Eschatology and Politics

Christianity and Politics X: Future Hope and Present Striving

Note: This is Part 10 of an ongoing series. See Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6, and Part 7, Part 8, and Part 9.


Pastor John MacArthur preached a sermon in 2021 in which he addressed Christian political and cultural endeavors. In the sermon, MacArthur warned that American Christians would face increasing levels of persecution in the coming years. He also insisted that Christians would not be able to avoid this persecution, urging his hearers to remember biblical teaching that the church will suffer and be outwardly defeated in this age. In this sermon, MacArthur specifically contrasted his position with the position of postmillennialism:

We don’t win down here, we lose. You ready for that? Oh, you were a postmillennialist, you thought we were just going to go waltzing into the Kingdom if you took over the world? No, we lose here — get it? It killed Jesus. It killed all the apostles. We’re all going to be persecuted.

Bracketing out for the moment whether this is an accurate reflection of postmillennialist teaching, MacArthur’s words highlight something important. Regardless of one’s eschatological position, eschatology can have a significant impact on how Christians approach the world around them. In this article, I aim to look at the ways in which premillennialism, postmillennialism, and amillennialism affect cultural and political engagement. There are two sides to such an analysis. One is eschatological theory, which is easier to describe. The other is how each eschatological system is put into practice by individuals holding the theory. A very interesting and significant diversity opens up when looking at actual practice. Proponents of a single system don’t always agree with each other on the real-world implications of their system. I would argue additionally that proponents of a system don’t always act in ways that are consistent with the teaching of that system. This fact creates some strange, though not always infelicitous, tensions. I will attempt to describe each eschatological system as their own proponents would define them before I evaluate them with regard to their bearing on Christian cultural and political activity.


The aspects of premillennialism most pertinent to how eschatology relates to culture and politics are its understanding of the 1000 years (i.e., the millennium) mentioned in Rev 20:1–10, the period of tribulation that precedes that millennium (based on texts such as Rev 7:14), and the general state of the world in the time between Christ’s ascension and the beginning of the final tribulation period.

Historical and dispensational premillennialists agree that in the future there will be a literal, bodily reign of Christ in Jerusalem for 1000 years and that this millennium comes after a time of increased persecution and tribulation in the world. They disagree, however, on the nature of the tribulation period. Historical premillennialists believe that the millennium comes after the whole church (Jewish and Gentile believers in Christ) suffers a period of intense tribulation, whereas dispensationalists contend that all Christians will be removed from the earth immediately before this intense period of tribulation begins in what they call the rapture. Among dispensationalists, there is some debate over the precise timing of the rapture, though most believe it occurs before the final tribulation. Due to an understanding of certain prophecies in Daniel, most dispensationalists believe this tribulation will last for seven years.

Historical premillennialists maintain that there is one people of God made up of all Jews and Gentiles who believe in Christ and that all believers will be bodily raised to reign with Christ in the literal millennium. Dispensationalists, on the other hand, maintain that there is an earthly people of God (Israel) and a spiritual people of God (the church), that the church age prior to the tribulation was not foretold in OT prophecy, and that only Jews converted during the tribulation are raised from the dead to reign with Christ in Jerusalem during the millennium. They also believe that the 1948 restoration of Israel to the “promised land” is a marker of the imminent nearness of the rapture, tribulation, and millennium.

Most premillennialists believe that things will get worse for Christians from an outward perspective throughout the time between Christ’s ascension and the rapture, and that they will get rapidly worse immediately before the rapture (dispensationalist premillennialists) or millennium (historical premillennialists). To a significant degree their understanding of the worsening situation is based on texts like Christ’s “Olivet Discourse” (Matthew 24; Luke 21) where he speaks of many signs and ominous portends that will be manifest as that time draws near.

Dispensationalists’ sense that things will get worse throughout this age also arises naturally out of the dispensational ordering of God’s plan for human history. They break up the entirety of that history into several eras (usually seven), or dispensations, in which each dispensation is defined by a divine test for humanity, a failure to pass that test, and then the inauguration of a new dispensation with a new test (which will also be met with failure). It is predetermined that each dispensation will end in failure. This includes the dispensation in which we currently live as we await the rapture. If all efforts at improving a society or nation are doomed to failure, it might be understandable for there to be little motivation to work at those improvements. This is sometimes captured in the old dispensationalist catchphrase: “You don’t polish brass on a sinking ship.”

