A Passionately Pessimistic Eschatology
In 1973, Herman Hanko, prominent minister within the Protestant Reformed Church, declared in a lecture:
In the first place, many that strongly advocate Christian social involvement almost always fall into the error of postmillennialism. That is, the error of teaching that the Kingdom of Jesus Christ is realized here in this present world by a slow but steady process of social, economic and political evolution. We must look therefore, for the realization of the Kingdom of Christ here in the midst of this present world. In fact, it seems almost as if there is something inevitable about falling into the error of post-millennialism when speaking of the Christian’s social calling....
What is the relationship between our social calling and the Lord’s return?
There are several truths that underlie the answer which we must give to this question. In the first place, if we are to take this whole matter seriously, we must, above all else, take seriously the matter of sin. And, in connection with the whole question of sin, we must take seriously the question of sovereign predestination. This is not something which we drag in by the back door in order to give to this whole question some kind of coloring. This is essential to the problem. The point is this: that in the context of sin, of a sinful world, of a world of depraved, totally depraved people, there is no solution to the world’s problems. There cannot be. These problems have their origin in sin. They are conceived, as it were, in the womb of sin and they are brought forth by means of sin, and they exist because sin is an ever present reality in life. This is precisely why all the world’s attempts to solve these problems are necessarily going to make these problems worse....
In the second place, we know from Scripture that it is the Lord’s purpose, in the midst of the history of this world, to save only a remnant. The Church is always, to use the graphic and dramatic words of Isaiah, “A hut in a cucumber patch, a besieged city. If the Lord of Hosts had not left unto us a very small remnant, we should have been as unto Sodom and we should have been like unto Gomorrah.” We know that. We know therefore, that as far as the majority of the world’s population is concerned, there will always only be efforts to solve these problems in the context of sin. And that will prove wholly unsatisfactory.
In the third place, because sin lies at the roots of all social problems, the ultimate solution to these problems is the Cross. That is where all the social problems are resolved, because that is where atonement was made for sin. That is where sin was defeated, where the power of sin was destroyed. But because the solution of those social problems is in the Cross, the solution to those social problems is limited therefore, to those for whom Christ died. That is, the solution to those problems is to be found within the context of the Church of Jesus Christ....1
This is a striking example of eschatohgical pessimism — the highly popular but profoundly defective notion, either that God has predestined the growth of apostasy within the church and pervasive evil in the wider society, or that at best we can expect spiritual success only within the church but that God has predestined the increase of evil outside the church. On this point, many amillennialists like Hanko agree with dispensational premillennialists. Premillennialism is the idea that Christ will return to earth before the thousand-year era of holy peace described in Revelation 20 and establish an earthly kingdom, probably right in Jerusalem.2 Amillennialists do not identify the thousand years as an era of earthly peace at all, but believe that it consists of Jesus Christ’s present heavenly reign mediated within the church, or the reign of the saints who have died and gone on to be with the Lord.3 Postmillennialism, by contrast, is the idea that Jesus Christ will return after an age of Gospel Victory predicted by the Old Testament prophets and attested by the New Testament apostles.4 Fortunately, there are a few non-dispensational premillennialists and “optimistic amillennialists,” who do share with postmillennialists an optimism over the future of the gospel.5 Postmillennialism, however, is the only eschatological viewpoint that is inherently optimistic. There can be no such thing as a pessimistic postmillennialist.6
The Bitter Fruits of Pessimistic Eschatology
A pessimistic premillennialism or a pessimistic amillennialism has dominated most of the Western church of the last hundred years. Pessimistic premillennialism (almost always in the form of dispensationalism) dominates the fundamentalist and evangelical wings of the conservative church. Pessimistic amillennialism tends to dominate the Reformed and “higher” churches. What binds these perspectives together is not agreement on the details of eschatology, but rather concord on the predestined defeat of the kingdom of God, Christ’s church, and the gospel in human culture and society. The best they can hope and pray for is a quiet, but passionate, individual devotional life; a devoted Christian family; and, at best, increased attendance and zeal in the local church or, perhaps, denomination (in the words of Hanko, a “remnant”). There is no hope that the gospel of Jesus Christ will increase in potency over time, that we can expect incrementally increasing conversions as we move ahead toward the Second Coming of Christ. There is no hope that the Great Commission of Matthew 28:18-20 will actually be fulfilled — that the church will, in fact, disciple the nations before the Second Advent. There is no assurance that there can ever again be such a thing as a Christian culture or Christian civilization7 — where family, church, media, agriculture, science, technology, education, and politics are willingly subject to the authority of Christ the King and His infallible Word, the Bible.8 In fact, some supporters of the pessimistic eschatology decry the historic Christian idea of Christendom, entire societies Christianized, the great heritage of the Middle Ages and the Protestant Reformation.9
The eschatology of the pessimists truly is a self-fulfilling prophecy: God has predestined the increasing defeat and irrelevance of His kingdom. His church, and His gospel; therefore, we must create a version of Christianity that conforms to our (lack of) expectations; and, sure enough, as a result of dedication to a theology of irrelevance and impotence, the kingdom, church, and gospel become increasingly irrelevant and impotent.
