It is easy for those of us who are Adventists to think of ourselves as theological short-sellers. Like investors who make money when the stock market goes down, we sometimes feel good when things get bad and very good when they get very bad. The only way we can be optimistic is to be pessimistic. The only way we can be glad is to be sad. The only way we can be hopeful is to be hopeless.
When we speak of the “signs of the times,” we frequently refer to things such as earthquakes, dark days and falling stars plus wars, corruption and criminal activity. True, we often refer to “knowledge increasing” and “running to and fro,” an expression that probably meant roaming here and there in Scripture rather than accumulating frequent flier miles; however, even then we frequently point to the destructive uses of more knowledge and swifter transportation instead of their obvious benefits.
This is because we are premillenialists. We believe that the second coming of Jesus will come before the good era that is symbolized by the 1,000 years of literal or symbolic time in Revelation 20. This differs from postmillennialism which holds that the second coming of Jesus, or the events symbolized by this language, will take place after he millennium. Our premillennialism also differs from amillennialism. This doctrine takes the 1,000 years out of the kind of time we know, making it refer to a different realm or form of life. And like all premillennialists, it is easy for us to become pessimistic.
Things are even worse than this for those of us who are Adventists because we are post-tribulation premillennialists. This means that we anticipate that the second coming of Jesus will come before the millennium but after a time of great trouble that will be more dreadful than anything the world has yet seen.
As evidenced by the books and movies in the “Left Behind” series, increasing numbers of Christians are pretribulation premillennialists. They hold that before the time of great trouble overtakes the world, God will deliver them from its dreadful ordeals. They will be raptured. But we Adventists cannot count on God snatching us away to safety with one taken and the other left behind. We are going to feel the time of great trouble’s full force. After that—at long last—this age will end and the new and better one will begin.
Yet, as so many have noticed, the overlap between what we Adventists often say about these things and how we spend our time and money is not perfect. If it were, we would be traveling throughout the world teaching people how to develop the most effective and economical survival skills, how to live in caves and off the land and that sort of thing. But this is not what we are doing. Instead, we are building schools, hospitals, food factories, orphanages, publishing houses and similar institutions. What’s more, when we can afford it, we build them in sturdy structures that will that will improve the lives of many for generations to come.
This makes sense only if we understand that the lasting theological contribution of premillennialism is not that everything is getting worse and worse but that they are not inevitably getting better and better. There is a big conceptual difference here, one that we should not overlook.
Postmillennialism has often left the impression that everything is getting better and that in God’s providence there is a something inexorable about this. This is what premillennialism at its best denies. It has no vested interest in things getting worse. It does have a responsibility to warn that they are not necessarily getting better.
Martin Luther King, Jr., one of my heroes, famously declared that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Although this is a comforting and inspiring thought, it is not literally accurate. God’s truth does not always keep marching on. Sometimes it marches in place and sometimes it loses moral ground. As I think King also knew, there is nothing preordained about moral progress. Much depends upon how we exercise the measure of freedom we already possess.
A book that a Protestant pastor, theologian and seminary administrator named R. P. Smith published in 1922, less than a decade before the Great Depression, is so extreme in its positive outlook that it is almost a self-caricature of postmillennialism. Titled “Religious Optimism,” this volume, which is easily available on the Internet, spends almost two hundred pages marshalling in great detail the empirical evidence that in God’s providence all things are getting better.
To be sure, the “Preface” warns against “easy complacency” and a sense of “assured victory.” It also specifies that the book’s primary concern is the progress of the Church, not the world. “But the world is not going to the bad,” it also declares. “It moves, and is moving toward the Christian goal.”
This book’s final chapter, title “What of the Future?” is even more optimistic about the world in general. “The hope of the future now seems to depend on four great agencies—science, democracy, education and religion,” it contends. “The present progress and outlook in all four are of a character to inspire optimism.”
The right response to such naïve optimism is not pessimism but realism. It is to remember the words of old: On the one hand, “all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you obey the LORD your God;” but on the other, “if you will not obey the LORD your God by diligently observing all his commandments and decrees, which I am commanding you today, then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you.” (Deuteronomy 28: 2 & 15. New Revised Standard Version)
These are predictions, not threats. This is why we should take them seriously. Divine providence does not guarantee human progress. What we do here and now makes a lasting difference. This is the true message of premillennialism and it is an important one.