It seems that nearly half of Christians in America think that Jesus is coming back by the time we could be swearing in an occupant for the 67th term for a President of the United States:
(Pew Forum) According to a 2010 Pew Research Center survey, roughly half (48%) of Christians in the U.S. say they believe that Christ will definitely (27%) or probably (20%) return to earth in the next 40 years. Somewhat fewer (38%) say this definitely will not happen (10%) or probably will not happen (28%).
Surprising? It shouldn’t be. The United States is not only a hotbed of utopianism, but is also gripped with an eschatological fervor that few nations of the world have ever experienced. I am reminded of this every so often when I go driving in the countryside of Pennsylvania, a countryside once littered with little enclaves of eschatological communes, groups of Christians who ventured into the 18th and 19th century wilderness to wait out the Second Coming, often organizing themselves into celibate, semi-monastic sects of the set-apart. Most of them fizzled out by the beginning of the 20th century, though some survived by revising their theology not to include precise predictions about the end of the world.
Mind you, we still get that every so often. Remember last year’s rapture predictions from Harold Camping? Still, most folks aren’t in the business of making such predictions any more. But there nonetheless clearly exists within the American religious consciousness the notion that the end of the world really is coming soon.
It’s astonishing, though, that so many American Christians are willing to put an outer boundary on it—within forty years, Jesus is either “probably” or “definitely” coming back. The first thing that should come to mind, of course, is this bit from, well, Jesus Himself:
And then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven: and then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn, and they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And he shall send his angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they shall gather together his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other. Now learn a parable of the fig tree; When his branch is yet tender, and putteth forth leaves, ye know that summer is nigh: So likewise ye, when ye shall see all these things, know that it is near, even at the doors. Verily I say unto you: This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled. Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away. But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only.
(Matthew 24:30-36, emphasis added)
Based on the graphic above, it would seem that only 14% of American Christians have actually read what is perhaps the most relevant piece of the Bible in terms of predicting the Second Coming. Now, of course, there are the 20% of “probablies” in the above, who leave some room for doubt, but how exactly does “knoweth no man” even permit a “probably”? The only people who got this right (assuming they believe that the Bible is trustworthy; if they don’t, well, why have an opinion about this, anyway?) are the 14% who said “Don’t know.” Really. You can’t turn “of that day and hour knoweth no man” into any of those other answers.
Now, could He come back at any time? Of course. But “any time” is not “within the next 40 years.”
What’s more interesting than just getting this “right,” though, is what getting it wrong does to your spiritual life, your politics and your approach to the natural world. In terms of the spiritual life, most Christians who have this eschatological urgency also believe that salvation is a binary affair—you’re either saved or you’re not. So, if Jesus is coming back soon, and if there’s no hope of changing your eternal destiny after that happens, then you’d better get saved right quick! And you’d also better get your friends and your family saved, too! Hurry up about it!
At least, that used to be the common attitude (and still largely is in many sectors of low-church Protestantism). Sadly, though, while it’s become apparent for many that perhaps Jesus isn’t coming back just yet, their response has not been to delve into ancient Christianity’s insistence that all of the spiritual life and all of eternity for the saved are a single progression toward the infinite God, which thus means that crossing over the “line” of “getting saved” is by no means the end of the salvation story. Rather, what has happened has been a move away from salvation itself to amelioration through psycho-therapeutic spirituality, i.e., moralistic therapeutic deism (MTD). The spiritual life is not about knowing God and becoming more like Him, but about dealing with “problems,” about dealing with my “felt needs.”
Thus, on the one hand, the fervent believer in an absolutely imminent Second Coming really has nothing to do but wait for it and try to recruit other people while doing so, but on the other, the MTDist can busy himself with activities and programmes which, if significant in their ways, are ultimately not critical and bear little on the question of whether one is really contacting God. And in both cases, the spiritual life is nearly devoid of any truly historical sensibility, which is why it is so easy to forget what has come before and to be thrown about by the winds of doctrinal fads.
And how might such an approach to the Second Coming affect one’s politics or general approach to public life? Mostly what has happened has been a retreat from public and cultural life by American Christians. Art, music, government, education and media are mostly governed by a distinctly secular worldview. Why bother trying to transform the culture when it may not really be here in forty years? Sure, there are plenty of Christians in all those fields, but there is a kind of gentleman’s agreement not to let God-talk actually have any critical influence in them. And having ceded nearly all of that territory (not because we have lost to some “enemy,” but because we found secularism itself more comfortable for ourselves), the “culture warriors” now arrive on the scene a bit late to try to stand athwart the freight train of “progress” and yell “Stop!”
Related to all this is the question of ecology, and by ecology I do not just mean the natural environment, though that’s of course included. If you really believe that the end of the world is coming soon, or even if you just believe that the end of your own life is essentially the end of the world, you might ask yourself questions like this: Should we bother having kids? Make big plans for the future? Why plant trees? Why get involved in our community when we’ll soon be gone? Why help develop church life when we’ll probably never see the fruits of our labor? Why respect and love my local landscape, town and home when my time with them is so short? Why stay in one place when I can just move to the one that suits me?
You see, the machine that is secularism is itself really a kind of eschatology which always believes that we must do something now and that results must be had now, but instead of the Savior being Christ, the Savior is man himself. This dynamic within secularism owes its existence to the eschatological fervor of revivalist Christians. It has been said that secularism is actually a kind of Christian heresy, and this is one side of it.
It’s true that Jesus could come back before you read the end of this post. It’s true that there are things going on in the world today that could be construed as the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy. But those two truths have been true since Jesus came the first time, and every generation of Christians has rightly asked whether today might be the day. But saying that you know or probably know when the Second Coming will occur is not only contrary to the words of the One Who will come, but it is dangerous for life in so many respects. It will distort your personal spiritual life, your corporate spiritual life, your public approach to the world and your personal and public approach to your place.
Become like God. That’s the spiritual life. Move in that direction. Whether you get to walk that path for many years in this life or not is really irrelevant. The key is to keep walking and to ask others to join you. Assume that the whole world can be saved, and work as though the Church will do it.
Remember that God is the God of history. And be the 14%.
The Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick is pastor of St. Paul Orthodox Church of Emmaus, Pennsylvania, author of Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy (Conciliar Press, 2011), and host of the Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy and Roads from Emmaus podcasts.