p.ost

(how to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference)

Postost-millennialism, or the end of eschatology as we know it

Tim Challies has produced a helpful diagram to explain the differences between the three most prominent views of the end times—premillennialism, postmillennialism and amillennialism.

I say “helpful”, but “unhelpful” might be a better word for it, for at least three reasons.

First, this sort of presentation perpetuates the idea that New Testament eschatology is a puzzle for the church to solve, a collection of riddles to be decoded. Solutions to the puzzle have no credible relation to the real historical future of the church—the future as we now see it—and are, therefore, only of hypothetical and esoteric interest.

Secondly, while the chart makes reference to both Preterist and “historicist” modifications of the postmillennial and amillennial positions, none of the interpretations is credibly historical. Eschatology is at the heart of New Testament thought, it was a matter of utmost importance both to Jesus and to his followers, and the only way to understand it is to adopt the Jewish-apocalyptic mindset (as best we can) and look at the future from their perspective.

Thirdly, all of the interpretive systems mapped by Challies consign unbelievers to “eternal torment”. It’s in small print, but it still looks deeply incongruous in a swish modern infographic. It’s horribly wrong.

So I offer a postost-millennial supplement (or Double Post-Tribulational Pre-Amillennialism), with some explanatory notes. It was something to do on the train back from Marburg yesterday. I realise these end-times charts are not cool, but sometimes you have to fight fire with fire. Click on the image for a larger version.

1. New Testament views of the future begin with the resurrection, but it is strictly the ascension of Jesus to the right hand of God that determines the shape of the main eschatological narrative, which is the story of how the God of Israel would come to rule over the nations of the pagan world. This is the driving force behind New Testament eschatology. It explains almost everything.

2. There are two horizons of political judgment in the New Testament—on Israel and on the Greek-Roman world (cf. Rom. 2:9). Believers bore witness to the resurrection of Jesus and the coming reign of God and experienced violent opposition or ‘tribulation” in both contexts. The distinction needs to be carefully observed. The whole futurist pre-trib/mid-trib/post-trib debate is simply nonsensical and irrelevant for us, though the church in Thessalonica might reasonably have asked Paul a question or two along those lines.

3. The prophetic expectation was that eventually God would step in to judge, Jesus would be revealed (first to the corrupt leadership of Israel, then to the nations), he would vindicate those who believed in him, and the martyrs would be raised to reign with Christ throughout the coming ages, which is the only basis for going to heaven in the New Testament.

4. Following judgment on Rome we have the rest of world history, represented symbolically by John’s period of a thousand years (Rev. 20:4-6).

5. At the end of the thousand years the rest of the dead—excepting the martyrs—will be raised for a final judgment according to what they have done (Rev. 20:11-15).

6. The righteous, whose names are written in the book of life, will participate in God’s new creation, which is not the “eternal kingdom” of Challies’ schema. The confusion of kingdom with new creation is a common error, typically made by well-intentioned theologians who want to give a modern environmentalist spin to the New Testament. The descent of the heavenly city (Rev. 21:2) represents the coming of God, with the Lamb, the hosts of heaven, and the martyrs, to dwell in the midst of a renewed creation.

7. The unrighteous, along with Satan, death and Hades, will be destroyed (not eternally tormented) in the lake of fire, which is the second death (Rev. 20:14-15).

8. Once death has been destroyed and there are no more enemies to threaten the integrity and security of his people, Christ will hand back the authority to reign to his Father, so that God may be all in all (1 Cor. 15:24-28).

Comments

The PostMill community in America is the only group I know promoting your work. So theres that:)

I’d like to see more discussion on why the kingdom and the new creation are not the same thing. This is obviously a strong argument preterists make.

Here are a few posts. But it’s basically a distinction between politics and cosmology. The kingdom argument has to do with the political existence of the people of God in the world, generally in conflict with other nations or cultures. The people of God need a king to judge them and to defend them against their enemies. When sin has been defeated and there are no more enemies, there is no need for kingdom. Then we have new creation.

Where does a recently collapsed Christendom fit into your illustration? I thought that was supposed to be a significant eschatological element of your system.

