This essay was originally written nearly 20 years ago. It has been updated with hyperlinks.
The Prophet Micah, in the fourth chapter of the book bearing his name, describes a great age of peace during which the Messiah would reign. This Kingdom would take place in "the last days." In The Meaning of Vine & Fig Tree Archetype Numbers One and Two we discussed Micah's vision of the future. This glorious optimism is known as "postmillennialism," meaning that Jesus the Messiah would not return a Second time to end earth history and begin eternity until after ("post") this age of Gospel prosperity (I Corinthians 15:24-25).
There are those who disagree with this perspective. It would seem these would have us believe that in this age we will not see the Spirit poured out on all men, writing the Law on their hearts and perfecting obedience in their lives. Rather, they hold that evil will progressively gain the upper hand. Here is what one of them has said:
As you read your New Testament you do not get the impression that Christians are to subdue culture and seek to establish the dominion of Christ in secular institutions. The church is portrayed as the suffering institution , as sheep led to the slaughter (Romans 8:36) in the midst of an evil age. In the age prior to Christ's Second Coming we will not see all put under Him. We have no Biblical reason to be optimistic concerning the Godless societies of this present age. But we have every reason to be optimistic about the future of Christ's church both in this age and in the age to come. Suffering saints who have been, are being, and will be beheaded for the witness of Jesus and the Word of God are now living and reigning with Christ during the Gospel millennium.
In a review of God's Plan for Victory by R.J. Rushdoony, Jon Zens writes,
"I do not see how Rushdoony can do justice to the teaching of Jesus and the Apostles concerning the nature of Kingdom life in the time period before Christ's glorious return. Jesus taught His disciples that after His resurrection they would essentially experience tribulation in a hostile world unto the 'end' (Matt. 10:22-24; 24:9, 14; John 15:18-19; 16:33; 17:14-15). 9Paul taught that in this gospel age saints will follow the pattern of the Lord, suffering and then glory. (Rom. 8:17-18; 2 Tim. 2:12; see Luke 24:26; I Pet. 1:11). During the 'last days' until Jesus returns Christians are 'killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter' (Romans 8:36). Indeed, Paul says that Christians are 'appointed' to afflictions (I Thess. 3:3). 'Glory' for the Christian comes only after 'losing his life' for Christ in this 'present evil age.'"
"All of this Rushdoony must deny, for he posits that there will be a long period of time in history before Christ's return where being a Christian will be 'accepted.' He says that in amillennialism 'There is no such thing as a millennium or a triumph of Christ and His Kingdom in history. The role of saints at best is to grin and bear it, and more likely to be victims and martyrs' (p. 8). Does not his last phrase beautifully portray the picture Jesus and Paul drew of Christian experience? . . . I challenge Rushdoony's brand of postmillennialism to come forth with Biblical evidence which would modify our Lord's clear position: saints will suffer in a hostile world until the 'end' (see 2 Thess. 1:4-10). You cannot square the idea of a time-period before the 'end' in which the world will be 'friendly' to true Christianity with Paul's teaching on the nature of Kingdom life. In Rushdoony's conception of things there will be a long period of time in history when the principle of Gal. 4:9 will not hold true: 'But as then he that was born after the flesh persecuted him that was born after the Spirit, even so it is now.' 9God has ordained the "sword" to be a 'terror to evil doers,' not to 'promote and defend' the Christian faith (Romans 13:3-4; John 18:36; Luke 22:49-51)."
Postmillennialists certainly believe (or at least they should!) those verses which teach that, in general, saints can expect persecution, and it is not our purpose to deny them. But, as we saw in Archetypes One and Two, the Bible also holds out promises of the world-wide spread and prosperity of Gospel preaching. Consider these few verses (many others can be found in the Essays):
Psalm 149:4-9 "For the LORD taketh pleasure in His people: He will beautify the meek with victory. Let the saints be joyful in glory: let them sing aloud upon their beds. Let the high praises of God be in their mouth and a two-edged sword in their hand (see Ephesians 6:17; Hebrews 4:12); to execute vengeance upon the heathen, and punishments upon the people; to bind their kings with chains and their nobles with fetters of iron; to execute upon them the judgment written: this honour have all His saints. Praise ye the LORD."
