When we talk about “Bible prophecy” and End Times mania here on this blog, we’re usually discussing the particular strain of it that bears the unwieldy name of “premillennial dispensationalism” (or, as some prefer, “dispensational premillennialism”).
That’s the form of “Bible prophecy” that has made Tim LaHaye a spectacularly wealthy man. The novel Left Behind and the whole series of books that followed are set in the future prophesied by this premillennial dispensationalist mythology. Tim LaHaye did not invent this stuff, though, and he’s not the first person to cash in on it. Hal Lindsey sold millions of books in the 1970s promoting the same End Times scheme. And the Scofield Reference Bible was a publishing phenomena in the early 20th century.
But this LaHaye-Lindsey-Scofield product line of premillennial dispensationalism is only one brand of “Bible prophecy” on the market. You can guess from the terminology there what some of the other brands might be. Pre-millennial dispensationalism defines itself, in part, in opposition to post-millennial dispensationalism.
That pre- and post- language can be confusing in several ways. Let’s deal first with the danger of being misled by such apparently binary categories. There is a category of Christians who can be described as “premillennial.” There is also a category of Christians who can be described as “postmillennial.” That can seem to suggest that all Christians are either pre-millennial or post-millennial and that any Christian who is not the one must be the other.
But that’s not how it works. These categories are binary, but they’re not exhaustive or all-inclusive.* So while it’s true that all millennialist forms of Christianity can be categorized as either pre- or post-millennial, it’s not true that all forms of Christianity are millennialist.
For another example of this, think of the binary categories of “Team Edward” and “Team Jacob.” While it may be true that most fans of the Twilight series can be categorized in either one or the other of those groups, that doesn’t mean that everyone who is not on Team Edward must be on Team Jacob. As popular as those books may be, the majority of the world’s population isn’t part of that fandom. I am not a member of Team Edward, but that does not mean I must therefore be a member of Team Jacob. I haven’t read those books or seen those movies and I’m simply not a part of the subculture for which those binary categories apply.
A Twilight fan might then choose to categorize me as “Undecided.” I suppose that’s technically true insofar as that’s their term for anyone who hasn’t pledged allegiance to either “team.” But it’s also misleading in that it attempts to apply their terminology beyond where those terms are meaningful. It thus suggests, inaccurately, that these categories are something I’ve ever thought about or considered in any meaningful way. Those of us who aren’t part of that subculture can’t be defined by the narcissism of small differences that defines its internal divisions.
That’s why I don’t like the term “amillennial.” The Wikipedia entry for Amillennialism isn’t technically wrong when it says:
Amillennialism (Latin: a- “no” + millennialism) is the mainstream Christian end-times theology, named for its rejection of the theory that Jesus Christ will have a literal, thousand-year-long, physical reign on the earth. This is in opposition to premillennial and some postmillennial interpretations of chapter 20 of the Book of Revelation.
But it’s misleading to think that the majority of “amillennial” Christians think of themselves as “amillennial.” That term is defined in opposition to “premillennial and … postmillennial interpretations of chapter 20 of the Book of Revelation,” but the majority of Christians do not define themselves in opposition to those interpretations. The majority of amillennialists don’t give much thought to those interpretations at all. Most Christians don’t accept “the theory that Jesus Christ will have a literal, thousand-year-long, physical reign on the earth,” but it’s weirdly misleading to think they’re spending a lot of time sitting around “rejecting” that theory.
The second confusing thing about these categories of pre- and post-millennialism has to do with the awkward way those chronological prefixes are applied in those terms. The details of those differing chronologies aren’t as important as the implications of them. That’s the key thing when it comes to understanding and appreciating the difference between the two. What it means is this: Premillennialism is pessimistic. Postmillennialism is optimistic.
We discussed this in more detail about a year ago in a post called “Know your millennialisms (and how to avoid them).” Allow me to repeat a pertinent section of that here:
The pre- and post- prefixes there do indeed refer to the idea of Christ’s return. And the “-millennial” part does indeed refer to Christ’s thousand-year reign, meaning the idea of perfect and enduring earthly justice. So for a pre-millennial believer, Christ’s return must come before any hope for perfect justice. But for a post-millennial believer, the idea is to bring about perfect justice here on earth, thereby inviting Christ’s return after that happens to assume his millennial reign.
It’s the pre-mill types who “believe that there’s not much we can do” and that “the world will just keep getting worse and worse.” And it’s the post-mill types who feel that social progress is mandatory and inexorable. Premillennialism is deeply pessimistic about human history, which they regard as a long slouch toward Armageddon. Postmillennialism is audaciously optimistic about human history, viewing it as a steady march ever closer to perfection.
These competing strains of millennialist Christianity have influenced and shaped American history. But that influence, I think, flows in both directions. It’s not a chicken-or-egg situation, but a matter of chicken-and-egg. When post-millennial fervor is ascendent, we can see its optimism reflected in the culture, politics and zeitgeist of America. Likewise, when pre-millennial worries are on the rise, we can see that pessimism at work in the larger society. But it also works the other way. When the larger society is caught up in a sense of optimism about a brighter future, then postmillennial religion becomes more attractive. And when the larger society begins to view the future fearfully, then premillennial pessimism gains ground.**
That basic dynamic is itself uncomplicated: Pre-millennial pessimism, post-millennial optimism.
But that simple framework gets immensely complicated when we try to apply it to the contradictory subculture of white evangelicalism, in which America is both a shining city on a hill and Babylon. America is simultaneously God’s chosen nation and Sodom. White evangelicals are thus both the moral majority and an oppressed righteous remnant. They are both the mainstream of real America and a persecuted fringe group desperately trying to survive.
So is this subculture optimistic or is it pessimistic? Yes. Both. At the same time.
And given all the complicating contradictions and cognitive dissonance of that subculture, we shouldn’t be surprised to find new, more complicated variations of the old forms of millennialism — reformulations that combine elements of both pre- and post-millennial mythologies in an attempt to account for both the triumphalistic optimism and the fatalistic pessimism embraced by this contradictory subculture.
That seems to be what we find in the strange new form of End Times mania being promoted at the International House of Prayer. But this is already way too long, so let’s save that discussion for part 2.
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* We see a similar confusion with non-exhaustive binary categories in a lot of Bad Christian Apologetics, when the would-be apologist says, “Either God exists or God does not exist — so the odds are 50/50.”
** For an interesting exercise, imagine a graph with the horizontal axis representing each year of American history from 1850 to the present. I’m not sure what units of measurement would apply for the vertical axis, but we’ll use that to chart the apparent future prospects of white supremacy and/or white privilege as those prospects wax and wane over time. The resulting curve will also provide a rough measurement of the ebbs and flows of the popularity of premillennial dispensationalism among white Southern evangelicals.