A Comment about Terminology
In our introduction to the subject of the millennium, I noted that the primary difference in millennial positions is the difference between a pre-millennial and a post-millennial conception of the return of Christ. Both of the millennial views we have considered thus far — historic premillennialism and dispensationalism — teach that the return of Christ will precede the establishment of the millennial kingdom (hence "pre"-millennialism). They have this fundamental feature in common. However, the two remaining views we have to consider share the conviction that the return of Christ will occur after the millennium (hence "post"-millennialism).
This should alert us to a difficulty of terminology. That difficulty can be readily seen when it is noted that both "post-millennialism" and "a-millennialism," as distinct views of the millennium, have in common a basic post-millennialist framework that places them together over against the two forms of pre-millennialism we have already considered. Perhaps another way of putting it would be to say that, whatever the real differences between the views commonly termed "post-millennialism" and "a-millennialism," they share one feature that distinguishes them from all pre-millennial views: the conviction that the return of Christ at the end of the age, after the period of the millennium, will conclude this present epoch of redemptive history and immediately introduce the state of consummation.
In this connection, it is interesting to observe that the common terms used today, "post-millennialism" and "a-millennialism," are of rather recent vintage. Though we will have more to say about the term "a-millennialism", the term "post-millennialism" has until recently been the general term to describe all forms of the view that Christ's coming will follow the millennium, including views which we today might distinguish as post-millennialist and a-millennialist. Though the differences between post-millennialist and a-millennialist views have long existed in the history of the church, these differences were not until recently described with these terms.
As recently as the first half of the twentieth century, the term "post-millennialism" was still being used to include both of the views which we would today distinguish by the terms "post-millennialism" and "a-millennialism." B. B. Warfield, for example, noted that the terms "pre-millennial" and "post-millennial" were "unfortunate," but apparently regarded them to be the only options available.1 Geerhardus Vos, in his The Pauline Eschatology, published in 1930, distinguished his view from some forms of post-millennialism but considered himself to be, in some more basic sense, a post-millennialist in distinction from a pre-millennialist.2 His discussion of pre-millennialism gives every impression that he regarded the primary difference in eschatological views to be between pre- and post-millennarianism. Perhaps even more compelling is the fact that the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, first published in 1915 and then published in revised form in 1929-30, has no entry for a-millennialism but has one for post-millennialism. Clearly, at this point in history, whatever the differences among post-millennialists, all those who rejected a pre-millennialist view were lumped together under the category of post-millennialism.3
A Brief Historical Overview
The problem of definition and terminology also plagues the way in which the history of post-millennialism is often told. Some post-millennial authors try to maintain that this has been the predominant eschatological position of the Christian church.4 Others are more cautious and only maintain that it has been a continuing and significant position of many in the Reformed tradition.5 Since this debate can only finally be settled upon the basis of a consensus regarding the meaning of post-millennialism, my survey of the history of post-millennialism will be rather brief and modest in its claims.
Without resolving the dispute whether post-millennialism has been the predominant position of the Reformed tradition, it is undoubtedly true that the Reformed tradition has witnessed the most significant expressions of post-millennialist thought. Though many post-millennialist authors insist that John Calvin was a post-millennialist, it is probably more accurate to say that Calvin gave expression to some ideas that received greater emphasis in later Presbyterian and Puritan writers who were more evidently post-millennialist in outlook.
Frequently, the beginnings of modern forms of post-millennialism are associated with the name of Daniel Whitby, an Anglican, who published his Paraphrase and Commentary on the New Testament in 1703. However, at the same time and even before the publication of this treatise, a number of Puritan writers, such as Thomas Brightman, John Cotton and John Owen, were arguing for a post-millennialist point of view. In 1651, Owen preached a sermon before the English House of Commons, "The Kingdom of Christ," in which he expressed the conviction that the multitudes and the nations would be converted and come under the lordship of Jesus Christ. It is also generally agreed that the Savoy Declaration of 1658, which modified the Westminster Confession of Faith for the congregational churches, gave expression to a post-millennialist outlook.6
Perhaps the greatest flowering of a post-millennialist point of view occurred in North America, first in the writing and preaching of Jonathan Edwards and then in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Edwards' articulated his post-millennialist position in his The History of Redemption, a work which articulated the expectation of the triumph of Christ's kingdom in the not-to-distant future and the utter destruction and desolation of the kingdom of the evil one. Post-millennialism was a dominant viewpoint in the great and influential Princeton tradition, represented by Archibald Alexander, J.A. Alexander, A.A. Hodge, Charles Hodge and B.B. Warfield. Though especially prominent among many conservative Presbyterian theologians during this period, including Robert Lewis Dabney, W.G.T. Shedd and James Henley Thornwell, other influential writers held a basically post-millennialist view as well. Among these writers were the Baptist theologian Augustus Strong and the Scotsman Patrick Fairbairn.
