Will there be a Golden Age before Christ Returns
by Lee Irons, B.A., M.Div.
Some conservative, Bible-believing Christians believe that before Christ returns the church will experience a Golden Age of unparalleled success, victory, and glory in this world - numerically, spiritually, and culturally. Many Puritans held to this position, as well as some well-known theologians of more recent times 1. We have no reason to deny that these men are brothers in Christ on account of their belief. They do not hold to this position on evolutionary grounds or because they think man is basically good and that progress is inevitable. Rather, these men are generally orthodox Protestants who love and believe that because of man's depravity, his only hope is in the saving work of Jesus Christ.
However, they believe that this work of Christ, accomplished once-for-all in history through his death and resurrection, will have positive, tangible, long-term effects for human culture and society prior to his second coming. They believe that "the kingdom will grow and develop until eventually it exercises a dominant and universal gracious. influence in a long era of righteousness, peace, and prosperity on the earth and in history" 2 They expect the entire world to be Christianized, not only by the salvation of (nearly) all people then living, but by the cultural influence of a dominant Christianity in every sphere of life. This long era of prosperity is known as the Golden Age.
What are we to think of this idea? Is it taught in Scripture? After examining this question for myself, I have come to the conclusion that the Golden Age theory does not correspond to Biblical teaching. In fact, I am afraid that this belief could have a negative impact on the Christian's life and walk in this world.
Here are five reasons why you should not believe in a Golden Age prior to the return of Christ:
1. The Silence of the New Testament
In all of the major eschatological texts of the NT - texts where the entire sweep of the age between the first and second comings of Christ is described and foretold in detail by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit - no mention is made of a Golden Age. The silence is deafening. Can the complete absence of any mention of a future era of earthly victory for the church in such passages be without significance?
- Consider the Olivet Discourse (Matt 24-25; Mark 13; Luke 21). Christ utters not a word to his disciples about any such Golden Age in which the church will be dominant in the world. Remember, the Olive Discourse isn't just an off-hand remark of Christ's, as if Christ just happened to mention a few things about the future but in no way intended to be exhaustive. Look at the timing of the Discourse: it occurred sometime during the Passion Week, probably on Tuesday. Christ is about to die. What better time for our Lord to give his disciples the final, authoritative, complete instruction regarding the future of the church? Notice also that the Discourse covers the entire period right up to the second coming. Nothing that is important or essential could be left out. Indeed, nothing is left out: the destruction of Jerusalem, the general sufferings of the church-age, the intensified crisis-period in which the abomination of desolations is set up as a sign that the Lord's coming is at hand, the second coming, the resurrection, and the judgment of all men. Does it not seem incredible that something so wonderful, so glorious, and so lengthy as the Golden Age would be completely left out of our Lord's teaching regarding the future?
- Paul gives the church at Corinth some basic teaching about the fundamental structure of eschatology (I Cor 15:20-28). He says that it is a basically two-stage process: the resurrection of Christ, the firstfruits, followed by the resurrection of those that are Christ's. It is not a three-stage process: first the resurrection of Christ, then the Golden Age, and finally the resurrection of believers. Why, if it is so important, was the Golden Age passed over in silence in this crucial text which lays down the basic structure of eschatology? Surprisingly, I Cor 15:20-28 has been appealed to in support of a Golden Age theory. However, the basis for this is quite flimsy: the word "until" in v. 25 is taken as a (rather subtle!) reference to the beginning of the Golden Age. 3
- Peter, in his end-times teaching, makes no mention of a Golden Age (2 Pet 3). In fact, he encourages the believers to look forward to and hasten the coming of the Lord, for when he comes, then the New Heavens and the New Earth will be erected, "in which righteousness dwells." If Peter believed in a Golden Age, shouldn't he have mentioned that righteousness will also dwell on the earth prior to the Lord's return, and that we should look forward to that as well?
