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Thursday 12 October 2023

A Pre-Millennial Case for Investing in the Future of Your Nation


How does a Christian’s eschatology impact how they invest in the future of their family, church, and nation?

This has become a prominent question in recent times in part because of the rise of postmillennialism in the English-speaking nations, particularly in Reformed circles. But also because of a reaction against ridiculous end times ideas and cooky end time predictions that have made a lot of Christian ideas about the end of the world targets of easy mockery[1]. It is common especially for those with postmillennial views to argue that premillennial theology gets in the way of building a sustainable and long-lasting Christian civilisation and therefore we need to get back to the postmillennial views of the medieval past to reclaim our once great glory in the Christian West. I have heard this discussed in many contexts from prominent theologians all the way through to friends of mine in conversations and in online discussions. What I would like to do in this piece is show that premillennialism, particularly historic premillennialism, is not at all inconsistent with building into the future of your nation and working for the good of society in general and for a Christian society in particular. 

Before we do this, it does need to be acknowledged that there is a strong streak of a bunker or escapist mentality amongst those who believe in a 7-year tribulation and a following return of Christ for the millennial reign, and particularly if they hold to a pre-tribulation secret rapture. There is a kind of Christian who always thinks that the end is immanent, who is especially certain that the rapture will happen somewhere in September of every year,[2] and every time there is some kind of conflagration in Israel, Iran or Russia, they are certain that these are the final days.

There is a kind of Christian who thinks that there is not really any point to investing in the future because this world is going to end soon, and they would see the building of a multigenerational cathedral as a waste of money because all this is about to end any way. There is a kind of Christian who is obsessed with predicting the time of the rapture, with watching the signs around national Israel and Palestine and who really does believe that this world is only going to get continually worse, “so let’s just close ourselves off from society.” This is a very pessimistic and defeatist theology[3] and it should be rejected. It is also completely understandable why so many Christians filled with the hope of the gospel are rejecting it today.[4] Many Christians are hopeful for good things for our nations and they look forward to new advances of the gospel in the future and refuse to accept that the Church of Christ will be defeated by this world.

I think it is vital to show that none of these pessimistic outlooks is inherent to historical premillennial theology. I think there are a few different ways to demonstrate this, but first I need to define some terms.

Historical premillennialism is a belief about end times that can be traced back explicitly to Irenaeus, the Church father, and his early writing Against Heresies, and one could argue even further. It is generally accepted as a dominant view in the primitive Church. In brief it is the idea of a tribulation period, of several years towards the end of the age, the return of Jesus Christ at the end of that tribulation period where he returns to set up his millennial reign on earth, with a final battle at the end of that millennium, before the heavens and the earth are made new for our eternal existence in them.

Dispensational premillennialism is very similar but has some notable differences. Its major difference is the distinction between the Church and Israel, a view which stands against the teaching of the Church throughout history. Prior to the 19th century, the Church had always seen itself as the continuation of God’s people stretching back to Abraham[5]. Dispensationalists, however, see a sharp distinction between Israel and the Church, and believe God has separate plans for the two.

Related to this doctrine is the belief that the Church will be raptured out of the tribulation at the start or in the middle of the tribulation period. The reason this doctrine is related to the distinction of the Church from Israel is because in dispensational thought the tribulation serves two purposes, to wake up lukewarm Christians who will be left behind after the rapture, and to wake up Israel for whom the tribulation is designed to be their discipline. Some dispensationalists call the tribulation ‘Jacob’s trouble’, because they believe it is in this time that Jacob (Israel) is stirred to wake up and look upon the one whom they have pierced and many Jews will then turn to Christ in this time.

There are numerous variations of these views, but these basic descriptions will serve our purpose for distinguishing the two views. It is important to make this distinction, because not all forms of premillennialism are the same. Some are influenced by American evangelicalism, and some versions go back to the primitive Church in ancient Rome.  

