Amillennialism, Two Kingdoms and the Church’s Identity (Part Two)
If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all bring their eschatology charts, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds? Eschatology is a bizarre thing. I have to confess that I even find some of the discussions to be somewhat kooky, if not totally boorish. And I’m still not sure what sounds more ridiculous to unbelievers, the story of the Gospel or Christian philosophizing on the end times. After all, the typical eschatology sermon or conference message makes it sound like the speaker is about one blown synapse away from going Harold Camping on us. Seriously, no seriously, eschatology is a weird thing.
Perhaps the reason eschatology is so weird and quite honestly, downright lame most of the time, is because the debates about eschatology have nothing to do with present day life. How many people have walked away from a talk about eschatology and thought to themselves, “Hmmm… I think this is going to have a huge impact on my life?” Chalk that comment up for the next episode of “Sh*t Nobody Says.”
With all of this in mind, my goal here is to continue an effort that I started last week to remove eschatology, specifically Amillenialism, from the scrap heap of practical uselessness. Amillenial eschatology has much to say about the life of the church in the present day. But before we go there, I want to remind my readers that Amillenialism is more than just a debate about the thousand years of Revelation 20. Indeed, as I argued last week, an Amillenial eschatology has no choice but to be associated with two-kingdoms social theory. The underlying ideas behind the two concepts unite them to create an all encompassing philosophical narrative. As such, I will continue to relate them together and my use of the terms “two-kingdoms” and “Amillenialism” will be fluid. It is with this in mind that we consider how Amillenialism informs the church of her present day identity.
Suffering as the Church’s Primary Eschatological Identity
As a serious critic of the entire one-kingdom project, certain concerns have weighed more or less heavily upon me as I have undertaken this two-kingdoms series. Amongst the greatest concerns that I have with the one-kingdom philosophy is that it necessarily skews the churches present day identity. With so much talk of redeeming and renewing the structures around us, it can be no surprise that the church has increasingly expected to find herself in comfortable surroundings. This language of societal renewal has taught believers that Christianity can find a respectable and peaceable home amongst a world now drowning in unbelief. In a place where the church ought to expect suffering and derision, it has gone looking for friendship and accolades. All of this has resulted from a belief that revelatory Christianity has a place in the common realm, the civil kingdom.
Perhaps this is why so many one-kingdom thinkers have led a nascent revival of the Postmillenial position. Indeed if the opposite of two-kingdoms social theory is one-kingdom social theory, then the opposite of Amillenailism is Postmillenialism. A commenter on my previous post had stated that Amillenialism was part of a continuum with some forms of Postmillenialism. I could not disagree more emphatically. While the two views share a generally similar exegetical take on Revelation 20, their belief in the church’s identity could not be more different. Where the church is marked out as a suffering spiritual entity in Amillenialism/two-kingdoms, Postmillenialism/one-kingdom sees that the church as having an identity of temporal triumphalist.
In an essay entitled Theonomy and Eschatology by Richard Gaffin, he critiques Postmillenialism and the more self conscious one-kingdom thinkers, the Bahnesnian disciples, by stating:
The Inaugurated eschatology of the New Testament is least of all the basis for triumphalism in the church, at whatever point prior to Christ’s return. Over the inveradvental period in its entirety, from beginning to end, a fundamental aspect of the church’s existence is (to be) “suffering with Christ”; nothing, the New Testament teaches, is more basic to its identity than that… This mark–this essential mark– of the church’s identity seems muted or largely ignored in much to today’s Postmillenialism… It’s “golden” dreams appear to leave little place for Christian suffering–other than as a perhaps necessary, but temporary means for achieving those dreams, whose realization, in turn, will mean the virtual disappearance of suffering in the church. (p. 211-216)
While the Posmillenialism that Gaffin is critiquing certainly has a number of differences with the pop one-kingdom thinking, the similarities are still so vast that its basic critique is able to remain firmly intact. What else will result from the renewing and transformation of society except the removal of suffering? A golden age in which all things Christian are embraced? Sure, the timeline looks different and the hopes of this golden age may vary but both Postmillenialism and one-kingdom thought share a similar dream.
Amillenialism on the other hand, provides us a vision, in which the church hopes to be a suffering servant until her final victory at the consummation. With an embrace of the Amillenial vision comes a belief that ultimate eschatological victory will only be brought about by God at the final consummation. In the mean time, we suffer for the sake of advancing a spiritual kingdom, not a temporal one. Our ecclesiastical vision is to bring the hope of the Gospel to the nations, even as the nations around us, mock and deride us. We are not here to make civil society a better place. We are here to go out onto the highways and byways to call people to participate in an invisible kingdom, that is a foreshadowing of our final destination. In the power of Jesus’ name we see real outward transformation and even miracles. This is the power of His kingdom. But note that it is His kingdom, not the kingdoms of this world that experience the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. It is this knowledge that leads us to live a life of suffering, that we may invite as many as possible into this invisible kingdom, even at great cost to ourselves.
Consider Paul’s description of the Christian’s life when he says:
But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’s sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal bodies. So death is at work in us, but life in you.-2 Corinthians 4:7-12
So here is our fate Christians. We are those who die. In this period before the eschaton, we live a life that is spiritually representative of Christ’s resurrection (Romans 6 especially) but we live a physical life that is representative of his crucifixion. This is the Amillenial vision.
Going back to Gaffin’s article, he goes on to state:
Any outlook that tends to remove or obscure the (constitutive) dimension of suffering for the Gospel from the present triumph of the church is an illusion. The misplaced expectation, before Christ’s return, of a “golden age” in which, in contrast to the present, opposition to the church will have been reduced to a minimum and suffering will have receded to the periphery for an (at last) “victorious” Christendom–that misconception can only distort the church’s understanding of its mission in the world. According to Jesus, the church will not have drained the shared cup of his suffering until he returns. The church cannot afford to evade to this point. It does so at the risk of jeopardizing it won identity. (p. 219-220)
What we have on our hands is a very serious issue. The two-kingdoms debate can often carry an air of snobby intelligentsia. However, this issue shows that this isn’t just a debate for the ivory tower, but rather, that our decision here could have a massive affect on the church for decades to come.
Over the past few years that has been a renewed optimism about the amount of new biblical churches popping up all over the country. There is a new interest in theology amongst young people, a desire for expository preaching and Christ centered worship. This is all very very good but I do not believe it is overstating the case to say that the acceptance of one-kingdom dogma that has come with so many of these positives, threatens to leave the entire project in ruins. If the churches loses her interadvental identity as suffering servant, she will indeed lose the the gospel, that much is sure. History has proven it to be so.
Pastors, church leaders, bible study leaders and seminary students ought to think twice before picking up the one-kingdom dogma. For if they choose to pick it up, they may find themselves erecting an ecclesiastical identity that is not found in the New Testament.