- Why doesn't the book of Revelation predict and describe a Golden Age which brings the church age to its conclusion prior to the return of Christ? In the past some have attempted to identify the millennium of Rev 20 as the Golden Age. However, this interpretation is largely discredited today, since the binding of Satan (which occurs at the beginning of the 1000 years) almost certainly occurred at the death and resurrection of Christ (cp. Matt 12:29; Col 2:15; I Pet 3:22). Today, most who believe in a Golden Age admit that this interpretation is correct and would agree that the millennium is a symbolic reference to the entire time between the first and second comings of Christ. But if this is so, then there is no direct mention in Rev 20 of a special period within the millennium in which the church enjoys an extended period of success and influence on the earth. If John had been informed of such a period, why didn't he break up the symbolic 1000 year reign into two segments of, say, 500 years each? The first 500-year period could be described as a time of limited success, of persecution, and suffering. The second 500-year period (which would also be symbolic, of course) could then be described as a Golden Age of unprecedented victory and splendor for the church militant. But that is not what we find. Instead, a 1000-year "reign" of Christ and his people is promised for those who had been beheaded for their testimony to Jesus - that is, for martyrs. They are departed "souls" reigning in heaven, not on earth. Rev 20 is not concerned with what is happening on the earth - except to say that Christians are being beheaded there. This seems a far cry from a Golden Age of cultural dominance! If the apostle John had been informed of this Golden Age by a vision or other revelation, why doesn't he record it? Where are all the images from the OT prophets about the desert blossoming like a rose? Why are these things missing in Rev 20?
The silence of the NT is important and should not be overlooked. Although the Golden Age theory can be defended by appealing to many OT passages (i.e., Isaiah 65) which envision the global extension of Christ's kingdom on the earth, it is interesting to note that such prophetic visions are never applied in the NT to a long era of success which begins much later than the resurrection and closes with the second coming. The NT uniformly applies such texts to the eternal state. Isaiah 65:17, for example, is clearly applied this way: the phrase "the New Heavens and the New Earth" is quoted in II Pet 3:13 and Rev 21:1 with reference to the final state after Christ returns. A "literal" reading of Isaiah leads many to think that it cannot be referring to the eternal state. But should we not submit ourselves to the authoritative interpretation given by the apostles of Jesus Christ, rather than squeeze the OT into our preconceived ideas about "literal" interpretation?
2. The crisis at the end of the age
A second argument against a Golden Age is that the NT's vision of a time of crisis and suffering at the end of the age is antithetical to the bright vision of a long era of righteousness and peace. "We condemn Jewish dreams that there will be a golden age on earth before the Day of Judgment, and that the pious, having subdued all their godless enemies, will possess all the kingdoms of the earth. For evangelical truth in Matt., chs. 24 and 25, and Luke, ch. 18 [presumably v. 8], and apostolic teaching in II Thess., ch. 2, and II Tim., chs. 3 and 4, present something quite different" (The Second Helvetic Confession, ch. 11). The passages cited by this Reformation document (1566) all have one thing in common: they describe the end of the age in terms far bleaker than that envisioned in the Golden Age theory.
Here are some of the things that will characterize that time:
- The love of many will grow cold (Matt 24:12).
- The time before Christ's return will be characterized by the worst distress since the world began (Matt 24:21).
- Even the elect would be deceived by the false miracles of the Antichrist if the time were not cut short (Matt 24:24).
- "When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?" (Luke 18:8).
- A great apostasy will occur within the visible church (II Thess 2:3).
- The antichrist will deceive the world and set himself up as God (II Thess 2:4).
- Satan will gather the nations from the four corners of the earth in an attempt to destroy the church (Rev 20:7-9).
There is a way of attempting to get around this evidence. Some scholars (known as preterists) argue that these visions of tribulation and crisis were fulfilled in the events surrounding the siege of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. 4 Nero, who died in A.D. 68, is thought by preterists to be the Antichrist. However, while it is true that the destruction of Jerusalem is indeed a fulfillment of many prophetic passages, it is impossible to argue that all predictions of a future tribulation or apostasy were completely fulfilled in A.D. 70. Why not? Because the second coming of Christ is said to be "immediately after the tribulation of those days" (Matt 24:29). But if Christ's return occurs immediately after the tribulation, the tribulation of A.D. 70 cannot be the final or only tribulation (for Christ did not return then). And the Antichrist, Paul tells us, will be "destroyed by the splendor of [Christ's] coming" (II Thess 2:8). But if the Antichrist will be destroyed by the splendor of Christ's coming, then he must be alive when Christ returns! So the final Antichrist cannot be Nero, but an as-yet unrevealed individual.
