By Kenneth L. Gentry Jr
Amillennialists complain that postmillennialism must overlook or downplay biblical calls to suffering. Our postmillennial expectation of victory in history seems to run against the New Testament statements regarding Christian suffering. How do we explain such passages?
In this post I am continuing a response to Reformed amillennialists R. Fowler White, Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., and Robert Strimple. They unite in their opposition to postmillennialism on the grounds that the suffering motif of Scripture undermines its hope-filled expectations. This is the second article responding to their claims. I will interact with these scholars by simply listing their names and the page numbers in their works on this topic. Yesterday’s article provides the fuller bibliography needed to check the sources. So let us continue now with our fourth point.
4. Corporate Personality and Suffering
Corporate personality may account for some statements of persecutional suffering. The church is a corporate personality; the “body of Christ” is not “one member but many” (1 Cor 12:14). The corpus Christi extends through time, so that early believers are our “fathers” (Rom 15:8; 1 Cor 10:1), the very root of our existence (Rom 11:17). Their struggles should be remembered (e. g., Heb 11:32-40)
Consequently, the early persecution of believers in antiquity (and the contemporary trials of our brothers in various foreign lands) in a real and important sense is our suffering, for “if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it” (1 Cor 12:26). The persecutional suffering in much of church history, then, is a persecution of the body of Christ and a source of sorrow even when the body finally comes to peace in temporal history. The Coliseum is, as it were, our Wailing Wall.
5. The Breadth of Suffering
Suffering is broader than external oppression and compatible with postmillennialism. As I indicated in my introduction, postmillennialists can affirm suffering-with-Christ as a basic element of our Christian experience even up to the end—when we carefully reflect on the biblical requirements of the suffering argument.
The error of the suffering argument as employed in the debate is akin to the Baptist error regarding baptismal mode: Baptists focus on one implication of baptism (death to sin in Rom 6) and then require that that one aspect establish the mode. Whereas baptism is fuller than that, in that it represents union with Christ in all that he does, not just his death and resurrection. Likewise persecutional suffering is only one aspect of the church’s suffering-with-Christ. But there are others:
(a) We suffer as fallen creatures enduring physical weakness in this age. In Rom 8:17 Paul argues that if we are his children, then we are “heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him in order that we may also be glorified with Him.” He explains this suffering in the next few verses when he reminds us that “the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope” and that “the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now” (8:20, 22). Paul is explaining why believers, though “free from the law of sin and of death” (8:2), still suffer “the whole range of the weakness which characterize us in this life,” “the whole gamut of suffering, including things such as illness, bereavement, hunger, financial reverses, and death itself.” How can this be? Our glory awaits the future “redemption” of the body (8:23) by the Spirit of God (8:11). We are even too weak to pray as we ought, so the Spirit (who resurrects) intercedes for us (8:26-27).
Thus, Paul laments his being in a “mortal [ ] body” (Rom 6:12; 8:11), a body subject to corruption and decay (2 Cor 4:16); he declares that ultimately this “mortality” must put on “immortality” (1 Cor 15:53-57). We suffer in bodies that are mere “earthen vessels” (2 Cor 4:7), subject to “bodily illness” (Gal 4:13), “frequent infirmities” (1 Tim 5:23), “sickness to the point of death” (Phil 1:27). Elders in the church must assist in prayers for healing (Jas 5:17) because sickness is painful and limiting (Gal 4:13), “to the point of death” (Phil 1:27) and may even cause death and its bereavement (John 11:33; Acts 9:36-37).
Gaffin and other amillennialists even recognize that “Christian suffering ought not to be conceived of too narrowly,” for it “includes but is more than persecution and martyrdom” (Gaffin, 213). Gaffin speaks of the “breadth” of the Christian conception of suffering which includes the “frustration/ futility” principle and our “bondage to decay.” Indeed, “suffering is everything that pertains to creaturely experience of this death-principle.” “It is the totality of existence ‘in the mortal body’ and within ‘this world in its present form [that] is passing away’” (Gaffin, 214). “Christian suffering is literally all the ways in which this ‘weakness-existence’ (v. 26) is borne, by faith, in the service of Christ–the mundane, ‘trivial’ but often so easily exasperating and unsettling frustrations of daily living, as well as monumental testing and glaring persecution” (Gaffin, 214).