The Great Falling Away

Premillennialists across both of these broad categories will agree on many particulars. For instance, generally speaking premillennialists believe that there will be a great falling away, or apostasy in the final days. This is taught clearly in several passages of scripture. For instance, 2 Thessalonians 2:1-3,

“1 Now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we ask you, brothers, 2 not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by a spirit or a spoken word, or a letter seeming to be from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come. 3 Let no one deceive you in any way. For that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction,…”

Here Paul is saying that before Christ returns there will be a great rebellion, where the man of lawlessness, often referred to as the antichrist, is revealed. Jesus taught precisely the same thing as Paul,

“9 Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name's sake. 10 And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. 11 And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. 12 And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. 13 But the one who endures to the end will be saved. 14 And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (Matt. 24:9-14).

Jesus is saying precisely the same thing as Paul. In the latter days there will be a tribulation and a great falling away. Now, of course amillennialists and postmillennialists believe these passages too, they just apply them to different times and contexts. I do not intend to debate over the merits of these varying applications here. What we would like to discuss for this piece is the implication that these passages contain for premillennialists. Postmillennials will say that premillennial eschatology is inherently pessimistic because it believes the church will be defeated in the end, and then rescued at the last minute by the return of Christ, rather than the church handing Christ a largely Christian world when he returns. You could read these passages this way, and many do.

But I want you to think about a couple of things. Firstly, the implication that a great falling away will have ramifications for the whole world, and particularly Christians in all the world, necessitates that there will first be an incredible advance of Christianity to every corner of the globe. Jesus appears to imply this, “14 And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” For this falling away to have the implications it does, this necessitates a very successful and very missionally active church which has already won large proportions of the world to Christ.

Secondly, consider what we learn from history here, we all know the principle, “Hard times create strong men, strong men create good times, good times create weak men and weak men create hard times.” The direct result of a nation becoming largely Christian is always inevitably an increase in productivity across society and a corresponding increase in prosperity. This has been observed all throughout history. What Christianity did for medieval Europe far surpasses anything that Rome achieved. What has also been observed is how every single one of these Christian nations has become decadent in its prosperity and fallen away in one measure or another, and the cycle of hard times again begins. It stands to reason that this principle will continue until Christ comes to make things anew and finally rids the world of the corrupting forces of sin and evil.

Ergo, one can believe in an incredibly triumphant church and still a great falling away. How long will history last? I have no idea. But if the church continues as it is today it will one day encompass the world in very large measure, and because prosperity will increase this will coincide with a lot of people being born and many, many people being saved. In contrast the time period of the final great falling away is incredibly short, maybe 3 and a half to 7 years, depending on how you read scripture. If there is another 100, 200, or 1000 years of history, how many billions of people will be saved in this time? If even a billion rebel in the final period due to the decadence caused by the prosperity that the righteous create, this is till far fewer than those who could possibly be saved. The numbers of the saved could be staggering.

Also consider this, according to Revelation 7, even in the great tribulation countless numbers of people are being saved. In fact, right up until Revelation 18 and the judgement of Babylon the offer is being made for people to come out of Babylon and trust in the Lord. So even the worst period of history in the world sees a great revival. So where is the room for pessimism? I see no room for pessimism, unless you are among those who cling to the things of this world over Jesus.  

The more influential and powerful the church gets, the more the devil will rise up to try and destroy it, and the more he will be defeated by those who have the testimony of how the lamb of God saved them. There is no room for pessimism here, and no reason not to build for the future because we have no idea when this final period will be and we know that while we are on this world we have a job to fulfil. Which leads to my next point.

The Talents and Inheritances

Theology is complex, more to the point, how people apply what the Bible says to their lives is complex. It involves more than just a literal, metaphorical or allegorical reading of Scripture. How people read and apply the bible also includes their social and family context, their education, their interests, their intelligence, their own personal biases, the national culture in which they are born, the time in which people are born and more. It is a thoroughly complex topic and I understand why some people avoid it like the plague.  

