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Theology and the culture war: Millennium vs. utopia
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Fred Hutchison, RenewAmerica analyst
March 7, 2013

Originally published March 18, 2006

Theology has more influence on world views and on political ideologies than most people can guess.

One particular field of theology has a disproportionate influence on the attitudes of both liberals and conservatives regarding the culture war and questions of church and state. This controversial – and speculative – field is called "eschatology."

Eschatology (es'-ka-tah'-luh-jee) means, literally, the study (ology) of last things (eschatos). The dictionary defines eschatology as "The branch of theology that deals with the four last things (death, judgment, heaven, and hell) and the final destiny of the soul and of humankind; a doctrine or belief about the second coming or the kingdom of God." (The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.)

The way one views the biblical prophecy of the millennial kingdom of Christ, and how that kingdom is ushered in, has an especially powerful effect on his approach to the culture war. Some bible scholars believe that prior to the eternal state of bliss for the believer and despair for the unbeliever, Christ will return and rule the world for a thousand years. (The oft-used term for this period, "Millennium," literally means one thousand years.) Other prophetic models posit that the Millennium is a present or past spiritual kingdom and that the term is a figure of speech for a long historical era, not a literal thousand years.

There is a remarkable variety of millennial systems in the different traditions of doctrinally Orthodox Christianity. Each view has been gradually developed by meticulous scholars into a serious body of work. The relative merits of the different eschatological models are debatable questions. However, all of the major millennial models merit respect and none deserves to be scoffed at. At the same time, all of the models have glitches, so a measure of humility and forbearance is called for in debates between Christians about the last days. One thing is certain: The model one ultimately chooses will influence how he sees his life in this world, his view of the church, and his attitudes toward government, politics, public morality, and the culture war.

Eschatological beliefs and speculations in the nineteenth and twentieth century played a role in bringing about our present culture war. In the nineteenth century, political liberal-progressives misunderstood and misapplied Christian eschatology to an idea of progress that led inexorably toward a utopia. This set the stage for the present disillusionment of utopian liberalism. The culture war emerged from the ensuing crisis in the liberal worldview. Although I shall strive to adopt a neutral position about the various eschatological traditions of orthodox Christianity, I plan to be very critical of the liberal-progressive misuse of eschatology.

A popular and venerable eschatological system that has enthralled many American Evangelicals has influenced many Christians to withdraw from the world and from politics, education, government, and matters of popular morality. When millions of Evangelicals awakened in the late 1970's to the hideous realities of a decadent culture, it was late in the game and they had lost a lot of ground to those who are hostile to their values. The dominant Evangelical eschatology had many merits, but it had not prepared the people for the arduous and painful task of regaining lost ground. (See part 2 of this essay, below, for specifics.) I mention this because without the temporary withdrawal of the Evangelicals from the field of battle, the culture war might never have happened. Now that millions of Evangelicals are back in the fray, victory is possible.

In this essay, we shall first consider how eschatological confusion by the liberal-progressive movement helped to bring about the culture war. In the second half of this analysis, I will briefly define each of the major millennial models that we have inherited from the traditions of Christian orthodoxy. We shall briefly survey how each model played out in history, and its influence today. I shall respect each model as a legitimate body of scholarship and shall strive to be a neutral guide for the reader. The point I wish to illuminate is that each model has a different impact on the decision of a church or of individual Christians about their participation or nonparticipation in politics and in the culture war, and the priority that they might give to the battle. The header of the second section is "For Christians Only."

The ultimate goal of this essay is to reveal the culture war as ultimately a theological conflict. Secular liberals wishing to ban the Christian voice from the public square might not realize that their own ideology is deeply influenced by Christian theology. If the Christian voice must be silenced because the ideas of Christian spokesmen are based upon theology, the secular liberal voice must also be silenced. Otherwise, the law would favor one theology over another. If only the Supreme Court understood this!

Millennium and utopia

Nineteenth-century progressives who believed in the inevitability of progress often became vague when asked, "Progress toward what?" Well, perpetual progress implies that a utopia must lie at the end of the road. The next question liberals were confronted with was how they were to paint a picture of what an earthly utopia might be. At this point, progressives would typically pause, stare into the distance, and give name to great, cloudy ideals cited such as "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity," the slogan of the French Enlightenment. Sometimes "justice," "democracy," "the pursuit of happiness," and "freedom from want" would be thrown into the mix. Communists would talk about deliverance from the inequities of the economic class system, the "solidarity of labor," the liberation of the proletariat, and the perfection of human nature. Bohemians would talk about art, poetry, free love, free beer, nudism, and a "return to nature." John Lenin, who put forward a fuzzy hedonistic utopia in his song Imagine, was a bohemian. British and American political progressives of the nineteenth century preferred the great cloudy generalities.