Isaiah 49:22-23 "Thus saith the Lord GOD, Behold, I will lift up mine hand to the Gentiles, and set up my standard to the people: and they shall bring thy sons in their arms, and thy daughters shall be carried upon their shoulders. And kings shall be thy nursing fathers, and their queens they nursing mothers: they shall bow down to thee with their face toward the earth, and lick up the dust of thy feet; and thou shalt know that I am the LORD: for they shall not be ashamed that wait for me."
Isaiah 60:3,5-6 "And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising. Then though shalt see, and flow together, and thine heart shall fear, and be enlarged; because the abundance of the sea shall be converted unto thee, and the wealth of the Gentiles shall come unto thee. The multitude of camels shall cover thee. . .all they from Sheba shall come: they shall bring gold and incense; and they shall shew forth the praises of the LORD."
Isaiah 66:23 "And it shall come to pass, that from one new moon to another, and from one sabbath to another, shall all flesh come to worship before me, saith the LORD."
We have looked mainly at Isaiah, but as we saw in the Essays, the theme of the world-wide prosperity of the Gospel pervades Scripture. The picture in the Bible is one of the Church mounting an offensive against the fortresses of hell, and we are promised victory. Jesus says that all power is His in heaven and on earth, and that's why we are to go to all the world with the Gospel (Matthew 28:18-20). Jesus is going to build His church, and it will be victorious over the forces of darkness (Isaiah 9:7; Matthew 16:18).
Look at that last passage a little more closely. "The gates of hell shall not prevail against the church." Those who suggest that the only lot of Christ's people is persecution and suffering brutally mangle this verse. Instead of picturing an army attacking a fortress and breaking through its gates, they paint a picture of a defeated army, huddled and cowering together, being attacked by gates! How ridiculous! God is here promising victory for the church as she spoils principalities and powers (Ephesians 6:12; Colossians 2:15).
The Bible very clearly teaches Gospel prosperity, which we call "postmillennialism." We have cited only a few of the verses that speak of the church's victory over the political opposition mounted against it by Satan. The only way to negate the force of all of these many passages is to twist them like Matthew 16:18 has been twisted. Usually they are just ignored.
"Yes, but the New Testament teaches that we will be persecuted and will suffer like our Lord!" It does indeed, but notice that this is not a denial that the Bible teaches that the Gentiles will be converted and will obey the LORD. This statement merely urges that we ignore the promises of prosperity and believe only the promises of conflict. It pits Scripture against the Bible and declares the Bible to be the loser.
The point of this paper is that the two teachings -- persecution and postmillennialism -- can be harmoniously understood together, without throwing one or the other away. When the postmillenarian view of the increasing Christianization of men and nations is set forth, the last line of attack is almost always "But the church is promised persecution!" "Dominion" and "pilgrimage" are seen as mutually exclusive. They need not be.
Notice the verse cited by Jon Zens: Galatians 4:29. It says that the wicked lash out against the Godly. This is the way it was in the Old Testament, and it is still true today. Look up "persecution" in your Nave's Topical Bible and you will see this theme from Genesis to Revelation. There are certainly more promises of Gospel prosperity in the Old Testament than the New, but the perspective in both is the same. Persecution is taught right alongside the "Golden Age." Even David, King of Israel, was persecuted, and he rightly considered national wars a kind of persecution.
Psalm 11:2 "For Lo, the wicked bend their bow, they make ready their arrow upon the string, that they may privily shoot at the upright in heart."
Psalm 38:20 "They also that render evil for good are mine adversaries; because I follow the thing that is good."
Psalm 44:22 "Yea, for thy sake are we killed all the day long; we are counted as sheep for the slaughter."
Then we have the example of Isaiah who was sawed in half (perhaps), as well as all of those in Hebrews 11. In the New Testament Jesus said those who were persecuted for righteousness' sake would be blessed (Matthew 5:10). Paul, most notably, was put to the Jewish courts and whipped and beaten and almost left for dead. The persecution Christians received under the despotic, demonic Roman Empire is well-attested, and foretold in Scripture. Even those who lived during Israel's "Golden Age" under Solomon and David would not be surprised to hear this:
"The bloodthirsty hate the upright: He that is upright in the way is abomination to the wicked." (Proverbs 29:10,27).
|This was particularly the case during "the last days" of the Old Covenant. Read more about "The Great Tribulation."|
This will always be the case. We live in a fallen world. The question thus becomes, how do we reconcile these apparently contradictory teachings? How can the Church be promised both prosperity and persecution? Let's look at the Biblical teaching on persecution and suffering.
