Puritans in space

I have been asked to expand on the theology of my Lamb Among the Stars trilogy.

I am happy to do so but let me make three things plain at the outset. First, these books are, above all, novels. Their purpose is simply to tell a tale that will, hopefully, intrigue, engross and please readers. Although they are based on a post-millennial theology they were not written in order to popularise that particular view of the ‘End Times’ and they are certainly not ‘fictionalised theology’. Second, I’m no more than an amateur theologian and for full details of the various millennial views the reader needs to look elsewhere. Third, although the books are based on a particular theological position that I think has lot going for it, I am no dogmatic and confrontational holder of this position. I hold my views cautiously and provisionally and I am prepared to accept I am wrong. I will be delighted (if a little surprised) if I am raptured tomorrow.

Now, for those that have not read any of the books, the background of the Lamb Among the Stars series is as follows. After an unparalleled spiritual revival (the ‘Great Intervention’) the human race survives the 21st century and during a long period of grace, peace and blessing, spreads out among the stars. Then, in the year 13,851 evil returns to the most distant of the inhabited worlds and once more men and women must battle with the sin and wrong. And then… Ah, but that would be to spoil the plot.

The Christian reader, particularly one whose main exposure to End Times theologies is the Left Behind books will be inclined to look at this and wonder whether it is orthodox. So let me restate what any general theology book will tell you: namely that Christians have held three basic views of the future, generally termed the pre-millennial, post-millennial and the amillennial positions. All three have a distinguished list of good and godly proponents. The differences between these views (or, better, groups of views) is, as their name suggests, based on alternative interpretations of the thousand year (millennium) period mentioned in Revelation 20 verses 4 and 6, and is roughly as follows. The amillennialist view sees these references as being entirely figurative or symbolic of the Church age and ignores them. And while the pre-millennialist sees the Second Coming of Christ occurring before the millennium while the post-millennialist has it occurring afterwards, we need to note that the nature of the millennium markedly differs between them.

In pre-millennial thinking, the millennium is the literal and physical reign of Christ on an Earth populated with both the living and the resurrected righteous; this lasts for a thousand years before the final rebellion occurs and there is the destruction of Satan and the creation of a new heavens and new earth. In other words, the Second Coming is not really ‘the end’ but only the beginning of a long sequence of events that leads to the final triumph with evil. Speaking for myself, I confess to finding this sort of millennium, with the coexistence of the heavenly and the earthly, the living and the resurrected, and sin and utter holiness, very difficult to envisage. I note that few authors have attempted to describe it.

In contrast, in most post-millennial theology and certainly in my own, the millennium is very different and easier to visualize: a long epoch of divinely given prosperity and blessing in which death, sin and evil are still present but with a greatly reduced influence. It is a golden age in which something of the blessings that were once Adam and Eve’s return to the human race and where the curse of sin is, in large measure, lifted. The kingdom comes. At the end of this millennium (which, incidentally, surely need not be a literal thousand years, as every other number in Revelation is symbolic) there is the ultimate resurgence of evil and then the Second Coming which inaugurates the eternal state.

This, then, is the basic outline of the post-millennial hope. A fuller treatment by a more theologically trained person would point out the biblical basis by going through the Scriptures, no doubt pointing out the promises made to Abraham and the great visions of future blessing recorded in the prophets, notably Isaiah. Yet the fact that the post-millennial view has to explained and defended today is striking because, as Iain Murray has pointed out in his influential little book The Puritan Hope, it was once the view held by most Reformed theologians. Indeed, this vision of a time when the Church would triumph on the earth appears to have been something of a pillar of the thinking of the Puritans and their American successors, including the towering figure of Jonathan Edwards. A strong case can be made that it is this concept of a glorious future that generated the optimism, the sense of ‘manifest destiny’ and the ‘can-do’ mentality that has dominated, not just the mindset of American Christians, but also of the United States as a whole ever since. In fact, I would argue that, although many American Christians hold pre-millennial views, in their hearts they still subscribe to a post-millennial hope.

It would take a church historian to fully detail why, in the 19th century, the influence of post-millennialism waned. What is plain is that it became hijacked by Liberals who, under the influence of Darwinian theory and the ‘Spirit of the Age’, saw the Millennium as something that could be explained by ‘progress’. The millennium soon became a state that human beings were going to reach without God’s help and, of course, at this point, evangelicals quietly withdrew and shifted their allegiance to the growing pre-millennial schemes of interpretation. What is plain is that a biblical post-millennialism does not seem to have been disproved but, like so many other things, simply fell out of fashion. Incidentally, although in my books I do not give the details of the events that inaugurated the millennial period of blessing (it is ancient history for the protagonists) I do make it plain – as the Puritans and Reformers would have done – that it was the work of God alone. The Puritans and the Reformed theologians would also have expected the millennium to have been inaugurated by the conversion of the Jews (and probably also the Muslims) and although I do not expand on the matter there are mentions in the books that the ‘Great Intervention’ saw the incoming into the church of ‘all the children of Abraham’.

Finally, let me point out some of the implications of the sort of ‘long-term post-millennialism’ that I espouse in the books that I personally find attractive. The first is that this view portrays the triumph of the Church. It is hard not to look around at the world scene today and feel slightly discouraged at the state of the Church. Yes, there is a great growth in many continents, but in Europe, and to some extent North America, we see a believing church on the defensive. And almost everywhere we see weakness, disunity and sin. Is this, we ask sadly, the bride of Christ? If the Second Coming happened tomorrow then I would almost expect to hear the hellish sneer from the Devil ‘You had to come and rescue them; they had failed.’ Yet the post-millennial view foresees a church that, through the grace of its Saviour and Lord, triumphs and is splendid, united and glorious; a church that rules from pole to pole (or, in my version, from star to star). Call me a romantic, but I like that idea!

A second attractive implication of ‘long-term post-millennialism’ is that, in some way, it eases the hard problem of Hell. Were the world to end tonight, on even the most generous estimate of grace, Hell would be far fuller than Heaven. The idea that the majority of the human race could languish eternally in damnation is one that many of us find troubling. Yet if there was to be a ‘long’ millennium involving trillions of souls – all of whom are saved – then ultimately the redeemed vastly outnumber those who are lost.

A final attractive feature of this sort of post-millennialism is that it gives a view of the future that gives an incentive for action. Future historians (if there is a future) will one no doubt comment on the oddity – and possibly the tragedy – that, as the American nation assumed the awesome responsibility of being the only global superpower, the majority of American Christians felt the end of the world was imminent. On the prevailing pre-millennial view that the end of this world looms, there is little incentive for any action other than rescuing the lost and watching the news to see the ‘prophetic calendar’ unfold. In a world that will end in a decade or so, why build Christian universities? why seek to reform society at home or abroad? why work to preserve the environment? If we are in the twilight of our world then almost every impetus to do long-term good works is undermined. Yet if we adopt, as our Puritan forefathers did, the view that, under God’s grace and in his time, this earth may be brought to glory then we have every incentive for action. We stand not at twilight but on the edge of dawn.

Let me conclude. We always need to be prepared for the possibility that the King may return at any time. Our systems may all be wrong. Yet I passionately believe that evangelical Christians need to balance the view of the possible imminent return of the Lord with a vision for the future that includes the possibility – even the probability – that the Church will triumph. If we have no vision for the future, then we cannot complain if our future is hijacked by others.

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