In Consuming Jesus, Paul Metzger argues that three historical themes converged to make evangelicalism less than it should be:
- Antipathy toward social engagement
- A form of premillennial eschatology which promotes a pessimistic view of cultural engagement
Here’s how Metzger describes the influence of premillenialism on how evangelicals engage the world.
Metzger contrasts Jonathan Blanchard, the founding president of Wheaton College, with his son Charles. The senior Blanchard was a postmillenialist and a social reformer who wanted to transform culture. Influenced by Moody, his son Charles was a dispensational premillenialist who moved away from social transformation. Why? Because premillenialists believed that the church would be raptured before the Great Tribulation. Metzger writes:
As Martin Luther would have put it, the elder Blanchard would have planted a tree today if he knew the world was going to end tomorrow. On the other hand, some dispensationalists have figured out they might as well let the world go to hell in a handbasket. Why? Because everything is going to burn in the end anyway. With that perspective, Christians should stick to saving souls for heaven rather than expending our efforts to save a sinking ship. As Dwight Moody would say, “I look upon this world as a wrecked vessel…God has given me a lifeboat and said to me, ‘Moody, save all you can.'”
This mindset is present today, even in those who aren’t widely known as dispensationalists. For instance, for years megachurch pastor Bill Hybels ignored issues like racism in favor of evangelism. Hybels now admits he was wrong.
Metzger argues that the “world as a sinking ship” mindset is counterproductive. “This sincere – though short-sighted – pragmatic, and reductionist perspective, when taken to an extreme, actually keeps us from reaching people for Christ: it conveys to many that the gospel is only about saving certain souls for eternity, and it has no bearing on addressing some of the world’s profound problems.”
It’s not only counterproductive, it’s not biblical. One’s view of eschatology “does not exclude the community of God from its responsibility to engage socially.” By neglecting social action, we create “a vacuum in which a suspect form of the gospel could flourish.”
Fundamentalism is wondering just how it is that a world-changing message narrowed its scope to the saving of isolated individuals…Whereas once the redemptive gospel was a world-changing message, now it was narrowed to a world-resistant message. Out of twentieth-century Fundamentalism of this sort there could be no contemporary version of Augustine’s The City of God.
Early next week, I’ll post on Metzger’s description of where these trends have left us.