In the twentieth century there has been a substantial decline in the influence of post-millennialism. Some post-millennialist authors, such as J. Marcellus Kik and John Jefferson Davis, have continued to articulate a more traditional form of post-millennialism. More recently, however, many advocates of post-millennialism have been "reconstructionists" or "theonomists." Among these reconstructionist post-millennialists, the primary authors are Rousas J. Rushdooney, Greg Bahnsen, Gary North, David Chilton and Ken Gentry. Perhaps due to the rather controversial nature of the reconstructionist movement, post-millennialism is today frequently regarded to be a kind of fringe position, despite its having enjoyed considerable support among able and conservative Reformed writers for many centuries.
The Main Features of Post-Millennialism
Since the dispute regarding the predominance of post-millennialism in the Christian and Reformed tradition depends so much upon the definition of post-millennialism that is being used, it is vitally important that we come to a clear understanding of this position and its main features. Though various self-professed post-millennialist writers offer different summaries of this position, there are some readily identifiable features of most post-millennialist thought.
The Triumph of the Gospel
The most obvious feature of all post-millennialist positions is the insistence that, in the period of history prior to the return of Christ at the end of the age, the preaching of the gospel will triumph on the earth and bring about the conversion of the nations and the preponderance of the human race. Loraine Boettner, a well-known exponent of the post-millennialist view, gives clear expression to this in his definition of post-millennialism:
Post-millennialism is that view of the last things which 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 in the hearts of individuals, that the world eventually is to be Christianized and that the return of Christ is to occur at the close of a long period of righteousness and peace commonly called the millennium.7
According to post-millennialism, the "Great Commission" of Matthew 28 is not a charter for a missionary enterprise that holds no prospect of certain success. Rather, it is a charter that outlines the way in which Christ, through the preaching and teaching of the gospel, will triumph and receive the nations as His rightful inheritance.
In the writings of many post-millennialists, care is taken to distinguish this triumph of the gospel from the optimism of the old "social gospel" teaching of liberalism in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, as well as the theory of historical progress often associated with evolutionism. The growth of the church will be realized by spiritual means, the preaching of the gospel in the power of the Spirit of the Pentecost, and not by worldly strategies or methods.
A "Golden Age"
With the triumphant spread of the gospel and the conversion of the nations, a "golden age" will emerge in history prior to the return of Christ. This golden age, the period of the millennium, will be a significant period of time during which the standards and precepts of the gospel and the Word of God will prevail on the earth and among the nations. Though it will not be a period of absolute perfection and righteousness (sin will still be present in human life), it will be a period marked by moral righteousness, universal peace among the nations and peoples of the earth, and an unprecedented economic prosperity. The blessing of God will rest upon the nations and a glorious epoch of the kingdom of Christ will be realized upon the earth.
Among post-millennialists, differences in respect to this "golden age" exist. Some interpret the language of "one thousand" years more literally than others, though most take it in a symbolic sense to refer to a period of long duration that is within the purpose and will of God. Some anticipate that this golden age will emerge, almost imperceptibly, as the gospel progresses and the church grows among the nations. However, others believe that the introduction of this golden age will occur more cataclysmically and suddenly. Furthermore, though post-millennialism historically regarded this golden age as a period in the future, subsequent not only to Pentecost but also to the early centuries of the Christian era, more recently some post-millennialists have suggested that this golden age is coterminous with the period of time from the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. and the rebuilding of the temple (the church) from that time forward.8
The Sequence of End-Time Events
The sequence of events in the outlook of post-millennialism is similar to that of a-millennialism. Allowing for some divergence among advocates of post-millennialism, the general sequence of events is as follows: as the gospel progressively advances and the nations are converted, the millennium commences; at the close of this millennial age, Satan is released for a "little season" of rebellion, only to be defeated decisively by Christ at His second coming; the second coming of Christ will coincide with the general resurrection of the righteous and the unrighteous and the final judgment; and, with the conclusion of the final judgment, the final state will commence, in which the wicked will be consigned to hell and the righteous will enter everlasting life in the new heavens and earth. Though this sequence bears considerable resemblance to that of a-millennialism, the chief difference is the relegation of many of the "signs of the times" — tribulation, wars and rumors of wars, apostasy — to the period before the millennium. However, even here there are differences of viewpoint among a-millennialists, some of whom would acknowledge the presence of these signs re-emerging in the period of Satan's little season after the millennial age.
