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The Covenantal Kingdom

by Rev. Ralph Allan Smith

Chapter Three


Pessimillennialism: Jesus Loses in History

Premillennialism and amillennialism essentially agree on the historical conflict of the present age. Neither amillennialists nor premillennialists care to admit this, but it can be demonstrated without much difficulty. When we consider how each position answers the two questions of the historical conflict, it is clear that both are fundamentally pessimistic about the present age. In fact, both believe in Satan's victory in the New Covenant era -- between the cross and the second coming of Christ.

Amillennial Pessimism

Consider the amillennial scenario. Jesus' disciples go into all the world and preach the Gospel, as He commanded. Here and there people are converted to Christ. Sometimes whole nations are converted. In the long run, however, the number of Christians begins to decrease. When the pagan world gradually comes to understand the full implications of the Gospel, "the crack of doom" comes and Christians are persecuted fiercely. The Church is overwhelmed by the wrath of Satanic humanity until Jesus returns to save the saints and judge the world. Cornelius Van Til describes how the non-Christian progresses in history according to the amillennial view:

But when all the reprobate are epistemologically self-conscious, the crack of doom has come. The fully self-conscious reprobate will do all he can in every dimension to destroy the people of God. So while we seek with all our power to hasten the process of differentiation in every dimension we are yet thankful, on the other hand, for the "day of grace," the day of undeveloped differentiation. Such tolerance as we receive on the part of the world is due to this fact that we live in the earlier, rather than the later, stage of history. And such influence on the public situation as we can effect, whether in society or in state, presupposes this undifferentiated stage of development.[7]

Amillennialist Meredith Kline describes the present era in these words: "And meanwhile it [the common grace order] must run its course within the uncertainties of the mutually conditioning principles of common grace and common curse, prosperity and adversity being experienced in a manner largely unpredictable because of the inscrutable sovereignty of the divine will that dispenses them in mysterious ways."[8] Kline is assuring us that there is no certain success for anyone in the present age. The blessings and the curses of this life are distributed in a random manner in the New Covenant era so that we cannot predict the course of history except in the broadest terms.

Kline is not being candid, however. Given the amillennialist view of history, it is certain that the Church is going to lose in the end. This means that God's rule in the present age must be exercised in favor of unbelievers for their victory to be certain.[9] Comparing the covenantal systems of the old Adam (era from Adam till Christ) and the New Adam (era from the resurrection to the end of the world) in amillennial theology, we discover that the principle of blessing and cursing is reversed. In the old era covenant-breakers were cursed and covenant-keepers were blessed. The new era may be ambiguous, but the tendency is just the opposite. In the final analysis, Kline's view means that covenant-breakers in this age may rebel against God, confident of their ultimate victory.

The nature of the historical conflict is clear in the amillennial view. Non-Christians dominate the present age according to the principles of oppression that Jesus referred to in Mark 10:42: "Ye know that they which are accounted to rule over the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and their great ones are tyrants over them." Power, the religion of ancient Rome, is the religion that will determine human authority in the present age. The amillennial faith says, furthermore, that the only way Satanic power-religion can be effectively removed is by greater power: the second coming of Christ at the end of history.

Until Jesus returns, therefore, history is the devil's playground.[10] Of course, many people will be saved. Amillennialists may even admit that the advance of science and medicine, along with many other cultural blessings, is the result of God's grace.[11] History will serve the general purpose of glorifying God, but history itself appears to have no special goal other than providing a sphere for the operation of special grace. Once the elect have been saved, history can be trashed and God can start all over.

The meaning is clear. When Satan tempted man in the Garden, he ruined God's original purpose for man: be fruitful, fill the earth, and rule it as God's servant so that God could be glorified by the maturation of His creation (Gn. 1:26). If Satan's temptation of Adam and Eve destroyed this plan, so that man will never fulfill the dominion mandate given in Genesis 1:26-31, then Satan is the victor in history. The church is told to fight against Satan and wicked men, but she is guaranteed that she can never win the battle. Her historical theme song is "We shall not overcome!"

Thus, premillennialist A. J. McClain compares the amillennial view of history to a staircase leading nowhere, or a loaded gun, which, when fired, can only discharge a blank cartridge.[12] McClain rightly emphasizes that in the amillennial view our only hope is beyond history. History itself is like a cramped narrow corridor leading nowhere within the historical process and is "only fit to be abandoned at last for an ideal existence on another plane."[13] For all practical purposes, then, history belongs to the devil. This, in no uncertain terms, is radically pessimistic.

Optimistic Amillennialism?

