Is the great and glorious Day of Christ near? From a certain group of writers in recent years, this question has received a negative answer. These writers are united by their postmillennial beliefs. According to them, we are still in the infancy of the Gospel Age. The present world, they allege, is not "post-Christian" but "pre-Christian." One day in history, righteousness will be the worldwide norm, while evil will be marginalized. Christ will return not to a world that still resists the Gospel, but to a world which expects Him, that is, to a largely converted, Christianized world. His coming in glory will be the icing on the cake, the culmination of thousands of years of Christian civilization. Hence, these writers are called postmillennialists, because they believe that Christ returns after the Golden Age, that is, the Millennium, which they understand as a phase of glory and prosperity for God's Church on this earth and in this present history. 1
Last Days Madness
As a result of their beliefs, many postmillennial writers ridicule what they call "last days madness." They decry the tendency of many Christians to be so infatuated with the signs of the times that they forget their cultural responsibilities. Insofar as the postmillennial critique is directed against premillennial writers like Hal Lindsay, we can express our appreciation.
If you go to your local Christian bookstore, you will discover the relevance of this postmill critique of last days madness. In a modern, evangelical bookshop, you will find a large quantity of highly-speculative literature about the Rapture, Armageddon, the Antichrist, the Great Tribulation, as well as about the restoration of Israel as God's Chosen people and the rule of Christ from Jerusalem for a thousand years. This literature arises from the premillennial camp which dominates North American evangelical Christianity. According to the premillennialists, Christ will come at the beginning of the thousand year reign. According to this system of thought, Christ will actually come back on several different occasions. First, He comes in secret to rapture his saints out of the world. Then follows a 7-year period of terrible tribulation during which the Antichrist rules the earth. At the end of this period, Christ comes again with His previously raptured saints, this time visibly; to overthrow the antichrist, establish His earthly Kingdom, centered in Jerusalem. During this era, the Jews will be converted, the temple will be rebuilt and the sacrificial system of the Old Testament restored. At the end of this thousand year period, Satan will be loosed again, there will be a short rebellion against God and then comes, at last, the End.
The writings of the premillennialists can indeed be characterized by a certain madness. Each time a new development occurs in the Middle East, a whole spate of books comes quickly from the presses, each one professing to see in political events specific fulfillment of OT prophecies. When the crisis in the Middle East calms, the books languish on the shelves and are soon sold for discount prices to unsuspecting bargain-hunters looking for insights into modern geopolitics. As soon as a new emergency develops in world events, the cycle begins anew.
In this context of last days madness, we can appreciate how the hard hitting books of the American postmillennialists expose the ludicrous and inconsistent literalism in the premillennial interpretation of prophecy. Much to our delight, the postmillennial writers stress time and again that God has but one New Testament people, composed of both Jews and Greeks, and that the OT prophecies about the future glory of Israel are being fulfilled today in the Church. The Church is the "Israel of God" and "a holy nation, God's own people" (Galatians 6:1 6; 1 Peter 2:9). We believe that the premillennialist doctrine that God has a program for the Jews that is eternally distinct from His program for the Church is a serious error.
Despite our appreciation, some questions will be raised in this article about postmillennial ideas. Specifically, we will challenge the claim that "Christ can't come back yet" because the world has not yet been Christianized. It should be understood that the claim of this article is not that Christ will return very soon, but simply that it is wrong to say that He cannot return soon. Contrary to postmillennialism, it is here asserted that we as New Testament believers should have an "anytime now" mentality with respect to the appearing of Christ in glory.
Last Days Sanity
What is needed in the first place is a sane and sober understanding of how the Bible describes the redemptive-historical era in which we live. You may be interested to find out that the New Testament describes the entire era between the Ascension of Christ and His Return in glory as "the last days" (see Acts2:17; Hebrews 1:2).
In 2 Timothy 3, verses one and two, Paul writes:
But understand this, that in the last days, there will come times of stress. For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy …
In case, however, you might think Paul was referring only to a time far in the future, read verse five: "Avoid such people." The inference we are to make is that the last days had already begun in the time of Timothy's ministry.
Peter tells us in his second letter that "scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own passions" (2 Peter 3:3). The context shows that those scoffers were already present in the days when Peter wrote. Of course, for those were already the last days!
From references such as these, the overall structure of the New Testament doctrine of history becomes clear. The ascension and coronation of Christ, combined with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, mark the transition to the "last days," The "last days" constitute the whole Gospel era during which the Church from all nations is gathered and during which we see many "signs" of the ongoing work of the Son of God. So far, the "last days" have lasted nearly 2,000 years. The boundaries of this period are the first coming of Christ in humiliation and the final coming of Christ in glory.
Another way of looking at this New Testament concept is to realize that the "last days" form the period of history which ends with "the Day of the Lord." New Testament writings radiate hope and expectation for the "Day of the Lord." Between Christ's first coming and His great Day, there is no other event equal in importance. Whatever might happen in the intervening history pales in comparison to the importance of the first and second comings of Christ.
