In this post, Randal Rauser polishes the old chestnut that premillennialism is pessimistic:
He then uses that claim to say premillennialism, and–by extension, Christian conservatism–has “dangerous tendencies” in reference to social justice.
Let’s examine the premise: is premillennialism pessimistic? Let’s consider some of the pessimistic doctrines or implications of premillennialism. Premils believe Jesus is coming back. Is that pessimistic? Premils believe Jesus will inaugurate the millennium when he returns. Is that pessimistic? Premils believe Jesus will judge the wicked. Is that pessimistic? Premils believe Jesus will trounce the devil and his followers. Is that pessimistic? Premils believe Christians go to heaven when they die. Is that pessimistic? On the face of it, that all seems pretty optimistic to me.
Off-hand, the only “pessimistic” element in premillennialism that I can think of is the Tribulation. And even in that case, most premils (i.e. pretribers) believe the church will be raptured before the Tribulation, thus sparing Christians from the coming ordeal. So that, too, sounds optimistic.
Some premils think Christians will live through part or all of the Tribulation. I guess that’s “pessimistic.”
On the other hand, knowing that something bad will happen in the future isn’t inherently pessimistic, is it?
Statistically speaking, we know that natural disasters are bound to happen. Sooner or later, a volcanic eruption will destroy Mexico City. Sooner or later, a subduction quake will destroy Seattle. Sooner or later, a major tornado will flatten Dallas. Sooner or later the East Coast or the West Coast will be hit by a tsunami. Sooner or later a catastrophic earthquake will level L.A. Sooner or later a massive hurricane will inundate Miami. And so on and so forth.
Since, however, we don’t know when these events will happen, they have little effect on our daily lives. In addition, the bad events are evened out by good events. All the times when natural disasters didn’t strike. All the places where natural disasters didn’t strike. So your overall outlook might be positive.
Likewise, if you knew the Tribulation was going to happen three years from now, that might make you pessimistic about the future in that particular respect. However, premils don’t know if the tribulation lies in the near future or the distant future. So it’s like the abstract awareness that natural disasters are inevitable. Odds are, a natural disaster will hit sometime somewhere. But since you don’t have advance knowledge of when and where, that doesn’t affect your general outlook.
While we’re at it, let’s compare premillennialism to other millennial positions on the optimistic-pessimistic continuum. If premillennialism allegedly represents the pessimistic end of the spectrum, postmillennialism allegedly represents the optimistic end of the spectrum, although you wouldn’t know that from reading Gary North’s Chicken Little Jeremiads.
However, how optimistic is postmillennialism? To begin with, we need to distinguish between classical postmillennialism and preterit postmillennialism. The classical version is optimistic in the sense that history is supposed to get better over time. Even then, how optimistic that is depends on the curve. Is this a slow, incremental process, with setbacks along the way? Or does it pick up speed over time?
Be that as it may, classical postmillennialism isn’t the dominant form these days. Currently, preterit postmillennialism is the preferred version, having been popularized by some theonomists.
But is preterit postmillennialism optimistic? If Jesus returned in 70 AD, then there’s not much room for improvement. It’s not like the best is yet to come. For the best came and went, and look where we are! Wasn’t the return of Christ our last best hope? But see what’s happened in the succeeding 2000 years. We still have death, disease, murder, war, famine, divorce, natural disasters, &c. What’s the big difference between the world before 70 AD and the world after 70 AD?
Not only doesn’t that seem to be very optimistic, but it seems to be pretty hopeless. What’s there to look forward to? Things may not be any worse than they used to be, but the fundamentals are just as bad.
What about amillennialism? According to classic (i.e. Augustinian) amillennialism, we’re living in the millennium right now. Have been for 2000 years. You and I are living in the golden age of all those Edenic prophecies about the lion lying down with the lamb. Well, if this is the golden age, then the gold standard is suffering from hyperinflation.
According to a more recent version of amillennialism, the golden age oracles apply, not to the church age, but to the final age. The world to come.
That’s optimistic in the sense that things will get better. Vastly better. But that’s after Jesus returns, not before he returns. In the meantime, we can expect a perennial conflict between good and evil. No general trend one way or the other. We win some, we lose some. One step forward, one step back.