The End of the World?
For the most part, Reformed theology has been historically dominated by postmillennialism. What is postmillennialism? Basically, it’s the idea that the consummation of the ages (or the end of the world) will occur after the 1,000-year reign of Christ, which is mentioned in the book of Revelation (Rev. 20). There are two chief variants of postmillennialism: the first, amillennialism, teaches that the 1,000-year reign of Christ begins with his ascension in Acts and ends with the consummation and that the 1,000 years is not literal but figurative. The second, teaches that Christ’s 1,000-year reign will begin at some point after his ascension—early proponents of this variant taught that the 1,000 years were literal, but recent advocates have argued that the 1,000 years are figurative. Some postmillennialists believe that Jesus will return to a Christianized world, others that there will be a final uprising of evil near the consummation which Christ will subdue.
In the early seventeenth-century, however, there were a few premillennialists, or as they were then known, chialists. One such millennialist was Johann Heinrich Alsted (1588-1638). Alsted was well known because he was one of the delegates to the Synod of Dort (1618-19). But Alsted was also looked upon with scorn because, according to Westminster divine, Robert Baillie (1602-62), the revival of millenarianism was attributable to Alsted. According to Alsted, the millennium would begin in 1650, or perhaps 1695. Alsted also calculated that if the millennium began in 1695, then it would end in 2695. Alsted arrived at these dates from his examination of the prophetic numbers in the book of Daniel. Alsted was not alone in his millenarian expectations, as one of the larger influences in his life and theology on this point came from Johannes Piscator (1546-1625), who wrote and published a millenarian commentary on the book of Revelation in 1613.
Among the more interesting points in Alsted’s view was that he believed he drew confirmation of his biblical exegesis on these points from astrology. During Alsted’s day, a common belief circulated that the stars contained a chronology and history of the world. But another element that fed into Alsted’s millenarian expectations was the Thirty Years War. The Thirty Years War (1618-48) was fought in present day Germany between Protestants and Catholics where politics, theology, and power coalesced in a bloody destructive war. This war brought widespread destruction and was occasioned by plague and famine. Alsted looked upon these tumultuous events and believed he was witnessing the wars and rumors of wars prophesied by Christ.
In our own day with the false predictions of the end of the world fresh on our minds, predictions based upon “biblical calculations,” we might chuckle at Alsted’s apparent naïveté. But on the other hand, we should recognize that we are all, to one degree or another, children of our time. Many theologians have pondered quietly and loudly that they belonged to the terminal generation, the last generation that would see the second advent of Christ. While we might demure or even strongly dissent from Alted’s exegesis, and his exegesis of the stars and history, at the same time we should constantly check the responsibility of our own theological conclusions against the historic mind of the church. Are we reading things into Scripture or out of it? But we should always, regardless of what we see, be prepared for the return of Christ—we should always have oil ready for our lamps, eagerly awaiting the return of our master (Matt. 25.1-10). Lastly, we should take hope in knowing that we are not the only generation to live through difficult times. Sometimes we look at the past and relish the “glory days,” when the Reformed faith was “strong” and faithful, such as in the days of the Synod of Dort. However, if we read history more closely, we will quickly find out that perhaps there was a strong Reformed witness, the times were no more peaceful than our own. The period, in fact, was far more raucous. What we should see, however, is that regardless of the dangers, empires rising and falling, revolutions and counter-revolutions, wealth gathered and dispersed, plagues abating and spreading, the gates of hell will not prevail against the gates of heaven.
For more information on Alsted's views, see Howard Hotson, Paradise Postponed: Johann Heinrich Alsted and the Birth of Calvinist Millenarianism (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2000).