Al Mohler has written “Evolving Standards of Decency? How Progressivism Reshapes Society.” My question: “Where were Christians when the Supreme Court codified “evolving standards of decency”? Mohler writes that we share with progressives a belief “in a linear view of history…. We also believe that history doesn’t go forward and backward in time. But we do not believe as Christians that the world is always getting better and better. That’s actually a deformation of Christian doctrine. The reality is that the biblical worldview is so honest about the power of sin that we come to understand that societies do move forward in some terms economically, politically, certainly technologically, but they don’t move forward uniformly certainly when it comes to morality.”
Mohler admits that there has been some “moral progress,” but in the end, “The kingdom of God is coming in its consummation only by the return of the Lord Jesus Christ.” He then takes a stab at postmillennialism:
Many mainline, more liberal Protestants in Europe and in the United States, but particularly in Europe were tempted by a postmillennialism. That is a theological form of progressivism, but eschatology comes with consequences, and the consequences of reality meant that World War I and all of its carnage brought catastrophe to that kind of mainline Protestant postmillennialism by the early 20th century.
What Mohler does not deal with is biblical postmillennialism. It is biblical postmillennialism that led to the greatness of what is, in remnant form, the United States of America. Mohler mistakenly associates postmillennialism with Darwinism and theological liberalism. If he had read Greg L. Bahnsen’s “The Prima Facie Acceptability of Postmillennialism, he would not have made this mistake.
Prior to the rise of dispensationalism, there was a realistic optimism even when persecution was all around them. They followed Paul’s comforting words: “But they will not make further progress; for their folly will be obvious to all… Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:9, 12). Paul wrote this to Timothy nearly 2000 years ago. Christians didn’t give in to the evils of the day and claim that they would be rescued by something called a “rapture.”
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It’s important to keep in mind that during a period of persecution, the Reformers did not outline a prophetic system that predicted the near end of the world. Martin Luther was something of an exception. For example, he “did not believe that the kingdom would triumph on earth and in history. In fact, he expected the world to end soon…. In contrast to Luther, John Calvin believed that the kingdom would ‘have a yet greater triumph in history prior to the consummation [the Second Coming],’” ((Gary DeMar and Peter J. Leithart, The Reduction of Christianity: A Biblical Response to Dave Hunt’s Theology (Powder Springs, GA: American Vision, 1988), 236, 237.)) so much so that “the kingdom of God . . . [will] be extended to the utmost boundaries of the earth . . . so as to occupy the whole world from one end to the other.” ((Quoted in Greg L. Bahnsen “The Prima Facie Acceptability of Postmillennialism,” in The Journal of Christian Reconstruction on “The Millennium,” 3:2 (Winter 1976-77).))
It was Calvin’s shared optimistic eschatology that found its way into the notes of the Geneva Bible. To cite just one of scores of examples, the note on Zechariah 9:11 in the Geneva Bible reads, “God showeth that he will deliver his Church out of all dangers, seem they ever so great.” But if the church doesn’t believe this, then the church acquiesces to the advance of evil as normative this side of the Second Coming.
There is no reference to an escape hatch for the Church but only the promised claim that God will sustain and maintain His Church even when persecuted, and that includes Christians being burned at the stake for attempting to do something as logical as translating the Bible into English.
Biblical postmillennialists believe in the progress of the gospel and its effect on culture over the course of history when Christians apply the Bible to every area of life. If they don’t do this, it’s a cop-out to appeal to “only by the return of the Lord Jesus Christ” can make things morally right.
With two world wars, the rise of atheistic communism, and a general evangelical disinterest in culture, it’s not surprising that postmillennialism was dismissed. The following is from Bahnsen’s “The Prima Facie Acceptability of Postmillennialism," still one of the best assessments of postmillennialism:
Alva J. McClain says of postmillennialism: “This optimistic theory of human progress had much of its own way for the half-century ending in World War I of 1914. After that the foundations were badly shaken; prop after prop went down, until today the whole theory is under attack from every side. Devout Postmillennialism has virtually disappeared.” ((Premillennialism as a Philosophy of History,” in W. Culbertson and H. B. Centz, eds., Understanding the Times (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1956), 22.)) J. Barton Payne’s massive Encyclopedia of Biblical Prophecy mentions postmillennialism only once, and that merely in a footnote which parenthetically declares “two world wars killed this optimism.” ((Encyclopedia of Biblical Prophecy (New York: Harper and Row, 1973), 596.)) Merrill F. Unger dismisses postmillennialism in short order, declaring: “This theory, largely disproved by the progress of history, is practically a dead issue.” ((Millennium,” Unger’s Bible Dictionary (Chicago: Moody Press, revised 1961), 739.))