All the passages which teach that persecution is coming are not doing so to ensure persecution, to guarantee it as an absolute inevitability. Their purpose is to comfort those who are persecuted.
|As a matter of fact, Christians around the world have suffered intense persecution in the 20th century, of which most Americans are blissfully unaware. Read more here.|
Did those persecution passages teach that in the 20th century we would have mass,
rampant persecutions with people being flogged and whipped at the hands of the state?
Would Christians in the 20th century be burned and their children tortured? If those
passages teach this, can we believe them?
Or does the Bible teach postmillennialism: that that kind of brutality (which characterized the Roman Empire) would be increasingly and progressively neutralized by the preaching of the Gospel and the work of the Spirit -- if the Godly contended against evil? Clearly -- and I think most who rebut postmillennialist passages with persecution passages would agree -- governments are at least a little more humane in our day than they were under Nero, or even as recently as the Spanish Inquisition. As a postmillenarian, I think we have a long way to go, and I suspect that I look even at the good ol' U.S.of A. as being much closer to Nero's Rome than the generally conservative "persecutionists" would be comfortable with. But what the Bible taught in Paul's day is not necessarily the case for all time!
Take Jon Zens for example. Has he been whipped 39 times? Was he beaten by the authorities and left for dead? Frankly, I don't think Zens has been stoned even once, and it is undoubtedly because he isn't faithfully preaching the Gospel. Right?
Is it the life of every single Christian to be stoned as Paul was? Is it the purpose of God in history for nations always to be as brutal as Rome? The Bible teaches increasing victory for the Church and the progressive influence of the Gospel over the nations. If that is not the case, then you and I are doing something dreadfully wrong, because neither of us have been tortured yet.
We must remember that the Bible speaks in general terms. The Bible teaches that obedience brings prosperity. Abraham and Job are both examples. It comes from the Lord. The Bible also teaches that obedience brings persecution. Job and Paul are both examples. It comes from the seed of the Serpent. But the two teachings are not contradictory, but must be understood in terms of God's purposes in history.
Scripture teaches that the wicked attack the Godly ("Persecution"). Scripture teaches that the wicked will either be converted or destroyed ("Postmillennialism"). Sometimes it teaches both in the same passage.
Psalm 37 is one such passage where we see both Predicament and Promise. It starts out on a theme of persecution:
1. Fret not thyself because of evildoers. . .
but grounds its comfort in God's Promise:
2. For they shall soon be cut down like the grass, and wither as the green herb. 3. Trust in the LORD, and do good; so shalt thou dwell in the land, and verily thou shalt be fed.
"Why do the wicked prosper?" is met continually with "don't worry, the righteous will prosper soon enough":
11. The meek shall inherit the land, and shall delight themselves in the abundance of peace.
Jesus quoted that verse in the Sermon on the Mount. The Psalmist is ping-ponging back and forth between persecution and postmillennialism, not because they contradict, but because the answer to persecution is postmillennialism. God says to put present persecution in the light of the future prosperity of the Kingdom.
In Mark 10:28, Peter says that he has given up everything to follow Jesus. How noble, such self-inflicted "persecution." But Jesus says,
"Verily I say unto you, There is no man that hath left house, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my sake, and the gospel's, But he shall receive an hundred fold now in this time, houses, and brethren, and sisters, and mothers, and children, and lands, with persecutions; and in the world to come eternal life."
A central feature of God's Covenant of Grace is that he rewards obedience with material and social blessings and chastises disobedience with the same kind of cursings (Deuteronomy 28, Leviticus 26). He who does not believe that God rewards and blesses obedience lacks faith (Hebrews 11:6). Of course, the wicked will envy the blessings given to the faithful, and they will attack and despise them. But as God says,
He that is despised and has a servant is better than he who honoreth himself, and lacketh bread. (Proverbs 12:9).
