The Hole in our Hope? A Rejoinder
March 26, 2024

A rejoinder to Bubu Jarmulak’s essay, “Embrace Pessimism.”

Whereas calumnious critiques are reflections of more on the critic than the work criticized, good critiques are always opportunities for reassessment and improvement if they are received as such. Since its renaissance, the biblical doctrine of postmillennialism—or “optimistic eschatology,” in general–has enjoyed much favor in various branches of the Reformed theo-verse. However, as with most movements, the Icarine heights can blind one to the perils of unchecked enthusiasm. We see something similar happening in the postmillennial boom: proponents of postmillennialism have failed to deal adequately with its most legitimate critique—namely, that of widespread suffering, evil, and death—missing an opportunity for both humility and clarity. Though dispensational premillennialists and pessimistic amillennialists have been leveling this critique for decades, Dr. Jarmulak has once again set the messiness of reality over and against postmillennialism potential for “mechanical optimism.”1 One could rightly argue that Reformed theology suffers from a thin theology of suffering in general, but this deficiency is magnified postmillennial eschatology. Indeed, whether in general theology or in eschatology specifically, the Reformed tendency is to either (a) refer suffering to providential mystery or (b) reduce suffering simply to individual virtue formation.2 Though both of those things are true, neither is a full explanation of the biblical picture nor a fair consideration of the critique offered. I want to submit, as a self-identified postmillennialist, that the criticism and cautions of Jarmulak are correct. However, I also want to suggest a rejoinder to Dr. Jermulak’s promotion of pessimism. I will do so by offering a brief revisionist outline of postmillennialism that integrates a thickened biblical theology of suffering with the characteristic hopefulness about the unconquerable kingdom of God. Let’s call it paschal postmillennialism.

In the second volume of his Jesus of Nazareth trilogy, Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) notes that a biblical theology must take into account creation, history, and cross. Though a full biblical portrait would require more, it is certainly no less; and in each panel of this basic triptic, we see that God works to advance his kingdom not simply in spite of or even alongside of but through suffering.

In creation, God builds by breaking (cf. Gen. 1:1–2:4). As Jim Jordan taught us long ago, there is a six-fold pattern that is basic to the creational-covenantal motif through Scripture. And key to that motif is step two of six—namely, God taking hold of a piece of creational furniture and dividing it.3 The climax of this pattern is, of course, on day six when God puts Adam in death-sleep in order to break him in half to form his bride (Gen. 2:18–25). It is precisely through the breaking, the suffering of creation and creature that the kingdom of God is first inaugurated in beatitude, that the bride is built.

In redemptive history, after the fall of man, God subjects the world and especially his covenant people to a series of trials, which were all intended to advance His kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. Space prevents us from recounting all of the particular ways in which this building-by-breaking takes place; but consider Abraham, called from Ur, endures at least twelve trials, which each by faith lead him to a relatively greater possession and posterity (Gen. 12–26).4 Joseph is triply disrobed and twice thrown into a pit; yet, each remantleing resurrection gains him a more glorious standing until his dominion is second only to the world superpower of Pharaoh (Gen. 43–50). Israel, later crushed in Egypt, grows exponentially under the harsh hands of Pharaoh (Ex. 1–13). Suffering under Saul, David is prepared to reign well and with greater glory (1 Sam. 18–31). Thrown into turmoil in the absence of the ark, Israel repents in the days of David and emerges from their self-inflicted suffering with a temple and a glory that dazzles the nations (2 Sam. 5–1 Kings 10). Even for the remnant in exile, the harsh covenantal judgment is working to bring about a new cosmic kingdom (cf. Ezek. 40–47; Malachi). Suffice it to say that the Old Testament is a series of rhythmical rendings that each somehow produce a greater glory than the previous one.

In the cross, ultimately, the pattern is clearly seen. Jesus must suffer and die in order to gain His universal dominion (Matt. 28:16-20). Moreover, he constantly reminds his disciples that they too must suffer with him if they are to share in his glory (Mark 10:35–45). As Peter learns the hard way, to suggest any other way besides suffering is essentially Satanic (Matt. 18:21–23). Even the very parables of Christ contain the mystery of a suffering that leads to glory: a buried seed (Luke 13:18–19), hidden leaven (Matt. 13:33), beaten and killed servants (Matt. 21:33–46)—all of these central parables and others portray the kingdom’s growth as one that is inherently bound to a paschal vision of the postmillennial hope.