What is particularly striking, however, is that premillennialists (and dispensationalists are by far the largest sector of that eschatological school) are the most politically active segment of the conservative evangelical electorate. Perhaps they do not invest as much energy into other areas of cultural production, but premillennialists do not treat politics as if it is a sinking ship. Is this an inconsistency in their theology? Perhaps. But even John MacArthur’s reasoning for accepting that “we lose down here” doesn’t appear to be primarily based on the tenets of premillennial eschatology, but rather on the sense that the spiritual nature of Christ’s kingdom is at odds with a nation or its institutions operating in any sense in an explicitly Christian fashion. MacArthur’s own church has been very active in fighting back against unjust political and judicial state actions in the last few years, though this is more of a defensive posture than an offensive one. They certainly haven’t taken MacArthur’s claim that “we lose down here” entirely literally.


Postmillennialism is a simpler eschatological system than premillennialism. The rapture does not figure into postmillennialism, nor do debates over the timing of a period of tribulation preceding the millennium. An older form of postmillennialism did argue for a literal 1000-year reign of Christ, which would be a future golden age of evangelism and Christianizing of the world, although it argued that Christ reigned from heaven during this time, not bodily in Jerusalem (as in premillennialism). The most common form of postmillennialism today does not argue for a literal 1000-year reign of Christ, but instead understands the millennium of Revelation 20 to be a symbolic or visionary depiction of the entire time between Christ’s first and second coming. Both forms of postmillennialism contend that the millennium will be a time in which the gospel advances and triumphs in the world, and that alongside that triumph there will be a righteous transformation of human culture and institutions. The older view insists that things will get gradually better throughout this entire age, but will get suddenly and dramatically better when the millennium arrives. The newer, more popular, view simply sees that transformation as gradually taking place until the return of Christ.

Probably the primary biblical support adduced for postmillennialism is the staggering transformation of the world in the messianic age depicted in OT prophecies (e.g., Isaiah 35; Isa 65:17–25; Joel 3:18) and the NT teaching on the advance and growth of the kingdom of God in the world (e.g., Matt 13:31–33; Mark 4:8). Additionally, the very fact that Christ is the sovereign Lord of the universe, the triumphant king of Psalm 2 who “shall break [the nations] with a rod of iron,” is commonly appealed to as supporting the notion that the world’s institutions will slowly, but surely, be sanctified before Christ returns.

Postmillennialists often insist that postmillennialism is necessary to motivate Christians to seek to do good in the realm of society. The thought is essentially this: if your efforts aren’t going to last, if they aren’t going to be successful, then what’s the point? Even assuming for the sake of argument that postmillennialism is true, according to its own teaching, the cultural and political triumph of Christianity in an earthly, institutional sense in the world is not guaranteed in the short term. We would not be guaranteed to succeed in anything in the immediate future, perhaps even in our own lifetimes, although there is never a point in which the advance of the gospel in the world is thwarted. Since the timeline for the triumph of Christ over all realms of life may indeed be vast (hundreds of millennia for all we know) it could be the case that the church and the institutions Christians build may experience mostly outward hostility, and maybe even outward defeat, for a very long time. In my experience, this feature of standard postmillennial teaching doesn’t always figure into the understanding of postmillennialists in practice regarding the outcome of their personal labors in the short term.  

On the other hand, even if postmillennialism is not true, the simple fact that postmillennialists live as if it is true has brought about many significant changes in history. One could think of the Puritan founding of New England, the rapid expansion of Reformed missions in the 19th century, or even the contemporary example of the constellation of successful institutions associated with Douglas Wilson. Confidence is a remarkably powerful force for success. Postmillennialism certainly provides a strong motivation for vigorous work in culture and politics.


Amillennialists agree with the newer form of postmillennialism regarding the symbolic and visionary nature of Revelation 20’s millennium: it is a visionary, not literal, depiction of Christ’s heavenly reign over the earth in the time between his first and second coming. The amillennial eschatological system, like the postmillennial one, is simple. The millennium spans the entirety of this age. During this age, the kingdom of God will advance to the four corners of the earth and then at the very end of the age, there will be a brief outbreak of Satanic opposition to God’s kingdom (Rev 20:3, 17–20), which will be crushed by Christ as he returns to save his people once-and-for-all and usher in the new creation.

Where amillennialists disagree with postmillennialists is over the latter’s insistence that even the non-churchly institutions of this world will necessarily become increasingly Christian over time. Amillennialism teaches that the kingdom of God will spread throughout the whole earth, but that this can happen in the midst of outward opposition and hostility. The amillennial view is not identical with the premillennial view, however, on the point of premillennialists’ inbuilt cultural pessimism, a pessimism derived from their understanding that every dispensation ends in human failure. I do not see anything inherent in amillennialism that would lead one to conclude that all Christian striving in society and politics is doomed to failure.

