Winning by Losing?

Further Reflections on Eschatology and Politics

Last week I wrote on how eschatology should not determine the nature of Christian political and cultural action. In the 2021 sermon that I quoted MacArthur says this about the prospects for Christian cultural transformation in this age: “We lose on this battlefield, but we win on the big one, the eternal one.” In my article, I didn’t really evaluate MacArthur’s claims. I simply used them as an example of ways in which contemporary eschatology can affect Christian cultural and political engagement.

In this column, I want to examine MacArthur’s claim in more depth. Is it true that the church in this age wins by losing? Yes, in fact. This is a biblical claim, rightly understood. But it does not justify the use to which MacArthur attempts to put it.

One of the most striking examples of this biblical teaching is found in Revelation 20:1–10. (Charles Spurgeon once said that only fools and madmen are certain in their interpretation of the book of Revelation. Some readers will likely think this is even more the case with regard to chapter 20. Fool, madman, or otherwise, I will take the risk.) Premillennialists tend to read Revelation 20 as if it is describing events that will take place during a literal period of 1000 years that comes after a period of intense tribulation on earth. This interpretation can point especially to the fact that Satan is described as bound and imprisoned during this period, thus unable to deceive the nations (Rev 20:2–3). They also understand the latter half of Revelation 19 to refer to the final judgment, with the events of chapter 20 following sequentially in time.

This is unlikely, for the following reasons. Revelation is a series of visions, or signs, shown to John (Rev 1:1–2). Many read Revelation as if it presents a continuous historical narrative. Thus, Revelation 20 would be later in history than Revelation 6, and so on. This is clearly false. Each separate vision is a distinct unit. It is not the case that we are moving across time in Revelation when we encounter words and phrases such as “after this” (Rev 4:1; 7:1; 18:1; etc.) or “then” (Rev 5:1; 10:1; 11:1; etc.). Those time indicators tell us the order in which John sees the visions, not that the visions present a continuous unfolding of time from one vision to the next (see Zechariah for the OT background to this type of prophetic imagery). We should think of Revelation more like a series of paintings in an art gallery than like watching a movie or reading a novel. Each individual vision is a separate painting, as it were. This is not to say that time doesn’t elapse in Revelation. But if it does, it does so within an individual vision, such as the movement from Christ’s birth to his ascension in Rev 12:5. What is described in Revelation 20, therefore, should not be assumed to follow sequentially in time from Revelation 19 simply because it follows Revelation 19 in the letter.

In actual point of fact, chapter 20 (vv. 7–10) ends in real-world history at the exact same place as chapter 19 (vv. 17–21), the final battle between God and Satan (prophesied in Ezekiel 38–39). The standard postmillennial and amillennial interpretations of Rev 20:1–10 argue that the 1000 years is a symbolic number representing the entire time between Christ’s first and second coming. The main difficulty with this interpretation is Satan’s binding in Rev 20:1–3. However, Satan was clearly bound at the cross, where his power to accuse Christians was removed, as was his ability to hinder the spread of the gospel to all nations. Immediately before Christ’s return, Satan will be released for a brief period of rebellious attack on God’s people (Rev 20:3, 7–9; see also 2 Thessalonians 2). Then he will be cast into hell forever (Rev 20:10).

In Rev 20:4 we read the following:

Then I saw thrones, and seated on them were those to whom the authority to judge was committed. Also I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. 

As I’ve already mentioned, contemporary postmillennialists and amillennialists understand the 1000 years of Revelation 20:1–10 as a visionary image of the entirety of the time between Christ’s first and second coming. And here we have an explicit instance of the Bible teaching that we “win by losing.” That is to say, remaining faithful to Christ and his word, even to the point of death, is not a defeat at all. It is paradoxically the saints’ victory. It is a coming to life and reigning with Christ for a thousand years. “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matt 16:25). Postmillennialists and amillennialists alike see this text as referring to the experience of Christian suffering and persecution in this age.

Premillennialists see the 1000 years as taking place in the future, but even they understand the death of the saints described in Rev 20:4 as having taken place in this age, prior to the millennium. In the premillennial view those thus killed will be resurrected to reign with Christ in the future millennium. All eschatological systems then place the death of the saints described in Rev 20:4 in the present age. When we “lose,” when Christians are killed for their faith in Christ, we win. Satan cannot thwart the plan of God, and cannot ultimately defeat the child of God. No matter what happens to the Christian in this age, future victory is guaranteed.

That is to say, all eschatological systems understand that the outward defeat of Christians or the church is not ultimate defeat. All eschatological systems should likewise recognize that suffering hostility is a common feature of this age. Postmillennialists believe this suffering will lessen over time, but since they don’t know that timeline they must still recognize that the sort of “losing through winning” described in Rev 20:4 is often the lot of Christians in this age. It is certainly what every believer must be prepared for at any point in history: will we hold fast to the testimony of Christ even in the face of persecution and death for doing so? Even if one is “beheaded for the testimony of Jesus” he will spiritually “come to life and reign with Christ for a thousand years.” Amillennialists do not expect that such suffering will systematically lessen over time, so it is probably easier for them to accept the idea that persecuted Christians “win by losing,” and that God promises ultimate vindication to his suffering and persecuted people. However, all eschatological systems have to find a way to incorporate this idea into their thinking in some way.

