, or trying to live in a second one not yet constructed. It’s an interesting time in history, of a piece with the first century in its pluralism and paganism, separate in that early post-Christian paganism is a very different animal from late pre-Christian paganism.
Not sure how else to elaborate, but these are my thoughts at the moment — hope they’re useful to you.