by John M. Frame
In my ethics lectures, I indicate that biblical eschatology is much misused today. Although in Scripture, it functions mainly as an ethically purifying doctrine, in evangelical theology and preaching, it often serves mainly as a pretext for speculations about the order of events in the end-times, so that the ethical focus gets lost.
However, students have sometimes asked whether there are ethical implications to the three major millennial theories. The conventional wisdom of course is that premillennialists and amillennialists tend to be pessimistic about influencing society in biblical directions, while postmillennialists tend to be optimistic. Of course I have known some optimistic premillennialists and amillennialists, and some pessimistic postmillennialists. Optimist and pessimism seem to me to have more to do with one’s personality and spiritual maturity than with his theology of the end times. And there are some types of postmillennialism which are actually conducive to pessimism. One postmillennialist thinks that Western civilization is doomed, at least in the near future; his optimism is for the long term only. But how long is the “long term?”
The movement in the 1970s and ’80s toward greater Christian involvement in social issues was spearheaded, not by Reformed amils and postmils, but by Arminian premils like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. This is an embarrassment for us: Reformed people like to think that they have a corner on Christian political thought and action, and they tend to look down their noses at “fundamentalists” for their lack of a “full-orbed Christian world-and-life view.” Of course, it may be argued that fundamentalists like Falwell and Robertson were influenced, maybe at third or fourth hand, by Reformed people like Rushdoony, North and Francis Schaeffer. But it was the Evangelical premils who took the lead in the actual movements for social change, and we should give them credit. Another reason why the church should re-examine its divisions: full implementation of Christianity in our time requires the gifts given to all Christian traditions.1
Therefore, a premil commitment does not destroy all motivation to Christian social action, though perhaps one might still argue that from a strictly logical (as opposed to emotional) standpoint postmillennialismought to be a greater encourgement to such action. Thus would I resolve the argument between North, who thinks one must be postmillennial to be a theonomist, and Bahnsen, who thinks postmillennialism is an advantage to a theonomist but not an absolute necessity.
My own eschatology? Through my career I have avoided the millennial question like the plague. Needless to say, I have never been asked to teach a course in eschatology! But let me try a “perspectival” approach, suggesting that all three views have some of the truth. I agree with the amils and premils that this age is an age of suffering and persecution for God’s people. I also agree with the postmils that in the long run this age can be seen as an age of Christian triumph, not only in narrowly “spiritual” matters, but in the church’s social influence as well. That is in fact what we see in history: believers are always persecuted in some measure; but eventually Christianity triumphs and comes to profoundly influence the institutions of the societies it touches. (To limit the church’s triumph to a narrowly “spiritual” realm is, as postmils emphasize, Platonic rather than Scriptural.)
Ethically, this approach saves us from premature triumphalism and from undue pessimism and frustration. Suffering comes first, then glory; but the blood of the martyrs is the seed of a great church. And as we look back over two thousand years of Christian history, it is wonderful to see how divine providence, slowly but surely, brings triumph out of dark circumstances. The church follows the path of the cross, and it shares in the glory of the cross.
The troubles of Christianity in our own time are not, in my opinion, the worst troubles the church has experienced. The Roman persecutions, the barbarian invasions of Europe, the spiritual darkness preceding the Reformation and the religious wars following it, the secularist “Enlightenment” of the eighteenth century, the totalitarian persecutions of Christians in the early twentieth century (now declining somewhat) were all more difficult challenges, in some respects, than we face today in modern Western civilization. But the church’s persecutors are now obscured in historical dust, while the Christian church continues by God’s grace as a powerful witness to Christ’s Lordship and salvation. The troubles we face today will be similarly dispatched. In God we trust, and in Him we are confident for the future.
Now: can I say anything in favor of premillennialism specifically? Sure, why not?2 I believe that Jesus is coming visibly to earth to judge the living and the dead, and that that judgment just might take a thousand years!3 I do not base that assertion on Revelation 20!
1 See my Evangelical Reunion.
2 A professor from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School once called to see if I would be interested in a teaching position there. To teach at Trinity, one may be Calvinist or Arminian, paedobaptist or non-paedobaptist, but he must bepremillenial! (You figure it out; it doesn’t make much sense to me.) Anyway, he asked if I could “construe” my eschatological position as premillenial. I told him no, but later I did reflect further on his question, taking it as a kind of conceptual challenge.
3 S. Lewis Johnson, who is a dispensational Bible teacher with some Reformed leanings, and who has taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, teaches, I’m told, that the millennium is essentially a thousand year judgment.