My journey away from conservative eschatology, and its relationship with politics

May 16, 2018

politics / theology

In my early days of Christianity (literally 20 years ago now!), starting in high school, I had a fascination with eschatology (which literally means “the study of the last things” and in conservative language refers to the theology surrounding the end of the world, although sometimes they also use it to refer to the afterlife) specifically and prophecy in general. I even used John Hagee’s prophecy study Bible for a few years, until it fell apart while I was in college. I didn’t know anything about the guy when I bought it, and I am pretty sure I’ve never seen a sermon of his to this day, but his views on everything – and they are toxic, let me be clear at the start – certainly create the context with which he edited that Bible.

I thought it might be helpful, in the context of the last several days, for me to investigate my journey through, and away from, that fascination into something I think is more faithful to the way of Jesus, while recognizing just how complicated and interconnected it was, as a friend brought up in this tweet. The framework of conservative eschatology is somewhat complicated because it is so interconnected, and it is complicated to move away from it.

Anyway, starting in 1997 a band that was one of my favorites for years spent almost a decade doing a 3-album (technically 4, but the 4th never got officially released) gothic opera about eschatology that took a goth artist’s (though a Christian goth artist) look at all of this, and I found it beautiful and fascinating for a long time, even after I no longer held to any literal view of all of that. I don’t listen to those albums much anymore (though I do listen to their other albums), but reflecting on it, I do think it helped me create some artistic distance from the eschatological framework I had in my mind, and I think that was a good and life-giving thing.

Another thing that I think helped create distance for me was the intimacy of Pentecostal experience. It was simply less interesting to focus my attention on timelines for the end of things than it was to engage the presence of God where I was, and especially where I felt like God was. I have long had a drive – one I think I still have, though maybe tempered a bit – to follow the edges of what God is doing, and try to be there myself. Sometimes this passion results in good things for me, and sometimes it doesn’t, but feeds into more negative qualities I possess. In any case, I notice that this kind of focus on the present of where God is doesn’t have the effect it had on my eschatology for everyone – for some people it seems to intensify their own identification with eschatology, which is interesting – but it did to some extent for me. But maybe only because of the rest of this.

I think perhaps the main thing that began to put all that aside for me was 9/11 and its aftermath. I’ve spoken about this before, here and elsewhere. I was 18, a freshman in college, and the whole series of events beginning on that day turned me into a pacifist, and began the political journey to attempt to turn against empire in all its manifestations that I’ve remained on ever since. While I wasn’t alone in rejecting the official US response – I had professors and friends who shaped me and went together with me in this – the broader context where I was, being white Pentecostalism in the South, took the whole series of events and fully baptized the retaliation, the war, and anything the administration did as it waged it, the more extreme the better (and of course that’s why you shouldn’t be surprised they do this with Trump as well). Once I wrote about a specific event that happened along these lines in 2003, in a public Facebook post.

Realizing that people I believed heard from God in general – some pastors, leaders, people in my church, public figures, friends, and so on – still responded to these events in a way I believed was very far from God gave me a kind of open skepticism I hadn’t previously had. I probably didn’t immediately apply this to eschatology. I certainly don’t remember doing that immediately, but combined with learning how to read the Bible critically and in its various contexts to the extent that academic Pentecostals do (which is more than you might think, depending on what you know about them), engaging with people I knew were faithful outside the circles I was in, and especially combined with a deepening engagement – academic and otherwise – with the life of Jesus and the implications of the cross and resurrection that I hadn’t really had to that extent before, the importance of a literal eschatology dropped for me, and continued dropping.

It dropped further when the dissonance between a literal eschatology that was fine with bombing all of the Middle East into oblivion because it might fit with one interpretation depending on your exegesis, and a literal eschatology that separated the sheep and the goats based on what they did for the poor and marginalized that fit with another depending on your exegesis, helped me realize that the American empire was screwed by one of those eschatologies and that was maybe why it liked the other one so much.

