Why milllennialism is misleading the church

Why milllennialism is misleading the church August 21, 2013

No, this isn’t another one of those blog posts pondering how churches can entice young people back into the pews. (CNN had a good summary of that ongoing discussion last weekend featuring two of my favorite bloggers.)

I’m not talking here about “Millennials” — the generational cohort now reaching the stage of young adulthood  at which older cohorts start panicking over “kids these days.” I’m talking about millennialism — the eschatological belief in a future utopia that tends to shape our behavior in the present.

“Eschatology” is the word theologians use to talk about “last things.” What it means, really, is the question of how this story ends. We can’t know what a story means unless we know how that story ends. “It all adds up to one thing,” Rick tells Ilsa at the end of Casablanca. That line, and that ending of the story, wasn’t written until shortly before it was filmed, after the half-dozen people credited with writing that story finally realized that was true. That’s what “eschatology” is all about — trying to figure out what our story “all adds up to.”

The idea of a utopian “millennium” — a thousand-year reign of perfect justice, is plucked from the apocalyptic book of Revelation. Apocalyptic literature is always concerned with how the story ends — imagining an ending to the story that vindicates the powerless whose story, here and now, always seems to end wrong.

The impulse driving apocalyptic literature can be seen in the protests of the young grandson played by Fred Savage in The Princess Bride:

GRANDSON: Grandpa, grandpa, wait. Wait, what did Fezzik mean “He’s dead”? I mean, he didn’t mean dead. Westley’s only faking, right?

GRANDFATHER: You want me to read this or not?

GRANDSON: Who gets Humperdinck?

GRANDFATHER: I don’t understand.

GRANDSON: Who kills Prince Humperdinck? At the end. Somebody’s got to do it. Is it Inigo, who?

GRANDFATHER: Nobody. Nobody kills him. He lives.

GRANDSON: You mean he wins? Jesus, Grandpa, what did you read me this thing for?

The story — our story — seems to be headed toward an intolerable ending in which the powerful villain wins, the powerless are crushed and killed, and true love dies unfulfilled. That’s unacceptable. That’s unfair. Apocalyptic literature demands a better ending — a just ending.

That’s what John’s Apocalypse provides with the idea of a millennial reign.

We can’t know what a story means unless we know how that story ends.

Millennialism is the idea, borrowed from John of Patmos, that this utopia of perfect justice is the ultimate ending to our story. This is the ending that tells us what our story means, the one thing that it all adds up to.

But there’s more than one kind of millennialism because there’s more than one idea about how this millennial utopia comes to be.

Broadly speaking, there have been two competing strains of Christian millennialism. One strain has been optimistic, seeing history as a long march toward ever greater justice, culminating some day in perfect, millennial justice. The other strain is more pessimistic, seeing history as a long downward spiral — a widening gyre in which the only hope for justice is a cataclysmic rewriting of the story by means of divine interruption. Somewhat confusingly, we refer to these two strains as post-millennial and pre-millennial. The post- and pre- there refer to the return of Jesus. In the post-millennial view, Jesus Christ will not return to reign in perfect justice until after we have established a closer approximation of that justice here on Earth. In the pre-millennial view, Jesus Christ will have to return before we have any hope of anything at all like justice here on Earth.

Postmillennial optimism was ascendant in 19th-century American Christianity, with its progressive ideology and its progressive influence seen in Christian involvement in movements for justice — from the abolition of slavery, to women’s suffrage, to the intemperate abolition of alcohol advocated by the “temperance” movement. It’s an audacious impulse — determined not just to mitigate injustice, but to abolish it. I know of no better illustration of post-millennial thinking than “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” with its insistence that we are “marching on,” ever forward, toward an ever-more just world.

Premillennial pessimism gained the upper hand in the 20th century due partly to a change in theological perspective, but also due to the chastening realization that abolishing injustice was a lot harder than it seemed and that even our best attempts to create a more just world sometimes ended with disastrous unforeseen consequences.

