The Postmillennial Problem

Postmillennialism has, as of recent, become the rage in online discourse and in popular books like Stephen Wolfe’s “Christian Nationalism.” This has been curious to me as a pastor in the Reformed tradition due to the fact that most Christians recognize that we have come to the end of Christendom in America.

If we were witnessing widespread repentance in America and people falling at the feet of Jesus, then I might be able to take the current popularity of postmillennialism more seriously, but it strikes me as odd that in the midst of the sweeping moral revolution that characterizes our time, all of the sudden the idea of a golden age breaking into America is finding great approbation in certain quarters of the American church. What gives? Championing postmillennialism and dominion victory at a moment in history when the church is on the brink of serious persecution feels more like a desperation cry and a last-ditch effort to save an incompatible eschatology with life in America.

Let’s Talk 1 Corinthians 15:25

Whatever the case, what interests me is something that was emphasized at the recent Bahnsen conference that was held out as a problem for all other views of the coming of Christ’s kingdom. Both Jeff Durbin and Doug Wilson presented a particular verse in 1 Corinthians 15 as the verse that makes postmillennialism an insurmountable conclusion in the face of other eschatologies. That verse is 1 Corinthians 15:25: “For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.”

This verse was championed as the verse that convinced both Durbin and Wilson of their postmillennial position. Durbin accused all other views of “leaving out Christ’s total victory in this age” claiming that Christians today are slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken on this point. The defeatists of our age, said Durbin, are “missing the big-ticket items” of what Christ will do to his enemies before the Parousia. I Cor. 15:25, Durbin assures us, provides a timeline of what to expect before the resurrection. He will visibly put all rulers and authorities under his feet in great dominion for all to see.

Wilson similarly expressed, after reading David Chilton, that when he came across 1 Cor. 15:25, something snapped in his head and his postmillennial view began to assemble. This was the great verse that taunted him to become a postmillennial. On a personal note, I had no idea that 1 Cor. 15:25 is the verse that postmillennials are hanging their hat upon to prove their position. This was surprising to me, not only because I warn everyone to be cautious of building a doctrine on a single verse but, more importantly, no careful attention was given to what the apostle is actually doing in 1 Corinthians 15 as a whole.

And this is a great illustration why, dear reader, we need NT scholars who help us to see both the structure, syntax, and purpose of a passage in its given context before we accept entire doctrines based on a single verse.

Dr. Steve Baugh is one of the most helpful and accomplished NT scholars that I know. In his book, “Majesty on High,” Baugh gives extensive exegetical treatment to this verse as it falls into the larger pericope of 1 Cor. 15:20-28. Baugh observes that in this age, we find ourselves bounded by two great resurrection events “the resurrection of Christ in the past, and afterward by the raising up of all Christ’s people in the future.” I Corinthians 15, in context, is answering a challenge with regard to the resurrection, as Paul states, “Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection from the dead? (I Cor. 15:12)” His goal is to defend the resurrection that is to occur at the Parousia. You can read extensively his treatment of 1 Cor. 15:20-28 in chapter 4 in “Majesty.”

For our purpose, the question that Baugh engages is what can we expect to happen between Christ’s resurrection and ours. Of great importance is to notice carefully that Paul constructs a chiasm in 1 Corinthians 15:24-28 to answer this question. Baugh lays it out as follows:

24 Then comes the end

            (A1) when he delivers his kingdom to his God and Father

            (B1)     after he has destroyed every rule and every authority

            (C1)          25 For he must reign until…enemies under his feet (Psalm 110)

            (D)                              26 The ultimate enemy to be destroyed is death

            (C2)                 27 For “God has put all things in subjection…” (Psalm 8)

            (B2)     But when is says, “all things are put in subjection,”…

            (A2) 28 When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself…

I trust the reader observes that the center of the chiasm is the destroying the enemy of death. The main point is expressed in the middle. The two Psalms (Ps. 110 & 8) are quoted in parallel to support the center of the chiasm, both expressing the reign of Christ over his enemies. The sections that precede the center of the chiasm use “when” to help us understand the time sequence in the apostle’s mind. Notice carefully that all the events between (A1) and (A2) are in between the handing over of the kingdom to his father at the Parousia. Again the whole pericope is speaking of the Parousia. Baugh paraphrases the time sequence as follows:

1. Christ’s resurrection comes first of all the firstfruits
2. At his Parousia he will destroy every rule and authority and power
3. At which time he will raise those who belong to him
4. which marks the end
5. when he delivers his kingdom to God the father.

