As a young Christian believer in Australia I noticed an antipathy towards the United Nations in the churches I was a part of. This was supported by the end-times views that were strong among the Christians. It was a certain way of reading the book of Revelation and other texts by Paul in the New Testament, about the rise of an antichrist figure, who would dominate the world. The United Nations seemed to be a perfect venue for this. The idea was that this organisation would bring a global persecution against the church. Therefore, it must be resisted.
It may not have been openly stated, but I think another reason for this antipathy was due to racism. In my early days as a Christian, some Christians even held to the “British Israel” teaching, claiming that Western nations were the lost tribes of Israel. This exceptionalism meant these nations had to charter their own course to achieve their divine destiny. Some doctrines concerning the modern state of Israel are similar. This view of our nationalism means the United Nations would be seen as a hostile agent.
These views solidified as Europe went through the First and Second World Wars. Most of the Western nations going into the First World War saw themselves as the New Jerusalem, with the opposing forces being Gog and Magog of the book of Revelation. The idea that the world was coming to an end, with our nation having the responsibility to defeat the antichrist, was mixed with our racial sentiments. You still hear this view expressed today among some Christians, with the rise of populist/ nationalist programs.
The end-times view of much of the church was very different in the nineteenth century.
Then, ministries like Methodism, the Salvation army, the Quakers, people like William Wilberforce, John Newton, Florence Nightingale, and many others, saw the church as a leaven bringing change to the social fabric of our nations. They saw the gospel giving new hearts to believers, in which we began to care for the poor and outcast, instead of our own empire. Huge change came to life condition in so many areas, like abolition of slavery, hospital care, prisons, sexual protection for minors, on and on. This view of the church revolutionised the world in which we live.
End-times thinking then was far more positive. They saw the church as bringing improvements to the world, not war, and the darkness of a cruel world being driven back, especially in our treatment of less empowered people. My aim here isn’t to get involved in the details of their end-times theology, especially that of Post-Millennialism. It isn’t my aim to resurrect this theology. It’s the way of viewing the gospel message I am concerned with here.
It’s good to know some historical background to where we are today. Even the Labour Party that began in Britain, and its philosophy was spread to other nations, was a Catholic/ Methodist movement interested in protecting the poor against the selfish power of the wealthier classes. But here the waters have been muddied once again, with conspiracies about Catholics and Communists. The Christian heart of helping those in need is the “baby in the bathwater” that needs to be our concern as people interested in the welfare of our neighbour.
Another issue that has changed the Christian view of the world is the separation of spiritual with natural concerns. We have begun to see the gospel more in spiritual terms, which means we have seen social concern as a false gospel. But this is really a cover for selfishness, because it is only the natural concerns of others we have seen as “non-spiritual,” not concern for our own natural welfare. We still believe in our own comfort and welfare. This Greek way of viewing spiritualty, as “heavenly” and as of no earthly value, is not the gospel we inherited from its Hebrew origins. There, there is no separation of heaven and earth, as spirituality and love for our neighbour in need are the same thing. This was the primary message of the Old Testament Prophets, calling the people back to seeing love for God as love for neighbour, social justice for the poor.
When we sum up the above it seems evident that the gospel of the eighteenth century was the gospel to the poor. It was the masses in the poor sectors that came to faith, as care for their terrible conditions began to spread throughout their environs. But as these people’s lives improved, and the nations’ middle classes began to expand, the condition of the Christian church became wealthier and eventually less concerned for others. Theology has changed because the lives of Christians became better and focused upon themselves. We have drawn away for the needy, pretending that this is holy or spiritual.