The pessimists’ evangelistic outreaches often reduce to little more than fire-insurance forays into the “devil’s world” to snatch a few souls and get them into the church. Their personal educational philosophy involves either sending their children to godless, humanistic government schools, with the hope that an hour of Sunday school and an hour of entertaining worship on Sunday will purge away the school’s “bad, bad” teachings, or erecting Christian day schools whose only real objective is segregating Christian children from evil influences. There is no recognition of the educational objective of training a covenant seed to do warfare against the Devil and his minions and, from generation to generation, gradually recapturing an entire nation and culture for Jesus Christ.
Similarly, the pessimists’ familial strategy dismisses any concern for pressing Christ’s kingdom in the earth and reclaiming the world’s culture. Husbands and fathers do not recognize their calling to take leadership in the family, and to work toward leadership and advancing roles in their life’s vocations. Parents do not recognize their Christian calling to train up warriors for the faith (Ps. 127:5). Covenant children are not confronted with their calling to be ambassadors for Christ, preparing themselves to penetrate specific areas of modern life with Biblical Christianity and the long-term objective of assuaging the tide of evil and reestablishing a godly society.10
The eschatological pessimists are planning for defeat, and their plan is working to perfection.
The only cure for this eschatological disease is the adoption of a radical, world-conquering eschatological optimism, a postmillennialism driven by the power of the Spirit of God that excites and energizes God’s people with a vision of hope and victory.11 We will never enjoy victory if we constantly plan for defeat.
- Available at http://wwv.prca.org/pamphlets/pamphlet_72.html.
- John F. Walvoord, The Millennial Kingdom (Findlay, OH: Dunham, 1959).
- Anthony A. Hoeksema, “Amillennialism,” in ed., Robert G. Clouse, The Meaning of the Millennium (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1977), 155-187.
- Loraine Boettner, The Millennium (no loc: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1957).
- Donald G. Bloesch, Essential of Evangelical Theology (San Francisco: Harper and Row. 1979), 2:189-204. Charles H. Spurgeon, “The Sure Triumph of the Crucified One,” Spurgeon’s Sovereign Grace Sermons (Edmonton, Alberta, Canada: Still Waters Revival Book, 1990).
- For an even-handed treatment of the variations of Christian eschatology, see Millard Erickson, Contemporary Options in Eschatology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1977).
- J. Gresham Machen, “Christianity and Culture,” Education, Christianity, and the State, in ed., John W Robbins (Jefferson, MD: Trinity Foundation, 1987), 45-59. See also Christopher Dawson, The Historic Reality of Christian Culture (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1960).
- H. Henry Meeter, The Basic Ideas of Calvinism (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1960 edition).
- Michael Horton, “Defining the Two Kingdoms: One of Luther’s and Calvin’s Great Discoveries,” Modem Reformation, September/October, 2000, 21f.
- P. Andrew Sandlin, We Must Create a New Kind of Christian (Vallecito, CA: Chalcedon, 2000).
- Additional works championing postmillermialism include Greg L. Bahnsen, Victory in Jesus, in ed., Robert R Booth (Texarcana, AR: Covenant Media, 1999); John Jefferson Davis, Christ’s Victorious Kingdom (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1986); Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., He Shall Have Dominion (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1992); J. Marcellus Kik, An Eschatology of Victory (no loc: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1975); Keith A. Mathison, Postmillennialism: An Eschatology of Hope (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1999); and Rousas John Rushdoony God’s Plan for Victory (Fairfax, VA: Thoburn Press, 1980).