Are there some amillennialists who are more optimistic about history? Perhaps. Anthony Hoekema may be an example.[14] It cannot be denied that he makes a valiant attempt to rescue amillennialism from dispensationalist Alva McClain's charge of historical irrelevance. Hoekema asserts that the Christian understanding of history is "basically optimistic," and he argues that the cultural achievements of the present age are in some sense continuous with the eternal kingdom of God.[15] He is exactly on target when he contrasts the Biblical view of history to the Greek cyclical view: "For the writers of the Bible, history is not a meaningless series of recurring cycles but a vehicle whereby God realizes his purposes with man and the cosmos. The idea that history is moving toward divinely established goals, and that the future is to be seen as the fulfillment of promises made in the past, is the unique contribution of the prophets of Israel."[16]

Hoekema also asserts that nations as well as individuals are blessed or cursed in terms of God's laws, though he doesn't use specifically covenantal language.[17] He sounds like a postmillennialist when he says that "Christ has indeed brought in the new age, the age of the kingdom of God. The world is therefore not the same since Christ came; an electrifying change has taken place. Unless one recognizes and acknowledges this change, he has not really understood the meaning of history."[18] He sounds even more like a postmillennialist when he affirms that redemption is cosmic.[19]

Perhaps Hoekema's popularity as the representative amillennialist stems from the fact that he has flavored his amillennial salad with postmillennial dressing. He returns to a more amillennial tone, however, when he speaks of the "ambiguity" of history, and the parallel growth of good and evil. Concerning the latter, Hoekema says, "History does not reveal a simple triumph of good over evil, nor a total victory of evil over good."[20] To the question, "Can we say that history reveals any genuine progress?" he can only answer, "Again we are faced with the problem of the ambiguity of history."[21] Though he affirms progress and victory, these can only be perceived by faith. The change brought about by the new age is "electrifying," but history is well insulated. Nothing is openly revealed until after history is over at the judgment.

Not only does Hoekema undermine his optimistic assertions by his principle of ambiguity, he also believes that Christ may return at almost any time.[22] The final Antichrist could appear "in a very short time"[23] and fulfill the prophecies concerning the last days before Christ's coming. According to Hoekema, we should be ready for the coming of Christ at all times, though we can never know whether it will be soon or far off.

This view has great implications for the fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant in Christ. Suppose, for instance, that Christ were to return next week. Will the Abrahamic and Davidic covenant promises of universal dominion have been fulfilled in history?[24] Will the world have been converted to Christ so that "all nations will be blessed" in Him? Will the created world have been developed to its full potential and offered to God in praise and thanks? Where is cosmic redemption? And what about all the promises of the past that await future fulfillment? Questions such as these point out the weaknesses in the most optimistic amillennial view of history.

Any view of eschatology that asserts that the Lordship of Jesus in history may never be manifest except over a relatively small portion of the earth is less than truly optimistic. Such a view makes meaningless the prayer, "Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven." Yet this is exactly the position of Hoekema. His view of history tolerates the damnation of the vast majority of the human race, in spite of the Abrahamic promise that "all families shall be blessed in you." It is not enough to say that there is continuity between our present cultural work and the final kingdom. The Creation Mandate demands a full development of God's world. It is something far less than the reversal of Satan's rebellion if history should end with large portions of the creation underdeveloped, not manifesting the praise of God.

To put it bluntly, Hoekema's view tolerates the possibility of 1) a severely limited dominion for Christ, 2) very few men being saved, and 3) a truncated conclusion to the development of world culture. This is certainly not optimism. It may not be simple defeatism either, because Hoekema allows the possibility that the kingdom will see far greater historical realization than history has yet witnessed. But merely allowing the possibility does not do justice to the Biblical promise, nor does it give God's people the encouragement they need to pray with confidence and fight for the kingdom. It is, at best, a timid view that will seldom give birth to bold warriors.

Though Hoekema deals more seriously with history than Kline, all he finally provides, to borrow McClain's analogy, is a longer staircase which appears to be going somewhere. We can not see the end because of the heavy fog of historical ambiguity, but as we climb toward the top we can comfort ourselves with the thought that the staircase may end any moment.

Premillennial Pessimism

The problem with McClain's analysis is that, to the degree that the considerations he introduces are vital to a philosophy of history, they refute his own premillennialism as well as amillennialism. For premillennialism also abandons history and finds hope only in a post-historical salvation.[25] This may seem to be unfair to the premillennialist, since he does view the millennial kingdom as part of history. However, his view of both the inauguration and the character of the kingdom makes it clear that he is not talking about what is normally called history or "historical process."[26]

With regard to the present era, there is no significant difference between the premillennial and amillennial schemes. The scenario traced above fits the premillennialist equally well. Again, this means that in the present era covenant breakers are blessed. Evil men rule by raw power while a small number of elect are saved from sin. Then Christ conquers the nations by a sword that appears to be wielded in His hand, not the sword of the Word proceeding from His mouth (Rev. 19). The return of Christ is like the coming of a cosmic Rambo, with naked force the final solution to the world's problems.

According to premillennialism, however, the return of Christ is followed by a thousand-year earthly kingdom. What is the nature of this kingdom? The same raw power that subdued the final, historical rebellion of mankind continues to threaten men for a thousand years, like the sword of Damocles hanging over them to keep them in line.[27] Although the kingdom is said to be spiritual and based upon the conversion of the nations,[28] premillennialists also describe the kingdom as an age of totalitarian power miraculously wielded by Christ to restrain the wicked. The daily process of government is carried on by a holy bureaucracy.[29]

In sum, in this present age of grace, premillennialists say, we work and labor only to lose it all to the Antichrist and his legions during the tribulation. Satan is victorious in the present era, but our hope is that in another age of miraculous raw force we will reign with Christ.[30] Amillennialism ends everything in the here-and-now -- the "blank cartridge" view of history. The premillennial gun, however, fires live rounds: the "magnum force" kingdom. Whereas the Gospel failed in this age, violence and power succeed in bringing in the kingdom. It is a holy violence to be sure, but still something very different from conversion by faith and Spirit-led obedience.[31]


7. Common Grace and the Gospel (Nutley, New Jersey: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1974), p. 85, quoted in North, Dominion and Common Grace, pp. 85-86.

