The diagram above illustrates how the three major schools of eschatology relate to one another. All three share one position: that Christ will return bodily. Each school shares one position each with the other two schools. Premillennialism shares pessimism about culture with amillennialism, and shares with postmillennialism the belief that Christ will be victorious on this earth. Each school then has a fourth position distinctive to itself.
For premillennialism, that distinctive position is the belief that Christ will reign on the Earth for a thousand years before the creation of the New Heavens and the New Earth. Premillennialists believe this kingdom is intermediate: it is a glorious reign of peace and prosperity, but it will still contain elements of human sin, mortality, and rebellion.
It is this position that is sometimes vilified most loudly by its opponents. They suggest that the idea of mortals and immortals living alongside one another is implausible. They cannot conceive of Christ reigning on the Earth and rebellion and sin still being present. The notion of a restored Israelite theocracy and priesthood seems to them to be a denial of the book of Hebrews, and a misreading of Old Testament prophecy.
Here my goal is not to give the theological defence of that position (there are plenty of those), but to once again suggest how Tolkien’s work gives our imaginations a plausible and compelling illustration of an intermediate and imperfect kingdom. The Long Defeat extends even to the Millennium, as Tolkien (perhaps unwittingly) illustrates.
The most famous of Tolkien’s works, The Lord of the Rings, concludes with the true heir to the throne of Gondor, Aragorn, defeating the Enemy in battle (through Frodo’s destruction of the Ring), and coming to rule Gondor. Through him, peace and prosperity return to Middle Earth. Evil is not eradicated, though it is vastly reduced and pushed back. Aragorn, or King Elessar, as he is called after his coronation, establishes order and peace throughout his realm. It is hard to miss the messianic similarities.
But Aragorn himself is mortal, and even though he lives three times longer than most Men of Middle Earth, he eventually cedes the kingdom to his son, Eldarion, and gives up his life. His wife Arwen, formerly immortal, experiences the true bitterness of mortality. Though the analogies to Christ break down here, it is obvious that the kingdom of peace and justice brought about by the messianic Aragorn is not the final kingdom.
Tolkien actually began and then abandoned a sequel to the Lord of the Rings, titled The New Shadow, set in the time of Aragorn’s son, Eldarion. The original idea was to show how corruption would soon enter after the death of a good king. Tolkien gave up on this work, seeing it as depressing, but it proves the point that the reign of Aragorn is not the ultimate kingdom, but a preliminary one. The Fall affects even Aragorn’s glorious reign.
The actual final eschaton in Tolkien’s Middle Earth is the “Dagor Dagorath” – the Final Battle between Morgoth (the Satan of Middle-Earth) and the forces of good. This seems to resemble the events of Revelation 20:7-10, in which Satan is released after the Millennium, and deceives the nations into one more climactic revolt against God. Morgoth is destroyed, the Two Trees are rekindled and Arda is destroyed and remade.
Why do premillennialists hold so dearly to an intermediate kingdom before the creation of the New Heavens and New Earth? First, we believe such a kingdom is the true fulfilment of the Abrahamic, Davidic and New covenants, without having to spiritualise what seem to be promises of actual land inheritance. Second, and similarly, it means the victory of Christ takes place within the historical timeline of this world, in the time and space of Earth’s history, not in some post-history eschaton. Third, we believe the Millennium is the final piece of evidence that man’s rebellion against God is not due to circumstance, deprivation or disadvantage. It is this third point that Tolkien’s mythology illustrates so powerfully.
Man’s rebellion began in Paradise, and it will repeat one more time, in another Millennial Paradise. Man’s complaint that he sins out of hunger, or need, or self-preservation, or out of ignorance will be decisively answered by the intermediate kingdom. Here mankind will have abundant food, near perfect health, the removal of war, poverty, and crime, the presence of the Perfect King, and the restraint of the curse on physical creation. The true and perfect faith will be physically visible in Jerusalem, and taught by reigning, resurrected saints throughout the Earth. What reason could man give for rejecting Christ at the close of this period (Rev 20:8-9)? Hunger? Disease? Oppression? Poverty? Class warfare? Natural disaster? Confusing pluralism? A lack of visible evidence for God? None of these. Exposed will be the naked assertion of unbelieving man: “We will not have this Man to rule over us” (Lk 19:14).
And thus will God close the book of human history. The final chapter, the Millennium, will prove what the story showed all along: that God’s image-bearers could not live with the knowledge of good and evil, apart from grace. Without grace, the cancer of sin would ever eat at man, and the Long Defeat would be the appropriate title for the best of efforts to resist it. Man’s problems were not around him; they were always inside him. A graceless, fallen, unbelieving heart was always its own worst enemy. Man hated God, because God wanted man to find joy in Him, not in himself. Grace was ever needed for the human heart to receive the True, the Good and the Beautiful.
In God’s courtroom, the millennial kingdom before the eternal Kingdom is a necessary witness so that God may be true, and every man a liar. God’s goodness will be vindicated, and the ugliness of unbelief will be shown for the monstrous, unthankful and injurious thing it is.