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Against Pessimism

  • P. Andrew Sandlin,
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The last two decades’ spate of jeremiads lamenting modern culture or church and holding out slight hope of change reads like a bestseller’s list both Christian and secular: The Late Great Planet Earth, The Great Evangelical Disaster, The Closing of the American Mind, No Place for Truth,’ The Seduction of Christianity, Evangelicalism: The Coming Generation, The Tempting of America, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, Slouching Toward Gomorrah, and so forth. While some of the works often courageously and astutely pinpoint the deep flaws of modern culture and Christianity, almost all uniformly and monotonously conclude with a distinct tone of pessimism: we are entering a veritable new Dark Ages, and there is little hope matters will be different any time in the foreseeable future. In his sweeping work Culture and the Crowd: A Cultural History of the Proletarian Era, Deric Regin, a secularist, captures the sense of pessimism the progress of democracy in the modern world has not eliminated:

The present century shows the unquestionable extension of democratic progress; it is, after all, the era of the New Freedom, of new deals and of fair deals. In most Western countries, frustrated minorities are tolerantly being incorporated into the national unity. Yet what stands out is the dread produced by the Russian Revolution, the Great Depression, the two World Wars, and the despotism of Stalin and Hitler. With this behind us, it is small wonder that the modern mind is neurotically occupied with a possible third global war, a projected conflagration exceeding all the horrors of recent history. Unwarranted and weak in faith as this attitude may seem, we must resign ourselves to the fact that the age of anxiety, as anticipated by Kierkegaard, has come to fruition as inexorably as the violence endorsed by the thinking of Babeuf, Marx, Bakunin, and Nietzche.1

This pessimism generated by the close historical proximity of the failures and even horrors of mankind is paralleled in the Christian church by those who hold that increasing apostasy and evil are inevitable.2 In fact, they are often alarmed by the prospect that Christians are forsaking this pessimistic interpretation of the Bible and returning to the older Christian optimism.3 Things must get worse, according to this scenario, and it is alarming to suggest they may get better.

Biblical Justification for Optimism

In bold contrast, the Scriptures depict the course of the interadvental era as one of progressive (though not necessarily uninterrupted) and relentless advance of the kingdom of God in time and history. The kingdom is likened to both a grain of mustard seed which grows to a huge tree in which numerous birds nest, as well as to yeast which slowly but progressively leavens the entire dough (Mt. 13:31-33). Both point to (a) the minuteness of the kingdom’s inception, (b) the organic progressiveness of its growth, and (c) the immensity of its culmination.

This is precisely the lesson communicated in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream which Daniel rehearsed and interpreted (Dan. 2). The stone cut out without hands is identified as the divinely generated kingdom established during the Roman Empire (2:39-42), God’s kingdom “which shall never be destroyed; and the kingdom [in contrast to merely human kingdoms] shall not be left to other people, but it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms [the four ancient world empires: Babylon, Media-Persia, Greece, Rome], and it shall stand forever” (2:44). Notably, the kingdom is not established in some far-reaching time of the future, but in the Roman Empire, i.e., Christ’s first advent.

A central effect of Christ’s vicarious atonement is the vanquishing of Satan’s subordinate reign and consequent advancement of God’s kingdom in the earth. The atonement reverses the effects of sin not merely individually, but also socially. In this vein, Scottish exegete John Brown, commenting on John 12:31-33, observes:

[I]t is of importance to remark, that [Christ’s] death merited, as its reward, that unlimited dominion, that uncontrolled power—both as to external event and inward influence—which has been conferred on Christ by his Father—in the exercise of which, he puts down the power of the devil, opposed as it is to the holy benignant purpose of his mediatorial reign ... It is in the exercise of this power, thus acquired, that he so regulates the rise and decline and fall of empires—the progress of commerce, and science, and art, and, indeed, all events—as to secure the carrying, to all nations, of that Gospel, by which, through the accompanying power of the Spirit, the prince of this world is ultimately to be expelled from every corner of a world, the whole of which, with scarcely an exception, had, for so many ages, lain completely under his iron yoke.”4

The death of Christ is a cosmic event, creating cosmic changes (Rom. 8:18-25). The objective of Christ’s substitutionary atonement is not merely individual salvation—crucial though it is—but cosmic salvation—progressively reversing the effects of sin wherever they are found.

