King's Evangelical Divinity School

14 February 2010

How Eschatology Can Help Influence Political Engagement (Excerpt 3 of PPLA)

This is excerpt 3 of Pentecostalism and Politics in Latin America. If you haven't done so already, be sure to view excerpt 1 and excerpt 2. This post won't make full sense without them.


Introduction (7)

Timothy Steigenga discusses how, before the 1980s, many sociologists and political scientists rejected religion as a determinant of political behaviour. The view that religion was inherently conservative, a penchant among academics for materialist explanations, and a rejection of models relying on belief, culture and psychology in favour of empirically-based (and thus presumed more elegant) theory all contributed to the dismissal of religion as a significant actor on the political stage. Yet Latin American liberation theology, the rise of the Religious Right, and the Iranian revolution all contributed to the 1980s resurrection of religion as a political determinant. (8)  But especially important in establishing the role of religion in politics was the explosive growth of Pentecostalism in Latin America during the 1980s, which draws heavily from among the poorest of society, who flock to Pentecostal churches in huge numbers across the continent.

Yet Latin America is also the birthplace of another religious movement which also draws its support base from among the poor: liberation theology. Why, then, has Pentecostalism proved so successful in attracting the masses, dwarfing liberation theology in the process? What does it offer that liberation theology, which promised Latin America’s poorest sectors of society so much, was apparently unable to deliver? Some observers wonder if Pentecostalism’s worldview genuinely helps to liberate the poor from a life of drudgery and poverty, or if it merely helps to preserve the existing social order and thus serve as a useful prop for existing elites.

Consequently, Pentecostalism’s massive growth across Latin America quickly captured the attention of sociologists and political scientists, which in turn led to a boom in academic research exploring the political impact of the movement across that continent. Particularly important were two wide-ranging landmark studies appearing in 1990, which were instrumental in highlighting the social and political importance of Latin American Protestantism. The first (mentioned in Unit 1), by the sociologist David Martin, discussed Pentecostalism’s potential to facilitate the emergence in Latin America of a bourgeoisie espousing democratic capitalism. (9)  The second book was by David Stoll, who examined Protestantism’s collision with liberation theology and its potential to generate social change in Latin America. (10)  Since 1990, many other studies have gone on to explore various facets of Protestantism and politics in Latin America. Moreover, this ripe field has been extended to include the political impact of Pentecostal growth in Africa and parts of Asia, while the entire phenomenon has arguably contributed to the success of a new, interdisciplinary academic field emanating in the 1970s, Pentecostal Studies, which is now well-established in universities and respected academic centres throughout Europe and North America.

This unit explores some of the general issues surrounding Pentecostalism and politics in Latin America. It focuses especially on classical Pentecostal eschatology, other beliefs and practices, and the bearing these have on society and politics. This unit also explores Latin American Pentecostal links with the United States and what, if any, bearing this has on Latin American politics.

A. Eschatology and Traditional Pentecostal Apoliticism

Eschatology is the branch of doctrinal studies concerned with the end times. There are various approaches to eschatology, but within Evangelical circles it is common to categorise eschatological views within a millenarian (11) system of classification that differentiates between pre-, post- and a- millennialism. Classical Pentecostalism was, until fairly recently, strongly premillennialist. Premillennialism, based on a literal interpretation of the Bible, believes that the parousia (Christ’s return) precedes the millennial period detailed in Revelation 20:1-6, hence the term premillennial. Thus Christ returns to establish his literal earthly reign which lasts for a thousand years. However, immediately prior to the Second Coming premillennialists believe there will be a time of horror and misery lasting seven years. This is known as the Great Tribulation. (12)  Meanwhile, postmillennialism, argues that the parousia takes place after this thousand-year period (hence its name). Moreover, it regards this millennial period (which may or may not be interpreted as a literal 1000-year period) as Christ’s reign not so much in person but through the Church. Postmillennialism, then, sees the thousand-year period as one of great advances for the Church as it seeks to establish the kingdom of God on earth. Millard Erickson writes:-

Postmillennialism rests on the belief that the preaching of the gospel will be so successful that the world will be converted. The reign of Christ, the locus of which is human hearts, will be complete and universal. The petition, “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” will be actualized. Peace will prevail and evil will be virtually banished. Then, when the gospel has fully taken effect, Christ will return. (13)
In attempting to establish Christ’s earthly kingdom, postmillennialists see the need to capture social and political institutions to further this aim and mission.

