The Future of the Church
Tri-City Covenant Church Position Paper
Without a doubt, eschatology, the doctrine of the “end times,” has more than any other doctrine captured the imagination of the modern evangelical church. The popular view of the “any moment Rapture” and imminent return of Christ has in the last century dictated the theological direction and curriculums of our largest Christian seminaries and colleges, energized a virtual revolution in domestic and foreign missions, been the topic of countless best-selling Christian and non-Christian books (and Hollywood movies), has as the topic of choice dominated the programming of Christian radio and television, has influenced the worldviews and career choices of multiple generations of young believers, and even been the cause of numerous church splits. Some churches have gone so far as to identify the “Pre-tribulational Rapture” as a non-negotiable tenet of the faith.
This paper is an overview of the three historical “end times” positions commonly known as Premillennialism,1 Amillennialism, and Postmillennialism. It will briefly critique and compare each position, asking a few pertinent questions along the way. For example: Is the world getting worse, or better? What does the Old Testament teach about the “end times”? What does the New Testament, and Christ Himself, teach about the “end times”? What is the purpose of the Church? And, finally, given the conclusions already reached by millions of believers throughout the world, does the Church of the early 21st century even have a future? These questions are more than idle theological exercises. What we believe about the future in general, and about the future of the Church in particular, has ramifications far beyond the seminary class, local Bible study group, or casual conversation. Ideas, it’s been said, have consequences. We are what we believe, at least if we are consistent and act on our beliefs. Writes theologian and Bible scholar, R. J. Rushdoony,
The kind of faith we have governs the whole of our lives, and our total outlook. How we view God and Christ will determine how we view ourselves, our calling, and the end times…. Theology is a seamless garment, and a man’s views of the end times is inseparable from his view of God. If he changes his mind on the one, he changes his mind on the other.2
If we believe, for example, as the Premillennialists believe, that the world is getting worse and worse, that the Rapture could occur at any moment, and that Antichrist will soon dominate the world scene until the Second Coming, there is little incentive to invest in the future, whether the investment is in a legacy for our children (such as Christian education or the capitalization of wealth), a business venture, a long-term, multi-generational building program, or in the reformation of any of our crumbling social and cultural institutions. Time spent reforming society and controlling wealth is, in their way of viewing the future, a waste of time. It is time spent, in the words of a well-known Premillennial radio Bible teacher, “polishing brass on a sinking ship.” We see, then, that ideas do in fact have consequences. If we view the world (or the Church, for that matter) as a “sinking ship,” it is foolhardy, and perhaps even sinful, to waste what’s perceived as limited time and resources building for a future that will never come to pass.
If, however, the Bible teaches the exact opposite, that we are steaming into the future in an unsinkable ship, empowered by the Holy Spirit to succeed in the building of Christ’s Church throughout the world, bearing the banner of the promise of total earthly and historical victory, our outlook, and therefore our behaviors, will be much different. It reminds us of the man who learned he had only three minutes to live. “Doc,” he asked, “what can you do?” His doctor scratched his head and said, “Well, I can boil you an egg.” The Premillennial view of the “end times” is the eschatological equivalent of a three-minute egg. For the Premillennialist, time is the one thing they don’t have. In terms of the kingdom, the dominion mandate, and the Great Commission, believing as they do that they are living in the “end times,” all they can hope to accomplish before Jesus comes is “boil an egg.” The Postmillennialist, on the other hand, is eagerly and patiently preparing a great banquet feast, for he believes that God will provide all the time necessary to establish His kingdom in the world, whether it takes ten years, one hundred years, or ten thousand years.
The three millennial “end times” views of Premillennialism, Amillennialism, and Postmillenialism arrive at very different conclusions when asking the same question: When will Christ return? Before, or after, the millennial (thousand year) reign of Christ described in Rev 20? Thus, Premillennialism holds that Christ returns before (pre-) the millennial kingdom. Postmillennialists believe that Christ returns after (post-), or at the conclusion of, the earthly millennial kingdom. Amillennialists don’t interpret the “thousand years” of Rev 20 (or other “latter day” passages) as describing a literal, earthly millennial kingdom at all. They are more aptly described as non-millennialists. Both the Pre- and Postmillennial positions agree that the millennial era will be characterized by the defeat of Satan, worldwide peace and righteousness, and the reign of the saints, all the product of the supernatural presence and working of the Holy Spirit. Amillennialists, in discounting the literalness of the millennial kingdom, believe that the parallel (and, apparently, virtually equal) earthly kingdoms of God and Satan run their courses “neck and neck” throughout history. For the Premillennialists, the Kingdom will be established after the Second Coming. For the Postmillennialist, the Kingdom was established during the ministry of Jesus. For the Amillennialist, there will be no discernable earthly kingdom.
