What more is there for their Expected One to do when he comes? To call the heathen? But they are called already. To put an end to prophet and king and vision? But this too has already happened. To expose the God-denyingness of idols? It is already exposed and condemned. Or to destroy death? It is already destroyed. What then has not come to pass that the Christ must do?
Athanasius, On the Incarnation
Christianity introduced me to a God who interacted with humanity to offer a life greater than myself. This made a lot of sense to seventeen-year-old me. It still does. Christianity in America comes with a lot of baggage, though. Along with the powerful message of the gospel come a lot of strange ideas about the creation and destruction of the world. Depictions of a violent and terrifying last days are often portrayed in both Hollywood fiction and from the pulpits of American churches. I spent many of my younger years friend to a fireball end-times preacher, who sadly died of COVID recently. Having been immersed in a church community with end-times motifs often present, it became apparent over time that evangelical Christianity seemed to have conflated faith with magic, losing touch with historical Christian beliefs. Modern interpretations of end times prophecy have become increasingly more embellished within many churches, incorporating new themes from current events into a sort of theological composite to explain present-day unrest. Such theories divorced the pattern of a historical Jesus, who advocated non-violence, with one now seemingly the perpetrator of pointless violence, judgment, and terrifying death. These beliefs have altered the entire world view of the evangelical church to adopt a militant, warfare-influenced mindset.
The concept of a violent and militant Jesus probably had its origins in the medieval period1. The idea was first codified at the Council of Nablus in 1120, where Canon 20 permitted a clergyman to take up arms in self-defense without bearing any guilt; this was during turbulent times when Christian pilgrims were often massacred by the hundreds along their journey, leaving their rotting corpses along the road from Jaffa into the Holy Land. This one concession, intended to be a temporary measure, seeded militant movements in Christianity starting with the Papal legitimization of the Templars movement (“God’s Holy Knights”), extremist groups such as Alfonso I’s Brotherhood of Belchite, the Pastoureaux, and now reaches into modern day militant Christian ideals. End-times theories today evolve within evangelical churches to reinterpret current events into an apocalyptic context. They attract fringe groups with similar mindsets, as they include the same elements – oracle-sourced apocalyptic theories that lead to violent, anti-establishment outcomes. Yet this is in conflict with the teachings of Christ and hundreds of years of church fathers about martyrdom, pacifism, and government non-involvement. The obvious contradiction of a Christianity asserting a struggle that is “not against flesh and blood” somehow ending up with a literal war against flesh and blood is the result of a theological evolution that influenced how the church interprets scripture and forms doctrine today. To not believe in a brutal and imminent end times means, in many churches, that you don’t have a Christian faith at all.
Theories about masks, vaccines, the World Health Organization, and a new president are popular topics of recent end-times discussion within churches. The idea that anyone can speculate on end-times prophecy has attracted conspiracy groups like QAnon, which now represents up to 25% of white American evangelicals. Denominationalism, while having some benefit, has also become a significant enabler of confirmation bias in the church, allowing for tribal systems of otherwise fringe beliefs to find support. These beliefs have become more extreme as a result of the social dysfunction created by COVID and deep divisions in politics. Beliefs about masks, vaccines, and other current topics are now loosely joined to end-times concepts of one world government, the mark of the beast, eternal punishment, or other themes in Revelation. Conspiracy theories within the church’s walls have had very real consequences. A study from the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) showed that only a mere 41% of white evangelicals believe scripture provides no reason to refuse the COVID vaccine – that’s 59% of white evangelicals who think otherwise. The same polling organization found that 18% of all Americans believe in the QAnon conspiracy the “government, media and financial worlds in the U.S. are controlled by a group of Satan-worshipping pedophiles who run a global child sex-trafficking operation”. The most extreme example of end-times prophecy going off the rails was seen on January 6, where insurrectionists attempted a coup within the congress, driven by QAnon conspiracy theories. As one evangelical pastor put it, “Right now QAnon is still on the fringes of evangelicalism… but we have a pretty big fringe.”
The modern-day evangelical end-times posture can be walked back to a shift in theological interpretation of the mid-1800s. The interpretive biases that posit this theology have altered Christianity in many significant ways. Yet concepts of a sudden secret rapture, seven years of tribulation, and a thousand-year earthly kingdom all rest upon theological pillars of highly questionable origin. Such last days concepts have no support in historic Christianity, and could be divorced from Christianity altogether. Many evangelicals, having been raised in this mindset, will deny vaccines and literally die on the basis of the theological system under which they were taught, firmly believing that they are honoring God in doing so. Yet it is a flawed and unfalsifiable system of theology – not Christianity itself – that is to blame. Let us attempt to tease those two concepts apart.