Is the World Going to Hell, Or Not? [Questions That Haunt]

Questions That Haunt Christianity

This week’s Question That Haunts Christianity comes from Jesse:

I’m a regular blog reader though I’ve never commented. Here is my ‘question that haunts’ which may belie my fundamentalist background: Is the trajectory of our human culture/world/society positive or negative? In other words, are we fighting the long defeat until Christ returns to set things right or are we participating in an ever-advancing Kingdom of The Heavens (Willard) which will someday culminate with Christ’s return?

You respond in the comments. I’ll respond on Friday. See all of the past questions and answers here, or buy the ebook by clicking below:

  • Silva Helmer

    I like to hope that our trajectory is positive, but sometime it is difficult with all of the violence in our world. When I read Steven Pinkers book “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” it really helped me to put things in perspective. Yes, terrible things happen in our world everyday, but in the past things like torture, hanging, and crucifiction were not only everyday events, they were put out there for the people to see. In the Roman world, it was not uncommon to see the road lined with dead and dying people hanging on crosses. We hear about every murder, act of terrorism, or other act of violence that happens all over the world, so we think that our world is more violent than it has ever been. The truth is, we are generally safer than we have ever been. In my mind, it’s all about perspective.

    • Craig

      Do we become more angelic because our environment is safer? I suspect we become less violent. But are we also more angelic; has our moral character also improved?

      • Silva Helmer

        That is an interesting question – I think that we are more able to make decisions based on morality when our basic needs for food, drink and safety are assured. I would not say that every person today is more moral than in the past, but rather that the number of people who have the luxury of making decisions based on morality has increased.

  • CurtisMSP

    This question is very easy to answer empirically. Think of any measure of quality of life, then track that measure across time. By any measure I can think of — life expectancy, infant mortality, literacy, incidence of disease, death by warfare — the human race is improving over time.

    • Craig

      Our material conditions are improving. Are the moral characters of communities and of individuals also improving? (I suspect the answer is “in some ways but not in others.”)

      • CurtisMSP

        The moral character of communities and individuals is the same now as it was at the time of Adam & Eve. Or Cain & Able. Or at the time of Noah. Or Sodom & Gomorrah. Or the Tower of Babel. That is why God’s word is so true; it speaks to us now as much as it did from the beginning.

        • Craig

          Exactly the same? What is the evidence/argument?

          • CurtisMSP

            One evidence is that those stories speak as strongly to us now as they did when they were told 2500 years ago. Human moral character doesn’t get any worse than betraying your entire species, or killing your blood-kin over jealousy.

            • Craig

              I’d draw the more modest conclusion that our moral sentiments haven’t changed to the extent that the moral sentiments of the ancients are generally no longer intelligible to us.

              Do all the stories of the ancients speak just as strongly to us today? I doubt it. I can’t be alone in finding my own moral intuitions and convictions at odds with many of the moralizing stories of the Bible–and these are stories that have deeply shaped our culture. Some aspects of Moses’s and Paul’s moral reasoning strike me as primitive and foreign.

              • CurtisMSP

                No story stands on its own. All stories are part of a broader, unending conversation.

            • Sven2547

              One evidence is that those stories speak as strongly to us now as they did when they were told 2500 years ago.

              Do they, though? Do they really?

              In Genesis 22, God tests Abraham’s faith by commanding him to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac. Abraham tried to go through with it, but he was stopped by an angel, since God was satisfied by Abraham’s sincere effort. Because he heeded God’s command to kill his son, Abraham is held as a role model in the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic faiths.

              In 2004, Deanna Laney of Texas killed two of her children because, according to her, God told her to. Tellingly, not one Christian stood up and praised her for heeding the same command as Abraham, putting her faith before her children’s well-being. That’s because in the modern world, when “God” tells a parent to murder their children, we know they’re crazy, not role-models.

              • CurtisMSP

                The Abraham story is not literal.

                The Texas story is news report about a woman who either had a) a medical disorder that gave her the sensation of hearing voices or b) a murderous desire to kill her babies, and made up the voices story to cover her ass. I don’t know the story so I don’t know if either a) or b) where either proven or dis-proven.

                The Abraham story is an allegory that speaks to our relationship with god.

                Allegories are not news reports, and it is silly to treat them as such. People who read allegories as literal statement of fact are misguided, as are those who ridicule the allegory because, when read literally, it indicates inexcusable ignorance. Both positions are an abuse of the literature.

