Timeless truths behind the debates over Christ’s return.

Christ is coming. We can all agree to that. He is coming to reign. Most would assent to that. Further details about our Lord’s return, especially its relation to the 1,000 years of Revelation 20, are hotly debated.

Will Christ come to start his millennial reign after a time of apostasy and tribulation, as premillennialists believe? Or will the beginning of his rule correspond with the Christianization of the peoples and cultures of the world, as postmillennialsts believe? Or are we wrong to think there will be a literal thousand-year reign on the earth, as amillennialists assert?

Faced with passionate defenses of each view, many evangelicals wonder which scenario is correct. But we would be mistaken if we merely weighed the evidence, chose one, and ignored the other two. The Spirit has something important to tell us in each of the three traditional views of the millennium. Each tells us about how we as the church ought to understand ourselves and our mission in the present age.

Postmillennial optimism

Postmillennialists confidently proclaim that Christ will reign through his obedient church, bringing to the world an era of peace and righteousness prior to the conclusion of history. Regardless of the correctness of the scenario, postmillennialism is the voice of the Spirit calling us to tenacious engagement. Postmillennial optimism encourages us to sanctified diligence as we realize that our efforts, although feeble in themselves, are linked with the invincible power of the Holy Spirit who works through us.

This optimism arises from two foundational truths. First, despite all appearances to the contrary, God is sovereign over history and is actively engaged in bringing his goals to pass. In the cosmic battle, we know we are on the side that will prevail in the end.

The second truth is that the sovereign God has commissioned us, through Christ, to participate in the work of advancing his glorious reign. We are lieutenants acting under the authority of the cosmic King.

It is no historical accident that the great thrusts toward worldwide evangelistic outreach and social concern in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were launched by a church imbued with postmillennial optimism. In that spirit, many Christians today boldly proclaim the gospel, address social evils, and engage political structures with confidence and enthusiasm.

Premillennial pessimism

Premillennialism displays a basic pessimism concerning history and the role we play in its culmination. Premillennialists predict that despite all our attempts to convert and reform the world, prior to the end Antichrist will gain control of human affairs. The reign of God and the glorious age of blessedness and peace will come, but not by our efforts. Only the catastrophic return of our Lord can inaugurate the golden age on earth.

In the nineteenth century, American postmillennial optimism degenerated into blind utopianism. In order to guard against such excesses, we must listen to what the Spirit is saying through what is now the dominant viewpoint among evangelicals. Premillennialism teaches us that we must always observe what ethicist and theologian H. Richard Niebuhr called the broken relation between the present and the coming kingdom. Although we engage in the work Christ has given us, we must never think that our efforts will usher in the glorious kingdom of God.

At its best, therefore, premillennialism stands as a caution against unbridled optimism. We can never hope to remedy all social ills or solve all the world’s problems. The Spirit calls us humbly to rely on God alone to give to us his kingdom.

Amillennial realism

Since at least Augustine’s day, the viewpoint most widespread in the church anticipates no distinct thousand-year golden age, whether beyond the catastrophic end of the present age (premillennialism) or as the result of the success of the gospel within this age (postmillennialism). Rather, victory and defeat, success and failure, good and evil will be our experience until the end. Consequently, amillennialists eschew both unchastened optimism and the pessimism that can lead to despair. Instead, they call the church to a sober realism regarding its activity in the present age.

Amillennialists expect great things in the present but know that the kingdom will never arrive in its fullness in history. We should not look for an earthly utopia in history. Our ultimate hope is beyond time in the new creation.

At the same time, the amillennial vision focuses on what Christ has already done. In Christ, God has broken into our world and inaugurated his reign. In the midst of the brokenness of life we can celebrate the new life of the Spirit.

In these ways, the Spirit is calling us to act out of a balanced perspective. From postmillennialism, we learn to anticipate eagerly all God has planned for this world and how he will empower us to work to these ends. From premillennialism, we learn not to put our hope in these enterprises, to realize that the world is a bitter battleground on which we meet a contentious foe; only a mighty work of God’s power will bring about victory. From amillennialism, we learn that we are not straitjacketed by the future, that God has called and empowered us to do many good works right here, right now. The Spirit is not calling us to debate ad nauseam when and how John’s vision of the thousand-year golden age is fulfilled, but to focus on how we are to live now in light of Jesus’ future return.

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Loren Wilkinson is the writer/editor of Earthkeeping in the ’90s (Eerdmans) and the coauthor, with his wife, Mary Ruth Wilkinson, of Caring for Creation in Your Own Backyard (Servant). He teaches at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

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