The human mind hates a vacuum and feels compelled to fill in the blanks with something solid when confronted with grand cloudy ideals that can be defined to mean anything. Anglo-Saxon culture was incurably practical, and could endure vague generalities only when solid food was added to the thin broth of utopia. As a result, meaty morsels of half-cooked theology began appearing in the utopian soup in England and America during the nineteenth century.

A good number of nineteenth-century progressives were also devout Christians. The English Prime Minister William Gladstone (1809–1898) of the Liberal Party was a devout Anglican who constantly mixed religion and politics. Populist presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan (1860–1925) was an Evangelical who made his campaign sound like a religious crusade. Millennial ideas that the politically liberal Evangelicals of that day learned in church gradually seeped into the liberal-progressive views of progress and utopia. Adherents did not foresee that their millennial-utopia schema would fall into the hands of those who are hostile to Orthodox Christianity, such as the Fabian socialists, the Marxists, and our present secular left.

A majority of Evangelicals supported the New Deal. The American Conference of Bishops (Roman Catholic) acted as advisors on social policy to President Franklin Roosevelt's staff. Roosevelt was a Protestant, but listened closely when the Catholic Bishops spoke. The estrangement of orthodox Christianity from the liberal-progressive movement lay further in the future. It seems quaint to us now to reflect that there was a time in our grandparents' day when a majority of Evangelicals and Catholics in America were politically identified with the liberal-progressive-populist movement.

Pantheist heresies

Liberal Protestants and liberal Catholics both drifted into Pantheistic heresies in the nineteenth century. (Pantheism is the heretical belief that there is no difference between Creator and creation, or between God and nature.) The Protestant pantheistic heresy was "Transcendentalism," which was built upon English Romanticism and an older New England heresy of Unitarianism. The pantheist Transcendentalism of poets Emerson, Whitman, and Thoreau was the American precursor of the New Age movement – which itself is pantheistic and mystical in its essence. Not all modern American pantheists are interested in politics, but those who are interested are almost invariably found on the left wing of the political spectrum. Some of the Age of Aquarius folks are utopian in their political hopes, although it is now out of fashion for them to admit it.

Interestingly, heretical Catholic pantheism is far more relevant to this study of eschatology than the Protestant heresy of Transcendentalism. Of all the abuses of eschatology by the liberal-progressive movement, the Christian utopian model of Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1951) was arguably one of the most corrupt in doctrine and one of the most mischievous in its effects. Chardin was a Roman Catholic and a pantheistic heretic. Chardin's pantheistic siren song has lured many Catholics into heresy, and simultaneously has drawn many into the liberal-progressive-utopian political camp.

Chardin violated traditional Catholic eschatology – which shall be defined in the second half of this essay. Chardin proclaimed the inevitability of human progress leading to a pantheist utopia on earth centered upon Christ. His model was an eclectic mystical syncretism that borrowed from Christian eschatology, from pantheism, from mystical Romanticism, from progressive-utopian ideas, and from the rationalist philosophy of Baron Gottfried von Leibnitz (1647-1716) that was popular in Lutheran colleges. Some of these elements are mutually contradictory, but the contradictions are obscured by the clouds of vague pantheistic lingo. Chardin's pantheistic fog is reminiscent of the hazy quality of New Age writers.

Intellectually, Chardin's system is a mess, but is still very seductive for backsliding young Catholics who love Modernism and secretly yearn for an earthly utopia without giving up Christ or the church. Chardinism is one of the fountainheads of liberal Catholic-Modernism. Chardinism enables a liberal to profess to be a loyal Catholic and at the same time pursue the ideals of multiculturalism and utopianism. As with many deceptions, Chardinism is a fraud, because it invites the wishful-thinking person to have his cake and eat it too.

Multiculturalism of the gospel

Among the meaty morsels that Protestant and Catholic liberals dropped into the utopian soup, the Christian multiculturalism that is found in eschatology was especially important. Two elements of multiculturalism can be found in Christian eschatology: the multiculturalism of the gospel and the multiculturalism of the Millennium. Matthew 24:14 and Revelations 7:9, taken together, are prophesies that the gospel will go out to everyone in the world during a time of tribulation. The result will be multitudes of people from every nation, tribe, and tongue gathered around Christ in heaven. Chardin chose the multicultural company surrounding Christ as the utopian end point of history. However, since Chardin was a pantheist, he did not place the gathering in heaven, but on earth.

