Living, Thinking, and Acting from the End

One of the best essays about the Bible that I’ve ever read was written by Paige Britton, a lay woman who describes herself as a self-taught, “grass roots” theologian. Her essay on the Bible that I found to be so insightful is called “Reading Between the Trees: The Bible from Beginning to End.” Her basic argument is that the Bible, for all its different stories, authors, books, and ideas, is really just telling one story, a story that unfolds between two trees – the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in Genesis 2:15-17, and the tree of life in Revelation 22 that brings healing to the nations. She writes –

“Two trees, planted by God the Creator and Redeemer at the beginning and end of the Bible like bookends on a shelf. Whatever we decide to do with the pages between the trees will make either sense or nonsense out of the bookends. Do we read in the Bible one story, or many? Is there a deliberate path from that first tree to this last tree, a progressive revelation that explains this shift from exile to homecoming? Or are the trees just random props in a series of disconnected stories, stories that are maybe myths, maybe symbols, maybe do-it-yourself moral instruction, depending on the mood that strikes me as I read? How am I to read this Bible, between these two trees?”

David Naugle, Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dallas Baptist University, has written about the “bits and pieces” mentality that afflicts so many of us in the church and world these days. Nothing touches. Nothing connects. Nothing relates. There’s no big picture, no organizing narrative, no big idea, just a random series of events, experiences, and encounters that each stand alone. Paige Britton’s argument is that what’s in the Bible has point. It all goes somewhere. In “Little Gidding,” T.S. Eliot wrote – “We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” And that, it seems to me, is the trail of the story that the Bible tells.

The end brings us back around to the beginning. The new Jerusalem in Revelation 21 is just Genesis 2’s Garden of Eden in different clothes. This end is always in sight. Every story, every character, every idea we find in the Bible moves us just a little bit further down the road to the destination. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote – “The Church of Christ bears witness to the end of all things. It lives from the end, it thinks from the end, it acts from the end, it proclaims its message from the end.” The question, at least in my mind, is how do we get to that end? What’s God’s part, and what’s ours? Does the end come gradually or cataclysmically? Do our efforts effect incremental change in ourselves and the world until we wake up one morning and the Kingdom’s come, or does it break in upon us from the outside as the sudden work of God alone? Do we “build” or “bring” the Kingdom by our ministries of evangelism and social justice, or do we receive the Kingdom as the gift of God?

How we answer these questions will go a long way in determining what we think the church should be doing and where we should be investing ourselves as followers of Jesus Christ.  Broadly speaking, the church has offered two answers – Premillennialism and Postmillennialism.

I remember a Sunday School class that I attended at the big downtown Disciples church when I was a freshman in Christian college. Some disastrous global event had taken place the week before, and there were people in class that morning celebrating it as a “birth-pang” of the coming Kingdom (Matthew 24:8). Instead of grieving the human loss and suffering that had occurred somewhere far away on an epic scale, my friends were giddily fitting that tragedy into their end times calculations and concluding that what it meant was that Jesus would be back even sooner. It didn’t feel right to me.

These were the days of Hal Lindsey’s “The Late, Great Planet Earth” (Zondervan, 1970) and Larry Norman’s “I Wish We’d All Been Ready” (First Released in 1970) with its gloomy refrain –

“Life was filled with guns and war

And everyone got trampled on the floor.

I wish we’d all been ready.

Children died, the days grew cold,

A piece of bread could buy a bag of gold.

I wish we’d all been ready.”

These are all pieces of a perspective on where history is going called “Premillennialism.” The “Millennium” refers to the thousand-year reign of Christ mentioned in Revelation 20. Christians have had different understandings of what this “Millennium” means. Some have taken it literally, others symbolically. Some understand it to take place in heaven, others here on earth. But almost all of us connect it in one way or another with the Kingdom the coming of which Jesus Christ told us to pray (Matthew 6:10; Luke 11:2).

Based on their reading of the book of Revelation, Premillennialists believe that things are going to go from bad to worse as history plays out, and the more difficult things become the more hopeful Premillennialist Christians become. As Jesus told His disciples in the Olivet Discourse in Luke 21:28 –

“When these things (famines, earthquakes, wars and rumors of wars) begin to come to pass, then look up, and lift up your heads; for your redemption draweth nigh.”

Because they believe that we cannot not stop the flood of evil from rising in this world, Premillennialists look for God in Christ to break into history to rescue us in a final climactic saving act when things have sunk to their moral and spiritual lowest.

This was the position of Billy Graham, the popular “Left Behind” series of novels and movies, the Scofield Reference Bible, Bible Churches, and many if not most American Evangelicals. This was the position on the end times and last things that I was exposed to first after my spiritual awakening, and for the longest time thought was “the” Christian position. So pervasive was the teaching of this position in the circles that I ran in as a young Christian, that it remains a kind of conditioned spiritual response for me even today. When I hear reports of bad things happening, just like my old friends back in Christian College, I instinctively wonder if it means that our final salvation “draweth nigh”? I don’t stop with that thought anymore, but it still crosses my mind.

