Too Earthly Minded to be any Heavenly Good (Part 2 – End Times Theologies)

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In the first part of this series, I told the story of my own history and tension with the subjects of Christian eschatology[1] and evangelism. I am passionate about the gospel, both in its power of personal transformation and social benefit, and I became a Christian in the late stages of an evangelical apocalyptic frenzy. Hal Lindsey helped popularize Antichrist and Tribulation imagery in popular culture, and had large segments of Evangelicalism awaiting the Lord’s return in the 1981––the year he predicted the return of Christ and the Rapture of the Church.

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I had no connection to Christian culture prior to 1980, and suddenly, in my newfound faith, I was cast headlong into this strange world of apocalypticism, and the passion for gospel proclamation that came with it. But, this carried a subtext of conspiracy theories. Many of the same people who preached the gospel, and told us that Jesus was coming any day had been playing their vinyl records backwards, were seeing antichrist conspiracies in the developing EU, were predicting a New World Order, and fell for the satanic panic of the 1980s and its subculture heroes like Mike Warnke, radio talk show host Bob Larson, Michelle Smith from the bestseller Michelle Remembers, and Geraldo Rivera with his Devil Worship documentary. These people and their sources would be debunked, but from the late 70s to the early 90s, the damage would have already been done. People ended up in prison on false allegations of the satanic ritual abuse (SRA) of children, and some spent over 20 years in prison before their cases were overturned.[2]

In case you didn’t receive the memo, Jesus did not return in 1981, or 1982, or 1987, or 1988, or 2000, or 2011 despite the predictions of his coming. Similarly, the EU did not usher in the rise of the antichrist; and the well-organized underground satanic cult with its sacrificial baby farms and basement rituals was never uncovered. For a couple years, Damien Echols, of the famed West Memphis Three had his office directly above my church office in Salem, MA.[3] He had recently been released from prison after sitting on death row for 18 years. Damien and I would occasionally stand outside the front of the church and talk in the afternoons about life and spirituality. He was a gentle (albeit intense) individual for someone who spent 18 years on death row as a result of the satanic panic. To this day, he retains a strange amalgam of magickal spirituality blending the Bible and the Matrix.[4]

Defining the Parameters

Let me define some of my terms, and the parameters of distinction before I continue further. By Evangelical, I am including Pentecostal churches, and charismatic expressions of Christianity. Scholarship on these definitions is divided on whether to include them, but I fall to the side that considers Pentecostal Christianity to be a subset of Evangelicalism. Charismatic expressions are a more difficult distinction, because the movement is a combination of independent churches, and smaller groups within mainline denominations. For the sake of this particular study, I have stuck with the view that these are subsets of Evangelicalism. The fact that I am describing Evangelical politics in America in 2020 makes this view all the more important, because Pentecostals, Charismatic Christians, Baptist, and Reformed Evangelicals have become bedfellows in American Evangelical political power, and when news pundits describe American Evangelicals in politics, it includes Pentecostals and Charismatics, who appear to make up the lion’s share of this phenomenon.

By highlighting three factors: end times, ecstasy, and evangelism; I am not highlighting three things all Evangelicals have in common. Rather, I am focusing on three driving elements I see in the political momentum of the Evangelical religious landscape. Any particular church movement, or individual Christian may identify with just one of these three categories, with all three, or with any combination thereof. The American religious experience is eclectic, and is only growing more so. Evangelicalism in this broader definition has been particularly eclectic. So, these categories are not hard and fast for any given individual or group. Rather they are influences that I see as powerful trends in Christianity, and I believe they are informing Evangelical political thought.

End Times, Ecstasy, and Evangelism – Marks of the New Political Evangelical

Apocalyptic eschatology, ecstatic experience, and evangelistic fervor have never been strangers. Montanism, the 2nd through 6th century movement, which was rejected as a heresy in the early church, despite Tertullian’s 3rd century leadership in the movement, had these things in common with Pentecostals and Charismatics. And, this appears on and off throughout church history with such groups as Mother Ann Lee and the early Shakers, and Edward Irving’s Catholic Apostolic Church.