The problem with these binary categories of post- and pre- is that they imply, misleadingly, that everyone must somehow fit into one category or the other. Most people don’t. Most Christians don’t. Most Christians, most of the time, are actually a-millennialist — a category that actual a-millennialists don’t tend to think of as identifying themselves for the same reason that, say, most non-Trekkers don’t primarily regard themselves as non-Trekkers.

For a-millennial Christians, the thousand years from John’s apocalypse is still part of our vocabulary for how our story ends and for what our story means, but millennial eschatology isn’t our primary or dominant way of thinking about or interacting with our world — whether it be the arrogant confidence of post-millennial optimism or the despair of pre-millennial pessimism.

“The arc of the universe is long,” Dr. King said, “but it bends toward justice.” That’s eschatology. It gives our story meaning by asserting how that story will end. Note though that it doesn’t fall on either side of that post- or pre-millennial divide. King did not say that we are inexorably bending the arc toward justice. Nor was he suggesting that we can only sit by idly awaiting divine intervention to do so. For King, a just ending to the story was God’s aim and ought therefore also to be our aim, and we should be working together with God in this very long story.

All of this was prompted by this depressingly unremarkable story of racial harassment by the police: “Indiana police threaten to Taser black firefighter in the face for waving at them.”

George Madison Jr. is one of Evansville’s bravest, and when he saw some of Evansville’s finest drive by, he waved to them as a comrade, as a fellow public servant. But the white cops didn’t see a comrade, they only saw a black man on a bike gesturing at them. They took this as an opportunity to do what they apparently were looking for an opportunity to do, and in lieu of doing their duty, they instead decided to pull Madison over, throwing him to the ground, cuffing him and threatening him with a Taser.

The local news station spoke with the leader of the local NAACP, and this is where eschatology enters the story:

Evansville NAACP President Rev. Gerald Arnold told WTVW that he was “not in shock because it does happen.”

“Some things are not going to change until Jesus comes,” Arnold pointed out. “You’re always going to have that one bad apple unfortunately.”

This is what the pessimism of pre-millennialism sounds like when it filters down into every-day life. The Rev. Arnold’s sardonic take on this incident isn’t surprising. His pessimism is eminently reasonable — based on years and years of evidence suggesting that whatever bending there may be in the supposed arc of the universe is imperceptible at best.

But Arnold’s comment also illustrates how a pre-millennial eschatology feeds a sense of impotence, suggesting that the way it is is the way it must be and cannot be changed short of miraculous intervention in history. What are you gonna do? Humperdinck is the prince, after all, he’s in charge.

If we have to view the world through a millennialist lens, this is why I prefer the vision of post-millennialism.

Don’t get me wrong — I think post-millennialism is a flawed theology. I’m a big fan of Reinhold Niebuhr, after all, whose great theological project was to challenge and chastise the arrogance of post-millennial optimism. But if the Second Coming of Jesus is going to influence how Christians respond to injustice, I don’t want to hear us saying that “Some things are not going to change until Jesus comes.”

If that’s the only other option, then I’d prefer the post-millennial view: “Jesus isn’t going to come until some things change.”

Injustice is not how our story ends. We are characters in our own story. We have agency in it. And we need to play our part, to work toward an acceptable ending to the story — one that doesn’t make us cry out, in protest, “Jesus, Grandpa, what did you read me this thing for?”

Crystal St. Marie Lewis put this very well in her reflection on eschatology following the Zimmerman verdict (ellipsis original):

As I sat on the floor in front of the television set with my eyes closed, listening to the jurors’ individual affirmations of their “not guilty” votes, I wished with every fiber of my being for the intervention of some loophole in the legal system, of the judge on television … or even of God. I wished for an intervention that would right the wrongs of my society and the suffering experienced in the rest of the world.

In that moment, I understood the desire to escape, but reminded myself of my responsibility to remain as present as possible. I understood the desire for God’s intervention, but also understood that it is my responsibility to intervene constructively. I reminded myself that the intervention of God requires the cooperation of humans … I remembered that the tools for changing the world have been entrusted to me.

