Eschatological issues in Pentecostalism

May 20, 2011

bible / pentecostal / charismatic / theology

As you probably know, there is a group of really vocal, largely ridiculed folks who believe the rapture will happen tomorrow at 6pm. As a starter, I’m not one of those people (as if that was a surprise). I’m not in the least bit concerned that they’re right. I am concerned for the damage that they’ve caused, and will cause to people who believed them when nothing happens, and I think this will call for mourning and compassion.

Beyond that, though, the whole thing makes me think back a little to earlier days of my journey as a follower of Jesus, in the first year or two as a Pentecostal in high school. Back then (1998 through early 2001, tapering off after that when I went to college) there was a lot of talk about the rapture in the circles where I ran. I read books and Study Bibles about it, knew dispensationalist theology fairly well, and in general lived under the assumption that the rapture could happen at any time.

I don’t remember ever speculating on when it would happen, or being concerned about when it would happen; I just assumed that it was there on the horizon because the people around me did, and I trusted their theology. Pentecostals saw it as a reason to pursue revival, hoping for the church to become a more Spirit-imbued body, ready to go with Jesus when he returned. I found that compelling because I wanted those kind of experiences. As an important sidenote, there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that the current rapture-seekers have anything to do with Pentecostalism.

Now, this expectation has been a hallmark of Pentecostalism since it started in 1906, though it has had its ebbs and flows as it has in every other movement. I’m aware of this, though by the time I reached college it was (at least in scholarly circles) acceptable to leave those doctrines behind. I’m thankful for this, but at the moment I’m interested in thinking about why it was ever such a big deal in the movement.

As I’ve said before, I’m not really a Pentecostal these days. I still pray in tongues, still seek the presence of the Spirit, still believe in miracles, and so on – so it’s not that I’ve abandoned Pentecostalism, but I can no longer deal with the ecclesiology or the theological and political ideas that usually accompany the movement, and this makes me something of an ecclesial vagabond. All well and good.

Anyway. One of the things I’ve always found interesting about Pentecostalism is that during the fundamentalist/liberal battles of the early 20th century when the movement was still developing, it went with the fundamentalists. Fundamentalism was deeply antithetical to Pentecostalism in its own theology, but Pentecostals overwhelmingly adapted the non-directly-related tenets of fundamentalist theology in their interpretation of the Bible, and eventually in things like politics.

I don’t necessarily blame them for this, as I don’t think either choice was a good one back then, but it is saddening. I wish they had been able to create a third way that didn’t succumb to liberalism or fundamentalism, and there are several reasons that I think this could have been the case (but it’s really hard to create a third way).

One of the core tenets of Pentecostalism is that God is active in the world in supernatural ways. How this manifests itself in doctrine has varied through the years and in the different tribes, but this wonderful belief has always been true. It has also always been the way Pentecostalism has viewed the Bible, and this (among other things) has led the movement to believe the Bible has, and has always had, something direct that the Spirit wants to say to its readers.

Back to eschatology. I think one of the deepest failures of dispensationalism is that it rests on the oft-unspoken and unrealized assumption that all of the Bible’s prophetic or apocalyptic language is irrelevant to the foreseeable context of its original readers. Thus, this is one of the damaging things about Pentecostalism’s embrace of early 20th-century fundamentalist biblical theology: while we’ve assumed that the book of Acts was a Spirit-inspired narrative of how the early church functioned and is relevant to how we should function today (which is one of the huge differences from that fundamentalism), we have not assumed that first-century eschatology was relevant to that same early church, but rather that it was written for us only, two thousand years after those folks lived in the same Spirit we seek.

The realization that prophetic language was primarily relevant to its original hearers is one of the greatest insights of people like N. T. Wright, Andrew Perriman, and others who have written more wisely on eschatology. While they all have different perspectives on what ways such language is relevant to us, the fact that they agree upon its primary relevance to its original hearers is a powerful thing for that relevance. It utterly changes the way we have to think about political theology (as much of this language is anti-Empire), ethics (as much of it is metaphorical), and of course how we think about eschatology in our own age.

Coming from a Pentecostal (post-Pentecostal?) perspective, I want to say that this fits better with Pentecostalism than dispensationalism does, because this is how we’ve treated our engagement with Acts. I think it fits other traditions (Anabaptism, of course, but many others as well) much better too, which is why I think it’s worth writing about. I’ve taught for years that any time we try to make definitive statements about how eschatology manifests itself in our own age, we’re on dangerous ground and shouldn’t be trusted.

My plea is for all of us to stop worrying about when the rapture (or whatever other event you like) is coming, because there’s no reason to assume such language is literal, and even less reason to assume that it’s about us. It makes us look stupid, makes our priorities antithetical to those of Scripture’s authors, and does irreparable damage to people who structure their lives around those assumptions when they turn out to be wrong.