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The gradual transformation of evangelical eschatology

Those raised in evangelicalism were taught to believe that the world will only get worse until the Lord returns. Culture degrades, morality disintegrates, and the world falls apart to the point that only Jesus can rescue us from certain self-destruction.

Listen to almost any traditional evangelical voice and you’ll hear this language peppered in. Things are getting worse, of course they are getting worse, things have to get worse for Jesus to come back. (This implies that they kind of WANT things to get worse so Jesus can come back.)

This isn’t a historical eschatology of premillennialism and the general belief that Jesus would return to establish his Kingdom. Currently, much of this vantage point seems to be seated in a dispensational premillennialism which took root in the early 1900s, but was originally penned by John Darby in the 1830s.

How did this become popular?

The atrocities of World War I radically shifted people’s worldview. While the industrial revolution seemingly made life better and better, the Civil War brought an end to modern slavery, and modern medicine went about ending disease had elevated people’s general perception that the world was getting better. Those same technologies were used to kill hundreds of thousands of people in Europe– which dramatically flip-flopped the worldview the other way.

People began to look at science, invention, and modernization with a new lens. We enjoyed the benefits while always giving a suspicious eye to how evil men and women may use this against us. (This is alive and well today, isn’t it? Read Christian advice on any technology and you’ll see them dance this line of benefit versus danger.)

Evangelicalism became popular in that environment. People generally had a negative view of the world’s future and dispensationalism provided an explanation for it. It was the right message at the right time and lead to the rapid growth of the evangelical movement and the continued degradation of the mainline denominations we continue to see today. (Most of the mainline denominations rejected dispensational)

Much of how we view the world today as American Christians is heavily influenced by a a relatively new eschatological view (non-historical) and one which relatively few Americans understand or hold dear. (dispensationalism)

What does this have to do with me?

As a student at Moody Bible Institute I was taught dispensationalism and pre-tribulational, pre-millennial eschatology as bona fide fact. (I always felt it was a little weird to be taught the future as fact. I guess I was alone in that!) We were all required to take classes which indoctrinated us in the tenants. We all passed tests. And to graduate we all had to sign that we believed in a pre-tribulational rapture. Yes, every graduate of Moody has signed this… forever!

In a school that was so well-rounded in almost every other area this was the one thing they held onto as a distinctive! (And some silly rules about dancing, because we know dancing leads to amillennialism.) Moody isn’t alone. This is a core belief for traditional evangelicals.

What does this have to do with you?

I’m not saying dispensationalism is bad. And I’m not saying there’s no way there is a pre-tribulational rapture. (Though I do find the hermeneutics and evidence which lead to this conclusion as thin) Technically speaking, I’ve always affirmed premillennialism while holding views of a rapture at arms length… I’m not betting the farm on that one.

This is important to you because it impacts the tone with which so many traditional evangelicals approach issues of the day. There is an implied negativity. You’ll hear phrases like, “This is really a shame. Of course we expect it to continue getting worse until the Lord returns.” It’s a tone and a stance that they don’t intend to do anything to make it better– because that’s the way it has to be for Jesus to come back!

The shift to something else…

Most evangelicals seem to be softening on this hardline view. Even as you read this you probably felt like there was a shadow of truth there but it isn’t really how things work in your life or ministry. That’s because we’re seeing things change in evangelicalism. The rise of the neo-reformers (Piper, Driscoll, Keller) has introduced a Reformed theological perspective, which flirts with the notion of things getting worse while affirms that Jesus makes things better in society when his people are at work in society.

It doesn’t feel like people have landed, yet. But it it is clear that the traditional evangelical view of eschatology is having less and less impact on the ministry churches are doing on a day-to-day basis. In my view, this is great!

Here are a few facts that might shock you:

And just like the scary things of World War I brought about the rise of one theological perspective… The end of the Cold War and drops in these big, scary things are impacting how Christian view their place in the world.

Where is this going? I’d love your thoughts.

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16 Responses to The gradual transformation of evangelical eschatology

  1. Gman October 19, 2011 at 8:17 am #

    Maybe more people are embracing pan-millennialism ….

    • Tolsonii October 19, 2011 at 8:49 am #

      I’m a fan of “pan”!

  2. Luke McFadden October 19, 2011 at 8:36 am #

    Interesting post.  As one who’s been raised in the amillennialism camp, I don’t know if I’ve necessarily felt the “it’s perpetually getting worse” strictly from an eschatological perspective.  I hear more general doom and gloom talk from the older generations, and usually it’s mostly focused on America.