As we fast forward to 2020, eschatology in Evangelical church circles is changing, and in fact, the formerly popular apocalyptic pre-tribulational premillennialism of Dallas Theological Seminary, or Hal Lindsey, appears to be slowly losing ground to a triumphal postmillennial eschatology. Instead of a time of great troubles preceding the Rapture of the church and the Great Tribulation, we now have a vision of the church growing ever stronger in power and influence until the Kingdom of God rules upon the earth and Jesus returns. A victorious theology is nothing new. From Early Church Fathers through to John Wesley there were many postmillennialists of prominent influence. They believed that the church would move toward perfection as the end of days neared. But, new strains of postmillennial and amillennial Pentecostals bring a different twist to the old theology. A new eschatology is rising with a nearly militaristic drive based in the belief of a strong spiritual authority of the individual believer, combined with a call for engagement with our national culture. Yet, the old apocalyptic persecution scenarios are not disappearing. Apocalyptic eschatology is simply engineering triumphalism into its wheelhouse.

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The second category of ecstatic experience has seen phenomenal growth in the last 100+ years. One of the primary tenets of Pentecostalism is that God works supernatural phenomena through the mediumship of regular people empowered like the original apostles to do his work. The birth of Pentecostalism at the turn of the 20th century brought prodigious church planting, and large ecstatic gatherings of both high and low church traditions in Revival campaigns and Charismatic healing meetings. After barely over a century, the movement now accounts for over one quarter of all Christians on the planet.[5] Ecstatic experiences are not new to the faith. They are found in the wanderings of Christ, stories in the Book of Acts, the first couple centuries of the church, and as noted above, in small outbreaks throughout church history. Apart from the First Century, these outbreaks have been minor eruptions, and tended to be rogue movements. The 20th century brought the establishment of formal Pentecostal denominations, and the rise of Charismatic believers inside older denominations. This has tended to keep a reign on the wildest aberrations in the ecstatic Christian movements. But, the latter part of the 20th century has seen growth in non-denominational churches among what has been labeled as the New Apostolic Reformation (NAR)[6], and the Independent Network of Charismatic Christianity (INC)[7]. Within these movements, there are a handful of so-called apostles and prophets who appear to be declaring extra-biblical revelations and stretching the edges of Christian orthodoxy.

The third category that I believe has had dramatic implications on the rise of power politics among Evangelicals is the passion for evangelism. Evangelistic fervor is a fundamental focus of Evangelicalism––thus the name. The Pentecostal and Charismatic strains of Evangelicalism[8] have taken this passion for sharing the gospel to new levels. This is evidenced by the remarkable growth of the movement over the last 100 years. This has been an explosive phenomenon, starting with the Azusa Street Revival in 1906-1908, to the tent revivals of Oral Roberts, the missions movements of the Pentecostal denominations, and the rise of Pentecostal mega-churches around the globe. Although this has been the fastest growing religious movement in the world, it has not been alone in evangelistic fervor. Evangelicalism as a whole has been a growing movement, even while the rest of the church was sliding into decline. But recently, while non-charismatic Evangelicals are beginning to see declines in overall membership in the West, Pentecostal and Charismatic churches are still experiencing increase––albeit dramatically slowing increase.[9]

The Evangelical Eschatologies Informing Politics

Two streams of eschatology appear to be merging into an eclectic strain of developing eschatologies. The “inaugurated eschatology” common to Reformed traditions teaches that the Kingdom of God had its beginning, or inauguration, in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. We, as Christians, are now living out the realization of his Kingdom in our lives. The Kingdom is simultaneously coming, and is here now. A pessimistic apocalyptic eschatology, that has been extremely influential in pop culture circles, is competing with this optimistic view of God’s rule upon the earth. In Evangelical circles, as I am defining them here, this apocalyptic eschatology has been king of the end times theologies through most of the 20th century. I will not be traveling through the development of these theological schools through history, but will simply bounce ahead to the latter part of the 20th century during the fervor of end times interest.

