Why do conservative Christians think everything is getting worse?

Posted on 01/20/13 37 Comments

The answer is simple: eschatology. Eschatology is the doctrine of last things, and most Christian conservatives these days continue to be premillennial in their eschatology. Premillennialism is often described as a pessimistic eschatology, one that expects conditions to get progressively worse until Jesus comes back and establishes his millennial kingdom. (In contrast, postmillennialism is often described as an optimistic eschatology because it expects things to improve progressively until Jesus returns while amillennialism is described as realistic since it thinks we’ll progress and regress — two steps forward, one step back; one step forward, two steps back — until Jesus returns.)

Incidentally, the assumption here is that the progression or regression of which we speak is moral in nature. Obviously if we’re talking technological progress alone the postmillennialists would have won the debate long ago. But admittedly if you shift the discussion to the question of moral progress the space for debate opens up. After all, there is no shortage of societies in history that have been on the vanguard of technological progress and yet have also been morally brutish.

I am not a premillennialist, and I find premillennialism disturbing for one important reason: it tends to breed passivity in those who accept it. If things are expected to get worse, then what’s the use of trying to make them better? Indeed (and this where things can get really perverse), one could even get to the point of reasoning that seeking to reduce the misery in the world and increase acts of justice and mercy could effectively be postponing the return of Christ since he won’t show up until things get really bad. And which Christian wants to delay Christ’s return?

I’m not saying that a premillennialist cannot consistently fight for justice whilst holding this pessimistic theology. But every theology has dangerous tendencies, and in this case the tendency toward passivity is a serious concern.

This leads to another problem. Premillennial Christians often expect that Christians will become a specially targeted minority as history devolves toward Armageddon. As a result, ever instance of Christians being targeted as Christians feeds into the interpretive framework and provides more evidence for the “persecuted minority” trope.  Consider, for example, the “war on Christmas” that Fox News plays up every autumn. The vote of one town council not to have a creche on the front lawn of the town hall suddenly becomes another sobering sign of the tightening noose on God’s persecuted elect.

There are many dangers with this kind of thinking. Here’s one: if you always think of yourself as the persecuted minority you are that much more liable to miss the moments when you are in the wrong. Do you have any idea how many Christian conservatives in 1950s Alabama interpreted the rise of the civil rights movement as evidence of their status as a beleaguered, persecuted minority of God’s people? A sobering thought indeed. On what issues are Christian conservatives currently on the wrong side of history? And to what extent is their premillennial eschatology blinding them to that fact?

I was raised in this tradition so I know it from the inside. Christian conservatives often exercise a clear confirmation bias as every major disaster (e.g. earthquakes, tsunamis, wars) and every attack on Christians (e.g. the removal of the creche from the lawn of the town hall) is marshalled in support of the “Things are getting worse” thesis.

But what is counted for the “Things are getting better” thesis? If you start counting from this side then things become decidedly more ambiguous.

This is what I challenged my students to do last week when I was teaching a course in Christian worldview. After hearing that things were getting worse in Canadian society, I presented them with a challenge based on John Rawls’ “original position” thought experiment. I put it as follows:

Imagine that you could choose to be born into Canadian society in the year 1800, 1900 or 2000 while not knowing what your gender, ethnicity or socio-economic status would be. Which year would you choose to be born into?

While I didn’t call for a formal vote, the response of the class seemed unanimous. Contemporary Canadian society — for all its great faults — is still on the whole a far more just society today than it was one or two hundred years ago. In many ways we are a far more compassionate and civil society than we once were. Now extend the thought experiment. What about being born in Canada in 1800 or Assyria in 800 BC? To ask the question is to answer it. In almost all cases ancient societies were far more brutish than modern societies.