The most objectionable result of Premillennialism, if you ask me, is the way it can stifle moral outrage, seizing the heart and staying the hand of compassion. The Marxist critique of religion, how it is the opiate of the people that dulls our sensitivity to injustice by delaying its remedy to the blessed hereafter, pie in the sky in the sweet by and by, lands its best shot, it seems to me, on Christians of the Premillennialist stripe.

In the Premillennialist Bible Church where I was baptized in high school, social service was encouraged while social justice was eschewed. We prepared food baskets for distribution at Thanksgiving, collected toys for poor children at Christmas, and volunteered at the homeless shelter downtown all as preludes to evangelistic opportunities, but we never asked why there were hungry people, poor children, and homeless men on the streets, or what changes needed to happen socially, politically, and economically to address their causes.

Activist churches and Christians who were at the forefront of the civil rights movement, the war on poverty, and the first stirrings of creation care in those days were dismissed at my church as misguided. More than once I heard it said from the pulpit and in Sunday school that they were just “polishing the brass on the Titanic.” This world is a sinking ship, and our task, I was told, was to get as many people as possible into the lifeboat of salvation and not to waste our time trying to make cosmetic improvements to the ruined ship that was going down. When I couldn’t accept this idea any longer, the theological pendulum swung and I found myself in the opposite corner, in a church with Postmillennial roots.

After my spiritual awakening in the mid-1960’s I drank deeply from the wells of “Premillennialism.” It made me spiritually passive and pessimistic. It left me with a dystopian view of the world and feelings of despair over the possibility of ever effecting any real change.  It excused me from responsibility for my neighbor (except evangelistically) and it fostered in me an escapist expectation of Jesus coming back to save me from the mess. 

In his commentary on trusting God, the Protestant reformer Martin Luther said that what Jesus said in Matthew 6:19-34 about not being anxious over what we should eat or what we should wear should not be taken as an invitation to personal or social irresponsibility. “God wants nothing to do with the lazy, gluttonous bellies who are neither concerned nor busy,” Luther wrote. “They act as if they just had to sit and wait for God to drop a roasted goose into their mouth.” When I realized that my Premillennialism was contributing to me becoming and doing this spiritually, to sitting around just waiting for Jesus to “drop,” I moved on.

Where I wound up next was in a spiritual tradition with a “Postmillennial” legacy. If Premillennialism pessimistically says that there’s nothing we can do to bring the Kingdom, then Postmillennialism optimistically says that it’s going to be our effort and effectiveness with the things that Christ left us to do when He went away that will gradually build the Kingdom. For 36 years, Alexander Campbell (1788 – 1866), one of the founders of the Movement to which my church belongs, edited and published a periodical called “The Millennial Harbinger.” “Millennial” refers to the coming Kingdom, and a “Harbinger” is “a person or thing that announces or signals the approach of another.” Our founders thought that what they were doing would help to usher in the Kingdom. Because Jesus said that the unity of the church would serve as evidence of the truth of the Gospel (John 17:20 – 21), Alexander Campbell believed that working for the unity of Christians would increase the evangelistic effectiveness of church, and that by more people becoming Christians, the Kingdom would come. They saw their movement as a harbinger of the millennium. This is “Postmillennialism.”

The refrain of the hymn “We’ve a Story to Tell to the Nations” (Words and Music: H. Ernest Nichol, 1896), #484 in the “Chalice Hymnal,” describes how Postmillennialism envisions the Kingdom coming –

“For the darkness shall turn to dawning,
And the dawning to noonday bright;
And Christ’s great kingdom shall come on earth,
The kingdom of love and light.”

This is the “law of gradualness.” It says that things don’t burst on the scene fully formed. They unfold slowly, step by step, gradually over time. As another hymn we sing puts it – “First the blade, and then the ear, then the full corn shall appear.” It’s said that this is “the method of God and the experience of God’s people in Scripture,” and so rather than looking for the Kingdom to break in upon us from the outside as a sudden, final, cataclysmic event as in Premillennialism, Postmillennialism looks for the Kingdom’s “developmental unfolding and incremental expansion slowly (even imperceptibly) over time in the historical long run” (postmillennialworldview.com/2021/04/20/the-gradualism-principle/).  And rather than just being helpless victims in history’s long descent into darkness and despair à la the Premillennialist model, in Postmillennialism we have real agency, we are God’s “fellow workers” (I Corinthians 3:9). Through ministries of evangelism and social action the world gradually gets “Christianized.”  

