Thank you, RedState.com mogul Erick Erickson, for showing us clearly the soft underbelly of the mainstream Christian right in America: pessimistic eschatology. I, and others, have of course said this for some time now. You have now exposed it openly, and have admitted that your eschatology dictates general hopelessness in your considerable political activism. After a tough week, you opined, “On the last day there will be a narrow gate. That makes me pessimistic about my future in politics and the future voices on the right when cultural and social issues come to the forefront.”
I hope you will indulge me the few moments required to read what our twittering generation would call longish. I hope you will invest the few moments that these brief points demand. I believe it will help you greatly, and I believe you are ready for it.
It is good to have candid admissions (for example, the one from Kevin DeYoung on “two kingdoms” recently). They tell us up front what we are dealing with. The terms of the contract are clearly on the table. We no longer have to pretend; our actions can now make sense in light of our professed beliefs. But there is an even better aspect to this candor: mistakes can come clearly into view. When there are mistakes or errors, we can make corrections and move forward.
Thankfully, your view of eschatology, popular as it has been for many decades now, is easily correctable. Arrogant as that may sound, I only intend to be to the point. In this regard, I would like to look specifically at three claims you make: two biblical, the other more generally historical.
First, the historical view. You write:
Eschatology is the study of end times. It is the one area of biblical study people often view in their own time. In the 1800′s with the rise of the Great Awakening, students of eschatology viewed the end times rather favorably. The whole world would come to Christ, many of them thought.
The point about the 1800s and beyond is not quite accurate. There are a few correctable points. First, the Great Awakening was in the 1730s, not the 1800s. What occurred in the 1800s is called the “Second Great Awakening,” and did not feature optimism much at all in history. This movement gave us the rise in popularity of several menaces: the “altar call,” experientialism, rationalism, the seeds dispensational theology (pessimistic eschatology), and the burned-over districts of New England. Soon behind that came most of the major cults in America. The first Great Awakening (1730s) did feature optimistic eschatology, but this view of eschatology had already existed long before.
The optimistic view, sometimes called postmillennialism, arose much earlier. It has roots in the protestant Reformation, specifically in the Puritan and Scottish traditions leading up to and after the Westminster Confession of Faith—the creedal document of your own denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). (See Larger Catechism Question No. 191 for a peek at the optimism of 1647.)
These were the same Puritans who originally settled New England, and their “city on a hill” mentality was derived from this optimistic eschatology.
You should read the valuable book by Iain Murray, The Puritan Hope, which shows this in much more vivid detail. Please note: this book is not Reconstructionist literature. The author was a former assistant to Martyn Lloyd-Jones and was one of the founders of Banner of Truth Trust which also published this book. This is mainstream conservative Reformed scholarship.
When the so-called “Great Awakening” to which you refer hit in the 1800s, the Puritan tradition had already begun to be largely secularized. It was this secularized millenarianism which became the progressivism of the late nineteenth century, Woodrow Wilson, the social gospel, etc.. It is a biblical vision of the future gutted of both law and gospel and stuffed with socialism.
But one thing you wrote here is powerfully insightful. Eschatology is indeed “the one area of biblical study people often view in their own time.” When the Reformed optimistic view gained some popularity in America in that first Great Awakening (1730s), it had, like I said, been around already since the 1600s. But it had been suppressed. Why? Because of near-term political declension that occurred in the Anglo-American world, 1660–1730. The Puritans were ruthlessly suppressed and scattered, and in the midst of political decline all around them, many either lost their optimism or just kept it quiet. They had made the mistake you mention: interpreting biblical eschatology according to their own headlines. But what did they miss? Faith. America had hardly begun to get going. God had something far bigger in store for their future horizon could they only keep the vision.
This is something for us to think about as we face our own series of short-term political failures.
Secondly, you offer this: “I view the ends times more pessimistically.” You make two main biblical references to support this view. Now, I am aware you are not writing a treatise on eschatology here, and there is much more context and nuance that attends claims such as these. But even here there is enough to help get us thinking. You write,
I think there’ll be many more through the pearly gates than I want, but a whole lot less than I expect. And I think as we descend into more cultural and societal chaos on the road to the last day, it will be more and more important for those of us in politics to decide which comes first, faith or politics. . . .
On the last day there will be a narrow gate. That makes me pessimistic about my future in politics and the future voices on the right when cultural and social issues come to the forefront.
The first point here is the specific reference to the “narrow gate.” While most Christians in the past have understood this in reference to “the last day,” as you put it, I ask you simply to read the texts. This image shows up in the gospels only twice (Matthew 7:12–13; Luke 13:22–30). In neither instance is it connected to “the last day” or the doctrine of our future generally. We may be tempted to draw such a conclusion by implication, but sticking to the text will steer you differently.
In Matthew, the “narrow gate” reference is part of the Sermon on the Mount. It is simply broad, general language about the difficulties (impossibility actually) of being perfect before God. Whatever we make of it in the big picture, this passage has no specific eschatological import whatsoever—certainly not in regard to our future.
The Luke passage is more complex, but also more helpful once we understand it. In that passage, Jesus is in the midst a preaching tour on His way to Jerusalem. He is responding to a specific question: “Are the ones being saved few?” (Luke 13:23). One key here is the tense: “being saved.” This is not referring to our time (yours and mine) which would have been future for that inquirer, but to the present time of the speaker in the text. This is not about our future, but their time.
Further, “saved” here is not referring to what we generally mean by salvation, but to that which Jesus had been warning his audiences all along that tour: an imminent judgment to come (in their time) upon Israel and Jerusalem.
The debate over “few” versus many was a debate among the rabbis at the time. Our better commentators today note this well. Many Jews believed that all Israelites by virtue of the fact that they were physical descendants of Abraham would be saved when the Messiah appeared. Others believed only a remnant—few—would be saved.