The diagram is an interpretation of New Testament eschatology, which culminates, in my view, in the establishment of YHWH’s rule over the nations of the Greek-Roman world following the traumatic transformation of his people through the events of the first century. The millennium is the period of that rule, ending with a brief recrudescence of devilish conflict—for whatever reason—and a final judgment (Rev. 20:7-15). So basically John envisaged that the rule of YHWH over the nations would last until the end of the world.

However, if we want to read this historically, rather than idealistically, and to identify this rule with the era of Christendom, we have to factor into the narrative the collapse of Christendom as the concrete expression of the rule of YHWH over the oikoumenē. Jesus is no longer confessed as Lord in the modern West. He has been dethroned by an aggressive pantheon of secular powers—reason, humanism, pluralism, materialism, consumerism, and so on.

All this is off the map, over the hills and far away. It is a significant “eschatological” development, but it was not foreseen by the prophets and apocalypticists of the New Testament church. My argument is that if we are going to be honest both to scripture and to history, we have to find ways to keep telling the story, rather than trying to think and live within the limited historical horizons of the New Testament.

See further: Biblical narrative, missional context, and same-sex sexual relations all in the same breath.

I think I agree with you as far as you’ve described it above. I think I might disagree with you, though, about how eschatological important the collapse of Christendom in Europe is. If you look at Jenkins’ “The Next Christendom”, he makes the point that the church is larger and stronger than ever in Southern nations around the world. I might simply be that postmodernism has blown apart the foundations of western thought, just like Islam nearly annihilated the eastern church from 700AD to present. But, that doesn’t jeopardize the overall endeavor. And, I don’t think you are saying that the thousand year reign of the saints is over so that the Gog/Magog war and end of the universe is on the horizon. If so, the collapse of Christendom is simply a landmark in history for a portion of the church, though in general it is advancing per the inevitable growth model found in various places in scripture.

1. If we read forward from the New Testament we get to the conversion of the Greek-Roman world, and that’s it. No one foresaw the rise of Islam, or the schism between East and West, or the spread of global Christianity on the back of European empire-building, or the Reformation, or the triumph of secular humanism, or the emergence of advanced secular societies.

2. Within this historically limited narrative the collapse of European Christendom is of massive eschatological significance, and I think our telling of the story should reflect that—for the sake of continuity with the New Testament—even though we can’t leave it there.

3. Global Christianity and other religions are coming into the Western context but on pluralist terms. There is currently no prospect of the West returning to the sort of solidly religious foundation that it had under Christendom. I am not confident that Christian missionaries from Africa will reconvert the UK, for example.

4. In fact, it seems to me more likely that over the next 50-100 years global Christianity will go the way of Western Christianity and will survive at best as an accommodation to a dominant global secularism.

5. Under these conditions the necessary state of the church is as a marginal priestly-prophetic community, not an expression of the rule of God over the nations.

6. Yes, the collapse of Christendom is an unforeseen “landmark in history”. Christ no longer reigns over the nations—not even in the global south—but he still reigns at the right hand of God for the sake of the life and ministry of his people.

7. I don’t agree with the “inevitable growth model”. I would put the emphasis on the quality of the witness of the people of God amongst the nations, not on the quantity of people saved.

If the collapse of Christendom is a collapse of Christ’s rule over the nation’s then I don’t see how you connect this to Biblical eschatology without asserting that it is part of the function of the release of Satan at the end of his thousand year imprisonment. I don’t think this is what you are intending to say, but I don’t see any plausible expression of his reign with the saints in both Old and New Testament eschatology other than that his kingdom would have no end and that none other would replace it. A subsequent kingdom where he is just benefitting the saints is completely novel theology as far as I can tell. Are there any scriptures that you can point to that would allow for this?

Good comment.

My argument depends on the narrative-historical premise that the confession of Jesus as Lord by the nations is best interpreted historically. If we accept that premise, then we have to reckon with the equally historical and no less momentous event of the rejection of Christ as Lord by the nations. That reversal certainly was not foreseen by the biblical authors.

So that’s the hermeneutical dilemma. Do we assume that the biblical narrative is sufficient, that everything can be reasonably subsumed under the coming of the ideal kingdom of God? Or do we accept that history has taken us well beyond the purview of the New Testament and that we have to allow for significant reversals or other surprising developments?

