Postmillennialism takes a long view of history. That is, it does not look for instant results. In fact, it operates on the biblical principle of gradualism. This may not be popular in an age of instant-this and freeze-dried that, but it is biblical. Let me explain.
The principle of gradualism has long been the method of God and the experience of God’s people in Scripture. I will be showing below that if we are to properly understand Scripture’s eschatological victory, we must recognize this important redemptive-historical means of divine operation. In short, this principle expects the kingdom’s developmental unfolding and incremental expansion to grow slowly over time in the historical long run.
Contrary to postmillennialism, though, the dispensational and premillennial views operate on the basis of the principle of catastrophism. As premillennialist theologian Millard Erickson puts it: “Whereas the postmillennialist thinks that the millennium is being introduced gradually, perhaps almost imperceptibly, the premillennialist envisions a sudden, cataclysmic event.”(1) Dispensationalism believes that at Christ’s second advent “he will depose the earthly rulers and will begin His millennial reign.” In their theological systems Christ’s kingdom with all of its attendant glory will invade history as a great catastrophe, being suddenly imposed on a recalcitrant world in relatively brief period of time.
A careful survey of Scripture suggests that gradualism is a common divine method of operation in history. Consider five clear samples:
Creation. Even God’s creating the universe proceeds upon a gradualistic principle — an accelerated gradualism, to be sure, but gradualism nonetheless. God creates the world out of nothing, but he does not create it as a complete system by one divine command — though he could easily do so. He employs a series of successive divine commands that stretch out over a period of six days (Gen 1; Exo 20:11).
Dominion. Though God places Adam in the Garden of Eden with a command to cultivate the soil there (Gen 2:15), he expects Adam to begin working the implications of the Cultural Mandate into all the world (Gen 1:26–28). Chung notes that “Adam’s rule was anticipated to be extended to the entire creation beyond the boundary of the garden of Eden.” This obviously requires a long, slow process.
Redemption. God promises redemption just after sin enters into the human race in Eden (Gen 3:15). Yet its accomplishment follows thousands of years after Adam, when Christ finally comes “in the fulness of time” (Gal 4:4; Eph 1:10).
Revelation. Rather than giving his total special revelation all at once, God gradually unfolds his word to men over a period of 1,500 years (Heb 1:1, 2; 1Pe 1:10–12).
Sanctification. Even in salvation, justification, which is a once-for-all act (Rom 4:2–3; 5:1), gives rise to sanctification, which comes by process (Php 2:12–13; 1Pe 2:2).
1. Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998),1217.
2. “Premillennialism,” Dictionary of Premillennial Theology (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1996), 311
3. Chung in Craig L. Blomberg and Sung Wook Chung, eds., A Case for Historic Premillennialism: An Alternative to “Left Behind” Eschatology (Grand Rapids: BakerAcademic, 2009), 139.