If a person wants to retain a pesimisstic premillennial eschatology, that’s up to them. I’m not denying that there is a theological case to be made for such a theology. But I do think we need to challenge the facile assumption that contemporary society demonstrates some kind of gradual moral devolution which provides empirical support for premillennialism, because it doesn’t.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/chris.hallquist Chris Hallquist

    I think you’re missing the other obvious reason lots of conservative Christians think things are getting worse: people are gradually abandoning the beliefs and values of conservative Christianity, and from the point of view of those beliefs and values that looks like a bad thing.

    For example, we’re fairly rapidly moving to a situation where thinking gay sex is wrong is will be viewed by most people as weird at best… and any chance of being viewed as merely weird will depend on being very careful about how you express that belief in public. I don’t weep for that point of view, any more than I weep for the decline of opposition to interracial relationships, but I’m sure it’s an unpleasant situation for those who are seriously committed to that view.

  • Kathy

    “Imagine that you could choose to be born into Canadian society in the year 1800, 1900 or 2000 while not knowing what your gender, ethnicity or socio-economic status would be. Which year would you choose to be born into?”

    I hope I can argue safely with one of my instructors.

    I don’t find asking this question a productive way to determine if people think that we are in a state of moral progression or regression. I don’t believe in thinking about when we could choose to be born, that we can separate our decision making from our current gender, ethnicity or socio-economic status. I think it is more likely that when you ask someone when they would rather be born, they think of their current situation and how much less comfortable their situation would have been in the other years. For instance, my thoughts could not help but go to what it would be like to have a child 100 or 200 years ago, and how scary that would be compared to today.

    But given that the question was asked in that way, how did people defend their position that Canadian society has morally progressed and not regressed since those other times? What particulars were offered up?

    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

      “I don’t believe in thinking about when we could choose to be born, that we can separate our decision making from our current gender, ethnicity or socio-economic status.”

      This kind of objection was offered to Rawls as well. But it doesn’t make much sense to me. So far as I can see my particular gender, socio-economic status and ethnicity do not prevent me from understanding that on the whole contemporary Canadian society offers a more equitable environment for minorities and women than earlier Canadian societies. One hundred years ago women didn’t have the vote. Seventy years ago Japanese Canadians had their property confiscated and were shuttled into internment camps. Fifty years ago indigenous children were taken from their parents and placed in boarding schools in an act that constitutes cultural genocide. Forty years ago a disfigured person could be asked to leave a restaurant under ugly statutes for making other patrons uncomfortable.

      Yes, each of those individuals would be better off born into contemporary society than Canada of 1900, to say nothing of Assyria of 1800 BC where legal statutes included punishments that you’d expect to see in the latest “Saw” or “Hostel” film.

      People didn’t articulate their reasons for holding their position but undoubtedly it included a selective list of things like pornography, abortion, divorce, etc. Yes, these are all bad things (though divorce is as much the symptom as the problem) but one must counterbalance them against the points of progression. When one does this, I submit that one loses the narrative of devolution to Armageddon.

      • Puchinpappy

        What I hear you saying is that progressive understandings are just making a more suitable habitat to make better laws to keep the peace. Take away the laws and the hearts of humankind are as desperately wicked as ever. Do not gangs essentially duel? Are
        women/wives not still beaten and shamed into submission? Redirecting prisoners to places that allow torture is a slick way to avoid the human rights abuses at home. People are still reluctant to have the disfigured next to them in a restaurant. We feel comfortable and uncomfortable at the same time with cultural ghettos in our cities which for the most part are now formed intentionally for community and political undergirding (gay part of the city /Indian/Pakistani, to name a few). Are not the rich still getting richer at the expense of the standard of living of the majority? Slavery, or near slavery is still in vogue in many parts of the world and our Canada of the 2000s benefits from their suffering.

        We would still come to public executions or we might just watch in on the nightly news or save it for posterity on YouTube. The Lord of the Flies would have nothing on us if the electricity suddenly turned off for good.