At some point during college and shortly after, I began to come across the world of other eschatologies like those of Barth and Moltmann, the ongoing debates in theology around inclusion and exclusion, and even a deeper engagement with that non evangelical favorite of evangelicals, CS Lewis. I was encouraged during college to read folk like Dallas Willard and their specific engagement with the kingdom of God as it is in our midst and as it forms us, with Bonhoeffer and others like him, and later learned the existence and legacies of Christian universalism that dated back to Origen, and so many other things that came up in that college and surrounding setting. Different readings of Revelation and the prophets, of course, created new spaces for me to exist within. And as the Emergent movement, of course even with all of its weaknesses, became a driving influence on my thinking, it became really important for me to admit that I didn’t know a whole lot about any of this with any certainty, that the plurality and vagueness around the last things was important because it helped us better engage the world around us, and that was a good thing. And grace became ever, ever more important. And to be clear, in the years since then, liberation theology and especially James Cone created utterly new spaces for eschatology in my life and thinking. But this is all mostly before that.

The nation of Israel weaves its way through all of this. White Pentecostals are often like white evangelicals with regard to Israel, though sometimes they are worse, as they can attach their focus on supernatural things to their engagement with the issue. My college, at one point after I graduated, maintained a campus of its own in West Jerusalem. I’ve never been to Israel myself (or out of the States at all), but I’ve known many people who have been there. The people in these circles where I was spent time only in certain regions, engaging with history tours and archeology tours and Bible sight seeing and such; they always came back talking about those kind of things and how powerful they were for them. They would go and get baptized in the Jordan, and they’d find that to be a powerful experience (which maybe it is, I don’t discount that).

But eventually (primarily through Emergent and some of the Anabaptist folk in those circles) I came to know people who went to Israel in other contexts – to engage with Palestinians in solidarity, with Israeli peace workers, with nonviolent resisters. I read people like Jim Wallis who spoke about the occupation for what it was. I read people who went on trips for these reasons instead. The people I knew who went there in this kind of context came back with utterly different stories, and that became much more compelling and real to me, at the same time that the world in general kept getting bigger, as I was able to see the struggles people had that weren’t mine.

But as I think is obvious here, the reason those things – peace work, nonviolence as resistance, and from there a gradual and powerful realization that the two sides of Israel and Palestine are not standing on equal footing fighting with each other, and thus the solution is never a balanced “both sides need to come together” – became compelling is that my eschatology and its relationship to my spirituality, and especially my politics, in a broad sense, evolved over time, as I’ve said here.

I think to understand how evangelicals and Pentecostals view Israel, the Middle East, Muslims, global politics, global justice, and so on (and the two groups don’t necessarily view them the same way, though they often do) one has to understand that eschatology. One has to understand how that eschatology applies to Jewish folk (many of these Christians anticipate mass conversion and/or mass persecution of Jewish folk as a sign, and/or result, of the end times). One has to understand how it relates to Muslims (often, they are just viewed as intruders in the way of a literal third temple being built in Jerusalem). This issue and all its related issues are places where eschatology, spirituality, other parts of theology, and politics mesh in really tight ways.

And finally, if evangelicals or Pentecostals are to recognize, and come out of, the toxic soup that all of this particular meshing creates for everyone, especially for marginalized people, it’s much more complicated than getting them to care about Palestinians (which in itself is complicated because of the often inherent racism). If they let themselves care about Palestinians, they will begin to see the holes especially in things like their eschatology, and that is very dangerous for them. I think for some people this happens. I do think seeing the Other as human and valuable, and especially if we can see them as marginalized and oppressed in a way that somehow involves us, is always a possible disruption that can happen for anyone, and when it does it is powerful and it reaches into everything. This has happened for me on other issues. But by that same logic, though it is equally difficult, if they can let themselves see the holes in their eschatology (and the more specific and literal any eschatology is, the more holes I believe it has), they can start to care about Palestinians and Palestinian oppression (and to be clear they can also start to care about Jewish folk as more than targets of evangelism).

I do think it can be important to recognize steps like the ones I remember going through in this process, not because they’re the same steps anyone else would necessarily go through, but because they illustrate how complicated and interrelated this stuff is. But at the same time, I hope they illustrate how one can follow the path that faith leads them on and go through steps like these. I didn’t follow these steps because I thought they were unfaithful to God, I followed them precisely because I thought, and think, they were faithful.