Beyond America: Israel, China, and the Millenium in Jonathan Edwards

While many scholars have carried out critical research on the theology of Jonathan Edwards (173-1758), only a small portion have focused on Edwards’s eschatology. In particular, from Edwards’s own day till now, there is not any published monograph that directly and solely addresses Edwards’s millennial views. And the works that discuss this subject are scattered in articles and book chapters. As a result, there are quite a few controversial issues remaining unresolved. For instance, Edwards’s awareness of the millennial chronology and geography, his contributions to Puritan millennial thought, and the political or apolitical nature of his millennialism, etc.

Edwards’s millennialism should be understood both from within his broader redemptive-historical vision and from his historical-theological context. Regarding the latter: by situating him in Reformation and post-Reformation contexts, taking into consideration his interaction with the intellectual challenges posed by the Enlightenment thinkers, we can achieve a nuanced investigation of Edwards’s anticipation of the millennium. What we then find is that his millennialism is neither America-centric nor politically utopian. What’s more, he is not the one who originated or advocated the notion of the “redeemer nation,” as is frequently thought. His vision of the millennium is a Christ-reigning, Judeo-centric, and cosmic kingdom arriving on earth in a distant future. Hence, this millennial vision held by the man regarded as “America’s theologian” is, remarkably, one that reaches far beyond America.

Edwards’s View of the Millenium

Edwards exemplifies the development of millennialism from the Reformation to post-Reformation eras (i.e. 16th to 18th centuries). Being both a summation and climax of this development, Edwards’s millennial vision is both traditional and innovative, aligning significantly with his Puritan colleagues in many ways, and evidently diverging from them in others. Notably, Edwards’s millennial vision is not England- or New England-centric as many Reformed divines believed, but centered far beyond America. To read Edwards here is to be invited into a divine kingdom embracing a much wider world than any of us would expect, with roles highlighted for both China and Israel. Surveying Edwards’s surprising millennial vision, we can pick out four definitive features.

First, unlike most of his contemporaries, Edwards believed that the millennium would not arrive in the near future. When many Puritans were expecting an imminent millennium, Edwards anticipated a millennial kingdom arriving in the distant future (around the year 2000).[1] This kingdom will be realized on earth through spiritual conflicts and by spiritual revivals; and both the governments and the rulers will be spiritually transformed. Consequently, the citizens in this millennial kingdom will enjoy true freedom in both spiritual and civil terms. Hence, Edwards stressed the long but gradual advancement of the divine redemptive work before the arrival of the millennium. For him, the millennial kingdom will gradually be realized as God’s redemptive history progressively advances.[2] Being confronted by a highly optimistic millennialism in England and New England, Edwards refuted, intentionally or unintentionally, its over-emphasis of the significance of the current age. In contrast to the over-optimism held by his Reformed colleagues, the Reformation or post-Reformation era, however prosperous or glorious, is still far from being the final sacred time that inaugurates the culmination of the ages.

Second, Edwards’s vision of the millennium is Judeo-centric. This is unique among his Protestant Predecessors and Puritan contemporaries, because most of them advocated supersessionism (believing that the NT church has replaced Israel) or an England-/America-centric millennial view. Unlike many in his time who regarded England or New England as the most significant place in God’s eschatological scheme, Edwards’s spatial vision of the millennial kingdom, in contrast to the once-prevalent misinterpretation, is Canaan-centric. Furthermore, Edwards insisted on a literal interpretation of Israel’s eschatological restoration, expecting a double restoration before the millennium commences: both the national conversion and repatriation of the people of Israel.[3] Thus, he asserted that the land of Israel would be the ideal location of the millennial kingdom on earth; and the people of Israel, after their spiritual restoration in the end times, would play critical and decisive roles in commencing the millennium. This is significant. By stressing the essential role of Israel in both his eschatological vision of the millennial kingdom and his redemptive-historical vision, Edwards decidedly departed from his supersessionist predecessors, and deflated the importance of both the land and people of England and New England.

Third, Edwards’s vision of the millennial kingdom is not only Judeo-centric but also cosmic in scope. While the land and people of Israel play a critical role, his view is different from the Israel-superiority held by certain Puritan divines. For Edwards, this millennial kingdom expands to the whole world, embracing the heathen nations, and impacting heaven and hell. This marks a significant and clear thematic departure from many of his Reformed forefathers and Puritan colleagues. To the best of our knowledge, Edwards appears to be the only Puritan theologian who has carefully and attentively studied China and its eschatological end.[4] More significantly, living in the time of Enlightenment, Edwards was confronted with the Deists who viewed China as a challenge to the authority of Christian orthodoxy. Edwards, however, flipped the Deists’ argument on its heads, using China as a case study to refute Deist natural theology and to defend the necessity of biblical revelation and divine redemption.[5] For Edwards, China, in its ancient and contemporary forms, and as seen in its canonical scriptures and through the Jesuit reports, did not show any development toward Christianity that he considered to be the true and revealed religion.

