Some professed Christians exercise greater faith in impending doom than they do in an omnipotent Deity and the promises of Sacred Scripture. This inclination ranges across the theological spectrum from end-of the world imminent rapture dispensationalists to God-guns-and-gold "remnant" survivalist reconstructionists. Both have been blessed with the great faith that before things get better, they must get very, very bad. Doomsday dispensationalists have great faith that imminent apostasy precedes the imminent rapture (they are not always certain about which imminence is truly imminent). Remnant reconstructionists, on the other hand, have great faith that godly social transformation is impossible unless preceded by great societal collapse. They consider societal collapse a mechanism of divine judgment out of whose ruins the Prometheus of a reconstructed culture will emerge, sculptured (of course) by the minute number of faithful remnant reconstructionists themselves. In addition, divine judgment in the form of social collapse will provide undeniable, visible testimony to the inviolability of God's law — and, not coincidentally, validate many years of economic prognostications ordinarily gone seriously awry. (It is sometimes difficult to distinguish between the desire for divine justification and the desire for self-justification.)
Though if the doomsday dispensationalists and the remnant reconstructionists are certain that the magical year 2000 is destined to initiate a massive world-wide apocalypse and resultant Christianization of culture, both believe the world must get much worse before it can get better. The doomsday dispensationalists believe that the rapture and "seven-year tribulation period" necessarily precede a great earthly millennium over which Jesus Christ will personally, physically rule, while the remnant reconstructionists hold that massive social collapse will pave the way for the godly remnant to reconstruct society on the ashes of the apocalypse.
The Error of the Doomsday Dispensationalists
Both are wrong. The parables of the wheat and tares (Mt. 13:24-30), of the mustard seed (Mt. 13:31-32), and of the yeast and loaf (Mt. 13:33) refute both notions. The doomsday dispensationalists believe that twice Christians will be physically separated from the world before the final judgment: first, the Christians living at the "rapture" will be caught up with the Lord, and second, the deceased Christians at the beginning of the millennium will be resurrected; the living and deceased unregenerate will not be judged, they hold, until the final judgment at the close of the millennium. But the parable of the wheat and tares assures us that there will be no physical separation of the converted from the unconverted until the end of the harvest, the end of the world (Mt. 13:39). There will indeed be a rapture and resurrection for believers, but these will occur at the end of human history at the second Advent of Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 15:24-25). The Bible does teach that near the end of the millennium, Satan is "loosed" from his incarceration and permitted to mount one final assault on Christ and his kingdom. His and his followers' rebellion will be short-lived, however, inasmuch as it will be squelched by God's judgment (Rev. 20:7-10).
The Error of the Remnant Reconstructionists
The principal error of the remnant reconstructionists is their assumption that godly social transformation is impossible apart from great societal collapse. History itself, and not only Sacred Scripture, refutes this notion. The erosion of the Roman Empire which created a vacuum filled by establishment Christianity was anything but a collapse — it was a gradual atrophy of evil within the society of pagan Rome and correspondingly gradual extension of Christ's kingdom (see Charles Cochrane's Christianity and Classical Culture [New York, 1957]). In other words, it operated precisely as Christ's parables predicted it would. The same is true of the Reformation. The Renaissance, despite much of its intently anti-Christian bias, recovered a scholarly interest in the texts of antiquity and thereby created an atmosphere in which respect for the Sacred Scriptures as the word of God shorn from traditionary accretions could prevail (consult Allister McGrath's The Intellectual Origins of the European Reformation [Grand Rapids, 1987], 32-43). The close of the fifteenth and the beginning of the sixteenth century was a time of great transition, but that transition was not generated by any massive social collapse. To the contrary, in many ways the Protestant Reformation as one of the great Christian revivals in history is more accurately identified as the final segment of the Middle Ages than of the initiation of modern times.
What Social Collapse Tends to Produce
In fact, far from heralding a revived Christian civilization, widespread social collapse seems more often to precede extensive social evils. Think, for instance, of the Turkish invasion of Europe and Byzantium; the French Revolution; and, in more recent times, the Russian Revolution and the Weimar Republic. Widespread social collapse is no precursor to the revival of Christian civilization. It is often just the opposite.
None of this means, of course, that the world will soon be spared local and regional pestilences, famine, natural disasters, authoritarian regimes, and the like. Until the millennium fully blooms, we cannot expect global tranquillity. Nonetheless, the absorbing accounts in Otto Friedrich's The End of the World (New York, 1986) rehearse particular historic epochs when for certain individuals and societies, the end of the world did seem imminent. The sack of Rome, the Roman Catholic Inquisition, the Anabaptist terror, the Black Plague, the Lisbon earthquake, the Russian Revolution, and the "kingdom of Auschwitz" — all seemed to herald the end of the world to the individuals subject to their horrors. Friedrich notes, however, that what seemed to be the end of the world was soon transformed into a return to life's routine and almost the omission of any memory of the tragic past (p. 64). A sign in the obstetrics wing of the hospital in which all five of my children were born stated the truth succinctly but profoundly: "Babies are proof of God's intention that life should go on." While, therefore, until the fullness of the millennium, we can expect local and regional tragedy, whether it be God's judgment, testing his people's faith, or any other providential work, it is an aspect of his ultimately inscrutable will for his creation (the remnant reconstructionists are fond of referring to "predictable" sanctions in history — in much the same way that the "sanctions" suffered by Job were "predictable" [by his miserable comforters: Job. 11:6; 15:16; 20:4-5, 24-29; 22:5, 22-23; 34:7-12, 31-37, cf.42:7-9; 21:7-34]! Predictable blessing and judgment? Yes. Man's infallible reading of the timing and nature of the sanctions? Not quite. The lust for exhaustive knowledge of God's will is an apostate desire).
If the kingdom of God is to advance slowly and incrementally, almost imperceptibly, we should not expect the sort of massive social collapse that the doomsday dispensationalists and the remnant reconstructionists predict, and which conflicts with the incremental leavening effect of the kingdom of God. A globalized version of the localized or regional social collapse which ordinarily produces ungodly civilization is simply incompatible with Christ's promises of the gradual, but relentless, advance of his kingdom in history (Gen. 9:11-17). We must never presume that the collapse of an ungodly civilization is an essential step in establishing Christian civilization. God no more needs to destroy ungodly civilization in order to maintain his advancing kingdom than he needs to destroy the ungodly individual in order to convert him. Make no mistake: God judges individuals, God judges families, God judges churches, God judges nations, and God judges civilizations. But God's redemptive work outdistances his retributive work. Grace exceeds judgment (Rom. 5:20).
The apocalyptic faith places greater hope in retribution than in redemption, greater trust in judgment than in grace. But in the advancement of Christ's kingdom, God slays the wicked by his irresistible grace (Ps. 110:5-6; Rev. 19:11-21; cf. Rom. 6:2-11; 2 Cor. 5:14; Gal. 2:19; Col. 2:20; 2 Tim. 2:11). Our faith must be placed in Christ's irresistible kingdom, not in apocalypticism and the end of the world.