October 22, 2017

iMonk Classic: Evangelical Anxieties 5—The End of the World

Vision from Book of Revelation, Rev. McKendree Robbins Long, Sr.

Classic iMonk Post
by Michael Spencer
Originally posted Feb 12, 2007

From Chaplain Mike:
In the midst of all the insanity about “the end times” that Christians have produced since the Rapture theory became predominant, Michael Spencer (as usual) uttered this word of sanctified Biblical realism and common sense.

There’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.

Apocalypse 1-4, Grace Cossington Smith

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 Hagee, whose boldly detailed predictive books on coming world wars, etc. have become standard mind 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 Hurricane 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. “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. ”

    Wow. What a quote. And sadly accurate. I came to faith through that evangelical subculture, with all its “pin the tail on the antichrist” nonsense, and am glad I no longer am feverishly consumed by such sordid concerns. Once again, prophetic words from brother Michael.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      Something I found on Rabbi Boteach’s blog today:

      “My cardinal rule about the difference between a real religion and a cult: Religion teaches you to revere life while a cult teaches you to fear death.”
      — Rabbi Shmuley Boteach

      And what is the Conventional Evangelical End-of-the-World but Total Universal Death? (Except for God’s special pets who said the magic words and got the fire insurance.)

    • Richard Hershberger says:

      “Wow. What a quote. And sadly accurate.”

      Well, with the usual proviso that it uses “Christians” to mean “Evangelical Protestant Christians”: possibly the most annoying habit of Evangelicals. This sort of eschatology is not unknown in other branches of Christianity, but you can go for a long time without running across it.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        Evangelicals/Fundagelicals/whatever have hijacked the word “Christian” to mean only their brand of Christian, and are very vocal about it to everyone, to the point that in the mainstream Christian (TM) = American Evangelical.

        This hijacking also happened in the Christian Bookstore racket. Originally the CBA (Christian Booksellers Association, the payola-to-play gatekeepers of what’s Officially Christian Fiction) were originally the Baptist Booksellers Association.

        It’s like Furry Fandom; there is only so much you can do to distance yourself from crazies who loudly proclaim to everyone that they’re One of You.

  2. This is a good reminder of one of the more colorful aspects of evangelical culture, and one that we need to revisit and moderate.

    Partly good points:

    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.
    . . . 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.

    Yes, yes, yes! The main problem I see with the escatological view of premillennialism — besides its bizarre and dubious political uses — is, as Michael said, the unsavory use of fear as a religious tool. Christianity should not be portrayed as a tale of fluffy bunnies. But intensionally boiling the idea of Christ’s return down into a cheap scare tactic to motivate people to repent (or do anything else) strikes me as dubious. As Michael notes, it confuses psychological terror with contrition; it’s also manipulative, by intensionally setting out to scare a person, merely in order to offer them relief, if they will only do what you want them to do! As a youth, I accepted these tactics and did not scrutinize them. As an adult, I’ve come to be very wary of any action (in myself or others) motivated by fear. All the worst things people do seem to have fear behind them, somewhere.

    I would really like to see the topic of future things more often treated as a message of hope — God had not abandoned God’s creation; Christ is coming back; justice will be realized; the lion is the lamb, and the lamb is the lion. Faith, hope, and love are better motivators and fiercer convictors of the soul.

    • Correction: Partly = Particularly.

    • You’re right, Danielle. I’ve heard it said that the fear of death is what underlies all sin, and that what Christ did in conquering death was not so much to buy us back from the devil but to set us free from the fear of death and hence from sin.

    • Hmm, the Bible is filled with threats, warnings, and exhortations to believe, repent, and persevere. Are you saying that the Bible is wrong to use “scare tactics” when Paul tells the Corinthians: “Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith. Examine yourselves. Or do you yourselves not recognize that Jesus Christ is in you? – unless you fail the test” (2 Cor 13:5, HCSB)? What you have said againt fundamentalist premillennialist evangelicals can be squared at Scripture too.

      • Mark,

        There is a BIG difference between the fear tactics that is being written about here and Paul’s warnings to the Corinthians.

        The way I see it, the first is like a mother scaring her teenager into being so fearful that he or she is completely unable to drive, because of all the bad things that could happen vs the same mother warning the same teen of specific hazards, such as a blind curve ahead or that habitual speeding will lead to a ticket or worse.

      • First, a quick sidenote, I am not speaking against premillennialism per se, just the tactics that some people use, who often are premillennialists. Reading my wording, I realize that I was not clear about that point.

        On the topic at hand: I am not saying there is no place in our preaching for warnings or for the mention of judgment. But I am saying that fear is an dangerous tool and a bad master. Isn’t it curious that while Paul and other apostles admonish the churches, as children, they do so only while bridging to a greater, ultimate point? Also, my mind drifts to I John 4:18, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and he who fears is not perfected in love.” And also Mary’s visitation from Gabriel, where the Angel kicks off the news of the role in God’s plans with the instruction, “The Lord with you, do not be afraid.”

