“Can’t agree with that. While we will overcome in the end, Scripture is very clear that in this world we will have tribulation, and Satan is working to bring about his own end to things.”
A friend of mine forwarded this to me. It is a response to my article previous week, “The True and the False New World Order.”
Those of us who have actively preached and defended postmillennialism – that is, an optimistic eschatology concerning the victory of the Gospel in history and on earth, have encountered this argument many times from the escapists in the church, that is from amillennialists and premillennialists. “You can’t have victory,” say the escapists, “because the Bible says in 2 Tim. 3:12 that all that desire to live godly life will be persecuted. The postmillennial hope is misplaced; we can not be victorious over nations, cultures, and powers.” Some theologians even dress their historical pessimism in poetic words: “The church is in a constant exile by the rivers of Babylon,” says one very influential theologian, “We can not hope for more but mourn and expect the day when God will return us home.” The nations will not submit to Christ and His Gospel, is the conclusion of the escapists, because Christians will suffer tribulations and persecutions. Victory in history is impossible.
I always considered it strange that such argument would be the most cherished argument by the pessimists. It is obviously fallacious. It is misunderstanding of terms. It is based on wrong definitions.
To start with, “tribulations” is not opposite to “victory,” neither does it contradict “victory.” There is no law of logic, and there is no definition of these terms that opposes them. Plain common sense tells us they are compatible. Let’s look at one of the most important political speeches of the 20th century, the first speech of Sir Winston Churchill as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. One of the most widely quoted paragraphs of Churchill’s speech was the following:
I would say to the House as I said to those who have joined this government: I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat. We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering.
“Nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.” And then, “we have before us . . . struggle and suffering.” By the logic of the amillennial and premillennial theologians, Churchill was saying that Great Britain can’t win the war against Germany. If “tribulation” meant “no victory,” Churchill must have been telling the people of Britain that he foresees no victory but only defeat in history. If we accept the logic of the email above, Churchill must have been saying that Hitler would have his way.
And yet, the very next paragraph of Churchill’s speech talked about victory:
You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: Victory. Victory at all costs — Victory in spite of all terror — Victory, however long and hard the road may be, for without victory there is no survival.
Could Churchill really say that he had nothing to offer but suffering, and then in the next paragraph promise victory in history? Yes, he could. Because in God’s world, it is a principle that any victory that is worth the name requires “blood, toil, tears, and sweat.” The Allies achieved victory over Nazi Germany, and they had to go through suffering and tribulation to achieve it. No one could accuse Churchill in contradicting himself; everyone – including premillennial and amillennial theologians – knows that victory requires suffering, and therefore Churchill was correct.
That is exactly what postmillennialism believes about the victory of the Gospel. History will see the progressive triumph of the Gospel not only over individuals, families and churches, but also over nations, cultures, and governments. Nation after nation will submit to Christ; they will change their customs, mores, and legal systems to reflect the Law of God. More and more the Gospel will change the hearts of men but also their institutions and their societies; more and more the Biblical worldview will become the operational worldview for the powers and authorities in the land. The church will experience its ups and downs, but the Word of God preached to individuals and societies will never return empty to God.
And this process of conquering the world, of course, won’t be an easy walk. Just like the “blood, toil, tears, and sweat” Churchill promised his compatriots, Christ promised us the same in our march to victory in history. Our victory in history will have it’s price; like Paul said about himself in Col. 1:24, “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I do my share on behalf of His body, which is the church, in filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions.” To say that Christ won his victory on the Cross by inadequate afflictions that Paul had to contribute to would be preposterous; Paul was saying that he had his own price to pay for his own victory, and for the victory of the Church in history. In the same way John says in Revelation that he is our “brother and fellow partaker in the tribulation and kingdom and perseverance,” indicating that being partaker of a kingdom and of tribulation is not a contradiction. Victory in history will come through tribulation; but it will come, gradually. Our tribulations are our price to pay for our victory; we are not suffering and toiling in vain for something we will never achieve, waiting for the final day. Our tribulations are part of the fight for achieving in history, through the work of the Spirit, what Christ commanded in the Great Commission: to disciple the nations and teach them to obey.
An even more interesting aspect of the escapist’s argument is that the escapist criticizes the cultural “activism” of the postmillennialist, and expects his own passivity to result in “tribulations.” The postmillennialist’s active challenge against the world system, against the culture, and against the principalities and powers, believes the escapist, won’t result in more attacks from the enemies of God, and therefore in more tribulations and persecutions. The escapist believes his own activity limited to the personal righteousness of the believers would bring heavier persecutions on him than the comprehensive challenge of the postmillennialist.