                • Sven2547

                  The Abraham story is not literal.

                  Was that the position of religious scholars 2500 years ago? I doubt it.

                  • CurtisMSP

                    The original, verbal versions of these stories, that predate 500 BCE, would not have been understood literally, because the concept of literal, objective thinking did not exist at that time.

                    These verbal stories would have been seen as one way of understanding things, but the concept of literal, objective truth did not exist when these stories originated, prior to the era of Greek scholars around 500 BCE.

                    • Craig

                      Curtis, you’re suggesting that no one interpreted anything in a literal way before 500 BCE? So when someone said, “There’s tiger in the forest–be careful,” this would have necessarily been interpreted non-literally? (What would have been the non-literal interpretation of statements like this?)

                    • CurtisMSP

                      I’m not suggesting anything. I’m repeating what is understood about the history of modern, rational analysis, which everyone acknowledges originated with greek scholars around 500 BCE.

                      You’re suggesting that all stories in all of human history were understood by the original storytellers through the lens of thinking that originated in 500 BCE Greece.

                    • Craig

                      But you are attempting to draw an inference from that scholarly analysis. It’s your inference that is strikingly implausible.

                      (Notice: there is a sense in which a young child lacks the concept of modus ponens. This doesn’t mean that the child’s thinking cannot generally respect that rule of logic.)

                    • CurtisMSP

                      Ancient Hebrew storytellers were not Greek scholars. It is a mistake to think they were.

                    • Craig

                      ??

                    • CurtisMSP

                      The story of Abraham originated as ancient Hebrew folklore. The people who originally told and heard the story were not thinking in terms of Greek rational analysis — that came hundreds if not thousands of years later.

                    • CurtisMSP

                      What does it mean to respect a rule is not known to exist, at the time, in all of human knowledge?

                    • CurtisMSP

                      If they sat around the fire, and someone said: “I know a good one: there’s a tiger in the forest”, I don’t think anyone would suddenly run away from the fire. They would sit and listen to the story.

                      I doubt anyone exclaimed the Abraham story out of sudden urgency.

                    • Sven2547

                      In other words, prior to 2500 years ago, the concepts of history and scripture were understood much differently than they are today.

                      Does this not completely contradict your original suggestion that these stories “speak as strongly to us now as they did when they were told 2500 years ago”?

                    • CurtisMSP

                      put a “>” in front of 2500. 500 BCE is an approximate date where rational thought was first documented. Rational thought was not actually widespread until around the 1500 CE time-frame, even though it was invented 2000 years earlier. So 2500 years ago is probably safe

                      2500 years ago is an approximate boundary, before which rational thought did not exist. That is why I used that number. I was referring to a time before the existence of rational thought, not to a specific date.

                • smrnda

                  Just wondering, what exactly is literal and what’s not literal in a religious text, and why does not everybody disagree? I mean, was there a real Jesus nailed to a real cross, or is that another allegory and whether or not it happened is a matter of no concern? Paul seems to imply that Jesus, specifically, can’t be a metaphor or allegory, but nobody I can talk to seems to agree.

                  • CurtisMSP

                    Everything is a mix of both. It is pretty easy to trace the historic documentation of the life of Jesus. The earliest accounts of Jesus tend to read more literal. The later accounts, where concepts of virgin birth, Jesus being God incarnate, and physical resurrection after death are introduced, seem to include more elements of allegory.

                    But I would never say allegory is of no concern. Good allegory speaks more truth and any listing of facts ever could.

                    • smrnda

                      Late response, it’s just that I’m *fine* as a person who isn’t a Christian saying that Jesus is allegory, but for what seem to be the vast majority of Christians I know, they say that Jesus has to *really be* the son of god who really died and was really resurrected or else the whole of Christianity falls apart. If I told most Christians that this was allegorical, at least the ones I know would all disagree.

                      It strikes me that there’s no consensus, and that you get radically different “Christianities” (plural) depending on the literal/allegorical decisions. It seems to me that people seem to choose to decide what’s allegorical and what’s not based on what conclusions they want to reach.

                    • CurtisMSP

                      If an allegory is not *real*, it is not a very good one, is it?

    • http://late-emerger.blogspot.com/ Andrew Martin

      I want to agree with you. And on most of those measures, I think you’re right.