In summary, then, premillennial eschatology envisages an apocalyptic end-times scenario, making it essentially pessimistic. On the other hand, postmillennialism’s social and political agenda, very much in line with the ethical utterances of the Old Testament prophets, offers a prophetic outlook that calls for action and social change. It is therefore utopian in character and (compared with premillennialism) optimistic in outlook. Immediately we can note a tension between both systems: one is apocalyptic, otherworldly, and concerned with a future Kingdom of God, while the other is prophetic, concerned with this world and society, and which focuses on a Kingdom of God here and now, established by the Church. Already the battle-lines are drawn between classical Pentecostalism and liberation theology in Latin America.

Within premillennialism there are several views centring upon an understanding of the nature and timing of the Great Tribulation. Classical Pentecostals are traditionally pretribulationist, which claims the parousia could occur at any moment. Pretribulationist Pentecostals, then, believe the rapture can happen at any time without warning. (14)  Thus, Christ’s return is imminent, unlike posttribulationism’s belief in a parousia which is impending. For the purposes of understanding classical Pentecostalism’s political participation, this concept of an imminent rapture is an important point to bear in mind.

There is one further important feature of this eschatological mindset to consider. Most pretribulationists are dispensationalist, an eschatological system which derives its name from a Greek word meaning `stewardship’ (in the context of managing the affairs of a household). Dispensationalists believe in a divine plan for the world that is divided into a series of dispensations, or economies. There is some disagreement over the exact number of dispensations, but most commonly postulated is seven, each ending in judgment. The current dispensation (from Christ’s redemptive work at Calvary through to the rapture) is known as the Church age, which is regarded as a parenthetical deviation from God’s dealings with his people, ethnic Israel. Thus, dispensationalists make a clear distinction between Israel and the Church. This is an important point to bear in mind. Dispensationalists owe their origins to the Brethren leader John Nelson Darby, who emphasised separation from the world until the time of God’s judgment.

In summary, then, dispensationalism heightened the awareness of an imminent rapture and judgment, emphasised a sectarian philosophy that demanded separation from the affairs of this world, and regarded the Jews (and later, the modern state of Israel) as God’s distinct people. Moreover, its highly systematised and literalist approach to eschatology has led its adherents to produce detailed diagrams of the end times, each charting in intricate detail the historical events which they believe will lead up to the parousia. Thus, some dispensationalists search through their Bibles for 'signs of the times' to attempt to reconcile current political events with biblical prophecy. Dispensationalism can also be highly apocalyptic, emphasising strongly the final battle between God and Satan, which is also often reflected in classical Pentecostalism’s dualistic tendencies.

Effects Of This Worldview Upon Political Participation

Modern Pentecostalism traces its origins to outbreaks of glossolalia discussed in Unit 1. Central to the Pentecostal experience is the first Pentecost in Acts 2, when the disciples spoke in foreign languages unknown to them. In Acts 2, Peter’s sermon links the events of Pentecost with the outpouring of God’s Spirit referred to by the prophet Joel (see 2:28-32), a passage that associates the outpouring of God’s Spirit with the two rainy seasons in the Holy Land (these are known as the former and latter rain, see Joel 2:23). From a modern Pentecostal perspective, if the biblical Pentecost represented the first outpouring of the Spirit, then the twentieth century Pentecostals saw their movement as the second outpouring, or 'latter rain'. Moreover, the book of Joel is strongly apocalyptic, thus 20th century Pentecostals associated their movement with the end of the current age. As such, glossolalia, together with signs and wonders, were regarded as proof that the end of the world was not far away. It is little wonder Donald Dayton emphasises a clear link between Pentecostal pneumatology and its eschatology. (15)