Some aspects of the preterist view have merit - the Bible does regard the destruction of Jerusalem as an important eschatological event in which the Old Covenant order is permanently terminated. But preterism cannot bleach out of the Bible all references to a coming ultimate crisis, a final battle between good and evil that will be dramatically and decisively won when "the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire" to crush the rebellion (II Thess 1:7-8; Rev 20:7-10). 5 And that means that at least some of the passages predicting a time of great distress and persecution have yet to be fulfilled. And these passages teach that the times preceding the return of Christ will not be characterized by righteousness, peace, prosperity and revival. Rather, "just as it was in the days of Noah, so will it be at the coming of the Son of Man" (Matt 24:37). A Golden Age seems inconsistent with this dark and stormy vision of the future.
3. The evidence from Daniel 2
Third, the Golden Age theory is damaged by an important text: Daniel 2 clearly teaches that the saints will not inherit the kingdom until the world power is utterly destroyed - which, everyone admits, will not occur until Christ returns.
Daniel 2 tell us about Nebuchadnezzar's dream of an image with a head of gold (Babylon), chest and arms of silver (Medo-Persia), a belly and thighs of bronze (Greece), and legs of iron and feet of iron and clay (Rome). The unity of all these world powers may not be evident to the human eye - they successively attacked and destroyed one another. But in the divine perspective they are really one. Together they constitute one idolatrous image of man as he attempts in Babel-like arrogance to set himself up as God. This entire world power will be destroyed at the coming of Christ, the rock made without hands (Dan 2:34).
Now here's the key: this rock totally and completely grinds the world power (the image) to dust: "Then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver and the gold were broken to pieces at the same time and became like chaff on a threshing floor in the summer. The wind swept them away without leaving a trace" (Dan 2:35). No trace is left of the image! The world power is not merely incapacitated or suppressed, leaving only a minority that later rears its ugly head. This total destruction of the city of man is then followed by the setting up of the city of God: "In the time of those kings, the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people. It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever" (Dan 2:44).
So, then, the sequence is as follows:
- The idolatrous world power has dominion for a time.
- The world power is totally annihilated at the coming of Christ.
- The eternal kingdom of God is set up forever.
Now it is true that the first coming of Christ resulted in the binding of Satan. Christ triumphed over the angelic powers behind the world power and placed them under his authority (I Pet 3:22). A significant subjugation of the world power occurred then. By his triumphant resurrection Christ became "the ruler of the kings of the earth" in principle (Rev 1:5)
All of this is to be acknowledged. But no one would argue that the world power was totally annihilated "without leaving a trace" at Christ's first advent. For "when the thousand years are over, Satan will be released from his prison and will go out to deceive the nations in the four corners of the earth - Gog and Magog - to gather them for the battle" (Rev 20:7-8). Clearly, then, Daniel's vision of a "rock" coming out of heaven to crush the image (Dan 2:34) was not fulfilled at the first advent of Christ.
Therefore (and this is the punch-line), the statement that "the rock struck the statue and became a great mountain and filled the whole earth" (Dan 2:35) will be fulfilled only when Christ returns a second time. The rock will not become a mountain and fill the earth until Christ totally destroys the kingdoms of this world at his second coming. Only then will "the kingdom of this world become the kingdoms of our Lord and of his Christ" (Rev 11:15). Only then will the kingdom which Christ achieved in principle at his first coming be realized in fact in visible, external power and glory. "And he shall reign forever and ever."
Because the Golden Age theory envisions the earth-filling mountain-kingdom before the second coming, it envisions something totally contrary to the teaching of Daniel, namely, its coexistence with the world power. The Golden Age position envisions the mountain of Christ's kingdom filling the earth side-by-side with the idolatrous image which remains standing until the second coming! It is difficult to reconcile this picture with the evidence from Daniel 2.
4. What purpose does it serve?
The very notion of a Golden Age - a qualified, imperfect "victory" in history and on earth prior to the unqualified, absolute victory in the New Heavens and New Earth - is unreasonable.
- Why do we need such an anti-climactic and inherently unsatisfying "victory" to prepare us for the true victory that will never end? A Golden Age that falls short of the absolute ideal of eternal glory in heaven with God shouldn't really hold much attraction for those who already have the Spirit in their hearts as "a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance" (Eph 1:14). "No matter with what concrete elements or colors the conception of a Chiliastic state [e.g., a Golden Age] may be filled out, to a mind so nourished upon the firstfruits of eternal life itself, it can, for the very reason of its falling short of eternal life, have had little significance or attraction." 6 Will we not exclaim, even in the Golden Age, "The sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us!" (Rom 8:18)? 7
- But why would God need such a hollow "victory" when he is already going to achieve perfect victory in the heavenly, eternal state? The Golden Age is described as a glorious time, but even its most ardent promoters admit that there will still be sin, death, and imperfection. So, then, why does God need it? Why would it be a defeat for God if he waited until after the second coming to bring in the Golden Age, but a Golden Age without sin, death or imperfection, and one that will last forever?