        So, I agree with you re: the appropriateness of citing future judgement, But I don’t think what we see going on in the Pauline or pastoral epistles is similar to what happens when a youth pastor sits a bunch of kids down to scary movie to dim lights, finished off with the warning that if they don’t do something, right now, they world might end and they’ll never see their family again, etc. It’s not a warning that directs someone to love of God; in most psychologically normal people, that sort of thing evokes the most elemental concern for self-preservation. That instinct isn’t all bad, but its not the font of virtue, either.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

          My writing partner and I both lost 10-15 years of our lives to that kind of “citing future judgement”. Who will restore those years Hal Lindsay’s locusts have eaten?

          • ahh.. the Late Great Hal Lindsay – how the years have flown.
            What was is that someone said about living long enough to see all of your enemies float by?

  3. All this babble about being “Left Behind” and the consuming fear tactics mentioned is very sad. The actuall “Rapture drills” and other nonsense that christians actually talk about are unbelievable. Instead of practicing for the rapture we should be concerned about the very real upcoming Rupture of the Body of christ!

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      They don’t care, because they KNOW God will Rapture them up before anything bad personally happens to them — any minute now… any minute now… any minute now…

      “Beam me up quick, Jesus! There’s no intelligent life here!” —

      Do I need to elaborate on how dangerous and stupid (yet widespread) an attitude that is?

  4. I think there are lots of aspects of Christianity which amount to emotional and spiritual abuse. I used to be invovled in the Momron culture when I was in college. I left it yet I’m still bothered today (13 years afterward) of what I was involved in. When I was Catholic…the Catholic church has no mention about stuff like this…and I now think that is wonderful.

    I’m more of an agnostic today, but the church I attended in DC did this kind of “fear house”. It blows my mind that many evangelcilas then turn around and want respect? What does fear produce? In my case with what I encountered in evangelicalism, fear produced someone who threw away God becuase he found no pleasure in a personal relationship with God. And in the process he leanred that faith was a “damned if you do, and damned if you don’t enviornment.

    Why don’t some of these people get it?

  5. Here’s one more comment which I mentioned in a previous thread…

    Is any of this obession with endtimes theology and leaving this world, and how some focus with delight on how God will punish the world/wicked any different than Jonah’s approach to Ninoveh?

    Just a thought….

    • It’s a similar mentality, Eagle. Good call.

    • I don’t know any evangelical futurist premillennialist who has this mentality you describe. In fact, almost all of them have great sorrow that many people will suffer God’s wrath at the end of the age.

      • My pastor at the mega church I attended in DC attached the rapture as part of orthodox Christinaity. I couldn’t escape some of this theology until I left Christianity. Again Mark…I’m am agnostic because I think that the church does nothing but spiritually abuse. And I’m pissed at God to the point of having lost faith. My question to God is this…”What are you trying to accomplish in this here church God? I mean you expect me to take this seriosuly? Is this supposed to be a joke becuase I am not laughing!!”

        Christnaity is sick, sick, sick, sick…..

        • MODERATOR: Comment deleted because in response to a comment that the one submitting asked to be removed.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        Maybe you haven’t encountered them in your little echo chamber, but you’re the only one who hasn’t. There’s a LOT of what IMonk called “Grinning Apocalyptism” out there, smacking their lips at what will happen to everyone except them in The Tribulation.

        In his page-by-page analysis of Left Behind (which has replaced Late Great Planet Earth in the Bible as History Written in Advance), Slacktivist often describes it as “The Ultimate Escape Fantasy”. Followed by the Ultimate Revenge Fantasy on those sinners of Nineveh (with all the Raptured Jonahs watching from their catered box seats in Heaven), the Tribulation.

        And even when it doesn’t reach the level of Grinning Apocalyptism, it sets in as passive despair. It’s All Gonna Burn, so why bother?

        “Remember when we were young, and we had no future? Well, this is it.”
        — Blank Reg, Max Headroom

  6. So, was God’s angel using a wrongful scare tactic (used by fundamentalist premillennial doomsdayers) when he declared from heaven: “Come out of her, My people, so that you will not share in her sins or receive any of her plagues” (Revelation 18:4, HCSB)? Or when, when our Lord told the seven churches to keep faith or else be eternally judged (Revelation 2-3)? Seems like Scripture agrees more with the so-called doomsday fundamentalist dispensationalists than what a lot of weak-backboned liberal/mainline Christians who don’t seem to care about eschatology.

    • Apostates like Jim Wallis and turncoats like Frank Schaeffer are favorite whipping boys of evangelical traditionalists who equate ideological purity on social issues with theological orthodoxy. Yet these same doctrinal purists seem increasingly willing to align themselves with the Latter Day Saints, who share a socially-conservative agenda, but are also obsessed with their own brand of doomsday eschatology. This increasing compromise of faith is quite a disturbing trend in my opinion.

      • If these so-called evangelicals have aligned themselves with LDS, JWs, and other cults with a similar socio-political and eschatological agenda then THEY are the ones who are turncoats.

        I care not for Jim Wallis or Frank Schaeffer on one end. I also don’t care much for the socio-political theories of the Religious Right or many other fundies. The compromise in faith are among those who put eschatology in the waste bin, whatever church tradition they come from.

