October 19, 2017

Evangelical Anxieties 5: The End of the World

jhouse.jpegThere’s not a lot that I like about the Appalachian mountain version of Christianity that surrounds me here in southeastern Kentucky, but at the top of a short list is their attitude toward the end of the world. They aren’t afraid of it.

They have a good idea what’s going to go on. They believe some will be ready and some won’t. They realize it will be a reunion for some and a final separation for others. But it’s not an occasion for fear. When they sing about it, preach about it or pray for it, it’s almost always saturated in happiness. When the end comes, they sing, it will be a better day.

If you are looking for the #1 fear producer in contemporary evangelicalism, you need look no further than the subject of the end of the world. Any Christian bookstore, radio station or television station will quickly provide you with evidence that fear-mongering and fear-motivating by holding out the imminent end of the world is still a major evangelical obsession.

In my years working with students, I’ve had thousands of conversations with Christian teenagers on hundreds of subjects. I’ve rarely ever seen any of those students seriously and consistently frightened except when they came to me with questions about if and how the world was about to end. I’ve seen far more evangelical teenagers afraid that Jesus would come back than that they or someone they know would go to hell.

For these students, the idea of missing out on their American-version of paradise on earth is nearly unthinkable. What if I don’t get my license? Or have sex? Or get a big house?

I wonder where they learned all of that?

Several years ago, a youth worker at a nearby church became convinced that Christ was going to return in a particular month that year. (He was helped in that belief by a number of books suggesting 88 Reasons Christ Will Return in 1988.) He took the youth group out to a camp fire in the country and terrorized them with this “theory.” His “motive,” of course, was evangelism. The result was not so much faith as it was mental and emotional abuse. If I had been a parent, I would have been livid.

One of the primary problems in evangelism among evangelicals in the inability to distinguish between fear and genuine conviction of sin. John Piper, in his book God is the Gospel, is courageous enough to say that a fear of hell is not a sufficient definition for the faith that embraces Christ as the all sufficient author of salvation. Evangelicals need to hear this message, because they are increasingly given to Tetzel-like tactics in order to produce what they believe is true faith, but is nothing more than fear of judgment or hell.

Fear without conviction? Yes. Emotional manipulation with little spiritual reality or Gospel response. It’s not just possible; it’s common, and short-lived.

Sophisticated fear-producing spectacles such as “Judgment House” and “Hell House” specialize in taking the fearful elements of modern culture and amplifying them into a Hollywood style, special-effects laden experience of fright. This is followed by a presentation of the Gospel and the opportunity to “make a decision.” The product is then called a Christian.

Many evangelicals have questioned this, and some have gone so far as to say that any eschatological fear should be removed from the Christian message, making it entirely about a never-ending “this world” kingdom. Eschatological differences among Christians are interesting to note, but I do not believe it is possible to entirely remove “end times” eschatology from our message and still remain faithful to what Jesus taught. Even if Preterists have something to teach us (and they do), there is still a strong element in the New Testament that affirms an eschatological inbreaking of the Kingdom and the unknown, but certain, future arrival of judgment. I’m not convinced all this occurred in the first century.

An eschatology that affirms “Jesus will return in judgment,” however, should not produce fear among Christians! This is the amazing irony of what we see in evangelicalism, and it reveals what an idolatrous and materialistic condition the church has lapsed into. When Paul describes the “Day of the Lord” in II Thessalonians 1, he spoke in genuinely frightening terms about the fate of those who were to face judgment, but for Christians he described the same event- the arrival of Jesus in history to judge his enemies- as a time of reward and comfort. Comfort!

The book of Revelation is often described as “frightening” by evangelicals, but the actual message of the book is that God has sealed his servants and nothing can harm them, even in the midst of the most terrible judgments on the “world.” It was a message of assurance, not of fear.

The thought that eschatological judgments may arrive unexpectedly is frightening, but as John Piper says in Don’t Waste Your Life, western Christians tend to be deluded about issues of risk and security in general, believing that we are able to secure ourselves and guarantee the future. Christian eschatology is a matter of giving up control of the future to God, and recognizing his sovereign hand in all events that may occur. Our attitude toward the future is a reflection of our confidence in the Lordship of Jesus Christ, and nothing about that confidence should result in terror and fearfulness.