What’s more, we clearly see this pattern extending in both Scripture and history beyond the cross. Forty days after Jesus’ death, three thousand are added to the Church (Acts 2:41). Warned by the Sanhedrin, five thousand men are now present in the Church. Beaten by the Sanhedrin, the Church is non-discriptly “larger than ever” (Acts 5:17–6:7). Stoned to death outside of the city walls, Stephen, as a stand-in for the totus Christus, causes the largest evangelistic explosion of his age and even merits an unlikely replacement—the chief murderer, Saul himself (Acts 6–9). Later, each time Paul is received in a city with a mixture of blessings and buffets, the Church only increases (Acts 13–19). But when Paul is beaten in Jerusalem and appeals to Rome, Luke ends with one clear warning: Rome’s days of dominion are numbered (Acts 20–23).

These communities gathered into this co-suffering body, were founded and formed by symbols of sufferings—that is, the sacraments. Shot through the very core of Christian liturgy is the paschal mystery that promises glory. In baptism, there is both life and death (Rom. 6:1–4), life from death (Titus 3:5), death in life (1 Peter 3:18–22), and on and on the paradox continues until we are left asking with Eliot, “Were we led all that way for / Birth or Death?” (“Journey of the Magi,” lines 35–36). In the eucharist, the paradox is redoubled: we gain life from death (1 Cor. 11:24). Grinding the God-Man between our teeth, as it were, sipping His blood like a Sauvignon, we are remade into His image by the representation of His own suffering. It is through His dying that His glory is fully manifested in and through us. Sunday in and Sunday out, this is what Christians both then and now gather to do by His command and as His memorial.

Finally, in the post-apostolic world, the rhythm continues for those who have ears to hear, whose powers of discernment have been trained (Heb. 5:14). Filled with the blood of martyrs, Jerusalem signs her own death certificate (cf. Rev. 17:6ff), which leads to the descent of the Holy City of God (Rev. 21–22). Joining Jerusalem shortly after, the empire-wide persecutions under Nero and Diocletian lead ultimately to Constantine, the death of Boniface leads to the life of Charlemagne, the tenebris of the Council of Constance to the lux-glut of the Reformation, and the blood of untold African martyrs to the world’s largest Christian population.

We could go on, but the point is evident: the unstoppable growth of the kingdom through suffering is the pattern of creation and the progress of the covenant history as prophesied in Israel, parabled and portrayed by Jesus, preached by Paul, proclaimed by John, represented in the sacraments, and perceived in post-apostolic history. It is, thus, not more pessimism that we need but a more passionate optimism—literally, optimism that suffers (passio).5 We must retain our joyful, hopeful laboring, but that joyful, hopeful laboring must be done from the paschal mystery rather than from our own methods for cultural victory. The weapons of our warfare are from the Spirit (1 Cor. 10:14), and the Spirit cultivates glory in the world through a threefold threnody of glorifying groans (Rom. 8:18–30).

Constructive critics like Dr. Jermulak are right to remind us of the many errors of “Yuppie Postmillennialism.” However, while we must ensure that our good and necessary reformulation of postmillennialism are, as he says, free of “the kind of optimism [that] rejects the collective wisdom that arises from the experience of many generations,” this does not mean that we should exchange our optimism for pessimism. On the contrary, the wisdom of Christ is precisely that we are hopeful especially in and through our sufferings because we know the victorious outcome that they are working for us and the world in union with the Christ (James 1:2; 1 Cor. 1:30–31; 2 Cor. 4:17–18; Heb. 12:2–3). This brief exchange demonstrates that our eschatology needs to transcend the unhelpful categories of optimism and pessimism altogether and embrace the biblical model of the paschal mystery.

Gage Crowder is a classical school teacher and pastoral intern. He lives near Huntsville, Alabama with his wife and two children.

  1. All quotations are from Jarmulak’s recent Theopolis essay here: ↩︎
  2. In an appended essay from his postmillennial tome, Kenneth Gentry, after quoting from various figures on both sides, notes simply that “the postmillennial position is that suffering is ethically necessary in many times.” See his He Shall Have Dominion: A Postmillennial Eschatology (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1992), 530. ↩︎
  3. James B. Jordan, Through New Eyes: Developing a Biblical View of the World (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1988), 117ff, esp. 119. ↩︎
  4. See Donald Linnemeyer’s recent Theopolis essay here: ↩︎
  5. The etymology of our English word passion is the Latin root for suffer (cf. pat– or patio– or pas-). ↩︎
Related Media

To download Theopolis Lectures, please enter your email.