Monday, July 23, 2012

Are Things Getting Better or Worse?

Are things getting better or worse? At first glance, this seems to be the type of question that is easily answered just by looking around but it is not quite that simple. Our perspective on this question, like all questions that require some form of qualitative judgment, depends heavily on a number of our presuppositions including our understand of what “goodness” is and how it can be objectively measured. Even the idea that history moves in a linear fashion at all has been debated. Friedrich Nietzsche, like some ancients, toyed with the idea that history did not move in a linear direction but instead that it moved in circles.  He pondered the possibility that history is an endless cycle where everything that is, was, and will be again some day again. If that is true then questions such ours would be meaningless.  

The Judeo-Christian view of history, however, is decidedly linear.  The scripture says that God created “in the beginning” so history has a definite starting point. Scripture also teaches that there is a definite end when Christ will come and sit in judgment over history itself. We know that God ultimately triumphs so in an ultimate sense all Christians assert that history is moving toward an eternal state of peace, goodness, and justice. The question remains, however, if earthly history, that which happens within the temporal timeline, is growing progressively better or progressively worse as we approach the final chapter where God prevails. As we look at the world around us, the answer is obvious. The problem is that while others might also see an obvious answer they may not necessarily agree with us about what the answer obviously is. The way that we interpret the events in the world around us depends heavily upon our theology.

As Christians we may agree on the standard of goodness but we still have divergent views on historical progression because within Christian orthodoxy there are differing philosophies of history. A person’s view of the doctrines of the last days (eschatology) are a part of a broader theology of what God is doing in history and have an influence on how we understand our current place in redemptive history.
For simplicity sake, we can organize the various historical views using their more widely known end-times descriptions. Each of these major views; Postmillennialism,  Dispensational Premillennialism, Historic Premillennialism, and Amillennialism entail not only an end times viewpoint but also an overarching theory of history. Each of the views recognizes that there are fluctuations in the progression of history but each understands history to be generally moving in a particular direction. We tend to interpret things as getting progressively better or worse depending upon which theological position we accept.

Postmillennialists believe that the evangelistic efforts of the church will be so successful that at some point there will be an extended period (the millennium) of peace and justice prior to the return of Jesus Christ. They therefore understand history to be moving in a positive direction. They believe that goodness will ultimately triumph in human history. Though not ignoring the negative, they are encouraged by many things that they see as part of the foundation for that triumph. For example, large parts of the world are now being evangelized that had been previously been cut off such as China, South America, and Russia. The conversion rate in many of these places is astounding and hundreds of thousands of people are now professing Christian faith where virtually none had been before. The technology and resources for communicating the Gospel and studying the Bible are better now than at any previous time. Many also claim that various progressive developments in economics and world politics are more favorable than they have typically been historically for the common person.

On the opposite end of the spectrum are Dispensational Premillenialists who believe that evil will have ultimate triumph in human history prior to God’s intervention. When the time comes God will even remove His church from the earth for a time by a secret rapture and evil will rule virtually unopposed until Christ returns, defeats His enemies, and ushers in a thousand year reign of peace and justice. The DP’s believe that godlessness is steadily increasing all around the world. They point to the moral decay of society as well as the unprecedented brutality and corruption that seems to dominate the news. According to DP’s the decline in the influence of the Bible and Christianity on social, political, and popular culture is considered virtually irrefutable evidence of the increasing influence of godlessness.

Historic Premillennialists (HP) on the other hand believe that instead of a general progression in either direction the world will see an increasing polarization of good and evil within history until Christ intercedes to judge the world and usher in an extended reign of peace and justice (the millennium). HP’s point out that despite the increase in the intensity and distribution of evil that we see in the world around us the Church continues to grow. HP’s argue that eventually the polarization will be so great that the Church will undergo widespread and intense persecution but that God will be honored through its witness. HPs therefore acknowledge both positive as well as negative historical development as part of an ongoing struggle between the Church and world that will only end when Christ returns.

The Amillennial position does not hold to any utopian age for men outside of the spiritual rule of Christ over His Church. Both Amillennialism and HP hold that there is a polarization (and eternal separation) between the social institutions of the Church and the world but Amillennialism does not allow for a literal reign of Jesus Christ on Earth the way that HP does. Because of this, the Amillennial system tends to lack a strong emphasis on a theory of historical momentum apart from the inward spiritual experience and the hope of heaven. For the Amillennialist therefore history is in a process of decay but the full promises of the kingdom of God are already in operation within history through the Church. There is to be no hope of an earthly fulfillment of millennial promises. History is therefore universally antithetical to God’s kingdom and although Christ will redeem individuals, He will not redeem earthly institutions and experience.

As we look at the world, we may be tempted to assume that our evaluations of progress (or regress) are somehow objective and obvious. They are not. If we consider our opinions about history carefully, we will find that perhaps they tell us as much about our theology as they do about our judgment.

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