Stop Saying That Amillennialism Is “Pessimistic” But Postmillennialism Is “Optimistic”

This is a classic case of begging the question, i.e., assuming what has to be proved. People regularly say that amillennialism is “pessimistic” but postmillennialism is “optimistic.” Who is pessimistic about what? Define pessimism. Who says? By what standard?

I say that amillennialism is truly optimistic in the way the New Testament is optimistic. Was Pilate able to keep Jesus in the tomb? No. Is that power still operating today? Yes, indeed it is. That is the best good news.

Chiliasts And Postmillennialists Together

The chiliasts (historic premillennialists) hold that Jesus intends to return and establish an earthly kingdom for a literal millennium. They say this on the basis of Revelation 20:6: “Blessed and holy is the one who has a part in the first resurrection; over these the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with Him for a thousand years” (NASB).

Our postmillennial friends reject a literal millennium but they agree with the chiliasts that there will be a period of earthly glory. Richard J. Bauckham distinguishes two kinds of postmillennialism. One he calls Joachimist postmillennialism because, like Joachim of Fiore (c. 1135–1202), it looks forward to an “age of the Spirit” i.e., “a period of spiritual prosperity and peace for the church on earth, which was identified with the millennium of Rev. 20, though not primarily derived from that text.” He finds another version of this view in Thomas Brightman (d. 1607), who taught that “…the millennium would come about through the Spirit-empowered preaching of the gospel, resulting in the conversion of the world and the world-wide spiritual reign of Christ through the gospel.” This is quite close to what we most often see among the modern postmillennial movement (e.g., Lorraine Boettner, though his view incorporated some aspects of the nineteenth-century idea of social/technological progress). The theonomic Reconstructionist movement looks forward to a coming social collapse out of which will emerge a reconstructed Christian society in which the earth will be mostly converted before Christ’s return. In a time when Christians and Christianity seem increasingly marginal socially, this vision of the future is as attractive as it is hard to justify from the New Testament or the New Testament’s reading of the Old Testament. Both the chiliasts and the postmillennialists, in different ways, are looking forward to a period of earthly glory.

Amillennialists Apart

Augustinian Amillennialists, as Bauckham describes them, reject the idea of a literal 1,000 year reign of Christ after his return (chiliasm) and they expect no earthly glory age (e.g., a converted world) before Christ returns.

The millennium of Revelation 20:5–6 is a figure of speech. It was never meant to be taken to describe an earthly millennial reign any more than the blood of Revelation 14:20 is meant to taken to refer to literal blood.

The chiliast method of reading texts (hermeneutic) requires us to hold something like this: The lake of fire of Revelation 19:20 is a figure of speech, the sword of 19:21 is figurative, the key of 20:1, the thrones, souls, and mark of 20:4 are figurative, but the “thousand years” of 20:5–6 are to be taken to refer to a literal, earthly period of 1,000 years. To most of the church since the Patristic period (though there were notable orthodox chiliasts) this has seemed improbable.

Amillennialism, however, holds that the 1,000 years of Revelation 20:5–6 is figurative, just like the other figures of speech in the Revelation, the most highly and consistently figurative book in the canon of Scripture.

It holds that the ascended Priest-King Jesus is reigning right now (Acts 2:22–36: Heb ch. 7–10) and that he has been since the ascension. This is the millennium in the same way that the last days were inaugurated with the ascension of Christ (Acts 2:17; 2 Tim 3:1; Heb 1:2; James 5:3; 2 Pet 3:3).

The postmillennial hermeneutic typically requires us to read the Old Testament either in isolation from the New or in a way that the New Testament writers do not. In either case, it is not a tenable way of reading the Old Testament. Certainly the Old Testament is replete with promises of a future earthly glory. The question is: What did the New Testament do with those promises and how should we understand them now?

In his Olivet Discourse, our Lord Jesus said,

For as it was in the days of Noah, so shall it be when the Son of Man comes. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark, and they did not understand until the flood came and took them all away; so will the coming of the Son of Man be (Matt 24:37-39).

Was Jesus a pessimist? Was there a glory age on the earth before the flood? It would not seem so. The postmillennialist view has a very difficult time reckoning with such language, which is why so many of them have taken refuge in preterist accounts that refer all such language to the destruction of Jerusalem. Such approaches are, frankly, implausible and even evasive.

