Loving your Homosexual Neighbor: Hell or Rapture?

Why are our culture wars so durable? In his new book American Apocalypse, historian Matthew A. Sutton argues that the answer lies in the end of the world. But more evidence keeps piling up that there is a different answer, a better explanation. For some conservative religious people, the culture wars are about more than just winning elections or improving schools. The fight for America’s soul is nothing less than a battle to save people from eternal torment.

I Love You but It's the End of the World...?

I Love You but It’s the End of the World…?

Professor Sutton’s book is really terrific. He examines the history of what he calls “radical evangelical” belief as it emerged in the twentieth century. Unlike most historians, he doesn’t ignore important aspects of the radical evangelical family, such as Pentecostals and African Americans. The part that I’m struggling with is Prof. Sutton’s definition of radical evangelicalism. At its heart, Sutton says, American fundamentalism can be understood as

radical apocalyptic evangelicalism. . . . fundamentalists’ anticipation of the soon-coming apocalypse made them who they were.

In other words, Professor Sutton thinks that the heart and soul of fundamentalist belief comes from beliefs about the imminent and cataclysmic apocalypse. Our American culture wars are so virulent, he explains in chapter four, because fundamentalists and other radical evangelicals believe that they will be judged soon by a righteous God. They must fight against immoral movies, immoral booze, and other immoral trends because such things are part of the seductive Satanic lure of the end days.

Certainly, ideas of Bible prophecy and apocalypse are central to fundamentalist belief. But are they really as central as Professor Sutton contends? Are there other ideas that are even more important?

We stumbled across an evangelical warning this morning that raises the question again. In the pages of World Magazine, conservative evangelical Andree Seu Peterson explains why fundamentalists can’t relax. She does not mention the coming apocalypse. To Peterson’s way of thinking, there is a different reason why fundamentalists must continue fighting culture wars.

Peterson warns that things have changed fast in the last ten years. For conservatives, the question of homosexuality used to be cut-and-dried. Ten years ago, she says,

homosexuality was fringy and dangerous and you were dead set against it. Today homosexuality is the guy grilling steaks next door, waving to you over the picket fence, calling, “How about those Phillies!”

Conservatives might be tempted to accept homosexuals as part of God’s family. Christians might be tempted to love their neighbors, as Christ commanded. In secular terms, we might say, conservatives might feel pressure to adapt their beliefs to changing cultural norms.

Such thinking is dangerous, Peterson warns. Not because the world will be ending soon, but for a more basic reason, a reason more fundamental to fundamentalists. If you really care about your neighbor, Peterson explains,

If you want to talk about “love your neighbor,” need we mention that neighbors don’t let neighbors go to hell? … What good is all the good will you reap now when in the future Mr. Steak Griller next door curses you from across the chasm for your quiet complicity in his damnation?

When it comes to culture wars, this I-Love-You-but-You’re-Going-to-Hell logic is the equivalent of a perpetual motion machine. Whenever religious conservatives might be tempted to relax, to get along, to go with the flow, they can remind themselves of the eternal dangers of compromise. Even when it seems as if the kind thing to do, the loving thing to do, is to meet our neighbors in the middle, such apparent kindness, to some religious conservative, is a terrible mistake.

For some conservative religious people, culture-war issues are not just about accepting our neighbors’ “alternate lifestyles.” If they were, then we could all just get along. As Peterson tells the tale, we could all just smile and wave at one another, then go our separate ways. But for some conservatives, the culture wars have eternal stakes. If they don’t win, they will be guilty of sending people straight to hell.

Is that related to the apocalypse? Sure. Sorta. If Jesus will be returning sometime soon, suddenly and without warning, then these questions of damnation become even more urgent. But it is the damnation itself that is the crucial idea.

For those of us outside the circle of conservative evangelical belief, it can be difficult to understand the vital importance of the idea of damnation to evangelicals. For those of us who don’t believe in a real and terrifying hell, it can be easy to miss the enormous implications of such an idea. The apocalypse is only scary because of the threat of eternal damnation. The culture wars are only worth fighting if we can save some souls from such torment. Missionary work is only crucial because we need to spread the light as far as we can. Indeed, rather than defining fundamentalism as the radical evangelical belief in the apocalypse, we might better define fundamentalism as the radical evangelical belief in a real, eternal, and difficult-to-avoid Hell.

Certainly everyone interested in the nature of fundamentalism and culture wars should read Professor Sutton’s book. And maybe someone can explain to me what I’m missing. It seems to me, though, that the central idea to understanding what makes fundamentalists unique is hell, not just the coming apocalypse.