        I agree that there are ominous this world repercussions for the eschatological scenarios that you list. What I think is that with restraint withdrawn, we are just as capable of the same debauchery as the Assyrians and apart from the Spirit of God there are no Mother Theresas amongst us. Things are neither better or worse but the same for every generation.

        • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

          This is why the rise of neo-fascist movements is so chilling.

    • http://www.facebook.com/erroll.treslan Erroll Treslan

      Kathy, let me see if I can count the ways (using circa 1800 as a comparison):

      1. Back then, people attended public executions with as much interest and anticipation as they would today for a Santa Claus parade;

      2. Back then, slavery was taken for granted;

      3. Back then, women couldn’t vote and a husband could legally rape his wife;

      4. Back then, duelling to the death (although already starting to wane) was considered an honourable way for aristocratic men to settle their disputes;

      5. Back then, it was de rigueur in the international arena for countries to assume territory from neighbours by aggression; and

      6. Back then, the chances of anyone living in North America dying a violent death would be many times higher than it is today.

      You can go on and on. There is no question that modern societies have morally progressed to the extent that today we empathize more with the welfare of others than our forebears. Why that is remains open for debate. In Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, he theorizes factors as varied as the spread of Enlightenment values, more effective policing and the proliferation of the novel. Pinker doesn’t pull any punches in describing the moral retardation of our ancestors. Here’s a decent review: http://nymag.com/arts/books/reviews/steven-pinker-2011-10/

      • Bertram Cabot Jr. Fan

        Of course this all leaves out deaths provided courtesy of technology and science…40,000 a year from auto accidents, 100,000 plus a year from medical malpractice (by the AMA;s own stats) a million and a half abortions every year (of course those kill only subhumans so scratch that) thousands of gang related deaths (often involving a from of dueling) and on and on…

        Not to mention the WMDs that fill the planet and could level civilization in an afternoon and poison the planet for Millenia to come.

        • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

          Some of the statistics you cite (e.g. automotive deaths) are not indicative of a less just society. (And how many wagon-related deaths were there in 1800?)

          In other cases (e.g. rates of abortion, development of more efficient killing technologies) your statistics are relevant and, I think, bear out my point that it is as naive to think things are always getting better as to think they’re always getting worse.

        • http://www.facebook.com/erroll.treslan Erroll Treslan

          Pinker is not Pollyanish about WMDs and they could well be our existential undoing. On that score, I agree with Nick Bostrom of the Future of Humanity Institute who contends that we are underestimating the risk of human extinction: http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/03/were-underestimating-the-risk-of-human-extinction/253821/

      • http://www.mandm.org.nz Matt

        slavery was taken for granted in Canada, a Brittish colony in 1800? Sorry its hard to take that seriously.

        • Puchinpappy

          The legislation to end the slave trade by Britain was not passed until 1807. The legislation to end slavery in the colonies, including Canada was not passed until 1834. It is possible that it was not taken for granted but it was still legal.

        • http://www.facebook.com/erroll.treslan Erroll Treslan

          Matt, call it 1750 then … are you taking issue with the fact that there has been light years of moral progress in the first world in the past 200-250 years?
          By “moral progress”, I mean a general concern and empathy for the welfare of others which, obviously, includes a marked decine in violence.

  • Matthew Flannagan

    I am not sure your claim Conservative Christians accept premillennialism views is correct. first, almost every conservative who is in the reformed tradition probably would not and that’s a reasonable number. But moreover, I wonder if this is in fact a feature of American evangelicism, in UK evangelicalism I suspect that there is a much lower emphasis on premillennialism. In fact to those from somewhere like NZ is marked how often people seem to equate distinctives of American evangelism with conservative evangelicism per se.

    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

      “first, almost every conservative who is in the reformed tradition probably would not and that’s a reasonable number.”

      Matt, that’s incorrect. There are vast numbers of Reformed dispensationalists in North America. Think Moody Bible Institute and Dallas Theological Seminary.