White urges us to understand that “the relationship between the church’s victory and suffering in Romans 8 reflects a theologically fundamental consideration” (White, 167). But when we properly analyze the suffering argument, postmillennialists are not confronted with an insurmountable wall. For postmillennialism does not expect the elimination of mortality this side of the resurrection. And so these sufferings due to mortality will continue even at the height of the advance of the gospel. These should be borne as Christians, not as “the rest who have no hope” (1 Thess 4:13; cf. Eph 2:12; Jas 1:2-4; Titus 2:7).
(b) We suffer in a world with the principle of evil present. As regenerate, spiritually (semi-eschatological) resurrected believers, we abhor the sinful tendencies present in ourselves and in others. Paul was torn as he struggled to please God (Rom 7:21-23). He cried out in misery: “Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?” (Rom 7:24). As Bruce puts it: “Paul himself knows what it means to be torn this way and that by the law of his mind which approves the will of God, and the law of sin and death which pulls the other way. The Christian, in fact, lives in two worlds simultaneously, and so long as this is so he lives in a state of tension.”
Even at the height of the kingdom’s (postmillennial) advance in the world we will suffer temptation due to “the worry of the world and the deceitfulness of riches” (Matt 13:22). We will always struggle against the “sin which so easily entangles us” (Heb 12:1), the “the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life” (1 John 2:16). Due to our suffering the temptation to sin within, each Christian must follow after Paul, declaring: “I buffet my body and make it my slave” (1 Cor 9:27; cp. Rom 8:13; Col 3:5).
6. Christ’s Example and Suffering
Christ is an example of suffering for us. We discover further evidence of the broad nature of suffering in Christ, our model of suffering. His suffering was not limited to external oppression by rebellious man. Rather, his entire state of humiliation was by definition a state of suffering in which he endured mundane, creaturely pains and sorrows. “Since then the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same” (Heb 2:14); he existed in the “likeness of men” (Phil 2:7), in the “likeness of sinful flesh” (Rom 8:3). Because of his incarnation he was “tempted in what he suffered” (Heb 2:18), even being “tempted in all things as we are” (Heb 4:15). He wearied (John 4:6), thirsted (John 19:28), hungered (Matt 21:18), and sorrowed (John 11:35)—apart from persecution.
Our union with Christ in his suffering involves all of these mundane things, not just matters of external assault and trial. And these forms of suffering are compatible with the postmillennial hope.
7. Suffering in Context
Suffering is contrasted with eternal glory. Even the very height of earthly, postmillennial glory pales in comparison to the “weight of glory” that is ours, and that stirs our deepest longings as sons of God (cf. Phil 1:23). As recipients of the mysteries of the kingdom of God, Christians experience “the heightened form which our desire for this future [resurrection] state assumes. For it is not mere desire to obtain a new body, but specifically to obtain it as soon as possible” (cf. 2 Cor 5:1-10). What is more, we who know God’s saving mercies deeply desire “the state of immediate vision of and perfect communion with God and Christ” which “the future life alone can bring” with its “perfected sonship.” Anything short of perfected sonship is a form of suffering “not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom 8:18).
Indeed, our very state of mortality is suffering when compared to eternity, for the body is “sown a perishable body, it is raised an imperishable body; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body” (1 Cor 15:42-44). As Christians “we know that if the earthly tent which is our house is torn down, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For indeed in this house we groan, longing to be clothed with our dwelling from heaven. While we are in this tent, we groan, being burdened, because we do not want to be unclothed, but to be clothed, in order that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life” (2 Cor 5:1-2, 4). We are motivated by the fact that Christ “will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory” (Phil 3:21).
Thus, the postmillennialist agrees that we are to “suffer with Christ” until he returns, for we grieve over the sufferings of our forefathers, endure the pains and limitations consequent upon our fallen experience, bemoan our own indwelling sin as well as the sin of the unconverted, and earnestly long for the eternal glory we will share in the presence of God. Strimple even recognizes the suffering of Romans 8 involves “sin and all of its consequences,” “all the corrupting consequences of human sin,” not just persecution (Strimple, 61, 106). Earthly suffering involves times of prosperity as well as times of adversity. Even at the height of the kingdom’s earthly development we will always need to struggle in order to “seek first His kingdom and His righteousness” (Matt 6:33), always resisting the temptation to arrogantly declare: “my power and the strength of my hand made me this wealth” (Deut 8:17).
(To be continued)