Leave a comment


  1. I was raised a Fundamentalist, and you are spot on. The idea of the Rapture is closely linked to the Tribulation. In that world, only those who have never heard the Gospel have a chance to hear and believe in it. Rejection in the Tribulation means automatic damnation for that soul. Fundamentalists believe that God will send a strong spirit of delusion on mankind, so that those who heard the Gospel prior to the Rapture will not have a chance to change their minds and be saved. The whole purpose of Christianity is seen as going out to seek people who either haven’t heard about, or who still haven’t accepted, the doctrines of sin and hell for eternity. We actually had charts of the end times, and classes in how to go out “soul winning”, with sales pitches designed to reach certain types of people. It was really living in fear, b/c Fundamentalists also believe that if they don’t share the Gospel, they will have the blood of the lost on their hands. Scary stuff. I’m glad I’m out of it all.

    • Thanks, Sheila. When I was a kid, the churches we (every now and then) attended never mentioned Hell. Or the apocalypse. But here’s my question for you, and for everyone else who is or has been part of a conservative evangelical community: Does Rapture outrank Hell? I know it’s a silly question when I put it that way, but I mean it seriously. For fundamentalists and other conservative evangelicals, which idea seemed more important? I’m curious to hear about your memories. In the reading I do in the archives of fundamentalist schools and colleges, I see a lot about “hell” and only a little “rapture.” In Dr. Sutton’s book, he argues that the apocalypse is the defining belief of American fundamentalism. Maybe it’s a question of poh-tay-toe/poh-tah-toe, but I’m very curious to see if the End Times was really as central as Dr. Sutton argues.

      • There is no “rapture” or eschatological focus of this type among conservatives in the Protestant confessions of the “magisterial reformation” except in odd cases where American Fundamentalism has come in the back door. Even among Fundamentalists, those who adopted a Reformed theological tradition generally abandon if not condemn radical apocalypticism in favor of a much more optimistic, restorative model closer to the predominant Jewish “end of days” vision. More often it is simply not given much attention.

        I think your answer lies not in a particular symbol or narrative but in a variety of them across all the Abrahamic faiths. When people in these traditions feel their identity and future is threatened they have recourse to a range of symbols and stories that can be emphasized to divide the world into sheep and goats (or what have you), whether hell or a fiery apocalypse is involved or not. The common core is really the traumatic experience of the assimilative pressures of western modernity under conditions of pluralism.

  2. Adam, not withstanding Dan’s comment, in my Fundamentalist upbringing, the “End Times” was the focus of all we did and believed. It was more focused on the Rapture part of it, but we were also immersed in the following “Tribulation”, so that we understood the urgency of going out and “saving souls” from this horror. In my church, the two were linked in a way that it is difficult to pull them apart.

    • Sheila — I wasn’t trying to contradict you, just point out to Adam that “Fundamentalism” and “Protestantism” don’t have a uniform or even majority view or practice on these things.

      Growing up in the 1970s-80s in southeastern upstate NY, I experienced a lot of what you’re describing via Baptist neighbors and friends who were connected with a variety of Fundamentalist institutions like PCC. One night a transformer blew up on a telephone pole in front of our immediate neighbors’ house and they jumped out of bed greeting the return of Jesus. Of course this was a story they had enough good humor to tell about themselves as a joke.

      The big debate for these folks was pre-trib versus post-trib eschatology. (Will the true Christians go through the bad stuff or be raptured before it?) These ideas spilled into the non-denominational fundamentalist-evangelical churches in the area. For some evangelization to “save people from hell” was the point. In retrospect I think a polite skepticism may have been equally if not more common among adults. I want to say that no healthy young person ever truly believes “the world will shortly end” and even when they say they do they express a great deal of reluctance and unhappiness over it. There’s a documentary called Waiting for Armageddon that shows this very well.

      As I recall kids seemed to mostly regard this rapture buisness as a point of high entertainment — because it was presented theatrically — but it also had a traumatic side too. It could feed a kind of abandonment and “I’m not really saved” anxiety that for some impressionable, sensitive people probably was quite damaging.

      This was very much a historical moment conditioned by Vietnam, Watergate, the debacles and economy of the Carter administration, the Cold War, and the emerging pro-life and general Christian conservative movement. The people most focused on fundamentalist withdrawal and separation seemed to go for the impending apocalypse idea, and those more interested in activism did not. Much of the rapture narrative was tied to “bible prophecy” regarding Israel and the Soviet Union, nuclear war, etc. So Reagan and history pretty much killed that off. It’s only post-9/11 that the narrative has been re-written to feature “Islam” as the big villain for the world’s final showdown between good and evil.

      • I did not take your comment as a contradiction, but just telling about your own experience. My church was the non-denominational Fundamentalist/Evangelical church to which you refer. We debated pre-, mid-, and post-trib ideas, as well as amillenialism. Ironically, it was reading through the KJV in the order in which events occurred that changed my mind about the rapture theology. It’s too detailed to go into here, but I could see how the cut-and-paste approach to theology doesn’t work very well. There was quite a bit more to see, in whole and in context, than what I was taught. I am moving toward Progressive Christianity at this point in time. But I doubt Adam wants us to get into the weeds on this site, which focuses on education, not religion. You can find me participating in these ideas at Tim Chastain’s blog “Jesus Without Baggage” on WordPress.

