By Sam Storms. Why has Postmillennialism received such bad reviews? Why has it, at least in the twentieth-century, been so casually dismissed by most conservative evangelicals? The answer is found in taking note of several misconceptions and misrepresentations of PostM.
1. Postmillennialism has been mistakenly linked and often identified with belief in the inherent goodness of man. This has occurred despite the fact that the vast majority of postmillennialists of today (and perhaps even in the past) are Calvinists. The result is that postmillennialism has been perceived as teaching that the kingdom of God would be ushered in by human effort alone, independently of the Holy Spirit. Even a scholar as astute as Kenneth Kantzer has recently fallen prey to this error. In his concluding observations to the debate in the Christianity Today Institute, he writes:
“The greatest weakness of postmillennialism is its failure to take seriously the biblical pessimism regarding man’s efforts apart from God.”
But not one evangelical postmillennial scholar has ever suggested that the kingdom of God can be advanced by “man’s efforts apart from God.” This sort of misrepresentation must end. What postmillennialists do affirm is what they see as “the biblical optimism regarding man’s efforts through God.”
2. Related to the above is the fact that postmillennialism has been mistakenly identified with the notion of evolutionary optimism and other secular notions of historical progress. This view, writes Boettner, “presents a spurious or pseudo Postmillennialism, and regards the Kingdom of God as the product of natural laws in an evolutionary process, whereas orthodox Postmillennialism regards the Kingdom of God as the product of the supernatural working of the Holy Spirit in connection with the preaching of the Gospel.”
3. Postmillennialism has been mistakenly identified with theological liberalism and the so-called “social gospel”. Thus the kingdom it espoused came to be perceived as some sort of secular utopia that replaced the return of Jesus as the true hope of the church. Iain Murray explains:
“Instead of dependence on divine grace and upon the powerful operations of the Holy Spirit, the new idea of progress substituted concepts of a universal fatherhood of God and of a human race basically good and therefore capable of unlimited improvement. In the same way emphasis was moved from the promises of God as the only basis for the expectation of success to the philosophy of evolution. It is not therefore surprising that when the new teaching which thus reduced the gospel to the human and temporal became prevalent, evangelical Christians came to suspect all teaching [i.e., postmillennialism] which viewed future history as hopeful. They assumed that any belief in the world-wide success of the gospel must rest on the same errors upon which liberalism relied, and that, just as this naturalistic optimism destroyed faith in eternal salvation by giving Protestantism the false goal of an earthly Utopia, so any outlook which offers an assurance that the victories of the Church will yet be far more extensive in the world must similarly cease to represent Christ’s coming as the glorious hope. But these assumptions rested upon a failure to distinguish between two different and indeed inimical schools of thought.”
Hope for this earth that is inspired by belief in the power of the Holy Spirit fulfilling the redemptive purposes of God through His church must never be confused with a hope inspired by belief in the power of human legislation, education and moral reform. Not all Christians, though, have been able to distinguish between the two. As Bahnsen points out,
“in their zeal to stand against the liberal tide, large numbers of Christians threw the baby out with the bath. In disdain for the evolutionary social gospel, sincere believers were led to reject Christian social concern for an exclusively internal or other-worldly religion, and to substitute for the earlier belief in a progressive triumph of Christ’s kingdom in the world, a new, pessimistic catastrophism with respect to the course of history.”
4. Postmillennialism has been mistakenly charged with teaching salvific universalism. Whereas postmillennialists do indeed look forward to a day in which vast numbers shall turn to faith in Jesus Christ, at no time do they expect that all will be converted or that sin will be entirely eliminated prior to the eternal state. Evangelical postmillennialists believe no less fervently than premillennialists and amillennialists in the doctrine of hell and the irreversible damnation of those who die without Christ. Let us not forget that Jonathan Edwards, author of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” was himself a postmillennialist of the highest order.
5. Postmillennialists have been accused of being naive and unrealistic. Appeal is often made to extrabibilical events and historically catastrophic occurrences such as World War I, World War II, the nuclear arms buildup, and the ever-disintegrating moral fabric of Western society. To the minds of many, such facts discredit postmillennialism and confirm the philosophy of history espoused by premillennialism. David Chilton and other postmillennialists have labelled this approach to prophecy as “newspaper exegesis” – “studying current events rather than the Bible for clues to the future.” But of course “the question is not whether current conditions seem favorable for the worldwide triumph of the gospel; the question is only this: What does the Bible say?”
John Jefferson Davis reminds us that the postmillennial perspective “provides a forecast for the global and long-term prospects of Christianity, but not for the local, short-term prospects of denominations or churches in the nation.” Says Davis:
“It is quite immaterial, then, to an assessment of the postmillennial outlook whether world conditions improve or decline in the short or intermediate term. Christ’s kingdom will continue to expand, because the living, risen Christ now is reigning victoriously at the Father’s right hand, subduing his foes (1 Cor. 15:25) and empowering the church in its mission (Matt. 28:20). Whatever the immediate course of history might be, the believer’s fundamental outlook remains confident and hopeful, because the crucified One now lives and reigns forevermore, the King of kings and Lord of lords (Rev. 19:16). ‘Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns’ (Rev. 19:6).”