      Arguing for a downward trend in “Death by warfare” would take work, though: the 20th Century saw some pretty large numbers there; likewise in systematic killing/holocaust. It strikes me as too early to say whether the 21st Century will be better. I’ve not seen comparative stats, but I’d have a hunch that there’s no obvious improvement. Similarly, there are definitional challenges: slavery got abolished long ago, but the number of people trafficked and/or effectively enslaved is persistently high.

      That said, then, though there seem grounds for pessimism as well as optimism, there /is/ a general trend in thinking that these things are bad and should be cut/diminished/eliminated.

      • Craig

        In these comparisons, better to think in terms of proportions of the population, rather than the absolute numbers (of those enslaved, violently killed, etc.).

        • http://late-emerger.blogspot.com/ Andrew Martin

          Yes and no. The number of people starving everyday is declining – both in absolute terms and as a proportion of the population – which is very good.

          On the other hand, it is tenuous to argue that WW2 was proportionately less bad than some previous conflicts on the grounds that the world population was now higher, so a smaller proportion of humanity was killed. You’d have to look at the localized effect in the region(s) where events took place. The Holocaust, for example, is pretty much without parallel because of the proportion of the population of western Europe it affected. Or the Rwandan genocide, much more recently, which took out up to 20% of the population there.

          • Craig

            The untimely death of 1/5 of a 5-member family is bad for that family. Is it as bad as the untimely death of 1/10 of the global population, evenly distributed? No need to dispute the former claim when answering “no”.

      • CurtisMSP
        • http://late-emerger.blogspot.com/ Andrew Martin

          If you’re right – and you may be; I’d like to see data – that is all the more remarkable because we have so many more effective tools of violence today than in the past. Which would doubly, as it were, support the thesis of an improving humanity. .

          • CurtisMSP

            RTFA, in the link

        • Makaden

          Let’s keep in mind that ONE slip in the deployment of weapons of mass destruction, such as a nuclear warhead, would skew these data points radically. While we have to date reduced the levels of violence empirically, we have dramatically increased our capacity to literally kill everything. And I haven’t even taken into account the effects of climate change–and I don’t think Pinker has, or can, in his data either. Surely this is violence as well.

          • CurtisMSP

            We are talking about a measurable pattern through known history, not a hypothetical, unknown future.

    • http://quijotefelix.blogspot.com/ rick allen

      Depends upon how you choose your criteria, I suppose. Most of yours are medical, and we are the happy beneficiaries of modern medicine. But the same scientific and technical progress (the only kinds of progress I believe in) also produce germ warfare and nuclear weapons. Those we haven’t really used on a large scale. But the arsenal is there.

      I wonder if, in earlier ages, the same percentage of the population would have died in war as in early twentieth century Western Europe, or during the American Civil War.

      Moral criteria are rather difficult to quantify. Are we more loving than our ancestors? More compassionate? We of course assume that we are, but what is our real basis for thinking so?

      We look back with horror at, say, the Spanish Inquisition, but, however abominable it was, the number of those who died at its hands over the centuries is in the thousands. One vigorous weekend by a zealous commisar during Stalin’s Great Terror could offer more innocent victims. The Iraqi war alone seems to have led to over a hundred thousand deaths. And we don’t even feel bad about it.

      We have our strengths and our weaknesses. To get away from violence, we seem unable to raise own children. Mothers and fathers can’t stay together, and rates of (especially) paternal desertion are enormous. This is a terrible change for the worse I’ve seen in my own lifetime.

      So I think it’s a bit presumptuous to pat ourselves on the back about how much better we are. I’m sure we do some things better, some things worse.

      • smrnda

        I don’t think I can believe that family relationships are worse than in the past. In the past, a high degree of violence within the family would have been considered normal and appropriate, including beating kids, husbands beating their wives; the whole idea of ‘child abuse’ didn’t even exist.

        Parents have abandoned their kids all the time, but at least now we have some decent child welfare programs. We don’t take orphans and use them as slave labor.

        Divorce is also kind of declining, as well as births to teenage mothers.

        Let’s also think about work. We’re not okay with employers requiring workers to spend company in the company store and making them attend the company church as a requirement of employment.

        In terms of war, a problem we have is that we now actually know about what goes on around the world, though it’s not likely that individuals have a lot of power to change it. At the same time, nations have always been waging wars, but think how often Western Europeans went to war with each other, and think of how unlikely a war between France and Germany might seem now. Perhaps a reason why the US has been more willing to use war as diplomacy is that it’s been so long since a war has been here.

  • gary

    I actually watched a good documentary last night that framed this question really well. It was called “Hellbound?” and you can watch it on netflix.

