Two questions
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.

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11 Responses to “The Ends Justify the Means”

  1. marble says:

    what if it’s both the world and the so-called “church” that are deteriorating?

  2. Mike Metzger says:

    Ha! You make a good point Marble. Of course we’re talking about matters of such sweeping scope that – at the end of the day – we don’t know. I’m more interested in stirring the pot on this idea since – while God is committed to his worldwide church – he is not necessarily obligated to any particular expression of the church (especially our Western church that has been so unconsciously shaped by the Enlightenment). We have to remember that for many centuries the light of the church appeared to be completely extinguished (the fall of Rome and the rise of Islam). God is not obligated to sustain our peculiar brand of faith. Your thoughts?

  3. Byron Borger says:

    Love your stuff, Mike. Thanks, as always. Great insights, great book quotes.

    Just after your email arrived, the daily quote from *cino came,too, into my inbox, and today’s was a few lines from Paul Marshall whose reminder was, in this one aspect, the same as yours:

    Our works, here and now, are not all transitory. The good that we have done will not simply disappear and be forgotten. This world is not a passing and futile phase; it will be taken up in God’s new world. Our good buildings, our great inventions, our acts of healing, our best writings, our creative art, our finest clothes, our greatest treasures will not simply pass away. If they represent the finest works of God’s image-bearers, they will adorn the world to come.

    from his book Heaven Is Not My Home: Living in the Now of God’s Creation

    A quickie comment, though: it seems as if you may not spend much time in mainline denominational churches, or appreciate how many folks who inherited a faith in a declining denomination, might see all of this. There are a good number of Protestants, still, who are not exactly evangelical in doctrine or in tradition, yet are active in post-mil (or a-mil) ministry and congregational life, who have hope that the Kingdom is a-coming even as they know their particular parish isn’t faring well. They still intuit the “Christ transforms culture” perspective.

    Byron
    http://www.heartsandmindsbooks.com

  4. Mike Metzger says:

    Good push back, Byron. My point of view is just that – a view from a point. It’s good to know a good many Protestants invest their time, talents, and treasure in the here and now as well as the then and there.

  5. John Lofton, Recovering Republican says:

    Acts 3:20-21: “and that He may send Jesus, the Christ appointed for you, whom heaven must receive until the period of restoration of all things about which God spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets from ancient time.”(NAS)

  6. Kenneth Roy says:

    Very thought provoking.

    It might make our “passing” easier knowing that many of the good things (as well as people) that we loved will not simply vanish into the ex nihilo from whence they came.

    I can honestly say that this idea has never occured to me.

    I have something new to integrate into my philosopy.

    Thanks.

  7. Blackhatseo says:

    I think you should post more often, I have enjoyed this so far. Added to my reader. Btw, my blog is dofollow, stop by and grab a link. SusanO

  8. Ken says:

    Other events than the single 1814 one you cited also hammered through the PostMil-to-PreMil transition:

    John Nelson Darby either originated or popularized the current form of PreMil in 1835. Darby’s “Secret Rapture” remains THE default End-of-the-World choreography, from Hal Lindsay to LaHaye & Jenkins.

    The Social Gospel movement of the late 19th Century resulted in “a Gospel without Personal Salvation”, only Social Good Works. The reaction (spawning lotsa Evangelical splinter One True Churches) was a Gospel of Personal Salvation and ONLY Personal Salvation. (“Have You Accepted Jesus Christ As Your Personal LORD And Savior?”)

    World War One clinched the deal. The suffering and trauma coming on the heels of the Edwardian PostMil optimism (“Titanic is unsinkable. Even God couldn’t sink this ship”) sealed the change from PostMil to Darbyite PreMil. From building God’s Kingdom on Earth to awaiting an Airlift out of the disaster area. (“Twinkle Twinkle Coming Christ; Beam Me Up To Paradise!” Don’t be Left Behind!)

    I saw a similar progression in literary SF from 1968-2000. From Bright Future, to Dark Future, to No Future. From the “Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow” of the Disneyland Carousel of Progress song to a succession of dystopias to abandonment of the future in favor of parallel history and “forward into the past” time-travel.

    Christianize it, and you get Seven Years of Antichrist Dystopia (starting tomorrow at the latest), followed by The End. From Bright Future, to Dark Future, to No Future.

  9. Ken says:

    P.S. The four most pessimistic words in all Christendom are a product of Darbyite Pre-Mil — the Classic Christian Putdown “It’s All Gonna Burn.”

    Those four words (combined with never-ending Rapture Scares) ATE TWENTY YEARS OF MY LIFE. If Christ is Coming Tomorrow (at the latest) and It’s All Gonna Burn (TM), why bother to do anything with more than a twenty-minute lead time? Who will restore those twenty years the End Time Prophecy locusts have eaten?

    Our works, here and now, are not all transitory. The good that we have done will not simply disappear and be forgotten. This world is not a passing and futile phase; it will be taken up in God’s new world. Our good buildings, our great inventions, our acts of healing, our best writings, our creative art, our finest clothes, our greatest treasures will not simply pass away. If they represent the finest works of God’s image-bearers, they will adorn the world to come. — Paul Marshall

    Onward and Upward into the true Narnia of Aslan’s Land, where the creatures of my imagination hope for Resurrection into Reality.

  10. GL says:

    Mike,

    You’re kind in your treatment of the theological view that has so many conservative Protestants disdaining cultural renewal as “rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.” Perhaps as brothers we should be kind. Sigh.

  11. Michael says:

    Much is said here about the last 200 years of American protestant views of the second coming of Jesus Christ. This is done to substantiate the author’s claim that Christian’s would be better to focus on an approach that seeks to redeem their present culture, to quote, “by making the world a better place, we might discover a better way to win people to Christ”. We are never called to make the world “a better place”. A fundamental mistake here is the use of relatively recent history to establish a new Christian worldview which is not consistent with the Chritian worldview that emerged in the first century. The author has defined a Christian mission of restoring culture where there is no Scriptural mandate for such. Christian’s are called to be, as it were, “salt and light”, a clarion call to truth, a savor of life to those who have ears to ear and death to those whose hearts are closed. Christian’s are called to serve “the least of these” and in this there is an open door to share the full Gospel. I ask the author to consider the most relevant Scripture to his point of pre or post millenialism, Acts through Revelation, and see if the tenor of the teaching on Christ’s return is presented as imminent and the Christian’s chief role in society to be preimarily a witness to the truth of Christ and to walk in the good works God has prepared beforehand.

    I reject the supposition that a Christian today is under a cloud of confusion over what is to be done in the present as a believer. Is not the instruction of the Spirit sufficient to lead us into truth?

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