John F. Walvoord tells us that “In eschatology the trend away from postmillennialism became almost a rout with the advent of World War II” ((John F. Walvoord, The Millennial Kingdom (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1959), 9.)) because it forced upon Christians “a realistic appraisal of the decline of the church in power and influence.” ((Walvoord, The Millennial Kingdom, 18.)) Hence he says that “In the twentieth century the course of history, progress in Biblical studies, and the changing attitude of philosophy arrested its progress and brought about its apparent discard by all schools of theology. Postmillennialism is not a current issue in millenarianism.” ((Walvoord, The Millennial Kingdom, 35, 36.)) He accuses it of failing to fit the facts of current history, of being unrealistic, and of being outmoded and out of step.
Jay Adams recognizes postmillennialism as a “dead issue” with conservative scholars, since it predicts a golden age while the world awaits momentary destruction; he agrees with the above authors that the “advent of two World Wars . . . virtually rang the death knell upon conservative postmillennialism.” ((Jay E. Adams, The Time is at Hand (Nutley, N. J.: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1970), 2.)) Adams apparently offers his own opinion that Boettner’s long-range postmillennialism “is too difficult to grant when Christians must face the fact of hydrogen bombs in the hands of depraved humanity.” ((Adams, The Time is at Hand, 4.))
Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth captures well the attitude of these previous writers, stating that “there used to be” a group called “postmillennialists” ((Hal Lindsey (with C. C. Carlson), The Late Great Planet Earth (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1970), 176.)) who were greatly disheartened by World War I and virtually wiped out by World War II. Lindsey’s (poorly researched) conclusion is this: “No self-respecting scholar who looks at the world conditions and the accelerating decline of Christian influence today is a ‘postmillennialist.’” ((Hal Lindsey, The Late Great Planet Earth (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1970), 176.))
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There still exists in some parts of fundamentalism a dualistic worldview where one must give up reformation for individual transformation and a swift exodus out of this world. There is no biblical reason to give up anything. The Christian’s ministry is first individual transformation (preaching the gospel and a changed heart) and only then reformation (self-, family, church, economic, political, and world discipleship). It’s conversion then discipleship; justification then sanctification. You can’t have the second without the first, and the second is the natural outgrowth of the first.
The late Dave Hunt, who was representative of many Christians who holds a similar escapist future, wrote the following in his article “Looking for the Blessed Hope”: “Our hope is not in taking over the world, but in being taken to heaven by our Lord, to be married to Him in glory and then to return with Him as part of the armies of heaven to rescue Israel [what’s left of Israel after two-thirds of Jews living in Israel during the Great Tribulation are slaughtered: Zech. 13:8-9], destroy His enemies and participate in the Millennial reign.” ((Omega Letter (February 1989), 14.))
Rousas J. Rushdoony has written that humanists believe in history but not in God, and Christians believe in God but not in history. David Horowitz, author of Dark Agenda: The War to Destroy Christian America, writes something similar
When I eventually rejected [the illusion … that Communism was the vision of the future in which the long history of social injustice would finally come to an end], I realized that their atheistic creed was itself a form of religious faith. Their God was History, which they viewed as an inexorable march to a promised land (29).
The “other side,” as James Dobson describes the political left, “finds a way to get its people involved, to raise money. Our side is thinking about something else.” What is that something else? The ascendancy of evil is inevitable, and when it advances God will remove His church from the earth in something called the “rapture.” This theological fiction has been warping the minds of Christians for nearly two centuries. Is it any wonder that our world is screwed up?
