Chapter 12: Cultural Pessimism and the Great Commission

Kenneth L Gentry

Narrated By: Joseph Spurgeon
Book: The Greatness of the Great Commission
Topics: , ,


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Chapter Text

Then Caleb quieted the people before Moses, and said, ‘Let us go up at once and take possession, for we are well able to overcome it.” But the men who had gone up with him said, “We  are not able to go up against the people, for they are stronger than we.” And they gave the children of Israel a bad report of the land which they had spied out, saying, “The land through which we have gone as spies is a land that devours its inhabitants, and all the people whom we saw in it are men of great stature. There we saw the giants (the descendants of Anak came from the giants); and we were like grasshoppers in our own sight, and so we were in their sight.” Then all the congregation lifted up their voices and cried, and the people wept that night” (Numbers 13:30-14:1).

For whatever is born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world; our faith (1 John 5:4).

The Issue

The dispensationalist Christian has a different understanding of the Great Commission from the postmillennialist. In addition, so do many amillennialists and historic (non-dispensational) premillennialists. And that difference of understanding is not merely one of a shading of grey tones, but of a stark contrast of black and white, as we shall see.

The three eschatological systems mentioned in the preceding paragraph may be categorized as “pessimistic,” whereas the postmillennial view may be seen as “optimistic.” In categorizing them as “pessimistic,” I am speaking of the following issues:

(1) As systems of gospel proclamation each teaches the gospel of Christ will not exercise any majority influence in the world before Christ’s return;

(2) As systems of historical understanding each, in fact, holds the Bible teaches there are prophetically determined, irresistible trends downward toward chaos in the outworking and development of history; and therefore

(3) As systems for the promotion of Christian discipleship each dissuades the Church from anticipating and laboring for wide-scale success in influencing the world for Christ during this age.

The pessimism/optimism question has very much to do with the practical endeavors of Christians in the world today. All evangelical Christians are optimistic in the ultimate sense that God will miraculously win the war against sin and Satan at the end of history by direct, supernatural intervention, either in a pre-millennial kingdom introduced by the Second Coming[1] or at the final judgment, which introduces the New Heavens and New Earth.[2]

A recent illustration of the practical effects of a pessimistic worldview is found in a statement recorded by Charles Colson. He speaks of Christians ceasing to attempt to be an influence for righteousness in the political and social arena: A “prominent evangelical, veteran of the battles of the eighties, told me he was through. ‘Why bother?’ he confided privately.[3]

Examples of Eschatological Pessimism

Two best-selling authors in our day, well-known representatives of dispensationalism are Hal Lindsey[4] and Dave Hunt.[5] These men have recognized the significant difference between their dispensational understanding of the Great Commission and its implications and the postmillennial understanding with its implications. In fact, they have written recent works for the very purpose of countering the postmillennial understanding of the Great Commission.[6] But, as we shall see, these two men are not the only evangelicals who dispute the historic postmillennial view.


The dispensational view sees the Great Commission in this age as having only a very restricted influence in bringing men to salvation. The hundreds of thousands of evangelical Christians who read dispensational literature have had continually drummed into their minds the teaching that under no circumstance will the gospel be victorious in our age. Let me demonstrate this by a quick survey of quotations from several dispensational authors.

Hal Lindsey states the situation about as strongly as can be: “Christ died for us in order to rescue us from this present evil age. [Titus 2:11-15] show what our focus, motivation, and hope should be in this present age. We are to live with the constant expectation of the any-moment appearing of our LORD to this earth.”[7]

  1. A. Ironside notes in his comments on the Great Commission: “We know that not all nations will accept the message in this age of grace.”[8] William MacDonald points out that the Great Commission “does not presuppose world conversion.”[9] In fact, the opposite is true, according to J. Dwight Pentecost, for “during the course of the age there will be a decreasing response to the sowing of the seed” of the Gospel.[10] Stanley Toussaint concurs, when he notes that “evil will run its course and dominate the [Church] age.”[11] Warren Wiersbe agrees: “Some make this parable [of the Mustard Seed] teach the worldwide success of the Gospel. But that would contradict what Jesus taught in the first parable. If anything, the New Testament teaches a growing decline in the ministry of the Gospel as the end of the age draws near.”[12] In fact, he notes later that “it would seem that Satan is winning! But the test is at the end of the age, not during the age.”[13]

