On Postmillennialism’s Understanding of Kingdom Growth

A position paper for CT530 Systematic Theology 3 (Williamson College) by Robert L. Solberg

One of the most attractive postmillennialism attributes is its hope for the future of believers in the world. Postmillennialism holds that the millennial age was ushered in by Christ in the first century and continues to this day. As we move toward His second coming, this eschatological position teaches that we can expect an increase in faith, peace, and prosperity in the world system due to the spread of the Gospel. It is this aspect of postmillennialism which this paper will examine with the goal of answering the question, “Does Scripture support postmillennialism’s hope for the future of the kingdom prior to the parousia?” First, this eschatology’s theological and scriptural foundations will be examined, including the kingdom as part of our present reality and Jesus’ parables about the kingdom’s growth. Those positions will then be compared to the New Testament’s broader teaching regarding the Christian’s relationship to the world and expectations for the future.

Theological & Scriptural Foundations of Postmillennialism

The Postmillennial Position

In his essay Postmillennialism, author Craig Gentry provides a comprehensive definition of this eschatological position:

Postmillennialism expects the proclaiming of the Spirit-blessed Gospel of Jesus Christ to win the vast majority of human beings to salvation in the present age. Increasing gospel success will gradually produce a time in history prior to Christ’s return in which faith, peace, and prosperity will prevail in the affairs of people and of nations. After an extensive era of such conditions, the Lord will return visibly, bodily, and in great glory, ending history with the general resurrection and the great judgment of all humankind.

(Blaising et al., 1999, pp. 13-14)

In other words, postmillennialism expects the vast majority of humanity to come to saving faith in Christ before His return. Moreover, because of this increase in Christianity globally, we should expect to see a commensurate increase in faith, peace, and prosperity on a global scale.

Scriptural Support

Postmillennialism looks to various passages of Scripture in both testaments to build its eschatology. According to Grudem, the primary biblical arguments in favor of postmillennialism are the Great Commission (Matt 28:18-20) and Jesus’ parables about the mustard seed and the leaven. These parables describe the kingdom’s gradual growth and “indicate that it eventually will fill the earth with its influence” (Grudem, 2010, p. 442). The scriptural case for the present reality of the kingdom, as inaugurated by Christ, will be established below. Subsequently, the teachings about the expansion of that kingdom, as found in Jesus’ two parables, will be analyzed for congruence with the broader New Testament teachings about what Christians should expect while in the world.

The Kingdom is Now

Mark 1:14-15 tells us that after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee proclaiming, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” The idea that the appointed time had come and the kingdom of God was at hand is echoed many other places in the New Testament.[1] Additional evidence of the kingdom as a present reality is found in Jesus’ demonstration of authority over Satan and his demons during His earthly ministry. “But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Matt 12:28). Indeed, when asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The kingdom of God is not coming in ways that can be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you” (Luke 17:20-21). In other words, we are not waiting for some future, apocalyptic coming; the kingdom is now.

Moreover, we see Jesus claiming to be a king while still on Earth (John 18:36-37) and even accepting praise as the messianic king from David’s line (Luke 18:38-40). In Acts 2:30-36, after Jesus’ ascension, we see something of a kingly installation, and, from then on, we hear of His being seated in a royal position “at the right hand of God” (North, 1990). Consequently, the early Christians taught of Jesus as a king (Acts 5:31; 17:7; Rev 1:5) with royal authority and power (Eph 1:22; Phil 2:9). Lastly, the New Testament teaches that, upon our profession of faith in Christ, God delivers us “from the domain of darkness” and transfers us “to the kingdom of His beloved Son” (Col 1:13), and even considers His people to be a kingdom (1 Pet 2:9; Rev 1:6, 9).

Two Kingdom Parables

With the understanding that the kingdom was inaugurated in the first century, we now look to the comments of postmillennialist Kenneth Gentry, who writes, “In his kingdom parables of Matthew 13 the Lord sketches some of the basic aspects of his spiritual kingdom, two of which are particularly helpful for postmillennialism’s optimistic gradualism and deserve our attention” (Blaising et al., 1999, p. 39). He is, of course, referring to the parables of the mustard seed (13:31–32) and the yeast (13:33). According to Gentry’s eschatology, these two parables point to the gradual expansion of God’s kingdom in history. In the parable of the mustard seed, Jesus says,

The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown, it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches

Matthew 13:31–32

This parable’s symbolism communicates the exponential growth of the kingdom of heaven, from a tiny seed to a great, life-giving tree where birds raise their young. Some postmillennialists suggest that the imagery chosen by Jesus in this parable was informed by Ezekiel 17:22–24, a passage that speaks of God replanting a shoot (branch) on Israel’s mountain heights that will one day grow into a cedar that provides shelter for birds.[2] Thus, the postmillennialist argues, both Jesus’ mustard seed parable and Ezekiel’s prophecy point to the growth and eventual dominance of the kingdom of God.

