Do you imagine the world is getting better or is it going to hell in a hand basket? Second, do you imagine your church is getting progressively better or declining? These are broad questions, but my hunch is that nineteen out of twenty American Christians would say the world is deteriorating while their church is improving. But what if it’s just the opposite? The answer can be found by remembering the ends justify the means.
Traditional Judaism and Christianity both have much to say about “ends” – the end of history or what is called eschatology, writes Daniel Walker Howe in his excellent new book, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848. “The colonial Puritans conceived of their relationship with God on the model of ancient Israel’s covenant,” which meant a belief that the world would become progressively better.1 The ends justified the means – early American Christians and Jews invested in restoring culture and redeeming people. According to historian James Moorhead, the colonial church “planted one foot firmly in the world of the steam engines and telegraph while keeping the other in the cosmos of biblical prophecy.”2
The theological term for this view is called postmillennialism (Christ returns after the world gets better) and was “the most widely held viewpoint on eschatology among Protestants in antebellum America,” writes Howe.3 Up to the early 1800s, Protestants “celebrated reformers, inventors, and Christian missionaries.”4 They shared twin commitments to society and souls. “Postmillennialism legitimated American civil religion… and belief in America’s responsibility to conduct an experiment in free government.”5 But after 1814, postmillennialism went into eclipse.
In September 1814, Captain William Miller’s American forces were hopelessly outnumbered by British General George Prevost’s troops invading from Canada. Yet Prevost inexplicably ordered his forces to withdraw. Miller attributed his salvation to divine intervention and quit the army, turning his life over to Christ. Lacking training in biblical studies and being ignorant of Hebrew and Greek, Miller developed a premillennial view that Jesus’ return was imminent (the world was not getting better). Believing that Daniel 8:14 was the key verse, Miller calculated that Christ would return between March 1843 and April 1844. The target date passed, Miller publicly apologized, but the idea of the world going to hell in a hand basket stuck. The ends justify the means, so Protestants began to promote saving souls over worrying about a doomed society. If the world is spiraling downward until Christ returns, why rebuild cities, businesses, and society since they are not going to get better?
If you’re a Protestant, the odds are pretty good that you’re a product of premillennialism since it focuses far more on converting people than caring about the culture. Over the last 100 years, it has spawned upwards of 95% of today’s student ministries, missionary organizations, and independent churches (that’s why I believe nineteen out of twenty American Christians would say the world is deteriorating while their church is improving – it fits their view of the end of history). But what if this view is a deviation from historic Christianity? Jim Collins says great companies exhibit “the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”6 What if the “brutal reality” is that these churches and missionary organizations “are not necessarily the norm within the Christian tradition, still less the authentic core; nor, perhaps, have they ever been,” as Philip Jenkins suggests?7 For thousands of years, good Jews and Christians held a seamless view of cultural reform and conversion. Elevating souls over society is the Johnny-come-lately.
G. K. Chesterton said the function of the imagination is not to make strange things settled, so much as to make settled things strange. Some Christians have a settled opinion that only two things are eternal – the Word of God and human souls. But before the 1800s, it was also believed that “the achievements of human civilization, art, technology, and culture are not obliterated. All that is unclean is excluded, but all that is worthy will find its place as an offering to the King of kings,” said Lesslie Newbigin.8 Business, art, food, technology, and every achievement of human civilization as they ought to be also goes into eternity. If this is a proper view of the end, it justifies investing more in renewing culture than we currently do today. And – get this – by making the world a better place, we might discover a better way to win people to Christ. The greatest revival ever in Japan came as a result of General Douglas Macarthur’s cultural reforms after World War II. They included a new constitution producing a paradigm shift in Japanese thinking: Hirohito was no longer considered divine. Over the next few years, over 2,000,000 Japanese came to faith in Christ.9 Renewing culture greased the wheels for conversion. That sure sounds like a win-win for the world and the church.
1 Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 286.
2 James Moorhead, World Without End: Mainstream American Protestant Visions of the Last Things (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1999), pp. 2.
3 Howe, p. 289.
4 Howe, p. 289.
5 Howe, p. 289.
6 Jim Collins, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… And Others Don’t (New York, NY: Harper Business, 2001), p. 13.
7 Philip Jenkins, “Companions of Life: What Must We learn, and Unlearn?” Books and Culture, March/April 2007, Volume 13, No. 2, pp. 18-20.
8 Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989), p. 115.
9 William Manchester, American Caesar: Douglas Macarthur – 1880-1964 (New York, NY: Dell, 1978), p. 555.