By Paul A. Djupe
Every single time I present work on apocalypticism in modern American politics, I am asked two things: Aren’t there different types of end times thinking? And doesn’t end times thinking lead to apathy? Here I’d like to give my usual answers, but with data. The answers are surprising, or at least they have been to me, but accord with long-running dynamics explicitly pursued to lead to this point.
First, a quick explainer. Religions are meant to be complete. They have narratives of the beginning, rules for the middle, and stories of how it will end. Stories about the end are referred to as eschatology. There are different schools of understanding Christian eschatology that revolve around what needs to happen, if anything, before Christ’s return to triumph over evil and bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Earth for a millennium (Revelation 20). So-called pre-millennialists believe that Christ will return before fighting the final battle and then reign for a thousand years. Some believe (following the mention in 1 Thessalonians 4:17), that believers will be raptured to meet Christ in the sky before the “tribulation” times. Post-millennialists, by contrast, believe that the Kingdom of Heaven must be established here on Earth before Christ will return. Some think that millennium is still to come, while others believe that time is over and perhaps has been for a long time (the year 1000 AD brought quite the anticipation). On the other hand, amillennialists basically ignore the concept. There is a wide array of variations on each of these main schools of thought. For instance, some pre-millennialists believe that they will be made to endure a pre-rapture tribulation period. The major distinctions among Christian religious family groups can be condensed (roughly) to eschatological concerns, with Catholics being amillennialist, conservative evangelical Protestants being pre-millennials, and mainline Protestants being largely post-millennialist (or amillennialist). There’s a lot more to say here, but this is a blog post and not the book we (Andrew Lewis and Jake Neiheisel) have planned, so stay tuned for more.
But do these distinctions matter? My best answer is that they don’t. In a survey that just wrapped up mid-March, we asked two key questions to capture pre and post-millennialism:
[Pre] Believers will be raptured from the Earth before a period of tribulation (war and difficult times) followed by a great war between good and evil.
[Post] Believers need to establish the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth before Jesus can return as Lord and Savior to reign for a millennium.
Given the cultural cache of pre-millennialism through the Left Behind series that has sold 60+ million copies (and, of course, for other reasons), it’s no surprise to find more pre-mill believers than post. Post-millennialism garners just over a quarter (29%) of Christians, while pre-mill garners 44 percent. Although proponents of a post-millennialist worldview have argued that their perspective is ascendent, in terms of numbers of adherents this vision is aspirational rather than descriptive. Of course it could be on the rise, but we don’t have the results over time. The concentration of post-mill believers is essentially flat across Christian traditions, while pre-mill is especially concentrated among evangelicals – white, black, and non-denominational.
It’s not that individuals maintain a tight tether on theology. While the logic of these two statements of belief are incommensurable, a good number of Americans don’t see it that way. The following figure shows the overlap through a cross-tabulation. A majority of those who strongly agree with pre-millennialism agree (strongly or just agree) with post-millennialism. We’ve already blown the escape pod here – this is showing the results just among self-identified Christians who should know better. Clearly, there are those who disagree with millennialism of any kind, but there are not many who are consistently on one side or the other. Some readers are wondering who believes in both millennialisms and that number grows as church attendance grows – frequent attenders are more likely to believe both than non-attenders.
One way to assess the end of theological distinctiveness is to ask both groups about the end times. We asked a few questions, but will look at this one here: “The chaos in America today is evidence that we are living in what the Bible calls ‘the end times.’” This is decidedly not a post-millennial belief, for whom there would be no chaos before Jesus returns. But the figure below shows that they believe it just as much as, and perhaps more than, pre-millennials. Just over 80 percent of post and pre-millennialists believe we are now entering the end times.
Before I get into the question of apathy, let’s look at one more religious belief that should separate the pre from the post-millennialists: “Modern-day prophets continue to reveal God’s plans to humanity.” I just wrote about modern prophecy belief in a recent post – such a belief entails accepting that humans today can channel communication and power from God in the form of prophecy (revelations), healing, and more. The classic notion of pre-millennialism is that everything is mapped out in the Bible and is going according to plan. Post-millennial views place a greater onus on humanity to establish the Kingdom of God on earth, which leaves more space for human intervention, observation, and communication. Though of course there have been pre-mill prophets (William Miller comes to mind), post-millennialism appears to be more fertile ground for prophetic action. And that’s what the figure shows. Over 60 percent of post-millennialists believe in modern prophecy, though a substantial 40+ percent of pre-millennialists believe the same.
