In pointing out that we can affirm the principle of continuity between this age and the eschatological future, some readers have associated me with postmillennial theories of teachers like Douglas Wilson, Greg Bahnsen, Gary DeMar, R.J. Rushdoony, Gary North, Kenneth Gentry, etc.. A word of clarification, and distancing, will be helpful here.
In the Cold War era, Postmillennialism became popular as an alternative to the type of pessimistic Premillennialism associated with men like John Nelson Darby and Dwight Moody. As cranky theonomists hijacked an older postmillennialist tradition (which included thinkers like James Orr, B. B. Warfield, J. Gresham Mechan, Charles Hodge, and J. Marcellus Kik), and combined it with theories about keeping the Old Testament law fused with conservative economics, a new eschatological fad began to emerge that still remains very strong in places like Moscow Idaho. At the risk of oversimplification, this theory taught that between now and the Second Coming, the church will be in ascendency, gradually achieve political and cultural dominance, implement the conservative principles associated with thinkers like von Mises and Rothbard, and thus pave the way for the return of Christ.
Whereas nineteenth and twentieth-century premillennialists eschewed cultural endeavor on the grounds that the world belonged to the devil, postmillennialists embraced cultural endeavors on the grounds that the eschaton will progressively be realized from within the present world of corruption and mortality. Such a perspective, while grasping an important truth about the present implications of Christ’s lordship, ends up with a materialistic conception of the God’s kingdom. An example of this conceit was on full display in Douglas Wilson’s 2008 book Heaven Misplaced: Christ’s Kingdom on Earth.[i] In this book Wilson collapses the Scriptural prophecies of the new heavens and the new earth (even the heavenly vision of Isaiah 11:6-10) to this side of the second coming.
But think again about C.S. Lewis’s insightful book The Last Battle. Though just a story, this book offers rich insight from the overflow of Lewis’s Christian imagination. In this story, the old Narnia had to pass away in a seemingly ignoble manner before the true Narnia could emerge. In a final apocalyptic battle between the forces of good (represented by the true Narnians) and evil (represented by the Calormenes) each of the main characters dies off one by one, in apparent defeat. Their courage and faithfulness seem to have all been for nothing. But in the resurrection the characters find that their lives have not been wasted: the heavenly Narnia (an allegory for the new heavens and the new earth) has been built on all the small acts of faithfulness of all the thousands of creatures who have gone before.[ii] I think C.S. Lewis was onto something. Just as Christ needed to die before taking up His glorified body, so the earth may also need to be destroyed before all the wonderful promises of new creation can reach their final fulfilment. Just as a seed must undergo death in the ground before it can sprout into wheat, and just as a caterpillar must undergo a type of death in order emerge as a butterfly, so everything we build in this world—from beautiful cathedrals to cultural institutions—may one day suffer the decay of death. But the promise of resurrection is the promise that all true acts of faithfulness are not waisted. Just as the wheat retains the DNA of the seed, and just as the butterfly is built out of the DNA of the caterpillar, so the new earth will be built out of the faithfulness of all the men and women who labored faithfully. We do not know how God is using our faithfulness as the scaffolding to build the new earth, but we can be assured that He is. Where contemporary postmillennialists go wrong is in conflating this principle of continuity with progressivity, and consequently imagining a materialistic kingdom that can arise progressively amidst a world still in the throes of death. Here is how N.T. Wright dismantles postmillennial theory in his Magnum Opus on Paul’s theology.
“There is no sign of such a ‘progressive kingdom’ in Paul. Instead we find the analysis of ‘what’s wrong’ focusing on the fact that the Messiah’s reign, though emphatically present, is not complete. The ‘last enemy’, death, remains as yet still powerful, though defeated in principle through the resurrection. There is no progressive overcoming of death; it isn’t the case that, because of the work of the gospel, people die a little less, or that death is less unpleasant. The ultimate resurrection will not be the final coping-stone on a building that has been steadily growing up to that point. It will be as sudden, new and shocking as was Easter Day itself.”[iii]
This passage was not well received by postmillennialists, with Douglas Wilson condemning Wright as a gnostic.[iv] Yet it is hard to avoid the Pauline thrust of Wright’s point. Postmillennialism is the equivalent of supposing that a perfected caterpillar is the telos for which it exists, which is the opposite side of the coin from John Darby’s premillennialism, which was the equivalent to saying that since the caterpillar has to die before the butterfly can emerge the caterpillar therefore doesn’t matter. The answer to both these man-made systems is the Christian understanding that precisely because the butterfly is the final telos it follows that the caterpillar is worthy of attention and genuinely good, but with an incomplete goodness that is a shadow of its coming glory.[v] In much the same way, our present efforts to improve the world and to build Christian culture are indeed genuinely good even though they remain only a shadow of coming glory.
[i] Douglas Wilson, Heaven Misplaced: Christ’s Kingdom on Earth (Canon Press, 2008).
[ii] C.S. Lewis, The Last Battle (New York, NY: Macmillan, 1956), chaps. 14–16.
[iii] N. T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God: Christian Origins and the Question of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013), 548.
[iv] Doulgas Wilson, “Such That the Culture Notices | Blog & Mablog,” Blog & Mablog, accessed February 18, 2022, https://dougwils.com/the-church/s16-theology/109319.html.
[v] My friend Jeff Moss clarified this in an email to me on 3/13/22, pointed out that, “The relationship between this present age and the age to come is complicated: it’s not discontinuous, but it’s also not a matter of the present age simply evolving into the future age—there is a total transfiguration, a eucatastrophe to use Tolkien’s term, yet to come! And it’s in the ‘regeneration’ (Matthew 19:28), in the full coming of the new age, that the creation is most fully itself.”