Often when I make an appeal for Christian social involvement, I get some Christians who bring up various objections, most of which boil down to this sentiment: we are living in the last days and it is silly to polish brass on a sinking ship. Such end-times thinking acts as a pretty good brake on any efforts to reclaim the culture, or to redeem society. This “you don’t rearrange deck chairs on the Titanic” mentality is fairly pervasive in the church.
Mind you, this particular eschatological viewpoint is a perfectly respectable position, held by many sincere Christians. Known as pre-millennialism, with a bit of pre-tribulationism thrown in as well, it is one legitimate eschatological option. Indeed, I held this view for many years, and I taught it with a passion, complete with all the charts, time-lines and proof-texts.
However, to those who argue that we are living in the end times, that the rapture is near, and that we are not expected to try to improve our culture, let me point out several things.
First, people have been setting dates for centuries. Most Christian generations have thought that they were living in the last days. But we just do not know exactly when Christ will return. Jesus said “Occupy till I come” (Luke 19:13). He did not say, “pack your bags, put your feet up, and wait for my return”. Whether Christ comes back in a day or a decade or a century, we are to be fully involved in the work of the kingdom. He expects us to be busy in our service for him, “redeeming the time, for the days are evil” (Eph. 5:16). It was Martin Luther who said, “If I knew Christ were coming tomorrow, I would still plant an apple tree today”.
Second, Jesus also said, “You are the salt of the earth . . . You are the light of the world.” (Matthew 5:13,14). Remember, he didn’t tell his disciples, “hands up everybody who wants to be salt and light”. He said they are salt and light. But he warned that the attributes of salt and light could be wasted or rendered useless if not used properly. Salt serves a negative function. It is to prevent deterioration, decay, rot. On the other hand, light serves a positive function. It illumines, it exposes, it reveals. Christians are to be actively involved in both functions. We are to act as a moral preservative in society. And we are to set a standard of righteousness in a sin-darkened world.
The ancient Christian leader Tertullian exhorted the Christian minority of his day to be the “soul” of secular Roman culture. Pagan Rome was beset with corruption and moral decay, but Tertullian urged the Christian community not to retreat from that culture but to contend for it.
If Christians do not act as salt and light, who will?
Third, the return of the Lord may in a sense be conditional on what we do here on earth.
For example, in 2 Pet. 3, Peter discusses the return of Christ. After listing some of the cataclysmic events preceding the advent, he says in verses 11 and 12, ‘considering that all this is to happen, what sort of people ought you to be?’ He says our three responses should be: holiness of life, worship of God and service to man. This, he says, will “hasten on” the Lord’s return. This implies to me that we can also impede or slow up his return. The timing of the second coming, then, is dependent somewhat on us.
Jesus implied a similar thing in Mat. 24:14 when he said that the gospel must first be preached to all creatures, then the end will come. The end times, in other words, are partly determined by how faithful we are to do his work. (See also Mark 13:10)
Moreover, what did Jesus mean when he asked us to pray for his Kingdom to come? In Mat. 6:9,10 he says, “This, then, is how you should pray: ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven’.” See also Luke 11:2.
Or what did Peter mean by these words?: “Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord, and that he may send the Christ, who has been appointed for you–even Jesus. He must remain in heaven until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets.” (Acts 3:19-21) The implication seems to be that repentance and obedience are also elements that will determine when Christ returns.
Fourth, the history of the church has been the history of social transformation. Wherever Christians have gone, they have improved living conditions, championed the homeless, the poor, the victims of injustice. They have built hospitals, developed literacy programs, ministered to the poor and needy, set up orphanages, engaged in practical mercy ministries, etc. They set up schools, wrote down languages, were involved in prison reform, abolition of slavery, improvement of worker’s conditions, protection of women (suttee in India), etc. Throughout history many Christian philanthropic organisations sprang up such as the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, St. Vincent de Paul, YMCA, Goodwill Industries, rescue missions, etc.
Fifth, even if you do accept the premillennial position, you can still be involved in social action. Consider two of the greatest evangelical leaders and social reformers of the past century: Lord Shaftesbury and William Wilberforce. Wilberforce (1759-1833) worked for decades to abolish the slave trade. He was also involved in the Sunday school movement, relief of prisoners, prison reform, working conditions, mentally ill, “the reformation of manners”, etc. Shaftesbury (1801-1885), like Wilberforce, was a member of the British House of Commons. He was involved in alleviation of bad conditions in insane asylums; workers’ conditions, especially women and children; he helped relieve poor housing conditions; had a great interest in missions and bible societies. For 57 out of 60 years in public service he received no salary. Now interestingly, Wilberforce was postmillennial in his eschatology, while Shaftesbury was premillennial. They may have had quite different end time views, but both had a committed resolve to better society around them.
Sixth, and finally, there is also an historical component to the lack of social action amongst Evangelicals. The rise of theological liberalism during the nineteenth century resulted in the emergence of the “Social Gospel” which basically replaced evangelism and spiritual renewal with social transformation only. To work against poverty or other social maladies was seen as extending the Kingdom. But this was often done to the exclusion of preaching the gospel and saving souls. Thus Christians reacted against this pseudo-gospel. This in part led to the rise of Fundamentalism. The Fundamentalists rightly restored the priority of the gospel and preaching, but overreacted to the social agenda. Thus Fundamentalists tended to withdraw from the world altogether, seeing culture and society as under Satan’s sole control.
It was only in the 1950’s that Evangelicalism started to restore the balance, by both proclaiming the gospel and restoring the church’s social conscience.
In conclusion, I really do not mind what a person’s eschatology is. As long as they do not use it as an excuse to remain inactive and inert, it should be no problem. While some people do let their visions of the end times dictate their involvement, I suspect that for most believers, it is not theology or eschatology that keeps them from being world-changers. It may just be a half-hearted devotion to our Lord. Personal revival is always a prerequisite to being genuine followers of Jesus and acting as salt and light. Let us all redouble our efforts to follow and serve him.