Evangelical Apocalypse Anxiety
With Donald Trump in the White House, a right-leaning Supreme Court restored to full strength, majorities in both chambers of Congress, and an overwhelming advantage in statehouses across the country, American political power is firmly in the hands of Republicans. This “revenge of the Right” has left some sociologists wondering why, despite having gained such a decisive upper hand politically, so many American evangelicals perceive themselves as threatened.
This isn’t a new question, and religious historian George Marsden has discussed this phenomenon at length. Marsden notes a persistent insider/outsider tension: evangelical rhetoric frequently invokes images of both a “silent majority” and a beleaguered remnant standing firm against the fallen world.
Authors like Rod Dreher offer a partial explanation, pointing to the influence of an overwhelmingly secular academic and media culture alongside millennials’ increasingly mushy conceptions of religious identity. But it seems to me there’s also something else going on—something more endemic to American Protestantism as a whole.
American evangelical culture has been profoundly influenced by two views of the apocalypse—views that radically diverge when considered side-by-side, but views that are held simultaneously by many Americans. These two doctrinal positions—dispensational premillennialism and postmillennialism—emerge from different traditions and are philosophically irreconcilable, but the incompatibility between them is rarely articulated clearly. The resulting cognitive dissonance fuels, at least in part, the phenomenon Marsden describes.
The problem stems from competing interpretations of Revelation 20, which states that upon the return of Christ to earth, the saints of God “shall reign with him a thousand years.” Dispensational premillennialism—most commonly associated with the “Left Behind” franchise—treats the book of Revelation as a literal blueprint for the end times: today’s faithful Christians will be suddenly raptured from earth, and the world will be plunged into seven years of tribulation before the final return of Christ and subsequent judgment. (This is a comparatively novel view of the text, pioneered by John Nelson Darby in the nineteenth century.) Thus the modern world is, quite literally, “headed to hell in a handbasket.” Conversely, postmillennialism views human history as a progressive movement upward, a process of reclaiming the culture by which the “thousand years” of Revelation 20 is ushered into existence by human hands. This explains the early American Puritans’ urgency to build a nation that would be a “city on a hill,” and is often associated with Max Weber’s “Protestant work ethic” thesis: those who are truly “elect” (in the Calvinist sense) ought to labor zealously to demonstrate their membership in that group. (For its part, my own Lutheran tradition is largely amillennialist, treating Revelation as symbolic and poetic.)
This breakdown of eschatological visions will be familiar to anyone who’s taken an entry-level theology class or two (and this isn’t the first time Conciliar Post has discussed this issue). But what’s particularly interesting, and rarely appreciated, is the fact that both the dispensationalist and postmillennialist paradigms exert a dominant influence in evangelical culture.
Therein lies the tension Marsden describes. From the dispensationalists comes the sentiment that “this world is doomed, the Antichrist is on his way, and all we can do is hang on for dear life.” From the postmillennialists comes the idea that “we can transform culture and bring the Great Commission’s ‘cultural mandate’ into reality.” Evangelical political theology can’t embrace both of those models simultaneously: either the world is inevitably getting worse, no matter what we do, or it’s inevitably going to get better.
The problem is that this tension is rarely explained clearly. Walk into any Protestant bookstore, evangelical college, or church library, and you’ll find books from both traditions lumped together without much internal differentiation. When coupled with the message that “denominations don’t matter,” this risks producing a “choose your own adventure” style of theology that doesn’t properly grapple with downstream philosophical consequences or internal logical incompatibilities. I’m a great supporter of ecumenical engagement—and I tend to think many evangelicals often treat marginal disagreements far too severely—but every position isn’t equally true, and the individual who takes theology seriously will be willing to hold and defend certain views as correct and coherent. (For example, despite my higher-order disagreements with Reformed theologians, I have great respect for the rigor of their systematic theologies.)
When I first got to college, I thought I was pretty much done with denominations: “nondenominational Protestantism” was good enough for me. But I’ve increasingly come to realize that pure nondenominationalism lacks the filtering criteria required to establish a cohesive worldview. “We’re theologically orthodox and not Catholic” is not exactly a robust guiding principle in the face of a blitz of conflicting, mutually incompatible messages. Because “denominationalism” has often become a dirty word, let’s instead speak of “traditions”: accordingly, I submit that divorced from a coherent tradition, Christian identity is at severe risk of lapsing into instability.
And so things come full circle: evangelical culture will continue to be characterized by “apocalypse anxiety” as long as it continues to draw upon incommensurable eschatological ideas. Without a fuller grasp of systematics and tradition—a tradition that need not be Catholic, but that must be historic and robust—that anxiety will never go away.