The industry that exists around the notion that scaring people into the Kingdom and into Christian living is a sad embarrassment to the Christian community. Atheist websites such as Landover Baptist.org rightly skewer this kind of approach, and Christian leaders should develop the courage to insist that the work of human beings in frightening other human beings is not the same as the Holy Spirit showing us issues of our eternal destiny.

Christians should specifically distance themselves from, and condemn if possible, fearmongers like John Haggee, whose boldly detailed predictive books on coming world wars, etc. have become standard mnind candy for many evangelicals. It is rare for Christians to hear any view of eschatology that isn’t filled with the kind of rhetoric that would not be at all out of character in a fascist country. The propaganda produced by evangelicals on the subject of the end times is world class, to our shame.

Christians should be a community who looks at any apocalypse with hope. Not just hope that there is a resurrection beyond, but hope that Christ gives us victory over fear in the here and now. The likelihood of a nuclear detonation, viral epidemic or environmental catastrophe may be real, but Christians have always been able to minister, serve and love in the midst of the worst of times precisely because they believed all these events were under the control of the Lord of history and could not, ultimately, take anything of real value away from us.

A final note to pastors: One of the most important ministries you can perform for your church is to defuse the “Left Behind” mentality by teaching a more Biblically balanced kind of eschatology, debunking the Hollywood-based fear scenarios and teaching the Lordship of Jesus over history and all events in a way that inspires missions, prayer, worship and service to others.

I think of the varying Christian responses to the apocalypse that was Katrina. While some doomsday prophets made their usual noises about God’s judgment, other Christians made meals and did the work of the Good Samaritan, sharing the Gospel as they served. Those who served had an eschatology as well, but it was an eschatology that produces the fruit of hope, not the fruit of fear and fearful rhetoric.

Pastors: produce that kind of church and Christian. The Day of the Lord is a day of fearful darkness, but it also the revelation of the Kingdom of our savior, and we should greet him with worship, missions and service done in the hope of his soon return.

Comments

  1. Your thoughts are right on Michael. I have come to believe that there is a culture of fear (as you described in a recent post) within the church. Christian leadership doesn’t trust the power of the Holy Spirit anymore so we (leaders) feel the need to intimidate people into certain thoughts/actions/believes for “their own good.”

    Because of our undue emphasis on right doctrine we have neglected living a life that is full of truth. Because we aren’t living in the joy of knowing we will one day be with the Lord we feel the need to guilt people into the reality of eternity.

    Pontificating and fear-mongering blog writers are worse than anyone in this department.

  2. Every generation has taken a very selfish view of eschatology. It has been the hand-maiden of the times. The optimistic Puritans, seeing the fruit of civilization sometimes as an extension of the Gospel, were hoping for an earthly (postmillenial) paradise…the war-weary 20th century has continued to await an airlift before the Tribulation…and people who are by nature unimaginative and bored have commonly held an amillenialist position (its a joke)

    Eschatology is used in two ways by Jesus in the Gospels: motivation and accountability for Believers

    Parable of the talents is an eschatological parable that teaches motivation for service as a Christian. Right in front of it, is the parable of the virgins which stresses watchfulness (accountability=God will catch you napping)

    Paul, meanwhile, uses it as a motivator to hope in our future rather than loathe over our present trials.

    IMO: We’ve got to have contextual warrant for using eschatology in other ways than that primarily. I don’t think it was used as an evangelistic scare tactic…

  3. steve yates says:

    i know brian mcclaren often raises hell on more than one occasion (hehe i made a pun…wow its too early in the morning), but he once made a statement that has really shaped my view of the end of the world: “the question is not what will we do if Christ comes back tomorrow, the question is what will we do if He doesn’t come back for 1000 years?” comnig judgement has not been a great motivator for my own growth in Christ and passion for others, but perhaps loving people is. besides, my friends and i always joke that knowing me, Jesus will come back either in the middle of the super bowl or on my wedding night…just my luck.

    for glory…
    steve

  4. bookdragon says:

    >

    Reminds me of a joke I read in a book on the sociology of humor. In the part on Jewish humor, it noted how for millenia Jews, persecuted and confined to ghettos, eagerly awaited the coming of the Messiah and being brought home to Israel. However in the midst of American freedom and prosperity that was changing. The effect was summed up nicely in the following joke:

    A man comes running to his wife saying ‘Honey! I just heard the Messiah is coming tomorrow and we’ll all be gathered up and taken to Israel!’