Now, someone might observe that some people hold to a particular doctrine, they may also logically deduct what the implications of that doctrine are, and how that doctrine should work itself out in the lives of those who hold to it. For instance, someone might observe a Christian who believes the coming of Jesus is immanent, therefore they logically assume this belief will impact their desire to build for the future, by diminishing that desire. What people believe matters, right? There is a sensible logic to this line of reasoning. It is neat and tidy. The problem is, though, that Christians are often not logical in how they apply scripture, they are rarely neat and tidy about it, and they are also often influenced by scripture in a much simpler way than this.  

Most Christians, in my observation, tend to hold certain truths in tension without ever seeking to work those beliefs into a systematized system of thought. They may seek to address apparent contradictions, but they are not really interested in deeply analysing the scriptures on every possible topic and working out how they interlock together. The way this works out in their life in practice is that they will know one passage says one thing and another passage says another and they will seek to put both of these passages into practice, even though one might say that this is not a logical application of one or the other verses. So, someone looking from the outside may think; well this person believes the end is near, therefore they will not be inclined to build. But the truth is a Christian is completely capable of believing Jesus will return at any moment or even tomorrow, and yet also believe they should focus on building and planning for the future, because they know there are other passages which say they should. In fact, I would argue this is a basic requirement of Christianity and the Bible is designed to be trusted in this way.

One good example of this is the parable of the talents. This is a famous parable where the master gives to three of his servants differing amounts of talents (money) to steward in his absence (Matt. 25:14-15). He then comes back at some point and evaluates how these servants have used these talents. Two have used them wisely, and the third simply buried his talent and squandered it,

“26 But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed? 27 Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. 28 So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents. 29 For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. 30 And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth’” (Matt. 25:26-30).

The point of this parable is clear: take what God has given you in this world and invest with it in a godly way. If you choose to squander it God will judge you for this.

It is doubly significant that this passage comes directly after several passages addressing the end of the world and judgement. When you read what Jesus says about the end of the world, the way people will fall away, the fact that he is going to judge the world in a surprising way much like he did with Noah, you can see why some people might be tempted to think, “Let’s bunker down, and ride this show out.” But Jesus tells us to do the opposite. He explicitly warns us with two parables in a row to be ready for the return of Christ. But he expands on this in the second one to explain that being productive in this world with what Jesus has given us, is part of how we prepare for the return of Christ. God wants us to invest in this world and improve it. If your eschatology says you can check out and bunker down, it falls far short of Scripture. You would place yourself in the position of the worthless servant with one talent.

A balanced reading of scripture, no matter what you believe about the end of days, requires a deep and practical investment in this world for the kingdom of God. So many of Jesus’ messages about stewardship require this of his servants. He is the master and he expects his servants to be about his work, and the Scriptures give a vast array of activities which the master expects us to be involved in, and building for the future is one of them, so is witnessing, charity, seeking for biblical justice and more.

Another good example of this is Proverbs 13:22, “A good man leaves an inheritance to his children's children, but the sinner's wealth is laid up for the righteous.” As one friend I know has put it, it is ridiculous to think that a righteous person who is premillennial does not care about the future. If they know their scriptures, they know they are supposed to leave an inheritance to their children and leave the timing of the end of the world to Jesus. And a careful reading of many passages of scripture bears out this emphasis. Whatever our eschatology we are required to invest in the future of our nation and society for good. Because Christ wants his people to be a blessing to the nations around them and he wants all of us to use the gifts he has given us.

Building for the future is not inherently antagonistic to premillennial eschatology, because eschatology is not the only driving force of our behaviour. The simple commands of Christ are far more significant, and they require us to live a certain way. To use our eschatology as an excuse to ignore the commands of Jesus would be to do harm to scripture.

Why Do The Righteous Hide?

I could make many more biblical arguments for this position that there is no inherent reason why premillennialism needs to lead to a bunker down theology. But I want to end by asking another question: why do the righteous hide? There is no doubt that there is a trend in conservative Christianity to move towards more independent living, less reliance on the system and more of an emphasis on building self-sustaining communities. This is true across America and Australia. It was evidenced by the boom in house and land prices in country and rural communities during the covid years. So why do people do this?

