A final theological debate that has been important in shaping contemporary Protestantism concerns the "last things" or "end times," an area of theology sometimes referred to as "eschatology." Protestantism shares many of the traditional Christian beliefs about the afterlife, especially the hope of heaven.33 Many Protestant writers have understood the Christian life in the classical terms of a pilgrimage from their exile in this world to their true destiny and home in the New Jerusalem. The most familiar example of this approach is found in John Bunyan's famous religious allegory The Pilgrim's Progress.34 Bunyan established the journey from the "city of destruction" to the "heavenly city" as a framework for making sense of the ambiguities, sorrows, and pains of the Christian life, especially in times of doubt, persecution, and difficulty. His powerful appeal to imagery, coupled with a masterly use of narrative, ensured that the imagery of the New Jerusalem would have a profound and permanent effect on popular Protestant spirituality.
As understandings of the relation between the individual and corporate aspects of faith have changed over the years, and with changes in political and social circumstances as well, Protestant understandings of the nature of heaven have shifted. The "classic" Protestant conception of heaven is probably most clearly stated in the writings of Puritans, such as Richard Baxter, who emphasize that the primary characteristic of heaven is a total and reverential focus on God. In his The Saints' Everlasting Rest, Baxter argues that the worship of God is the supreme activity of the saints in heaven. Nothing can distract them from the adoration of the God who created and redeemed them and finally brought them to eternal rest in the heavenly places. This concept of heaven remains firmly embedded within Protestantism.
During the nineteenth century, alternative visions of heaven began to emerge, especially in the aftermath of the American Civil War. This war saw unprecedented levels of casualties and caused distress and mourning throughout the nation. A new interest in spiritualism flourished as anguished families sought to reestablish contact with relatives who had died on the field of battle. The new genre of "consolation literature" reconceived heaven primarily as a reencounter with loved ones.35 In The Gates Ajar (1868), Elizabeth Stuart Phelps (1844-1911) rejects the traditional idea of heaven as "harping and praying" and argues that it is about the restoration of life and relationships. Heaven is portrayed in this book as an extended nineteenth-century family in which little children are busy "devouring heavenly gingersnaps" and playing rosewood pianos, while the adults listen to learned discourses from glorified philosophers and the symphonies of Beethoven.
Protestantism's attitudes to hell reflect, again, the Christian tradition in general. The traditional Christian view of hell as a sulfurous inferno of eternal torment emerged during the Middle Ages, and it continued to be found in many Protestant writings of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.36 The most famous exposition of this classic Protestant idea is found in Jonathan Edwards's sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," preached in Enfield, Connecticut, on July 8, 1741. Edwards is clear about what unrepentant sinners can expect to encounter: "The wrath of God burns against them, their damnation does not slumber; the pit is prepared, the fire is made ready, the furnace is now hot, ready to receive them."
Since the nineteenth century, however, this concept of hell has come under criticism within many sections of Christianity, including Protestantism, as representing a medieval expansion of the biblical material. Many Protestants have expressed puzzlement about the moral purpose of eternal punishment and uneasiness about the traditional answers offered, including the idea that such punishment glorifies God. One response, widely advocated within sections of English Protestantism in the 1880s and now found increasingly within American evangelicalism, is a reappropriation of the patristic idea of "conditional immortality," which holds that human souls are created with the capacity for immortality, but that this capacity is actualized only through repentance and faith.37
This uneasiness about the idea of hell has had a significant impact on some evangelical approaches to evangelism. One common evangelistic strategy of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was to present the gospel as the only way of escaping the horrors and pain of hell. Edwards's famous sermon ends with a plea to those who have not yet come to faith to "awake and fly from the wrath to come." Echoes of this approach can be found in the early preaching of Billy Graham, widely regarded as the twentieth century's most prominent Protestant evangelist. Yet the weakening of the cultural belief in hell—which is generally regarded as having been in decline in the West since the 1960s38—has diminished the power of this approach. In response to this development, many Protestant evangelists now base their appeal primarily upon the love of God or the capacity of the gospel to make sense of life and transform it. It makes little sense, they argue, to have to persuade people of the existence of hell before they can be persuaded of the relevance of the gospel.
While Protestantism follows traditional Christian views at many points concerning the "last things," it has generally rejected the notion of an "intermediate state," or purgatory, holding that this traditional Catholic idea is not adequately grounded in the Bible and is in any case made redundant by the doctrine of justification by faith. The believer does not need to be purified by fire, precisely because Christ has already purified the believer through his death—an idea often expressed in popular Protestant spirituality in terms of "being washed in the blood of the Lamb." The imagery of the believer being able to approach God, enfolded in Christ's righteousness, is perhaps most familiar from Charles Wesley's famous hymn "And Can It Be?"
