When Tyler Wigg-Stevenson contemplates the times ahead - something this young Baptist preacher and Swarthmore College graduate tends to do a lot - he sees two futures. In one, the world has rid itself of nuclear weapons. In the other, the world has been destroyed by them.
“Because of language, culture, and politics, the threat of nuclear weapons has been a difficult issue for evangelical Christians to engage,” says Wigg-Stevenson, founder and director of the Two Futures Project, a Christian campaign to abolish nuclear weapons. “It’s been my mission to carve out space for evangelicals to engage this issue on their own terms.”
The 33-year-old Nashville resident has assembled a surprising corps of allies and endorsers more than twice his age and known for their hawkish ways of yore, including retired U.S. senator Sam Nunn and Reagan-era secretary of State George Shultz.
Less encouraging is the shape of the initial resistance Wigg-Stevenson often encounters as he travels around the country urging Christians to join the nuclear abolition cause - a mind-set that coaxes many believers to accept, even welcome, the imminent end of the world. As signaled by the runaway success of the Left Behind books, end-time expectations hold undeniable sway in evangelical America, which makes long-term investments in a better future seem utterly beside the point.
Thankfully, Wigg-Stevenson and many new-breed evangelicals like him are refusing the kind of end-times bait that lets believers off the hook - off the hook of inspired social action that can make their faith a powerful blessing to their society and their time.
The Second Coming
When some Christians look into the near future, they see a wondrous fate for themselves and fellow evangelical believers: a rapture in which God sweeps the true Christians up to heaven. According to this reading of the bible’s Book of Revelation, what awaits those on the wrong side of the ecclesiastical line is not so wondrous: seven years of unimaginable suffering, war and destruction that ends with the Second Coming of Jesus.
Opinion surveys over the past decade show that more than half the American public believes that the end times are coming.
A new poll from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press finds that roughly four in 10 Americans believe the Second Coming will happen by 2050. Those enraptured by the rapture tend to view current events through the lens of biblical prophesy, reading everything from the Obama election to the oil disaster in the Gulf Coast as fulfillment of one or another cryptic passage from Revelation.
You can imagine the implications this might have for someone’s approach to the here, the now and the times ahead. Work for a better future? What future?
In this view, staving off wholesale destruction is viewed as a distraction from evangelism or, worse, as faithlessness, as getting in God’s way.
At the extreme end of this thought train come figures such as Todd Strandberg, founder of the Rapture Ready website, who opposes environmental protection on fatalistic grounds.
“The Bible predicts that during the tribulation hour, the world will come to near complete ruin,” Strandberg writes. “I am strongly against Christians embracing the environmental movement.”
For liberal religionists or non-believers, this kind of stance is one of the least appealing aspect of evangelicals’ popular image. It’s as if one group is rowing the boat in the direction of species betterment (or, at least, survival), while another group sits idly as the vessel drifts closer to the precipice of the waterfall, convinced that the divine hand will pluck them and their religiously correct fellows from disaster.
A nuclear nightmare
When it comes to apocalyptic visions, Wigg-Stevenson has had his share. But as he began grappling with the nuclear weapons a decade ago as a newly minted college grad and a not-yet-Christian, his were visions of searing white atomic flashes burning up the surface of the planet and millions of people.
His soon-to-follow Christian conversion didn’t free him from the nuclear nightmare but bound him to its prevention.
Understanding that liberal and secular arguments have formed the main rhetorical front in the campaign against nukes - and that these can leave many Christians cold - Wigg-Stevenson has developed a Scripture-based case that lays it all out on an evangelical’s terms.
“I tell evangelical audiences that if you care about the preciousness of life and creation, if you care about the poor, if you care about justice, please understand that the detonation of a nuclear weapon is about the worst thing that can happen,” he says.
Wigg-Stevenson takes pains not to criticize those who read Revelation as a blueprint for rapture and apocalypse in our time. “There are people with integrity who think this way,” he says. “But it leads to an unbiblical focus on the mechanics of the end times.”
Jesus himself warned against precise predictions about when and how the end will come, Wigg-Stevenson points out. His own faith and activism are powerfully motivated by his conviction in the coming kingdom of God, yet he stresses, “The prophesies shouldn’t lead us to be obsessed with the mechanics of end times, but to be obsessed with Jesus.”
Twentysomething activist and writer Jonathan Merritt describes a kind of religious complacency that once dissuaded him from caring much about the condition of the planet.
In his 2010 book, Green like God, Merritt remembers thinking, “Why worry about the future of an earth that has no future?” Since a college classroom experience turned him inside-out, Merritt has made caring for creation his life’s mission. “When those clouds peel back and my Savior returns,” Merritt says, “I want to be caught in the act of loving people, worshiping Christ, and obeying all of God’s commands, including his command to care for his creation.”
Committed young Christian action-takers such as Wigg-Stevenson and Merritt represent a hopeful new current in evangelical America. What a refreshing counterpoint to those who eye an imminent cosmic endgame, one replete with mass death and destruction, and seem to say, “Bring it on!”
If end-times acceptance is losing credibility among the new generation of Jesus followers - and many signs say it is - this is good news for us all.
Taking Wigg-Stevenson’s two-futures paradigm a step further, Christians might see a choice concerning their approach to the future as well. They can bet on a supernatural rescue for themselves and their kind and wait for the cataclysm. Or they can dedicate themselves to compassionate action to alleviate suffering and injustice, to creating a better world.
Which would their savior have them do?
Tom Krattenmaker is a writer based in Portland, Ore., specializing in religion in public life and a member of USA Today’s Board of Contributors. His book, Onward Christian Athletes was published last fall.