Theories of the millennium attempt to interpret the reference to a one thousand year period of peace in Revelation 20:1-6. There are three main interpretations: premillennialism, amillennialism, and postmillennialism. While there are many differences between these three views, the one difference we can note here is that each is characterized by a particular interpretation on the trajectory of history.
- Premillenial Pessimism: Premillennialists tend to be pessimistic in that they anticipate that the world will continue to become more unjust, chaotic, and opposed to the Kingdom of God until there is a final cataclysmic confrontation between the forces of good and evil. (The millennium will commence only after this spiral into destruction.)
- Amillennial Realism: Amillennialists tend to be realistic in the sense that they anticipate a future that is neither overly optimistic nor pessimistic. Rather, good and evil will continue to occur together like the proverbial wheat and tares growing in the field. (On this view, the millennium is understood to represent the time between Christ’s first and second comings.)
- Postmillennial Optimism: Finally, postmillennialists tend to be optimistic, as they anticipate a general increase in justice, order, and the virtues that exemplify God’s kingdom through history until that kingdom is finally established in its fullness. (On this view, the millennial period is a future period of continual improvement that we gradually work toward in history.)
At the beginning of the twentieth century, postmillennialism was popular in large part because it seemed to be reflected in the progress of western civilization in science, technology, and culture.
The Rise of Pessimism
Then things changed; the world was torn apart by a world war, a global influenza pandemic, a devastating economic collapse, and finally another horrific global conflict, one which ended with the smoldering horrors of Nazi concentration camps and two expanding mushroom clouds over Japan. Suffice it to say, by the end of World War 2, the narrative of continual progress into the future appeared to be hopelessly out of touch.
Since that period, Christians have abandoned postmillennialism in favor of various forms of amillennialism or premillennialism. Within North America, a particular form of premillennialism — that which is known as dispensationalism — has become enormously popular. Although it only dates to the 1850s, it was popularized in the Scofield Reference Bible (1909) and later in the writings of would-be end times prophets like Hal Lindsey, not to mention the notorious novels of the “Left Behind” series.
Suffice it to say, many Christians today are deeply imbued with the pessimism of premillennial assumptions. By contrast, postmillennialism is widely dismissed as false and utterly implausible. Theologian Shirley Guthrie provides an eloquent summary of the current sentiment:
“Early in the twentieth century we fought the war that was supposed once and for all to ‘make the world safe for democracy.’ Is the world better off now than it was then? Is there any less hatred, greed, brutality, or equally cruel indifference among human beings now than there was a thousand years ago? Is it realistic to hope that even in the next thousand years we will reach the point at which there will be no more wars or rumors of wars, injustice, poverty, crime, oppression of minorities, the physical and psychological crippling of children as a result of the inhumanity of their elders?” (Christian Doctrine, 373)
The World is Getting Better
Pessimism is so common among Christians these days that statements like Guthrie’s are rarely challenged. But the fact is that his claim is not only dubious: it’s patently absurd. Just consider this question again:
“Is there any less hatred, greed, brutality, or equally cruel indifference among human beings now than there was a thousand years ago?”
The answer is, yes, of course! Consider, for example, the issue of torture. During the Bush administration, there was a serious debate about the use of waterboarding and whether the practice constituted torture. But notably, everyone assumed that torture was wrong, and thus supporters of waterboarding attempted to defend the practice by arguing that it didn’t constitute torture. (For example, they claimed that for an action to constitute torture, it must produce deep tissue damage. This is false, but regardless what is notable is that the defenders of the practice assumed they needed to show that it didn’t constitute torture.)
Such a debate would be inconceivable in the medieval period where torture was widely practiced. Consider, for example, the Judas Cradle. This was a truly terrifying contraption, an iron pointed stool upon which …
Actually, never mind, I’ll spare you the details of the Judas Cradle. Just take my word for it when I say that the Judas Cradle makes waterboarding look like a day at the beach.
Countless other examples could be given that show a decrease in hatred, greed, brutality, and/or cruel indifference. Even two centuries ago people in the western world defended the barbarism of owning other human beings. A century ago women were denied the vote. Four decades ago people with physical deformities could be denied service under regional “ugly laws”. Twenty years ago virtually nobody worried about buying eggs from “free-range” hens. And yet, in each of these cases there is now a moral awareness, a compassion, a care, that was inconceivable in an earlier time.
When I speak to audiences on the topic, I borrow (and modify) a thought experiment from John Rawls. If you could be born into a society without knowing your gender, race, socio-economic status, or physical ability, would you rather be born into North American in 1800, 1900, or today? The question answers itself. Of course you’d prefer to be born today and that’s because on countless metrics you recognize western society is, despite all its faults, nonetheless orders of magnitude more humane and just today than in these earlier periods. To add in medieval Europe to the equation and the evidence of progress becomes even more obvious.
Still, what about those brutal world wars and all the atrocities that came with them? Doesn’t that provide evidence for historic pessimism? The short answer is, no. Just as a particularly cold winter in one region doesn’t provide evidence against the overall trend toward global warming, so particular atrocities like the two world wars does not provide evidence that the world is not improving overall. But don’t take my word for it. Steven Pinker argues from the data, whilst focused in particular on the decrease in violence, in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature.
Given that it is so patently absurd to suggest that there has not been a notable decrease in hatred, greed, brutality, and cruel indifference since the Middle Ages, one can’t help but wonder how Guthrie would think otherwise?
It seems to me that there are two factors at play. The first is selection bias. When you begin with a negative premillennial assumption then you look for evidence of societal decline and you ignore or downplay evidence that does not fit the pattern.
Second, I suspect that Guthrie exhibits privilege bias. Guthrie was a Caucasian male Presbyterian theologian (d. 2004). From that position of relative privilege, it is not surprising that he might be less aware of the obvious progress in the treatment of alleged criminals, slaves, women, ethnic minorities, the mentally and physically handicapped, and so on.
Nonetheless, the fact remains that the general progress is undeniable. Whether it provides evidence for postmillennialism can be debated. But it certainly provides evidence against the pessimissm of premillennialism.
For more on this topic, you can read my article: “Many Christians think the world is getting worse. Are they right?”
And to go into depth on the decrease in violence, read Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature.