Wesley’s Eschatological Optimism Explains it All

John Wesley believed the evangelical awakening taking place in and around the Methodist movement signaled the beginning of the end of human history. The movement of God’s spirit would continually grow stronger and more expansive until Jesus returned. Borrowing a phrase from the Puritans. Wesley described it as God’s “latter day glory.” Unlike previous outpourings of the Spirit, Wesley believed this one would persist until all the world encountered the warmhearted, holiness-oriented Christianity being experienced in the awakening. The Holy Spirit would spread scriptural holiness not only to nominally-Christian Protestants, but to Catholic and Orthodox as well. Convinced by the power of the Holy Spirit and the evidence of truly transformed Christian lives, even Muslims, indigenous people, and followers of other religions would come to believe in Jesus. It was Christian unbelief, disobedience and hypocrisy standing in the way of their conversion. The movement might be slow, face setbacks and often be hidden from view, but God would not stop until the whole world was awakened to true faith and holiness.

As it grew, the movement would transform society as well. Love, honesty, sobriety, chastity, prudence, generosity and health would flow from hearts transformed by the love of God. Changed people would change the world. Scriptural holiness would spread across the land. Even nature itself might be affected; one of Wesley’s sermons states that earthquakes are the result of human sin. When the whole world knows the true love of Jesus, and people live accordingly, then the world will become the place God intended it to be from the beginning of creation. And then Jesus will come again.

Postmillennialism

This point of view is often described to as “postmillennialism,” referring to the thousand-year reign of Christ mentioned in the 20th chapter of the Revelation of John. Christian postmillennialism took root in England with the Puritans, spread with the 18th century awakenings and became the dominant way of looking at the world in England and the United States in the 19th century.

Postmillennialists understand the thousand years mentioned in Revelation to refer to a period of time (although not necessarily a literal thousand years) before Christ’s visible return. Christ’s reign in the millennium, however, is invisible except to the eyes of faith. The Lord reigns through the power of the Holy Spirit and the labors of the church on earth. Jesus wins victory after victory as individuals come to Jesus and become more-Christlike, and communities are increasingly built on Christian values. In short, both individuals and society become better and better until they are as good as they can be this side of heaven. It is a very optimistic view of the last phase of human history.

The millennium, however, is not the final state of the world. People continue to die. The dead in Christ go to be with the Lord in paradise – others, sadly, to a less pleasant part of Hades. Sin and disbelief persist, although their effect is greatly diminished. Full and final salvation arrives only when Jesus returns. At his appearing the dead are raised, the righteous into glory and the wicked to damnation. At his appearing the cosmos is transformed. Sin, death and the devil are overcome for all eternity. Beyond the millennium is a glorious existence mortals can only begin to imagine.

Wesley did not use the word “postmillennialism,” but United Methodist scholars like Randy Maddox (Responsible Grace, Chapter 9) and Kenneth Collins (The Theology of John Wesley, Chapter 9) place him squarely in the postmillennial camp.

In The General Spread of the Gospel, Wesley wrote:

Is it not then highly probable, that God will carry on his work in the same manner as he has begun? That he will carry it on, I cannot doubt; however Luther may affirm, that a revival of religion never lasts above a generation, — that is, thirty years; (whereas the present revival has already continued above fifty) or however prophets of evil may say, “All will be at an end when the first instruments are removed.” There will then, very probably, be a great shaking; but I cannot induce myself to think that God has wrought so glorious a work, to let it sink and die away in a few years. No: I trust, this is only the beginning of a far greater work; the dawn of “the latter day glory.”

“The latter day glory” was a phrase associated with postmillennial eschatology in the writings of the era. Wesley’s sermon on The Sign of the Times used the same terminology.

We are in the Second place, to consider what are the times which we have reason to believe are now at hand? And how is it that all who are called Christians, do not discern the signs of these times? The times which we have reason to believe are at hand, (if they are not already begun) are what many pious men have termed, the time of “the latter-day glory;” — meaning the time wherein God would gloriously display his power and love, in the fulfillment of his gracious promise that “the knowledge of the Lord shall cover the earth, as the waters cover the sea.”

