Premillennial: believing that when Jesus Christ returns he will usher in a long period of peace and justice (the millennium). In other words, there is a radical discontinuity [the return of Jesus] between present human history and the evident reign of God on earth in human history (Shalom). After the millennium comes the fulfillment.

Amillennial: believing that Jesus will return and then usher in the fulfillment, without a period of God’s evident reign within human history. In other words, hope for Shalom will be met only beyond human history.

Postmillennial: believing that the return of Jesus will be preceded by a period of peace and justice in which God’s reign on earth will be seen. Then comes the return of Jesus and the fulfillment. In other words, there will be a continuity between present human history and the establishment of Shalom.

A while back, in the context of some posts on George Bush’s postmillennial theology, I mentioned that postmillennialism had been the majority opinion among evangelical Christians of the nineteenth century. Given the beliefs of contemporary evangelicals, holding to a postmillennial position seems unimaginable. In response to a comment by Joab, I promised to attempt a defense of each of these major positions. (Personal disclaimer, I am not a fully persuaded believer of one position; I tend to alternate between amillennialism and postmillennialism.)

All Christians are optimistic in an ultimate sense: we believe that Jesus will return and triumph over his foes, and ours, including death and suffering. But is there reason for optimism before the End? In other words, do Christians expect there to be any real, overall progress within human history? The answer given to this question will vary between Christians holding differing millennial views.

Answering “No,” are amillennialists and premillennialists. While there may be material progress within human history in areas such as technology, there is no actual human progress in a moral sense. All technological advances, for example, simply will allow us to kill one another in greater numbers. The amillennialists expect that the human history will continue a mixed-up mess of sin with some virtue, without real progress, until Jesus comes again. The premillennialists, most of them, expect that human history will continue a downward course getting worse and worse, a retrogress in effect, at least near the end of time. On the contrary, answering “Yes,” are the postmillennialists. The history of the human race, through the work of the Holy Spirit, does and will show moral progress as the gospel of Jesus Christ spreads over the world.

One’s attitude toward the progress, or lack of progress, within human history will affect political attitudes. (Wondering out loud: Reagan was postmillennial down to his bones, Carter?)

The American attitude, traditionally, has been optimistic regarding the future: we have thought of history in terms of progress. One of the roots of this optimism has been the influence of Christian postmillennial thought, the understanding of the majority of American evangelical Christians until some time in the twentieth century. Even today, though, I would venture to say that most Americans reject the idea that evil can triumph within human history until the End. In other words, I would say that most Americans reject the idea that God would allow a Hitler or a Stalin to envelope the world in a horror of tyrannical evil for centuries or millennia until Jesus comes again. We Americans seem to have a postmillennial heart, whatever doctrine is in our heads.

To quote from Loraine Boettner, perhaps the most forceful advocate of postmillennialism in the twentieth century: Postmillennialism is that view of the last things which holds that the kingdom of God is now being extended in the world through the preaching of the gospel and the saving work of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of individuals, that the world eventually is to be Christianized and that the return of Christ is to occur at the close of a long period of righteousness and peace commonly called the millennium. It should be added that on postmillennial principles the Second Coming of Christ will be followed immediately by the general resurrection, the general judgment, and the introduction of heaven and hell in their fullness.

A basic assumption of postmillennialism is that this world belongs to God and that God is the Lord of history. See, for example, Psalm 24, 29, 48, 65, 68, Daniel 4:34-35. Furthermore, the postmillennialist asserts that the Bible teaches that God’s justice and righteousness are operative within human history and must be established and vindicated within human history. God is not just the Lord theoretically, or at the End, but is the Lord who casts down Pharaoh of Egypt and raises up Cyrus the Persian. It is this divine authority of which Jesus spoke when he told the disciples “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20) Therefore, the mission of the disciples, and of the church, is not merely the preaching of the gospel, but the effective making of disciples of all nations, who will follow the teachings of Christ. See Zechariah 9:10 and Revelation 7:9-10. In the book of Revelation, as John the Revelator is given the vision of the City Coming down from heaven (chpts 22-22), these words are said: “The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations.”(21:24-26) These words imply that human history will still be underway as peace and justice are established on earth.