In the parable of the yeast, Jesus taught, “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened” (Matt 13:33). Leaven, or yeast, is a permeating agent used in bread that causes the dough to expand or rise. The Apostle Paul notes, “a little leaven leavens the whole lump” (1 Cor 5:6). Here in Matthew 13:33, Jesus uses the concept of leaven to describe an aspect of the kingdom that is interpreted by postmillennialists to mean that that the kingdom will thoroughly permeate and affect the whole world, causing its transformation. Indeed, through these parables in Matthew 13, according to Gentry,

The glorious expectations for the kingdom of heaven are clear: the kingdom will penetrate all (13:33), will produce up to hundredfold return (13:8), will grow to great stature (13:31-32), and will dominate the field/world (having sewn the wheat seed in the world, that world to which Christ returns will be a wheat field, not a weed field, 13:30). The kingdom’s graciousness and righteous influence will totally penetrate the world system.

(Blaising et al., 1999, p. 41)

In other words, on postmillennialism, the parables of the mustard seed and the yeast teach that the kingdom inaugurated by Christ will eventually grow to a position of dominance in the world.

Examining Postmillennial Expectations

The Kingdom is Now

The Scriptural support for an already-inaugurated kingdom is overwhelming. The eschatological concept of “already / not yet” (e.g., inaugurated eschatology) teaches that Christians have been actively participating in the kingdom of God since the church began, but the kingdom will not reach its full manifestation until the second coming of Christ. While this fact serves to exclude premillennialism, the question remains: Does Scripture support postmillennialism’s optimistic expectation that the kingdom will grow in cultural and political influence to a position of dominance in the world prior to Jesus’ return?

It stands to reason that the greater the percentage of Christians there are in the global population, the more significant potential there is for Christianity to influence politics and culture. However, in the pages of the New Testament, we get a glimpse of what it means for the “already” kingdom to be present on Earth, and what we see is not a political kingdom. Indeed, we find Jesus resisting attempts to make Him a political king. “Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself” (John 6:15). Furthermore, as our Lord explained to Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world” (John 18:36).

The Nature of the Kingdom

Postmillennialism requires growth of the kingdom not merely in terms of the church or the hearts of believers, but of political and cultural impact on a global scale. It is an eschatological position that envisions “a Golden Age in which Christian ethics prosper” (Steineker, 2010, p. 132). While the parables of the mustard seed and the yeast indeed indicate the growth and infusing properties of the kingdom, the text does not indicate the scope these allegories have in view. The parables in question could be harmonized with growth and infusion that manifests itself globally, nationally, within the church, or even within the lives of individual believers. The text simply does not specify.

Mustard Seed & Weeds

In Matthew 13, immediately before the parable of the mustard seed, the parable of the weeds is found (Matt 13:24-30). Gentry interprets this parable as supporting postmillennialism, writing that the kingdom “will dominate the field/world (having sewn the wheat seed in the world, that world to which Christ returns will be a wheat field, not a weed field)” (Blaising et al., 1999, p. 41). However, in light of the full text of the parable, Gentry’s summary appears excessively optimistic. In Matthew 13:36-43, Jesus explains the parable, teaching that the field (the world) will contain weeds (sons of the evil one) among the wheat (sons of the kingdom). In contradiction to Gentry’s assertion that Christ will return to a wheat field rather than a weed field, the text says Jesus has chosen to “Let both grow together until the harvest” (v. 30), at which time the weeds will be thrown “into the fiery furnace” (v. 41). In other words, the parable of the weeds does not teach that the wheat will overcome the weeds over time but that the weeds will continue to grow until the harvest, which, in the parable, represents the “end of the age” (v. 39).

Suffering & Persecution

When viewed from a broader perspective, the optimism of postmillennialism regarding the expansion of the kingdom does not seem to comport with the portrait painted in the New Testament of a Christ-follower’s relationship to the world. Postmillennialism posits a coming time when “the kingdom’s graciousness and righteous influence will totally penetrate the world” (Blaising et al., 1999, pp. 41). However, Scripture teaches there will be godlessness and difficulty in the last days (2 Tim 3:1-9) and that “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim 3:12). Jesus warned that the world would treat His disciples the way it treated him: “A servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:20). While in the world, believers are admonished to “Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy, the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). In the Sermon on the Mount, our Lord proclaimed, “Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man!” (Matt 5:11, Luke 6:22). Jesus often stressed the substantial cost of discipleship (Matt 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23, 14:25-33). And in the parable of the persistent widow (Luke 18:1-8), Jesus asks “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (v. 8). The answer is yes, but implicit in the question is the idea that many will not remain faithful to Him.