      I didn’t bother to note in the article that it is not premillennialism per se which is so influential but rather dispensational premillenialism. To see the staggering impact of dispensational premillennialism among North American evangelicals just consider the horrid “Left Behind” series of novels which has sold tens of millions of books. When I grew up it was Hal Lindsay. His one book “The Late, Great Planet Earth” sold over twenty million copies to evangelicals in the seventies.

      Premillennialism has been dominant in North American evangelical Christianity at least since WW1. (Mark Noll’s “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind” traces this nicely as well as the corrosive impact on theology and ethics.)

      • http://www.mandm.org.nz Matt

        Randall, I think you are using the phrase “reformed” quite loosely to refer to acceptance TULIP. I would use the term a bit more precisely than that referring to those within the reformed tradition found in say the westminister confession, Belgic confessions and so on, those within this tradition are predominately a/ post millennial covenant theologians.

        Within reformed churches for example and conservative presbyterians I doubt youll find a huge amount of dispensationalism

        The rest of your comment tends to reinforce my point, you note dispensationalism is highly influential in north America. I agree, but north Americais not the only place in the world where evangelical Christians exist. I now it that shocks some people in north Americato know other people exist whose cultural worlds are not preoccupied with the same issues Americas is, but that’s actually
        the truth.

        • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

          Matt, are you claiming that Reformed theology excludes assent to premillennialism or dispensational premillennialism? That’s quite ridiculous. If that were true then John MacArthur wouldn’t be a Calvinist!

          Perhaps you could articulate what you think the necessary and sufficient conditions for being Reformed are. (On my view it is assent to unconditional election and irresistable grace.)

  • Bertram Cabot, Jr. Fan

    I don’t think it suprising that the generations raised under the threat of MUTUAL ASSURED DESTRUCTION provided by modern science, are conscious of the possibilities of the end.

    Just because the present generation doesn’t think much about it anymore, does not mean the weapons are gone.

    Civilization could be laid waste in 24 hours.

  • Alan Kurschner
    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

      Thanks for the link Alan. I’ll give Steve one thing: “pessimillennialism” is a clever neologism. Unfortunately things go downhill from there. Steve obfuscates on the meaning of the word “pessimism” in the critique. If you follow the logic of his strange argument then Westboro Baptist Church has an “optimistic” eschatology which is absurd.

      Equally problematic is Steve’s apparent ignorance of the real-world impact of dispensationalism (which is the primary target here) on matters like environmental concern and social justice. Numerous scholars (e.g. Mark Noll, George Marsden) have chronicled the negative impact dispensationalism has had on North American evangelicalism.

      I note finally that Steve ignored the central thesis of the article, namely the evidence I provide that the pessimism thesis is not borne out by the facts.

      • Alan Kurschner

        Randal,

        I find your argumentation shallow. It is a cliché and a non sequitur to say that premillers are not concerned about social justice and the environment.

        It is not rocket science of what Scripture teaches about what will happen before the consummation of all things: God’s people will be persecuted before Jesus returns to vindicate his people by destroying his enemies:

        “(9) When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. (10) They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” (11) Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been.” (Rev 6:9–11 ESV)

        The premill position ends on that hope as well as joining in full fellowship with the Lord:

        “….and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words.” (1 Thess 4:17–18 ESV)

        Premillennialism is a promised-hope and thus optimistic eschatology.

        Alan Kurschner
        http://www.alankurschner.com/

        • Alan Kurschner

          Addendum:

          Jesus states explicitly that the world will morally get worse—not better:

          “(12) And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. (13) But the one who endures to the end will be saved.” (Matt 24:12–13 ESV)

          Only the person shackled to some postmill tradition will not allow these plain words of our Lord speak for themselves.

          Alan

          • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

            Alan, I’m amillennial. Am I shackled to amillennialism? If that’s what you think then go ahead. But if you’re going to use one prooftext to suggest that American society (or Canadian society or most other western societies) was clearly more just in 1800 than it is today then you’re simply illustrating my point.

