Kingdom Come: The Politics of the Millennium

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First
published in Liberty
Magazine, 1990

Christianity
has played a central role in Western civilization and contributed
an important influence on the development of classical-liberal thought.
Not surprisingly, Christian beliefs about the "end times"
are very important for us right now.

Christian Reconstructionism
is one of the fastest growing and most influential currents in American
religious and political life. Though the fascinating discussions
by Jeffrey Tucker and Gary North (in the July and September issues
of Liberty) have called libertarian attention to, and helped
explain, this movement, to clarify Christian Reconstructionism fully
we have to understand the role and problem of millennialism in Christian
thought.

The problem
centers around on the discipline of eschatology, or the Last Days,
and on the question, How is the world destined to come to an end?
The view that nearly all Christians accept is that at a certain
time in the future Jesus will return to earth in a Second Advent,
and preside over the Last Judgment, at which all those then alive
and all the bodily resurrected dead will be assigned to their final
places – and human history, and the world as we know it, will
have come to an end.

So far, so
good. A troublesome problem, however, comes in various passages
in the Bible, in the Book of Daniel, and especially in the final
book of Revelation, in which mention is made of a millennium, of
a thousand-year reign of Christ on earth – the Kingdom of God
on earth (KGE) – before the final Day of Judgment. Who is to
establish that kingdom, and what is it supposed to look like?

The orthodox
answer to this problem was set forth by the great Saint Augustine,
in the early 5th century; this Augustinian line has been accepted
by all the orthodox and liturgical Christian Churches: the Roman
Catholic, the Greek and Russian Orthodox, high-church Lutheran,
and Anglican, as well as by the Dutch wing of the Calvinist church
(where Calvin himself stood is a matter of dispute). The Augustinian
line is that the millennium, or thousand-year reign, is solely a
metaphor for the creation of the Christian Church; the millennium
is not something to be taken literally, as ever to take place, temporally,
on earth. This orthodox position has the great virtue of disposing
of the millennium problem. The answer – forget it. At some
unknown time in the future, Jesus will return, and that’s that.

But to many
centuries of Christian dissidents, this answer has failed to satisfy.
It deprives them of hope, of the literal passages in the Bible that
seem to promise a thousand years of temporal blessings on earth
– the glorious Kingdom. Among the numerous groups of millennialists,
those who believe that the KGE will and must eventually arrive,
there are two very different groups: those who believe that the
Kingdom will be established by Jesus himself, who will therefore
return to earth before the millennium (premillennialists,
or "premils"); and those that believe that Jesus will
return to earth after the millennium (the postmillennialists,
or "postmils.")

This seemingly
abstruse theological difference carries enormously significant social
and political implications. For as much as the premil yearns to
attain the KGE and install it for a thousand years, he is constrained
to wait; he must wait for Jesus’s return. The postmil, on
the other hand, maintains that man must establish the KGE
first, in order that Jesus may eventually return. In other
words, the postmil is under theological obligation, as a fulfillment
of the divine plan, to establish the KGE as quickly as possible.
Hence the sense of hurry, the sense of rushing toward impending
triumph, that generally suffuses the postmils. For the march of
history, the plans of Providence itself, depend upon the postmil
being triumphant as soon as he possibly can.

What, then,
is this all-important millennium, in either the premil or postmil
version, supposed to look like? As we might expect, as with many
Utopias, the vision is a bit cloudy. Most theorists, beginning with
one of the first and most influential, the early 13th-century Calabrian
abbot Joachim of Fiore, have been explicit communists – that
is, that work, private property, and the division of labor will
disappear in this perfect society. Joachim, who almost converted
three popes and therefore almost significantly altered the history
of Western civilization, offered a unique solution to the problem
of production under communism – it would disappear, because
in the KGE aborning (he predicted its advent to come 50 years after
he wrote), all human flesh would disappear, and man would be pure
spirit. So much for the problem of production or property. These
pure, disembodied human spirits, then, would chant praises to God
in mystical ecstasy for the duration of the millennium. Other millennialists,
however, could not take such an easy way out.

