The Rejection of Amillennialism and Development of Postmillennialism
The Revolt Against Amillennialism
Augustine’s Amillennialism remained the dominant view of organized Christendom until the seventeenth century. During that century a major change in western thought took place. This change developed into an intellectual revolution. It caused many to reject Augustine’s amillennial interpretation of the universe and history.1
Two aspects of the intellectual revolution prompted this rejection. First, a new interest in science focused man’s attention upon the material universe and man’s ability to control nature. This clashed with Augustine’s view that interest in the material universe was carnal. For example, Francis Bacon attacked the Augustinian conviction that any attempt to control or understand nature was the work of Satan.2
Second, European intellectuals became intensely interested in a literal understanding of the universe. They focused attention upon literal measurements, literal quantities and literal calculations. This conflicted with the allegorical interpretation of the universe which characterized the Augustinian approach. The allegorical approach was seriously discredited when its interpretation of the nature of the heavens was proved to be mistaken by discoveries which were made through the use of the telescope.3
Through time this new concern with literalism as opposed to allegory spread to biblical scholars. Joseph Mede (1586-1638), a prominent Anglican Church Bible scholar, pioneered the return to the literal interpretation of the Kingdom of God passages in the Bible. As a result, he “concluded that the Scriptures held the promise of a literal Kingdom of God,”4 and that this Kingdom would come in the future. This conclusion prompted him to adopt the premillennial view of the early Church.5 Other scholars began to follow his example.6
The Development Of Postmillennialism
Some seventeenth century Bible scholars, who became convinced that the Bible promises a literal, future Kingdom of God, did not adopt the premillennial view of the early Church. Instead, they developed the third major view concerning the Kingdom of God which has been held during the history of the Church.7 That view has been called Postmillennialism (also called progressive Millennialism by some).8
The person who is credited with pioneering development of the postmillennial view is Daniel Whitby (1638-1726) of England.9 In spite of the fact that as a liberal Unitarian he was condemned for heresy, his view concerning the Kingdom of God became popular. Walvoord explains the reason:
His views on the millennium would probably have never been perpetuated if they had not been so well keyed to the thinking of the times. The rising tide of intellectual freedom, science, and philosophy, coupled with humanism, had enlarged the concept of human progress and painted a bright picture of the future. Whitby’s view of a coming golden age for the church was just what people wanted to hear.10
Postmillennialists were optimistic concerning the course of history. They believed that, in spite of periodic conflicts and struggles, the ultimate progress of history is upward, eventually all problems will be solved, and time will be climaxed with a golden, Utopian age.11 This future time of blessing will occur, not through the supernatural intervention of Christ into world history at His Second Coming. Instead, it will come by a gradual process through human effort.12
Two Kinds Of Postmillennialism
Through time two major kinds of Postmillennialism developed. The first kind could be called conservative Postmillennialism. This kind was advocated by people who believed the Scriptures to be the inspired Word of God. They were convinced that the Old Testament prophecies concerning a future age of peace and righteousness must be fulfilled literally during the course of this earth’s history. As God’s people spread the gospel, eventually the whole world will be Christianized and brought into subjection to that message. Thus, society will be transformed primarily through the efforts of the Church ministering in the power of the Holy Spirit; however, civilization, science and political agencies will play a role in this transformation as well. This means that the Church will play the key role in bringing in the future Kingdom of God foretold in the Bible. Christ will not be physically present on earth to rule from a literal earthly throne. Instead, He will rule from Heaven while seated at the right hand of God. Thus, the throne promised to Him in the Scriptures is the Father’s throne in Heaven. Christ’s Second Coming will occur at the close of the Millennium as the crowning event of that golden age. In conjunction with the Second Coming there will be a general resurrection of all the dead, a general judgment of all human beings and the end of the world, and then the future eternal state will begin.13
Jonathan Edwards (1703-58), a major leader of the Great Awakening in America during the eighteenth century, and Charles Hodge (1797-1878), the great Princeton theologian during the nineteenth century, were advocates of conservative Postmillennialism.14,15
Edwards was convinced that the discovery and settlement of the New World was significant with regard to the establishment of the Millennium. During the nineteenth century many Protestant pastors expressed the belief that America would play the key role in leading the rest of the world in ushering in the Kingdom of God on earth.16
In a typical utterance, a leading Presbyterian minister of the 1840’s, Samuel H. Cox, told an English audience that, “in America, the state of society is without parallel in universal history . . . I really believe that God has got America within anchorage, and that upon that arena, He intends to display his prodigies for the millennium.”17
This kind of postmillennial thinking aided the spread of America’s nineteenth century doctrine of Manifest Destiny.18 Preachers declared that America obviously had been given a divine mandate to bring the whole continent from shore to shore under its jurisdiction so that from that base it could lead the world into the Millennium.