I fought the urge to escape our society and the urge to wait patiently for divine intervention. … And then I prayed for clarity on what I might do to help change the world.

Glory, glory, hallelujah.

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  • AnonaMiss

    Before I forget – you’ve got an extra ‘L’ in your title, Fred.


  • MaryKaye

    It’s possible that some wrongs can never be righted short of divine intervention. But how do we figure out which ones are in which category? I know of a lot of good done by people who decided “this wrong CAN be righted.” Slavery’s been outlawed in the US. Women can vote and own property and get an education. I can practice my religion.

    Of course evil has been done too. Prohibition was a disaster. I think drug prohibition stems in part from genuine moral impulses of “drug addiction is so awful, surely we can stop it”–though plenty of other motivations get in there too–and it’s also been a disaster. But I don’t believe you can build a useful morality out of taking “can’t be fixed” as your default position.

    So, say that some problems are fixable, others are not, and we can’t discern which with perfect accuracy. What do we do? I say we try to fix the damn problems. We need to be honest about success and failure, and ready to abandon a particular strategy (e.g. prohibition) when it doesn’t work, but I don’t think we get to give up and sit on our hands.

    I never thought I would see marriage equality in my lifetime. I think we’re entitled to some optimism, and I think it’s a better spur to action than pessimism.

    And frankly, I don’t think this is about theology. It’s all very well to want the whole history of the world to be a better story, but here and now there’s work to be done. I’m not a Christian, I don’t believe in that particular eschaton pre- or post-. But surely we don’t need to wait on theology to tell us to love our neighbor. Even an unrepentant Pagan can get into that. And if theology gets in the way, either you have your theology wrong or you worship a pretty crappy god.

  • flat

    One thing the American Postmillennial christians got wrong is that as a christian you are walking with God, not marching.

  • Jamoche

    For a-millennial Christians, the thousand years from John’s apocalypse is still part of our vocabulary for how our story ends

    Does this include Christians who think that the apocalypse is somewhere between a metaphor and the result of some really interesting mushrooms on Patmos? Because I’m Christian and have never even been close to anything evangelical so it’s not part of how my story ends – it’s not part of my story at all.

  • Jamoche

    Some of the non-fixable problems become fixable when you realize the part you thought was broken was actually correct; it’s the other part that’s broken. Yesterday I discovered that a bug reported as “the labels are wrong” was actually “the labels are right; the labelled things are wrong”.

  • The Problem with Post-Millennialism is that most I know tend to be Dominionist. Conquer the Seven Mountains of society for God, create a perfect theocracy and Jesus will return.

    Those who are actively working to bring about the Second Coming scare me.

  • I know this isn’t the point. In the line of the point: that was basically what we talked about in study today – that Isaiah, Luke, and Paul all seem to be talking about freeing those in bondage, those oppressed, those in need.

    But. but.

    A police department in Indiana has launched an internal investigation after a firefighter said he was thrown to the ground and threatened witha Taser for waving at several officers, who thought he was flipping them off.

    When the actual fuck did flipping someone off – even a cop – become an action worthy of arrest. Or tasering. Or a fucking warning, verbal or written? When the fuck did we decide that speech was okay unless cops don’t like it? When did we decide that speech is okay unless black people are doing it? What the fuck is going on in this country?

  • Guest

    That’s a very recent phenomenon, though. It’s not really part of the Post-Millennial tradition. But then, there isn’t much today that is a part of the old Post-Millennial tradition. It was an optimistic school of thought that was more or less utterly obliterated by the horrors of the 20th Century (first and foremost, but not exclusively, the World Wars), along with most of the other optimistic and progressive ideas of the time.

  • Matri

    These “pre”s don’t just take Can’t Be Fixed as a default position, the pigeonhole it and everything else into Somebody Else’s Problem. Central to their particular brand of religion is that Jesus will fix it all when that guy shows up, so why bother? It’s an extremely simple way to “belong” to a religion while putting in fuck-all effort.