While most
KGE theorists have been communists, some postmils, such as early
20th-century American Calvinist, J. Gresham Machen, have been laissez-faire,
free-market stalwarts. But on one point all millennialists are agreed
– there can be no sinners worthy of living in the perfect world
of the KGE. "Sinners," of course, are broadly defined
to encompass a massive chunk of the existing human race: they include
adulterers, sodomites, blasphemers, idolaters, prophets of false
doctrines, and all the rest. So a crucial question then becomes,
how are the sinners to be gotten rid of, so that the KGE can be
established?

For the premil,
the answer is that, just prior to Jesus’ Second Advent that will
establish the KGE, God will send us Armageddon, the final War of
Good against Evil, in which all the strange creatures that populate
the Book of Revelation will figure prominently: the Beast, the Antichrist,
666, and all the rest. At the end of Armageddon, the world will
have been cleansed of all the sinners, and Christ and His cadre
of saints can go about establishing His Kingdom. From the libertarian
point of view, the premil poses little danger, since his role is
to await eagerly the alleged signs of the impending holocaust. For
the premil, regardless of how eager he may be, is supposed to wait
for God to make the crucial moves.

Unfortunately,
there are many strains in premil thought holding it important, and
morally obligatory, for the premil, knowing Armageddon to be at
hand, to try to speed up God’s timetable by giving it a little healthy
push, thereby "doing God’s will." In that way, to borrow
from another famous (atheist) millennialist, the premil is to act
as "the midwife of history." Which is why I, for one,
would be a bit fidgety to have a premil with his finger near the
nuclear button. (Our beloved ex-president, Ronald Reagan, is an
avowed premil, but it is doubtful if he fully understands the implications
of his own position.)

In
general, if you want an event badly enough, and you think it inevitable,
you tend to see it coming just over the horizon. And so premils,
through history, have been poring over the Bible, and over world
events, and seeing presumptively infallible signs of the Big One
(Armageddon) coming up. Any times of war, upheaval, or revolution
have engendered large numbers of premil movements. But these precise
predictions have always been falsified – the eternal problem
of "historicist" premils, those who pick specific historical
dates for either Armageddon or the Second Advent.

One of the
most influential groups of historicists was the Millerite movement,
followers in America and England of the Yankee preacher William
Miller, who forecast Armageddon on a specific day in 1843. Typically,
when nothing happens on the predicted date, the guru rethinks the
matter and concludes that there was a slight error in his scientific
calculations – the date is really a year or so later. This
is what happened with Miller. But then, when nothing happens on
the second date – in this case 1844 – confusion sets in
and the movement collapses.

In the case
of the Millerites, a subgroup arose that claimed that Jesus really
did arrive, thus vindicating the prediction, but that his Advent
was invisible; the Advent would be made visible to all at
some time in the future. This less than satisfying resolution was
the path taken by the group that later became known as the Seventh-Day
Adventists.

But at last
a creative way out was discovered from the irritating falsifications
of the historicists’ predictions. John Nelson Darby, an English
preacher and mystic, invented around this time the concept of dispensationalism,
which later spread like wildfire in the United States and was to
become known as "fundamentalism" (after the volumes, The
Fundamentals
, published in 1910.) What Darby and the fundamentalists
did was to repudiate the basic method of the historicists, which
was to time the countdown to Armageddon from clocks of prophecy
that they discovered in the Bible.

Darby severed
the premils from being tied to the number prophecies based on the
Bible. According to Darby, the Biblical clock of prophecy kept ticking
until the founding of the Christian Church. The founding
of the Church stopped that clock, since it constituted a new dispensation
in history. The Church, in a famous phrase of Darby’s, "is
the great parenthesis in history." At some point, however,
for which premils look for Signs, the clock of prophecy will start
up again, and the countdown to imminent Armageddon will begin. One
of the predicted signs was the return of all the Jews to Palestine
and their mass conversion to Christianity. With a little stretching,
then, the mainstream of premils picked the founding of the State
of Israel in 1948 as the beginning of the countdown, with many of
them therefore picking forty years after that, or 1988, as Armageddon
Year.