Given this hermeneutic, it is hardly surprising that classical Pentecostalism embraced dispensationalism. Its emphasis on an apocalyptic end-times scenario, an imminent parousia, and the concept of different dispensations (that is, God working in different ways at different times) all fit in nicely with the classical Pentecostal view that their movement marked the end of one age and the beginning of another (that age being the one that started and ended with the two Pentecosts, ie the period between Acts 2 and the 20th century birth of Pentecostalism). In short, dispensationalism permitted the early Pentecostals to read themselves into, or to actualise, the relevant biblical prophecies.

Dispensationalism, with its focus on the imminent return of Christ and otherworldliness, has helped fuel a disengagement from social and political issues within classical Pentecostalism throughout much of the twentieth century (though its adherents often do express conservative values on personal morality issues). Up to the late 1980s, a sizeable segment of classical Pentecostalism embraced this view of society wholeheartedly. Things can only get worse, it was argued, so why seek to change society at all, especially in light of an imminent rapture? Only Christ can change the world when he returns, so it makes far more sense to spend the precious time left winning souls prior to Christ’s second coming, rather than wasting efforts on social and political activity. Thus, Pentecostals throughout much of the twentieth century devoted their energies to aggressive evangelism (L. G. McLung speaks of the 'extremely urgent' nature of Pentecostalism), winning souls for Christ before that great and terrible day comes. (16)

This helps to explain why, until quite recently, many classical Pentecostals in some parts of Latin America have expressed an unwillingness to engage overtly in social or collective action, or to become “entangled by the affairs of this world” (2 Timothy 2:4). This was especially the case in 1980s Nicaragua, where the majority of Pentecostals were of the classical variety. In a revolutionary society led by the victorious Sandinistas who emphasised a strongly collectivist agenda, Pentecostals were far more preoccupied with winning souls and ushering in revival, rather than supporting the revolution. This explains, at least in part, the very tense nature of Pentecostal-Sandinista relations in that country during the 1980s.

While it is true, then, that not all Latin American Pentecostals are classical pretribulationalists, nonetheless up until the 1990s the evangelistic urgency of this eschatological system has had a major bearing upon the evangelistic fervour of much of Latin American Pentecostalism, which in turn helped to shape its view of political participation.


(7) The following introduction draws on the early paragraphs of Calvin L. Smith, 'The De-Privatisation of Faith and Evangelicals in the Public Square', Evangelical Review of Society and Politics 1:1, 1-20.

(8) Steigenga, Politics of the Spirit, xiii-xvi.

(9) Martin, Tongues of Fire.

(10) David Stoll, Is Latin America Turning Protestant? The Politics of Evangelical Growth (Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1990).

(11) From Latin `mille’, meaning `thousand, based the 1000-year period detailed in Revelation 20:1-6 (also known as `chiliasm’ from Gk. `khiliasmos, also meaning `thousand’).

(12) See Matthew 24:21 and Revelation 2:22, 7:14. See also Mark 13:19; Luke 21:23 and Revelation 3:10. These references are linked to other eschatological passages, which build upon the idea of an apocalyptic tribulation period.

(13) Millard Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1992), 1206.

(14) Supporting passages cited include Matthew 24:37, 25:8-10 and 1 Thessalonians 5:2-3.

(15) Donald W. Dayton, Theological Roots of Pentecostalism (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Francis Asbury Press, 1987), 144-5.

(16) G.L. McLung, `Pentecostal/Charismatic Perspectives on a Missiology for the Twenty-First Century,’ Pneuma: The Journal of the Society of Pentecostal Studies 16:1 (1994), 11-21.

This slightly modified excerpt originally appeared in Pentecostalism and Politics in Latin America (Lampeter: University of Wales, 2007).

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