- An imperfect earthly victory becomes meaningful only on the assumption that the resulting Christian civilization will continue into the eternal state. 8 But Scripture clearly teaches something far different: "The form of this world is passing away" (I Cor 7:31). "The day of the Lord will come like a thief, in which the heavens will pass away with a roar and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat, and the earth and its works will be burned up" (II Pet 3:10). "Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away" (Rev 21:1). In all probability, these texts do not teach that God completely destroys the earth and creates a totally new one out of nothing (Rev 21:5). Yet, we must take the language of "passing away" and "being burned up" seriously. I find it hard to believe that the products of Christian culture - i.e., music, art, architecture, literature, political accomplishments, medical and scientific advances - will survive the purifying fires of judgment. "The things which can be seen are temporary, but the things which cannot be seen are eternal" (II Cor 4:18; cp. Heb 12:26-29).
So, then, if these things are true, let us ponder again the question, "Why a Golden Age prior to the day of judgment?" What purpose does it serve? What need is there for it? Does the church need it to satisfy her longing? Does God need it to enhance his glory?
5. The negative effects of this view
All the Christian virtues spring from the Christian's heavenly hope. If Christians substitute an earthly hope in this world for their true inheritance in the next, then this will inevitably affect the way they live their lives. It will affect their attitudes and aspirations, their priorities and desires. The following things are just a few of the ways the Golden Age theory could negatively impact one's Christian life:
- Belief in a Golden Age destroys faith, because it encourages Christians to walk by sight (cp. II Cor 5:7). Let me explain. The victory that Christ has achieved through his death and resurrection in principle is a final and complete victory merely awaiting his second coming to be revealed in fact. Because of this, we must live even now in the joy, optimism, and confidence that Christ has won the victory, even when things appear far different. "In putting everything under [Christ], God left nothing that is not subject to him." This remains a solid reality, even though "at present we do not see everything subject to him." What must we do then? By faith "we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death" (Heb 2:8-9). By faith we rest upon the heavenly, unseen reality that "God has raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in heavenly places" (Eph 2:6). For "faith is the reality of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen" (Heb 11:1). Advocates of the Golden Age theory tell us that walking by faith in this way encourages a defeatist mentality, a pessimistic outlook. But this betrays a fundamentally unbiblical assumption: that true optimism and confidence in the victory of Christ is based on sight - on tangible, earthly evidence of victory. But the NT has just the opposite view: "Therefore we do not lose heart. Rather, even though our outward man is wasting away, our inward man is being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary affliction is achieving for us an eternal weight of glory. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, for what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal" (II Cor 4:16-18). According to the Golden Age theory, we can avoid losing heart only if we fix our eyes on what is seen. In this way, then, it destroys faith by tempting believers to walk by sight instead.
- It dilutes hope insofar as it distracts the Christian's gaze from the ultimate hope of the Lord's blessed appearing in glory and power. "Set your hope fully on the grace to be given you when Jesus Christ is revealed" (I Pet 1:13). Having a Golden Age for our hope (even as a secondary hope) seems incompatible with the passionate longing for Christ's appearing that should characterize our lives (II Tim 4:8).
- It undermines patience insofar as it makes us dissatisfied with the suffering he has appointed for us "in this present time" (Rom 8:17-18). If we are to expect a Golden Age, then we cannot really be happy with the way things are going for the church now. We will become impatient with God's time-table. But "if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us" (Rom 8:25, 28, 35, 37).
- It side-tracks us from our true priorities. Instead of living godly lives and testifying to the gospel of Christ as we live in the midst of this lost world (Phil 2:15-16), the Golden Age theory implies that we must strain to build a Christian society and civilization on earth. This seems inconsistent with the NT's approach: "Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be?" Peter asks. "You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming" (II Pet 3:11-12). We are commanded to "deny ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope - the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ" (Titus 2:12-13).
