The defining feature of postmillennialism which sets it apart from the other evangelical options is its optimism. We believe that Christ is winning the victory in history and that this victory will overwhelm the world gradually as the gospel progresses.
However, amillennial scholars such as R. Fowler White, Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., and Robert Strimple see texts in the New Testament which seem to contradict this historical outlook. They highlight them in their critique of postmillennialism.
In this article I am continuing a reply against the Reformed theologians specifically and amillennialism more generally. Please note that in the first article in this series I provide the fuller bibliographic information, whereas below I will simply list the scholars name and page number. So let’s now return to my reply.
Fleshing out the implications of the amillennial “hermeneutic of persecution,” White argues in the final analysis: “through these principles of redemptive irony, then, it becomes clear that and how Christ’s church can be said to be perpetually victorious in history: following the example of Christ, she perseveres in faithfulness despite persecution” (White, 176). He agrees with Beale in urging “that John’s Apocalypse reveals the nature of the church’s present reign. Like Jesus’ initial kingship, the church’s kingship consists now in conquering by maintaining her faithful witness” through trials, overcoming evil powers, subduing sin in the church, and ruling “over death and Satan by identification with Jesus” so that the “church’s endurance, then, is part of the process of conquering” (White 175). Therefore, faithfully enduring in the world is the exercise of our present victory in Christ.
In response I would note:
1. Endurance is Obvious in the Trials of Oppression
The postmillennialist wholeheartedly concurs with White that “a fully biblical inaugurated eschatology must recognize that perseverance in faith despite persecution is victory for the church in history” (White, 168). Those Christians who faithfully endured the persecutions of the first (and later) centuries were indeed victorious. For instance, Paul urged the Philippians to understand the inscrutable plan of God, for to them it was “granted [ , “graciously given as a favor”] for Christ’s sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake” (Phil 1:29). Paul taught this so that they would “in no way [be] alarmed by your [real, historical, contemporary] opponents” (v. 28) while they experienced “the same conflict” they saw in Paul (v. 30). Paul was quite aware “of his readers’ present, very real, situation.” Truly may we assert that “just as Christ ruled in a veiled way through suffering, so do Christians” (White, 174). But, as I will show, this is not the only way in which we exercise victory.
2. Endurance is Historical in the Book of Revelation
White establishes much of his argument (three full pages) on an analysis of Revelation, “the NT book in which the vocabulary and images of victory are the most prominent” (White, 172). And his presentation is almost totally based on G. K. Beale’s commentary. This is unfortunate in that it brings the whole thorny question of Revelation’s proper interpretation into the debate.
I would argue that we must understand Revelation as an occasional epistle, a letter to historical churches already “in tribulation” with John (Rev 1:9). He is alerting them to the very important truth that Christian victory is not one-dimensional, that Christian victory can and often does—and in their case will—require victory through enduring fearsome persecution. Revelation is not a moving picture of all of Christian history, but a snapshot of its beginning; it does not prophesy a state of perpetual persecution, but ministers in a circumstance of particular tribulation (hence Rev 1:1, 3; 22:6, 10).
The early beleaguered, confused, and tempted Christians had to understand that though the kingdom of Almighty God was indeed present (e.g., Rev 1:9) and Christ was already “the ruler of the kings of the earth” (Rev 1:5), the kingdom nevertheless required time for growth and expansion (Matt 13:30-33; Mark 4:26-29), while Jesus was “waiting” for his enemies to be subdued in time and on earth (Heb 10:13). An important point of the Lord’s Parable of the Soils was to warn that trials will come to kingdom citizens, possibly leading to their discouragement and apostasy (Matt 13:19-22). Revelation is steeling first century Christians for their very real trials, encouraging them to endurance as a form of earthly victory which leads to heavenly glory.
3. Endurance is Constant in the Experiences of Life
As I noted previously, we suffer many trials other than external persecution. Thus, perseverance is a constant obligation for the Christian in all of life’s vicissitudes. Just as it is true that “a fully biblical inaugurated eschatology must recognize that perseverance in faith despite persecution is victory for the church in history” (White, 162), so is it equally true that “a fully biblical inaugurated eschatology must recognize that perseverance in faith” despite the temptations of mundane life is victory for the church. Persecution is not the only arena for victory. The church must “persevere in faith and good works” (White, 175) always and in every circumstance. Certainly her victorious perseverance is more obvious in the crucible of oppression, but it is not the more remarkable, for defeat lurks in every corner of life.
White himself notes our struggle for victory even through the yawning visage of “temptations to compromise, and complacency” in addition to the scowling “face of persecution” (White, 174). He summarizes Beale’s observations noting that even Revelation speaks of overcomers outside the context of persecution, as when the church is “subduing sin in her members’ lives” (White, 175). Perhaps White is indicating an admission of broader victory than persecution when he speaks of persecutional suffering as involving “the church’s endurance” as “part [not the whole] of the process of conquering” (White, 175)?
Such an understanding of victory-through-suffering-apart-from-persecution leaves the door open for postmillennialism, when the fires of persecution (cf. II. 1, 2) are extinguished and the choking smoke of oppression is dissipated. In fact, do we not enjoy victory through “successful preaching of the gospel to the nations,” as Strimple argues (see: White, 167).
4. Endurance is Overstated in the Discussion of Eschatology
As glorious and necessary a factor of victory as is perseverance through persecution, the troubling fact is: amillennialists are prone to overstate their case in the context of the eschatological debate. White approvingly cites Beale: “the exercise of rule in this kingdom begins and continues only as one faithfully endures tribulation” (White, 174). “Only”? Do we not have victory when safely beyond the raging fires of persecution? Are any American church communities living victoriously, though free from the lash of the persecutor?
Alternatively, was it not a “defeat” rather than a “victory” for the Corinthians when they went to court against each other (1 Cor 6:7)? Was it not a shameful failure for them to fall into sin, irrespective of the crush of oppression (1 Cor 15:34)? Were not the Hebrews failing not only under persecutional trials but also in other more mundane struggles: failing to grow in their knowledge of Scripture (5:11), defiling the marriage bed (13:4-5), entertaining heresy (13:9)—indeed “every encumbrance” (Heb 12:1)?
Perhaps it is true that postmillennialists have not fully engaged the discussion regarding suffering and perseverance (White, 162). But it certainly is not true that the biblical message of suffering and perseverance contradicts the postmillennial hope. Postmillennialists gladly affirm the redemptive irony of God’s victory over Satan. Postmillennialists wholeheartedly agree that the faithful church weathering the storms of persecution is victorious. Postmillennialists unashamedly confess the reality that our state prior to the resurrection is one of suffering. We do humbly affirm the “theology of the cross” (Gaffin, 216); but we also heartily rejoice in the “theology of the resurrection.”
(This concludes our reply to amillennialists regarding suffering and postmillennialism)