One of the reason people are susceptible to wrong ideas about Jesus and the future, is that human nature is prone to think about how things could be better rather than realizing they could be much worse. But the history of pessimistic eschatology should itself show us how the idea that life has gotten worse is a delusion. Even before Hal Lindsey, there were masses of Christians, century by century and sometimes decade by decade who knew that human history was stuck and had reached its final moments. Everyone has “known” over and over again that Jesus was about to return because the state of the world was at such a low point and could never get better.
If you think our age is especially worse, you are participating in an ancient tradition. And you are right, in a sense. Since the troubles of this age are your troubles and are much worse than the times so far distant. In fact, all the general troubles that beset previous generations now have a romantic haze about them because you know that generation triumphed and moved on.
Say not, “Why were the former days better than these?” For it is not from wisdom that you ask this (Ecclesiastes 7.10).
Of course, maybe we would see Jesus gracious and righteous reign if we realized that every generation has been right. They should have been the end; progress should have stopped, the world should have slipped away into self-destruction. Maybe Jesus rescued us over and over. Maybe he’s like Buffy and has saved the world a lot. Still does.
Because the fact is, however bad things are now, they are not worse than when Jesus stood on the mountain, having risen from the dead but having nothing obvious to show for it, and told a few people that he was king and they were to go conquer the nations (re-read the Great Commission some time). If you think about it, they were the ones who had every reason to question Jesus’ rule. Sure, they witnessed the resurrection. They also all got persecuted, imprisoned, and killed. The paradox of “ambassador in chains” simply does not register with us because we are so accustomed to the contradiction in the New Testament, but they had not become numb to it.
I think there is also an assumption that, if Jesus is now conquering all his enemies until the resurrection, we should expect to see history be a straight upward slope: better and better. But if Jesus is now ruling in that way, he may feel compelled to actually enforce a downward curve from time to time. Consider this Second First Chronicles 15:
The Spirit of God came upon Azariah the son of Oded, and he went out to meet Asa and said to him, “Hear me, Asa, and all Judah and Benjamin: The Lord is with you while you are with him. If you seek him, he will be found by you, but if you forsake him, he will forsake you. For a long time Israel was without the true God, and without a teaching priest and without law, but when in their distress they turned to the Lord, the God of Israel, and sought him, he was found by them. In those times there was no peace to him who went out or to him who came in, for great disturbances afflicted all the inhabitants of the lands. They were broken in pieces. Nation was crushed by nation and city by city, for God troubled them with every sort of distress. But you, take courage! Do not let your hands be weak, for your work shall be rewarded.”
Asa responds to this message by getting rid of public idols and restoring worship (along with many other things, I’m sure). But the point here is that when the Church does not teach everything Christ has commanded we should expect him to withdraw peace and prosperity from the world. This does not disprove that he reigns and has a plan for future victory; it proves that he does.