Postmillennialism also gave great impetus to the nineteenth century American movement to abolish slavery. Many Christians regarded the Civil War as a battle of righteousness against this evil of slavery in society and, therefore, as an instrument to bring the world one step closer to the establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth. That this was so is evidenced by the fact that the postmillennial hymn written by the Christian abolitionist, Julia Ward Howe, was called “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” (the Republic of America) and declared that God, His day and His truth were marching on while men died to make men free.19
The second kind of Postmillennialism which developed could be called liberal Postmillennialism. It was very prevalent during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In common with conservative Postmillennialism, it shared great optimism concerning the upward progress of history. It too was convinced that a future golden age (the Kingdom of God) would be established on earth.20
In spite of this common bond, liberal Postmillennialism differed radically from conservative Postmillennialism in several areas. It rejected the idea of the sinfulness of man and asserted that man is inherently good (not perfect, but good). It was convinced that man is perfectible and that human perfection will be attained through proper education, the improvement of man’s environment and the natural process of evolution. Liberal Postmillennialism had total confidence in the ability of man and science to correct all problems through the course of time. This form of Postmillennialism rejected the deity of Christ. It declared that He was the greatest human being who had ever lived, perhaps even the first perfect man, but certainly not God incarnated in human flesh. According to liberalism Jesus was the example which all humans should follow in their move toward perfection.
Liberal Postmillennialism rejected the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ. Since man is not sinful by nature, he does not need a substitute to pay his penalty for sin. According to this view, instead of Jesus being a Savior from sin, He was the greatest teacher of ethics who ever lived.
Because liberalism rejected the substitutionary atonement of Christ, it also rejected the gospel of personal redemption from sin. In place of this gospel, which is revealed in the Bible, it substituted another message which it called the social gospel.21 According to this message personal redemption from sin has nothing to do with the establishing of the Millennium. The social gospel declared that the total mission of the Church is the redemption of society from all of its social evils (such as war, poverty, racism, injustice, disease, inequality, etc.). The Church is to accomplish this by bringing society into conformity with the ethical teachings of Christ, by teaching the universal Fatherhood of God and universal brotherhood of man and by cooperating with science and the governmental, educational, charitable, labor and other institutions of man.
Contrary to conservative Postmillennialism, which taught that society will be transformed primarily through the efforts of the Church spreading the gospel of personal redemption from sin in the power of the Holy Spirit, liberal Postmillennialism asserted that the Kingdom of God will be established on earth through the Church and other human institutions using totally natural, humanly devised means.22
Prominent advocates of the liberal postmillennial view in America were Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918), a German Baptist minister who served as Professor of New Testament and Professor of Church history at Rochester Theological Seminary and wrote such books as Christianizing the Social Order and The Theology for the Social Gospel, and Shirley Jackson Case (1872-1947), an American Baptist theologian who held the positions of Professor of New Testament interpretation, Professor of history of early Christianity and Dean of the Divinity School at the University of Chicago and authored such books as The Millennial Hope and The Christian Philosophy of History.23,24,25
The gift of the Statue of Liberty to the United States in 1886 was in essence an expression of liberal Postmillennialism. The men of the Third Republic of France who conceived, designed, built and presented the statue were liberal in their political outlook. They were convinced of several things — that the monarchies of Europe had oppressed their peoples for many centuries, that the American and French Revolutions were indicators that this oppressive yoke was about to be thrown off by the peoples of many nations, that personal liberty through governments of democracy was the wave of the future and that America in particular was leading the rest of the world toward the future golden age of liberty through democracy. The fact that they were convinced that personal liberty was the wave of the future is indicated by the full title which they assigned to the statue – Liberty Enlightening The World. The fact that they determined to give the statue to the United States is evidence that they considered America to be the leader of the rest of the world toward the age of liberty through democracy.26
The Popularity And Decline Of Postmillennialism
From the time of its early development in the seventeenth century until the twentieth century, Postmillennialism increased in popularity until it became “one of the most important and influential millennial theories. It was probably the dominant Protestant eschatology of the nineteenth century and was embraced by Unitarian, Arminian, and Calvinist alike.”27 It seemed to fit the optimistic spirit of the times. The rise of new democracies, the greater abundance of material goods and rising standard of living made possible by the industrial revolution in the west, the major discoveries in the fields of medicine, transportation and communication, the rise of many new colleges and universities and the relative peace maintained by Great Britain around the world for almost one hundred years during the nineteenth century, all made it appear that man was, indeed, on the verge of entering an unprecedented golden age of history. On the surface it appeared that Postmillennialism was the correct view of eschatology.