  • RollieB

    First of all, I do not believe heaven nor hell are places. I do not believe anyone is “going” to either place. I think of people moving toward the divine (getting closer to God) or moving away from the divine (hell?). I also do not think of Jesus (the human face of the divine?) as “coming again.” Individual “salvation” is a modern concept posited by evangelicals. The evangelical positing of these concepts make no sense to me.

    Any religious concept that promises you a better afterlife is robbing you of your life here and now.

    …no claim on on the truth here… it’s just my 2 cents.

    • Ric Shewell

      Would you feel the same way if you were a slave? If you had no hope in your immediate future, singing “I’ll Fly Away” might have a significantly positive impact on the way you face daily struggles.

      • smrnda

        Though the problem with that perspective is that it fits in with the ‘opiate of the masses’ take on religion and spirituality. The same attitude was routinely mocked by songwriter Joe Hill when he examined the Salvation Army’s desire to proselytize among workers, but their indifference to the worker’s struggle for things like better wages and working conditions.

        Not that there can’t be a positive impact of spirituality – James Cone wrote a book ‘God of the Oppressed’ which deals with the topic better than I can (and I totally recommend it to anyone and everyone, regardless of their beliefs it is a good read.)

        • Ric Shewell

          Hey I agree with you, smrnda. I was just challenging the notion that any idea of a better afterlife robs your current life. There are many cases where hope in the next life is all certain people have. But for people in power, the promise of a better afterlife cannot and should not be used as an argument to keep the poor poor, the oppressed oppressed, etc. -That’s the real problem with opiate of the masses, not that the poor are taking it, but that the rich are selling it.

          • RollieB

            Ric, what mean by that statement is: a person can do nothing about the past or the future. All we can address is the here and now – the present. Our goal is to get closer to God now. Not in a future dimension. That, I think, is striving for the “kingdom (realm) of God.”

            • Ric Shewell

              I agree with that Rollie, but I also don’t think we can or should ignore the good news of the New Testament that in the end, all will be made right.

          • smrnda

            True. Whether a moral teaching is true or not (or an idea valid) depends a lot on who is speaking.

    • R Vogel

      I have to agree with you, Rollie. The older I get the more I look at these things and wonder how any rational adult can believe in them? First of all, the descriptions of Heaven in the Bible sound BORING! And how exactly am I supposed to enjoy eternity while I know that people I love are being eternally tormented, while people who did unspeakable things, maybe even to those same people I love who are being eternally torments, are hanging out beside me because they suddenly saw the light? It just sounds like a silly fairy tale ala The Invention of Lying….it’s akin to the creation story – am I truthfully supposed to accept this? Magical gardens, magic trees, talking snakes, naked people, what?!

      • RollieB

        RV, I found that putting these religious concepts into historical time and perspective (bronze age – iron age) helps explain some of the reasoning. I’ve been criticized on this blog several times for referring to ancient writings and the logic found therein as unsophisticated. Nevertheless it is how I feel. Heaven above, hell below and earth in the middle is a concept rooted in the bronze age. That this concept is perpetuated in the 21st Century incomprehensible to me. But that’s just me. I have no claim on the truth.

        • R Vogel

          I think historical perspective is good, but I personally would hesitate to call it unsophisticated as much as different. Using myths (mythos) to communicate transcedent truths is, for me, a valid approach – I just am amazed at how many people feel the need to accept them as literal.

  • jab242

    Empirical measurement is hard – the moral judgements of those right now in different cultures are sometimes foreign to me; I’m not sure how to compare to cultures thousands of years ago.

    I’m thinking more about the underlying theory or theology – what do you believe is happening, regardless of how well we can measure it, and why? I think this questions lies behind many of our political debates because you approach the world very differently if you perceive yourself as part of God’s Kingdom which is gradually overcoming evil or as a part of a ‘remnant’ which is just hanging in there until reinforcements arrive.

    Jesse (Original Questioner)

    • Makaden

      Jesse, I think you have nailed it. I would add that there is a strongly emerging “Kingdom Now” theology among Pentecostals that is going to be a formidable force in short order. Watch Billy Wilson, president of Oral Roberts University. Watch the International Christian Embassy, Jerusalem. Watch the New Apostolic Reformation. Watch most of Pentecostalism (and Christianity!) outside of the United States. These folks want nothing to do with dispensationalism as it gets in the way of Pentecostal self-identity and mission.