What can be said about the timing of Christ’s return? While obliged to speak in generalities, we know this much for certain in terms of the condition of the world preceding Christ’s coming, i.e., what the world scene will look like when Christ returns. Christ, the Word tells us, will remain in heaven “until the times of restoration of all things, which God has spoken by the mouth of all His holy prophets” (Acts 3:21). Restoration is the act of returning something to its original condition. All things, according to this verse, are to be “restored” – returned to its original condition. According to Acts 3:21, the restoration must be complete (or at least be in a substantial process of restoration) before Christ returns, not after; for heaven must “receive” and keep Christ until (not prior to) such a time. The question is, Restored to what? “One of the most basic themes of Scripture,” writes pastor and Bible scholar, David Chilton, “is that salvation restores man to his original purpose. In the beginning God created man in His own image, in order that man should have dominion (Gen 1:26-28). The task of dominion began in the Garden, but it was not supposed to end there.”3 While still bearing the bruises and battle scars of sin, redeemed men, remade as the new humanity in the Second Adam, will in the restored earth have accomplished what the first Adam failed to do: fulfill the dominion mandate and extend the Garden-kingdom of God throughout the entire earth.
Whatever this “restoration” may look like, this key time-text related to Christ’s Second Coming flies in the face of the popular notion that the world will grow progressively worse and worse before the Second Coming. Christ returns, according to Acts 3:21, not to find a ruined earth, but a restored, rejuvenated earth. An earth returned to its original condition, the final stroke of the restoration being the destruction of death itself (1 Cor 15:25, 26).
The three positions can be summarized as follows: Postmillennialism = the ascendancy of the kingdom of God prior to the Second Coming. Premillennialism = the ascendancy of the kingdom of Satan prior to the Second Coming. Amillennialism = the parallel growth of both the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Satan. For the purposes of this discussion, all earthly kingdom models terminate at the Final Judgment.4 Since Amillennialism is, in the judgment of this writer, a non-millennial position, our remarks for the remainder of this paper will be confined to the Pre- and Postmillennial systems.
Eschatology and the Covenant
Space does not permit an elaborate, point by point refutation of the Premillennial position. We will instead allow our brief presentation of Postmillennialism to speak for itself. It should be pointed out, however, that unlike Premillennialism, Postmillennialism is more than the product of an eschatological equation, where this Scripture plus that Scripture equals the Postmillennial return of Christ. Postmillennialism is more accurately described as an all-encompassing “ethical” or “moral” system with eschatological and, therefore, theological, implications.
It must be made clear that the exact timing of the millennium in relation to the Second Advent is not a main theme of the Postmillennialists. Unlike Dispensationalists and many other Premillennialists, Postmillennialists are not obsessed with the precise timing of the millennium…. but are concerned with Christ’s advancing kingdom in time, history, and eternity. The argument for Postmillennialism issues chiefly from those glorious, precious promises of the gradual but relentless progress of Christ’s kingdom as a result of the ministry of his First Advent.5
Postmillennialism is inherently covenantal in its approach to the Scriptures. All history is covenantal: personal as well as national blessing for covenantal obedience, and cursing for covenantal disobedience. This being the case, in the long-run it is covenantally impossible for covenant-breakers to succeed. God’s judgments are temporal, of this world, as well as eternal. This means that, eschatologically, covenant-breakers are doomed to repeat the pattern of short-lived success and inevitable failure in time and in history. The meek, it is written, shall inherit the earth, not the haughty and the rebellious. Premillennialism inverts the covenant, blessing the covenant-breaker (in spite of the binding of Satan and the presence of the Holy Spirit) with permanent historical success at the expense of the righteous, a biblically novel and unprecedented notion. In short, for the Premillennial system to work, the covenant must be abandoned.
The Dominion Mandate
Without an accurate understanding of the “everlasting covenant,” history is meaningless, and worse, the future is “rigged” against us. After all, in the Premillennial scheme of things, the faithful don’t even have a chance of winning. We’re “predestined” to fail, culturally and historically. Fortunately, this isn’t the case. The covenant, and its promises, will not be broken.
But the mercy of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear Him, and His righteousness to children’s children, to such as keep His covenant, and to those who remember His commandments to do them (Psa 103:17, 18).
My covenant I will not break, nor alter the word that has gone out of My lips” (Psa 89:34).