Charles C. Ryrie denies any postmillennial hope based on the Great Commission, when he speaks in opposition to the postmillennial hope: “Their confidence in the power of God causes them to believe that the Great Commission will be fulfilled in that most of the world will be saved.”[14] The postmillennial view of Church history is wrong, he says, because “defection and apostasy, among other things, will characterize that entire period.”[15] Consequently, Dave Hunt argues that “only a small percentage of mankind is willing… to come to Christ in repentance and be born again by the Spirit of God” and that “the vast majority of people will continue to reject Christ in the future just as they have in the past.”[16] Hal Lindsey scorns the postmillennialist for believing “that virtually the whole world population will be converted. I wish this were possible, but God Himself says that it is not.”[17] In fact, “the world will progressively harden its heart against the Gospel and plunge itself into destruction.”[18]

Historic Premillennialism

Historic premillennialists would concur with such a dismal prospect for the widespread success of the gospel. J. Barton Payne believes that “evil is present in our world as predicted in the Holy Books” (of the Bible). This evil must occur because it is a forecast of Christ’s soon return.[19] Robert H. Mounce laments that “it is difficult to see from history alone any cause for optimism.” He is certain that it will be a “persecuted church [that] will witness the victorious return of Christ,”[20] rather than a world-conquering church. George Eldon Ladd concurs: “In spite of the fact that God had invaded history in Christ, and in spite of the fact that it was to be the mission of Jesus’ disciples to evangelize the entire world (Matt. 24:!4), the world would remain an evil place. False christs would arise who would lead many astray. Wars, strife, and persecution would continue. Wickedness would abound so as to chill the love of many.”[21]


Among amillennialists we discover the same sort of despair. Cornelius Vanderwaal writes that “I do not believe in inevitable progress toward a much better world in this dispensation” and God’s “church has no right to take an optimistic, triumphalistic attitude.”[22] H. de Jongste and J. M. van Krimpen are forthright in their declaration that “there is no room for optimism: towards the end, in the camps of the satanic and the anti-Christ, culture will sicken, and the Church will yearn to be delivered from its distress.”[23] Amillennialist Donald Guthrie, according to dispensationalist John F. Walvoord, “readily agrees that the biblical point of view is pessimistic, that is, the world as it is now constituted will not be revived and improved, but instead, will be destroyed and replaced.”[24]

Christian Cultural Models

At this juncture we should recall our opening questions from our introduction: (1) What is the Great Commission? (2) What is the goal of the Great Commission? and (3) What is the nature of the Great Commission?

The dispensational understanding of the Great Commission, as indicated in the response to the three questions above, may be designated the Pietistic Model. By that I mean that dispensationalism seeks personal piety, while denying the possibility and even desirability of cultural conversion.

The amillennialist and historic premillennialist views may be termed the Composite Model. By that I mean that although they do encourage Christian cultural engagement, nevertheless, their systems allow only sporadic, temporary, partial victories for Christianity in terms of any beneficent cultural influence.

The postmillennial understanding of the Great Commission may be designated the Transformational Model. It not only seeks but expects both widespread personal piety and Christian cultural transformation.

Again, all non-postmillennial views deny widespread and enduring gospel success in transforming men, nations, and cultures in this age. Let me illustrate this by a few citations.

This same pessimism regarding the gospel’s success is evident among historic premillennialists, such as George E. Ladd: “the gospel is not to conquer the world and subdue all nations to itself. Hatred, conflict, and war will continue to characterize the age until the coming of the Son of Man.”[25]

Such a view obviously is held by amillennialists, as indicated by Louis Berkhof: “The fundamental idea… that the whole world will gradually be won for Christ,… is not in harmony with the picture of the end of the ages found in Scripture. The Bible… does not lead us to expect the conversion of the world.”[26] But dispensational writings are the most widely read and evidence the most vigorous opposition to the cultural influence of the gospel, hence my special attention to their views.

Given the widespread popularity of the dispensational system among evangelicals and dispensationalism’s attempted disavowal of historical pessimism,[27] I will cite several of their writings in order to press the point home most convincingly.