The version of “two kingdoms theology” taught by David VanDrunen and others, who are also amillennial, urges acceptance of the idea that Christians cannot transform human institutions. However, this idea is not based primarily on their eschatology, but rather on their fear that attempting to bring Christian truth to bear on realms outside of salvation and church life is detrimental to the church. Their main fear appears to be “that believers will confuse the earthly kingdoms of man for the kingdom of God” in their striving to apply scripture and natural law to the kingdoms of man. There is no intrinsic reason, however, why one could not seek vigorously to cultivate earthly Christian institutions even while ensuring that the institutional church does not deviate from its spiritual task of preaching the gospel, administering the sacraments, shepherding the sheep, and carrying out church discipline.

The first generation of Protestant Reformers held to a form of Augustinian amillennialism, and this was dominant in Reformed churches for several centuries, though the English Puritans held a form of postmillennial eschatology. Holding the Augustinian position did not in any way discourage the Reformers (or, for that matter, any Christian going back to Augustine) from seeking to establish enduring Christian institutions. They built schools, universities, almshouses, hospitals, and more, all on explicitly Christian foundations. They sought to reform family life according to Scripture. They also recognized that the state is a divine institution, and as such, is subject to regulation according to divine revelation, whether in scripture or God’s law revealed in nature. To put it more succinctly: Augustinian amillennialism built Christendom, no mean feat.

A just political order was supremely important to the Reformers. But for the Reformers politics —like any cultural endeavor—was not grounded in eschatology, whether it be “optimistic” or “pessimistic.” It was grounded, instead, in the created order, in divine wisdom and law, and in the divine institution of the state. What is needed for good government (in all realms of life), in other words, is not the promise of increasing victories over time, but a right understanding of what man is, and what he needs as a social being. The divine ordering of the universe is meant to be reflected in the human ordering of the world, and of human societies. The 16th century (Augustinian) Lutheran theologian Niels Hemmingsen explained the basis for a good political system like this (On the Law of Nature, p. 80):

The end of political life is a calm and peaceful state of polities through political actions, all of which ought to be referred to this: that a just harmony of political order be maintained, with proportionate justice preserved among men, and that God be established in human society as the ultimate end of human society. One must watch out, therefore, lest political actions wander away from this end of goods. Because the rationale of preserving the whole is the same as that of preserving the individual parts, insofar as it pertains to the type of actions, the same virtues are required here as we said were required in individual men and then in individual families.

Or more briefly, Hemmingsen contends, what “laws (those that justly deserve this name) look to . . . and intend [is] this: that men unite together with one another by means of justice, in order that their association with one another may be holy and enduring” (On the Law of Nature, p. 4). Most classic Protestant systematic theologies placed the discussion of the state under the heading of the church, not eschatology, since they were explaining how these two divine institutions in the world should be related.

It didn’t matter for the Reformers whether they would win or lose with regard to the non-churchly institutions they built. Or perhaps better put: they didn’t believe they had a guarantee from God one way or the other. They certainly strove for success and victory in their earthly labors, including the maintenance of a just political order, though Christ’s own words led to an expectation that such strivings would always be attended with trials and suffering (John 15:20; cf. 2 Tim 3:12).. But what mattered most was faithfulness. They knew that God would bless faithfulness and that God had revealed in scripture and nature what makes for a just political order. That was a sufficient motivation to pursue virtue and goodness in society and in the state. The results they left to God.

This is not a form of defeatist fatalism. It is a simple recognition that God had never promised that our cultural labors would succeed enduringly. Premillennialists often operate as if they have a promise from God that their work will inevitably fail, while postmillennialists sometimes labor as if their work is guaranteed to succeed, even though that is not actually a component of postmillennial teaching. Obedience to God, and striving for goodness and truth in all areas of life, is intrinsically worthwhile even if outward success is not guaranteed. It is worthwhile because God is pleased with it and will reward it, even if the fullness of the reward is reserved for the next life (1 Pet 1:3–9; etc.).

