I’m going to offer a more detailed commentary on this post:
Why do conservative Christians think everything is getting worse?
Do conservative Christians think “everything” is getting worse? Is that just a catchy title? Is the title hyperbolic? Or does Rauser really think that’s accurate? If so, then he’s burning a straw man.
Rauser is claiming a correlation between what “conservative Christians” believe about social trends, and their eschatology. If, however, Rauser is equivocating, then that vitiates his comparison.
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.
What about conservative Christians who are not premils? What about confessional Lutherans, Anglicans, and Presbyterians–to name a few? If Rauser correlates the alleged belief that “everything is getting worse” to the corollary belief in premillennialism, and many conservative Christians who allegedly believe “everything is getting worse” don’t buy into that eschatology, then Rauser’s claim is demonstrably false.
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.
i) To begin with, what premil distinctive predicts for conditions to get progressively worse until the Parousia? Can Rauser pinpoint out the distinctive premil doctrine which selects for that prediction?
ii) “Progressively worse” in reference to what terminus ad quo? When does premillennialism predict that everything will start going downhill? 1000 BC? 1000 AD? 1776? 1865?
Is there a triggering event? If so, has the triggering event occurred?
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.
Yet Rauser just said:
…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.)
And Rauser calls himself an amil. However, wouldn’t his description of amillennialism breed passivity? He makes it sound like a cyclical process where all the progress you make at low tide is washed out at high tide. But if every advance is met by a setback, why bother? Your efforts to improve the situation are continually undone. So perhaps Rauser can explain, by his own logic, why amils shouldn’t be passive spectators.
If things are expected to get worse, then what’s the use of trying to make them better?
Notice the fatal ambiguity. “Expected to get worse” when? At what point in history do premils expect things to get worse?
For instance, suppose premils expect “everything” to get worse 10 years before the Parousia. That would only breed passivity if they know the Parousia will happen in the near future. Then they can count back from the date of the Parousia to when “everything” gets worse. But what if premils have no idea when Jesus is coming back? In that case, how would their abstract belief that things will go downhill shortly before Jesus returns breed passivity?
To take a comparison, suppose my kitchen sink is clogged. Suppose astronomers announce that eventually an asteroid is going to destroy my town. Do I not call a plumber to unclog my sink because, at some wholly unspecified time in the future, an asteroid will reduce my kitchen to rubble?
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) Even if (ex hypothesi) we could delay Christ’s return, that would be beneficial to future generations, some of whom would become Christian and thereby enjoy eternal life.
ii) Couldn’t one just as well argue that evangelism hastens the return of Christ (“And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come,” Mt 24:14)? Therefore, that would breed missionary/evangelistic activism rather than passivity.
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.
Sounds like a good opportunity for Rauser to come clean on the dangerous tendencies in his own theology.
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.
i) Since Christians are persecuted at different times and places throughout church history, why would “every instance” of Christian persecution presage the apocalypse?
ii) BTW, notice how Rauser trivializes the widening scope of antipathy to traditional Christian values in North America, Europe, the UK. Yet it’s not just premils who’ve drawn attention to that ominous development. Is Robert P. George a dispensationalist? Nigel M. de S. Cameron a dispensationalist? Is John Warwick Montgomery a dispensationalist? Is Wesley J. Smith a dispensationalist? Is Francis Beckwith a dispensationalist?
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.
Is that a fact? In reference to whom did 1950s Alabamans view themselves as a persecuted minority? Did white Alabamans view themselves as a religious minority group? Didn’t they considerably outnumber black Alabamans?
Does Rauser mean they viewed themselves as a persecuted minority in relation to the Federal gov’t? Was the Eisenhower administration spearheading the civil rights movement? To my knowledge, it wasn’t until Bobby Kennedy became Attorney General that the Feds got seriously involved in the civil rights movement.
What about 1950s South Carolinians? Weren’t many 1950s South Carolinians Presbyterian or Episcopalian? So what’s the connection with dispensational eschatology?
On what issues are Christian conservatives currently on the wrong side of history?
I can’t think of any. Maybe Rauser will enlighten us.
And to what extent is their premillennial eschatology blinding them to that fact?
Nothing like a loaded question.
I was raised in this tradition so I know it from the inside.
He doesn’t know 1950s Alabama 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.
i) Notice Rauser’s bait-n-switch. There’s a basic difference between a “things are getting worse thesis” and an “everything is getting worse” thesis. Do conservative Christians take the position that everything is getting worse?
ii) Do confessional Lutherans, Presbyterians, Anglicans, et al. regard every natural disaster as confirmation that things are getting worse?
If anything, isn’t it just the opposite? Don’t global warming alarmists take every natural disaster as confirmation that things are getting worse?
But what is counted for the “Things are getting better” thesis? If you start counting from this side then things become decidedly more ambiguous.
Do conservative Christians take the position that nothing has gotten better over time? Isn’t Rauser indulging in blatant hasty generalizations?
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.
i) I’m not qualified to speak to the Canadian situation. There are, however, Canadians who don’t seem to share Rauser’s sanguine view of social trends in Canada. For instance, consider the Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform.
ii) Is it Rauser’s claim that according to premil eschatology, everything will go downhill after 1800? Can Rauser quote dispensational scholars like Darrell Bock, Dan Wallace, Craig Blaising, Buist Fanning, or John Feinberg who take that position?
iii) Seems to me that Rauser defines progress through the self-congratulatory eyes of a white liberal. But do the minority groups on whose behalf he presumes to speak share his glowing outlook?
Thanks for the link Alan. I'll give Steve one thing: "pessimillennialism" is a clever neologism.
Actually, it’s Gary North who coined that term. The fact that Rauser doesn’t know that shows how little he really knows about the issue.
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.
Notice that Rauser isn’t responding to my specific analysis.
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) What is Rauser alluding to, exactly? What “environmental concerns” does he have in mind? Global warming? Unless I missed it, George Marsden doesn’t link opposition to global warming alarmists to dispensationalism in his classic, revised monograph on Fundamentalism and American Culture.
ii) What about Christian critics of global warming alarmists like James Wanliss?
Is his opposition traceable to dispensational theology–or to his scientific expertise?
Did Rauser have something else in mind? There are some apocryphal quotes attributed to James Watt:
Does Rauser have anything besides urban legends to back up his claim?
iii) And Rauser’s chronologically-challenged reference to 1950s Alabama doesn’t inspire my confidence in his command of U.S. history–not to mention how the dispensational culprit breaks down when you consider the religious demographics of other Southern states like S. Carolina.
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.
Notice that Rauser begins by imputing to me or to dispensationalism a “pessimistic” eschatology, when that ascription is the very issue in dispute, then faults me for ignoring his counterexamples. But, of course, that’s predicated on a false premise. I never granted his contention that conservative Christians think “everything” is getting worse. Therefore, even if I accepted his counterexamples, that’s a red herring.
There are vast numbers of Reformed dispensationalists in North America. Think Moody Bible Institute and Dallas Theological Seminary.
What makes Rauser think Moody Bible Institute and DTS are synonymous with Reformed dispensationalism?
BTW, many Arminians are dispensationalists.