Likewise the dominion mandate (Gen 1:28-30). The dominion mandate to subdue the earth to the glory of God, given to Adam as the basic purpose of man, was repeated after the Fall to Noah, to Abraham and his descendants, to the patriarchs, and reiterated by Christ in the New Testament as the Great Commission. As the “fly wheel” of history, judicially dampening the progress of the wicked while energizing the efforts of the righteous, it is the certainty of the everlasting covenant that makes dominion possible. Writes theologian and pastor, Ken Gentry, “All of the covenants in Scripture are equally ‘the covenants of promise’ (Eph 2:12). The covenant concept runs throughout Scripture. It frames the creational process, structures His dealings with man, and … insures the success of His divine program in history.”6
Assured, then, of the validity of the covenant for all time, we turn to the Old Testament promises of the “latter day glory,” an earthly time of righteousness and peace foreseen by the ancients prophetically, as they were inspired and instructed by God and, on a human level, deductively, given their understanding of the covenant and of God’s irrefutable and incontrovertible promises regarding the total vindication of His people in time and in history. It is not possible to quote in their entirety the abundance of Scriptural evidence for this fact. A representative sampling will have to do. In particular, note the temporal, earthly character of these pronouncements, and the precise language chosen regarding the conversion of the nations: “All nations whom You have made shall come and worship before You, O Lord, and shall glorify Your name” (Psa 86:9); “All the ends of the world shall remember and turn to the LORD, and all the families of the nations shall worship before You” (Psa 22:27); “They shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain, for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea” (Isa 11:9, cf. Hab 2:14); “Many people shall come and say, ‘Come, and let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; He will teach us His ways, and we shall walk in His paths.’ For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and rebuke many people; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore” (Isa 2:3, 4).
Perhaps the most explicit description of the incremental growth and eventual triumph of the gospel is found in the Old Testament in Daniel’s account of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of the Great Image. Successive kingdoms come and go, but a final global kingdom rises like a great mountain and fills the entire earth. “And in the days of these kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom which shall never be destroyed; and the kingdom shall not be left to other people; it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand forever” (Dan 2:44).
Incremental growth is a key to understanding where we are historically, and where we are going. It is absurd to insist that the world is getting worse and worse and falling into greater and greater darkness. It also contradicts the teachings of Christ. Christ, after all, is the “Light of the world.” Is it necessary to be reminded that the world was an infinitely darker place before Christ came? A movement that began with 11 frightened disciples confined to a few square miles of Palestine has grown to number in the hundreds of millions throughout the world, each possessing the darkness-defying light of Christ. The historic enemies of God and of Christ’s Church are dead, buried, and mostly forgotten. God’s people are still here, comparatively speaking more prosperous and influential than ever before. Is the world a better place than it was 2,000 years ago? Of course it is. But, how do we account for this astounding fact? For no other reason than because of the progressive, incremental growth of the kingdom that “shall never be destroyed.”
The Great Commission
Just as dominion and the expansion of the Garden-kingdom of God throughout the world is the purpose of redeemed man, so is the conversion of the nations through the proclamation of the gospel and the application of God’s law-word the purpose of Christ’s Church. Christ’s command to His disciples was to teach all nations to observe all that He commanded. To “observe” does not mean to be a “spectator” to; it means to “obey.” Obey what? Christ’s commands; the law-word of God. To expect anything less than the actual conversion of the nations, in time and in history, is to believe that Jesus’ “Great Commission” is a not-so-great and hopeless fraud.
The Great Commission summarizes the entire prophetic thrust of both the Old and New Testament Scriptures regarding the dominion mandate, the coming of Christ and His absolute rule over the nations, and the nature of the kingdom of heaven. Established at His First Advent (Mat 4:7, 5:10, 6:10, 6:37, 7:11, 11:11, 11:12, 12:25-29, 13:1ff, 13:19, 16:28, 19:14, 21:43, John 3:3-5), beginning as a mustard seed the kingdom will, like Daniel’s mountain kingdom, grow and grow until it fills the entire earth. Transformed by the overwhelming power of the gospel, over time redeemed men cannot help but to transform their cultures. Jesus will come – but not, the Word says, until His enemies have been made His footstool (Mat 22:44). The gates of Hell shall not prevail against us, we believe, precisely because there is no future apart from the promised victory, in time and in history, of the Church of Jesus Christ.
- Premillennialism is more accurately divided into two similar but distinct systems: Historic Premillennialism and its modern progeny, Dispensationalism. Though dissimilar in many respects they are in basic agreement regarding the timing of the Millennial Kingdom. Thus, our use of the term “Premillennialism” encompasses both systems.
- R. J. Rushdoony, “God’s Plan for Victory,” Thornburn Press, 1980
- David Chilton, “Paradise Restored,” Dominion Press, 1985
- Strictly speaking, the kingdom of God is an “everlasting” kingdom, extending beyond the Final Judgment into eternity. The “millennium” as discussed here is meant to mean the earthly kingdom era preceding the Final Judgment
- Andrew Sandlin, “A Postmillennial Primer,” Chalcedon Monograph Series #2, 1997
- Kenneth L. Gentry, “He Shall Have Dominion,” Institute for Christian Economics, 1997