In one of his songs Wayne Watson, the CCM artist, expressed the optimism of the Postmillennial model –

“One day Jesus will call my name.
As days go by, I hope I don’t stay the same.
I wanna get so close to Him that it’s no big change,
On that day that Jesus calls my name.”

And that’s still my aspiration, for me, for you, for the church, for the world. I want the Gospel to make a difference.  I want the Gospel to change things.  My frustration comes with the lack of progress I see.  In fact, it’s worse than that right now.  From where I sit it looks like we’re losing ground. And so just as I had to move on from Premillennialism, so I had to move on from Postmillennialism as well. Like Goldilocks who found one bed too soft and another bed too hard before finding the bed that was “just right,” so I found the Premillennialism too pessimistic and Postmillennialism too optimistic before finding the millennialism that was “just right.”

I had a professor in Christian College who when asked one day in class if he was a Premillennialist or a Postmillennialist answered, “I’m a Promillennialist.” When we asked him what that meant, he smiled and answered – “I’m for the Kingdom however and whenever it comes.” I am too.

I deeply appreciate what Scotty Smith, Pastor of the Christ Community Church in Franklin, Tennessee, has written about millennialist arguments –

“No a-millennialist is going to pout if the pre-millennialists are right. No post-millennialist is going to have his feelings hurt if a-millennialism proves to be more consistent with the unfolding of the history of redemption. Pre-millennialists are not going to high five one another for a thousand years in the face of dejected post-mils and a -mils, should their view on these matters be realized in history. The good news is that all Christians are going to enjoy fully everything won us by our blessed Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, no matter what our position on the millennium is.”

In a formula that’s familiar to lots of us, there are some essentials in Christian teaching that demand the unified affirmation of all faithful Christians. And there are some non-essentials in Christian teaching that allow for a rich diversity of interpretation among Christians. But in all things, we need to love each other, those with whom we agree, and especially those with whom we disagree, because such love is one of the clearest essentials of Christian teaching of them all. I’d put the Kingdom and its coming into the essentials bin, and I’d put the different ideas about how that Kingdom’s going to come into the nonessentials bin.

Francis Schaeffer said that there are “circles and cliffs” in Christian teaching. He said that “the Christian doctrinal and intellectual position lays down a circle rather than a (single) point.” There’s room to move within a circle. To illustrate this, he wrote about the Westminster Assembly in England that was charged with the task of writing a Confession, a Catechism, and a Directory for Worship that better reflected the Reformed convictions of many in the Church of England between 1643 and 1653. Schaeffer explained –

“Men with varying views in regard to doctrinal detail (for example, eschatology – the doctrines of the end times and last things) met together for a long time. What they did was to make certain statements that encompassed all the views that they agreed were faithful to the Scripture. In other words, when the Westminster Confession of Faith was framed, men with slightly different views in detail agreed that they could subscribe to this Confession. It laid down a circle in which (with their differences of doctrinal detail) they could move with freedom.”

But this circle also created cliffs. As Schaeffer explained –

“The statements of the Confession… were meant to be a limit inside of which were those (general) propositions which were accepted as faithful to Scripture and outside of which were those which were unacceptable in the light of Scripture… The edge of the circle was an absolute limit past which we ‘fall off the edge of the cliff’ …Thus there was a definite form, but within this form there was freedom for some variation.”

Because my faith is more informed by the ecumenical creeds than by a denominational confession, what I see as the cliffs are four foundational affirmations –

“And he shall come again, with glory,

to judge both the quick and the dead;

Whose kingdom shall have no end…

And I look for the Resurrection of the dead,

And the life of the world to come.”

Within the circle that these four affirmations create, there is room for Premillennialism and Postmillennialism, and personally I’m glad that my pilgrimage of faith brought me to and through both perspectives. Having been on the inside of both Premillennialism and Postmillennialism, I find that I am now in a good position to appreciate the passions and concerns of both perspectives, to steer clear of their weaknesses and distortions, and to advance their big ideas into the ways that I try to faithfully live, think and act “from the end,” as Bonhoeffer said that Christians do.

From Premillennialism I have taken the promise that God’s saving work in Jesus Christ involves a future, final, climactic event, and that our salvation, both personally and cosmically, will be forever incomplete until that event happens, until Christ comes again. Premillennialism made me a futurist. My “blessed hope” is “the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:12-13). “Maranatha!” “Even so, come quickly Lord Jesus!”

From Postmillennialism I have taken the recognition of our real agency as human beings who know what God intended and where God is taking things, and the urgency of an activism that joins in on the project of God. We don’t bring or build the Kingdom, but we can certainly become signs of it by ordering our lives, the church, and the world by its vision and with its values. We are to be the presence of the future. As Dr. King famously said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” and that’s the kind of Postmillennialism that I have embraced.

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