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How Evacuation Theology Incubates Injustice

The Good Samaritan

“This world is not our home.” 
“It’s all going to burn anyway.” 
“We will only have justice in heaven.” 
“I can’t wait to get to heaven where there’ll be no more evil.” 

I cannot count the times I have heard Christians repeat these words and others like them. I, myself, have uttered these phrases. The sentiments belong to generations of Christians whose biblical interpretations combined with longing for relief from the world’s turmoil. While desire for respite is healthy, I posit that statements like these also reveal Christianity’s long-standing fixation on escapism. Regardless of denomination, Christians for centuries have found hope in heaven and Christ’s return as an escape from the world. While I believe in the doctrine of the last things, I see a crucial difference between the second coming and evacuation theology. 

Second Coming vs. Evacuation Theology 

Central to Christian theology, the doctrine of last things—eschatology—includes beliefs about the second coming of Christ, death and resurrection, the millenium and sin, and the new earth. The narrative that the creator and redeemer of this world will return and eradicate evil drives this doctrine. Beyond erasing suffering, the doctrine gives hope of heavenly perfection and a new earth that continues eternally. According to Revelation 21:4, this new reality will end tears, pain, and death. ove, justice, and human equality will be self-evident there.

However, while eschatology is central to Christian faith it does not require abandoning our present reality. Nor does it demand or imply indifference to the world’s suffering and injustices. The second coming does not negate the gospel and its implications. Instead, it compels us to share the good news of abundant life available in this present world and in the world to come through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. We can simultaneously look forward to Jesus’ second advent and experience the abundant life his first advent affords.

Evacuation Theology 

While the first and second Advent emphasizes abundant life, evacuation theology stresses escaping the world’s unbearable realities. It involves working one’s way into heaven.

In the mid 2000s, Mars Hill pastor and author Rob Bell identified and critiqued evacuation theology, saying it promoted spiritual passivity. Brian McLaren expressed something similar in A Generous Orthodoxy (2006) when he described “eschatology of abandonment” as “evangelical-dispensational, ‘left behind’ theology” that expects the world’s imminent destruction. 

Both authors rejected a Christianity obsessed with living in a way that only seeks entrance into heaven. This ideology touts righteousness by faith but practices righteousness by works. Evacuation theology’s adherents alarmingly fixate on heaven as their home while standing aloof from major issues and injustices in the world. Both the evacuation theology Bell criticized and the eschatology of abandonment McLaren called out prioritize getting into heaven while ignoring societal problems.

The Gospel

Among evacuation theology’s harmful effects is its turning the gospel from a message of love and justification through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection to a message of securing tickets to heaven and the new earth. It changes the gospel’s focus from Christ’s work and its transformative power to an escape plan. 

Reframing the gospel changes its intent and shifts its focus primarily to life in another realm. It also reduces the sacrifice of Christ to a ticket into a future reality and has little to do with the here and now. Isn’t the gospel more than assurance into the kingdom? Is that truly the gospel at all?

Us vs. Them

Another of evacuation theology’s damaging results is its turning the church against the world. It creates an “us versus them” mentality within Christendom—us, meaning followers of Jesus; them, meaning everyone else. “Us” presumes specialness—a chosen generation, royal priesthood, and peculiar people, described in 1 Peter 2. We assume it includes weekly churchgoers, who may at the same time be closeted and uncloseted bigots, racists, unethical gossipers, and liars. Though not always stated out loud, “us” excludes Christians who identify as closeted or uncloseted lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer. It leaves out believers who have committed public offenses, long ago or recently. Nor does “us” include those who interpret scripture differently than the denomination’s official hermeneutic. Unsurprisingly, all of these groups would be placed in the “them” category along with all of the atheists, agnostics, “spiritual but not religious,” and all other religions.

Objects or People

One result of creating an “us vs. them” framework is that many Christians do not see “them” as fellow humans to know and associate with, instead they are merely objects to convert. Sadly, this perspective leads us to reduce individuals we’ve placed in the “them” category as targets of evangelistic pursuits. History shows when we cannot coerce “them” to accept the Bible as we have interpreted it they become unimportant, a lost soul, and, in some cases, the enemy. The unfortunate reality is that our over-identification with being a “chosen generation” and “peculiar people” inevitably creates within the Christian purview a hierarchy of human value, which blinds us from being able to see our shared humanity with the “them” of this world. 