Were the Reformation-era Protestants pessimistic? In art. 17 of the Augsburg Confession (1530), the Lutherans confessed, “[The Lutherans] condemn also others who are now spreading certain [Jewish] opinions, that before the resurrection of the dead the godly shall take possession of the kingdom of the world, the ungodly being everywhere suppressed.”

In Second Helvetic Confession (1566) ch. 11, the Swiss Reformed agreed almost verbatim:

We also condemn those who thought that the devil and all the ungodly would at some time be saved, and that there would be an end to punishments. For the Lord has plainly declared: “Their fire is not quenched, and their worm does not die” (Mark 9:44). We further condemn [Jewish] dreams that there will be a golden age on earth before the Day of Judgment, and that the pious, having subdued all their godless enemies, will possess all the kingdoms of the earth. For evangelical truth in Matt., chs. 24 and 25, and Luke, ch. 18, and apostolic teaching in II Thess., ch. 2, and II Tim., chs. 3 and 4, present something quite different.

What has always impressed me is how well both the Augsburg and the Second Helvetic capture the spirit of the (Joachamist) postmillennial movement. Had we not known that they were aiming at the chiliasts, we might be forgiven for thinking that they were aiming directly at postmillennialism. Were the Reformation-era Protestants “pessimistic”?

Recalibrating Optimism

What the postmillennialists call “optimism” we might better call, in the broad sense, Judaizing. That is the point the Lutherans and the Swiss Reformed (and Calvin and others) were making when they denounced this glory-age thinking. For them it was the transposition of Jewish expectations into the Christian eschatology.

It is not pessimistic to say that there will be no earthly glory age before Christ’s return (postmillennialism) or an earthly 1,000 reign after Christ’s return. It is difficult to see how the prerequisite to be “optimistic” is to affirm some sort of earthly golden age, whether literal (chiliastic/premillennial) or figurative (postmillennial).

It is properly optimistic to hold, as the amillennialists do, that the sovereign Lord Jesus is saving every single one for whom he became incarnate, for whom he obeyed, for whom he died, for whom he was raised, and for whom he is interceding now at the right hand of the Father.

Psalm 2 is describing the present reign of King Jesus:

He who sits in the heavens laughs, ‘

The Lord scoffs at them.

Then He will speak to them in His anger

And terrify them in His fury, saying,

“But as for Me, I have installed My King

Upon Zion, My holy mountain” (Ps 2:4–6; NASB95).

It holds that no earthly power can stop the spread of the Kingdom of God through the due of his divinely ordained means (the preaching of the holy gospel and the use of the holy sacraments). Truly, the gates of hell will not prevail against Christ’s kingdom because they cannot. No evil civil ruler or cultural power can prevent the sovereign Holy Spirit from working powerfully through the gospel and sacraments, from conforming Christ’s flock to Christ’s image.

The first comfort of the martyrs has always been that Christ is reigning now and, in his sovereign, mysterious providence, he sometimes sends his children through great suffering. A second comfort, however, which we find richly reflected in the Revelation, is that justice is coming. That is why French Reformed (Huguenot) martyrs sang Psalm 68 on the way to the gallows. “God shall arise and by his might, put all his enemies to flight.” They knew that justice delayed is not justice denied. They knew that our ruling King Jesus will return in glory to consummate the defeat of his enemies that he inaugurated on the cross. They knew that he sits in the heavens and laughs at his enemies, who will be crying at that last day. He will cast them into the pit and heaven will rejoice. Our chiliast and postmillennial friends want an earthly glory age and all the amillennialists are saying is: wait. There will be a new heavens and a new earth. It will not be a literal 1,000-year glory age and it will not precede Christ’s return, but there will be a glory age.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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6 comments

  1. A “grammar guerrilla” (more accurately, Semantics Sniper) point: When I was growing up, neither “optimism” nor “pessimism” included realism within its range of meaning. Constant misuse of these words by broadcasters seems to have changed the meanings of these words in general usage – but should we accept this?

  2. Okay, from now on I am optimistic about the future in a realist frame! One question:
    What Bauckham source are you citing?

  3. “It is difficult to see how the prerequisite to be “optimistic” is to affirm some sort of earthly golden age, whether literal (chiliastic/premillennial) or figurative (postmillennial).” This is the crux of the biscuit.

    Riddlebarger’s Amillennilalism book helped me be even more Amil (and optimistic-ha).

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