The Conversion of the Jews
One less obvious feature of post-millennialism relates to the subject of the conversion of the Jews prior to or during the period of the millennium. The reason this feature is less obvious than the two considered thus far, is that, though most, if not all, post-millennialists teach the large-scale conversion of the Jewish people, some who acknowledge this to be a biblical expectation do not hold a post-millennialist eschatology. Consequently, though the teaching of the conversion of the preponderance of the Jews prior to the return of Christ may be a tell-tale evidence of post-millennialism, it is not a sufficient condition for identifying someone as a post-millennialist.9
However, most historic representatives of post-millennialism have taken the position that the Bible teaches (especially in Romans 11:11-32) that the great preponderance of the Jewish people, in their racial and national existence, will be converted through the preaching of the gospel. This does not mean that every individual Jew will be converted. But it does mean that a substantial number, the greater number, will be brought to salvation through the gospel at some point in history prior to Christ's return. This conversion will be a distinctive feature of the millennial age, though it will not occur in the same way in which the conversion of Israel has been understood in pre-millennialist views, especially in dispensationalism. Post-millennialism teaches that all are saved, Jew and Gentile alike, by way of faith in Jesus Christ and through incorporation into the one people of God, the Christian church. Therefore, it rejects the sharp lines of distinction drawn between Jew and Gentile in most forms of pre-millennialism.10
The Dominion of Christ
In the presentation and defense of post-millennialism, advocates of this position often insist that the triumph of the gospel and the emergence of the millennium at some point in history prior to Christ's return is an expression and necessary implication of Christ's universal dominion as King. With His ascension into heaven and installment as King at His Father's right hand, Christ has commenced His mediatorial reign and exercise of authority in heaven and on earth. Thus, those who would argue that we should not anticipate the victory of the gospel or the prevalence of Christ's kingdom in this present age prior to His return are guilty of an unbiblical pessimism. Christ's reign at the Father's right hand must come to concrete and visible expression on the earth prior to His return. Since the other millennial views do not view with any confidence the prospects for the gospel and the church in this present age, they really amount to a denial of Christ's present dominion.
In this connection, it should be noted that a recent form of post-millennialism has given a peculiar expression to this view of Christ's dominion. Within the Reformed, especially conservative Presbyterian, tradition, a movement has developed which is called variously "Christian reconstructionism," "dominion theology," or "theonomy." Though not all present-day post-millennialists are reconstructionists, all of those who adhere in some way to this movement are post-millennialists.
According to the chief representatives of this movement, the dominion of Christ will and ought to come to expression in history by way of the "reconstruction" of society according to biblical norms and laws. Christ's millennial reign in history requires that Christian believers seek to bring all aspects of life — not only ecclesiastical, but also familial, economic, social and political — under the lordship of Jesus Christ. In the public square as much as in the private, the explicit principles and teachings of the Word of God must and will direct the affairs of the nations. The terminology of "theonomy" is used to insist that the biblical laws, including the Old Testament "case laws" and their prescribed capital punishments for various offenses (adultery, homosexuality, idolatry, disobedience to parents) be honored and applied in exhaustive detail by governments today. The same laws, including the judicial laws, that were set forth for the governance of Israel, the Old Testament people of God in the days of the theocracy, should also be held out today as the standard for governments and their judicial instruments.
The Biblical Basis for Post-Millennialism
Among the majority of defenders of post-millennialism, it is agreed that the case for post-millennialism must be made upon a biblical basis. Even though there are occasional defenders of post-millennialism who appeal to extra-Scriptural considerations to support their case,11 the decisive evidence for or against post-millennialism must be biblical evidence. For this reason, post-millennialists often bristle at the criticisms of those who appeal to non-biblical evidences that seem to belie the optimism of post-millennialist thought. When critics of post-millennialism, for example, point out how the church is declining in numbers and influence in many western countries, or at the increasing secularism of modern culture, post-millennialists are frequently unimpressed. They rightly argue that the debate regarding the millennium is a debate fundamentally about the teaching of the Word of God.
If this is the case, what biblical reasons are most often cited in support of Post-millennialism? Obviously, it is not possible to give the case for post-millennialism in any kind of completeness here. But it is important that some of the main lines of the biblical argument be noted.
The Promises of Universal, Covenant Blessing
One of the most common points of departure in arguments for post-millennialism are the biblical promises of universal, covenant blessing. Post-millennialists are fond of referring to the many passages in the Old and New Testaments that describe the way in which the Lord's salvation will extend to all the families and nations of the earth.
It is noted, for example, that, when the Lord covenanted with Abraham, the father of all believers, He promised that in Him "all families will be blessed." The number of Abraham's descendants was promised to be as innumerable as the "dust of the earth" (Genesis 13:16; compare Genesis 15:5, 6; 17:6; Genesis 22:17-18; Numbers 23:10). When Christ gave the "Great Commission" to His disciples, He mandated that they "make disciples of all the nations" (Matthew 28:18-20). Christ Himself, when asked whether there would be few who will be saved, included in His response the confident assertion that "they will come from north, south, east and west" (Luke 13:29). Reading these and other passages, especially those which speak of the surprising growth of the kingdom (Matthew 13:31-33), post-millennialists insist that the biblical picture, on balance, is one of a vast multitude who will be saved. Rather than suggesting the prospect of a meager, insignificant, response to the gospel, these passages encourage an expectation of assured and amazing results.
