Postmillennialism and Suffering

Pain is Real… and Exists for a Reason

Even as the Kingdom of God expands, there is suffering. God wants real victories, and these victories carry real price tags. But as the Kingdom grows, the level and scale of suffering declines – for Christians, and (in this world) for non-Christians as well.

There are also an overall increase in the percentage of the population that follows Christ too!

These and many other such references refer to the inter-advental age, [the period between Christ’s ascension and the Final judgement ] not to the Eternal State (as per the amillennial view); for the following reasons.


…though reduced to minority proportions, there will be the continuance of the curse, despite the dominance of victory (Isa. 65:25). Isaiah 19:18 may suggest a world ratio of five Christians to one non-Christian.

He Shall Have Dominion, by Kenneth L. Gentry, page 208.

Not a mere 51% of the worlds population: more like ~85% or so. Certainly doable in the coming centuries!

So, more eternal blessings for more people, in addition to blessings in this life.

But not without a cost. A declining cost as the years roll on and the Kingdom expands. A cost less physical and more social or psychological. But still a cost.

From Job losing his children, to Christ dying in great pain and disgrace, Christianity involves pain. Indeed, Christ insists that we carry His cross as we follow Him.

But the pain is for a constructive reason, not as a show of power and contempt (as Islamic crucifixions are), and not for our derogation or humiliation.

A Most Important Appendix

All quotes are from He Shall Have Dominion, by Kenneth L. Gentry. Appendix B, Postmillennialism and Suffering.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Luke 18:27)

In Chapter 19, I touched briefly on the question of the suffering motif in Scripture. There I responded to Richard Gaffin’s particularly vigorous employment of this theme as a theological objection to postmillennialism. The suffering theme is often deemed as a contra-indicative to postmillennialism, which is classified (dismissed) as “triumphalist” by adherents to pessimistic eschatologies. Some have felt that postmillennialism has absolutely no place for suffering in its historical scheme of things. Postmillennialists, of course, have responded to such objections before.[1] But due to this continuing perception, I would like to offer this Appendix as a brief study on the role of suffering in redemptive history.

[1] See for example: John Jefferson Davis, Christ’s Victorious Kingdom (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1986), pp. 127-128. Roderick Campbell, Israel and the New Covenant (Tyler, TX: Geneva Divinity School Press, [1954] 1981), pp. 277ff. Gary North, Millennialism and Social Theory (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1990), ch. 9. North, Westminster’s Confession: The Abandonment of Van Til’s Legacy (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1991), pp. 176-180.

To triumph in this world does not mean to escape pain and loss. Indeed, the victory often requires some level – perhaps a great amount – of pain and loss.

The Debate Context

In contemporary Christianity, two widely disparate views of Christian suffering are popularly held. Both of these, I believe, are extremes from the biblical point of view. As such, each is also in contradiction to postmillennialism.

Health-and-Wealth On the one hand, there is the remarkably popular “health-and-wealth” gospel that is held among many in the charismatic renewal movement. This view absolutely eliminates suffering as a factor for faithful believers. [….] Indeed, suffering is deemed evidence of a lack of faith among health-and-wealth proponents.

I assume that no one reading this is so silly – and so Biblically illiterate! – as to believe that true believers escape all suffering.

Affliction and Poverty

On the other hand and at the other extreme, the mainline view expects the agelong affliction of God’s people in history. The Church Militant, it is argued, is established to be a suffering community. It is against the backdrop of this view that I develop a brief postmillennial study of the theme of suffering.

Postmillennialism’s glorious historical optimism expects evil gradually to be reduced to minority proportions in the historical long haul. Because of this, postmillennialism is deemed out of accord with the biblical record, which clearly speaks of persecution and suffering for the faith. In demonstration of the extremely widespread expectation of agelong suffering, let me cite a few quotations randomly selected from various evangelical authors. These samples will indicate how pervasive is the notion that the Church is to expect constant suffering throughout history.

It is one thing to expect some pain, when you fight for the right thing. It’s quite another to believe that you can expect nothing but pain, defeat, and loss as your lot for following Christ.

This is simply unbiblical, no different from claiming that Christ will always be a loser in history, either powerless to protect/avenge His people, or simply unwilling (uncaring?) to do so. One side pours contempt on His Lawful Authority, today, on the Right Hand of God, and the other blasphemes His character.

Christians are to believe only what the Bible teaches about Christ.

Not what His enemies say!

The theme of relentless suffering for the Church throughout history is pervasive in contemporary Christian literature. The point is clear: the pessimistic eschatologies interpret the suffering theme in Scripture as prophetically ordained for all times. It is not, however, predestined for all time.

The postmillennialist does not deny the expectation of personal suffering in history. Suffering is an important feature of God’s governance of His people. But we must consider two important questions relative to suffering:

What role does suffering play in the divine scheme of things?

Is suffering ordained to continue throughout the entirety of history until the end?

The postmillennial position is that suffering is ethically necessary in many times.

Why do covenant-keeping people suffer?

Will God’s people always suffer in this world?