Dispensationalist Charles Stevens puts it about as clearly as can be, when he states: “The New Testament concept of the church in this age is typified by the wilderness tabernacle, serving a pilgrim people, built with traveling facilities, ‘going’ after the lost, visiting, seeking, praying.”[28] John Walvoord writes: “It is not God’s plan and purpose to bring righteousness and peace to the earth in this present age. We will never attain the postmillennial dream of peace on earth through the influence of the church.”[29] Wayne House and Thomas Ice agree: “Nowhere in the New Testament does it teach the agenda of Christianizing the institutions of the world.”[30]

Dave Hunt follows suit in downplaying postmillennial expectations: “this impossible goal of Christianizing the world is now being presented as the long overlooked true intent of the Great Commission.”[31] Elsewhere he writes: “It is a further ‘reduction of Christianity’ to suggest that the Great Commission calls us to reassert the allegedly lost ‘dominion’ over this earth and its lower creatures. And it is a gross perversion to tum the Great Commission into a ‘cultural mandate’ which assigns to the church the task of taking over the world to establish the Kingdom of God before Christ returns.”[32]

Hal Lindsey vigorously denies what the premise of this present book demonstrates: “There is absolutely nothing, stated or implied, to support the Dominionist[33] interpretation of the Great Commission in either Mark, Luke, or Acts. The purpose of the decision demanded is forgiveness of sin and a spiritual new birth, not the reformation of society….”[34] Fundamentalist George Dollar notes of dispensationalist fundamentalists that they believe “the whole world scene is one of deterioration and will so continue till the rapture takes place, and that our main business should be to rescue people out of the mess and not try to improve it or preserve its good characteristics.”[35]


As I have engaged the text of the Great Commission in resolution of the questions before us, I have cited and interacted with various writers from among the various pessimistic and pietistic schools of thought. I did not do this with a view to demeaning evangelical brethren, but in order to demonstrate by documentary evidence the radical differences among evangelicals regarding the Great Commission. In addition, I hope the reader has seen the overwhelming Scriptural support for the postmillennial view of the Great Commission, which has recently begun to be assaulted as “a road to holocaust” (because it has no place for the political exaltation of the nation of Israel over other nations) and “this worldly” (because it is concerned with life in the tangible world, as well as in heaven).[36]

The dispensationalist is alarmed at the very thought of Christian cultural transformation. In his view to attempt such “is to err so grievously as to lead one into a program that is hopeless; it calls necessarily for the adopting of means that are unauthorized, and the setting of a goal that is unattainable as it is unscriptural. Herein lies the great mistake of the ‘kingdom builders’ (their tribe decreases) who have as their goal a vision of Christianizing the world.”[37] In opposition to the view presented herein, the dispensationalist retorts: “Although [postmillennialists] see evangelism as part of the Great Commission, their main focus and goal is to Christianize the world’s culture and political systems, and to take dominion over them. This is not even what God had in mind in the Eden Mandate, but it is certainly not what the Great Commission teaches.”[38]

Due especially to dispensationalism’s systemic requirements (teaching the God-ordained ineffectiveness and decline of the Church in history[39]), that system of theology inadvertently waters down the command:

Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you. (Matthew 28:19-20a).

[1] For example: “The Bible expects the world to be conquered not by Christianity, but only by the second coming of Christ.” John F. Walvoord, “Review of House Divided. By Greg L. Bahnsen and Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.” in Bibliotheca Sacra (July-September, 1990), p. 372. “The premillennialist sees Christ intervening catastrophically in a moment of history, resulting in an establishment of his mediatorial rule.” H. Wayne House and Thomas D. Ice, Dominion Theology: Blessing or Curse? (Portland, OR: Multnomah, 1988), p. 140.

[2] “Old Testament prophecies interpreted by postmillennialists as referring to a future millennial golden age picture the final state of the redeemed community… [in] a new heaven and a new earth.” Anthony Hoekema, The Bible and the Future (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1979), p. 177.

[3] Charles Colson, “From a Moral Majority to a Persecuted Minority,” Christianity Today, 34:8 (May 14, 1990) 80.

[4] Lindsey is best known for his multi-million best-seller, The Late Great Planet Earth (1970).

