Both Michael Doran’s article in First Things and Walter Russel Mead’s in Providence argue that Christian theological beliefs in eschatology—the end of the world—influence American foreign policy. Specifically, they focus on premillennialism and postmillennialism. But while these beliefs may be more common among Christians today, especially in the United States, they are not a complete list. If eschatological beliefs influence US foreign policy, amillennialism, preterism, and other Christian beliefs about eschatology should also be analyzed, especially if this theory is expanded into a book.
Within premillennialism and dating roughly to the mid-1800s, dispensationalists believe that there will be a future rapture of believers before an awful tribulation. Then Jesus will come back and rule for a thousand years (the “Millennium”) before the last judgment. For now, Christians should expect the world to get worse and worse until Jesus’ return, and according to Doran and Mead, these beliefs have influenced dispensationalists politically. They can be given different labels from fundamentalists to populists to Jacksonians, but on international relations they tend to be more restrained, unless provoked. Doran explains Jacksonians believe they should maintain a holding pattern and do little until Christ’s return. They echo Andrew Jackson’s belief that America should keep the flame of liberty going in the US but not take it to other nations.
In contrast, postmillennialism reads Revelation to mean that Jesus’ second coming will happen after the future Millennium, and until then the gospel will spread and improve the world. According to Doran, this thought downplays mankind’s brokenness and emphasizes how humans can improve themselves by their own ability or through government. (Though, this can be unfair to those postmillennialists, including some Calvinists, who believe the Holy Spirit works through humans, so humans don’t improve themselves.) Many Christian progressives in the US followed a version of this belief while promoting the social gospel and various reforms. Both Doran and Mead link postmillennial theology to its followers’ calls for interventions and progressive programs to improve other peoples both at home and abroad.
But there are other Christian eschatologies that could be considered to compare how their followers differ from those in the Jacksonian and Progressive persuasions. To his credit, Mead does briefly say in his article that Medieval Christians were less concerned about eschatology, and he covers why end-times speculation increased before and after the American and French revolutions. Still, including other beliefs into the analysis could enrich the discourse.
Growing up in a mainline Presbyterian church, I was not taught that either pre- or postmillennialism was true. My church didn’t seem that interested in eschatology at all. At most, the theories were considered disputable matters, and usually unimportant. Though, a few laypeople and pastors had definite opinions. On one occasion, a Presbyterian pastor saw me reading the dispensationalist Left Behind novel, and he remarked disdainfully how it was hogwash and that most of Revelation already happened with the fall of Rome. He added that Martin Luther initially believed Revelation was neither apostolic nor prophetic. I’ve since learned that this pastor’s belief is called “preterism,” or “partial preterism” if one believes much but not all of Revelation has occurred. I would later re-encounter this theory in college while teaching Revelation for a Sunday school class at an evangelical Presbyterian church. The commentary I was given to teach out of examined multiple theories, including partial preterism. For those unfamiliar with the idea, prominent partial preterists include R.C. Sproul, the late Calvinist founder of Ligonier Ministries.
Preterism often falls more broadly into the school of amillennialism—the belief that there is no future Millennium because this age started at Pentecost and will continue until Christ’s return. For centuries, this school had been the default for Christianity, and its followers include St. Augustine (whose views on this topic influenced Catholics and Protestants for centuries), John Calvin, Martin Luther, and many others. According to a 2011 survey by the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), while the majority of evangelical leaders are premillennialists (many of whom think the topic is a distraction), amillennialists outnumbered postmillennialists three-to-one.
For my purposes here, which eschatology is true isn’t the point. Instead, what is important is how Christian beliefs of the end times influence foreign policy. If Doran and Mead insist that eschatology is relevant, it makes sense to at least mention and analyze amillennialism, preterism, and perhaps other theories because they are not absent in America. At least some influential Americans have followed eschatological beliefs other than pre- and postmillennialism. Reinhold Niebuhr, for instance, appears to be neither postmillennial nor premillennial, or at least he said only little except that there would be a future bodily resurrection. Of course, he had significant sway over America’s post-World War II foreign policy, as Matt Gobush notes in this series. Examining end-times beliefs of other theologians and policymakers who have guided foreign policy could help measure eschatology’s influence. They could possibly serve as a control group to prove or disprove Doran and Mead’s thesis.
Amillennialism, preterism, and other beliefs may not have a direct link to a particular foreign policy prescription in the way postmillennialism leads toward progressivism. But if Doran and Mead’s thesis is true, the absence of pre- and postmillennialism should have a measurable impact, perhaps in a way similar to how bread without yeast bakes differently. Are amillennialists, for instance, less likely to support Israel than dispensationalists, or do they use other theological or secular reasons to support the Jewish state? Are amillennialists less likely than postmillennialists to support progressive reforms, or do they find other theological justifications, such as Micah 6:8’s command? If there is no measurable variation or if they come to the same policy recommendation through different theological justifications, then does theology really cause the foreign policy difference in America, or are other factors in play?
Though I lack theological training, I do have a couple ideas for how amillennialists could view global trends differently. (Of course, I don’t mean this to be a definitive view because there is wide variation amongst amillennialists.) Whereas a premillennialist sees the world deteriorating until Jesus’ second coming while a postmillennialist sees the world improving, an amillennialist sees neither. History will continue much as it has for centuries. Positive developments will occur alongside negative ones. For instance, global economic growth and technological improvement have been strong the last couple decades, but the US experienced the Great Recession and stagnant real wages; Christianity in the West may be in decline, but it’s surging elsewhere. The amillennialist would reject populist nostalgia for some supposed golden age because the past was flawed and is neither as good nor as bad as remembered. He or she would also reject the expectation that technology, government, social reform, or some other mechanism will cause a future utopia because humans will continue to sin. If there does appear to be a significant improvement or decline in the world, an amillennialist may see it as temporary.
As the opening chapter of Ecclesiastes says, “Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever… What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”
So, how might amillennialism affect domestic and foreign policy? For one, there is no more impetus to improve the world to usher in the eschaton, or to dwell in bunkers while the world burns. Though, amillennialists may try to improve the world because God calls them to love and act justly. In neither excessive expectation nor despair, Christians would continue their daily lives as normal until Christ’s return. The many other Christian teachings remain, including for the state to bear the sword and for believers to love their neighbors. His followers remain engaged in the world because God loves his creation.
Mark Melton is the Deputy Editor for Providence. He earned his Master’s degree in International Relations from the University of St. Andrews.
Image Credit: The Fire of Rome, by Hubert Robert, 1785. Preterists believe that much of Revelation occurred by the time Rome fell.