In the end, no eschatological system believes everything good that is produced in the world will endure wholly intact through the transformation of the world at the end of time. Interestingly, all three eschatological systems end in the exact same place, a period of intense tribulation for the church at the end of this age. For amillennialists and postmillennialists this tribulation is the rebellion of Satan at the end of the millennium, to be followed immediately by the final triumph of Christ as he returns to earth to destroy his and our enemies, and rescue his people once and for all (Rev 20:3, 7–10). For dispensationalists, this tribulation is the precursor to the rapture and the final tribulation prior to the establishment of the literal millennium (which is then concluded with another tribulation). Thus, even the triumphs of postmillennial expectation give way to outward defeat and destruction, which is a good reminder for all Christians, regardless of eschatology, that in this age of sin and sorrow, we seek “a better country, that is, a heavenly one” (Heb 11:16), and a “city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God” (Heb 11:10).


I’m an amillennialist, so I won’t pretend to be above the fray with a uniquely neutral take on eschatology. That said, I would contend that the main significance of eschatology is not that it is the driver of Christian activism in the world, but that it is the source of the Christian’s ultimate hope in a fallen world. The trials of the church, and even the glories of the Christian past, are not ultimate. Christ is coming back and every knee will bow before him on that day. Jesus Christ “will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Rev 21:4). We will behold our savior “face to face” (1 Cor 13:12). All things will be made new (Rev 21:5). We may be confident that Christ will be honored with our lives lived faithfully in service to him, whether we live or die, whether we are outwardly victorious or outwardly defeated (see Phil 1:18f–20). All of this is why eschatology truly matters.

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Ben C. Dunson is Founding and Contributing Editor of American Reformer. He is also Visiting Professor of New Testament at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary (Greenville, SC), having previously taught at Reformed Theological Seminary (Dallas, TX), Reformation Bible College (Sanford, FL), and Redeemer University (Ontario, Canada). He lives in the northern suburbs of Dallas with his wife and four boys.

3 thoughts on “Eschatology and Politics

  1. I too am an amillennialist and my activism, which includes anti-war activism and participation in Occupy Wall Street, is not based on my eschatology. Rather my activism is based on the concept of stewardship in the particular setting in which I have been placed: America in the 20th and 21st centuries. The collapse of the 1964 Phillies taught me early on in life to not to be optimistic about the future. The reverse of the curse on the Sox in 2004 taught me not to be a fatalist.

    My problem with Augustine’s and the Reformers’ concepts of the state is that they were written during Christendom. And that means that one has take into account the cultural effects that Christendom carried into what they wrote. That doesn’t mean that we should throw out everything of what they said about the state. But, along with the fact that they were not writing the Scriptures, because of the cultural effects that Christendom carried with itself, we should NOTaccept everything that Augustine and the Reformers said about the state. Rather, we need to test all that they said with the Scriptures, especially with the New Testament.

    The question that comes with being from the Reformed traditions is deciding which side is correct between the Reformed 2KT and the various forms of Transformationalism. On the one hand, Reformed 2KT takes away the Church’s prophetic voice by not allowing the Church to speak as an institution to the corporate sins of the state. On the other hand, transformationalists do not understand that we are to share society with unbelievers as equals. That lack of understanding is apparent in milder forms of Transformationalism, such as that promoted by Tim Keller, as well as in its strongest forms, such as theonomists and all of the forms of Christian Nationalism. So just as Martin Luther King Jr. did with Capitalism and Communism, we from the Reformed tradition need a hybrid approach combining the best of 2KT and Transformationalism.

    1. You’re missing an option: the historic Reformed two-kingdoms view, as distinct from the one espoused by Scott Clark, VanDrunen, etc.
      Of course, the historic Reformed view is the one you disparage as “Christian Nationalism,” as it holds no truck with your politically atheistic notion that “we are to share society with unbelievers as equals”.
      But I’ll pre-emptively decline your inevitable invitation to “test all that [the Reformers] said with the Scriptures,” because that’s already happened, and I’m happy with my answers there. I already know that you aren’t, and I don’t care. Neither should anyone else.

      1. Ryan,
        Sharing society with unbelievers as equals is not just a political view of mine, it is what I read in the Scriptures, especially the New Testament.

        As for testing what the Reformers wrote with the Scriptures having already been done, in reality, that is always the job of each believer. That testing with the Scriptures contributes to tying each believer to the Scriptures. Otherwise, we are blindly trusting someone’s work on what the Reformers wrote and thus we might be tied to someone else’s work more than to the Scriptures. If the Bereans did it with Paul, we should do the same with whomever we are reading or listening to.

        BTW, I don’t look at Christian Nationalism as being monolithic. There are several forms of Christian Nationalism and they vary in the amount of control that they would enable Christians to have over society. And Christian Nationalism is a subclass–to use an Object-Oriented term–of Transformationalism. And so Christian Nationalism is not the only kind of Transformationalism.

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