At his ascension—not at his second advent—Christ receives “dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all people, nations, and languages, should serve him: his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed” (Dan. 7:13,14).5 The first advent signaled Messiah’s piercing of history and the inception of his kingdom (Mt. 4:17, 23; 12:22-29), while his ascension constituted the formal coronation of his reign and his session with God the Father with regal authority over the earth (Ac. 2:30-33), energizing his covenant body by his Spirit (Ac. 2:16- 21) and gifts (Eph. 4:7-16), and waiting there until his enemies are made his footstool (Ac. 2:34-36).

Christians are designated the seed of Abraham (Gal. 3:29), recipients of the promises of the Abrahamic covenant, including the possession of their enemies’ gates (Gen. 22:17). The land promises have been expanded to comprehend the entire earth (Rom. 4:13), “and, therefore,” in the words of Murray, “can hardly involve anything less than the worldwide dominion promised to Christ and to the spiritual seed of Abraham in him.”6 We can as soon eliminate the God of the covenant as we can eliminate the promises that the seed of Abraham, the true church of Jesus Christ, will inherit the earth (Ps. 37:11; Mt. 5:5).

The eschatological pessimists are quite right to identify the present age as the “last days”; they fail to realize, however, that the last days constitute the entire interadvental period (Heb. 1:1, 2), during which the gospel will be preached in full efficacy (Mt. 28:18-20), the nations will how to Christ’s authority (Ps. 2:7- 9), kings will protect Christ’s people (Is. 60:16), domestic peace and harmony will pervade mankind (Is. 65:20-25), Biblical law will prevail in society (Is. 2:3), and the righteous will reign as Christ’s representatives in the earth (Rev. 2:26, 27). The fact that we do not yet observe the fullness of Christ’s reign is no proof it is not to be expected (Heb. 2:7, 8).

We must not get the impression, of course, that the inevitability of the kingdom’s advance and the optimism it inspires guarantee an easy, care-free life. All to the contrary: the Bible promises difficulties and hardship to those waging war against Satan’s kingdom (Jn. 16:33; Ac. 14:21, 22). The blessings of surrender to Christ and obedience to his word are accompanied by trial and tribulation (Mk. 10:29, 30). In the war with Satan’s kingdom on all fronts, there are no victories without battles. The covenant promise to old covenant Israel that “[e]very place that the soul of your foot shall tread upon, that have I given you,” Jos. 1:3) in no way implied exemption from laborious, hand-to-hand battle. God pledges victory, but victory requires warfare. The generation of saints that covets easy victory has no place in Christ’s army (Eph. 6:10-13). The sector of the redeemed that longs for escape to heaven and an end to all of life’s troubles is not merely misdirected and naive, but useless (Mt. 5:13). Our calling is to faith, obedience, and dominion work.7

The Tip of the Kingdom’s Iceberg

While Christians do not vest faith in the apparent successes of the gospel and Christianity and the failures of Satan and his subordinates in modern life, they nonetheless may note with hope and satisfaction specific historical workings of the sovereign God that point with almost unmistakable certainty to the advancement of Christ’s kingdom in the earth. Three phenomena in the United States alone (not to mention the remarkable success of the gospel in many Third World countries) herald the flexing of the muscles of Christ’s kingdom in this historical era.

First is the rapid demise of Enlightenment, in both its liberal and Communistic forms. The European Enlightenment enthroned reason at the expense of the triune God and his revelation8 and soon stressed the necessity of a rational political order, implying a governing intellectual elite. This propensity mainly took one of two different roads: a liberalism which supported maximum individual freedom (predominating in the West), and Communism which supported maximum social equality (predominating in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe). Later these two roads reconverged in liberalism’s willingness to sacrifice individual freedom for social equality.