The Role of Suffering in History

It is abundantly clear from Scripture that the people of God can expect suffering in their temporal experience. Given the sinful condition of the fallen world, the righteous are a stumbling block and an offense to the unrighteous. Believers are in the world but not of it (John 15:19). Christ warned His disciples: “Remember the words I spoke to you: ‘No servant is greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also” (John 15:20a) and “in this world you shall have trouble” (John 16:33). Paul and Barnabas carried forth this caution by “strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith” and instructing that “we must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). Paul later reminds Timothy of the trial that lay before him: “In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12). Peter urged his reader not to “be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you” (1 Pet. 4:12).

The Case of Job

The book of Job is the classic demonstration of the purpose of the suffering among God’s people in history. It specifically addresses the question: “Why do the righteous suffer?” In Job, we discover at the very outset that suffering does occur to “the perfect and upright” (Job 1:1), contrary to health-and-wealth advocates.[1] Job’s suffering was very real and quite grievous: he lost his wealth, health, and children (Job 1:13-19; 2:7-8). We also discover early on that his trials, though administered by Satan, were under the sovereign control of God (Job 1:12; cf. Psa. 103:19; Luke 22:31-32). Suffering is not random; rather, it is wisely governed to a good end by a loving, holy, and sovereign Lord.[2]

In Job’s experience, we can see the overarching moral and spiritual purpose of suffering: the testing and, therefore, the strengthening of faithful obedience to God.

[1] This may be seen also in the persecution and illness endured by faithful Christians in the New Testament. Persecution: Paul (1 Cor. 4:9-11) and Stephen (Acts 7:59). Illness: Paul (Gal. 4:13), Dorcas (Acts 9:36-37), Epaphroditus (Phil. 2:25-27), Timothy (1 Tim. 5:23), and Trophimus (2 Tim. 4:20).

[2] North, Westminster’s Confession, ch. 6: “The Question of God’s Predictable Historical Sanctions.”

Many, many Godly men suffered in the Bible, with Job and Christ being only the most notable examples.

It is even said of Christ that “He learned obedience from what he suffered” (Heb. 5:8). And Christ is our ultimate example: “To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps” (1 Pet. 2:21).[1] Extended periods of suffering are designed by God to test and, therefore, to strengthen His people.

[1] Cf. John 13:15; 1 Cor. 11:1; 1 Tim. 1:16; 1 John 2:6.

God strengthens (and reproofs!) His people with the rod of suffering.

And we are strengthened to do powerful works, for the glory of God first… and secondarily for our own benefit, and the benefit of the world.

The Message of Suffering

Ultimately, job learned the message God had for him. At the end of his trials he replied as a man of faith, who had learned much. “Then job replied to the LORD: ‘I know that you can do all things; no plan of yours can be thwarted. You asked, “Who is this that obscures my counsel without knowledge?” Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know'” (Job 42:1-3). In humility, he bowed before the Lord. Because of this, job becomes an example of suffering and patience: “As you know, we consider blessed those who have persevered. You have heard of job’s perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy” (Jms 5:11).

Suffering is an instrument of God for the humbling and purification of His people for the long run. This is why the predominate theme involved in suffering is patient perseverance.

“We also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance” (Rom. 5:3).

“Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer” (Rom. 12:12).

“If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer” (2 Cor. 1:6).

“You, however, know all about my teaching, my way of life, my purpose, faith, patience, love, endurance, persecutions, sufferings – what kinds of things happened to me in Antioch, Iconium and Lystra, the persecutions I endured. Yet the Lord rescued me from all of them” (2 Tim. 3:10-11).

“Therefore, among God’s churches we boast about your perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and trials you are enduring” (2 Thess. 1:4).

“You know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance” (Jms. 1:3).

“Brothers, as an example of patience in the face of suffering, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord” (Jms. 5:10).

“I, John, your brother and companion in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance that are ours in Jesus” (Rev. 1:9).

“If anyone is to go into captivity, into captivity he will go. If anyone is to be killed with the sword, with the sword he will be killed. This calls for patient endurance and faithfulness on the part of the saints” (Rev. 13:10).

Christianity is an historical faith designed for the long run. The faithful are to be diligently laboring now amidst trials and tribulations with an eye to the future. It is the tendency of sinful man to seek short-cuts to attaining his goals, but the Christian is to labor against difficult circumstances with the expectation of the gradualistic development of God’s kingdom good in history. We as Christians are to learn this through our trials and tribulations, through our affliction and suffering.

I would only add that sometimes, our suffering is richly deserved as the wages of sin and foolishness.

Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? If you are not disciplined—and everyone undergoes discipline—then you are not legitimate, not true sons and daughters at all. Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of spirits and live!

Hebrews 12:7-9, New International Version

If we are real sons of God – and not bastards – then we will submit to discipline and training. Even if it is painful, we can trust that the discipline will bear good fruit, strengthening our commitment to Christ and the task He has set before us.

The Progressive Reduction of Suffering of in History

Because suffering is designed to teach humble patience before God it becomes a strategic means for the training of God’s people. It is not an historical end for them. Suffering is a characteristic of the Church in evil times; it is not the definition of the Church for all times. It is an instrument to a greater goal: the ultimate blessing of godly man. Suffering is not a goal; it is a means.