He who pits persecution against promise will likely reply, "Yes, but the righteous
are not always blessed. Look at Job!" This is true, and no postmillennialist denies
it. But our point is that in history the Godly will not forever be persecuted. Look
at Job! (Job 42:10-17). Not everyone is as blessed as Abraham (Genesis 13:2), and not
everyone is as persecuted as Paul. The Bible speaks of general trends in history.
But let us not deny the Bible's promise of a trend of increasing Gospel prosperity just to
affirm the fact of the wicked's hatred of the Godly.
The postmillennialist does not deny that there are battles; this is what causes persecution. But does the persecutionist deny that there is victory? We hope not.
Read the first 5 verses of Psalm 112. You will find great blessing and prosperity. Yet verse 7 says that this man "shall not be afraid of bad news." Yes, even the immensely blessed hear bad news, which comes as "persecution" or suffering to them. Victory and prosperity do not come without battle. The tide of the war often changes, sometimes for the worse for the Church. This is persecution. But we must not fear bad news. We must trust in the Promises of God. We must be postmillennialists anyway.
We earlier quoted Jon Zens in his challenge to Rushdoony; with these Psalms we have the answer, and now Zens must "challenge the Psalmist's brand of postmillennialism to come forth with Biblical evidence which would modify our Lord's clear position: saints will suffer in a hostile world until the 'end.'" But of course, the Psalmist's words are the Scripture, and we must believe them. The question is, How?
The Bible plainly teaches that the always-reforming saints will suffer opposition in a hostile world. The Bible also promises us that our descendants will be blessed materially and spiritually and will know a world-wide peace, wholeness, prosperity, and health for which the Bible gives the word "Salvation." How can both teachings be true?
In general, notice how the Old Testament (perhaps more visibly so than the New) emphasizes the long-range optimism that saints should have. The Prophets continually give very long-range promises which the saints must view through the eyes of faith. But notice also how the key verse on persecution cited by Zens, Galatians 4:29, speaks primarily of the Old Testament saints! They were obviously to understand that in the present there would be opposition. But they should also believe that in the future there would be gospel prosperity. Not that there wouldn't also be continued opposition, but that the general circumstances of life would be much improved over the present.
Isn't this in large measure true? Wouldn't the Reformers of the sixteenth century consider the present age one of unimaginable religious freedom, spiritual progress, and material blessings from the hand of God? And yet the man with Spiritual eyes, a product of the present age, sees how much further we have to go with respect to implementing God's law, and sees how Christianity is still rejected and hated by the growing homosexual/Secular Humanist forces. It's all a question of perspective; we must walk by faith, not by sight.
If we were to diagram the progress of the Gospel in history, it would not look like this:
It would look more like this:
There are ups and downs. There is general progress upward, and as we look back at history we must acknowledge this progress, giving due praise and thanks to God for His mercies and the out-pouring of His Spirit through the ages. But nevertheless, in different places and at different times there are periods of backsliding and God's judgment. These are times when we would expect greater persecution of true and faithful believers. Let us examine the four stages of history.
History, as far as Christianity is concerned, began in the pits. Paul would certainly think so, having been stoned and left for dead. The Apostles, many of whom were martyred, would tend to agree. John felt that he was battling the "beast." The Christians fed to the lions would probably feel that it was not a good time to be a Christian. Those who were killed, placed on poles, and lit on fire as "tiki torches" for Nero's garden parties would likely concur. No one doubts that in such times there is severe persecution. Does anyone doubt that Emperor Nero was at least in some ways worse than Emperor Nixon?
If it may be conceded that things are not as bad as under Nero, it would surely be doubted as well that we are in a period of maximum blessing. It might even be argued that we are in a period of decline. We can expect persecution in a period of decline even if the overall course of history is upward. In a period of decline, those who are Godly seek to advance in their sanctification; the rest seek to either rest on their laurels (Deuteronomy 8) or regress toward maximization of sin and "pleasure." Either stagnation or regression will attempt to stifle growth; persecution results.