You make the point that the end of Christ’s rule over the nations is not foreseen in the Bible. True. But then neither were many other historical developments, including the massive impact of the enlightenment and the rise of the scientific worldview.

We can save scripture and ignore history, or we can find ways to tell a continuing narrative that does justice to scripture, recognises its limitations, and tries to remain faithful to the principle that God acts as king (through his Son) with regard to his people under changing historical circumstances.

I doubt that John would have had this sort of conception in mind, but we could probably still allow the thousand year period to cover the whole of human history, including such setbacks as the collapse of Christendom, the marginalisation of the modern church in the West, and whatever is still to come.

I think the error in your framework is in the definition of Christendom. By my count the fourth one was the most recent to collapse. Prior to that there was the Syriac church (which managed the land east of Jerusalem so that it was definitely in view considering Old Testament prophecies throughout Isaiah and Ezekiel), the North African Church (which included Egypt, so was certainly in Old Testament prophetic view, the Byzantine Church (which included essentially everywhere that Paul traveled other than Rome itself), and the Roman Church (which is still alive and well in membership, though I suppose the civil influence has ended). If your point is that the believers are the issue (and not just the church-state hybrid), then worldwide there has been no collapse at all outside of the areas where Islam has physically exterminated the Christians. I like your essentially Amillennialism approach (as opposed to a more church-state hybrid Post millennial paradigm). I just don’t think that a collapse of a given church has any eschatological significance.

I think this focuses too much on the “church”. Christendom is not about the church running the show. It’s about nations confessing the supreme sovereignty of Jesus at the right hand of YHWH rather than, say, the supreme sovereignty of Zeus or Caesar or Reason or “Man”. The church functions as the priesthood in this political arrangement, alongside the state—in place of the pagan priesthood, on the one hand, or a secular priesthood of scientists and philosophers, et al., on the other.

I agree that the Syriac Church was independent of the Roman empire, but I don’t think it would fall outside a broadened political-religious definition of Christendom. The north African church, Byzantium and the Roman Church naturally make up the Christendom model.

In the West Christendom as a political-religious system has collapsed, and so the church has been made largely redundant. Its services (note the pun) are no longer required. It’s a slow process—the established church still has a residual role in the UK, for example, and secular people still like to be married or buried by the church.

The key “missional” question is whether the church in the West can devise a new way of functioning as a priestly-prophetic people now that it has lost the status and credibility that it had under the Christendom arrangement.

I think this whole field of study does not get enough attention so I appreciate you spending the time on it. From the full view of scripture there is obviously some nexus with the church on earth as part of the rule over the nation’s (whether it’s role is as a civil church state hybrid or missional is a good question, though I lean towards the Amillennial dynamic). But keep in mind that the definitive passage from which the vocabulary “thousand years” comes only explicitly defines that period as the rule from heaven of the overcoming martyrs. I think it’s obvious from integrating the other related passages that this is as a replacement Divine Council, so that angelic on from the Old Testament has been replaced by one composed primarily of human martyrs. By implication, we might say that other saints are involved. But the only saints described in Rev. 20:4-6 are ruling from thrones in heaven.

Well, the martyrs reign with Christ, who has judged and will rule over the nations with a “rod of iron”, as “King of kings and Lord of lords” (Rev. 19:15-16). There is presumably, then, a kingdom-political dimension to the thousand years. The martyrs are also described as “priests of God and of Christ” (20:6), which suggests to me that they were not thought of simply as a replacement for the angelic council. But I agree, the point is not that the church rules over the nations. Christ rules over the nations from heaven (rather than from Jerusalem), but the church mediates as a priestly people between God and his Son in heaven and the kings and peoples of the earth. The problem is that in the West, at least, the kings and peoples now refuse to confess the reality of the creator God and the sovereignty of his resurrected Son.

Hi Andrew, If possible could you clarify righteous and unrighteous:
above you said-

6. The righteous, whose names are written in the book of life, will participate in God’s new creation, which is not the “eternal kingdom” of Challies’ schema. The confusion of kingdom with new creation is a common error, typically made by well-intentioned theologians who want to give a modern environmentalist spin to the New Testament. The descent of the heavenly city (Rev. 21:2) represents the coming of God, with the Lamb, the hosts of heaven, and the martyrs, to dwell in the midst of a renewed creation.