  3. Patrick

     /  May 19, 2015

    If you’ll forgive me for being picky, I’d like to suggest a small (but hugely important) correction to one of your remarks. You summarized Peterson as arguing that although “…Christians might be tempted to love their neighbors, as Christ commanded…” they should realize that “such thinking is dangerous” and should be resisted. On the contrary, Peterson is not saying that loving one’s homosexual neighbor is a temptation that must be avoided–she is saying that genuinely fulfilling Christ’s command to love one’s neighbor means refusing to approve of his or her sinful or destructive behavior. So hate the sin, but love the sinner. I know you appreciate this distinction–since it’s in the title of your blog–and I think this is the broader point you were making in this post…but as an evangelical I can be hyper-sensitive about this kind of thing. 🙂

    Overall, I think you’re spot-on in noting that this culture war issue is just as driven by questions of salvation as it is eschatology. I’ve not read Sutton’s book, but will definitely check it out. I grew up in the Church of Christ, which is not premillennial, so I never heard a single sermon on the rapture. Our focus in our culture war discussions was not on eschatology, but on 1) saving our friends and neighbors by converting them to Christianity and 2) seeking God’s material blessings on our country by encouraging moral behavior (i.e. 2 Chronicles 7:14).

    • That sin/sinner distinction you’re trying to make has never convinced the people it’s applied to, and even older Evangelicals are starting to see it’s a dishonest or simply meaningless and stale. (See http://www.huffingtonpost.com/micah-j-murray/why-i-cant-say-love-the-sinner-hate-the-sin-anymore_b_4521519.html)

      The problem with Peterson’s type of the naive and intrusive piety is that it presumes to know for certain who is in (the one judging) and who is out (the neighbor being judged) in order to prosecute a relationship with people she hardly knows solely. Of course this is a non-starter if she keeps coming back in every conversation to accept her inconsistently applied biblicism and leftover medieval metaphysics. If she got her texts and interpretation right, she’d be asking everyone she knows (male, female, straight or gay) if they have engaged in anal or oral sex — or fornication of any kind — although the mosaic law is quite tolerant of lesbian activities.

      The culture war issue is only driven by eschatology because eschatology is, at best, a symbol for the tension between the hope and despair of people and societies who know they will one day be no more. At worst, when people see their extinction close at hand and the apparent triumph of their enemies, eschatology becomes a matter of utopianism or nihilism. Popular fundamentalist/evangelical apocalypticism is, in my view, usually nihilistic with and sadistic and masochistic elements thrown in. There is a reason for this; protestantism, especially its pietist forms, have deep roots in late medieval apocalypticism that appealed to peasants ill-equipped to control or understand the political and economic powers that increasingly deprived them of their lives and liberties. The more fear and paranoia are hitched to moral imperatives, the more you see people as seemingly far removed as atheists and conservative catholics agreeing on virtue ethics and the importance of freely choosing the good, even if they disagree what that is.

      • “…people she hardly knows, solely [on the basis of this presumption.]”

      • Patrick

         /  May 19, 2015

        The sinner/sin distinction has been with us for a long time, having been articulated at least as far back as Augustine, and implied in the Bible itself. Insofar as it simply means “it is possible to care about someone while disapproving of their behavior,” Christians will continue to find “hate the sin but love the sinner” to be a helpful paradigm among themselves, even if those to whom it is applied find it offensive because they equate love with acceptance of another’s choices. I don’t think the phrase is going away anytime soon.

      • Yes, if you don’t accept the “loving logic” of “hate the sin…” then you’re a moral relativist. This is polemic and disputation, not the language of comity and neighborliness. There is really no way to articulate it productively or evenhandedly because the distinction is too subtle. Fundamentalists know this perfectly well. How many of them are going around telling their gay neighbors why they should believe there is a hell and a god who sends you there for certain types of sex? Rarely is “hate the sin” actually applied in conversations with select sinners; rather it functions more as an internal reassurance for Fundamentalists that they’re not bigots and there is an acceptable kind of “Christian hate.” I see this as a fairly transparent self-deception.

        When we hate non-human things like cancer or rain, we do not really mean they are truly capable or worthy of hatred — we are projecting on them our hatred of not having control, so we are making them a symbolic enemy, an “it” that acts against us. When we hate things people do and the ways they act on their desires, we really hate that they are doing these things and perhaps our inability to stop them. It is very hard to prevent this way of thinking from toppling into hatred and anger toward the person doing the actions we hate — ask anyone who has had a close friend or relative become a serious drug addict or become violent but unaccountable for their actions due to a mental disability. Look at the history of soldiers who become deeply hostile to a certain ethnic group as a result of combat where people of this group were their enemies. Where we perceive people doing harm, we end up hating those people.