    But his wife isn’t so excited. She says, ‘Oh No! But we just finished remodeling the house and they’re supposed to set up the jacuzzi tomorrow. And we finally got into the Club and the David was just accepted at Harvard! This is will ruin everything!’

    As this realization sinks in, the man nevertheless pulls himself together. He says to her, ‘Look, we Jews survived the Greeks, the Romans, the Crusades. We survived the pogroms, we survived even the Nazis. Somehow we’ll get through the coming of the Messiah.’

  5. Jeremiah Lawson says:

    Wow, this brings back memories. I remember reading Revelation when I was six years old and it freaked me out. I was scared of the images and monsters. I think perhaps when I finally talked to my parents about it they said that you’re blessed if you hear the book and it shows that Jesus wins. Still, in the church culture I grew up in I was so scared that I might be the antichrist that one night I couldn’t sleep and went and added up the numeric values of the letters in my full name to find out if I was the antichrist. Of course my full name is kind of long and I got tired and don’t remember if I figured it out. I think I wasn’t but it wasn’t until at least a decade later that I learned that the number of the beast is based on the numeric values of GREEK letters. Why do pastors ever talk about the number of the beast and fail to mention this point?

    To make a long and slow story short I went from being a premillenial pretribulation secret rapture futurist to being an amillenial partial preterist leaning toward elements of allegory. When people pressed me on this or freaked out I said that we know Jesus is coming back from Acts 1 even if we have no clue how to interpret Revelation. A helpful youth pastor at an Assemblies of God church said the only honest approach to Revelation is to admit we could all be wrong and Jesus is still coming back one day to rule and reign. That minimalist eschatology with the humility to admit that we don’t know for sure what God may not have done yet has been a guidepost for me. ‘

    I used to worry that Jesus would come back and destroy the world before I had a chance to do anything with my life. Would I get any good at the guitar? Would I ever even have a girlfriend? Would I ever get married and have kids? Did anything I did even matter? I didn’t have any real hope that what I could do would amount to anything.

    I agree with the theory that eschatology tends to be front loaded with our fears or expectations. As First Things wryly noted, American evangelicals thought they were going to hand the world to Jesus on a silver platter in the 19th century and then after World War 1 switched over to desperate premillenialism.

    I feel like Christians are great at coming up with “good moral law” based on one eschatological paradigm, like child labor laws or prohibition or public education; and then as times change and unforeseen side effects of prohibition or other laws lead to “teen culture” and organized crime Christians seem to have changed paradigms and decry the consequences of the very laws they once lobbied for as a “Christian nation”.

    What happens when Christians in a nation remold the law of the land into their idea of what Jesus should want and then the Lord alters the land? It seems like Christians create their own stew and don’t want to eat it and change their eschatology to hide from the reality that Jesus is greater than what we expect of Him.

  6. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    What happens when Christians in a nation remold the law of the land into their idea of what Jesus should want and then the Lord alters the land? — Jeremiah Lawson

    Those Christians find themselves Left Behind, of course. Just not in the way they thought.

  7. Kerry Sullivan says:

    I see all the traditional Christian organizations in a decline. Prominent Christian leaders are retiring or are already dead. The Holy Spirit seems to be withdrawing. What I think I see in this is the waters receding before the next big wave. New wineskins are required to handle the next move of God. He has been cleaning house and even now the next generation of Christian leaders are being prepared. Being at odds with the world and being persecuted for our faith will reduce our numbers but those who will remain faithful will see (and lead) the next great move of God. Hang on!