  • http://morechrist.blogspot.com K.W. Leslie

    I’ve taught history. In so doing, I had to get acquainted with way more of it than I ever expected; way more than the textbooks do. (And I should point out your average history textbook is written from an optimistic modernist perspective; and in the United States, it’s usually written to encourage feelings of patriotism and American exceptionalism. Sorta inevitable when the school boards aren’t historians, and don’t want to make waves.)

    That said, civilization is doing much, much better than it ever has.

    More freedom. More information. More access. Less despotism. Better technology. Less government corruption. More public accountability. Less crime—and since far more crimes are reported to authorities than in the past, this means a lot less crime. People only think it’s more because, thanks to a press and Internet that’s far more hungry for news, nearly all of it gets reported.

    Why do people think it’s getting worse? Simply put: They were sheltered when they were kids. I was. I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1970s. I knew nothing about all the protests and movements which were going on in the cities around me; my parents kept me away from it all. They only exposed me to polite, well-mannered people; hence I could grow up believing people were kinder to one another back then. They kept me away from racism; hence I could grow up thinking it wasn’t a problem. And my parents were themselves raised the same way. As are a lot of Christians. If time travel were possible, not one of those folks who pine for a heroic past would visit there long: They’d discover what things were really like, and return to the present posthaste.

    Society is not at all perfect. Human nature hasn’t changed any, and people will always look for loopholes to fit themselves through. But by nearly every standard, things are better, not worse. And I give God credit for that. Our awareness of human rights is a byproduct of the Incarnation. Our awareness of freedom is a byproduct of God’s grace. Many of society’s reforms are the result of Christian activism. If the End Times are such that society has to plummet into chaos first, it is an aberration, not the trend: It means God has removed his common grace from the world. Meanwhile we still benefit from it.

    • Craig

      “Why do people think it’s getting worse? Simply put: They were sheltered when they were kids.”

      Really? I was “sheltered” from a lot of good music in the past. This hasn’t led me to think, as an adult, that music is improving.

      We alternatively might point to our status-quo bias, or something like it–a bias favoring the way things were, a tendency to idealize the past, to get nostalgic; alongside, perhaps, some (plausibly helpful) heightened sensitivity towards future problems, and their potential.

      • http://morechrist.blogspot.com K.W. Leslie

        Okay, point to those things too. There are plenty of Dispensationalists who believe society is going to hell simply because their End Times Timeline demands that interpretation.

        But you’ll notice a lot of these folks, when they were kids, were likewise sheltered from the evil, evil world outside. It’s a much bigger factor than you suspect.

    • Silva Helmer

      In addition to our individual shelteredness, we, as a society, were more sheltered in the past because we did not have access to the kind of information about global events than we once did.

  • Dean

    I think the question itself reveals why the Church is so confused on this, only a Dispensationalists would argue that (1) things are in fact getting worse, and (2) that’s a fantastic thing. That’s really the crux of the issue here isn’t it? That the Book of Revelation has been used to distort the Christian worldview for millions of Evangelicals is nothing short of scandalous. To say that the “orthodox” Christian position must be the Dispensationalist “literal” reading of that book, or even a “futurist” position, flies in the face of reason, history and even the text itself. The problem is that Americans today are functionally illiterate, Christians probably even more so. Polls have shown that atheists in fact are much more biblically literate than your average Christian. Do any of you remember that story about French President Jacques Chirac saying that GWB was going on and on about “Gog and Magog” just before we invaded Iraq? Need I say more about how insane and dangerous this doctrine is?

    • http://morechrist.blogspot.com K.W. Leslie

      Just as insane and dangerous: Since the Dispensationalists are the only ones writing any End Times books (yeah, academics are too, but they use big long words and don’t get specific about who the present-day bad guys are) whenever a layman has a question about the End, guess who they turn to? Right: The loons. Their books are the only ones in the stores. And for those who don’t have time for non-fiction, they also have novels and movies and comic books.

    • Jack Attack

      With all due respect, the second point in your anecdotic concerning Dispensationalist is fallacious. To say that they conceive or conclude that their premise that things are getting worse is a fantastic thing is indubitably false. If one is to pin them to the mat one must employ accurate facts. While Dispensationalist do say that things are getting worse, I don’t think I have ever heard any true Dispensationalist every spout the Excellency of this. Let’s cease the raving mad idiot’s polemic and exhibit a more erudite remonstrance.