Many Christians err by asserting that this life and the world in which we live count for very little. But this world does count. “The earth is the LORD’s and all that it contains” (Ps. 24:1). As “fellow‑heirs with Christ” (Rom. 8:17), we possess this world – God’s world – as stewardship. God’s gift of a good creation (Gen. 1:31; 1 Tim. 4:1-5) requires a righteous stewardship. The world and this time are not to be despised. This world and this time are the domains of God’s redemptive work.
Most Christians once believed these truths and acted on them. Compare what the Reformers and their heirs believed with the following:
- John Nelson Darby, the founder of dispensational premillennialism and the pre-tribulational “rapture” of the church doctrine, the basis of the Left Behind series, taught that “the imminent return of Christ ‘totally forbids all working for earthly objects distant in time.’” ((Francis William Newman, Phases of Faith; or, Passages From the History of My Creed (London: George Woodfall and Son, 1850), 35.)) This would have included the study of mathematics, medicine, art, music, and the sciences unless there were “immediate spiritual results.” ((Newman, Phases of Faith, 37.))
- “What a way to live! With optimism, with anticipation, with excitement. We should be living like persons who don’t expect to be around much longer.” ((Lindsey, The Late Great Planet Earth, 145.))
- “I don’t like clichés but I’ve heard it said, ‘God didn’t send me to clean the fish bowl, he sent me to fish.’ In a way there’s a truth to that.” ((An Interview with Hal Lindsey, “The Great Cosmic Countdown: Hal Lindsey on the Future,” Eternity (January 1977), 21.))
- “The church is not in the business of taking anything away from Satan but the souls of men. The world is a sinking Titanic ripe for judgment, not Garden of Eden perfection.”
- “This world is not going to get any easier to live in. Almost unbelievably hard times lie ahead. Indeed, Jesus said that these coming days will be uniquely terrible. Nothing in all the previous history of the world can compare with what lies in store for mankind.” ((Charles C. Ryrie, The Living End (Old Tappan, NJ: Revell, 1976), 21.))
- “‘Reclaiming’ the culture is a pointless, futile exercise. I am convinced we are living in a post-Christian society — a civilization that exists under God’s judgment.” ((John F. MacArthur, The Vanishing Conscience: Drawing the Line in a No-Fault, Guilt-Free World (Dallas: Word, 1994), 12.))
- “The [dispensational] premillennial position sees no obligation to make distinctly Christian laws.” ((Norman L. Geisler, “A Premillennial View of Law and Government,” Moody Monthly (October 1985), 129.))
- “The pessimism of pre-millennialism is inherent in, belongs to, and is logically connected to, the whole system. The world, the church, and the people must become worse. Disturbances in the world, wars, and all kinds of disasters must follow one another. A gradual worsening, a decline in every sphere must be observed. If not, then premillennialism as a system fails. Pre-millennialists despair of the moral and spiritual powers and of efforts to bring about any change for the better.” ((W.H. Rutgers, Premillennialism in America (Goes, Oosterbaan en Le Cointre, 1930), 158.))
Bahnsen sums up the effect of such thinking: “Hope was cut out of the heart of Christendom. As one might expect, such pessimistic predictions as to the value and effect of the church on earth tended to become self-fulfilling prophecies.”
Can you imagine what would have happened to the early church if this type of thinking had been promoted after the murders of Stephen at the hand of Saul/Paul (Acts 7:54-60), James the brother of John at the hand of Herod (Acts 12:1-3), the martyred saints in Revelation (Rev. 6:9-11; see 1:9; 2:10; 7:13-14)? Saul was converted on the Damascus Road and Herod was “struck by an angel,” “eaten by worms and breathed his last breath” (12:20-24), Nero committed suicide in AD 68, and the remnants of the Greek and Roman Empires are tourist attractions today.
The Pilgrims and Puritans were mostly postmillennial. Postmillennialists did not look at cultural conditions as signs of the end of the world. The Pilgrims ventured to a new land to build a “city on a hill,” not to hunker down to wait until Jesus returned.
What are most Christians doing? They’re sending their children to schools that reject the faith they claim to believe and are shocked when they come out believing what they’ve been taught.