    It seems that any claim that “things are getting worse” or “things are getting better” would be hard to defend on the overall timeline of history.  While you’ve listed some stats that support things are getting better, one could easily build a list or growing evils (divorce, depression, suicide, child prostitution).

    How much should current events play into our view of the return of Christ?  Taken to an extreme, I think we end up like Harold Camping (that’s an observation, not a slam!).  How much of this noticeable shift is rooted in a generally shallow sense of theology across the board?

    • Megan October 20, 2011 at 7:38 am #

      I wonder if the worry about America is because American Christians have often viewed the U.S. as a new Israel?

      • Adam McLane October 20, 2011 at 8:03 am #

        Oh, such a good thought. What an interesting research question to explore!

        • Megan October 20, 2011 at 8:16 am #

          Adam, you may find this mini-series interesting: http://www.pbs.org/godinamerica/view/

  3. Tolsonii October 19, 2011 at 8:50 am #

    “…because we know dancing leads to amillennialism.” = my favorite line in this post!

    • Adam McLane October 19, 2011 at 8:59 am #

      heh, nothing like an end times joke!

  4. Becky October 19, 2011 at 10:21 am #

    As a fellow Moody grad, I would say that you were definitely not alone.  I have always struggled with the end times debate, because I have heard deeply Biblical and theologically sound arguments on all different sides.  And it frustrates me that these arguments result in factions among the body of Christ.  There is enough that we DO know that should inform how we live now.  We are to be faithful in loving God and loving others.  Will it get worse?  Yes.  Will things get better?  Yes.  Will Jesus return?  Yes.  Do we know when this will be?  No.

  5. Joel Mayward October 19, 2011 at 11:57 am #

    This is why the “already/not yet” kingdom eschatology of folks like George Eldon Ladd, Dallas Willard, and Rick McKinley (to name a few) feel so refreshing and true for me. We live in the tension that Jesus is actively present now while we anticipate a hope-filled future. It changes my very identity; you and I are citizens of the kingdom, folks who aren’t defined by the culture at large while also lovingly engaging it as a culture where Christ is present. It’s messier and more “gray” that way…but life is kinda like that, isn’t it?

  6. Adam McLane October 19, 2011 at 2:10 pm #

    Let me confess. I deleted this post this morning because I felt like no one would want to engage with it and it just felt a bit too much. 

    Thanks for the affirmations. It’s really what I’ve been chewing on. As I do research and read things every day I’m seeing evidence that the church is “getting better” at a lot of things and our society is actually making attempts to “get better” at a lot of stuff. That’s in stark contrast to the mess I hear on the news, especially from conservatives. 

  7. Steven Tran October 19, 2011 at 5:42 pm #

    As someone looking into the American Evangelical scene let me add something to this line, ‘Moody isn’t alone. This is a core belief for traditional evangelicals.’ – I think this is more a reflection of traditional American evangelicals rather than evangelicals worldwide. English (and Australian – where I’m sitting at the moment) Evangelicalism is classically A-mil. The work of Darby and Scofield appears to have influenced America more predominantly.

    That said, I’ve noticed that with the spread of American pop-culture there’s been a rise in Dispensational Pre-mil around the traps.

    • Steven Tran October 19, 2011 at 6:01 pm #

      Furthermore, the other question you need to ask is if dancing leads to a-mil, what happens if you’re a poor dancer?

      • Adam McLane October 20, 2011 at 5:58 am #

        Oh, I have moves. So I think it was related to the mennonites on campus. :)

  8. Jon Huckins October 19, 2011 at 6:49 pm #

    I’m proud of you for letting the eschatological tensions out of the closet!  Well said, my friend.  You know where I stand on this one…and I’m sure you’re sick of hearing about it on our lunch breaks! Cough, and the many other breaks we seem to take throughout the day…

  9. Paul February 18, 2012 at 4:16 pm #

    My dad was “pan-millenial”. My own theology evolved from dispensational to preteristic and covenantal. Lots of work to do. I believe that evangelicals will come to inherit a Biblically-based
    optimism that it traditionally Calvinistic about the depravity of human nature, while simeoultaneously celebrating the nearly unfathomable possibilities for good in every area of life simply because human beings were created in the image of God!!!

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