The gospel is inclusive and multicultural because it is, or will be, offered to all people on earth, and will be the basis for the gathering of all people together around Christ. Secular liberals insist that the gospel is exclusive, so they exclude the gospel from their version of Multiculturalism. The gospel does indeed exclude the blessings of the gospel from those who reject the gospel. How could it do otherwise?

Liberal theologians think they can duplicate the fruits of Christian multiculturalism while throwing out the gospel, which is the supernatural power and source of those fruits. Here again is the have-my-cake-and-eat-it-too naïveté that runs through liberal theology. To think that supernatural results can be achieved through feats of human organizations, programs, and rapprochement between incompatible doctrines is magical thinking. The rise of liberal theology was facilitated by the decline of reason in the West and by the mingling of millennialism with mystical utopianism.

Americans are susceptible to such seductions because of their tendency to cast aside theological tradition and start from scratch and throw together jerry-built, ad hoc religion. Homemade religion invariably caters to wishful thinking instead of hard realities.

The multiculturalism of the Millennium

All of the orthodox models of the Millennium are multicultural. Models that view the millennium as a future series of events that fulfill biblical prophesy hold that Christ shall return and rule the entire world from David's throne in Jerusalem. All the nations shall gather in Jerusalem to keep the feast of tabernacles. (See Zechariah 14:16.) The throngs that will gather at Jerusalem during the feast will represent the ultimate multicultural events in the history of the world. All of the millennial models envision a worldwide brotherhood of believers in the kingdom of Christ.

Nineteenth-century Christian liberals noticed that some millennial models involve a future kingdom in this world. Therefore, the idea of a secular earthly utopia seemed plausible to them and consonant with their millennial ideas. They presumed that the utopia-millennium was something that they could work toward through politics. This is why liberals tend to be more messianic about the culture war than conservatives.

The common, but preposterous, accusation that conservatives are trying to set up a theocracy is a projection by liberals of their own inner messianic impulses. Their outrageously false accusations do not indicate delusion, but rather denial and paranoia. A bottled-up messianic syndrome must find a scapegoat. Otherwise, postmodern liberals would have to fess up to their secret utopian-messianic dreams that they have not been able to suppress. Liberal modernists were once proud of their progressive-utopian ideals, but postmodern liberals are ashamed of such outdated ideals – yet have not been able to extinguish them. Therefore, they accuse conservatives of having secret messianic ideals and harboring secret agendas as a result, precisely because they themselves do.

American politics is incurably religious and millennialist. Every candidate for president, whether conservative or liberal, must present an optimistic vision for America with vague millennialist overtones – without overdoing it – if he hopes to get elected. In order to hold our messianic tendencies in check, and not fire off false accusations against our enemies, as some liberals are doing, we must understand eschatology and differentiate it from practical politics. As Americans, we are stuck with optimistic millennialism for the duration – but history teaches that millennialism is powerful, dangerous stuff like nitroglycerine, and must be handled with care.

The crisis of faith

Some nineteenth century liberals abandoned the faith and felt a sad, deep, nostalgic vacuum inside. Matthew Arnold's poem Dover Beach was the classic nineteenth century voice of disenchantment after the loss of faith. He described a "melancholy, long, withdrawing roar" of the bright sea of faith that once covered the earth. The dismal aftermath of the withdrawal of faith was a desolate nightmare world.

Many liberals were not ready for the morbid poetic disenchantment of Arnold and sought for substitutes in which to find hope, meaning, and purpose. Many found progress and utopia a helpful substitute for the millennium. Unfortunately, their social engineering experiments did not improve human nature one whit, much less prepare mankind for a utopia.

However, the need for a utopian hope to fill the aching void created by the withdrawal of faith still had to be filled. Fabian-style socialism, Marxism, and secular liberalism moved in to fill the void, so the atheists and agnostics could have something to hope for. They could reject the gospel and reject the moral demands of Christ while enjoying the hopes for the millennia disguised as utopia. Atheists and agnostics could jump upon the liberal-progressive bandwagon and enjoy their own version of having their cake and eating it too. Thus, the appeal of the left has always drawn heavily upon human self-deception.

– For Christians Only

Millennial models of doctrinally-orthodox Christianity

I shall arrange the six major millennial models in order of their tendency to encourage political activism. The first model is that most likely to encourage one to run for office, fight the culture war, start a Christian school, or go to war in a just cause. It is also the most likely model to involve a church in politics. The last model is the one most likely to discourage such involvements.