Finally, the most harmful consequence of evacuation theology is that it causes Christians to be aloof to injustice. It shifts the focus of the gospel from what Christ has done for us and continues to do through us to securing salvation to the “preparation of the final crisis.” As a result, those who ascribe to this framework view societal issues as inconsequential because the gospel’s primary mission is to prepare us for life elsewhere. 

Evacuation theology postulates that since the second coming of Jesus will execute ultimate justice, our efforts need not address injustice on earth because Jesus alone can truly eradicate evil and inequitable systems and people. The Christian prerogative should be to prepare people to exit a world of injustice to heaven where justice will reign. 

While this premise may be met with scorn and opposition, history and personal experience demonstrate its truth. I would suggest that this mindset influenced some well-meaning Christians who eagerly preached and awaited the second coming of Christ on October 22, 1844, while ignoring the plight of millions of African Americans enduring the abominable hardships of slavery. 

Evacuation theology also paralyzed many Christians from speaking out and fighting against the horrific systematic annihilation of 6 million Jews and 4 million mentally and physically ill Germans during the Holocaust. 

I would posit that evacuation theology drove a group of sincere Christians in New York to abandon their families and belongings for months to gather in Times Square, awaiting Jesus’ return on October 21, 2011, and disregarding the presence and problems of people around them.

It is also why many Christian congregations gather weekly inside their churches to hear comforting messages about the return of their savior while many outside experience the tragedies of poverty, war, and inequity. Evacuation theology prompts some Christian leaders to suggest that the church should mainly focus on spreading news of Christ’s second coming but ignore the glaring disparities Jesus spoke about during his ministry. 

This conundrum begs us to consider the injunctions reflected in the following questions: How can one preach against evil while ignoring glaring systems of injustice in our society? How can one preach equality of all people while neglecting the caste systems evident within all societies? How can we preach against sin while we commit the worst sin of being indifferent to systems and practices that cause human suffering? Truly, our theology of evacuation not only makes us aloof to injustice, but also contributes to our lack of participation in rectifying injustice, making us complicit in oppression. While many Christians are undeniably charitable people, charity is not enough. Charity is a band-aid on a gaping wound; the biblical injunction is to bind up wounds.

The Message of the Gospel

While naïve to think we could solve all societal ills, it is also preposterous to believe that a loving God wants us to be silent and indifferent to unjust systems and human suffering. If the gospel’s central message is love, shouldn’t that message move us to enact love in a loveless world? If we are to live out the Bible’s call to love our neighbor as ourselves, then shouldn’t that lead us to address systems that dehumanize and degrade? 

On December 5, 1955, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at the Holt Street Baptist Church at the start of the Montgomery bus boycott. To the 5,000 gathered he said, 

“I want to tell you this evening that it is not enough for us to talk about love, love is one of the pivotal points of the Christian faith. There is another side called justice. And justice is really love in calculation. Justice is love correcting that which revolts against love. 

“I want to tell you this evening that it is not enough for us to talk about love, love is one of the pivotal points of the Christian faith. There is another side called justice. And justice is really love in calculation. Justice is love correcting that which revolts against love. 

If these words are valid, then it’s evident that the mission of the Christian church should expand from simply ensuring people are aware of the spiritual liberation afforded by the gospel. The  church’s mission should also include ensuring that humans experience the abundant life afforded by the gospel and seeking to eliminate that which thwarts an abundant society.

The Bible is filled with many examples and injunctions that demonstrate God is not concerned only with liberating souls, but also with liberating from oppressive systems. Scripture makes clear that Jesus not only identified with the marginalized, minoritized, and disenfranchised, but he died to humanize and liberate them as well. Therefore, it is imperative that we promote the entirety of the gospel message: both soul liberation and physical emancipation.

The gospel is both freedom from sin and liberation from the systems of sins. The gospel is all-encompassing!

Image: Good Samaritan Sculpture by Alan Collins, Loma Linda University, Loma Linda, California. (Rajmund Dabrowski / ANN)

Danielle Pilgrim

About the author

Danielle Pilgrim, a native of Trinidad and Tobago, has passionately served the Seventh-day Adventist church in various capacities since 2015. She began  as an associate pastor at the Berean Seventh-day Adventist church in Atlanta, Georgia. At Berean, she served as youth and young adult pastor and was the director for community engagement initiatives. She also served for four years as an associate chaplain and interim chief diversity officer at Andrews University. In 2023, Danielle completed her Ph.D. in Community Engagement with a concentration in public policy and is pursuing a career creating social justice.
More from Danielle Pilgrim.
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