As premil thought
developed, however, Armageddon – which is now considered to
take seven years, and which is known as "the tribulation"
– began to pose a big problem. It is true that the Bad Guys,
the vast mass of sinners, will be satisfactorily disposed of by
God’s wrath. But how about the Good Guys? After all, they, too,
during those wonderful but strenuous years, will be in danger of
getting caught in the crossfire, and getting slaughtered along with
everyone else. It didn’t seem fair.

And so premil
theorists, poring over the Bible, came up with a solution –
the Good Guys will not have to suffer during Armageddon. Instead,
just before Armageddon is to begin, Jesus will return invisibly
(a variant on the Seventh Day Adventists) and "rapture up"
the Good Guys bodily to Heaven. Then, the Good Guys, the saved,
will sit at the right hand of God up in Heaven watching (enjoying?)
the spectacle of the Bad Guys slaughtering each other down below.

Then, after
the war is over, the dust settled, and perhaps the radiation fallout
finished, Jesus will return visibly to earth along with his
Saints, to rule the Earth for a thousand years, with the sinners
eliminated in a most satisfying manner. Thus, the Second Advent
is split into two parts: the first invisible one where Jesus raptures
up the Good Guys; and the second visible one, where He returns with
them to set up the KGE.

I well remember
one sermon by my favorite premil televangelist, the Reverend Jimmy
Swaggart (before personal or satanic forces laid him low). The Rapture,
which Jimmy asserted was imminent, was the emotional high for the
reverend along with his massive congregation.

As he described
the glories of the Rapture, shouts and sobs of joy shook the celebrants.
It didn’t seem contradictory to any of the faithful when, a few
sober moments later, Jimmy pleaded for contributions to his Bible
college. But why worry about schools and colleges when the Rapture
was promised for a few weeks or so hence?

Premillennialism
is basically a passive creed, and yet, since the early 1970s, fundamentalist
Christians have engaged more and more fervently in political action.
Many have understandably grown tired of waiting for the Rapture,
and have started looking for a coherent political program and strategy,
which premillennialism can never be equipped to provide. Hence the
golden opportunity for the Christian Reconstructionists.

Enter, then,
the postmils. Postmils have to have some sort of political
program, because they believe that man must establish the KGE on
his own. Postmils can be divided into the "immediatists,"
who want to seize power and establish the KGE immediately, and the
gradualists, who are prudently willing to wait a bit.

The most notorious
immediatists burgeoned at the beginning of the Reformation, in fifteen
brief but turbulent years, from 1520 to 1535. In numerous towns
in Germany and Holland, different sects of Anabaptists tried to
grab power and bring about the KGE. The sinners were to be gotten
rid of by immediate slaughter of all heretics, which included all
who refused to take orders from the sect’s maximum leader. Leaders
like Thomas Müntzer and Jan Bockelson[1]
tried to impose theocratic communism, vowing to exterminate unbelievers
and act as "God’s scythe," until, as some of them phrased
it, blood will cover the world to the height of a horse’s bridle.
Finally, in 1535, the last and most important of the bloody experiments
in Anabaptist communism, in the city of Münster, was overthrown,
and its adherents massacred in turn.

The Anabaptist
failures served to discredit immediatism, and from then on, postmils
turned to more gradual, and therefore somewhat less coercive, measures.
The idea was that instead of killing all sinners and heretics immediately,
postmils would take over the reins of government, and, by rather
kindlier and gentler means, use the State to shape everyone up,
make men moral, and stamp out sin, so as to make them fit to enter
the KGE.

The mainstream
Protestant churches of 19th-century America, for example, were taken
over by a fervent pietist version of postmillennialism, which emphasized
revivalism, bursts of emotion, and rule by the Holy Spirit. These
postmil Protestants became increasingly more progressive and statist,
their outlook being best expressed by one of their leaders, Professor
Richard T. Ely, founder of the American Economic Association, Christian
sociologist, and indefatigable activist and organizer, who considered
"government as God’s major instrument of salvation." The
sins that the Protestant pietists were particularly interested in
stamping out were Demon Rum, Sabbath-breaking, and that well-known
instrument of the Antichrist, the Roman Catholic Church.

