Those who reject and critique premillennial eschatology may have several reasons for doing so. The debate over hermeneutics, spiritualisation of prophecies, the nature of the biblical covenants, and the relationship of the church to Israel is what typically divides amillennialists and postmillennialists from their premillennial brethren.
Of late, however, a less theological objection is raised against those who believe in a literal, earthly reign of Christ that precedes the New Heavens and New Earth. One might even call the objection an aesthetic objection, for it has to do with the overall tone and flavour of premillennialism, not its exegetical details. The objection runs thus: premillennialism is a pessimistic eschatology. Its story is one of defeat, and not victory. Premillennial eschatology lacks the hopeful, victorious tone of the Scriptures, and therefore must be a false interpretation of Scripture. (Of course, this objection can be levelled at certain articulations of amillennialism, too, but for some reason they rarely come in for the same beating.)
Particularly those of the postmillennial persuasion promote their theology along these aesthetic lines: postmillennialism is a victorious, happy, hopeful eschatology. God is winning, and will win! And certainly, such argumentation is appealing at first glance. A deeper consideration will find it flawed, on at least three levels.
The first and most glaring fallacy in this reasoning is to equate pessimism with unbelief. Of course, a denial that God will be ultimately victorious has no part in Christian theology, but I have never met a Christian, of any eschatological school, who held that. Such a posture, if it exists, is not pessimism regarding human culture, but unbelief in the Word of God. A failure to distinguish pessimism about human culture from hopelessness or unbelief in God’s ultimate victory is sloppy thinking. It fails (or refuses) to see that the opposite of pessimism is not faith, nor is optimism the opposite of unbelief. For it is quite possible to be pessimistic about one thing and hopeful about a larger concern. I may be pessimistic about a particular country’s future, but hopeful regarding the eventual state of the earth. I may be pessimistic about how quickly someone will make progress in the faith, but hopeful that Philippians 1:6 will come to pass in his life. Pessimism and faith can co-exist. For that matter, there are plenty of unbelievers who exist in a happy state of optimism. Pessimism and optimism have to do with one’s sense of the success of a certain thing, while faith and unbelief have to do with trust in God’s promises.
The second fallacy is to assume that pessimism is an essentially destructive and unhelpful trait, and possibly even sinful. In reality, pessimism is often needed to rightly analyse and understand human nature, the tendency of evil, and the means God uses. Indeed, philosopher Roger Scruton decided to devote a whole book to the topic, titled “The Uses of Pessimism”. Scruton goes on to show that a healthy pessimism protects human society from the fallacies of utopianism, false hope and several other fallacies born of an airbrushed view of human nature, politics and economics. Seeing negative trends and outcomes and predicting a negative outcome is pessimistic, but not necessarily unhelpful. Was Jesus not pessimistic when he asked rhetorically, “Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will He really find faith on the earth?”? (Lk 18:8)
The third fallacy is the notion that pessimism must necessarily be an ugly story, without the beauty of hope or optimistic joy. It’s primarily this fallacy that the “premillennialism is pessimistic” argument is exploiting. It is not an argument as much as a sneer: “Who wants stories with unhappy endings? What kind of spiritual boldness and evangelistic fervour come from a vision of defeat, decline and decay?”
In response, I want to enlist J. R. R. Tolkien as Exhibit A of a pessimistic vision of human culture that remains beautiful, compelling, and evocative of spiritual zeal. Tolkien’s Middle Earth is precisely that: an imaginative vision of a world slowly in decline from days of prior and higher beauty. Tolkien’s fictional world is one in which evil grows and is repulsed through successive cycles until it is finally and completely destroyed. These cycles of battling evil, fighting in what seem like lost causes, and regaining brief beachheads of beauty and righteousness are what Galadriel refers to when she says, “together through ages of the world we have fought the long defeat.” The Long Defeat is not pessimistic regarding ultimate victory, as we shall see, even within Middle Earth. It is pessimistic regarding whether victory will be achieved by human hands. (It is optimistic that victory will be imposed by the God-Man’s hands). The Long Defeat is the imaginative version of T. S. Eliot’s words, “We fight for lost causes because we know that our defeat and dismay may be the preface to our successors’ victory, though that victory itself will be temporary; we fight rather to keep something alive than in the expectation that anything will triumph.” Indeed, we are certain that the King will triumph, but pessimistic that anyone save Him will bring in the kingdom.
By briefly reviewing Tolkien’s legendarium, I want to demonstrate in this series that it is entirely possible to have a beautiful, winsome and yet realistic account of the human story (past and future) that is pessimistic regarding human culture. It is entirely possible to be moved, drawn, and motivated by the minor key of the song of the Long Defeat.