As a 6-year-old growing up at a time when Hal Lindsey’s
“Late Great Planet Earth” was holding sway in Southern Baptist churches, Jerry
Johnson was fascinated by the talk of end times.
He later earned three theological degrees that prepared him
for service at Boyce College, Criswell College and his current role as academic
dean at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. But Johnson still points to
that early interest in eschatology as sparking his own desire to profess faith
in Christ two years later at age 8.
A few decades later co-authors Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins
provided their interpretation of end times through the popular “Left Behind”
Today, younger generations are exchanging the doctrine of
last things as viewed by novelists and their fundamentalist forbearers for what
some of them prefer to describe as Kingdom-oriented living. Are they reacting
against popular depictions of end times and what some described as the
pessimism of dispensationalism or developing a more biblical interpretation of
what the Kingdom entails?
Unlike their parents, many evangelicals in Generations X and
Y (born between 1965-1976 and 1977-2002, respectively) are throwing their
energies into community projects and Kingdom causes without explicitly
connecting them to the eschaton.
But there is disagreement among those the Southern Baptist
TEXAN interviewed about whether this represents a lack of interest in last
things among the young or simply a rejection of “pop eschatology.”
One college pastor said students at one of the most thriving
Baptist churches in Texas are instead focusing on other controversial subjects.
“I have had numerous theological discussions with college
students over the past year,” said George Jacobus, university minister at
Central Baptist Church in College Station. “As I recall, none of them have
dealt with the issue of eschatology. There tends to be more dialogue over
Calvinism, the sovereignty of God, ecclesiology and Christian community.”
Despite a revival in missions focus among collegians,
Jacobus said the students do not have a desire to study eschatology.
“I believe (their) interest in missions is not based on
their eschatology but rather stems from a desire to apply what the Bible
teaches. In their mind, missions is everything about God telling us to go — not
about their belief in end times,” he said.
A recent article in “A City Online,” the online publication
of Houston Baptist University, echoed this sentiment. The article explores the
possibility of an eschatological generation gap.
“For younger evangelicals … eschatology is barely worth
considering — unless, of course, we are mocking ‘Left Behind’ among our peers,”
writes the author, Matthew Lee Anderson.
Anderson sees major consequences of divorcing the present
reality of the Kingdom from the cosmic outlook of eschatology.
“For one, it focuses young evangelicals more on the current
state of the earth and the necessity of protecting and preserving our
environment,” he writes. “Creation care … is significantly less important if
the end times will be as ‘Thief in the Night’ depicts them. A devalued
eschatology lends itself to cultural engagement rather than the cultural
escapism that has historically marked evangelicalism.”
Southern dean disagrees
Admitting that the popularity of dispensational theology
dominant in the Left Behind novels is diminishing, Russell Moore, theology
school dean at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., said
interest in eschatology is not dead.
“I don’t think there is a decrease in interest in
eschatology among college students,” Moore said. “I think, in fact, just the
opposite. I think what has decreased is a particular kind of eschatology — pop
While previous generations looked to one-on-one equations
between current events and biblical prophecy, Moore believes younger
evangelicals are instead beginning to view the doctrine in light of Kingdom
Follow the music
But whether one’s view of last things includes solely a
dispensational outlook or the Kingdom as both “now and not yet,” Anderson
believes contemporary worship music provides insight as to the state of
eschatology in the pews.
“Worship music is one of the best indications of the
declining focus on eschatology,” he writes, adding that popular worship
choruses tend to ignore the future triumph of Jesus. “Any casual trip through
prominent evangelical hymns reveals an extraordinary emphasis on the next life:
There is a Fountain, It is Well, How Great thou Art, Blessed Assurance, and
Amazing Grace all see fit to acknowledge the work that is yet to be done. I can
find no comparable thread in the new evangelical worship songs.”
Ryan Clark, worship pastor at Inglewood Baptist Church in
Grand Prairie, Texas, grew up in a large First Baptist Church that was largely
premillennial. Yet as a Gen-Xer, he said he never saw a large interest in
eschatology among his peers or subsequent generations. Despite a sprinkling of
themes regarding salvation and heaven in hymns, Clark said it is difficult to
find songs that adequately convey both personal and cosmic eschatology.
But the problem of misapplied eschatology runs much deeper
than ill-informed worship choruses, said Gordon Borror, professor of church
music and chair of the music ministry department at Southwestern Seminary in
Fort Worth, noting that correct eschatological teaching also is missing in the
“Eschatology hasn’t been taught to the church very well with
a lot of very misty thinking about heaven and being ‘with Jesus’ — but not much
real meaty ‘last things’ doctrine is commonly known among the rank-and-file of
Baptists,” he said. “Therefore little call for writing and singing music about
NOTE — Deming is a correspondent for the Southern Baptist TEXAN, newsjournal of
the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, where an expanded version of this
story first appeared.)