      • Dean

        I listen to Christian talk radio daily Jack. Every Dispensationalist I have ever heard always says that even though things are getting worse, it’s a sign that the second coming is near so it is in fact a good thing. That’s why many Dispensationalists actually think we should go to war in the Middle East to hasten the return of Christ. This is actually quite logical if you adhere to this doctrine,

        • Makaden

          I’m writing a dissertation in the sociology of religion on Christian end time groups. Jack is right in his first complaint. No dispensationalist argues that this is a good thing. It is logically false to deduce otherwise from either Craig or Dean’s points. The return of Jesus is what is identified as the good thing, not the decline of the earth. Following the logic of dispensationalism in all respects is important in understanding what makes it tick. And it’s not just dispensationalists who hold the “decline” view: it’s all (unmodified) premillennialists. There are some modified premillennialists, such as some associated with the New Apostolic Reformation (Mike Bickle is an example) who hold that things will get worse in some parts of the (unsaved) world while in other parts where the church has dominion, things will be blessed.

          • Craig

            Three points. First, who is claiming that Dispensationalists are perfectly logical in their inferences? Second, if someone believes that the the return of Jesus is a good thing, then this may well incline him or her to also regard the hastening of his return as, in that respect, good (or, to regard the signposts of his return, as such, as good). Third, the belief in God’s return to miraculously set bad things aright takes a lot of the sting out of many of our worst global problems (the loss of biodiversity and non-renewable resources, e.g.). Thinking that such evils are entirely good isn’t the only way that one might fail to recognize the extent to which they are bad.

            • Makaden

              I did not say dispensationalists were “logical,” I said to follow their logic. Logic in general, actually. Your inference is not logical. It’s also in error. Read dispensationalist writings carefully and try to set aside whatever emotional response you may be feeling so as to try to understand before you decide what is going on. Their response to the decline of the world is to evangelize, to “save people.” Which they engaged and do engage in heavily. Lack of social consciousness does not derive from their wish for the Messiah to appear, but from their theology of the earth and materiality. They are dualists who devalue the earth not because of its decline but because it is not spiritual. The Jews and the earth belong to one realm: the physical. The church and heaven belong to another: the spiritual. This is what I mean by following their logic: you can see what is really going on so as to better respond to it. Other premillennialists do not share this radical distinction and they do engage in more social activity, at least with activity which agrees with their moral values (poverty yes, violation of heterosexual norms, no).

              • Craig

                Their response to the decline of the world is to evangelize, to “save people.”

                Exactly the problem. I’m glad we agree.

              • Dean

                I agree that dualism is a big part of the problem and I think it’s fundamentally unbiblical. I think every Evangelical should read some NT Wright and rethink that is really going on here. But I still disagree with you that they don’t think the decline of society as a good thing, in fact, I can’t understand why they wouldn’t. The Parousia is the pinnacle of the creation narrative and is the hope of every Evangelical Christian that I’ve ever met. If you read the Left Behind series, I think it’s very clear that the writers are eagerly anticipating all the horrible events that are supposed to occur, I liken it to the Christian version of the torture-porn horror movie genre. What’s happening now in their minds is simply a process of getting to the End, I actually think it makes perfect sense.

                Look, if I told you that I want to build you a McMansion, but in order for me to do that I need to demolish your old house, wouldn’t you be looking forward to getting your house demolished? If I told you you had cancer, and that I had a chemotherapy treatment that could cure you, wouldn’t you be looking forward to the treatment? It might be unpleasant, but you would look forward to it knowing that you would be cured on the other side. If you knew that God the Father was seething mad at all the evil happening down here on earth day after day, wouldn’t you want him to send Jesus with his sword and laser eyes to clean house and burn up the reprobate sooner rather than later? The sooner everything goes to hell in a hand basket, the sooner this entire “mistake” that is humanity can be fixed. I know I sound flippant, but It’s unclear to me what other conclusion can be drawn by this type of eschatology.

                • Makaden

                  I get what you are saying and I’m thankful for your thoughtful reply. But let me suggest that we return to the question that Tony put at the beginning of this post: “Is the world going to hell or not?” It’s the dominance of dispensationalism in the 20th century–and its decaying in the late 20th and 21st–that leads us to this somewhat rhetorical question. Dispensationalists saw people going to hell at the end of the tribulation, which was, for them, theoretically 7 years and one day from whatever moment they were standing in at the time. They had a strong sense of the horror of hell, eternal torment, and the inevitability of the unsaved in experiencing that. THAT is why they could not be classified as “eager” for the world to crumble. Happy for Jesus to come? Yes. But ambivalent overall given what would happen to folks who are “Left Behind.” (I would be careful in deducing what people think and how they act in the world from the novels they write or read. If we think there is a strong correlation in that regard, let’s lock up Stephen King and his readers right away.)