7. The unrighteous, along with Satan, death and Hades, will be destroyed (not eternally tormented) in the lake of fire, which is the second death (Rev. 20:14-15).

in your post ‘No other name by which we should be saved’ on Wed, 12/09/2012
you said:
“Strictly speaking, then, I’m not sure that it makes biblical sense to say that people are saved today. I would say rather that people are called by God to participate in his new creation, for the sake of his glory, and so must be “born again” into a new cosmos. We must leave behind the old world, with its idolatrous, corrupting ways and practices, and assume the ways and practices of God’s new world, under Jesus as King, in the power of the Spirit, subject to grace. What we misleadingly call “Christianity” is not a religion of salvation. It is a religion of enactment or embodiment—God’s people enact or embody the full potential of a loyal, obedient, faithful humanity before the eyes of the world. It is, in current parlance, “missional”. Such a people exists at all today only because Jesus gave his life for the sins of Israel out of obedience to his Father.”

So just to clarify, are the righteous (#6) in your above post ‘called / elected and the rest of humanity the unrighteous / destroyed (#7) ?

Thanks.

It may help (let me know if it doesn’t) to maintain a clear distinction between 1) judgment that has to do with inclusion in the people of God, and 2) judgment of those who are not part of the people of God.

1) A key issue in the New Testament has to do with the terms of membership in the people of God: i) by possession of or obedience to the Law or ii) by belief in the significance of the resurrection of Jesus. Those Jews who rely on the Law will judged according to their works—and the end will be catastrophic. Those who believe, including Gentiles, are forgiven their sins and included by the grace of God. But the reason for their inclusion is not primarily that they need personally to be saved, rather they become part of a people chosen to serve the living God.

A secondary issue has to do with the obedience of the disciples—they will be judged when the Son of Man comes on the basis of whether they have faithfully carried out their duties.

This is all the story of Israel.

2) There is another story about judgment of the nations. The expectation is that Israel’s God will first sort out his own people and then will judge the nations of the Greek-Roman world according to what they have done—not least for having oppressed his people. Some righteous Gentiles will be justified when this happens (the sheep in the judgment of the nations scene in Matthew 25:31-46 and those who have the Law written on their hearts in Romans 2). This is all part of history.

But at the final judgement all humanity will be judged “by what was written in the books, according to what they had done” (Rev 20:12). Those whose names are not found in the book of life (whatever that may mean) will be thrown into the lake of fire, which is the second death.

What is curious at this point is that John appears not to envisage preferential treatment for the church.

Hi Andrew, thanks for the response!

I’m not sure if you answered my question and it went over my head, or perhaps my understanding of bible theology is limited, (which it is)

But my question is to you personally… What constitutes someone being righteous verses unrighteous?

You seem to allude that the called are righteous, thus we are going back into the ‘post Christian’ history to understand.

As it is pointed out in your diagram, that the unrighteous will be somehow destroyed. I want to dwell on that.

You said: “But at the final judgement all humanity will be judged “by what was written in the books, according to what they had done” (Rev 20:12). Those whose names are not found in the book of life (whatever that may mean) will be thrown into the lake of fire, which is the second death.

I don’t want to throw you under a bus, but to push a bit as to what the people who are judged and who were not written in the book of life, what they are or their lives might look like?

Examples? Or maybe thoughts?

Thanks

P.S. Appreciate your Ideas!

Let’s see if this helps.

1. No one qualifies for membership of God’s people, serving him in the world, by being good.

2. Nevertheless, the witness of the church depends, in part, on the concrete, visible, enacted righteousness of those who claim Christ as their Lord. The called have to learn righteousness.

3. I think that there is solid New Testament ground for affirming the practical righteousness of ordinary non-Christian people in the world today. That includes recognising that non-Christians are often more righteous than Christians and put us to shame.

4. I’m afraid I don’t know where or how to draw the line between those whose names are written in the book of life (“whatever that may mean”) and those who are consigned to the lake of fire. The point I would make is that the lake of fire is simply a reaffirmation of the existential fact that the wages of sin is death. It is the human condition to sin and die. The fate of the unrighteous is not an anomaly.

Have you looked into partial and full preterism yet?