Since premillennialists are accused of a pessimistic eschatology, it is with some glee that we regard one of the most optimistic chapters in Scripture, Romans 8, as a text which supports our position.
“For the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and labours with birth pangs together until now.” (Romans 8:19–22)
Paul asserts that creation will continue to decay until the return of Christ. The resurrection of saints at Christ’s return will not signify the end of history, as amillennialists assert. It will bring about a resurrection of creation itself, abundantly prophesied in the Old Testament. This renewal is nevertheless partial, since several Scriptures record the presence of sin and mortality within and alongside this period of kingdom glory. The fact that Christ will rule with a rod of iron seems needless if all the citizens of that kingdom are regenerate, resurrected saints. Instead, the Millennial kingdom is itself the firstfruits of the eternal and final kingdom.
Until the return of Christ, Paul expects that creation will decay. It will steadily die, in all its forms. During the kingdom, mortality will be greatly stayed, though not absolutely removed. Mortality and decay will remain until the New Heavens and the New Earth. The Long Defeat will defeat creation.
This decay not only includes creation in its raw, unshaped form, but in the crafted form we call culture. Culture is creation tamed, shaped and deployed meaningfully, to give form and meaning to human existence. Culture is what humans do with the raw materials around them: they create worship forms, social customs, art, technology, martial structures, and so forth. They create physical and intellectual embodiments of what they believe life is, who they believe they are, and the God or gods they worship. Culture is what God’s image-bearers do with creation: for good or ill, we create systems of meaning that incarnate our ultimate beliefs. All cultures have elements of God’s common grace, according to Paul (Acts 14:17). Some cultures have common grace and the special grace of revelation combined. The best of these have been instances of Christian culture.
Premillennialists believe that the curse of decay and death extends not only to men, but to what they make. That is, not only are our physical bodies mortal, but our cultures are mortal, too. No culture lives forever, for cultures are the works of our hands, and they must return to dust, like us. Cultures will die until the return of Christ. Even the culture of the Millennium itself, the most beautiful the world has ever seen, will die and be judged for its rebellion. Christian culture will not swallow up unbelief. Even Christian cultures, like Christians themselves, will die. The scene at Christ’s return is not one of flowering Christian culture, but unbelief and apostasy:
Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will He really find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:8)
Let no one deceive you by any means; for that Day will not come unless the falling away comes first, and the man of sin is revealed, the son of perdition, (2 Thessalonians 2:3)
In other words, The Long Defeat will include the defeat of Christian culture.
In postmillennial thinking, the heights of Christian culture that have been seen in previous centuries will re-assert, revive and reclaim the world for Christ. The mustard seed of the kingdom will eventually grow to fill the Earth. Christian culture, they seemingly assert, is immortal. For some postmillennialists, asserting that Christian culture will shrivel is tantamount to confessing that the gospel is ineffectual, or that God’s Word will fail.
As Paul would say, may it never be! God’s Word cannot return to Him empty, whether it is in season or out of season. We say nothing about the power of the gospel when we say that culture – even the most Christian culture imaginable – must die. It must die for the simple reason that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God. Unredeemed flesh must pass through the vale of death and resurrection to enter the final kingdom of the New Jerusalem. What Christians make from creation is not to be considered identical with the Word of God.
In Tolkien’s imaginative world, the death of culture – even that of high and virtually flawless cultures – is assured and illustrated. The purest of cultures, the High Elves, can only preserve their beauty by returning from Middle Earth altogether, and dwelling with the Valar in Paradise. The Noldor go to Middle Earth, but theirs is the steady and Long Defeat of their glory, with waves of them steadily leaving the shores of Middle Earth. The highest of Men, the Numenoreans, cannot preserve their culture, but lose it to a flood of judgement. Once rebuilt on the shores of Middle Earth, it slowly experiences steady decline. Similar stories belong to the Dwarves, the Rohirrim, and all the free peoples of Middle Earth. Saviours emerge, heroes stem the tide, valiant kings rebuild for a time, but the beauty of their cultures “waxes old as a garment”.
Littered through Middle Earth are ruined monuments, fallen statues, forgotten lore, lost remedies, unreadable manuscripts. Culture is walking with a bent back, unable to lift what it could in its glory days. History is not “progress” towards some unspecified improvement. It is more like a steady dissipation of energy, an entropy of nerve and character, a devolution from glory to mediocrity. T. S. Eliot imagined it so in his poem, “The Hollow Men”
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
In one of his letters, Tolkien put it this way: “Actually I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a ‘long defeat’ – though it contains (and in a legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some samples or glimpses of final victory.”
Premillennialism believes the human story is one of the birth, life, and death of human cultures as they grapple with the Fall, Redemption and the coming Eschaton. No culture, not even Christian culture, is immortal, though it may embody things that are permanent. The eradication of all death awaits the New Heavens and the New Earth.