                  They scenarios you posited were good for the sufferer, but not for others. There is an empathy factor and this factor, within the constraints of the dualistic theology, was what drove their mission endeavors.

                  • Craig

                    It might help to respect a distinction here. A single event can fall under multiple descriptions. As sharp bodily pains, the expectant mother doesn’t like them. As signs that her child is about to be born, she does. To stick with the analogy, the Dispensationalist sees sharp bodily pain and thinks he has something to celebrate.

                    • Makaden

                      You miss the distinction of your own analogy. A single event AND a single interpreter was what you posited, but with two different interpretations. Dispensationalists substitute for the mother and they “like” that Jesus is going to return but “dislike” the labor pains that get us there.

                    • Craig

                      Dispensationalist interpret some events differently. Obviously. And that’s just of the problem, isn’t it? Dispensationalist theories lead people to think that certain bad events are also the necessary precursors to something very good. Shall we spell this out more? Their theories lead them to think that wars, catastrophes, etc. can also be metaphorically described as “birth pangs,” and, as such–i.e., as the precursors of the metaphorical birth–celebrated.

                    • Makaden

                      Everything but the last word, bro. Many people “need” the evil dispensationalist bad guy to relieve themselves of a lifetime of religious pain. Maybe you are one of them. But demonizing isn’t helping anyone. Dispensationalists do not celebrate the death and destruction of others, generally speaking. And that’s what you are saying.

                    • Craig

                      It looks like you are still missing the basic point. The events involving death and destruction can fall under multiple descriptions. “Death and destruction” is one; “necessary precursors to Christ’s return” is another (according to many Dispensationalists). While they may not celebrate these events as “death and destruction,” some Dispensationalists may well be inclined to celebrate these events as “precursors to Christ’s return.”

                      I wonder why you are refusing to recognize this rather simple point.

          • Gary in FL

            Disagree. I’ve known all sorts of premillennialists, some of whom are dispensationalists and others with less defined outlooks, and consistently I’ve witnessed the same thing: They interpret any and all news through a filter that says the world is going to hell BECAUSE they feel negative news stories VINDICATE their theological commitments. Their narrative asserts that liberal/apostate “Christians,” secularists, and nominal-Christians (a.k.a. lovers of this world) are deceived by their own hubris and/or the “god of this age,” rendering them blind to the approaching armageddon. Furthermore, they insist the world cannot be rescued from increased corruption and mayhem because it’s God ordained.

            So while multitudes wait for a pre-tribulation rapture to provide the ultimate vindication for their beliefs, they’re rooting in the meantime for anything hinting of Impending Judgment. So bad news is good news if it serves to reassure themselves they’re right.

      • Craig

        Jack, could you strengthen your point by naming a few prominent Dispensationalist leading the charge against climate change?

  • Ric Shewell

    The question seems to me to be more like, “Is it God’s responsibility to bring the kingdom or ours?” I think its both/and. In the end it is ultimately God’s responsibility to do what God said God’ll do. But I think the beauty of the story and the church is that God has chosen to involve creation (us) in redeeming creation (bringing the Kingdom). Lesslie Newbigin puts it this way: we are to be a sign, instrument, and foretaste of the coming Kingdom. So we are involved in proclaiming the coming Kingdom (and how else do you proclaim a world with no thirst other than eliminating thirst now?), but ultimately, it is God who will finally make all things new.

  • Jesse

    Jesse (nice name btw),

    I like to think about this question in evolutionary terms–I think it provides the best insights. And in that case, evolution (cosmological, biological and psycho-social) shows us that its trajectory is in fact both positive and negative.

    Here’s what I mean.

    Evolution does have a trajectory–in fact you could call it a vertical trajectory–although it’s not linear, it’s more like a spawning bush, with no main trunk or obvious tip. Evolution is governed by indestructible polarities (positive/negative, male/female, competition/corporation) which serve as portals for synthesis. This is how evolution advances. Think of this dialectical process in terms of how a sail boat navigates the wind–it does not sail directly into the wind, it tacks back and forth in order to make progress.

    You seem to be specifically concerned with cultural evolution. In this case, Whitehead’s consciousness-centric definition of evolution is pertinent: Evolution is the “increase in the ability to experience what is intrinsically valuable.” As organisms evolve, they become more complex. Eventually, as we see in humans, consciousness appears–what many call the third big bang.