Enlightenment’s affair with reason suffered an attack from an equally anti-Christian Romanticism (c. 1795-1830), but survived into this century in the form of scientism, the worship of an atheistic empiricism and positivism fueled by a Darwinian Faith. “Reason” was considered the ultimate criterion of truth, the objective arbiter in all disputes, the hope and panacea of all sincere mankind. Today’s liberal stepchildren, however, have awoken from their fairyland slumber of rationalism to the fact that reason is itself a faith that cannot be defended, an axiom one accepts rather than argues for. In its place is offered brute force of one form or another: “We can no longer appeal to objective reason; let us then convert by power.” Radical feminism, Marxism, New World Order statism, eco-terrorism, racist supremacists (white, black, Oriental, or Indian) and other anti-rational ideologies, all testify to the demise of Enlightenment liberalism and its mad dream of reason.

Today Christianity competes head-on with rival faiths without the cumbersome and hypocritical claims of Enlightenment liberals that, “If all men of good will just sit down and use their objective reason, we can arrive at a mutually agreeable conclusion.”9 Even the alert secularists now know that the future belongs to faith, not reason; and we Christians know it belongs to our faith, the Christian Faith, and to our King, Jesus Christ.

The second indication of impending kingdom advancement is the explosive advent of Christian education, especially the Christian home school and day school movements. Although a few Christian schools and home school families appeared here and there before 1960, Rushdoony’s The Messianic Character of American Education (available again from Ross House Books) exposed the evils of secular education in this country and implicitly laid the theological foundations for today’s massive Christian day school and home school movement. No accurate figures of home schoolers (most Christian) are available, but the number falls realistically in the low millions. The parents have taken the first step in Christian reconstruction: an assault against the messianic claims of a godless state to control the seed of its citizens. Their children are daily being instructed in an atmosphere of Biblical authority, Christian virtue, and godly obedience and order. Their subjects are taught from a distinctly Christian perspective: language is God’s gift designed to enhance the communication of his truth; history is the sphere of God’s sovereign dealings (including the Christian heritage of North America); science is the scrutiny of God’s creation; math and logic are the exhibition of God’s orderliness; and so forth. These Christian children are largely immune to the enticements of godless secularism.

And let us not suppose that these children, when they are fully grown, will abandon their faith for the leeks and garlic of godless modernity. “Train up a child in the way he should go,” exhorts Solomon, “and when he is old, he will not depart from it” (Pr. 22:6). This covenant seed will never accept the premise of godless moderns, that religion is for home and church, but that all else is the realm of “neutral, objective secularism.” Everything in their being will cry out against this monstrous fallacy. They will have been trained from infancy that there is not an iota of neutral ground in the universe, that all of the universe belongs to Christ, and that it belongs to his people by inheritance (Mt. 5:5). When this seed is fully unleashed as God’s faithful stewards, his mighty covenant army, the day of secular hegemony will be over. That day is coming soon.

Third, and most importantly, we perceive an act of the sovereign God in the relentless revival of world-conquering Christianity. The paradigm of defeatist Christianity consisting of a triad of Billy Sunday revivalism, deeper-life devotionalism, and escapist dispensationalism’° is slowly dying. This paradigm we today designate in general as pietism, which substitutes existential good-feeling religion for faith and obedience in bringing all things visibly under Christ’s authority. In Rushdoony’s description:

Pietism produced a shallow life, intellectually and vocationally. The test of faith was made an emotional experience, and, not surprisingly, women began to predominate in both Catholic and Protestant circles; religion became a woman’s affair, and the men in it were full of pietism and low on manhood. Pietism exalted the nothing people, pious poops who reduced the faith to pious gush and, for almost two centuries, have bedeviled the godly clergy with their sinful, sanctimonious ways. The nothing people avoid open acts of sin, not because they love and fear God but because they are timid souls and fear people and dare not offend them. In their hands, virtue ceased to be associated with dominion and strength and came to be associated with weakness and fear.11