1) Postmillennialism is the eschatology derived from the earlier Reformed churches. It entails the belief that the church is being used by God to usher in the millennium through gradual stages. Once the entire world is brought into the kingdom of Christ, Christ as king of kings shall return and claim his throne over the kingdoms of earth. The term "postmillennial" signifies Christ's return at the end of the millennium.

A part of the calling of the postmillennial believer, under this system of thought, has always been to reform politics and education and to expand the hegemony of the church. Just wars were counted as a valid means of ushering in the millennium. Onward Christian Soldiers is an appropriate theme song for the postmillennial cause.

The Christian Republics of Geneva, Massachusetts, and Holland were remarkable achievements of energetic postmillennialism. The victory of the parliamentary-Puritan coalition forces in the English Civil War over the aristocrats and professional soldiers was a tour de force of heroic postmillennialism. Some Presbyterian pastors joined the Continental army and fought as soldiers in the Revolutionary War.

Postmillennial eschatology still exists in America today, but it has dwindled to a smaller number of adherents than most other eschatological systems. However, brilliant postmillennial scholars and writers have given the movement influence that is disproportionate to their numbers.

2) Catholic Amillennialism holds that the millennium exists during this age and exists right now. The church is the kingdom of God on earth. Christ rules His kingdom through the church. This accounts for the feeling of extraterritoriality one feels as he enters a Catholic church. When one enters the sanctuary, he feels that he is no longer in America, but has entered another kingdom.

There has never been unanimity among Catholic theologians about the militant implications of amillennial eschatology, but there have been times in history when it was a very strong majority opinion. Catholic amilleniallism reached its apogee during the era of the ascendancy of the papacy (1050-1250 AD). Christian Europe called itself "Christendom," or Christ's kingdom. It was the era of crusades, militant wars, and incredible building programs. European civilization appeared and its unique culture was invented during this era.

During times of optimism and ascendancy of the power and prestige of the church, the grandeur and authority of the church was emphasized. Christian triumphalism, a heady mixture of spiritual zeal and patriotism for the church and for Christendom, produced an extraordinary militancy. It also brought about an extraordinary degree of influence of the church in every area of life, including politics.

Most of the kings of Europe were feudal vassals of Pope Innocent III (1161-1216). The church believed that part of its mission was to reform society and to rule it on behalf of Christ. Cultural development of the arts and literature has thus always been one of the missions of Catholic amillennialism.

During times of pessimism and despair, Catholic amillennialists assumed that the millennium was almost over and a catastrophic apocalypse was at hand. This happened during the Dark Ages when many fled to the monasteries to hunker down and wait for the end of the world. During the Reformation, Martin Luther thought Pope Leo X was the Antichrist, and Leo thought Luther was the Antichrist. Both men thought that Armageddon – the end of the age and the Last Judgment – was near at hand.

The peak of Catholic optimism and activism in America was in the 1920's when the American Council of Bishops (later renamed the American Conference of Bishops) was extraordinarily prestigious and almost a rival to Rome in worldwide influence. Today, the American Conference of Bishops has fallen to its historically lowest point of prestige, because of the scandal of pedophile priests. As a result, there is a retrenchment from social and political activism and a focus upon urgent pastoral concerns.

On the other hand, however, the opportunity to cooperate with Evangelicals in the culture war has stimulated the innately activist tendencies of Catholic amillennialists. If the temporarily shaken church regains some of its old millennial confidence, it will devote far more time and resources to the culture war.

3) Lutheran Amillennialism is in many ways a moderate version of Catholic amillennialism. The main difference is that Lutheran theology has no concept of the church as the kingdom of God on earth. Therefore, Lutherans have less of a tendency toward triumphalism than do Catholics, and during times of adversity are less prone to despair. Lutheran amillennialists usually strike a balance half-way between the eschatological militants at one extreme and the pacifists and quietists at the other who retreat from the world.

4) Post-tribulation premillennialism. Premilliennialists hold that Christ will return at the end of this age and inaugurate His millennial kingdom on earth. He will vanquish his enemies at his return and bring times of tribulation to an end. He will rule the nations with a rod of iron as He sits on David's throne in Jerusalem. Justice, truth, peace, and rustic prosperity shall prevail on earth. The happy, pastoral kingdom, longed for through the ages, shall last a literal one thousand years. Afterwards comes one final battle, the Last Judgment, and the eternal state of bliss or despair.