    What scares me the most is a fanatical subset of pre-millennialism. “Since the world has to go down in flames before Jesus returns, why don’t we speed it up?”

    Or maybe I’m just being overly paranoid. The voices won’t tell me.

  • Matri

    I’m going to take the default answer and point at the Republicans.

  • Eric

    I don’t think you’re being paranoid at all. Many of the global warming deniers I’ve argued with take this stance. When I ask what if they are mistaken and global warming is a reality, they reply that Jesus is returning soon, so what does it matter anyway? It’s kind of hard to get people to take a long-term view of things when they are convinced that the world is going to end in the next 10-20 years.

    What really amazes me is how many of these people so readily ignore Jesus’ teachings. They don’t see that by their actions they are, in fact, modern day Pharisees, angry brothers of the Prodigal Son, or Dives to all the Lazaruses of the world. I fear many of them are in for a rude shock when Jesus does return.

  • FearlessSon

    What are you gonna do? Humperdinck is the prince, after all, he’s in charge.

    I am going to “Have fun storming the castle!” is what I am going to to, then I am going to fight him to the pain.

  • ohiolibrarian

    James Watts said that … during the Reagan administration.

  • Lorehead

    No, he did not. That’s an urban legend,

  • Lorehead

    1942. That was the year the Supreme Court ruled, in Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, that a law against insulting cops did not violate the Constitution. And at least half of the Founding Fathers agreed: in the 1790s, the Federalists made it illegal to criticize John Adams, and actually sent a congressman from Jefferson’s party, among others, to jail for “sedition.”

  • Vertebrae8

    Thanks for your opinion, but being a Christian is not qualifying enough for me to care about a word you said. To enter this discussion on the topic you desire to address you actually need to be an informed Christian and have an argument to offer. You displayed neither.

  • Vertebrae8

    Were you aware the Rushdoony (a huge name in dominionism) considered himself a libertarian theonomist? Calling him an intimidating theocrat is way out of line. His views are simply that laws (and institutions) should be conspicuously written (and formed) according to God’s stated precepts, and a maximum liberty in Christ be afforded with a minimum government force involved.

  • dpolicar

    That turns out not to be the case.

    Asking civil questions is also a perfectly legitimate condition for entering this discussion, as is expressing interest in the subject, as is expressing an alternate perspective.

    You’re welcome to disdain those contributions, of course, and you have the right to express that disdain as you did here (though I’d prefer you didn’t).

  • Jamoche

    Gosh. You don’t like me. I’m heartbroken.

  • Vertebrae8

    Ah, your question was serious, and not just a chance to call John a druggie. But your point is still couched in postmodern intentional ignorance. An actual intellectual inquiry would have looked something more like: I believe John was high or just being poetic vice prophetic, so I wonder if I would fit in the amillenialst camp?

    Since it was such a serious effort, I willseriously answer:no. Your camp seems to be postmodernist “emergent church” type of amorphous theology that cannot even be pinned down for criticism.

  • dpolicar

    I didn’t ask a question, Jamoche did.

    But we can take your dismissive response to Jamoche as read, I suppose; I don’t expect it makes much difference to you who you’re being snide to.

    Is there anything else?

  • Vertebrae8

    I’m sorry I thought you were the person I was addressing. But perhaps you are her girlfriend, since you felt it so important to jump in?

    Yes, there is something else. You and the OP and St. Marie Lewis and Obama’s son are racists. Zimmerman was justified.

  • Vertebrae8

    It’s not you, it’s your style I don’t like.

  • dpolicar

    Nope, I’m not Jamoche’s girlfriend.
    Anything else?

  • Jamoche

    Oh, dear, *raises back of hand hand to forehead*, whatever shall I do?

  • Jamoche

    Actually all that millennial stuff is just modern heresy from my perspective.

  • And for those of us who don’t follow that god? Whose moral precepts may be different? And who find Christ to be a shackles instead of freedom? What happens to us?