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Wednesday, December 10, 2014

God and Evangelical Eschatology

When we look back at the history of Christianity, it seems to me that each generation of Christians has contained a large number of people who believed that they were living in the last days of this world. Indeed, this phenomenon is apparent even in the generation of people who lived and wrote about the events of the New Testament. Luke tells us that Christ had to tell his followers a story "to correct the impression that the kingdom of God would begin right away." (Luke 19:11, NLT) Likewise, Paul wrote the Romans: "This is all the more urgent, for you know how late it is; time is running out. Wake up, for our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is almost gone; the day of salvation will soon be here." (Romans 13:11-12) In short, most Christians have believed that they were living in the last days since the dawn of the religion. In this connection, it is interesting to consider how this has impacted Christians' perception of and participation in the world in which they live.

I noticed this morning that Salon has published an article by Daniel Silliman (which originally appeared on Religion Dispatches) entitled "Why millions of Christian evangelicals oppose Obamacare and civil rights." (http://www.salon.com) In the article, Mr. Silliman interviews Professor Matthew Avery Sutton about his thesis that the political beliefs and activities of American Evangelical Christians have been largely shaped by their apocalypticism. Professor Sutton summarizes the reasons for his interest in the subject in these terms: "My argument in a nutshell is that the apocalyptic theology that developed in the 1880s and 1890s led radical evangelicals to the conclusion that all nations are going to concede their power in the End Times to a totalitarian political leader who is going to be the Antichrist. If you believe you’re living in the last days and you believe you’re moving towards that event, you’re going to be very suspicious and skeptical of anything that seems to undermine individual rights and individual liberties, and anything that is going to give more power to the state."

Although I'm not sure that I agree with the professor's assertion that this belief is more important than the evangelical's view of Scripture, his point about its centrality to a proper understanding of Evangelical Christian behavior is well taken. He asserts: "The one thing that affects how they live their daily lives is that they believe we are moving towards the End Times, the rise of the Antichrist, towards a great tribulation and a horrific human holocaust." He continues: "This is significant because to believe the world is rapidly moving to its end effects how you vote, how you’re going to structure your education, how you understand the economy, how you’re going to treat global events, how you’re going to look at organizations like the United Nations."

In response to Mr. Silliman's questions, the professor skillfully rebuffs any notions that such an outlook would produce indifference in its adherents. He points out that the history of Evangelical Christianity in this country, from Moody to Graham to Falwell, is one of intense involvement and activity within the culture of America. He explains this apparent contradiction by pointing to Christ's parable of the talents. Sutton concludes: "For fundamentalists and evangelicals, the point here is that God has given them talents. He’s gone away, he’s coming back, he’s coming back soon, and he’s going to ask what you’ve done with your talents. Jesus ended the parable by instructing the disciples to “occupy” until I come. And that’s what fundamentalists and evangelicals have done."

The article then examines how this dynamic has been interpreted differently by White and Black Evangelicals. While many White Evangelicals have focused on issues like abortion and same-sex relationships, he points out that Blacks focused on the abuses that they were suffering at the hands of state governments as evidence that they were living in the end times. For them, he said, "There was a sense in which Jesus’s return was the coming of a black liberator." Among White Evangelicals, what they saw as the lawlessness of the Civil Rights movement provided an end-time rationale for opposing it.

The article concludes with this assessment of Evangelical apocalypticism: "It’s a genius theology, because it allows people to look at very diverse, very troubling, very dark contemporary events and put them in a context; to say, 'I know why this is happening, and it’s going to turn out OK. We are going to be OK.' It gives them peace, comfort and hope in a world that often offers none of those things." I'm all for giving people comfort and hope, but I'm also concerned about the way that this belief has shaped the political opinions and activities of its adherents in the meantime.

It is also important to remind ourselves that we are talking about a portion (albeit a sizable one) of those who profess to be Christians - not everyone's eschatology looks the same. Even so, it seems to me that all Christians could benefit from the teachings of our founder on this topic. I seem to recall Christ saying something about focusing on today and not worrying about tomorrow. (Matthew 6:34) To be sure, he also instructed his followers to watch (Matthew 24:42), but wasn't that followed by an instruction to be living one's life in accordance with God's principles? (notice verses 45-51) In other words, no panic - nothing special - just be living the life that God wants you to live and everything will happen in God's time. Maybe that would be a more productive and positive preoccupation for Evangelical Christians in America? What do you think?

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