Premillennialism is called pessimistic because it teaches that evil will grow, a great apostasy will ensue, followed by a Great Tribulation, and the persecution of God’s people. Premillennialism believes victory will be snatched from the jaws of defeat with the eucatastrophic return of Christ at the very moment when it appears that evil will triumph.
Even though premillennialists believe in Christ’s ultimate and final victory, we believe that the history leading up that point is a series of defeats, or The Long Defeat, as Galadriel calls it. For this, we are called pessimistic, and we concede the point. We are pessimistic regarding the growth of righteousness before Christ returns. We are pessimists regarding whether Christianity will dominate culture again. We are pessimists regarding the notion of the gospel Christianising the world en masse.
If defeating evil is to come through the faithful presence of our churches, then we would say it appears to be a lost cause. But we are quick to define apparent lost cause, just as we define pessimism. By apparent lost cause, we do not mean vain exercise, or futile pursuit. By lost cause, we mean the defeat of our efforts is likely, barring the eucatastrophic return of Christ. This does not mean we think the war is over, or the battle is done. Even adopting the term The Long Defeat is a way of expressing our belief that we battle against all odds, not expecting immediate or short-term triumph. We fight because we are a link in a chain, a baton to be passed. It is the generation alive at the return of Christ that will see the Victory.
Scripture is full of the Apparent Lost Cause. Gideon’s 300 men, David and his sling, Asa facing a million-man army, Hezekiah facing the unconquered Sennacherib, and many more. In fact, it is probably fair to say that the Apparent Lost Cause is the “preferred” scenario for God’s people to face: for there they must place their trust in something, and Someone, other than their apparent strength or military might.
Tolkien certainly filled Middle Earth with the glory of seeming lost causes. The entire Ring saga is what appears to be a lost cause: walking into the heart of the Enemy’s almost impenetrable domain, and attempting to throw the Ring into Mount Doom. Several battles against Orc hordes, such as the ones at Helm’s Deep and Minas Tirith are lost causes from a numerical point of view. Hobbits taking on trolls, a human woman taking on one of the Ringwraiths, and many other scenes throughout Middle Earth are lost causes. Ironically, the joy after a surprising victory in the face of a lost cause is always greater than the victory that is assured and expected.
Again, T. S. Eliot captures it well: “If we take the widest and wisest view of a Cause, there is no such thing as a Lost Cause because there is no such thing as a Gained Cause. 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.”
Eliot is warning us against a narrow view of our present moment in history. No one can call his battle a lost cause because no one has reached the final moment. What appears to be a defeat may be the very thing that brings about a future victory. For that matter, what seems like great success may indeed be a preface to a terrible setback. The ebbs and flows of history are too vast for those caught in their eddies to properly judge the meaning of their moment.
That means a premillennialist does not grow discouraged because the sun appears to be setting on Christian culture. He does not throw down his arms because it seems the forces of secularism are everywhere growing and strengthening. If his is a lost cause, then he happily fights to the end. To fight, though one is almost certain of defeat, is not foolishness when commanded by God. When God has ordered it, it is faith, not futility. Indeed, in many ways, it is the height of bravery and courage to fight on where the cause appears lost before one begins, when it seems that defeat is certain.
The Apparent Lost Cause actually glorifies the heroism and faith of those who attempt it. For though it tempts to despair, the lost cause forces the one fighting to embrace both the battle and the slight hope for a eucatastrophic deliverance. He must fight, knowing defeat may be his lot, but maintain faith to the very end. They must accept that defeat or victory may be the will of God for their particular fight, and yet remain faithful, committed and courageous. Being faithful in the face of certain defeat may be the precursor to the Final Victory. This, in turn, glorifies the Ultimate Deliverer.
The Long Defeat is shorthand for “fighting an apparent lost cause until Christ decisively and victoriously intervenes”. This is the pathos of premillennial eschatology.