Fourth, this cosmic vision of the millennium is consistent with Edwards’s consciousness of God’s sovereignty and His glory manifested in history, nature, and all creation. Edwards asserted that the whole historical progress of the realization of the millennial kingdom is to manifest the glory of divine sovereignty, wisdom, and sufficiency. Therefore, at least three theological loci are highlighted in his millennialism: the greatness of God’s divine sovereignty, the magnificence of His glory, and the capaciousness of His kingdom. He laid much emphasis on God’s divine sovereignty over the created order, believing that God continuously rules over history and determines its progress and end. He stressed the magnificence of God’s glory in his millennialism, emphasizing the radiation of all nature and history with the glory of God. Additionally, Edwards’s millennialism reveals his conviction of the capacious nature of the kingdom of God, which includes all peoples and languages. He believed that God’s redemptive work embraces every race, nation, and culture, and with this belief he naturally included China and the heathen world in his millennial vision.

Contemporary Relevance

Edwards’s millennialism is still relevant in the contemporary world. We can find a surprising theological connection, for example, between Jürgen Moltmann and Jonathan Edwards in their eschatology. While Moltmann overlooks Edwards’s decentralization of England and New England in terms of time, space, and people, both of them agree that the theological advantage of millennial eschatology is to ensure a hopeful future for Israel and the whole world. For them, whatever is destroyed in the world will be restored on this globe in the millennium. Without this millennial hope of transformation and restoration, the world will hopelessly await its complete destruction at the end time. From this perspective, Edwards’s millennial vision is aligned with Moltmann’s emphasis on the essential features of millennialism. Besides, confronting the anticipation of a Sino-centric and Chinese-inaugurated millennial kingdom among certain Chinese Christians, Edwards’s deflation of the excess of imminent and America-centric millennial expectations may provide a corrective reading to the over-emphasis of the role of China in inaugurating the millennium. After all, his perspective may avoid centralizing space, people, and the present time of China in millennial groups such as the Back to Jerusalem movement.

My forthcoming book America’s Theologian Beyond America: Jonathan Edwards, Israel, and China explores all the above in much greater detail. My hope is that it sheds new light on a number of topics that were either less well-known or highly controversial. First, it extensively reviews Edwards’s millennial theology, which is a new attempt in Edwards studies. By situating Edwards in his historical and intellectual context, particularly by focusing on the transformation of millennialism in his period, this book fills in a gap in current scholarship on Edwards’s millennialism: his interaction with his Reformed friends and his Deist foes. In so doing, it may provide another outlook on his continuity and discontinuity with the wider Reformed tradition. Second, it explores Edwards’s artful communication of his Christology in his millennialism. I explore Edwards’s literary strategies and the typological interpretation of his Christocentric conviction in his millennial vision, offering a groundbreaking perspective on the under-researched correlation between his Christology and eschatology. Third, this study highlights the Judeo-centric and cosmic nature as an innovative interpretive key to Edwards’s millennialism, which hopefully provides a useful background to the current debates on Israel and the end times. Finally, this project ventures into two less well-known subjects: Israel and China in Edwards’s millennial vision. This provides new insights into his Canaan-oriented millennium, his conviction of Israel’s restoration and his eschatological hope for China and the rest of the heathen world.

Victor Zhu (Ph.D, University of Edinburgh) is the author of America’s Theologian Beyond America: Jonathan Edwards, Israel, and China (forthcoming New York: Oxford University Press, February 2023). He works as a lecturer and freelance researcher with interests in eschatology in the Reformed tradition, Puritan views of Israel, Chinese millennial movements, and Chinese-European cultural and philosophical interaction in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

  1. Jonathan Edwards, Apocalyptic Writings: “Notes on the Apocalypse” An Humble Attempt, ed. John E. Smith and Stephen J. Stein, vol. 5, The Works of Jonathan Edwards (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 1977), 411.

  2. Jonathan Edwards, The “Miscellanies”: (Entry Nos. A–z, Aa–zz, 1–500), ed. Thomas A. Schafer and Harry S. Stout, Corrected Edition, vol. 13, The Works of Jonathan Edwards (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2002), 369, 429; see also Jonathan Edwards, The “Miscellanies”: (Entry Nos. 501–832), ed. Ava Chamberlain and Harry S. Stout, vol. 18, The Works of Jonathan Edwards (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2000), 145.

  3. Edwards, Apocalyptic Writings,, 133-135.

  4. Gerald McDermott, Jonathan Edwards Confronts the Gods (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 207-216

  5. For instance, see Jonathan Edwards, The “Miscellanies”: (Entry Nos. 1153–1360), ed. Douglas A. Sweeney and Harry S. Stout, vol. 23, The Works of Jonathan Edwards (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2004), 453-454. For more details, see Victor Zhu, America’s Theologian Beyond America: Jonathan Edwards, Israel, and China (New York: Oxford University Press, 2023), 124-158.

*Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons


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