Yesterday's Illusions Yield to Today's More Modest Hope

Article excerpt

For most of Christian history, churches have offered little in the way of hope for a better world on earth.

By the fourth century, St. Augustine had buried the remnants of Jewish millennialism, which looked toward a 1,000-year reign of Christ over a redeemed earth. For Augustine and for the established church that followed his views, the 1,000-year reign of Christ was limited to the church; which would gather its converts from a decaying world. Then would come the apocalyptic return of Christ to judge sinners and vindicate saints. After that, the sinners would be tossed into eternal fire and the saints would enjoy bliss in eternal heaven.

Millennial hope lingered among groups of Christians on the margins of society, such as the Waldensians and the Spiritual Franciscans in the medieval era. These groups were condemned and persecuted as heretical. In the mid-17th century during the English Civil War, millennialist movements flourished. They believed in the imminent return of Christ to defeat the powerful classes of society and restore a lush earth, free of war and injustice, where the persecuted saints would live in peace. These groups were crushed by the restoration of the English monarchy and a state church.

Yet something of their vision of hope survived. In the 18th century, it was translated into faith in progress itself. Enlightenment thinkers, such as Immanuel Kant in Germany and Marquis de Condorcet in France, believed that an age of rationality had dawned, bringing an end to superstition and injustice. A priest-dominated Christianity, which kept the people in ignorance, would be replaced by a rational religion rooted in science. Democratic government would overcome the hierarchy of aristocracy and serf and replace it with a society based on equal rights. Developments in medicine and technology would bring good health and longer life to all.

This vision of progress through science and technology still informs American culture, although for western Europeans it died in the battlefields of this century's world wars. Nations emerging from European colonization in the 1950s are likewise suspicious of faith in progress, which to them smacks of neocolonialism.

Revolutionary hope was reborn in the 1960s and found its expression in the churches through new theologies of liberation. For 25 years, the peoples of many Third World countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America struggled and died for their vision of a liberated land where the basic means of life would be extended to all. As in the biblical vision, the mighty would be put down from their thrones and the poor lifted up. …