This was Alexander Campbell’s view and the prevailing view in the early 19th Century among most Protestants. He (and many others) saw the founding of the American republic as a major step toward the Millennium. He did not teach a Rapture, but he did believe in a 1000-year reign on earth as the culmination of the Kingdom. And he saw the uniting of the Christian sects as a necessary step toward that end — and the reason for the Restoration Movement.
The Second Great Awakening was driven by hopes of a Millennium soon to come. But the Civil War and the world wars of the 20th Century ended the optimism for most, leading to reconsideration of what had seemed certain by many.
Post-millennialists are largely optimistic, believing God’s people will eventually so evangelize the world that Jesus can return and reign for 1,000 years — to be followed by the general resurrection.
Historicist premillennials believe essentially the same thing, except they believe God himself will bring about the Millennium because humans won’t be able to do this.
Where we find ourselves
American churches are now highly divided on these questions. Premillennialism is preached far more than Post-millennialism, largely, I think, because it requires a less optimistic expectation of the church’s ability to prevail over human brokenness. There’s something about continuous warfare that make flying away to heaven very attractive.
Preterism rarely makes the papers and has not gained wide acceptance. After all, it leads to no hope for this planet. The only hope is in escape — rather like Premillennialism.
And so, it’s hard to imagine the church so prevailing that the world is ready for Jesus to come to earth and reign for 1,000 years, but the alternatives seems pretty bleak. Is the solution to fly away and leave this old world behind?
Contemporary scholarship both in and outside the Churches of Christ has headed in a new, decidedly non-traditional direction. The most influential works are N. T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope and Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense, which have impacted many within the Churches of Christ.
These have led to several similar books, such as The Heaven Promise: Engaging the Bible’s Truth About Life to Come by Scot McKnight and Bringing Heaven to Earth: You Don’t Have to Wait for Eternity to Live the Good News by Josh Ross and Jonathan Storment (both are preachers for Churches of Christ).
The idea behind these books is that the story of the Bible can be understood in terms of the separation of heaven and earth, which began with the Fall of Man in Gen 3. At the end of this age, heaven and earth will be rejoined, as promised in Rev 21 and 22. We don’t fly away to escape this earth. Rather, God redeems the earth by purging all wickedness and then bringing heaven to earth to reign with his children for eternity. We will be transformed to have resurrection bodies like Jesus’ resurrection body (not that we really understand this).
As result, we should not think of this earth as something to be fled, but something made by God to be good and cared for by his people. This leads to a clear need to evangelize the world, a theology of Creation Care (not the same as non-Christian environmentalism, which is often pantheistic), and the need to do good in the name of Jesus (well articulated in Scot McKnight’s Kingdom Conspiracy: Returning to the Radical Mission of the Local Church).
There are close approximations that don’t quite get the point the best of our scholars are trying to make. For example, working for social justice is indeed a good thing that God wishes to see from his people — provided “justice” is defined in biblical terms and the work is done in the name of Jesus. This likely doesn’t match the platform of your favorite political party.
Caring for the environment is good, right, and holy — provided we don’t forget that the creation was made to support humans and the work is done — once again — in the name of Jesus. We can’t treat humans as a pestilence on the creation.
And evangelism is, of course, critically important — but we need to convert people to Jesus, not to our denomination and not to a gospel that demands nothing but church attendance and evangelism. God will redeem it all, and so it all matters. We are saved to reign over God’s creation with God and Jesus — and so we need to start acting like people who have a very serious responsibility for this world.
This brings us to the vitally important To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World by James Davison Hunter. Hunter demonstrates the futility of doing good in hopes of changing the world’s culture. Rather, we do good to be faithful, to honor Jesus, and because we love those we serve. If the culture changes because of it, great, but that’s not the goal or the expectation. The goal is that people we love be helped.
I think the Revelation teaches neither optimism nor pessimism regarding how God will ultimately be victorious. Rather, God’s victory is certain. Our job is to be faithful .
Our faithfulness might lead to persecution or it might lead to the conversions of billions or both or neither. We plant and water; God gives the increase. Our job is to worry with the planting and watering. Where planting and watering takes the world is God’s problem and God’s business.
Therefore, we don’t try to take over the power structures of the nation to change the culture. We don’t involve ourselves in defending the state of Israel for theological reasons. Rather, we worship, we take communion, we baptize, we live Christian lives, we evangelize the lost, we seek to honor the unity of the church that God has already given us, we help the widow, the fatherless, and the sojourner, we care for the Creation, and we live the Kingdom parables, the Sermon on the Mount, and Romans 12-15. But not in hopes that the world will be changed, but in hopes that God’s will will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
But there are no shortcuts. The world won’t be redeemed by electing the right president or giving the right political party control of the government. Done that. Been there. Didn’t work. You cannot achieve the Kingdom legislatively. We serve in God’s mission, but we aren’t ultimately responsible for redeeming the world — just the people around us.
Does this make sense?
I would add that no one is helped adequately if he’s not been taught about Jesus. Evangelism leads to behaviors that improve lives and even societies. As much as I detest the prosperity gospel, the fact is that conversion to Christianity often causes people to do the things that lead to prosperity — work hard, defer gratification, raise children well, build strong marriages, keep their word, be honest, etc.
But true Christianity also can lead to poverty and suffering — sometimes due to persecution and sometimes because a Christian feels led to serve in a way that produces poverty and suffering. Learn the history of the church. Martyrdom was often the path to evangelism and even changing society and culture.
Thus, as the Revelation teaches, it’s in God’s hands. We cannot defeat the beasts, the dragon, and the other monsters. That’s God’s job. Our job is to be faithful — and that’s hard enough. But we will be well rewarded — with crowns. We’ll rule the universe with God Almighty.