As promised, today we’re back to the apocalypse. Specifically, I’m going to discuss the sometimes not-so-secret glee that some people feel when Everything Is Awful and Getting Worse, because to them that’s a sign that a final, cataclysmic deliverance from evil is right around the corner.
Perhaps the most prominent example of this kind of thinking in American culture today – this “cosmology,” to borrow a page from Robert H. Abzug’s marvelous conceptualization of how religious views thoroughly informed various 19th century American reform movements – is Dispensationalism of the sort most recently popularized in Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind series.
I say “Dispensationalism of [this] sort” here because there is not a single, “correct,” “orthodox” Dispensationalist theology – one needs a magisterium (or at least an ecumenical council or synod) for that, and despite the best efforts of Lewis Sperry Chafer to establish such a center of authority in Dallas Theological Seminary, there is in fact no central Dispensationalist body to adjudicate between competing schema of the End Times.
However, a Dispensationalist cosmology, broadly construed, has profoundly shaped not only American evangelicalism but also American politics and foreign policy. The book to read on this is Matthew Sutton’s American Apocalypse. (Also crucial: Paul Boyer’s When Time Shall Be No More.)
Today I’d like to call your attention to two axioms of Dispensationalism, broadly construed: pre-millenialism and the idea of the rapture.
To adequately describe pre-millennialism requires some description of millennialism or millenarianism. In terms of American cultural history, millenarianism was the belief that it is the job of the Church to prepare the way of the Lord by making society more just, more holy, more loving – more Christian – until finally Christ himself comes to reign on the earth. Basically, millenarians sought to hasten the coming of the Lord by making everything better.
Pre-millennialism, on the other hand, was the belief that society would become more and more wicked until finally God’s judgment rained down upon humankind in a cataclysm of holy wrath, and then Christ himself would come to reign on the earth. Pre-millennialists, dismayed at the wickedness and decay of society, sought to hasten the coming of the Lord by preaching the gospel to the ends of the earth, since Jesus himself had said, “this gospel of the kingdom will be preached throughout the whole world, as a testimony to all nations; and then the end will come.” Pre-millenialists were not sanguine about the possibilities of reform.
As Abzug’s Cosmos Crumbling makes clear, both of these “millennialist” conceptions of the trajectory of human society were operating at the same time. In fact, his first chapter concludes by noting that over the course of his career as a social reformer Benjamin Rush moved from millenarian optimism to pre-millennial pessimism. Both conceptions of the cosmos were available and viable.
Dispensationalism draws from the well of pre-millennial eschatology. But Dispensationalism adds something to the water: the idea of the Rapture. This is the notion, first articulated by John Nelson Darby, that Christians (the “true Church”) will be removed from the earth and spared from experiencing the full measure of God’s wrath. This is a little bit of inside baseball, but it’s worth noting: there are some Dispensationalists who draw a distinction between “the Tribulation” and “God’s wrath,” and who thus believe that even true believers will go through part of the Tribulation, and then be caught up to safety before the final blow of divine judgment. And so there is quibbling within Dispensationalist circles about whether the Rapture will be “pre-trib,” “mid-trib,” or “post-trib.” But there’s no quibbling about this idea: true Christians will be spared from going through the very worst judgments that yet await humankind in this life, on this earth. (Christian ideas about the afterlife are another story.)
Now, putting on for just a brief moment my rarely-used but incredibly handy Christian theologian hat, here’s what I’d say about such a theology, speaking as a sometime “insider”: whatever this teaching may be, it is not the word of the cross. The hope (or “mournful awareness”) that, though others will suffer in this life, I will be spared mortal pain and peril in this life because I am a True Believer is, from this sometime Christian’s perspective, one of the most monstrously un-Christian things it is possible to believe. (And, just for good measure, while I’m at it, when it comes to ideas about divine judgment after death, apokatastasis is the way to go. And yes, I am aware that Origen was a heretic. Take a number.)
Okay, now I’m going to take off my Christian theologian hat and put on my intellectual history hat again – at the jaunty, rakish angle that suits me best – and say a few words about the this-worldly consequences of Dispensationlists’ confidence in the Rapture, which amounts to the confidence that, whatever happens in the geopolitical landscape, they will be miraculously delivered from suffering the worst of it. Indifference to worries or warnings about climate change has been one such consequence. Another such consequence, it seems, was the willingness of many “End Times”-aspirant voters to pull the lever for Donald J. Trump, because a vote for Trump would hasten the apocalypse.
Of course, it’s not “the apocalypse” or God’s wrath per se for which Dispensationalists hope (or so they would tell you); it’s the glorious reign of Christ, the fulfillment of the eschaton, the final fruition of God’s plan for the cosmos, a new Heaven and a new Earth. The apocalypse – including that nasty little bit about God’s wrath poured out upon the earth upon which we all live – is just a necessary and painful step (painful for some!) on the way to ultimate blessing for God’s chosen ones (among whom Dispensationalists count themselves).
So, for some evangelical Christian voters, there was no contradiction between voting for the arguably immoral and un-Christian Trump and seeking God’s will in the world. (And yes, I am personally acquainted with people who believe this way and who voted this way.)
Instead, doing their part to elect Trump was their opportunity to participate in God’s plan by helping to bring about the cataclysmic destruction of the old order, a painful but necessary step to pave the way for the subsequent eternal age of peace and plenty.
I believe that’s called “heightening the contradictions.”
Thanks, but no thanks, burn-it-all-down apocalypticists. While we’re working toward a more just society, some of us have to live here.