Premillennial Time

Premillennial Time January 7, 2016

Premillennialism – the view that Jesus returns to reign in person at the beginning of a literal one-thousand-year golden age – is often criticized these days for being defeatist, spiritualist, gnostic. It was not always so. As Martin Spence shows in his excellent Heaven on Earth, early critics of Evangelical premillennialism didn’t think it was otherworldly, but too worldly.

Spence argues that Victorian Evangelicalism was surrounded, before and after, by more unworldly versions of Christianity. For early 19th century Evangelicals, time was subordinate to eternity; history was for the preparation of the soul for heaven. Social reform was resisted, partly because not much could be changed and partly because Evangelicalism was inherently conservative.

After the high point of historicist premillennialism, Evangelicals reverted back to this earlier paradigm. Under the influence of holiness/revivalist movements like Keswick, “premillennilaism shifted away from the hope of corporate, temporal-spatial renewal and became a symbol of an imminent and immediate divine visitation.” This was still a romantic impulse, but it was “the romanticism of personal consolation and epiphanous vision, not the romanticism that concerned itself with the renewal of social order and natural world” (255).

To Victorian Evangelicals, however, Victorians like Edward Bickersteth, Gerard Noel, John Cumming, Thomas Rawson Birks, Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna and others, premillennilism was “a radical, optimistic and often liberalizing creed, which transformed the thinking of these individuals away from older Evangelical assumptions about the gulf separating God and humanity, about the dissimilarity about time and eternity, and about the divide between ‘flesh’ and ‘spirit.’” Premillennialism went hand-in-hand with “a softening of the doctrine of hell, a high view of the human body, an interest in temporal development and progress, a focus on the humanity of Christ, and a robust view of the created order” (6).

And this vision of the future inspired social action in the present: “Evangelicals became involved in campaigns to improve public health and working conditions, initiatives that aimed to improve the temporal order.” Earlier Evangelicals had linked poverty to personal vice, but premillennial Evnagelicals took “a more progressive view of the environmental causes of social and spiritual deprivation” (6). In important respects, Evangelical premillennialists were drawing inspiration from the Romantic culture of their day, which emphasized “time, history, movement, and development” (7). Historians have missed these connections, and to that degree have misconstrued Evangelicalism and premillennialism.

Spence argues that the premils were “far more positive about time and space than their postmillennial forbears.” By insisting that Christ Himself would be present on earth during the millennium, they stoked up hopes for the transformation of creation. Premillennial thought was not concerned merely with the placement of the second advent in relation to the millennium. It was a “broad these concerning the materiality of Christian salvation. They were temporal-spatial optimists, believing that God intended to bring about heaven on earth.” Victorian posmillennials, but contrast, “had little place for the material universe in their eschatological vision,” stressing instead the spiritual presence of Christ and the spiritual blessings of the gospel. 

Today, many voices have been raised against the view that the gospel promises only “heaven when you die.” Many have been stressing the cosmic scope of salvation. Spence’s book reminds us that such voices have been raised before, by premillennialists.

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