Premillennialists are told that their hermeneutic must be faulty because its pessimism is contrary to the optimistic spirit of the Scriptures. This series aims to counter that charge by showing pessimistic visions of history are neither necessarily despairing and cowardly, nor need they be ugly and distasteful. To do so, I am enlisting “the great defeat” motif of Tolkien’s Middle Earth. It is pessimistic in flavour, but has been received by millions of people as not only beautiful, but as a compelling image of why the true, the good, and the beautiful will finally triumph.
To be clear, I am not making the claim that Tolkien was a premillennialist. As a devoted Roman Catholic, his eschatological views would have been some form of amillennialism. As it happens though, amillennialism shares with premillennialism the very point under discussion: a pessimism that human culture will improve through the leavening force of the gospel. How does this pessimism pervade the Middle Earth legendarium?
First, Tolkien has a persistent theme of the growth and encroachment of evil that eventually breaks out and mars whatever beauty has been created or built. It begins in the creation saga, when Illuvatar, the One God, creates the world and has his angelic-like beings, the Valar, participate by singing parts. Melkor, the most powerful of them, adds discord and disharmony by seeking to subvert creation to his own ends. When cast down to Earth, he is ever the source of destroying and distorting what the other Valar have carefully and patiently built. He destroys the two lights of Arda. As Morgoth, he eventually destroys the hidden elf-kingdom of Gondolin. Sauron corrupts and deceives the noble Numenoreans and leads them into the worship of evil.
Second, Tolkien maintains a theme of steady dilution and dissipation of what was once purer and stronger. The tales of Middle Earth are filled with nostalgia towards former ages when the High Elves were present, the languages were purer, the cities more glorious, the wisdom and lore unforgotten, the artistry more skilled, and even the warcraft more valiant. The characters in the Third Age live in the ruins of former ages, always seeming like tiny figures dwarfed by the colossi of their ancestors. Theoden calls himself a “lesser son of great sires”. Gondor is managed by a steward, not ruled by a king. The dwarf-kingdoms are abandoned and occupied by dragons or Balrogs. History is not an evolution of progress, but a steady devolution with temporary victories of the good that stem the tide.
Third, even success by the righteous is followed by pride, which brings destruction. Echoing the Book of Judges, righteousness brings prosperity, prosperity brings pride and complacency, complacency brings idolatry and apostasy, and apostasy brings disaster. Both the Elves and Men fall when their glory becomes conceitedness: the Noldor become fratricidal, the Numenorean men attempt to grasp immortality and bring an Atlantean judgement on themselves.
Premillennialists see history similarly. Although Christian culture has brought advances and victories, it seems as if the periods when truth is “in season” are short interludes between much longer seasons of darkness. Periods of glorious and beautiful creation are like the short decades when Judah had a righteous king. Great deeds are done, beauty is conserved and propagated, until the son of the righteous king not only reverses all the good done, but accelerates the descent into depravity.
Likewise, the human story is one of cycles of defeat. Eden, the Flood, Babel, the Judges, Divided Kingdom, Exile, rejection of Messiah, pagan syncretism, medieval superstition, Enlightenment, Secularism are stories of decline. As traditional dispensationalism puts it, man fails in the dispensations of innocence, conscience, human government, promise, law, church, and kingdom. Each one is further evidence that man’s problems are not around him, but within him.
God’s people suffer from the same maladies of pride and conceit pictured in Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Whenever success has brought Israel or the church its share of power, glory and prosperity, it has soon become the persecutor, descended into vanity or wasted its prosperity on self-indulgence.
Ultimately, salvation – individual, national, and cosmic – comes by gracious intervention, not by steady human improvement. This theme is present in Tolkien as well, as we will see.