            • Alan Kurschner

              Randal,

              I see you do not have a response to my text. This is a rather important text since Jesus is explicitly addressing the moral conditions before his Return.

              Incidentally, is Canada more or less tolerant of sodomy today than it was in 1800? I’d like an answer from you.

              Alan

              • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

                As you know, premillennialists, postmillennialists, and amillennialists all have their set of texts. So citing a single text often invoked by premillennialists doesn’t exactly settle the issue of whether there has been a broad societal improvement between 1800 and 2000.

                As for your final question about “sodomy”, I’ll devote a short article to that tomorrow. For now all I can say is “wow”.

                • Alan Kurschner

                  Randal,

                  I am not specifically addressing any particular culture when I invoke Matt 24:12–13. This is Jesus saying that the general moral condition before his Return will be increased lawlessness.

                  As far as my question about Canada, in previous comments you suggested that Canada was morally improving over the past couple of decades.

                  And I think the world at large is much more brutal—and amoral—today, than it was centuries ago, including antiquity. We are living in the dark moral ages today. Live and let live is today’s standard.

                  Besides this empirical evidence, which my argument is not resting on, Jesus’ claim in Matthew 24:12–13 is sufficient to support the premill notion that the world’s depravity will reach a crescendo before the Lord returns.

                  Not only will the world at large increase in lawlessness, but there are good biblical reasons that the persecution of God’s people will increase.

                  Alan

                  • J_Riv

                    And I think the world at large is much more brutal—and amoral—today, than it was centuries ago, including antiquity. We are living in the dark moral ages today. Live and let live is today’s standard.

                    What’s immoral, amoral, or brutal about “live and let live”?

                    • Mary

                      Jesus in fact approved the “live and let live” ideal. He called it The Golden Rule.

                  • http://www.facebook.com/erroll.treslan Erroll Treslan

                    “And I think the world at large is much more brutal—and amoral—today, than it was centuries ago, including antiquity. We are living in the dark moral ages today. Live and let live is today’s standard.”

                    What you think is not borne out by the evidence. I’ll repeat J_Riv’s question: what’s wrong with live and let live? How does what two consenting adults do in the privacy of their own bedroom affect you? If you think that act is going to result in them frying for eternity, it’s your right to believe that.

                    “Not only will the world at large increase in lawlessness, but there are good biblical reasons that the persecution of God’s people will increase”. This is where you fall off the deep end and your text is just plain wrong. Lawlessness is not increasing, it is decreasing in all modern societies (down to a “normal” base murder rate of approximately 1 per 100,000). As for persecution of God’s people, this is BS. Despite your premill hopes to the contrary, the right to practice one’s religion and the right to be free of any religion around the world has never been stronger in the history of mankind.

                • Alan Kurschner

                  Randal, why do you put sodomy in quotation marks?

                  • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

                    Because it’s an archaic term based on an erroneous reading of Genesis 19. If you want to find biblical texts relevant to the discussion of homosexual acts you’re better off turning to the Levitical law or Romans 1 or 1 Corinthians 6.

                    Anyway, I’d appreciate a response to my follow-up article. Your question seems to equate a just society with that society’s broadly accepted social mores and legislative practices with respect to a subset of sexual practices. And I’m suggesting that is grossly reductionistic and myopic, serious charges to be sure.

                    • steve hays

                      i) Notice that Rauser is committing the etymological fallacy. ii) In addition, there are Bible scholars like Robert Gagnon who *don’t* think that’s based on an erroneous reading of Gen 19.

                    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

                      Steve, welcome to my blog. Come in my friend and stay awhile!

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  • Alejandro Rodríguez

    “most Christian conservatives these days continue to be premillennial in their eschatology”
    I don’t think this is the case. There are plenty of mainline Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox conservatives, and in fact I would regard them as the majority.