Even in periods of growth and Spiritual progress the Godly may expect persecution. Proverbs 28:4 says that those who forsake the Law praise the wicked, but such as keep the Law contend with them. It follows that the wicked will turn and contend with the Godly. Only when the Godly contend with the wicked and urge them to forsake the paths of death can progress in life be made. Growth is a somewhat painful process, especially where sin is involved. Only when the Godly say, Look! We've got all these pockets of sin that need to be cleaned out! Our nation is not perfect, things are falling short of the Glory of God! can there be growth. But when they say this, defenders of the status quo will pounce on the Godly for being unPatriotic, or whatever. Jeremiah had this problem (Jeremiah 26:11ff.). It happens in any period of history. Some examples:
A Christian mother calls her son in from play: "Danny, come in and do the dishes, sweep the floor and help fix dinner." Danny's friends mock him: "You have do to those dumb things?!" "Why don't you just stay out here and play?" Let us not underestimate the force of such peer pressure. It is real, and it is persecution. A boy attempting to be Dominion Man is going to get flak from "friends" who are play-oriented jellyfish.
David complains of his enemies in Psalm 56:
"Be merciful unto me, O God: for man would swallow me up; he fighting daily oppresseth me. Mine enemies would daily swallow me up: for they be many that fight against me, O thou most High. What time I am afraid, I will trust in thee. In God I will praise His Word, in God I have put my trust, I will not fear what flesh can do unto me. Every day they wrest my words: all their thoughts are against me for evil. . . . They wait for my soul. Shall they escape by iniquity? In thine anger cast down the people, O God."
Of course, amillennialists must take David to task for praying that God would put down the evil, when, according to the amil plan, the wicked must prosper (not the Godly). But the Godly man must always expect opposition from the unGodly.
David Chilton writes of Oliver Cromwell, who, although he had his faults, was nevertheless trying to move society in what he thought was a Godly direction:
"It is perhaps Cromwell's chief offense that he does not present us with the picture of the born-again politique, simpering and flaccid. When indecisiveness is a virtue, the man of action is feared, hated, and slandered. . . . Oliver Cromwell was a real man, with moral as well as physical blemishes. As with any man of action, there is much about him that we can criticize (and we can do so without resorting to fabrication). He was, nonetheless, a fearless man of God who led his nation in the light of the Law, retaining his power though rejecting the crown, seeking favors from none but the Most High. He is a disturbing figure for those who prefer the security of flight and defeat to the risks of battle and victory. Cromwell's religion provided no easy escapes, no cozy retreats. In contrast to Gurnall, who wallowed in the luxury afforded by his conformity, who never lifted a finger to serve Christ where such service might have cost anything, Oliver Cromwell saw the battle for what it was, counted the cost, and ventured forth in the Lord's army. The Gurnalls of this age, terrified by Canaan's giants, are capable of nothing more than sniping at those who conquer in the Lord's Name. History will be made and written by the Cromwell's of the age, while the cowards retreat to the safety of the footnotes."
The one who refuses to be conformed to society, but is transformed and seeks to transform, will meet resistance.
The time never comes. We always fall short of God's standards, even if we are ever getting closer. But relative to the past it may, at certain times, be said to have been achieved. We may, in the present, hope for such a time.
But perhaps postmillennialists, like Cromwell, and Chilton who writes of him, have not considered the possibility, extent, and nature of persecution in even the most golden of ages. A consideration of persecution in the coming "golden age" will help shed light on the relationship between persecution and Biblical postmillennialism.
As postmils, we are trying to point out the difference between what we have now, and what we should have, and, increasingly, what we will have. We look and work for a time in which, relatively speaking, Christianity will be accepted; a time in which, relatively speaking, Christianity will be the standard for social order and growth. But there are at least three reasons why, no matter how close we come to this ideal, persecution will still exist.
First, even in the "age of gospel prosperity" (a misnomer, since it never really or finally comes) there is still something better. Even if those of us who live now could see our wildest imaginations come to pass, those who live in those times (which we have imagined) can themselves imagine something better! Humorously so, speaking self-deprecatingly of our own imaginations, but literally so, since we cannot even imagine all the good things God will bring forth. As a result, there will always be those who will say, Let's change this aspect of our culture to conform to God's Law! Let's grow! Let's work harder! Let's be even more Godly! And there will always be those who will groan and say, Isn't it good enough? There will even be those who will say we are "un-American" for seeking Biblical change. It isn't just anti-Christian atheist liberals who persecute; sometimes it's the Conservatives!