8. "Comments on an Old-New Error," Westminster Theological Journal, XLI (Fall 1978), p. 184, quoted in Gary North, Millennialism and Social Theory (Tyler, Texas: Institute for Christian Economics, 1990), p. 43.

9. See the extended discussion of this problem in Gary North, Millennialism and Social Theory, pp. 155-209.

10. Cf. North, Dominion and Common Grace, pp. 85-86, 125-26.

11. Meredith Kline apparently denies that there is a relationship between faithfulness to God's word and historical blessing, but his view is probably not typical. For Kline's view see Dominion and Common Grace, p. 138. For a more optimistic amillennial view, See: Anthony A Hoekema, The Bible and The Future (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), pp.73-5. Even in the case of Hoekema, however, the motive to labor for the glory of God in the broader cultural sphere is weak at best.

12. The Greatness of the Kingdom (Chicago: Moody Press, [1959] 1968), p. 531.

13. Ibid. p. 529.

14. There are some who apparently call themselves "optimistic amillennialists" who view the course of history rather like postmillennialists; cf. Chilton, Days of Vengeance, p. 498. But the "optimistic amillennial" position has not been defined in a systematic treatment or defended by Biblical exegesis. There are no volumes of "optimistic amillennial" eschatology to refer to. In the end, such an approach must reduce either to amillennialism or postmillennialism. See Gary North, Millennialism and Social Theory.

15. His entire chapter "The Meaning of History" presents the amillennial philosophy of history, The Bible and the Future, pp. 23-40.

16. Ibid., p. 25.

17. Ibid., pp. 26-28.

18. Ibid., p. 31.

19. Ibid., pp. 31-33.

20. Ibid., p. 35. He goes on to say that Christ has won the victory and that Satan is fighting a losing battle, but for Hoekema the victory comes after history not within it.

21. Ibid., p. 35.

22. "Instead of saying that the Perousia is imminent, therefore, let us say that it is impending. It is certain to come, but we do not know exactly when it will come. We must therefore live in constant expectation of and readiness for the Lord's return." Ibid., p. 136.

23. Ibid., p. 162.

24. See my next chapter, "Chapter Four: God's Covenantal Kingdom."

25. Greg Bahnsen, "The Prima Facie Acceptability of Postmillennialism" in Journal of Christian Reconstruction, Winter 1976-77, vol. 3, no. 2, pp. 67-68.

26. This is not to mention the fact that premillennialists like Dave Hunt take a rather pessimistic view of the millennium itself. He is quoted as saying that "The millennial reign of Christ upon earth, rather than being the kingdom of God, will in fact be the final proof of the incorrigible nature of the human heart." Also, "In fact, dominion--taking dominion and setting up the kingdom of Christ--is an impossibility, even for God." See Gary DeMar and Peter Leithart, The Reduction of Christianity: Dave Hunt's Theology of Cultural Surrender (Ft. Worth: Dominion Press, 1988), p. 157.

27. "These great moral principles of the mediatorial government will be enforced by sanctions of supernatural power. . . . For in the coming Kingdom the judgments of God will be immediate and tangible to all men (Zech. 14:17-19; Isa. 66:24)." (emphasis in the original). McClain, The Greatness of the Kingdom, pp. 208-09.

28. McClain, The Greatness of the Kingdom, pp. 218-21.

29. McClain, for example, asserts: "Instead of regarding government as a necessary evil--the less of it, the better--the beneficent rule of this Kingdom will extend to every department of human life and affect in some way every detail." McClain also suggests that saints in resurrected bodies will rule on earth with Christ. This should provide enough bureaucrats for a beneficent totalitarianism to rule by "the more of it, the merrier" principle. The Greatness of the Kingdom, pp. 213-14, 210. Cf. also John F. Walvoord, The Millennial Kingdom (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1959), pp. 301-2; Herman A. Hoyt, The End Times (Chicago: Moody Press, 1969), pp. 180-81.

30. Note: This is not intended to disparage miracles or the miraculous, but rather the use of miracles as a mere raw power option for the defeat of Christ's enemies. The power of the Gospel is also miracle-working, but it is not brute force. In the postmillennial scheme, Christ's triumph over Satan is accomplished by His work on the cross and by the omnipotent word of the Gospel, which will not return unto God void but will attain its purpose.

31. Of course, most premillennialists believe in the conversion of the world during the millennium. But why does the conversion of the world wait for the second coming of Christ? What is the meaning of the Holy Spirit and the Gospel in this age? Why does Satan have to be violently overthrown first, before the Gospel can succeed?

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