End Times: I Wish We'd All Been . . . Discipled
Talking about eschatology is one of my least favorite things. Honestly, I think I'd (almost) rather go to the dentist than willingly engage in a discussion about the end times. There are lots of reason for this: over-exposure to weird theories about it as a kid, my desire to avoid arguments on second/third order theological issues that are super controversial, and the fact I don't like to be pigeonholed into a particular theological camp.
On the other hand, my knee-jerk reaction to surviving the culture wars of my childhood is to pursue unity and healing within the church wherever and whenever possible. So in that vein, I felt compelled to speak after reading Sara Billups's memoir.
The American evangelical church of the 1980s and 90s can be characterized as many things, but the word that looms largest in my mind as someone who grew up in it is this: excess. Coming off the recessions and scarcities of the 1970s, we embraced more: big hair, big meals, bigger homes, and obscenely big shoulder pads.
Sometimes the church mirrored this mindset with big egos, big churches (the start of the “megas”), and what I like to call “Big Theology”—the emergence of theological perspectives that captured the evangelical imagination across denominations. It was a natural marriage between cultural moments and Big Tent Evangelicalism. Big Theologies occupied our sermons and Bible study discussions—to excess—and they became what we were known for outside the church. And hands-down one of the biggest Big theologies was dispensational eschatology.
While premillennialism is a historically held interpretation, it was a wave that surged in the 1970s with Hal Lindsey’s The Late, Great Planet Earth that strengthened into a tsunami in the 1980s. And its swell didn’t die down until the late 1990s, after publication of the umpteenth book in the Left Behind series. Everyone was talking about the end times, the rapture, the horrors of the tribulation to come. Given global unrest, natural disasters, and the political tenor in the final decades of the 20th century, the hype is understandable.
But like with any obsession, too much of a good thing can produce harmful results. Churched Millennials have been publishing their memoirs capturing different aspects of 1980s and 1990s church culture and its problems for more than a decade now. When We Were on Fire is one of the earliest, and probably my favorite for its truth woven with lyricism. I was hopeful for a similarly relatable and insightful memoir from Sara Billups in her Orphaned Believers.
Billups didn’t disappoint on the relatability factor. I completely identify with her experience growing up with a family member whose primary theological affinity appeared to be an end-times lens to reading Scripture. To borrow from Mike Minter’s concept of Son Burn, Billups’s dad, my parents (especially my dad), and many Boomers like them found in premillennialism their Big Idea. End-times studies and discussions became their main avenue to connect with God and other believers.
Both Billups and I love our parents and have good relationships with them. We appreciate the faith they nurtured in us from the beginning. We do not doubt the love they have for God or for other people--believers in Christ or not. However, neither Billups nor I (or many other Millennials raised in the church) feel a strong draw toward eschatology as a primary pillar of our faith -- especially when it's of the premillennial flavor. If anything, our parents' love of end time prophecies produced the opposite effect.
Where Billups and I differ is on the extent and cause of damage. She spends many pages enumerating the harms caused by the promulgation of premillennial eschatology. Evangelicals’ fascination, dare I say, fetish, with wondering if the current Russian leader/Pope/hyper-liberal politician was the anti-Christ isn’t just an inside joke. Preoccupation over the timing of the rapture and tribulation gravely impacted Billups and many others of our generation, leaving spiritual and psychological wounds. I can empathize to a degree: walking into a place where I expect to see people and finding it empty triggers an irrational convulsive fear reflex in the deepest part of me.
And as much as I'd like to say I've purged the weirder aspects of certain end times theories from my brain, I have not. Only a few years ago, I mistakenly stated in a seminary class something that was straight out of one of the Left Behind books (definitely NOT in the Bible). My professor and classmates ribbed me good-naturedly afterwards to my complete mortification. But my biggest wounds from my churchy upbringing result from theologies not related to the end times.
For Billups, the problem of premillennialism is one of bad theology. She calls premillennialism a “false construct” right up there with conspiracy theories and Christian Nationalism. The harms done to Billups and others are real. Yet I believe a different culprit is to blame. It is not the theology of dispensationalism itself (although there are certainly very sketchy forms of it) that is at fault. Rather, it’s the headlong, unhealthy fixation and sensationalism that defined the era, of which premillennialism is the most obvious example.
Evangelicalism gave excessive attention to premillennialism, often disconnected from the broader scriptural contexts and associative theologies. This led to the neglect of teaching more important core doctrines of the church to our children and new believers—many of whom came into the fold as a result of popular level treatments of eschatology.
There are some solid theological arguments for a rapture. There are also strong critiques of it. But even if one believes whole-heartedly in the rapture happening, does this little-understood doctrine merit entire conferences devoted to the topic? Is this the best use of our time if Jesus is indeed coming back soon?
Can we acknowledge that evangelicals largely abandoned creation care for a generation also due to this craze? Why put any effort into preserving the earth if it's about to burn in just a few years?
In our persistent sky-gazing, did we forget to disciple our youngest believers (chronologically and spiritually) in the main tenets of our faith? Is it any wonder so many Millennials have dropped out when their roots were so shallowly planted? (Those tempted to cite that verse about the love of many growing cold in the end times -- don't -- unless you're repenting of your own love toward your fellow human beings.)
A steady gorging of any theology in isolation will engender an imbalanced church with emaciated faith. It will also often lack in love toward those who believe differently, whether inside or outside the church.
So where does this leave us? Adherents of dispensationalism, instead of defensively responding to Billups and others who have recently written on the issue would do well to incline ears and hearts. Eschatological interpretation, while important, is a secondary issue. Loving our sisters and brothers in Christ well is first order.
Those of us who hold to some version of premillennialism should give those injured by the Big Theology excesses room to speak—whether on eschatology, spiritual warfare, or purity culture. We can accept the criticism humbly while still holding (humbly) to our understandings of the end times. And we should move forward with charity, committing to impart the whole counsel of God so that Jesus may have hearty, holistic disciples who are known not for their devotion to date-setting, but for their love.
(NOTE: This is the full version of the essay. A shorter version (to meet length constraints) is posted here: End Times: I Wish We’d All Been…Discipled – Bible.org Blogs.