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The Uneasy Conscience of Evangelicalism

November 8, 2008

Once again, I have commented on another post in Doug Todd’s blog.

Todd is an award-winning columnist for the Vancouver Sun and writes a fair bit about the political-religious interface in American and Canadian politics. He has made much of the connection between evangelical end times convictions (of a premillenial sort) and politics.

Premillenialism is a view of the end tiright-behindmes which says that Jesus will come back to literally instill a thousand year period (“millenium”) of prosperity and peace. But before then, the world will get worse and worse. For most premillenialists (of the dispensational sort), there will be a rapture of all Christian believers before things get really bad.

This theology is a fair target, especially given the success of Left Behind (>65 million copies), a poorly written fictional account of the time between the rapture and the Second Coming. Pop culture representations of this sort of premillenialism have popped up with fair consistency since the 1970s (e.g. Late Great Planet Earth), and have permeated many churches for many more decades. They tend to instill a sense of the imminence of the end (and therefore the desperation of Christian mission). When my dad was 15, for instance, he hoped he’d at least have the chance to go camping one last time before the end of the world. When my older brother saw a movie called “A Thief in the Night,” he came to my room to make sure the rapture hadn’t come (me, the young saint).

Todd believes that many North American leaders hold these types of beliefs about the end times, which in turn affects their politics, particularly foreign policy. I agree, but suspect that the connection is not as strong as he suggests (particularly in Canada – Todd sees Stephen Harper as having hidden end times beliefs).

But since evangelical belief often doesn’t get represented fairly, I responded to Todd’s article with a few corrections about the distinctions between premillenialism, postmillenialism, and amillenialism. Todd didn’t actually mention amillenialism, the official teaching of most historic Christians, including Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Reformation Protestantism. For those of you interested in a Catholic amillenial view of the “end times” might differ from “Left Behind,” check out the very interesting Father Elijah by Michael O’Brien. Amillenialism interprets the book of Revelation in a symbolic or spiritual way, and do not believe that the thousand years (“millenium”) of Revelation 20 is a literal period of time. For those of you interested (maybe coming from the site), I have uploaded a paper (“The Uneasy Conscience of Evangelicalism”) I worked on several years ago for a systematic theology course at Regent College, an evangelical seminary in Vancouver. The paper breaks down end-times belief into Reformational church, free church, and Anabaptist varieties.

There’s been a lot of water under the bridge since this paper, but it may give an indication that evangelical belief is not unidimensional. I argue that evangelicalism has never come to terms with its differing views on the end times. Since there is no agreement on “where we’re going,” it’s hard to know how to get there.

In reflecting on this theme, I think that Christian beliefs about the end times may well be a marker between a genuine evangelicalism and a separatistic fundamentalism. As a movement, “neo-evangelicalism” emerged out of “fundamentalism” in the 1950s. The early evangelicals wanted to engage culture and society rather than separate from it, and created magazines like Christianity Today and organizations like World Vision to try to demonstrate the relevance of their faith. Evangelicalism (represented by Charles Fuller, Carl F. H. Henry, E. J. Carnell, etc.) in its earliest form didn’t think everything was going to pot and that Christians should hunker down.

50 plus years later, the two movements are widely seen as interchangeable, and it’s debatable whether either term has much positive value left in it. I think a distinction needs to be reforged. I think there is still room in North America for a mainstream evangelicalism willing to engage with the wider cultural world… and perhaps be changed along with it.

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