Throughout the 70s and 80s, the evening news became almost as important a resource for eschatology as the Bible itself. The activities of Russia and China were compared with prophecies about a war with Gog and Magog (Eze. 38-39, Rev.20). The rise of the European Union awaited the tenth member, and Greece joined as that tenth member in 1981. Supposedly this was the tenth horn on the heads of the beast of Revelation 13. But quickly, another couple nations joined the developing EU, and these so-called prophecies faded into distant memory.

Premillennial-pretribulational Christians were alert to the politics of the times, and kept their nose in the news for evidence of Christ’s Second Coming. Jesus was going to return before seven years of Great Tribulation. He would sweep his people away from the troubles that would come upon the earth, and following those years of tragedy, he would return to set up his thousand-year Kingdom on earth.

Pretribulational eschatology was not only the most influential eschatology among the young adult Christian Baby Boomers of America; it was perhaps the most influential of all theological concepts during this season. It drove Christian pop culture, evangelism efforts, and pulpit ministry. I would suggest that the manner in which it generated pessimistic apocalyptic fear and a communal response has had ramifications in non-religious circles. It impacted the economics and social action of the church during the young adulthood of the Baby Boomers, and set a pattern for how a generation would engage politics, news, the arts––and perhaps, even science. This remains the primary eschatological position in Evangelical circles in America, and remains strongest among Pentecostal Evangelicals, despite the fact that for many it has worn out its welcome like the boy who cried wolf.

While non-denominational, Baptist, and some Reformed streams of Christianity waited for the Lord’s immanent coming and the rapture of the Church, others believed that Christ would return after a thousand-year reign on earth, and the church would be the ruling party for that thousand years. This postmillenialism was developing in both ecstatic and non-ecstatic, Calvinist and Armenian Evangelical churches.

In Reformed traditions, RJ Rushdoony (1916-2001), whose influence far exceeded his fame, and the Chalcedon Foundation[10] he founded espoused the theory of theonomy (rule by God’s law). This would become one of the primary influences of today’s Dominionism (rule by the Christian Church taking dominion over the nations) and Christian Reconstructionism (theonomy with libertarian leanings). A far more politically aggressive variation of Rushdoony’s views arose in the writings his son-in-law Gary North, whose Christian Reconstructionism was a step too far for Rushdoony, and by 1981, the two had a falling out.

The Pentecostal streams of postmillennialism were small, but they appear to be growing in influence over the last 20 years. The Latter Rain revival, which started in Saskatchewan at the Sharon Orphanage and Schools in the late 1940s, and its more colorful little brother, the Manifested Sons of God theology, painted the picture of the rise of super-Christians. The “manifested sons [and daughters] of God” (Rom. 8:18-19) would have such great faith that they would experience the resurrection while they walked on the earth, and in being resurrected to perfected eternal life they would become invincible super-saints and leaders in God’s Kingdom. This was a wildly ecstatic variation on Dominionism.

Bringing God’s Kingdom to earth by Christian action and outreach is no new concept, and it continues today with highly popular ministries. Bill Johnson, from Bethel Church in Redding California, with its ministry schools, believes in bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to earth. They send their ministry students out to practice performing miracles on the street. This is informed at least partially by a postmillennial, “Kingdom Now”, Dominion Theology.

In many Reformed Evangelical traditions, amillennial beliefs reigned supreme. The thousand-year reign of Christ (Rev. 20) is not to be viewed as a literal number of years. In fact, Christ ruling and being seated upon the earth is not to be taken literally. Commonly, it has been held that like much postmillennial thought, it was the Church of Christ that would rule. For most, we were already living in these allegorical thousand years. His body, the Church, was maturing into the holiness and authority that would give it power to run the planet as his emissaries. In this eschatological motif, a far more peaceful and positive momentum toward the future was envisioned. The world would gradually become the Kingdom of our God. This was not the cataclysmic ending with a new beginning imagined by the pretribulational tribe, this was an inauguration of the Kingdom of God here and now. But, our enemies were not necessarily Satan, the antichrist, or ten-horned beasts. Our enemies were systemic sins in social and legal structures encouraging lust, greed, and all forms of selfishness. Now we were being called to become colonialists, and we were colonizing the nations with holiness for the Kingdom of God.

