Optimistic vs. Pessimistic Eschatology: An Unhelpful Paradigm
In recent days, I have seen an uptick in lazy argumentation by people appealing to “optimistic eschatology,” pitting it against a “pessimistic eschatology.” Although there are exceptions, postmillennialists have primarily used this argument against premillennialists and amillennialists. Postmillennialists believe that, over time, the church will emerge victorious gradually by progressively triumphing over the world. In postmillennial theology, eventually most of the world will embrace the gospel, which will largely bring about the end of Christian persecution.
According to this “optimistic” eschatology, Matthew 16:18 gives assurance of the church’s progressive victory over the forces of darkness, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Postmillennialists point to the great commission as evidence that Jesus has all power and dominion and is currently reigning from the Davidic throne with all that was ever intended entail (cf. Matt 28:18). All nations will bow before His rule and might here and now through the power of the Gospel.
Alternatively, Christians who disagree with this postmillennial assessment are categorized as those who hold to a “pessimistic” theology (sometimes even referred to as “loser theology”). Those who would be identified as “loser theologians” would be premillennialists primarily (though some amillennialists would also fall into this category).
Premillennialists are the primary target of this negative label, because inherent in the system of premillennialism is the idea that the world will continue to get worse and worse before the coming of Christ. Passages such as 2 Timothy 3:12-13 and Matthew 7:13-14 help pave the way for this kind of understanding.
Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived.2 Tim 3:12-13
Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.Matt 7:13-14
The Real Issue of Consideration
It is disingenuous to accuse one of being pessimistic when all Christians agree that Christ will not lose, nor is His ultimate victory in any doubt. The real issue is a simple one—what guidance has God given on the future? Postmillennialists are adamant that most passages which seem to refer to the world getting worse or Christ coming back are references to AD 70. Alternatively, “loser theologians” believe that Christ has revealed His future plans for the world through prophecy beyond AD 70. It has nothing to do with optimism or pessimism. Rather, the real issue is how one reads the prophecies of Scripture, both in the First Testament (aka Old Testament) and the New Testament.
Does Prophecy about the Temporary Triumph of Evil Fuel Pessimism?
Loser theologians like myself stand in good company. It has regularly been the habit of God to tell His people what the future will look like. In fact, this future regularly includes specific foretelling of judgment and evil, as well as God’s allowance of a temporary victory for evil. Yet, despite the certainty of evil’s dominance and coming judgment, He commands His people to be faithful. Note the well-established pattern in Scripture.
|Genesis 6||God tells Noah that He plans to destroy the whole world by flood because of the increase of violence and evil. God commands Noah to build a boat (and presumably to preach righteousness to those around him—cf. 2 Pet 2:5)|
|Genesis 15||God promises Abraham that his family will be afflicted for 400 years, but they will be delivered by Yahweh. God also says the iniquity of the Amorites has not yet come to completion.|
|Amos 7/2 Kings 17||God prophesies judgment on Israel and His intention to send them into exile|
|Jeremiah 25||God prophesies judgment upon Judah and send them into Exile|
|Nahum||God promises to judge Nineveh|
|Habakkuk||God promises judgment will come on the evil of Judah through the Babylonians, who were more evil.|
|Matthew 11||Jesus promises to judge Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum.|
|Matthew 24||Jesus prophesies judgment upon Jerusalem|
|Revelation 18||An angel prophesies the judgment of “Babylon”|
These are just a few of the vast amount of passages which contain “pessimistic” prophecies about God’s need to judge sin in the future. To be completely honest, I feel a little silly making this chart, because I feel this point should be obvious. These passages (and countless others) are vivid illustrations of the fact that God regularly reveals His will through prophets so that His people are unsurprised by what will come to pass.
For the Lord GOD does nothing without revealing his secret to his servants the prophets.Amos 3:7 (cf. Isa 48:5)
Believing God Has Told Us the Future Does Not Make Christians Lazy
The implication of the optimist-vs-pessimist argument is that if Christians believe the world will get worse and worse no matter what they do, they will inevitably be lazy and not obey God as fervently. However, this is nonsense. As emphasized above, followers of God have regularly engaged with this principle.
Isaiah was told at the outset of his ministry that he would be ultimately unsuccessful. His preaching would “make the heart of this people dull” and it would “blind their eyes” (Isa 6:10). Isaiah wondered how long his assignment would last. The answer? “Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is a desolate waste” (Isa 6:11).
Isaiah is an interesting test case. He was specifically commanded to be obedient to God by proclaiming God’s message, and yet was assured that few would respond, and the majority would be destroyed and go into judgment. Did this promote disobedience on behalf of Isaiah? Hardly.
Jeremiah is an even more prominent example of this pattern. We know him as the weeping prophet because he knew that Jerusalem would be going into exile, and it burdened his heart (Jer 9:1). Against the optimists of his day, who prophesied that God would not judge Israel with famine or sword, Jeremiah prophesied that those same prophets would die by the sword and famine (cf. Jer 14:15).
This is not just an Old Testament phenomenon. In 1 Thessalonians 5:2–4, Paul explains that the Day of the Lord will come unannounced, like a thief in the night. Yet, despite the future judgment coming, Paul fills the letter with commands to be faithful to walk in discipline and not in idleness (cf. 1 Thess 5:12-22).
The point is obvious. We have no justification for thinking that impending judgment or the certainty of the moral decay of this world will promote Christian laxity. This is something that followers of God have faced in every age, and we will continue to be obedient to Christ as our primary duty.
Where the True Battle Lies
The simple point of this article is that we need to abandon this silly argument that there are classes of optimism and pessimism within followers of God. Thankfully, not all postmillennialists use this kind of derogatory language. Some of my postmillennial friends are likewise disappointed in this kind of argument, and I applaud them for that.
The conversation must move beyond these shallow caricatures to the fruitful field of hermeneutics and the exegesis of texts. We must acknowledge that the truth of the matter lies in examining Scripture faithfully. Whether the world is going to get better or worse will be a debate we can have by looking at the text of Scripture. Regardless of one’s view of when Christ will return, we must be obedient to Scripture. That is the Christian duty.