Second, even in the best of times there will still be wicked people. Some people describe postmillennialism as the belief that in the future every single person will be converted. Not so, and all the problems of persecution rightly pointed out by (former (?)) opponents of postmillennialism will hold true.
Consider Psalm 44. Commentators disagree as to whether this was written concerning David before he was king or David after he was king. Certainly David's reign as king was considered to be a better time than during the reign of Saul. Yet David still experienced persecution even when he was in power.
It is this question of political power that is really at the heart of the issue of persecution and postmillennialism. Lord Acton has become justly famous for his maxim, "Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely." Far too many postmillennialists envision a time when they have total political power, and can legislate all of Biblical Law into existence overnight. This is a pathetic substitute for Biblical, Christian, postmillennialism. Such postmills have fallen into the error of the Jews who tried to make Jesus a king. Spiritual Power, and not political power, is what we should be looking for, and so our vision of "prosperity" may need some Biblical re-vision.
As we have just seen, even when David was king of Israel, he could not escape persecution. And increasing his political power would not have reduced his persecution, it would only have increased it. Jesus did not come to be a "king," in the sense the worldly Jews imagined (John 6:15). Jesus came to render political powers powerless, and this was the offense of the cross to the Jews. Jesus ostensibly "lost" his battle against the political powers; he was executed as a political criminal, a political "failure." This made it extremely difficult for the politically-minded Jews to accept His claims (I Corinthians 1:17 - 2:8). But Jesus came to put down political power (I Corinthians 15:24-25). Jesus does not make people Godly by political force, but by His Spirit (Zechariah 4:6).
Political power, and the lust for the same, corrupted even Solomon (Nehemiah 13:26). And just as God had promised when Israel rejected His Spirit and opted instead for political power (I Samuel 8) Solomon persecuted the people (2 Chronicles 10:11). How ironic that the man who wrote Proverbs 28:4 (discussed above) was himself praised by the Queen of Sheba and other political tyrants. Why? For his great wealth, his great number of slaves, his many wives, his fabulous stables and Israel's great military machine; all of which are not only violations of the Law in Deuteronomy 17:16ff., but would be considered by every "Reconstructionist" a very tyrannical government, a form of persecution. Solomon was at times quite Godly, and certainly was a postmillennialist (actually a "premillennialist," at the time); his Proverbs are a postmillennialist view of life, the Song of Solomon is a good postmillennialist view of Marriage, and his reign in many ways is a type of Christ's reign (Psalm 72). But we must not take the pictures given to a Spiritless people and attempt to bring them into our age literally, without Christ-ianizing them. We must remember, I Samuel 8 was fulfilled in large part by a "Reconstructionist." Acton was right: power corrupts. Not Godly power in Christ, but political power attained in our own strength.
Man always falls short of the glory of God and of His Kingdom, and so we can always expect our time to include persecution. But this does not deny that the Gospel of Christ will be increasingly spread until from shore to shore, all people, nations, and languages will be serving Him (Daniel 7:13-14, 18, 22). These are promises to us; we are to hope in them, and they are to be fulfilled in this present age (before Christ's Second coming (Acts 3:19-24-26)). And yet those living in a future time of blessing (our children) will have greater understanding of God's Law, will see more clearly than we do what needs to be done, and God will promise that generation many wonderful things, toward which they will work in hope, and for which they will be persecuted by those who are lazy and rebellious.
The Biblical teaching on persecution is not designed to quench our desire to work for the "golden age." Those who taunt and discourage postmillennialists from working for responsible Families, Christian hospitality, and the mending of the torn fabric of life through the Holy Spirit, are like the Sanballats and Tobiahs who hindered the building of the wall. The Bible virtually encourages us to be persecuted, because the people who are persecuted are the people who are contending for the faith (Proverbs 28:4; Jude 3). If you are not conformed to the world you will be opposed by the world (John 15:18). But if you do not oppose the system, you are an enemy of God (James 4:4).
Thus says the LORD, The Redeemer of Israel, their Holy One,
To Him whom man despises, To Him whom the nation abhors, To the Servant of rulers:
"Kings shall see and arise, Princes also shall worship,
Because of the LORD who is faithful, The Holy One of Israel;
And He has chosen You."
* Isaiah 49:7 *
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