        You brought up Augustine — he thought sin was a substance. He believed that “original sin” is transmitted through sex in semen. In this physicalist view of sin, a vice can be an object of hate the way one might hate fat or calories, but really it is the act of overeating that is hated, and behind the unhealthy indulgence of physical appetites is one’s lack of self-control that’s being blamed. Hate the sin, and you will also loathe the sinner for his supposed weakness. The problem in this view is desire of any kind other than desire for union with God.

        Despite Martin Luther kicking the habit of scrupulosity and self-loathing (he was an Augustinian monk), some protestant fundamentalists today still try to conceive of holiness as ascetics like Augustine did, but rather than trying to avoid sin by curbing all their appetites and not having attachments to a family and possessions they focus mainly on sex and the sex lives of other people to whom they have no connection. “Hate the sin, love the sinner” is their alibi.

      • Patrick

         /  May 20, 2015

        Dan, we obviously disagree about this on some level, but I would like to add that perhaps the most fundamental reason Christians make the sinner/sin distinction is because they believe that this is how God acts toward them. When people convert to Christianity (in particular, evangelicalism), they come to the understanding that God loves them and wants to save them, but he also hates their sins and wants them to repent. Even after conversion, when they continue to sin, they know they are supposed to hate their own sins–while also believing that God continues to love them and wants to forgive them.

        Insofar as Christianity’s ethical claims are rooted in the nature of God, this paradigm explains how many Christians believe they should also should relate to other people. If they believe from personal experience that God can simultaneously love them and hate their sins, then they believe they can attempt (even if it’s difficult) to do the same toward others.

        If evangelical Christians are bigots, then it’s because their God is, too.

      • No it’s because they casually speak for God and use “Christian” to describe only themselves. Like Peterson they are convinced they know who is “going to hell” even if those people also claim a different understanding of the same faith. Start asking questions and the fundamentalist often reveals how they think all people with a different religion, including Catholics and Jews, are also headed for the flames.

  4. Sheesh, Adam, did you ever imagine your comment section would focus on competing views within Christianity? Can you see how sensitive this is for Christians, and thus, why the schools are having such hard times lately when it comes to curriculum?

    • But this is just what flummoxes me. Your story is crystal clear. But NOWHERE in the archival or historical record do I read talk of Christian/fundamentalist/evangelical school leaders worried that public schools were leading their kids away from faith in a coming apocalypse. I don’t hear talk of making sure Christian schools and colleges do a better job of raising kids in the belief in an imminent Armageddon. Rather, I only see worries that public schools are leading kids away from faith in general, and that Christian schools have to do a better job of teaching faith in general.

      • That is very true. I’ve never heard of that complaint either. I have heard of groups that become so obsessed with the “end times” they turn into a kind of doomsday prepping cult, but they never try to evangelize their program extensively or transform public institutions like schools to support their agenda. I suspect the true believers in an imminent end are prone to see themselves as an enlightened minority and are happy to stay that way.

        Peterson does not seem to be anything like that however — she seems to reflect the general fundamentalist-evangelical ethos where hell is coming when you die, or when Jesus returns, whichever is sooner — could be tonight! It’s always imminent but also not. People who start piecing together a predictive historical are in a different boat. I think there is a broad evangelical taste for thrillers and speculative fantasies about this material, but it’s reserved for private bull sessions, camp, halloween youth group activities, etc.

      • You are so right. Many ardent believers in the Rapture/Armageddon scenario do, indeed, see themselves as an enlightened minority. I’ve had friends, and even close family, say things like “well, so-and-so will change his tune after the Lord returns”, or “people will get what they deserve”. Also, instead of positively doing something about hunger or lack of justice or war or anything negative, reply: “if only the Lord would come back so I wouldn’t have to worry about that anymore.” It’s really quite selfish.

      • To which I answer: what is the faith? There isn’t just A faith. There is no consensus on Armageddon; therefore, there isn’t much focus on that belief in the public schools culture wars. The conservative Christians I know think schools are demanding that the name of Jesus is prohibited within their walls, promoting sin, and undermining “faith” being taught in the schools. You are correct–the focus is on faith generally, and not a particular doctrine specifically. If you rub shoulders with enough Fundamentalists, though, you will find much discussion and publication regarding the coming Armageddon. All of this to say that the Framers were wise to keep sectarian religions OUT of the State. Can you imagine the government being run by people who use the concept of Armageddon as they flesh out foreign policy?

  5. That line about “faith” being taught in the schools should read “faith” being taught in the home. Sorry. Wish I could edit.

  1. 18 May Religion and Atheism News Digest | Evangelically Atheist

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