Yes, “we win by losing” if we understand this rightly. The Christian is guaranteed no ultimate triumph over Satan, sin, or the flesh in this age (even postmillennialists accept this in the short term). The implications MacArthur draws out of “winning by losing,” however, are not correct. We can see his reasoning in another comment in the sermon referenced above (speaking of the 2020 election): 

You think we lost an election? No. No. We don’t win anything in this world. We’re not trying to gain this. Is there anything in this world we’re trying to gain? “For to me to live again is” – what? – “Christ.” 

Christians “don’t win anything in this world.” We don’t win elections, we don’t win the culture, “we’re not trying to gain” these things, MacArthur insists.

The error in MacArthur’s analysis becomes clear with further reflection. Would any Christian argue that the fact that Christians will suffer tribulation in this age (John 16:33) means that they should not seek to establish, defend, and uphold their families? Would any Christian argue that it means we should not create businesses and seek to make them profitable? That we should not build excellent, successful schools and colleges? That art, music, and literature are worthless? And all because “we lose down here?” I have never seen any Christian make such claims, MacArthur included.

In all of these areas of life, we do not win by losing. We win by winning. This is obvious. Why, then, are politics and culture hermetically sealed off from all other realms of life? Why would it be the case that only in these earthly endeavors we must say that we win by losing? This makes no sense. In political action and cultural labors, we win by winning. Victory is possible, though not at any point guaranteed. But we’re not talking about ultimate victory when we say this. It is not possible to usher in the kingdom of God through earthly politics, any more than it is by creating strong Christian families. Christ advances his kingdom by his word and the Holy Spirit. But that does not make every other area of life superfluous for the Christian. We should strive for success in every God-honoring vocation, whether raising families, building businesses, or yes, even political and cultural action. In this last realm, too, we win by winning. It makes as much sense to suggest otherwise as it does to insist that we win a game of baseball by losing 10-0.

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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.

6 thoughts on “Winning by Losing?

  1. Right, but trying to win precludes diffusing authority and responsibility into an impersonal, unaccountable “system”. It means requiring the complacent and cowardly to commit to decisive personal action.
    If our leaders weren’t complacent and cowardly, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.
    So, I say again: any proposed solution that doesn’t involve a whole lot of people losing their jobs is no solution at all.

  2. I would modify MacArthur’s statement by saying that ‘we win by remaining faithful.’ In Psalms 106, Israel is described as having given into its passions because if forgot what God had done for them and thus were not willing to wait for God’s plan to come to fruition. So part of remaining faithful is to constantly remember what God has done for us both in terms of redemption and providence. Another part of remaining faithful is to realize that because of Christ, we have a winning future that unbelievers don’t have.

    In addition to remaining faithful, we need to be good stewards of our time, our gifts, and our opportunities. And part of that stewardship is to try our best to protect the reputation of the Gospel. Because, as James said, ‘we all stumble in many ways,’ we will all have times of hurting the reputation of the Gospel. And one of the ways we will hurt the reputation of the Gospel is by misrepresenting what the Scriptures say. And though it is easy to see how Dispensationalism can hurt the reputation of the Gospel, Dispensationalists are our peers here because we all have our own ways of misrepresenting the Gospel.

    All of that is why we need to test all that we say with the Scriptures. Some of what fellow believers have said in the past can help us, but, like us, because they had their moments of misrepresenting the Gospel, some of what they have said can cause us to harm the reputation of the Gospel. And all of that is one of the reasons why we must always pray the prayer of the Tax Collector rather than the Pharisee (Luke 18:9-14).

    1. If I didn’t know otherwise, I’d begin to suspect that this tangential self-indulgence was AI generated. . . .

      1. Ryan,
        Having trouble with some cognitive dissonance? Perhaps it’s your assumptions that need adjusting.

        Seriously though, that you and some others feel so free to insult and accuse a fellow believer in Christ is problematic. That is especially true when you make no effort to prove any of my claims to be wrong.

        1. Nope. Not going to, either. The point isn’t to “prove any of [your] claims to be wrong.” It’s to dismiss your “claims,” regardless of their content, as being made in bad faith.
          I’m not saying you’re wrong about everything. I’m saying it doesn’t matter.

          1. Ryan,
            Dismissing claims rather than proving them false is an authoritarian response. Let alone the obvious problem that if you cannot prove a claim to be false, then dismissing it means a possible attack on truth and reality.

            Authoritarian responses try to silence people. That is because authoritarian responses are driven by fear. The rational approach is to try to engage in respectful dialogues. I really prefer that we have rational dialogues. It’s up to you.

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