OK, now what about apathy? In the pre-millennial view, Jesus will return as a “thief in the night” (1 Thessalonians 5:2), meaning the rapture could happen at any time. If so, the incentive is to pray, make sure you are right with the lord, and be ready. Not much use in building earthly plans and institutions for the long haul when it could all end in an instant. That’s why it’s surprising to see the survey data suggest so little difference between pre and post-millennialists and both ready for action.
Millennialist views of Christian nationalism (using the Baylor measure) may seem like an odd place to start, but I see it as a direct contradiction to pre-millennialism. Pre-mill focuses on individual salvation, not national salvation. While politics may still be useful to help disciple the world, national control is not a Biblical goal nor is it something that will make individuals rapture ready. That’s why it’s particularly interesting to see such high concentrations of pre-mill among strong Christian nationalists. More than three-quarters of high-end Christian nationalists agree with our pre-mill statement, though to be fair just over 50 percent agree with the post-mill statement as well. And it’s notable that high concentrations of millennialism are ONLY found among Christian nationalists (with scores over .5). The connection has been noted in passing (see Gorski and Perry’s book The Flag and the Cross), but the connection has garnered far less attention than it deserves.
Millennialists are far from apathetic from other perspectives, as well. We asked, “The final battle between good and evil is upon us and we must stand with the full armor of God.” Those who agree with either millennialist thought are highly likely to agree. While that armor may be considered to be spiritual armor, further questions make it clear that the metaphor has spilled over into material warfare.
For instance, take the statement, “The traditional American way of life is disappearing so fast that we may have to use force to save it.” Classic pre-millennialists would likely disagree since salvation is not national but individual. There’s no need to save the American way of life, because the Christian way of life is the only one that matters in the end. However, millennialists of either stripe strongly agree with this notion, suggesting the use of force may be necessary. There is a slight gap such that 61 percent of strong pre-millennialists agree with the use of force compared to 70 percent of post-millennialists. Still, the pattern is clear – millennialists are in for the battle.
And millennialists are likely to participate in politics at high levels in these data (we find that’s true in other data, as well, using the same measures: yard signs, buttons/stickers, campaign involvement, contacting a representative, protesting, contributing money, posting a political stance on social media). There is clearly a spike of half an activity among those who agree with either post or pre-mill and strong post-millennialists participate at the highest rate.
So, that leaves us with why? Why are there so few differences between pre and post-millennialists? Why aren’t they apathetic? Fortunately, there are very good historical treatments of this evolution that we draw on in our book. The impetus for the switch may have been political convenience – in books going back to titles like The American Covenant in the late 1970s, but also in the actions and words of pre-millennialist figures like Jerry Falwell and Billy Graham, who explicitly mobilized their followers into politics using the powerful tropes of apocalypticism. Evil is everywhere, time is short, battle is coming.
It is also important to remember that people are not straightjacketed by theology – lessons, interpretations, and emphases evolve. Modern religious people are adding to the usual schools of thought in precisely the way “fundamentalists” have always been comfortable doing. A case in point is the word “fundamentalist” itself, which did not exist before the publication of The Fundamentals beginning in 1910. Moreover, the fact that there are schools of eschatological thought indicates evolution – there is no mention of dispensations in the Bible, no clear delineation of particular ages as Tolkien would do.
This is not to say that these patterns negate religion and religious influence. It seems clear to us that believers are being mobilized using the touchstones of apocalyptic thought and imagery. They are perhaps not traditional connections being made and some are uncomfortable with the notion that pre-millennialists are not angsty and apathetic, waiting for their savior come at any moment. Such reinterpretations occur all the time, enabling religion to support environmental protection, welcome new people to congregational membership and preaching, and don the full armor of God when they think their communities are being threatened.
Professor Paul A. Djupe directs the Data for Political Research program at Denison University, is an affiliated scholar with PRRI, the series editor of Religious Engagement in Democratic Politics (Temple), and co-creator of religioninpublic.blog. Further information about his work can be found at his website and on Twitter.
The cover art was generated using the DALL-E text-to-image generator.
So, finding out what the narrative(s) are that actually – rather than theoretically ought to, assuming people still subscribe to theology they probably never studied, or heard in church – underlie the responses of contemporary Christians to your questions would be an interesting next step.
Totally agree. What I have is the political narratives they say they’ve heard and I’ll get into that in the near future. It might be other things, but I think Christian persecution narratives are the linchpin.
[…] not part of their Christian ingroup, you are likely doing the devil’s work. Everything is going according to divine plan as laid out in the Bible and articulated by modern prophets. Even if we use the secular version of […]