Read both sermons; they are highly informative with regard to Wesley’s postmillennial outlook.

For Wesley, postmillennialism was simply a natural extension of his doctrine of Christian perfection (or entire sanctification) combined with his confidence in the power of God. And it’s a grand aspiration. Wouldn’t it be wonderful for the church to present the Lord with a just and loving world when he appears? We could say, “Look, Lord, what we have prepared for you. The world you created welcomes you as its sovereign and redeemer.”

Foreign Missions

The 18th century awakening envisioned Christianity spreading from person to person and group to group until the whole world was converted. It was 19th century western technology (ships and railroads), however, that made the idea of global movements by large numbers of missionaries feasible. The 19th century saw the explosion of Christian missions around the world. Unfortunately, some missionaries confused the Christian gospel with European culture and politics.

Echoes of postmillennial missiology persisted into the mid-20th century. The Baptist church I attended as a child was very supportive of missionaries who spread the gospel to new lands and who established new churches where none existed. At least that’s what we thought they were doing. I remember asking, when I was very young, when Jesus would come again. The response pointed back to the work of the missionaries. “When everyone around the world has had a chance to hear the gospel,” was the answer.

If the postmillennial vision helped drive the efforts to make new Christians and save the lost for God, it also drove efforts to reform society.

Triumphalism and Classical Liberalism

By the middle of the 19th century, many Methodists in the United States began to grow wealthier, more educated and more socially respectable.

The faith itself, however, was changing among the educated elite. German scholarship challenged old assumptions about the Bible. For 19th century Christian liberals, the supernatural and doctrinal elements of the faith were sometimes an embarrassment. Loving God and doing good for one’s neighbor became not only the central elements of modernist Christianity, but the exclusive elements.

Methodists founded colleges, not only to educate the young but to advance the state of knowledge and to spread the church’s influence across the land. In some ways, education became the new evangelism. As the importance of camp-meetings waned, the importance of colleges grew.

For those at the top of the social pyramid, things indeed did look like they were getting better and better. In many ways, they were, and still are. (If all you see online are pockets of human misery, check out Human Progress or its Twitter feed.)

It was easy for the leaders of a growing church in an apparently improving world to start thinking of themselves as the natural leaders of human advance. The socially respectable church of the late 19th century saw itself conquering the world through faith and love (and western ways of thinking and the industry of the colonial powers) – and succeeding. In the United States, Methodists began to find themselves in positions of influence and power.

The church was winning, and it continued to triumph through the middle of the 20th century. That experience still colors its expectations about how it will be received by the world around it.

Transforming the World

Even as the top of society prospered, those close to Wesley’s heart took up the cause of the less fortunate. Some of Wesley’s evangelical coreligionists went on to tackle the evils of slavery – and some didn’t. Some took on the scourge of alcohol. Some advocated for women’s rights. Most were still blind to the evils associated with colonialism. Many were (and still are) blind to racism. The Salvation Army was founded in 1865 by a former Methodist preacher to help care for the poor. Methodists founded homes to care for orphans and the elderly. These efforts were not only intended to right wrongs and remediate misery, they were meant to transform the world.

Evangelism and social transformation were both important to the postmillennial vision. In the 1996 film, The Ghost and the Darkness, one of the characters is a Christian missionary to Africa, full of 19th century liberal Christian optimism. He’s helping to build a bridge, overcome disease, educate children, and, oh yes, fight a pair of man-eating lions that have killed scores of people. The missionary is always optimistic, always has a smile, always looks on the bright side. His character is greatly respected and gets along with everybody, more or less. He thinks this is a great adventure. His motto is, “This is marvelous. Just think what great things we’ll do once everyone’s heart is filled with the love of God.” Before the film ends, one of the lions eats him.