Well, Proverbs gives us an answer here, “When the wicked rise, people hide themselves, but when they perish, the righteous increase” (Prov. 28:28). Ordinary people seeking to withdraw themselves from trouble is not a new phenomenon, it is as old as trouble itself. You see this when an argument, fight or conflict breaks out in many contexts, many people seek to shrink away from it and withdraw themselves. When the wicked rule most people tend to hide themselves away, keep their heads down and stay quiet. I say most people because not all good people do this, many will seek to stand up to evil, but not all. But once hard times ease off again, the good people tend to come back out into the open. I suspect one of the reasons that we see good people withdrawing today is because of the current resurgence of evil in the West.

Paul does say, “…brothers…aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you,” ( 1 Thess. 4:11). We are actually encouraged to try and live quiet, stable and self-sustaining lives. Not to be troublemakers and constant agitators in society. There is a time to speak up and a time to be quiet. But, for most Christians, quiet is their preferred norm and they will gravitate towards it. Perhaps some forms of eschatology have encouraged this, but eschatology it is not the only driving force.

Consider this as well, at the heights of postmillennial theology in Medieval Europe many Christians withdrew into monasteries and nunneries. They were often driven to such a lifestyle because of their views on sanctification and soteriology, and not necessarily because of eschatology. In fact, eschatology is often orthogonal to whether people want to build into the society around them or not. I would argue people withdraw from society for a host of reasons.

I think it is very simple to establish from scripture that there is no inherent aspect of premillennial theology which says you should not invest in the future or build for the future. You may read Matthew 24 completely different to me. You may understand the millennium completely differently to me and other premillennials. But we premillennials read Matthew 24 and Revelation 20 to clearly teach that there is a second coming of Christ, that it happens before the millennium and many of us believe there will be a great tribulation before this. But we also read Matthew 25 and see that we have no justification to sit on the talents God has given us and not invest in the future of our nation, because we know our God is coming back to evaluate us. Indeed, I suspect many premillennials build and invest for the future, because they want to be found doing that when our Lord returns. Should not we all have this same motivation?

I asked one premillennial friend how he balances his view that the world may be in the last days with his political work and advocacy? He said, it is because he has a salt and light theology, and Christians are to be salt in this world while we are here. I responded, I thought so. Because this is precisely how I think about it, though I have used different wording.

Eschatology is important. It does influence how we think, but more Christians are influenced by what Jesus says about how we should live, than complex systems of how the end times will work out or by false prophets on YouTube who tell them the end is nigh this September or next September. For those Christians who are more driven by constantly studying the signs of times and who get bogged down in this, then I would say that is because they have an imbalance in their theology and that can only be corrected by good teaching. I hope this article is a part of helping with that.   

[1] But enough about the Left Behind series.

[2] I used to get constantly sent videos from people every year telling me why this September is the year Jesus would return. Very annoying, and no matter how many times they were wrong, they were always convinced the next year would be the year.

[3] I say theology and not eschatology deliberately, and you will see why as I make my case.

[4] I think postmillennialism is a natural and understandable reaction to the excesses of pretribulation dispensational theology. I also think if more people understood historic premillennialism, they’d be much more comfortable with holding it, instead of moving across the spectrum to postmillennial.

[5] Dispensationalists call this “replacement theology”. But this is completely incorrect. Replacement theology was a term developed in the 1980’s to disparage the historical teachings of the church on the issue of Israel. The majority of the church did not teach that the Church replaced Israel, but that the barrier to Gentiles joining Israel, the law, was removed and from that point on Gentiles could join Israel without having to become Jews who lived under the Mosaic law (cf. Acts 15). All the Jews who rejected Christ were in turn removed from the tree, Israel, and all the Gentiles who believed in him joined the believing Jews to be a part of God’s people. There was no replacement, only an expansion because the means of joining God’s people was far simpler.

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