No Condemnation now I dread, Jesus, and all in Him, is mine.
Alive in Him, my Living Head,
And clothed in Righteousness Divine,
Bold I approach th' eternal Throne,
And claim the Crown, through Christ my own.
A final area of interest in Protestant eschatology concerns the details of the end times. Christians have always enjoyed speculating about origins and endings, and it is hardly surprising that this area of theology proved to have the capacity to engage the popular imagination.39 Early Protestantism was reluctant to engage with such issues, believing that speculation about when the end of the world might take place was likely to inflame passions and distract people from the more serious business of reforming the church and sorting out the problems of contemporary society. However, the debate flared up again in the nineteenth century, particularly within American Protestantism, and it has continued unabated since then.
Much of the debate has centered on the "millennium," an idea mentioned in the Book of Revelation, which brings the New Testament canon to its close (Revelation 2012-5).40 The millennium refers to the hope of a restored earthly kingdom lasting for a period of one thousand years and separating the second coming of Christ and the subsequent establishment of a totally new cosmic order. Although some early Christian writers—such as Irenaeus of Lyons—interpreted this passage literally, a consensus developed that it should be understood figuratively. The reference to a period of a thousand years should not be understood as a literal prediction of the chronological duration of an earthly kingdom, but as an allegorical indication of the grandeur of the heavenly kingdom.
One of the most distinctive features of contemporary American conservative Protestantism is its rediscovery of the idea of the millennium, which it has understood in three ways—again, reflecting different approaches to the interpretation of the Bible. The traditional Protestant disinclination to speculate about the end times is now named the "amillennial" approach and is contrasted with two approaches that make much greater use of the notion of the millennium.
The postmillennial viewpoint was particularly influential in American Protestantism during the nineteenth century. It holds that Christ will return at the close of a long period (not necessarily lasting one thousand years) of righteousness and peace, commonly called the millennium. Leading conservative Protestant theologians, such as the Princeton academics Charles B. Hodge (1797-1878) and Benjamin B. Warfield (1851-1921), took the view that God is bringing about his purposes through steady human progress over evil that will progressively lead to a Christianized world. Postmillennialism sees the church as playing a major role in transforming whole social structures before the Second Coming of Christ and endeavoring to bring about a golden age of peace and prosperity with great advances in education, the arts, the sciences, and medicine. During this process, the church will rise in power, influence, and integrity, serving as the standard bearer for the coming kingdom of God on earth. Its credibility was severely damaged by the suffering and damage of the First and Second World Wars, both of which increased the appeal of premillennialism, especially in North America.
The premillennial viewpoint holds that the figure known as "the Antichrist" will appear on earth, ushering in a seven-year period of suffering known as "the Tribulation." This great period of destruction, war, and disaster will finally be ended by God defeating evil at the battle of Armageddon. After this, Christ will return to earth to rule for a period of a thousand years (the millennium), during which time the forces of evil will finally be subdued and conquered.
Premillennialism offers the strongly pessimistic view that things are deteriorating on earth and will go on doing so until God brings history to an end. This view resonates deeply with the sense of cultural alienation shared by many conservative American Protestants, especially its belief that anti-Christian forces are gaining the upper hand in America, as in the world in general. But since premillennialists see the degeneration of the world as a sign that the end of the world is near, they can view this negative development as a harbinger of something positive.
Beliefs about the end times have had a major impact on American popular Protestantism, as is evident from the huge sales of fiction and nonfiction works reflecting these standpoints. Hal Lindsey's end-times book The Late Great Planet Earth (1970) was one of the best-selling novels of that decade. More recently, the best-selling "Left Behind" novels, written by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, have ensured that premillennial ideology retains a high profile across America. In a similar vein, John Hagee, senior pastor of an evangelical mega-church in San Antonio, Texas, has penned a series of end-time novels, including Devil's Island (2001), that reflect a fascination with the interconnection between the politics of the Middle East and the end of the world.
The brief engagement with some aspects of Protestant teachings offered in this chapter has touched on some of its most distinctive beliefs, while at the same time noting the diversity within the movement. The movement's shared commitment to the authority of the Bible does not lead to a common mind on how the Bible is to be interpreted. This is not seen as a particular problem, except for those who mistakenly hold that the principle of the "clarity of scripture" demands total uniformity of interpretation on all matters.
So what is the impact of Protestant attitudes and beliefs on everyday life? What difference do they make? In the following chapter, we consider how these ideas shape Protestant life and worship.
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