The Day of the Lord Jesus Christ marks the end of the last days. Another way of saying this is that the Day of Christ means the end of "the present age" (see, for example, Matthew 1 3:39-40, 49) and the beginning of the "age to come" (Matthew 12:32).
It is no surprise, then, that the New Testament proclaims the Day of the Lord Jesus to be "near." Paul writes:
The night is far gone, the day is at hand. Let us then cast off the works of darkness …Romans 13:12
And the writer of Hebrews tells the Christians not to neglect meeting together, as was the habit of some of them, but to encourage one another, "and all the more as you see the Day drawing near" (Hebrews 10:25). One of the expressions used by the apostles when they encouraged the believers to be faithful and patient was, "The Lord is at hand" (Philippians 4:5; James 5:8).
In the light of the New Testament, therefore, we are to see the Day of Christ as always imminent. This momentous event can take place without further delay. The saints of the early days of the Church had a lively expectation of a speedy return of Christ. Their belief was: "the end of all things is at hand" 1 Peter 4:7.
After all, doesn't the Lord Jesus Himself say, "Surely I am coming soon!" (Revelation 22:20). The New Testament therefore teaches us that nobody is allowed to say, "The Lord can't come back yet; His day is not near, but far." People who say this contradict the apostles and so separate themselves from the catholic tradition of the Church. The norm of the New Testament is "any-day-soon-now Christianity."
Success of the Gospel
Why do the postmillennial writers insist that Christ can't yet return? The major reason, as outlined above, is that they feel the Bible promises a glorious success for the Gospel which has not yet been achieved in history. Some of the Scriptural evidence presented by them includes Psalm 2:8; Psalm 47:2-8; Psalm 72; 98; 145; Isaiah 2:2-4; Isaiah 11:1-9; Isaiah 42:4; Isaiah 60; Isaiah 65; Ezekiel 47:1-5; Daniel 2:44; Matthew 13:33; Matthew 28:18-20; Revelation 7:9,10. Most of these passages speak about the future submission of the nations to the Gospel and rave about the glory of Zion in days to come. Your understanding of the postmillennial position will increase a lot if you take the time to read these passages.
According to the postmillennialists, these passages teach a future era of spiritual and material prosperity for the Church, during which most people on earth will serve the true God. Zion will become great and glorious. Not only in the new creation, but also in this present age, the knowledge of God will fill the whole earth.
We do agree, of course, that the Scriptures speak about the constant growth of the Church. Already the OT preached the Gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, "In you shall all the nations be blessed" (Galatians 3:8). Christ commanded His disciples to go to all the nations, baptizing and teaching them to obey Him (Matthew 28:18-20). In Matthew 24, we are told that the Gospel would be preached to all nations and that then the end would come. No longer was the Church to be largely a Jewish congregation, but a truly catholic body, with men and women and children from all kinds of cultures and languages. The New Testament temple is a house of prayer for people of all nations. Clearly, people who read the Bible could expect that the Gospel would go forth to conquer the hearts of millions.
The difficulty, however, lies in the attempt of the postmillennialists to quantify the success of the Kingdom of God. They say that Christ cannot come until the majority of the citizens of the world are Christian. The Scriptures, however, never give any information about the numerical success rate of the Gospel in any particular era. We do know that the number of the saved from all ages will constitute an immense throng, but this is not to say that, at any given time, the Church will form the majority throughout the whole world. We do not deny that this could happen, but it is not promised in Scripture.
To those who feel that Christ's return must be preceded by a worldwide conversion on a scale never seen before, we could point to Colossians one. Already in this letter, the apostle Paul could say that the hope of the Gospel "has been preached to every creature under heaven" (verse 23). In verse six of Colossians one, Paul writes about how the Gospel has come to the Colossians and about how "indeed in the whole world it is bearing fruit and growing." If already in Paul's days, the Gospel had gone to all the nations, how can we say that even now the Lord can't yet return because of the promise that people would be gathered from all nations?
A further difficulty in the postmillennial interpretation of prophecy is its frequent failure to grasp that many OT prophecies speak in one breath about the progressive work of Christ in history and the final work of Christ on His great Day. The prophets speak about glory for Zion; they speak about the justice of the Great Son of David being established over all the earth; they tell of the Kingdom of Christ becoming a great stone that fills the whole earth and about the wealth of the nations being brought into Zion. When the postmills read such prophecies, they feel that their fulfillment will take place in the establishment and glory of the Church in this present age.
It is our conviction, however, that the passages mentioned above refer only partially to the establishment of the holy catholic church in this present age, while they receive their substantial fulfillment when Christ comes again to restore all things. It is on the Day of Christ that the Zion will finally be seen in its glory. Only then will justice be established in all the earth. It is in the perfection of God's Kingdom that there will be peace and righteousness from sea to sea. When Christ returns, then the stone will fill the whole earth. On that Day, the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord.
We see all these things now only in part and by way of anticipation. What we have in this present age is only the merest foretaste of God's everlasting Kingdom and the glory of Zion portrayed in Psalm and Prophet.