With his teaching on the “strait gate” in this passage, Jesus is simply affirming the “remnant” view. But again, this has nothing to do with our future, but with the then-coming destruction of Jerusalem (AD 70).
Again, don’t take my Reconstructionist word for it. Listen to a more mainstream and respected Reformed scholar who explored the question in his commentary on Luke:
What moment is this? Is it that of the rejection and dispersion of Israel? No; for the Jews did not then begin to cry and knock according to the description of verse 25. Is it the time of the Parousia, when the great Messianic festival shall open? No; for the Jews then living shall be converted and received into the palace. . . . We are thereby led to apply what follows (when ye [them! at that time!] shall see Abraham…,” ver. 23) to the judgment which Jesus pronounces at present [their present] on the unbelieving Jews, excluding them in the life to come. . . .1
This makes even more sense when read in the context of Jesus’ teachings during that journey. At the end of the preceding chapter, Luke 12, Jesus chastises a whole mass of followers: “You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” (Luke 12:56). That was their present time—the present time in which He was speaking. Then chapter 13 begins with more warnings of judgment that could come upon them unless they would repent. This is consistent throughout the chapter all the way up to the “narrow gate” passage. Included are also teachings of the mustard seed and leaven—promises that the kingdom would start small—again, a remnant to be saved (No wonder some guy asked that question immediately afterward).
It was this same reason Paul taught the following: “So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace” (Rom. 11:5). Note: this was at his “present time,” and it was only a remnant of Jews who were being saved. Paul was merely repeating the teachings of his Master. But this particular teaching had nothing to do with our future, and nothing to do with the nature of the spread of Christianity long-term throughout history.
If anything, Jesus’ teachings about the mustard seed and leaven tell us that while the kingdom would begin as a remnant, it would over time become something that filled the whole earth. This is consistent with the old Puritan and Reformed belief in optimism!
By far the most pointed commentary on this point of view is my own. You can read it here or in my book Jesus versus Jerusalem. But it is hardly peculiar to me or Christian Reconstruction. It was once a not-uncommon Reformed understanding. It faded why? Largely due to that same problem you mentioned earlier: culturally and historically-blinded interpretation of the Bible. Sometimes we call this problem “newspaper exegesis.” It is a real problem.
The second aspect of your statement was more general. Your pessimism assumes in general that “we descend into more cultural and societal chaos on the road to the last day.” While there is certainly language in Scripture that is widely used to support this view, I would again counsel you simply to look at the time-bound context of many, if not most, of those passages. Even Paul’s famous passage about “perilous times” in “the last days” (2 Timothy 3) contains enough reference to see he is talking about his own horizon, and even that morass of short-term pessimism was curtailed by Paul’s long-term optimism in regard to all those evil teachers who would arise: “But they will not get very far, for their folly will be plain to all, as was that of those two men [who withstood Moses]” (2 Tim. 3:9).
In this context, “the last days” refers to the last days of the Old Covenant, right before that Temple was destroyed—not the last days of history in general.
As a general rule, the New Testament’s pessimism is short-term for their own generation, while its long-term view is optimistic in regard to the spread of Christ’s kingdom. This is how we should read it. As I have written elsewhere, there is no other way to understand the facts that 1) Christ is enthroned already now (has been since His ascension—Acts 2:29–36; Heb. 1:3, 13); 2) His rule encompasses both heaven and earth already (Matt. 28:18); 3) We believers rule with Him already (Eph. 2:6–8); 4) He shall rule from that heavenly throne until all His enemies are defeated (ALL OF THEM—1 Cor. 15:24–26); He shall not move from that throne one second before that job is done (1 Cor. 15:25; Heb. 10:13).
In short, Scripture nowhere teaches that there shall be a narrow gate at the last day. That narrow gate teaching was directed at Jesus’ generation and the judgment of Jerusalem on their horizon. It had nothing to do with our own future in which the leaven of Christianity is working to spread itself throughout the whole world.
Historically, Reformed doctrine emphasized this expansion and growth. We would not be as Americans here without it. It was the pessimistic view that came in later, conditioned by the outfall of the rationalism and much else perverted by the Enlightenment and the excesses of the Second so-called “Great Awakening,” and perpetuated on the vast widespread fears derived from the decline of our own culture.
We Christians—especially we Reformed Christians—simply need to readjust our outlook back to what both Scripture and the Puritan/Westminster tradition teach. That is, optimism in regard to the future, despite whatever historical setbacks may beset our own limited horizons.
This is why the spirit you exhibit near the end of your post is praiseworthy. You write,
We may fail, but we should keep trying. We should not recede from the public square and a growing number of conservatives are showing more willingness to drive from the public square those who urge greater measures of Christian grace and charity than they prefer.
Right. We may fail by many measures, but historical failure is no reason to quit. But you should add to this that our not-quitting is not an effort standing in the face of annihilation—it is not socially and historically futile. It should rather be a product of a faith that knows God will bring us through it, and that we are laying vital foundation stones for future generations.
When our great-great grandchildren look for precedents to make sense of the Bible passages I’ve introduced here, will they have the writings of optimistic Puritans to uncover like we did? Or will they read our posts and books and compare them to Scripture shaking their heads at our short-sightedness and lack of faith? If we follow Scripture, we don’t have an option. And if we fight like you suggest we should, only with optimism and a pronouncement of it, our descendants will have a better public square than we do. At any rate, they will have less excuse, and less motivation, to avoid it like these modern day conservative quitters and compromisers.
- F. L. Godet, Commentary on the Gospel of Luke, 2 vol in 1 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, reprint of 1887), 2:125.(↩)