The Present Authority and Dominion of Christ
These promises of a great ingathering of the nations and peoples into the kingdom of God are correlated, in the view of many post-millennialists, with the biblical understanding of the present authority and dominion of Jesus Christ. In the Messianic Psalms of the Old Testament (e.g.: Psalms 2; 22; 45; 67; 72; 110), the prophecies of Isaiah (e.g.: Isaiah 2:2-4; 9:67; 11:6, 9-10; 40:4-5; 49:6), and the New Testament descriptions of Christ's authority, we are presented with a picture of Christ the King who reigns in the midst of history, overcoming His enemies and subjecting all things under His feet (1 Corinthians 15:25).
According to many post-millennialist authors, alternative views only pay lip-service to these kinds of biblical passages. Only within the framework of post-millennialism are the biblical descriptions of Christ's present lordship adequately appreciated. If Christ is the reigning Lord, if He has been given all authority in heaven and on earth, if the nations are His by right of inheritance, if the power and works of the devil have been broken and defeated by His cross, resurrection and ascension — then the only view which answers to these biblical themes is one which anticipates the success of Christ's church-gathering and kingdom-building work in the midst of history. The problem with alternative views, according to the post-millennialist reading of these biblical passages, is that they "spiritualize" the concreteness of the biblical understanding of Christ's kingdom or relegate to the final state what is already to be expected in the period of history prior to Christ's return.
A "Preterist" View of the "Signs of the Times"
One of the key elements in the argument for post-millennialism is the insistence that many of the "signs of the times," particularly those signs which evidence opposition to Christ and the gospel, are signs that will be fulfilled prior to the establishment of the millennial kingdom in the present age. Though there are a diversity of views regarding whether these "signs of the times" have already been fulfilled either in part or in whole, all post-millennialists regard these signs to be virtually absent during the period of the millennium.
In Matthew 24, for example, the passage which most comprehensively describes the "signs of the times," post-millennialists typically find a description of those signs that were present in the period before the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. The "great tribulation" and the other signs of opposition to Christ's kingdom are events that will precede Christ's coming in power and glory to establish His millennial kingdom. This understanding is sometimes called a "preterist" interpretation of this chapter and other biblical references to the signs of the times.12 The signs are all past events, when viewed from the perspective of the presence of Christ's millennial kingdom.
The "Millennium" of Revelation 20
Though post-millennialism shares many of the emphases of a-millennialism in its interpretation of Revelation 20, there are several distinctive emphases in its interpretation of this disputed passage. The most common reading of this passage takes the events described in it, particularly the "binding of Satan," to occur at some point in history subsequent to the events described in Revelation 19:11-21. In this reading of the passage, there is a chronological sequence in the relation between the events described at the end of Revelation 19 and the beginning of Revelation 20. In Revelation 19, we have a description of the manner in which Christ will progressively defeat in history all the forces that are arrayed against Him. After Christ has defeated all of those opposed to Him, Satan will be bound for a period of one thousand years.
Though post-millennialists do not necessarily regard this to be a literal period of one thousand years, most take the binding of Satan to be a description of what will occur in history, in the near or distant future, when Christ will bring about a "complete cessation of Satan's earthly influence."13 As one post-millennialist describes this event, "This binding refers to a particular spiritual event in the heavenly realm, subsequent to the earthly ministry of Jesus, and yet future from the perspective of the church, which will place a complete quarantine on Satan's activities."14 According to post-millennialism, the binding of Satan can only mean the complete defeat of Satan and the introduction of a period in history in which His activity is not merely curtailed, but completely terminated.
These brief comments about the features and purported biblical basis for post-millennialism, though inadequate in many respects, will have to suffice for our summary at this point. Since a further elaboration upon them would likely take us into a broader discussion and evaluation of this and other millennial views, I will conclude my discussion at this point.
However, the main lines of post-millennialism should be clear. Post-millennialism teaches that the millennium will occur before the return of Christ, at that point in history when the cause of Christ and the gospel will prevail and predominate in the earth. For a great period of time, whether a literal period of a thousand years or an indefinite period of many centuries, there will be a period of unparalleled righteousness, peace and prosperity upon the earth. Warfare between and among the nations will cease. The nations will be populated by Christian believers who acknowledge and live out of the awareness of Christ's lordship. Governments will govern and maintain justice in accord with the standards of the Word of God in Scripture.
Though it has become more common among contemporary defenders of this post-millennialist position to maintain that the millennium roughly coincides with the entire Christian era, at least the period subsequent to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., the historic "chiliasm" of the post-millennialist vision regards the millennium to be a future period in which these glorious circumstances will be realized.