Christian theology and global politics can make strange bedfellows. Consider the intimate relationship between fundamentalist expectations of Jesus’ return and market-driven disregard for the environment.
The affair became public back in 1981, when Ronald Reagan’s newly minted Interior secretary, James Watt — once known for suing the department he went on to lead — was testifying before a House committee. Watt was asked whether he was committed to “save some of our resources … for our children?”
“That is the delicate balance the secretary of the Interior must have,” the secretary affirmed, “to be steward for the natural resources for this generation as well as future generations.” But then he continued: “I do not know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns. Whatever it is, we have to manage with a skill to leave the resources for future generations.”
Was Watt suggesting that his faith in the Second Coming should temper the government’s conservation efforts? In response to the ensuing uproar, he maintained that his personal Pentecostal belief in a possibly imminent end of the world would have no bearing on official policy.
But his critics had doubts. Why would anyone who seriously imagined that only a few more generations would enjoy the planet skimp on consuming its resources?
The Watt hearing brought public scrutiny to the relationship between religion and environmental policy, but it was not the end of the affair. American evangelicals are still disproportionately uninterested in climate change and other environmental issues. Their apathy is driven not only by their well-documented distrust of science but also by a specific eschatological belief that Jesus is coming soon to bring history to a rather climactic end. Most evangelicals believe this is simply what the Bible teaches, especially in the Book of Revelation.
And it’s not just evangelicals. Popular evangelical culture — including Hal Lindsey’s bestselling 1970 book “The Late Great Planet Earth” and, more recently, Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins’ blockbuster “Left Behind” novels (with movie spinoffs) — has led many more Americans to believe the Bible predicts our imminent end. Although evangelicals emphatically believe these predictions, and non-evangelicals decidedly do not, it’s broadly assumed that this is indeed what the Bible predicts.
In fact, Scripture says no such thing, either in Revelation or in any other book. This is widely known among historical scholars of the Bible but scarcely at all outside our ranks.
It was not always that way. Throughout the long history of Christianity — from at least the 4th century to the early 19th — the vast majority of those who read and heard the stories in the Bible (including the forerunners of modern evangelicals) believed Revelation was describing events that had already happened or were happening in their own time in the life of the church. They were not thought to refer to a near or distant future.
Oddly enough, the French Revolution changed all that. The surrealities of the Reign of Terror convinced horrified Christians in Britain that the world was coming to a crashing halt in fulfillment of the catastrophes described in Revelation. This futuristic reading of Scripture swept through England and then, with a vengeance, America: The world was going to hell, and it was all according to plan.
This is a religious belief with clear social and political implications. Even in secular life, future expectations affect the decisions we make. We may be willing to incur debts for law school or a second mortgage if we think it will pay off in the long run; if we’re not so certain, we are disinclined to take the risk. During the Cold War, Americans convinced that a nuclear exchange was inevitable put less money into their savings accounts. What would be the point?
In the religious realm, virtually every major crisis has been taken to show that the prophesied signs of the end times were being fulfilled: the horrors of World War I, the Nazi threat, the atomic bomb, the Cold War, the Gulf wars, the invasion of Ukraine — not to mention all kinds of natural disasters. So, too, has the Antichrist repeatedly risen among us: the Kaiser, Benito Mussolini, Mikhail Gorbachev (with the “mark of the beast” on his forehead), Saddam Hussein, Vladimir Putin — pick your enemy of the human race. The end is therefore perpetually upon us, as it was in 1959; 1988; 2000; 2011; 2021 — pick your date.
Many such predictions were based on assured readings of Revelation and were demonstrably wrong — and not because the doomsayers misunderstood a detail here or there or forgot about one verse or another. They were wrong because of a fundamental misreading of Revelation.
Biblical scholars have long recognized that the book was written for a 1st century audience with 1st century concerns about the 1st century Roman Empire. But there is nothing particularly scintillating about that understanding for modern audiences. You mean our generation is not the climax of all human history? It isn’t all about us? How disappointing.
While many of us continue to worry about how we might indeed destroy ourselves and our planet, incredible numbers put their trust in the ultimate deus ex machina. A 2006 Pew Research Poll showed that 79% of Christians (not just evangelicals) believed that Jesus would indeed return to Earth. More intriguing, a 2010 poll indicated that over half of American Protestants believed he would return by 2050.
If a significant portion of the voting public believes the end of our civilization is just 40 years off, why worry about the environment? Why support the Paris climate agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050? It’s no surprise that believers in the Second Coming are significantly more likely to oppose governmental attempts to fight climate change.
That this view is based on a misinterpretation of the Bible suggests that religious expertise has never been more crucial to humankind. Who would have thought that serious biblical scholarship could help preserve the ice caps and stem the rising seas? Could it thereby contribute to our collective salvation after all?
It can only help. Let’s spread the word before it’s too late.
Bart D. Ehrman is a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the author of “Armageddon: What the Bible Really Says About the End.”