There were disagreeing variations of amillennial eschatology. The influence of revivalists like Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) remained strongest during this season. People turning to the Lord in repentance were the key to ushering in the Kingdom of God, while others borrowed from more politically active beliefs like that of Rushdoony and North.

As we jump ahead to today, these streams of eschatology are all crashing together and becoming a mashup of eclectic beliefs. Hal Lindsey, of the cataclysmic, Jesus-is-coming-in-1981 fame has now adopted Dominion Theology, and although he still embraces an immanent return of Christ and an apocalyptic scenario for the last days, he believes that we are called to take dominion over the earth. Mike Bickle from the Kansas City, International House of Prayer teaches that there are elite end-times prophetic forerunners being raised up to prepare the Church for a soon coming Great Tribulation, and they have developed a school to train those elite forerunners. These are just two internationally influential examples, but in them, we see a developing eclectic eschatology. Perhaps a marker of this developing eclecticism was evident in the decision by the Evangelical Free Church of America to drop premillennial eschatology from its Statement of Faith in 2019.[11] 

Eschatological Tensions

The pessimistic apocalyptic perspective is strengthened by “remnant theology”. This theology teaches that the Church is made up of a small group of people who are the truly faithful, and typically are survivors of persecution. The remnant have been described as, “What is left of a community after it undergoes a catastrophe.”[12] On the other hand, a realized and inaugurated eschatology is expecting the success of the Kingdom of God’s citizens, and this success will cover the earth and transform it.

Simultaneously, church leaders and their followers are embracing the competing values of a victorious inaugurated eschatology of an empowered church marching toward colonizing the world’s systems, and the pessimistic apocalyptic eschatology framed by remnant theology and a perceived systemic persecution. It is my belief that the tension between these concurrently held views is one of the major influences on Evangelical politics in America.

The strength of Christianity is its capacity to live in the competing tensions of a world that increasingly makes no sense. It is at one moment a blessing, and in the next moment a curse. We are walking a tightrope “Between the Glory and the Flame”.[13] This is the tension of living in a broken world. Our hearts inherently appear to know that things are not as they should be, or should have been, and we have utopian hopes of a better existence. It is this hope that often strengthens human resolve in the face of difficulty and tragedy. It is our resiliency. It is also one of the weaknesses of our theology, that we have the capacity to reimagine competing views––or paradoxes, and we are tempted to describe them in minute detail. It is in the minute details that the devil sometimes lives…and sometimes, we are being tempted toward confusion, contradiction, and conspiracies.

It is in the minute details that the devil sometimes lives…and sometimes, we are being tempted toward confusion, contradiction, and conspiracies.

In the following posts on this topic, I will tease out the influence of eclectic eschatologies on developing Evangelical conspiracies and politics. Before I do, I will visit two other theological categories in the next post. I believe these have also been fundamental to the development of Evangelical political thought. I will next visit ecstatic experience, and evangelism theology.


[1] eschatology – study of the last things

[2] https://www.vox.com/2016/10/30/13413864/satanic-panic-ritual-abuse-history-explained

[3] https://www.bostonmagazine.com/news/2013/06/25/damien-echols-salem/4/

[4] https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-country/sturgill-simpson-damien-echols-west-memphis-three-interview-755363/

[5] https://www.pewforum.org/2011/12/19/global-christianity-movements-and-denominations/

[6] https://youtu.be/PHWyOz_SZCk lecture by C. Peter Wagner

[7] The Rise of Network Christianity, Christerton and Flory, 2017

[8] Some see Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity as separate category from the Evangelical Church. I disagree with their distinction, as is obvious here. Amos Yong is a good example of seeing it as a separate stream. https://fullerstudio.fuller.edu/evangelicals-pentecostals-and-charismatics/

[9] Atlas of Pentecostalism, accessed October 22, 2020, http://www.atlasofpentecostalism.net/cartography/ item/0fd288150e92583bc9c1b4bd7ffeeaf9.

[10] https://chalcedon.edu/

[11] https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2019/august-web-only/premillennialism-evangelical-free-church-efca-end-times.html

[12] Anchor Bible Dictionary

[13] Title song of an album by Randy Stonehill, 1981 – https://youtu.be/v2y_md7IX20 accessed October 29, 2020


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