Since Christ, Lord of Warrior Hosts, does all the work in defeating his enemies and establishing His kingdom, the church by definition will not be the providential agency for achieving these ends. Efforts of Christians to reform society might make limited headway for a season, but will be swept away by the tides of history. Evil shall prevail for a season just before the return of Christ. This reflection might not encourage activism for those who believe the world is entering the last evil days of tribulation.

Post-tribulation Christians believe that Christ will return at the end of the Great Tribulation, the season in which great evil prevails. Therefore, the church must go through the Great Tribulation. The wise Christians of Post-tribulation beliefs will prepare themselves for persecution. Believers who are willing to face persecution often make good soldiers in the culture war.

The timing of the beginning of the Great Tribulation is uncertain, and there are at least two or three biblical prophesies that must occur before the Tribulation can begin. Therefore, the last days might not happen in our lifetime. It would be foolish to retreat from the culture war if the Lord tarries and delays His coming for another century. Post-tribulation Christians lack the optimism of some of the other prophetic camps, but are more realistic and tough-minded, which is not a bad approach to the culture war.

5) Pretribulation, Premillennial eschatology is very similar to the Post-tribulation version. Pre-trib Evangelicals are far greater in numbers than are their post-trib brothers. Pre-trib folks believe in two returns of Christ, one at the beginning of the Great Tribulation and one at the end. The first return is the "secret rapture of the church," when the true believers will be caught up into heaven. The second return is when Christ defeats his enemies and sets up His kingdom.

Pre-trib Evangelicals are prone to think that the return of Christ is near at hand. There are no prophetic events that must be fulfilled prior to the sudden and secret return of Christ. Therefore, the Pre-trib Christian is apt to think that improving society is a lost cause. "It is all going to burn" is one of their favorite slogans. One might content himself to see a few souls saved before it is too late and to leave the doomed world to Satan. Indeed, from the turn of the century until the late 1970's, Pre-trib Evangelicals largely withdrew from politics.

Pre-trib Evangelicals are often bold because they think themselves to be under the special protection of God. After all, they will be raptured out of the world before the time of great persecution and martyrdom begins. Boldness is a good attribute for a soldier of the culture war. However, Pre-Trib Christians might be more unsettled by fiery trials than are their more tough-minded and more realistic Post-trib brethren.

Millions of Pre-Trib Christians are participating in the culture war in spite of their eschatology. This might represent a triumph of the Spirit of God over prophetic theory. However, there is a tension between Pre-trib eschatology and militant participation in the culture war. As the perceived time of emergency passes, many Pre-Trib Christians might withdraw from the battle once again. Some might withdraw if the persecution gets too hot. Therefore, we have a limited time to win the culture war while our army is at flood tide. Pre-trib Evangelicals comprise a sizable portion of the army – but it might not always be so.

6) Quietists, mystics, and ascetics believe in withdrawal from the world to seek the kingdom of God. Like the Quakers, they are sometimes pacifists.

The Army of God

Christians of all six eschatological systems are welcome in the Army of God. Providentially, God has allowed six venerable schools of eschatology to develop over the centuries. This has resulted in real differences in how people live their lives. With God's help, these differences can be complementary instead of divisive. A great army requires many kinds of soldiers. Christians from each of the eschatological schools have something to teach us and something to contribute to the struggle.

The liberals are in great disarray because of their disillusioned and conflicted eschatological-utopian beliefs. This provides us with a rare opportunity to strike a winning blow in the culture war. We can win if we can overcome our differences about Bible prophesy and unite our army.

A message from Stephen Stone, President, RenewAmerica

I first became acquainted with Fred Hutchison in December 2003, when he contacted me about an article he was interested in writing for RenewAmerica about Alan Keyes. From that auspicious moment until God took him a little more than six years later, we published over 200 of Fred's incomparable essays — usually on some vital aspect of the modern "culture war," written with wit and disarming logic from Fred's brilliant perspective of history, philosophy, science, and scripture.

It was obvious to me from the beginning that Fred was in a class by himself among American conservative writers, and I was honored to feature his insights at RA.

I greatly miss Fred, who died of a brain tumor on August 10, 2010. What a gentle — yet profoundly powerful — voice of reason and godly truth! I'm delighted to see his remarkable essays on the history of conservatism brought together in a masterfully-edited volume by Julie Klusty. Restoring History is a wonderful tribute to a truly great man.

The book is available at Amazon.com.

© Fred Hutchison

 

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They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. —Isaiah 40:31