The optimism of Postmillennialism was dealt a severe blow, however, with the outbreak of World War I in 1914. Never before had the world seen a war of such magnitude involving so many nations. Science, which was supposed to help man usher in the age of peace and righteousness, now provided him with new tools with which to destroy great masses of humanity and thereby to demonstrate his depraved nature more vividly than in the past. As a result, some theologians, such as Karl Barth, began to reject the concept of the inherent goodness of man which they had been taught by liberal theologians. Barth began to declare that man is sinful by nature and that the liberal view does not fit reality.
Postmillennialism recovered somewhat from the blow of World War I by asserting that this conflict would teach man an unforgettable lesson concerning the futility of war. Many pastors urged the men of their congregations to fight in this war that would end all wars and thereby play a role in permanently saving Christian civilization from destruction. In line with this thinking, President Woodrow Wilson crusaded to enter the United States into this conflict in order to “make the world ‘safe for democracy.’”28
After World War I ended President Wilson tried to make the postmillennial dream of permanent peace a reality by laboring hard to establish the League of Nations. The purpose of the League was to provide the nations of the world with the means of settling differences peaceably without going to war with each other. This was to be accomplished by the representatives of the nations discussing and settling differences in the League meetings.
In spite of what appeared to be a decent recovery by Postmillennialism from the blow of World War I, further events of the twentieth century proved to be very unkind to that optimistic millennial view. The League of Nations failed to accomplish its purpose and collapsed after a few years. Much of the world suffered a difficult economic depression during the 1930’s. Nazi power tried to annihilate an entire nation of people through the practice of genocide. World War II, which proved to be even more horrible and of greater magnitude than World War I, began in the late 1930’s. Man was catapulted into the atomic age with the development of weapons which gave him the potential of blowing himself and all of civilization into oblivion. The outlook on life which was expressed through western music, art, literature, philosophy and some theology became increasingly pessimistic as the years increased after World War I.
For many people the optimistic view of the future, which characterized much of the western world through World War I, did not fit the harsh realities of the world. As a result, they rejected Postmillennialism, and it almost died. In the years immediately following World War II almost no people, including students of the Bible, advocated that view of the Millennium. During that time one of the few proponents of the conservative postmillennial view was Loraine Boettner (his book, The Millennium, was published in 1958).29
The next article will examine further historical developments affecting all three major views of the Millennium.
- Ernest R. Sandeen, “Millennialism,” The Encyclopaedia Britannica, Fifteenth Edition (Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 1974), 12, 202.
- George N. H. Peters, The Theocratic Kingdom, Vol. I (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1957), p. 538.
- Sandeen, “Millennialism” 12, 202.
- John F. Walvoord, The Millennial Kingdom (Findlay, Ohio: Dunham Publishing Company, 1959), p. 22.
- Ibid., p. 23.
- Sandeen, “Millennialism,” 12, 202.
- Walvoord, The Millennial Kingdom, pp. 7, 23-24, 28, 30-34.
- Sandeen, “Millennialism,” 12, 202.
- Walvoord, The Millennial Kingdom, pp. 24, 31-32.
- Sandeen, “Millennialism,” 12, 202.
- Ibid., pp. 202-03.
- Ibid., p. 202.
- Ibid., p. 203.
- Walvoord, The Millennial Kingdom, p. 23.
- Sandeen, “Millennialism,” 12, 203.
- Walvoord, The Millennial Kingdom, p. 23.
- Ibid., p. 24.
- Earle E. Cairns, Christianity Through The Centuries (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1954), p. 463.
- Elgin Moyer and Earle E. Cairns, Wycliffe Biographical Dictionary of the Church (Chicago: Moody Press, 1982), p. 79.
- “Our Fair Lady: The Statue of Liberty,” Reader’s Digest, July, 1986, pp. 53, 193-94, 197, 203.
- Walvoord, The Millennial Kingdom, p. 18.
- Sandeen, “Millennialism,” 12, 203.
- Walvoord, The Millennial Kingdom, p. 30.