Properly defining a system of thought is important for understanding, promoting, and defending it. Perhaps more than any of the other evangelical millennial options, postmillennialism has endured much abuse by mis-definition. Indeed, it is the easiest eschatological position to misunderstand in our era and therefore inadvertently to misrepresent. Consequently, we must remind all parties to the debate of this system’s actual claims.
Before I provide a careful, working definition of the system, I would caution non-postmillennialists regarding three faulty assumptions that they must avoid when responding to our eschatological system. And though few competent theologians would intentionally apply these conditions to postmillennialism, I fear that these sometimes lurk unrecognized in the subconscious of too many critics.
First, postmillennialism neither teaches nor implies universalism. Postmillennialism does not claim that at some point in temporal history each and every individual then living will be saved. Even at the very height of the advance of the gospel in history, unbelievers will remain among us, though in a minority status. Some of these will be false converts to the faith, others openly unrepentant resisters to it. Jesus clearly teaches this in his Parable of the Tares among the Wheat (Matt 13:30), just before declaring the enormous victory of the faith in all the world (Matt 13:31-33). This is a part of the “mysteries of the kingdom” (Matt 13:11): the glorious kingdom of God does not overwhelm the world catastrophically (but grows gradually like a mustard plant and penetrates little-by-little as does leaven) and it will not conquer the world absolutely (but grows to a majoritarian dominance like wheat in the field).
Second, postmillennialism neither teaches nor implies perfectionism. Postmillennialists do not argue that at some point in temporal history Christians then living will be perfected. Despite the worldwide victory of the Christian faith, Christians will remain sinners—sanctified sinners, of course, but redeemed vessels of mercy suffering the complications of indwelling sin. Just as no current evangelical church is perfect, neither will an evangelical world be perfect. But if the majority of the human race were conducting themselves as the average church-going, born-again Christian of today, the world would certainly be a different and much better place—despite this lack of perfection.
Third, postmillennialism neither teaches nor implies satisfactionism. Postmillennialists do not argue that Christ’s people should prefer temporal, earthly conquest through gospel dominion over eternal, heavenly victory in consummational glory. Any believer with even a modicum of spiritual sanctification and biblical understanding must recognize the surpassing glory that awaits him in the resurrected estate. Then—and only then—will we see God face-to-face, experience the transformation of our bodies from mortality to immortality, enjoy perfect and permanent freedom from temptation and sin, live forever in blessed circumstances, and be reunited with our saved loved ones. The glory of Christian dominion in the earth pales in comparison to the glory of resurrection majesty in the new earth.
In addition to these three clarifications, postmillennialists endure dissenters reminding us of present sinful world conditions as evidence against our expectations. We must insist that our eschatological system be properly understood: nowhere in the definition of postmillennialism do we declare that by the year 2011 (for instance) we will witness the glorious blessings of worldwide gospel conquest. Until the moment the Lord returns postmillennialism cannot be disproved by evidences from cultural decline and social chaos in the world. Who knows how long God will take to effect the glorious transformation? Just as Christians should not doubt the second coming of Christ because it has not occurred yet (2 Pet 3:4), neither should evangelicals discount the cultural dominion of Christ because it is not full now. All our system requires is that the world be Christianized before the Lord returns—and we do not know when that will be (Matt 24:36; Acts 1:7).
So then, how should we define postmillennialism? My definition of postmillennialism reads as follows:
Postmillennialism is that eschatological system arising from Scripture that expects the proclaiming of the Spirit-blessed gospel of Jesus Christ to win the vast majority of human beings to salvation in the present age. Increasing gospel success will gradually produce a time in history prior to Christ’s return in which faith, righteousness, peace, and prosperity will prevail in the affairs of people and of nations. After an extensive era of such conditions the Lord will return visibly, bodily, and in great glory, ending history with the general resurrection and the great judgment of all humankind.
Hence, our system is post-millennial in that the Lord’s glorious return will occur after an era of “millennial” conditions. The postmillennialist confidently proclaims in a unique way that history is “His story.