Keep that last bit in mind: Suffering is not the goal. It is the means to purification and sanctification, which leads to blessings and success.

In Job’s case, we have a wonderful illustration of this. He genuinely suffered. And though he wavered somewhat, he learned obedience through his trials. Because of this we read of his final temporal estate (not his heavenly estate): “After Job had prayed for his friends, the LORD made him prosperous again and gave him twice as much as he had before. All his brothers and sisters and everyone who had known him before came and ate with him in his house. They comforted and consoled him over all the trouble the LORD had brought upon him, and each one gave him a piece of silver and a gold ring. The LORD blessed the latter part of Job’s life more than the first. He had fourteen thousand sheep, six thousand camels, a thousand yoke of oxen and a thousand donkeys. And he also had seven sons and three daughters” (Job 42:10-13).

Job’s patient learning to wait upon God paid off in time and on earth. This is the hope set before the Christian: “As you know, we consider blessed those who have persevered. You have heard of Job’s perseverance and have seen what the Lord

finally brought about. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy” (Jms. 5:11). As the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ, we are directed to see “what the Lord finally brought about” for Job. This is to promote long-term labor and expectation in the body of believers. The whips and thorns of the evil one teach us patience; patience brings us victory.

The New Testament Message

In Matthew 5:5, the Lord promises: “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” Meek endurance for the long-run goes against the sinful grain of man. Consequently, enduring suffering breaks the weak, but steels the faithful for greater glory. Thus, in the long run and after much suffering, the meek will inherit the earth, as the Bible teaches and postmillennialism expects. Suffering is a means of long-term dominion.

Christ comforts His disciples for the long run: “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:3). The Suffering Christ came forth from the grave as the Victorious Christ. As it is in the school of life, glory follows suffering. Of Christ, our perfect example, we read: “Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” (Luke 24:26). “He predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow” (1 Pet. 1:11b). Christ no longer suffered on earth after the resurrection. His exaltation glory began with His bodily resurrection, in time and on earth. This is the divine pattern for His Church, as well.

Paul speaks of his own patient endurance of persecutional suffering in a context that expects earthly victory. He presents it as an example for Timothy to follow: “You, however, know all about my teaching, my way of life, my purpose, faith, patience, love, endurance, persecutions, sufferings – what kinds of things happened to me in Antioch, Iconium and Lystra, the persecutions I endured. Yet the Lord rescued me from all of them. In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:10-12). Preceding this statement, Timothy was assured by Paul of the failure of the evil men and impostors of history, who often are the instruments of suffering: “But they will not get very far because, as in the case of those men, their folly will be clear to everyone” (2 Tim. 3:9).

The good guys are going to win – that is, be increasingly blessed in this life, as well as in the next – and the bad guys are going to lose – that is, be increasingly cursed in this life, as well as in the next.

This is true, even if the righteous go through a period of suffering for a while, even unto (increasingly rare) martyrdom. And even if the wicked enjoy wealth, comfort, and public approval for a time.

Back to the Old Testament

The ultimate outcome of the long period of suffering which the Church endures is destined to be historically glorious. This is the purpose of God-inflicted suffering. He promises to curse covenantal unfaithfulness (Deut. 28:1-14), but to bless covenantal obedience (Deut. 28:15ft). This blessing is cultural, involving all aspects of life: population growth (vv. 4, 11), economic productivity (vv. 11-12), political stability (vv. 7, 13), agricultural abundance (vv. 4-5, 8, 11), increased health (contra vv. 27-29), favorable weather (v. 12), and so forth.

Of Israel’s trial in the wilderness, we learn: “He gave you manna to eat in the desert, something your fathers had never known, to humble and to test you so that in the end it might go well with you” (Deut. 8:16).

That is why God’s people suffer (assuming that they didn’t violate the commandments in some way.)

Gentry concludes with quoting Psalm 37 and Psalm 2, ending with:

…it is the unshakable confidence of the Suffering Church that she one day will be the Victorious Church. Her persecuted members will rule in the midst of the enemy: “To him who overcomes and does my will to the end, I will give authority over the nations – ‘He will rule them with an iron scepter; he will dash them to pieces like pottery’ – just as I have received authority from my Father. I will also give him the morning star” (Rev. 2:26-28). Amillennialists do not agree.

In amillennialism’s eschatology of predestined historical suffering, Christians are told to expect Christianity’s influence to diminish steadily in history. They are expected to suffer ever-greater persecution at the hands of rebellious covenant-breakers. Christians are expected to prove their faith by experiencing ever-greater sickness and poverty, in contrast to the message of the fundamentalists’ health-and-wealth gospel. The amillennialist elevates the instrumental function of suffering to the level of a predestined eschatological goal. Amillennialism preaches ever-greater suffering unto cultural defeat; postmillennialist preaches ever-reduced suffering unto cultural victory.

Gentry assumes that God intends His faithful people, as His representatives, to naturally and increasingly be the successful, respected, protected, and greatly blessed head.

And for God’s enemies to – naturally and increasingly – be the unsuccessful, disrespected, unprotected, and greatly damned tail.

Gentry – and postmillennialism in general – has it right.

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