But how can that be true? Let’s take two persons who approach our house. One looks harmless, he isn’t armed, minds his own business, and apparently only passes by, not even looking at your house. The other one is armed to the teeth, heads directly to the house, kicks the garden gate, and by everything he does he shows that his goal is to attack your house and break in. As the owner of the house, who of the two would you try to shoot and stop? Being attacked by a determined enemy, would you spend time and bullets shooting at a person whose intentions are obviously not aggressive? Wouldn’t you consider the attacker much more worthy of your attention?
In the same way, why would the world system feel threatened by those Christians who openly say they have no intentions to challenge it, threaten it, or overcome it? The escapist is just a harmless passer-by as far as the world system is concerned. Why would an anti-Christian ruler want to persecute those who pose no challenge to his authority? After all, even the Roman Senate was considering adding Jesus Christ to their Pantheon, as long as Christians acknowledged the divinity of the Emperor. And even today, anti-Christian politicians in the US and abroad gladly use Christians and churches who do not challenge the unbelievers’ cultural, social, and political agenda. And why not? Any Christian or church who doesn’t challenge the world system or believes that it shouldn’t be challenged is in fact acknowledging the legitimacy of that world system. Their position won’t result in persecutions; they will rather be employed to serve the pagan state.
The true persecutions come when Christians and churches do challenge the world system, and do declare that “there is another king, one Jesus.” Postmillennialists then would be viewed by the pagan political establishment as an armed man who breaks into their house; he is worth the effort and the bullets to be stopped, neutralized, or even killed. If a person preaches that a complete change is needed, and they truly believe it is coming, and they work for it, those with vested interests in keeping the status quo will also have interest in fighting back. And it is exactly that fighting back of the world system that produces the tribulations. Christians are and have always been persecuted because of the threat they were to the cultural, religious, and political establishment. A Christian who is simply keeping his faith personal and individual, limited to his own soul or family, doesn’t have to fear persecutions.
Very often escapist theologians point to the heroes of the faith in Hebrews 11:35-38 and claim that their experience is what we should expect today. Just like the Old Testament believers, our faith will be tested in sufferings, trials, persecutions, and may be even death in the hands of our enemies. What is very often overlooked by those same escapist theologians is that the Old Testament believers were not escapists; they did apply their faith to their culture and society, and they did challenge the world system comprehensively, as is witnessed by the verses immediately preceding that:
. . . who by faith conquered kingdoms, dispensed justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, from weakness were made strong, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight (vv.33-34).
No wonder they were persecuted. They were dangerous; the persecutions were the world system’s way of fighting back. If these men were out there to conquer kingdoms and dispense justice, we should expect those kingdoms and their legal systems of injustice and wickedness to defend themselves. No one defends themselves from those who do not attack them.
We know that at least two avowed postmillennialists were among the leading voices in the First Ecumenical Council of the church in Nicaea in AD 325: Eusebius of Caesarea and Athanasius of Alexandria (at the time only a personal secretary of the Bishop of Alexandria). Given the fact that the Council was an unashamedly public display of the cultural and political victory of Christianity to the Roman Empire, we can safely assume that all the other bishops present had an optimistic view of the victory of the Gospel in history – or they wouldn’t be present in the first place. And yet, we know from history that all these bishops have been through some of the worst persecutions – many of them were missing limbs or eyes, disfigured from being burned or scalded or branded with hot iron. There was a reason why the pagan Roman Empire would persecute them: they believed in victory, in history, on earth. They were dangerous. At the end, they won, and the Empire submitted.
One of the most telling examples of the history of the Reformation is John Foxe, the author of the Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. A very irenic and shy person, one who even criticized his close friend John Knox for his “rude vehemency” against Mary, Queen of Scots, Foxe believed more than anyone in his time that martyrdom is what sanctified the church and the Christian’s life. And yet, he believed in victory for the Gospel in history, and he even defended the rights of the French Huguenots to defend themselves by the force of arms. Foxe understood that martyrdom comes to those who actively challenge the system of the world, not to those who keep their faith personal and individual. The Puritans in the generations after Foxe kept the same view: being postmillenial, they believed in victory, they fought for it, and they knew they were going to be persecuted for it. And the Puritans were persecuted exactly because they were a threat to the cultural and political establishment, not because they withdrew from challenging the culture.
Therefore, the argument in the letter quoted above is fallacious. There is no contradiction between victory in history and tribulations in history. Quite the opposite, victory only comes through tribulations. Those that do not believe in victory in history, do not believe in tribulations either, because they are a not a threat to the world system. Only postmillennialists have the true Biblical theology of suffering and tribulations because only postmillennialists have theology and practice that present a true challenge to the world. Escapists – that is, amillennialists and premillennialists – only talk about tribulations but in reality they agree with the unbelievers that the culture, the society, and the political power must remain anti-Christian. The contradiction “victory vs. tribulations” is a logical fallacy.