The pietism of this century no longer holds sway, however. An entire generation has arisen, many of them, as noted above, educated at home by Christian parents or in Christian day schools, who have rediscovered in the great Reformed Faith, the continental reformers, and the Puritans the message that God’s calling is not to personal gratification, even “spiritual” gratification, but to faith and obedience in all areas of life. Christ the Lord is King, and his regal authority assures the victory of his saints in time and history. As the answer to Question 26 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism states: “Christ executeth the office of a King, in subduing us to himself, in ruling and defending us, and in restraining and conquering all his and our enemies.” This revival of world-conquering faith spells an impending doom for the forces arrayed against Christ, until now largely unmolested in this century: secularism, Islam, the New Age, and so forth.

The hope of the optimistic Christian, however, does not rest in visible portents of the massive advancement of Christ’s kingdom, including the three mentioned above; it rests in the unimpeachable promises of the objective word of God, the Holy Scriptures.

The Optimism of Christ’s Covenant Body

Eric Hoffer, though non-Christian, recognized the truth that hope stands at the forefront of any successful movement committed to world transformation:

Those who would transform a nation of the world cannot do so by breeding and captaining discontent or by demonstrating the reasonableness and desirability of the intended changes or by coercing people into a new way of life. They must know how to kindle and fan an extravagant hope.... If the Communists win Europe and a large part of the world, it will not be because they know how to stir up discontent or how to infect people with hatred, but because they know how to preach hope.12

The program of “hope” by Communists and others is a cruel and perverse mimic of historic Christianity. We Christians offer the message of hope of eternal salvation by grace through faith in the blood-shedding of Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God. We offer, in addition, the message of hope in this life: that Christ as Messiah will not be denied the fullest expanse of his earthly kingdom.

The whining of the pessimists, in many cases the faithless who long for nothing more but “rapturous” escape, will be drowned by the ecstatic cries of victory on the lips of the blood-bought army of Christ. To the pessimists who derive perverse pleasure from the perverse pleasures of modern culture, and derive embarrassment and horror from Christ’s mighty dominion army reversing that perversity in the name of the King, we reply. . . .

Get used to it

  1. Deric Regin, Culture and the Crowd: A Cultural History of the Proletarian Era (Philadelphia, 1968), 52.
  2. Dave Hunt, the Seduction of Christianity (Eugene, 1985).
  3. ibid., 215, 216. Hunt, however, omits any awareness of the deep historic roots of eschatological optimism and instead equates this optimism with a New Age humanism!
  4. John Brown, Discourses and Sayings of our Lord (Edinburgh [1850], 1990), 2:264, emphasis supplied.
  5. David Chilton, Paradise Restored (Tyler, TX, 1985), 68, 69.
  6. John Murray, Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids, 1959, 1965), 1:42.
  7. Rousas John Rushdoony, “Christian Reconstruction as a Movement,” Journal of Christian Reconstruction, Vol. 14, No. 1 [Fall 1996], 12-21.
  8. Robert Anchor, the Enlightenment Tradition (Berkeley, 1967).
  9. Joseph P. Braswell, “No Other Foundation: Christian Epistemology in the Postmodern Age,’’ Journal of Christian Reconstruction, op. cit., 253 and ff.
  10. Douglas Frank, Less Than Conquerors (Grand Rapids, 1986).
  11. Rousas John Rushdoony, God’s Plan for Victory: the Meaning of Post Millennialism (Fairfax, VA, 1980), 37.
  12. Eric Hoffer, The True Believer (New York, [1951], 1989), 9.

  • P. Andrew Sandlin

P. Andrew Sandlin is a Christian minister, theologian, and author.  He is the founder and president of the Center for Cultural Leadership in Coulterville, California.  He was formerly president of the National Reform Association and executive vice president of the Chalcedon Foundation.  He is a minister in the Fellowship of Mere Christianity.. He was formerly a pastor at Church of the Word in Painesville, Ohio (1984-1995) and Cornerstone Bible Church in Scotts Valley, California (2004-2014).

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