        I just have a serious problem with mainline liberal Christians because their worldview and perspective is not in accordance with Scripture and the teachings of the historical church. Not is their socio-political agenda just plain wrong, but their eschatological apathy is spiritually destructive.

        • Well enough said. I was alluding to the longstanding tradition of teachers of premillennialism, espousing a bleak view of severe and irreversible decline, and that the parousia can be hastened by their own interventions to right the wrongs of decadent society. Regrettably, I think the cultural and political concerns of many fundamentalists more and more drive their end times theology, and not vice versa. Barth said he preached with a Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. But no one reads newspapers anymore, they watch Glenn Beck. We are a generation more biblically illiterate than ever before, but we listen to a Mormon televangelist. Eschatological obsession is the opposite of apathy, and can be equally spiritually destructive.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

          “But Mormons don’t drink or smoke!” (And they Tithe!)
          — reason given by a kid who was raised in a Holiness Evangelical environment for converting to Mormonism “Because they were More Christian”

    • Mark-

      God has a way of saying things that are quite true, and are able to convict on their own. Why? Because the Word of God does come back empty and without accomplishing it’s purpose, whether or not we see the fruit (at least according the to the Prophet Isaiah).

      However, human in their zeal (however good the intentions are) have a tendency to warp things. There is quite a difference in letting God speak the truth, and setting up a haunted house in order to give someone a glimpse into a hell of our own creation, and use such fear to “motivate them” into joining the Church.

      Such actions are right up there with using the sword to force conversion. May God have mercy on us for such acts.

  7. Anwari12A says:

    “Let the heavens rejoice! Let the earth be glad! Let the sea resound, and all that is in it. Let the fields be jubilant and everything in them. Then all the trees of the forest will sing for joy. They will sing before the LORD, for He comes! He comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness and peoples in his truth!” (Psalm 96) He comes to rescue this faithful people from their oppressors and to reclaim his world for good and right. Sounds to me like a rather splendid reason to celebrate our liberation!

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      So how did this become lip-smacking “God’s Gonna Get You! HAW! HAW! HAW!”?

      When I was immersed in the Gospel According to Hal LIndsay (this was long before Left Behind), there was NO rejoicing in it. NO sense of liberation. Only horror-fanboy fascination with the End Time Prophecy checklist and the details of The Antichrist and The Tribulation. “It’s Already Too Late! It’s All Over But The Screaming!” with a Christian coat of paint. And at the very end, the Jack Chick vision of God on the Great White Throne — “BEGONE FROM ME YOU CURSED INTO EVERLASTING FIRE! JOIN THE DEVIL AND HIS ANGELS!”

  8. One of the things I don’t understand is how the imminence of Jesus’ return can exist alongside complacency so stultifying that people are completely indifferent to, for example, the servant in the parable of the talents (Mt. 25:14-30) who buried his talent and incurred the master’s wrath for doing so. I’m sure there’s a thread of rationalization that runs through this, but I just don’t see it.

    It’s as if this type of believer was just standing on the Metro platform waiting for his train to arrive and whisk him away.

    No matter what our eschatology, can’t we agree on one thing? “As long as it is day, we must do the work of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work.” (Jn. 9:4)

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      It’s understandable if you look on it as the passivity of the completely overwhelmed.

      It’s All Gonna Burn, so why bother?

  9. “Tetzel-like tactics” — ow! And it’s hurts ’cause it’s true …

  10. In the words of a man who was considering this long before any of us were born – take it away, John Donne:

    73. “What if this present were the worlds last night?”

    WHAT if this present were the worlds last night?
    Marke in my heart, O Soule, where thou dost dwell,
    The picture of Christ crucified, and tell
    Whether that countenance can thee affright,
    Teares in his eyes quench the amasing light,
    Blood fills his frownes, which from his pierc’d head fell.
    And can that tongue adjudge thee unto hell,
    Which pray’d forgivenesse for his foes fierce spight?
    No, no; but as in my idolatrie
    I said to all my profane mistresses,
    Beauty, of pitty, foulnesse onely is
    A signe of rigour: so I say to thee,
    To wicked spirits are horrid shapes assign’d,
    This beauteous forme assures a pitious minde.

  11. Heaven and Hell, End times, Raptures and all that jazz…….

    Are these Jesus’ most terrifying words? : http://tinyurl.com/2f22koo

    Consider the fact that there are few that find it for a moment.

  12. While I do not self-associate with the super-conservative american evangelical camp that we are all criticizing, I have come from and know/understand many of these people. While I do not always agree with that methodology/philosophy/theology, I do love these people.

    I see a start contrast between this conversation and a thread on this same site regarding homosexuality. In that thread, evangelicals were bashed because they sometimes speak harshly about homosexuals. Here, many are speaking harshly about evangelicals!

    Shouldn’t evangelicals be worthy of the same love and tolerance that we want them to show for others? Why is it okay to ridicule them, point fingers at them, and call them names; and then to bash them for doing that to others on other threads?

    It is the backwards nature of our culture of tolerance… you must tolerate everyone except those who tolerate less than you do.