Easter and Eschatology: Is Premillennialism Different from Amillennialism?

12 April 2009

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?

It is.

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!


If You Confess Your Sins, You Should Pick Up Litter, Too

7 December 2008

One of the enjoyable sidelines I’ve tried to develop here at Full Contact Christianity is a ferocious intolerance for theological inconsistencies.  It’s one thing to just be wrong; it’s quite another, much more irresponsible thing to believe (1) A, and (2) Not-A — and loudly declaim on both topics.  Granted, the two proclamations don’t usually take place at the same time.

I’d like to address a doozy this week — the idea that one can be so taken with “spiritual” matters like relationship with God or sharing the gospel with the lost that one simply has no time for “peripheral” concerns like caring for the world we live in.  After all, it’s all going up in flames anyhow, and then God recreates it, so why worry about it?  Where’s the contradiction, you ask?  Just watch.  Much as I would enjoy an opportunity to do some first-hand mocking,  N. T. Wright said it better than ever I could, so with no further ado, here he is:

I’ve spoken about God’s ultimate intention, that through the renewed human beings in Christ, the cosmos itself would be renewed.  This strikes very hard at those of us who grew up within some kind or other of a pietistic tradition which actually had a low social concern because it said that was just oiling the wheels of a machine which was going to go over the cliff:  What’s the point in tinkering with the structures of society?  What’s the point in worrying about global warming, or whatever it is, because we know that the world is going to be jettisoned, and that we the saved will go off to be with God elsewhere.

Romans 8 ought long ago to have given the lie to any such idea.  God loves the world that He’s made and wants to renew it.  He sees it groaning in travail, and the answer to something groaning in travail is that the new is going to be born out of the womb of the old, not that the groaning person or world is going to be left to groan forever until it dies — No!

Where does that then leave us at the moment?  There are many people who will see this picture and then will say “That’s great; we’re going to get that renewal one day when the Messiah comes back.  When God renews everything then it’ll happen, but there’s nothing we can do about it at the moment.”

Now listen, many of you are pastors – probably the majority of you are pastors, that’s why you’re here.  [Suppose] somebody came to you and said, “I’m having a real trouble with holiness, with this sin problem.  I just find I sin all the time, and I see well there is this thing called holiness, but there’s really no point in me trying very hard after it, because after all, one day, God will raise me from the dead and give me a beautiful new life in which I will never sin again.  That’s going to happen, so why should I worry about it now?”

I hope that if somebody came to you like that, you would hit them with a fairly heavy dose of inaugurated eschatology.  You mightn’t express it quite like that, but what you would say is, “God wants you right now in the present, to live as nearly as you can in the power of the spirit to that lovely fully human creature that you’re going to be one day.  Of course you will constantly be saying ‘God have mercy on me, a sinner.’  But He has given you His Spirit so that you can anticipate in the present what you should be in the future.  “

Now, should we not say the same about our responsibility for creation, for the world which God made and which He loves so much?  Of course we should.  And if we get our soteriology right, we can go to that task without any of those snide remarks that this is a derogation from our gospel duty.  It is part of our gospel duty.”

(This is from Session 6 of the 2005 Auburn Avenue Pastors’ Conference, available for $1.99 here, at about the 57:30 mark.)

An additional note for those of you who are interested in (or furious about) Wright’s position vis-a-vis the New Perspective on Paul.  In this particular conference, Wright is addressing an audience entirely conservative, and mainly composed, from what I gather, of Presbyterian pastors.  If you’ve read some of the caterwauling about how Wright is striking at the vitals of the Christian religion, this is a good place to see what he has to say for himself to a group of people who will share your concerns.  He delivers five lectures (Richard Gaffin does the other five) and participates in three Q&A/discussion sessions, so there’s quite a bit of material, and some good interaction as well.