This Evil Age
There are many texts which seem to be stumbling blocks for postmillennial interpretation regarding a supposed Golden Age. Chief among these are the passages of the Gospels in which Christ alludes to ongoing and wide-scale resistance to the truth. We think, for example, of Matthew seven, verse fourteen:
For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few.
Without much exegetical support, postmillennial authors tend to restrict this verse's application to the hardened and rebellious generation among which Christ then ministered (compare also Matthew 22:14; Luke 18:8).
We mention also the parable of the wheat and the tares (Matthew 13:24-30). This passage does not come with figures about the relative numbers of wheat and tares, but anyone in the work of agriculture knows about the vast proliferation of weeds in almost any field. The parable therefore implies that God's people and evildoers will coexist until the End without the Church gaining any kind of permanent dominion.
In Galatians 1, verse four, Paul characterizes the last days as "this present evil age." This age, clearly, is not the age characterized by the worldwide righteousness expected by the postmillennialists. In this context, we may also think of the way Paul describes Satan in 2 Corinthians 4:4 as "the god of this world." Furthermore, we may recall the many passages where believers are warned about the continuing conflict between the "world" and the Church. Believers are in, but not of the world. They are not to be friends of this world, lest they be enemies of God. The picture of the New Testament is not that of a world being steadily defeated in this age by the Church, but of a constantly near and menacing power of evil against which Christians must be steadfast and firm. This continuing conflict between Church and world simply does not harmonize with a Church dominating all the nations under heaven.
Finally, the postmillennial idea of Christ's coming to a largely converted and Christianized world does not conform to the presentation of His return "as a thief in the night" and in such a way that "all the tribes of the earth mourn on His account," looking for a place to hide themselves from the wrath of the Lamb (compare Matthew 24:30; Revelation 6:16; 9:6). As Paul writes in 1 Thessalonians 5:
For you yourselves know well that the Day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. When people say, 'There is peace and security,' then sudden destruction will come upon them as travail comes upon a woman with child and there will be no escape.
The postmillennial authors are afraid that non-millennialists like ourselves will serve to encourage wide-scale evasion of cultural responsibilities. If we are pessimistic about "this present world," it must follow, say the postmillennialists, that we will not be too concerned about serving and obeying Christ in all of life. Because we are not looking forward to a Golden Age in this present world, the accusation arises from the aggressive postmill writers that we must be in the pit of despair and unable to work for Christ in politics, art, music, families, business, caring for the poor and so forth.
We want to go on the record to deny this accusation. To believe, as we do, that the night is far gone and that the Day is at hand, does not encourage evasion of cultural responsibility, but instead promotes a godly sense of obligation and accountability before the Lord Jesus who is coming soon to test all our works.
Christians are citizens of the Kingdom of heaven (Philippians 3:20-21). By their union with Christ, they are already seated in the heavenly places (Ephesians 2:6). This means that in the midst of this evil world they have to live already now the lifestyle of heaven. They are able to do this by the power of the Holy Spirit who dwells within them. By living as citizens of the Kingdom of heaven in all spheres of life, they become culturally more relevant than anyone else. By their heavenly values and priorities and through the culture this lifestyle begets, believers become coworkers of Christ for the coming of His Kingdom in glory. Peter says that,
since all these things are to be dissolved, what sort of persons ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the Day of God.2 Peter 3:11-12
Who could be more culturally relevant than those who are holy and godly? The Lord Jesus Himself will establish all their holy works of faith in all spheres of life (1 Corinthians 15:58).
If the postmills want to question the commitment of the non-millennialists to work of service in all areas of life, we would also like to ask a question in return. Does not the dream of a Golden Age for the Church carry the great danger of distracting attention from the most important event of all, namely, the Return of Christ in power and glory? Is there not the genuine risk of preoccupation with the life of this present world, so that some begin to seek heaven on earth?
The consuming hope and focus of the Christian's life is not anything in this present evil age. Not earthly glory and material prosperity in this age for the Church is the believer's hope, but the Great Day of Christ. For people who live for that Day, a long earthly millennium is actually a disappointment. It holds no allure for us. We long for the Day of redemption, when we will be delivered from sin and freed from the weakness of our present body. We pray for the speedy return of Christ so that we may no longer have to live by faith but then by glorious sight of the Blessed Saviour.
Not the incremental advances of this present age, but the vast, cosmic changes of the Day of Christ command our attention and affection and earnest desires. Not the continuation of sin and death and suffering in a so-called Golden Age of the Church, but the stupendous wind up of history and the renovation of all things: this guides our hope and gives us patience in the day of trouble.
The Blessed Hope
What is our blessed hope? It is the appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ (Titus 2:13). For this Day we pray and persevere. For it we wait and work. For this Day, Christ Himself will preserve and guard those who call on His Name. Through easier times and harder times for the Church in this present evil age, the Lord Jesus will keep His flock safe. The great question therefore is this: do we love the Day of His appearing? (2 Timothy 4:8). He can come any day now.