On the other
hand, the 17th-century Puritans in America were theonomists, believers
in God’s law, trying to construct a Christian Commonwealth rather
than emotionally harking after the Holy Spirit. The modern Christian
Reconstructionists are the Puritans’ spiritual descendants. But
postmil theonomists have a problem. For Jesus never held or ran
for political office, nor did he ever advocate any legislation –
perhaps, after all, an indication that Jesus was more libertarian
or less KGE-minded than the Reconstructionists and other postmils
have believed.

Therefore,
in attempting to construct a commonwealth based on God’s law, the
Puritans could only turn to the Old Testament and to the government
of ancient Israel. Hence the emphasis on stoning to death transgressors,
and hence the dispute about whether ancient Israelite law applies
nowadays to Sabbath-breakers.

Conscientious
Christians try to abide by a personal and political ethic. It is
difficult to see how a Christian can be a utilitarian, a nihilist,
or a might-makes-right advocate. There are, it seems to me, only
two possible genuine ethical systems for a Christian. One is the
natural law/natural rights position of the (Catholic or Anglican)
Scholastics, in which human reason is equipped to discover natural
law, and purely theological or divinely revealed ethics is a very
small and separate though important part of the system. Another
is the Calvinist view that man’s reason is so corrupted that the
only viable ethic, indeed the only truth about anything,
must come from divine revelation as presented in the Bible.

With his usual
insight, Gary North sees that the two positions are and must be
at loggerheads, and hence stakes his entire case on Calvinist presuppositionalism.
Unfortunately, presuppositionalism is not a position likely to gain
adherents outside the hardcore Calvinist faithful, and even there
I suspect he might have problems. (Is there really only a Christian
chemistry, a Christian mathematics, a Christian way
to fly a plane?)

Finally, I
must confess I find all the talk about "alliances," coalitions,
associations, or "willingness to work together on an informal
basis" (Tucker), an exercise in hairsplitting. Libertarians
live in a world where – alas! – not everyone is a 100-percent
libertarian. Many people – undoubtedly most people –
are blends of X-percent libertarian and Y-percent non- or anti-libertarian.
To say that it is impermissible to talk to or work with anyone who
is not a 100-percent libertarian is to follow the disastrous and
crackpot path of orthodox Randianism – that is, to dig oneself
a deep sectarian hole and leap in.

It
seems to me that both the sane and the commonsense thing to do is
to work with the X percent libertarian aspect of people, and to
ignore, discourage, or work against the other Y percent. Whether
you call it alliance, coalition, or whatever makes no difference.
Obviously, in different contexts and different times, some issues
will be more important than others, and it is up to the individual
libertarian, depending on the context and on his or her personal
temperament and interests, to decide which issues and coalitions
to stress.

Obviously,
it is important for libertarians to discuss what issues are likely
to be dominant or most important in any given historical period.
Thus, during the Vietnam War, in my view the most important political
issues were the war and the draft, and hence my argument that a
coalition, alliance, informal association, or what have you with
the New Left was in order. Now, the draft is down to registration,
and it seems clear that the Wheeler–Rohrabacher "freedom
fighters" have pretty well disappeared, and that the Cold War
itself is in the process of coming to an end.

If that is
true, then, in the coming period, some sort of association/coalition
or whatever with some types of conservatives might be in order.
But only, of course, as once applied to the Left, with anti-Establishment
types. There can never be a persuasive argument for coalescing or
allying ourselves with the State apparatus. In any case, one would
hope that strategic discussions can be conducted among libertarians
with a minimum of anathemas and threats of excommunication, since,
as Jeff Tucker well
says
, in "questions of strategy, final answers are elusive."

Note

[1] Editor’s Note: Commonly known
as John of Leiden, or Jan van Leiden.

Reprinted
from Mises.org.

Murray
N. Rothbard
(1926–1995) was dean of the Austrian
School, founder of modern libertarianism, and academic
vice president of the Mises
Institute
. He was also editor — with Lew Rockwell —
of The
Rothbard-Rockwell Report
, and appointed Lew as his
literary executor.

The
Best of Murray Rothbard

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