[5] Hunt is best known for his best-seller, The Seduction of Christianity: Spiritual Discernment in the Last Days (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 1985).

[6] Hal Lindsey, The Road to Holocaust (New York: Bantam, 1989). Dave Hunt, Whatever Happened to Heaven? (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 1988).

[7] Lindsey, Holocaust, p. 279.

[8]  Harry A. Ironside, Expository Notes on the Gospel of Matthew (New York: Loizeaux Bros., 1948), p. 405.

[9] William MacDonald, The Gospel of Matthew: Behold Your King (Kansas City: Walterick, 1974), p. 323.

[10]  J. Dwight Pentecost, Things to Come: A Study in Biblical Eschatology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1957), p. 146.

[11] Stanley D. Toussaint, Behold the King (Portland, OR: Multnomah, 1980), p. 182.

[12] Warren W. Wiersbe, Bible Expositor’s Commentary, 2 vols., (Wheaton, IL: Victor,

1989), 1:46.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Charles C. Ryrie, Basic Theology (Wheaton, IL: Victor, 1986), pp. 441-442.

[15] Ibid., p. 461.

[16] Dave Hunt, Whatever Happened to Heaven? (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 1988),


[17] Lindsey, Holocaust, p. 49.

[18] Ibid., p. 36.

[19] J. Barton Payne, Biblical Prophecy for Today (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1978), p. 10.

[20] Roben H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation (New International Commentary on the New Testament) (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1977), pp. 44, 47.

[21] George Eldon Ladd, The Last Things: An Eschatology for Laymen (Grand Rapids:

Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1978), p. 58.

[22] Cornelius Vanderwaal, Hal Lindsey and Biblical Prophecy (St. Catherine’s, Ontario:

Paideia, 1978), pp. 44, 45.

[23] H. de Jongste and J. M. van Krimpen, The Bile and the Life of the Christian (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1968), p. 27.

[24] John F. Walvoord, Review of Donald Guthrie, The Relevance of John’s Apocalypse in Bibliotheca Sacra 147:586 (April-June, 1990) 251.

[25] Ladd, Theology, p. 202.

[26] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1941), p. 718.

[27] See: House and Ice, Dominion Theology, “Does Premillennialism Believe in Dominion in History?” (pp. 142-150).

[28] Charles H. Stevens, in Charles Lee Feinberg, ed., Prophecy and the Seventies (Chicago: Moody, 1970), p. 110.

[29] John F. Walvoord, in Charles Lee Feinberg, ed., Prophecy and the Seventies (Chicago: Moody. 1971), p. 211.

[30] H. Wayne House and Thomas D. Ice, Dominion Theology: Blessing or Curse’ (Portland, OR: Multnomah, 1988), p. 155.

[31] Hunt, Whatever Happened’, p. 178.

[32] Dave Hunt, CIB Bulletin (Camarillo, CA: Christian Information Bulletin), May, 1988, p. 1.

[33] “Dominionist” is a term employed by some to describe those Christians who seek Christian cultural renewal by the application of biblical principles, thus seeking the visible exercise of Christ’s “dominion from sea to sea” (Zech. 9:10; cp. Eph. 1:21; 1 Pet. 4:11; Rev. 1:6). Adherents of Dominion Theology or Christian Reconstructionism long for the day when Christianity becomes “dominant” in the world of human affairs.

[34] Lindsey, Holocaust, p. 275.

[35] George Dollar, A History of Fundamentalism in America (Greenville, SC: Bob Jones University Press, 1973), p. 278.

[36] Lindsey, Road to Holocaust and Hunt, Whatever Happened to Heaven?, passim.

[37] C. H. Stevens in Prophecy and The Seventies, p. 101.

[38] Lindsey, Holocaust, p. 273. His reference to the Edenic Mandate in Genesis 1:26-

28 represents a contradiction in another of his writings: “At. the time of his creation man was given legal authority to rule himself and all of the earth.” Hal Lindsey. Satan is Alive and Well on Planet Earth (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1972), p. 56.

[39] See pp. 148-151. “This current world is headed toward judgment…. [T]he message and activities for believers should be, ‘Flee the wrath to come by finding safety in Jesus Christ.'” House and Ice. Dominion Theology. p. 356.