Whether Christians are Postmillennialist, Amillennialist, or Premillennialist has a dramatic affect on how they view the world. Understanding this aids in understanding things like social justice, dominionism, and the culture wars.
Postmillennialists, Amillennialists, and Premillennialists
Catholics are generally Amillennialists while mainline Protestants are generally either Amillennialists or Postmillennialists. The distinction between the two is often vague. Amillennialists believe we are currently living in a (figurative) millennium and that Christ’s return could come at any minute, or not for hundreds or thousands of years. Amillennialists generally don’t involve themselves in watching for the signs of the end times, and instead concentrate on living Christian lives in the here and now. Postmillennialists are similar, except that they believe that Christians must work to bring about the Millennium, when the world will be at peace, governed by Christian ethics and values.
There are actually two types of Postmillennialists. Most Postmillennialists are your mainline Protestants who run soup kitchens and talk about social justice. Some Postmillennialists, however, are extremely conservative, mainly of the reformed (i.e. Calvinist) traditions. These are the dominionists, the ones who believe in establishing a theocracy – some even hope to bring back Old Testament law. (See Gary Nash and Rousas Rushdoony, for instance, or Vision Forum.) To be clear, there are very few hard-core dominionists. What I find more interesting about dominionism than the few who want to bring back Old Testament law is the influence some dominionist ideas have had beyond hard-core dominionism itself.
Most conservative Protestants are Premillennialists, who, like I said before, believe in a coming tribulation, with a rapture at some point, and that the end times are imminent. These are the ones who watch for signs of the end times, speculate about the identity of the antichrist, and interpret current events through a Biblical end times lens. These are the ones who believe that the end times might begin at any moment.
Cultural and Theological Bleed
Now there is also this thing I call “bleed.” In other words, the edges get blurry in interesting way and cultural and theological influence spreads ideas around. This often happens unintentionally, but understanding it is key to understanding things like the political influence of dominionism.
First, through cultural icons like Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind series, Premillenialism has gained a hearing beyond just conservative Protestants. In fact, even some Catholics have been taken in, prompting the composition and marketing of books like The Rapture Trap, explaining to Catholics that that whole Premillennial, Tribulation, and Rapture thing is neither Biblical nor grounded in church tradition.
Second, while today’s evangelicals and fundamentalists alike trace their lineage back to the late nineteenth century Bible conferences that birthed Premillenialism, some progressive evangelicals have rejected Premillenialism and embrace either Amillennialism or, more likely, Postmillennialism. They generally talk about social justice rather than watching for the signs of the times. These sorts of evangelicals are often associated with the emergent church.
Third, a surprising number of Premillennialists have been influenced by the thinking of Postmillennial dominionists. You would think Premillennialists would care only about watching for signs of the end times and nodding as the world gets worse and worse, and that is why it was so very odd to see Jerry Falwell getting into politics. Beginning in the 1970s, Francis Schaeffer, himself a Premillennialist but influenced by some of the ideas of Postmillennial dominionism, called on Christians to resist the “moral decay” they saw around them and fight the “secular humanism” that was taking place in society. Schaeffer’s influence should not be underestimated, and he was himself involved in the founding of numerous religious right organizations. The combination of the threat presented by (apparent) moral decay and the galvanizing call of Schaeffer, influenced by dominionist thought, resulted in numerous Premillennialists rejecting isolationism and engaging politically in the “culture wars.”
Note: Schaeffer was not, strictly speaking, a dominionist. Being “influenced by dominionist ideas” is not the same thing as being an actual full dominionist. There are very few who actually want to restore Old Testament law. Most of those influenced by dominionist ideas simply want to work through the ballot box to preserve our nation’s “moral foundation” and spread “Christian” values. It’s the difference between upholding “traditional” marriage and urging a return to stoning gay people. I find both problematic, but I don’t think it’s helpful to treat the two like they’re one and the same.
It sometimes seems like Premillennialists don’t realize what is happening when embracing certain ideas from Postmillenial dominionism. I actually sensed this disconnect as a child. I wondered why we would be so politically involved in trying to “take back the nation for Christ” if we knew that the future held only defeat and decline, followed by the Tribulation. Shouldn’t we just focus on saving souls and leave everything else alone, I wondered? I actually asked my dad this at one point, and he thought for a minute before concluding that “we have to try.” In other words, we know we’re going down, but we’re not going down without a fight. This thinking, though, is new. Before the influence of Schaeffer, Premillennialists were generally more separatist, focusing on saving souls rather than on injecting religion into politics. But it’s also important to remember that Schaeffer could only have the influence he had because of the visibility of the startling “moral decline” that began in the 1960s. In this atmosphere many Premillenialists felt very threatened, and Schaeffer’s ideas, influenced by dominionist thinking, filled a need.
This should help make all that Premillennial, Amillennial, and Postmillennial stuff more clear. It also serves as a way to introduce the idea of dominionism and touch on the origins of the culture wars, both things I will write more about in the future. As always, feel free to add to what I’ve said – I don’t know everything, after all!
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