The Social Gospel

As the 19th century progressed, the postmillennial vision began to fragment. The American Civil War and the social ills associated with industrialism challenged the idea of making social progress through evangelism. The church began used its political influence to move the world forward by other means. By the end of the century, Methodists were advocating for workers’ rights, decent wages, healthy working conditions and against child labor. The church published its first social creed in 1908.

The Social Gospel movement preached a kind of millennial hope combined with political action, without the necessity of a supernatural consummation. Among the sophisticated, hope for a literal second coming was a naive remnant of primitive religion.

The hymns of that era speak of building the kingdom of God, a phrase that now sets my teeth on edge. When late 19th century evangelicals sang about building the kingdom of God, they primarily meant evangelism and evangelistic foreign missions, religious experience and conversions, and the growth of the church throughout the globe. When social-gospelers spoke about building the kingdom, they primarily meant transforming the political, economic and cultural landscape to make the world more humane.

Still, a form of the postmillennial dream persisted even among Christians who had abandoned large parts of the original vision: personal awakening and religious conversion, the world-wide growth of the believing church and Christ’s appearing in judgment at the end of the age.

Marxism and Progressive Politics

It is even possible to secularize the postmillennial dream completely. In the second half of the 19th century, Karl Marx envisioned the overthrow of capitalism as a historical inevitability. People today still speak of being on the “right side of history,” as if history’s path is predetermined. The word “progressive” as a political or social description implies this view of history. Evangelicals in the 18th century were “awakened”; progressives in the 21st century are “woke”. Aspirations of perfecting society – and the desire to see oneself contributing to progress in that direction – live on even among those who don’t necessarily believe in any god.

Wesley’s Many Postmillennial Grandchildren

Wesley was not the father of historical postmillennialism and his teachings have little in common with many contemporary notions of historical progress. However, the current mission of the United Methodist Church – to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world – fits neatly within his postmillennial vision. Methodism may be the only part of the global church where the original postmillennial vision still exists in anything like its original form. In parts of the church, however, the postmillennial hope has evolved beyond recognition.

The Methodist movement has produced many branches that each sees itself rooted in John Wesley’s postmillennial optimism. Social gospel politics and camp-meeting revivals are both heirs of the evangelical awakenings and their postmillennial theology. Unfortunately, there is little common ground among the several groups who look to Wesley in this regard. We’re using the same words; we no longer mean the same thing by them.

Wesley’s Error

For the record, I think Wesley’s postmillennial outlook was overly optimistic. I do not doubt that the Spirit of God was driving the Wesleyan revival in the English world throughout the 18th century. As we all do, however, he mistook the part of the world he could see for the whole. It is a natural human tendency to put ourselves at the center of things and to believe what is happening now will happen forever.

I’ve written several essays touching on my understanding of the kingdom’s present presence. The kingdom is present in the church, despite the church’s enmeshment in this present evil age. It is also present wherever the coming kingdom erupts into the present age. Each manifestation of the kingdom, however, is temporary, local and incomplete. The public works of the Holy Spirit are not like drops of rain that become a stream that becomes a river that becomes an ocean (a metaphor for the kingdom that I recall from seminary days). I find no incrementalism in the New Testament. Rather, I think of the coming kingdom more like a volcano hidden just beneath the surface.

The geysers and fumaroles of the Yellowstone caldera provide us with a visual analogy. The kingdom lies hidden beneath the surface of our age, invading our world in various places, but waiting to explode someday with unbelievable power. At various times and places, this hidden kingdom bubbles to the surface, giving us a foretaste of the age to come. The steam that bubbles to the surface affects the world around it, at least temporarily and locally.  Wherever it breaks forth, it leaves evidence of the volcanic activity below. The geysers and fumaroles, however, are simply signs of subterranean power, not the cause of the cataclysmic explosion that will someday occur. Like the bison of Yellowstone, we live at the intersection of two realms. Signs of the coming kingdom have invaded – and continue to invade – our world, but our existence continues to be conditioned by the corruption of the present evil age. The visible world will remain largely as it is until the kingdom bursts on the scene with power that dwarfs our imagination.