    Here’s the thing to remember:

    With every step forward (to paraphrase S. McIntosh), new categories of problems arise that are intimately related to the positive features of that same developmental advance. And perhaps equally important is the fact that although emergent stages of cultural evolution result in improvements, some of the benefits conferred by previous stages are often lost in the process. However, when one begins to see how consciousness evolves—how new stages emerge as a result of the dialectical tension of thesis and antithesis—one can begin to detect authentic progress in cultural evolution, despite the appearance of new challenges and set backs that inevitably accompany the process.

    So, theologically speaking, if I had to pick between the either/or you posed in your question, I’d go with Willard’s ever-advancing Kingdom of Heaven.

    Great question!

    • Craig

      I imagine that many factors influence cultural change. What is the argument for thinking that cultural evolution is geared toward an ever-increasing “ability to experience what is intrinsically valuable”?

      • Jesse

        Good question Craig. I actually touched on this a few weeks back in one of the other Questions that Haunt comment sections–the one about relativism.

        Let me break it down for ya:

        In all cultures throughout human history, we see varying levels of truth, beauty and goodness, i.e. something in every culture is considered good, something is considered true, and something is considered beautiful.

        Although cosmological and biological evolution may be apparently driven by mechanistic processes, cultural evolution is clearly driven by humanity’s quest to improve its conditions. And this quest for improvement is itself driven by that which people consider to be valuable.

        Again, the beautiful, the true, and the good are the fundamental values that have been recognized since antiquity (Plato being one of the first to write about them) as the intrinsic qualities from which all values are essentially derived. Just as a million shades of color can be mixed from three primaries (red, green, blue), so too can a million shades of quality be traced back to these primary values.

        Whitehead writes about the “Eros” of the universe that constantly pulls us toward greater levels and realizations of beauty, truth and goodness, which has been defined as “the urge towards the realization of ideal perfection.” So, we see that as holonic structures become more complex, the more capacity that structure has to understand reality with increasing depth and clarity.

        Hope that answers your question.

        • Craig

          “[C]ultural evolution is clearly driven by humanity’s quest to improve its conditions.”

          I’d instead offer: cultural evolution is driven by, among other factors, the desires of individuals to improve their conditions.

          One difficulty is this: the fact that each individual seeks to improve his/her lot is no guarantee that the conditions as a whole will improve. There are zero-sum and negative-sum games. Another difficulty is that there are presumably many other factors influencing cultural change. It’s not obvious why, in their combined totality, they must favor our increased ability to experience what’s intrinsically good.

          • Jesse

            Good distinction, Craig. There are other influencing factors, God being one the most important ones in my opinion. I’m merely offering a top-level philosophical summation here. Consider though, that over the course of history, humans have improved
            their conditions most dramatically by improving their definition of what
            counts as improvement—by evolving their values and their worldviews
            into more inclusive frames of reference.

            As for a guarantee of improvement, did I say there was one? I’m an optimistic person, and it seems to me that evolution does tend toward progress, but it’s no secret that there is massive contingency present in the evolutionary process. Human beings can very well destroy the Earth and everything that lives on it.

            • Craig

              As usual, I appreciate your even-handedness. I think I’m not as confident that we have collectively improved our conceptions of improvement. I wouldn’t be surprised if one gained as many insights about goodness from reading the ancients.

              • Jesse

                Thanks Craig. I appreciate your dialogue. One example I can think of were the definition of improvement has changed through cultural evolution, is that in at least some places the scope of those worthy of moral consideration has expanded from the family or tribe to those of the same religion, then to those with the same nationality, and now to all sentient beings. And just as our sense of goodness has evolved by stages into increasingly worldcentric conceptions, our sense of truth has likewise evolved from magical to mythical to scientific, and now to increasingly holistic levels of understanding.

                • Craig

                  I think that’s right. I’ve not read the book, but I take it that Peter Singer argued something like this (about morality) in The Expanding Circle. I’m skeptical whether this kind of progress is directly driven by the desires of individuals to improve their own conditions.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/tonyjones/ Tony Jones

    So many great comments. I want to read them all before composing my reply. Unfortunately, I got stuck in meetings today, so I’ll need the weekend to tackle this. But keep ‘em coming!

  • James Probis

    I grew up never encountering a segregated drinking fountain, my parents cannot say that.


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