Christianity lives in the tension between its apocalyptic vision of life and its creational mandate to occupy. The former pushes Christians to uproot and pull down the orders of society, while the latter draws them back toward the earth and roots them in the orders of creation. There is some truth to the claim that Protestantism thrives within an apocalyptic vision of life, while Catholicism prefers to speak of nature and nature’s purpose—but this is too simplistic. In reality, the tension has always been present, and maintaining it has proven exceedingly difficult. Apocalyptic visions flirt with gnostic aeons and Stoic conflagrations, while affirmations of creation lean toward Pelagian schemes of human progress and Epicurean fixations on the here-and-now. Any Christian vision of society has to live in the space between the two or risk succumbing to either a conservative or a liberal secularism.
Jesus himself both uproots and plants. He uproots family existence by telling people that they must be willing to leave behind familial structures and that marriage is decidedly this-worldly—while also grounding the union of male and female, and thus the biological offspring of that union, in creation. And Jesus does not allow his followers to move too far in either direction. He is just as happy to rebuke apocalyptic visions that call for a complete overthrow of current cultural and political situations as he is to declare that existing socio-religious structures and the institutions they embody must be dismantled. Even in light of how Jesus’s life and teaching move between the two poles, there is a tendency in Christian tradition to tilt in one direction or the other, depending on the context.
Apocalyptic thought provokes resistance, because it fuses an alternative vision of history’s telos with warfare and final judgment, all within the context of a prophetic claim to have removed the veil that keeps humans from truly perceiving the world. This fusion can reinforce a bunker mentality or a call for revolution. There is no doubt that apocalyptic thought nourished ideas of revolution in both evangelical and secular circles in the late 1700s. Thomas Paine’s assertion in Common Sense that “we have it in our power to begin the world over again” represents secularized apocalyptic thought in the form of a revolutionary overthrow of monarchy, which was demonized as anti-Christ. It is part of what Jack Fruchtman has called Paine’s secular millennialism, in which, through revolution, a new order for the ages can be brought into existence as part of the propagation of the rights of man.
Revolution is only one strain of apocalyptic resistance. In the 1830s and 1840s, some Evangelicals turned to premilliennialism because it reinforced their desire to flee social upheaval while plotting out Jesus' second advent. It is no coincidence that this desire tended to arise among dissenting forms of Protestantism, which already hovered along the fringe. As a member of the Plymouth Brethren, John Nelson Darby became the great exponent of Dispensational Premillennialism. In Darby’s thought, Millennialism combined with restorationism to provide an inner logic for the idea that the church had fallen and that a new church was needed, preparatory for the imminent return of Christ.
These twin emphases of apocalyptic thought remain present in Protestantism. Both are found in prophetic preaching that seeks to alter social structures, and in premillennial prognostications of the anti-Christ that reinforce the desire to hold on until Jesus comes. Both seek to uproot, albeit in different ways—the former calling for an overthrow (sometimes violently), the latter calling for a building of walls in order to preserve and endure. Both have led to dramatic political involvement, in the forms of preserving and overthrowing.
Over against the desire to uproot, the creational mandate revels in this-worldly occupation, preferring to flatten out apocalpytic into the idea of a Christian society as the natural outgrowth of human life. As T.S. Eliot put it, “we may say that religion, as distinguished from modern paganism, implies a life in conformity with nature.” The problem, from this perspective, is that humanity has lost its understanding of what is natural, and thus of nature itself. This is part of what lay behind Eliot’s and Dawson’s deep criticisms of industrialized material society. One might even suggest that world-view thinking on the Evangelical side, especially its wedding of politics with divine law to create a city on a hill, reveals a hand tilted toward the creational mandate.
Yet these were not the only versions of the creational mandate. The Social Gospel grounded social progress on the fusion of the Kingdom of God with democracy to create a new social order. One of its chief apologists, Shailer Mathews, argued that democracy must shape Christian thinking and that democratized Christian thinking should guide the people. The church brings about social transformation for the sake of the individual. “Its progress has been less marked by revolution than by persistent transformation,” Mathews observed in The Individual and the Social Gospel. The spiritual ideals of the kingdom have spiritualized social forces, and in this way a new social order will eventually emerge that embodies the spirit of Jesus. Reinhold Niebuhr criticized this Pelagian vision of individuals and social orders in Moral Man and Immoral Society, replacing it with an Augustinian realism about human existence that tempered any optimism in human progress.
In every historical context, Christians struggle to maintain the tension between apocalyptic and the creational mandate. Apocalyptic recognizes the tragic in history, utilizing it as the tinder upon which an alternative vision must be built that cannot rely upon history for its realization. Yet the creational mandate reminds Christians of the fundamental goodness of the natural order, which must be preserved and fulfilled rather than rejected or destroyed. Even Eliot noted that a wholly Christian society this side of the eschaton “would require constant reform.” Christian hope and action for this world springs from a vision and love for another city, whose maker and builder is God. It is an optimism for creaturely existence borne of the grace that transforms and sustains life in the midst of the tragedies of history.
Dale M. Coulter is associate professor of historical theology at Regent University.