Where will we see the next major eruption of the Holy Spirit giving us a down payment on the age to come? It is impossible to say what the triune God will do next, where he will do it or when. The wind of God blows where it wills. Regardless, the in-breaking kingdom’s current effects are not linear or cumulative, but simply signs of the coming age.

That’s not to say that the church has not had an impact on the world. Obviously, any institution as large as the global church will leave its mark in history. Our history, however, is not one solely of progress, and progress is not guaranteed. Philip Jenkins’s book on The Lost History of Christianity details the disappearance of the vast, ancient Church of the East. More recently, Pyongyang used to be the center of a growing, vibrant Christian community in what is now North Korea. The Holy Spirit will do mighty things in this age, but God is not building his kingdom stone upon stone. The lasting transformation of the world awaits the cosmic consummation at Christ’s return.

That would make me amillennial, I suppose, neither a pessimist nor an optimist when it comes to world history. I have no idea what will happen tomorrow, much less in the distant future. I only know that the church of Jesus Christ will endure until he comes again.

One has to have a very narrow vision to see any kind of direct line through all of global human history. In some ways, the history of the church – or justice or whatever you want measure – looks more like the blobs in a lava lamp – rising , falling, growing, fragmenting, reshaping – than it does like a line with a discernible direction.

We preach the gospel because it’s the truth. We make disciples who follow Jesus because we love God and our neighbors. The good we do for our world we do out of love for our neighbors in obedience to Christ. We take the gospel to the ends of the earth because that’s what Jesus told us to do. We don’t have any expectation of how God might use our efforts or how they might be received by the world. We will not always win. We will not always succeed. For every Constantine, there’s a Diocletian. For every Solzhenitsyn, there’s a Stalin. Will revival break out, or persecution? Will the next village welcome us or stone us? Starting with Jesus’ earthly ministry, that’s the question God’s missionary people will always face. We expect only the resurrection of the dead and the life of the future age. We won’t build the kingdom; God will establish it.

I also take Jesus at his word when he says that the glorious consummation can take place at any time. We don’t have to fix the world up before he comes. Thank God! Come, Lord Jesus. I’m not sure we can wait much longer. The cries of the saints, of the needy, of the oppressed are calling out for deliverance.

I write from a different place in history than Wesley did. I admire his optimism and the energy it created, but I think he’s wrong at this point.

2 thoughts on “Wesley’s Eschatological Optimism Explains it All”

  1. Exceptional discussion, and I thank you for it. I ask this question only as one who is deeply sympathetic with your position:

    Could a possible quibble be made with the statement that “there is no incrementalism in the New Testament?” Couldn’t a critic point to the Luke-Acts corpus and see an incremental “spread” of the Kingdom (via the Church) “beginning in Jerusalem” (Lk. 24:47) and extending increasingly outward (Acts 1:8), with more and more being saved (Acts 2, etc.), from an increasingly diverse group of backgrounds?

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    1. Joe – Thanks for reading and for the comment. I take your point: Acts does portray the church fulfilling Jesus’ command (or better, his promise) that the disciples would be his witnesses in Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth. This aligns with Paul’s belief that inclusion of Gentile believers is central to God’s purpose in the gospel of Jesus. In Acts, the story progresses through each region, with the Holy Spirit clearly driving the story forward behind the scenes. The church advances by steps toward the fulfillment of Jesus’ word. In a way, Paul’s arrival in Rome portrays the promise fulfilled. (In another sense, we’re still fulfilling Jesus’ command/promise.) But even in that Holy Spirit driven epoch, you don’t see much expectation that the basic nature of the world will change. Most of the texts assume that the church will remain a social minority in a hostile culture – which is still true in most parts of the world. And there is certainly no expectation that Christians will accomplish in this age anything close to what Jesus will create in the next. I continue to hope and pray that the church will be faithful to the mission our Lord has given us, and that an outpouring of the Holy Spirit will bring forth explosions of living faith throughout the world. I can’t imagine anything better than for Wesley to be right: that “the knowledge of the Lord shall cover the earth, as the waters cover the sea.”

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