- Finally, the Golden Age theory diminishes heavenly-mindedness. "Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory" (Col 3:1-4).
Such are my reasons for concluding that the Golden Age theory is unwarranted by Scripture. The silence of the NT, the coming crisis at the end of the age, the evidence from Daniel 2, the absence of any meaningful rationale, and the negative effects of this view - all point us away from such "Jewish dreams." Although we should be careful not to become overly judgmental concerning complex subjects like eschatology, and we certainly recognize that many sound and orthodox teachers of the Bible have held this view, nevertheless the preponderance of the evidence strongly suggests that it is not in accord with Biblical teaching.
Our treasure ought to be in heaven, not on the earth (Matt 6:19). "Here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come" (Heb 13:14). Let us set our hope fully on the glorious appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ, knowing that the victory he was won through his death and resurrection is an assured reality. "The sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed" (Rom. 8:18). For we have "an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade - reserved in heaven for us" (I Pet 1:4).
1 Popular contemporary treatments include Loraine Boettner's, The Millennium, and J. Marcellus Kik's, The Eschatology of Victory.
2 Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., The Greatness of the Great Commission (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1990), p. 141.
3 Gentry, "Whose Victory in History?" in Theonomy: An Informed Response, edited by Gary North (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1991), pp. 210-13. Gentry cites BDB (a Hebrew Lexicon) as interpreting the word to mean "not an absolute close, but an epoch, or turning-point, in the future." This may be true in some instances, but here in this text, Paul clearly defines when the "until" occurs: "He must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death" (vv. 25-26). Thus, Christ will reign "until" he has destroyed death. And when will "death" be destroyed? The whole of I Cor 15 provides the answer: at the resurrection of believers, and even Gentry admits that this will occur at the second coming, not before it.
4 The preterist interpretation of many of these passages is delineated by Gentry, He Shall Have Dominion (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1992). There are two forms of preterism today: an extreme (and heretical) form which says that even the resurrection and second coming are already past; and a more moderate position which admits that these events are still future (Gentry holds this view).
5 These two passages (II Thess 1:7-10; Rev 20:7-9) are the shoals upon which the ship of preterism must finally run aground. Gentry even admits that "the Scriptural evidence, though clearly expecting Christ's dominion throughout the world, also allows that there will be a minority who will not be converted to Him. There seems to be clear evidence for this in the events associated with Christ's return, which include a brief rebellion, as indicated by 2 Thessalonians 1:7-10 and Revelation 20:7-9" (He Shall Have Dominion, pp. 253f). Of course, he minimizes the crisis to "a brief rebellion" by "a minority" but his admission confirms the fact that the bleach of preterism cannot fully remove all indicators of a final battle at the end of the age. Only the extreme, heretical form of preterism can, but Gentry wants to remain orthodox (see note 4).
6 Geerhardus Vos, cited by Richard B. Gaffin, Jr, "Theonomy and Eschatology: Reflections on Postmillennialism," in Theonomy: A Reformed Critique, edited by William S. Barker and W. Robert Godfrey (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), p. 210.
7 Defenders of a Golden Age theory admit that we will still be able to quote Rom 8:18 even in the Golden Age. "The kingdom expansion, even at its most glorious height, will still not compare to the glory of the total liberty of the believer in the resurrection as he possesses a glorified, eternal body" (Gentry, "Whose Victory in History?" in Theonomy: An Informed Response, p. 229). So the haunting question remains: Why a Golden Age?
8 According to some theologians, the Fall did not abolish the Dominion or Cultural Mandate of Gen 1:26-28. Rather, it continues in force and is fulfilled through the cultural, political, and scientific efforts of Christians. This view was first championed in the latter part of the 19th century by a movement known as Dutch Neo-Calvinism (Abraham Kuyper and Klaas Schilder were the primary theological leaders of this movement). A contemporary explanation of this Dutch Neo-Calvinistic philosophy of culture may be found in H. Henry Meeter, The Basic Ideas of Calvinism, 6th ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1990). Meeter, who agrees with Kuyper and Schilder, believes that "those things that we do which spring genuinely from the grace and mercy of God and which are done in faith and obedience will not pass away and be lost forever. Instead they will be purified and will be carried over into the kingdom of God" (p. 198). Anthony Hoekema takes a similar view of culture in chapter 20 of The Bible and the Future (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979).
This Paper is used by permission, courtesy of Lee Irons, B.A., M.Div.