Van Ens: Why doomsday predictions are dying
The Evangelical Free Church of America adjusted its biblical clock ticking down the time remaining until Jesus returns to Earth. This denomination no longer treats as a major doctrine the belief in a literal millennium (1000 years) when Jesus reigns on earth, as mentioned in Revelations 20.
Once a mighty force shaping evangelical theology, now timelines pinpointing when Jesus returned to Earth are waning. When evangelical Fuller Theological Seminary was founded in the 1940s, end-time predictions thrived but are now mostly shelved. A literal biblical interpretation about the world’s end is muted at evangelical Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, also.
Last June, 79% of delegates attending The Evangelical Free Church of America’s highest ruling body approved suspending end-time predictions. The denomination’s Trinity Evangelical Divinity School agrees that belief in a literal millennium is a matter of personal choice.
Evangelical holdouts who cling to a literal interpretation about an actual millennium still thrive at Dallas Theological Seminary and Southern California’s Talbots Theological Seminary. They relive the glory days of millennial deception taught in the best-selling nonfiction book of the 1970s, Hal Lindsey’s “The Late Great Planet Earth.” Millennial mania spiked during the 1980s and 90s through the “Left Behind” series of fictionalized millennial “history.”
For centuries, many Christians rejected such hysteria that spread a gloomy view of the future. Along the East Coast, Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) led revivals that swept through the colonies in three major surges during the 1730s and 40s. He confidently believed God’s kingdom was being established because colonials filled churches. Edwards measured economic progress, evidenced by farmers harvesting bumper crops and cows producing more milk. Weren’t these signs of God’s favor upon the colonies?
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Consequently, Edwards espoused “post-millennialism,” a hope this great awakening of economic and spiritual exuberance would continue for a thousand years, culminating in the return to earth of Jesus.
This futuristic optimism diminished when the Civil War raged. Evangelical Christians then embraced “pre-millennialism,” expecting Jesus’ return before his actual thousand-year reign on earth. Then he would rescue Christians from havoc on earth by the Rapture, immediately lifting them into heaven.
Prior to history’s final chapter, Evangelicals expect a mass conversion of Jews and the rebuilding of the temple on Temple Mount in Jerusalem. They regard the state of Israel’s 1948 founding as a key moment signaling history’s end and the millennium’s start. This conviction leads many evangelicals to endorse U.S. pro-Israel foreign policy.
With many evangelical denominations and seminaries rejecting belief in a literal millennium, showcased by Jesus’ rule in today’s Jerusalem, will their rabid support of Israel decline in the future?
What’s erroneous about believing in a literal millennium with Jesus ruling on Earth for a thousand years?
The Bible is largely composed of ancient Hebraic writings, which use picture language about the future. Such imagery didn’t focus on precise timelines. It shunned precise end-time predictions.
Roman Catholics, along with Mainline Protestant denominations, recognize the Bible’s use of imprecise end-time images that defy exact description. These Christians treat the millennium as a figure of speech referring to God’s power to shape history for the good.
Taking literally biblical picture language about the millennium corner Christians into accepting absurd beliefs, wrote Evangelical Rachel Held Evans, who recently died. She grew up in a hyper-conservative Christian environment in Dayton, Tennessee, where the Scopes Monkey Trial about evolution was staged in 1925. Evans debunked beliefs built on literal biblical interpretations.
For instance, in her best-seller, “A Year of Biblical Womanhood,” she questions certain scriptural teachings when taken literally. “…technically speaking, is it biblical,” she asks, “for a woman to be sold by her father (Exodus 21:7), biblical for her to be forced to marry her rapist (Deuteronomy 22:28-29), biblical for her to remain silent in church (I Corinthians 14:34-35), biblical for her to cover her head [in worship] (I Corinthians 11:6), and biblical for her to be one of multiple wives (Exodus 21:10)?”
Isn’t it wiser to treat the millennium as ancient biblical imagery referring to God holding the future in his eternal hands?
Two 19th century folk sayings indicate how unlikely a thousand years of peace and prosperity is. Incredulous people used to roll their eyes when they heard an outlandish claim and blurted, “When pigs fly,” or “Comes themillennium.” Meaning, it’s not going to happen.
The writer E.M. Forster had it right about how to confidently await what’s around the corner. He wrote: ‘We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned [including biblical end-time predictions], so as to have the life that is waiting for us [the particulars of which only God knows].
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.