Is Belief in the Second Coming of Christ Bad for Creation?
Religion & Liberty Online

Is Belief in the Second Coming of Christ Bad for Creation?

Do you believe that Jesus will return to Earth someday? Then you probably don’t care about environmental devastation and the catastrophic loss of life of future generations.

That’s the absurd conclusion drawn in an academic paper published in the latest issue of Political Research Quarterly. In their article, “End-Times Theology, the Shadow of the Future, and Public Resistance to Addressing Global Climate Change,” David C. Barker of the University of Pittsburgh and David H. Bearce of the University of Colorado test the following hypothesis:

Citizens who believe in Christian end-times theology are less likely to see global warming as a policy problem that requires immediate government action, compared to citizens who do not hold end-times beliefs.

Initially, I thought by “Christian end-times theology” they might be referring to premillinial dispensationalism, a eschatological view held by many American Evangelicals, that was popularized in the Left Behind series of novels. But the authors make it clear that they are not just referring to dispensationalists but to all Christians who believe in the Second Coming.

To measure sociotropic [i.e., with an eye toward collective outcomes, rather than strictly personal ones] time horizons in the form of end-times beliefs, we simply asked respondents to indicate whether or not they “believe in the Second Coming of Jesus Christ—that is, that Jesus will return to Earth someday?” Of respondents, 56 percent answered yes to this question, a comparable percentage to what has been observed in other surveys. Among Republican respondents, the number of believers jumps to 75 percent.

The Second Coming of Jesus Christ is common to all orthodox Christians and has been since at least 381 AD when “he shall come again” was included in the Nicene Creed. In other words, when the paper refers to “end times believers” it is talking about almost every Christian believer in the history of the church.

The researchers admit that “evangelicals and other traditionalistic Christians” are concerned with “environmental degradation” as other Americans. They even admit that our “doctrinal beliefs support a ‘stewardship’ ideology.” Yet for some reason, the researchers claim, “such Christians are particularly unlikely to support politically oriented environmental protection—especially when they hold inerrant views toward the Bible.” (That group would include, at a minimum, almost all Evangelicals and Catholics.)

So if we Christians are worried about the environmental problems what could possibly prevent us from wanting the government to take immediate action on climate change? The researchers say,

We argue that end-times believers often oppose costly policies to deal with global climate change because they have shorter sociotropic time horizons than do nonbelievers. . . . For most people, if the community in question is global humankind, then the sociotropic SOF would be infinite (absent worries about human-generated global devastation).

Stated differently, end-times believers might think a little bit like actuaries. But instead of calculating the life expectancy of individuals, they calculate it for the entire planet. And they calculate that the planetary life expectancy will be much shorter than do nonbelievers. To elaborate, while non-end-times believers have little reason to doubt humankind’s infinite persistence, all else being equal, end-times believers “know” that life on Earth has a preordained expiration date, no matter what—and that all Christians will be raptured before the going gets too tough. Accordingly, it stands to reason that most nonbelievers would support preserving the Earth for future generations, but that end-times believers would rationally perceive such efforts to be ultimately futile, and hence ill-advised. As journalist Glenn Scherer (2004) has written on this point, “Christian traditionalists feel that concern for the future of our planet is irrelevant, because it [the planet] has no future.”

Not only is this wrong, it gets it exactly backwards. Aside from a few techno-utopians, there are almost no materialists, atheists, and other secular non-believers that believe global humankind will live on for an infinite amount of time. Indeed, most believe that the future nonexistence of humankind—if not the entire universe—is almost a certainty. It is Christians, on the other hand, that believe that our existence will not only continue to exist for an infinite period, but will be a bodily existence on the Earth.

The entire paper could have been scrapped had anyone related to the process—from the authors, to the editors, to the peer reviewers—thought to have an thoughtful orthodox Christian point examine its premise. What the paper is claiming is that being an orthodox Christian is strongly correlated with rejecting government action on climate change. This would come as quite a surprise to the many millions of Christians who do think the government should act on this issue.

But the assumption of the researchers is that almost everyone who believes in Second Coming watches Fox News, dismisses the secular media because of its bias, and votes Republican:

In fact, evangelicals often selectively expose themselves to news sources that they perceive to be friendly to their point of view (e.g., “new media” such as Fox News, religious broadcasting, and talk radio). . . .

It is well known that in the “culture wars” era, political ideology (and thus party ID) stems in part from Christian traditionalism (see especially Layman 2001). And as we discussed earlier, accusing the “secular” mainstream media of bias is a common talking point for traditionalistic Christians. . . .

The policy implications of our research remain and are perhaps even strengthened. This is true because the Republican base includes a large number of active white traditionalistic Christians, who by definition believe in the biblical end-times. Thus, Republican politicians (especially in the South) may get considerable mileage out of appealing to this base, thereby slowing and even blocking Democratic efforts to advance environmental public policy. . . .

The paper is essentially an attempt to demonize Christians in order to blame us for the failure to get the government to take immediate action (any action apparently will do) on climate change. They even directly insult the millions of Christians who consider themselves to be both believers and Democrats.

. . . even if the various survey instruments tend to overstate the actual number of genuine end-times believers, strong reasons remain to think that the Second Coming beliefs described in this article could nonetheless influence U.S. environmental policy. Specifically, the fact that such an overwhelming percentage of Republican citizens profess a belief in the Second Coming (76 percent in 2006, according to our sample) suggests that governmental attempts to curb greenhouse emissions would encounter stiff resistance even if every Democrat in the country wanted to curb them. [emphasis in original]

The paper makes it clear that it is believing in the Second Coming, not being a Republican, that causes a person to hold this view. So the “every Democrat in the country” quip is an erroneous assumption that few Democrats who are Christian hold to the orthodox believe in the Second Coming.

Simply because it was published in a reputable journal, this embarrassingly shoddy article will be cited for years to come as evidence that holding Christian beliefs causes people to oppose public policy choices that rational and enlightened people (i.e., political progressives) subscribe to without question. Unfortunately, both the ignorance about Christian beliefs and the anti-Christian bias in this paper and not uncommon in social science research. This is a prime example of why we need more Christians in the academy. We don’t need to counter by promoting a pro-Christian bias, we merely need to produce quality work that provides an alternative to this substandard, politically and religiously biased, pseudo-scholarship.

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).