“Don’t let them immanentize the eschaton.” So said William Buckley—and countless conservatives since—to critique the utopian visions of progressives. This cryptic phrase based on the writings of Eric Voegelin was printed on political buttons worn by the Young Americans for Freedom in the 1960s and has since been trotted out many times, in outlets ranging from Buckley’s National Review to the Huffington Post. But the riot at the Capitol on January 6 reveals that “immanentizing the eschaton” is not just a problem on the left. It is a problem to which anyone is susceptible when ultimate importance is ascribed to politics.
Apocalyptic politics easily fills the void left by declining religious commitments, shrinking economic opportunities, and eroding social institutions. The political has ascended to become eschatological—for the left, as the only hope to usher in a better world, and for the right as the last chance to prevent its destruction.
Revisiting Voegelin’s insights into the dangers of gnostic politics reminds us of the importance of speaking truth, the dangers of friend–enemy politics, and the limited role of politics in the broader project of human flourishing.
The Phrase’s Origins and Meaning
Buckley coined the phrase “don’t let them immanentize the eschaton” after reading Eric Voegelin’s The New Science of Politics, which stated that “a theoretical problem arises . . . when Christian transcendental fulfillment becomes immanentized.” While Buckley’s witty slogan distilled something important from Voegelin’s opaque argument, Voegelin’s concept was never intended as some “gotcha” soundbite for conservatives to use against liberals. Voegelin’s concern with immanentizing the eschaton was part of his broader and lifelong project to better understand the intersections of history, politics, and religion.
Voegelin was particularly attuned to the dangers of politics becoming religious and eschatological, having witnessed the rise of fascism in Italy, communism in Russia, and Nazism in his German homeland. He wrote vociferously against the Nazis, which put the Gestapo on his trail. He eluded their net with a quick move to Switzerland and escaped to America in 1938, where he continued his academic career.
In Voegelin’s view, modern societies were attempting to replace the eschatological final judgment wrought by God with utopian visions wrought by humanity. Voegelin saw this as a long outworking of trends since the Middle Ages away from a transcendent God with an ordered creation toward an immanent universe with no destiny outside of human existence—what Charles Taylor calls a “closed immanent frame.” The result is “self-salvation,” where “man assumes the role of God and redeems himself.” Too often, humans think the coming of the kingdom is achievable right now, if they just pray the right prayers, implement the right policies, defeat the right enemies, elect the right leaders, or riot their way into the Capitol. But all such efforts—from the Puritan City on a Hill to the Bolshevik Revolution—ultimately fail because of a confusion of category: an eternal, transcendent kingdom is not brought about through earthly means.
The Dangers of a Gnostic, Immanentized Eschaton
Claims to special knowledge with an eschatological ring abound on the Right, and they were coursing through the Capitol crowd. Yes, there were bizarre statements from the shirtless and buffalo-horned Q Shaman, or from those who carried green and white flags honoring the satirical deity of chaos and darkness, Kek. But it wasn’t just a few performative provocateurs who intoned politico-religious visions. From the innocuous Praying Grandmas to the well-armed Oath Keepers, the whole crowd was united around claims of election fraud weighted with the language of political eschaton, to be ushered in by the true warriors with eyes to see.
Most troubling is that so much of it was cloaked with Christian language and symbols, made into a religious crusade to keep Donald Trump in office. As the New York Times reported, “The presence of Christian rituals, symbols and language was unmistakable.” Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic concurs: “The conflation of Trump and Jesus was a common theme at the rally.” Channeling Voegelin, Goldberg further notes that the chaos of the day “was rooted in psychological and theological phenomena, intensified by eschatological anxiety.”
Goldberg interviewed a man from Texas who said, “the country was coming apart, and that this dissolution presaged the End Times. ‘It’s all in the Bible,’ he said. ‘Everything is predicted. Donald Trump is in the Bible. Get yourself ready.’” The Wall Street Journal adds the story of Doug Sweet, who says he hesitated before going into the Capitol until “he felt God’s hand on his back, pushing him forward.” He says he “checked with the Lord . . . three times,” and “never heard a ‘No.’” Even some Christian leaders employed similar eschatological rhetoric, buttressed with self-justifying accounts of supposed direct revelations from God. This type of earth-bound, political religion that is true for its followers not by fact, but by internal feeling, is not Christianity. It is a poison.
Whether it is the countless conspiracies or the distorted Christian claims, all share one thing in common: unfalsifiability. All facts that don’t comport with prior conclusions are dismissed. Voegelin also warned of this many years ago: “the ideological believer . . . can accept neither the realistic meaning of his own phrase, nor rational argument in general.” Feeling over fact, gnostic revelation over objective reality: this is all very dangerous territory, where God becomes the rubber stamp for outlandish political dreams or personal grievances.
Putting Politics Back Where It Belongs
Christians must make a clear and unequivocal distinction between the historic Christian faith and the misleading political religion that is more pervasive on the right that anyone seemed to realize. We should start by heeding conservatives’ longstanding warnings about immanentizing the eschaton. Then, I suggest the following strategies.
1. Speak truth. “Within this eschatological view of politics,” John Jalsevac explains, “truth claims are no longer approached as facts to be adjudicated by applying old-fashioned rules of logic and evidence, but rather as tests of loyalty—spiritual loyalty.” Mass media targeting specific audiences magnify this problem, allowing each side to marshal their sources, contributing to further entrenchment. Finding a way out of this environment is daunting, but it starts with telling the truth. Truth has inherent power; the more truth is spoken, the easier it becomes to speak. Perhaps no one grasped this better than Eastern bloc dissidents like Aleksandr Solzenhitsyn and Vaclav Havel, who were sustained through their long nights of suffering under Communist regimes by the conviction that living in truth is never in vain.
2. Stop demonizing others. The apocalyptic politics of an immanentized eschaton divides people into sheep or goats, children of light or children of darkness—actual language that was heard at the rally-turned-riot. “If only it were so simple!” cried Solzenhitsyn from behind the Gulag’s barbed-wire: “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
3. Demote politics. When people find their core identity and ultimate purpose in politics, no one really wins. Politics turns into a Nietzschean battle for survival. Historically, Christians have recognized the subsidiarity of politics and the primacy of other, more foundational aspects of human flourishing: family, community, and church. Demoting politics to a secondary position can help us recover individual responsibility and vibrant personal agency—and the meaning found in these more basic aspects of the human experience.
With a proper politics of limits, it becomes clear that authentic Christianity offers something very different from an immanentized eschaton, a political messiah, or the other sacrilegious substitutes that characterize Christian nationalism. True Christianity does not offer self-salvation through the shifting, sovereign will of the people, nor does it promise national success or ethnic destiny.
Instead, true Christianity offers the saving, sovereign will of the God who ordered the universe and redeems it through the incarnate Christ. True Christianity offers the universal promise of “the Jerusalem that is above” (Galatians 4:26) with deep, thick community around “the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42). This, in turn, creates an orientation toward the world that emanates outward in meaningful family life, love towards neighbor, and vocations of service to the community. True Christianity puts democracy in its proper place, and provides not just a hope for democracy, but the sure and certain hope of ultimate restoration in the life of the world to come: the real eschaton.