No one questions that the destruction of the enemies mentioned in verse 24 happens at the Parousia. The destruction of all enemies takes place at his second coming and culminates with the destruction of the ultimate enemy of death. But postmillennials want to separate out the “until” (C1) as happening in this age and before our resurrection, as Durbin states, when, in this age, all enemies must be visibly put under his feet. This is at the heart of postmillenial, dominion theology. This is what we should expect. Therefore we’re waiting for this great submission and golden era to occur before the Parousia.

This leaves us with an important question: Considering carefully the structure above, should the citation from Psalm 110 be extracted out from the pericope and its center as something to occur before our resurrection and in this present evil age, and apart from the resurrection/Parousia? Does Paul intend for us to do this with Psalm 110?

A proper Reformed eschatology celebrates the reign of Christ and the coming of the kingdom as inaugurated in his life, death, and resurrection. He is indeed seated over all the nations and rules them with a rod of iron, now (Ps. 2). His enemies are indeed under his feet (Eph. 2) But the question is, first exegetically, does the citation of Psalm 110 in (C1) mean that there will be a great turning/submission of all evil authorities, kings and nations, in this present age, to Christ? Is this what is being spoken of, the bowing the knee and the recognition of Christ’s dominion in this age? Is this what we are to expect? And, to press postmills even further, how far reaching do they expect this development to be? All? Partial? What do they expect this to look like in this age? How would we know? Should we, as Wilson says, be up early slaying dragons in expectation that this dominion will happen in this present age? And, what might this do the mission of the church in preaching the gospel?

With regard to Psalm 110 (C1 above) Baugh is helpful in observing that Paul is engaging in a common practice among New Testament authors when he quotes or paraphrases only a small portion of a familiar OT passage. Paul expects us to know and consider the whole teaching of the Psalm. Herewith, then, is more crucial detail from Psalm 110: “The Lord says to my Lord, sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool. The Lord sends forth from Zion your mighty scepter, rule in the midst of your enemies.”

This is what is conveniently missed by postmills in their use of 1 Cor. 15:25. To be frank, its sloppy exegesis. Baugh again, “Christ rules in their midst. But they are still active.” Christ, in putting them under his feet today, rules in the midst of his existing and present enemies. This is precisely why Paul says Christ must rule until all of his enemies are destroyed (B1), which is to take place at the Parousia. Again, (C1) is speaking of this as happening in consummate fulfillment and in tandem with the destruction of the last enemy at the Parousia. Enemies are all certainly under Christ’s feet today, but the bowing of their knees and the confessing of their mouth, in the way post mills expect to see this develop in the current age, will happen together with the destruction of the ultimate enemy of death on the last day.

As the Belgic Confession says, Art. 37:

Finally we believe, according to the Word of God, when the time appointed by the Lord (which is unknown to all creatures) is come, and the number of the elect complete, that our Lord Jesus Christ will come from heaven, corporally and visibly, as he ascended, with great glory and majesty to declare himself judge of the quick and the dead; burning this old world with fire and flame, to cleanse it…and their cause which is now condemned by many judges and magistrates, as heretical and impious, will then be known to be the cause of the Son of God.

“Their cause which is now condemned by magistrates…” According to the Belgic, this condemnation by wicked rulers will continue until the Parousia. Then, at the second coming, Christ’s feet will go on their necks and they will be destroyed forever.

The reality for the believer in this present age is that we are troubled by the enemies of Christ until his Parousia. Christ most certainly rules over them, but we are told expressly that enemies, principalities, powers, and evildoers will continue to exist throughout this present evil age as we face persecution and hatred from the world. We bear this cross as a martyred church until the time of the second coming.

Let us be realistic about the sufferings of this present age so that we live in hope for the age to come. This matters so that we do not become sidetracked in our mission of preaching the cross in the pursuit of saving America. The problem with postmillennialism in American today is just that, it’s just too American. To wait eagerly for the second coming and the destruction of all enemies, doesn’t make us pessimists and defeatists with regard to Christ’s victory, it drives us to live in confident hope that Christ’s kingdom victory will soon be realized in glory when he returns on the clouds of heaven.

For now, we remember that mercy triumphs over judgment. Judgment will happen soon enough when Christ comes on the clouds of heaven.