In the face of these teachings, postmillennialism’s belief in a future “in which faith, peace, and prosperity will prevail in the affairs of people and of nations” (Blaising et al., 1999, p. 13) feels something like a “prosperity eschatology” in which God’s will is not for His people to be holy, obedient, and loving, but rather wealthy, healthy, and happy. Perhaps the relatively comfortable faith life of Christians in the modern West (a global and historical anomaly) is a factor in this eschatology. Centuries of freedom of religious expression have left most Western Christians with little price to pay for their faith and largely untouched. From that perspective, the idea that suffering and opposition are a normal part of the Christian life is understandably unpopular.

The Kingdom as the Church Invisible

In light of the Scriptural data above, it appears more probable that the kingdom parables of the mustard seed and the leaven are not geopolitical in scope, but rather teach a growth and expansion of the church invisible; the collection of true believers John Calvin described as including “not only the saints presently living on earth but all the elect from the beginning of the world” (Calvin et al., 2011, p. 101). Calvin contrasted the invisible church with the visible church scattered throughout the world in which “there is a very large mixture of hypocrites, who have nothing of Christ but the name and outward appearance” (p. 101). Accepting the kingdom as the church invisible makes sense of the expansion taught in the parable of the mustard seed without needing to posit further that such expansion refers to socio-political influence, which would appear to contradict the New Testament teachings presented above.[3]

Conclusion

As creation advances toward the parousia, postmillennialism expects that the Gospel will grow to a state of global dominance, resulting in an increase in faith, peace, and prosperity in the world system. Does Scripture support such a hope for the future of the kingdom? While space has only allowed an abbreviated survey of Scripture, the answer discovered is, “It does not seem so.” Scripture supports the kingdom’s future growth, however, not in the sense intended by postmillennialism. The Bible is devoid of descriptions, predictions, or teachings about the Church one day being in a position of political power, social dominance, or containing a majority of the world’s population. Indeed, our Lord taught that “the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matt 7:14). The New Testament’s consistent teaching is that true believers can expect to be persecuted in the world. Rather than “a Golden Age in which Christian ethics prosper” (Steineker, 2010, p. 132), Jesus taught that in the world, we will have tribulation (John 16:33). This sentiment is echoed by the apostle Paul who wrote that “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim 3:12).

Thankfully, this conclusion does not rob us of optimism about the future of believers on Earth. Although the postmillennial expectation of a pre-parousia age of peace and prosperity does not appear warranted, Scripture still offers incredible hope for the kingdom’s future. We can still experience love, peace, and joy in the time before Christ returns to “wipe away every tear” (Rev 21:4). Scripture is clear that in Christ, we can find peace amid the storm, joy within our struggles, and victory despite a lack of global Gospel dominance. Our Lord taught as much. “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). This dual expectation of hope and suffering in the world is expressed beautifully in Paul’s words to Timothy:

For this reason, I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands, for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control. Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the Gospel by the power of God, who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, and which now has been manifested through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the Gospel, for which I was appointed a preacher and apostle and teacher, which is why I suffer as I do.

2 Timothy 1:6-12

‌Footnotes

[1] See: Matthew 3:2, 4:14, 10:7, 12:28; Mark 9:1, 12:34; Luke 8:1, 9:2; Galatians 4:4; Ephesians 1:7-10.

[2] The term shoot is used in this allegory to refer to a messianic descendant of David who will restore his royal line; namely Christ. The NIV Biblical Theology Study Bible concludes that Jesus “will rule over a renewed and mighty kingdom, which the mountain on which the cedar is planted symbolizes” (Carson, 2018). In other words, in this allegory, it is the mountain, not the tree that symbolizes the kingdom.

[3] Perhaps a hint of this kind of expansion of the invisible church can be found in modern China where, despite overwhelming persecution and suffering, the Christian church is experiencing explosive growth.


References

Barker, K. L., R, J., Verbrugge, V., & Polcyn, R. (2004). The expositor’s Bible commentary. Zondervan.

Blaising, C. A., Gentry, K. L., Strimple, R. B., & Bock, D. L. (1999). Three views on the millennium and beyond: premillennialism, postmillennialism, amillennialism. Zondervan.

Calvin, J., Ford Lewis Battles, & Mcneill, J. T. (2011). Calvin: institutes of the Christian religion. Westminster John Knox Press.

Carson, D. A. (2018). NIV biblical theology study Bible: follow God’s redemptive plan as it unfolds throughout Scripture [Previously published as NIV Zondervan Study Bible]. Zondervan.

Murray, G. L. (1972). Millennial studies: a search for truth. Grand Rapids, Baker Book House.

North, G. (1990). Millennialism and social theory. Institute for Christian Economics.

Steineker, D. T. (2010). Greatest commandment: Mathew 22. West Bow Pr.

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