Posts Tagged ‘millenialism’

Of Gospel and Heresies: What Did I Leave Behind?

September 20, 2018

Of Gospel and Heresies: What Did I Leave Behind?

 

 

“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels in Heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”

——Mark 13:32

 

 

I don’t know about you, but personally, I hate going on a trip. It’s not that I hate being away from my home more than average, or that I worry incessantly about my home or that I hate being in unfamiliar settings. In fact, while I do think about my home, I’m generally curious about being in a new place. I enjoy noticing the differences, like what animals and plants I see or don’t see, how the architecture changes from place to place, what different foods are local favorites. What I hate, really hate, is actually leaving. I am always afraid of leaving something behind. And if I pack in a hurry, or even if I don’t, I almost always do leave something behind. Once it was the charger for my electric toothbrush. Once it was my child’s favorite toy. At one gamers’ convention I left a bag with over $100 worth of games and accessories in a hotel room, and only by sheer luck did I find it again. Several times it’s been the phone charger. So I hate leaving my home for a trip, I hate checking out of a hotel, every time I have to change locations I wonder what I’m going to leave behind this time. And I get more anxious when I have to leave in a hurry. If someone is threatening to leave ME behind, yet I don’t know what I might myself be leaving behind, I simply hate it.

I sometimes wonder if this says something about my spirituality. After all, a Christian is supposed to be a sojourner and a wanderer on the earth, traveling towards a heavenly city (Hebrews 11:13-16).   What does it say about me if my heart is with my treasure that I might be leaving in a Days Inn outside Eire? (Matthew 6:21).

Other people, it seems, are always eager to hit the road, or the airways or whatever. They count the days to their next vacation, when they take off on another trip to anywhere, as long as it’s out of town. And they must be having a great time, if 5000 selfies on Facebook are any proof. And sometimes I wonder what it says about their spirituality, too. Like Yoda said of Luke Skywalker, I might say of one of these eager travelers: “All his life has he looked away to the future, to the horizon. Never his mind on where he was, what he was doing.” They always seem to be dreaming of vacation, or of when the kids leave home, or of retirement, some future away from where they are, from the ties that bind.

While my spirit seems troubled by what I might leave behind, theirs is preoccupied that they might be “Left Behind.” Or more precisely, they’re preoccupied with the pop theology franchise “Left Behind.” It’s an interesting phenomenon, this theology. It goes back much further than the series of novels published beginning in 1995. In the 1970s we had the would-be prophecies of Hal Lindsey and movies like “A Thief in the Night.” In the 1800s we had the Great Disappointment, where more than 1 out of every 200 people sold all their property and waited for Jesus to return on October 22, 1844. Other estimates suggest as many as a half-million people were buying books, attending mass meetings and joining churches preaching this coming Rapture, at a time when the entire nation’s population was less than 20 million. That would be one out of every twenty people looking forward to the end of the world, attending sermons and lectures about the Rapture, and not putting anything on their calendar after October 21 because there wouldn’t be any point. Then and now, people search for meaning, meaning for their lives, meaning for the world, and specifically the meaning of the most obscure, colorful passages of the Jewish and Christian Bibles.

Jesus found that his followers, too, were eager to know the future. They knew the apocalyptic prophecies of Daniel and Zechariah and of the Essenes living in the desert. So when Jesus began to speak to them of the future, and to warn them not to get too tied down to this magnificent temple Herod was building, they asked him for prophecies of what was to come. And the three Synoptic Gospels do not disappoint. Although most the teachings of Jesus deal either with ethical teachings for the here-and-now, or with teachings about sin and his own redemptive work, Mark reports that he took time in the last days of his life to give his disciples a glimpse into the future, cloaked with apocalyptic imagery of the Sun and moon and stars being blotted out, the whole cosmos undone, and the Son of Man returning in glory.

Later, as persecutions of Christians got worse, the great apocalyptic book The Revelation of John was written by a prisoner on the island of Patmos. Like past apocalyptic writing, John wrote at a time when God’s people were being persecuted and it seemed as if evil ruled the world. John wrote to reassure the faithful that God is always in charge, no matter how it appears now. Like Daniel and Zechariah and other books that didn’t make it into our bible but which were known in his day, he wrote using imagery and even symbolic code, a style that the faithful would understand but outsiders would think was gibberish.

In the 20th Century, as science and journalism developed a new standard of objective truth, passages such as these became troublesome and fascinating for many Protestants. It was not always so. For most of Christian history, the literal truth of the Bible was largely assumed but wasn’t seen as terribly important. What mattered was the spiritual lesson God was conveying through the written word. But as some Protestant evangelists started making Darwin their scapegoat for all the world’s ills, they more or less adopted the scientist’s definition of what “truth” is, making the factual claims the bedrock on which the reliability of the spiritual teachings rested. How could we trust the word that Jesus died for our sins, they asked, if we find that God did not in fact cause the shadow on Hezekiah’s step to go backwards (Isaiah 38:8)? So instead of the mutual dialogue between science and faith that had dominated much of our history, war was declared on Science. Rather than argue that religion was a different sort of truth, expressed differently than scientific textbooks because it was too big to fit in those narrow confines, the Fundamentalists put their truth on the same level as scientific and factual truth-claims, and simply declared that their science was better than the scientist’s science.

This new theological insistence on factual literalism had another effect: it elevated the apocalyptic writings to the center of Evangelical thought. The early Reformers, like Luther and Calvin, had relatively little interest in apocalypticism; they were too concerned with figuring out how the Church should live and what it should teach here and now. Luther in particular sought to focus on Christ Crucified and Risen and on the grace he offers; there’s little talk of grace in John’s apocalypse. One day the saints will wear crowns and rule with their lord; but now we live very different lives, and that is where we should pay attention. But if you believe that every word of the Bible has to be literally true in order to believe the Gospel message, then you have a mountain to climb when you read John. Monsters with seven heads and ten horns, dragons, women sprouting wings—-the whole thing sounds like a Godzilla movie! But Fundamentalism doesn’t mean literalism; as Jerry Falwell explained, it means inerrancy. So the Protestant Evangelicalism of which he was product and producer focused on harmonizing all the apocalyptic writings of the Old and New Testaments and interpreting them so that all trace of factual error was eliminated. These strange images had to be interpreted, harmonized, and brought together into one unified prophecy of the future that hadn’t come, but which was just around the corner.

There’s a problem with this. The writings of Daniel and John are not aimed at the same audience. In fact, scholars claim that the great enemy that they refer to is not even the same; for Daniel it is the Greek tyrant Antiochus, while for John it is one of the Roman emperors who persecuted Christians, likely Nero or Domitian. The language about the world ending, this argument would claim, was never intended as a literal vision of the future but rather as a theological claim that the God who made the world is still in charge, and still in command of the order and the chaos we see, and can make, unmake and remake the world in order to give justice to the faithful. For the 20th century millennialist, this is unacceptable; the world was predicted to end and rather than accept this as poetic or symbolic imagery, it has to be literally true or the Bible contains error and can’t be trusted on any point at all. So we have to keep staring and staring and staring at the Bible, and squinting and sweating over the apocalyptic writings, until we come up with a coherent timeline that ties all the events described together into a future where the world really does end and we faithful really do get to wear crowns and sit on thrones.

But the original apocalyptic writings were written to audiences that were suffering at that moment, not in the future. The message was gospel, “good news,” for the Jews under Antiochus or the Christians under Nero. There is no “Rapture” where the faithful are caught up and spared the tribulations described, because the faithful were undergoing those tribulations as they were writing and reading the books! Elsewhere in the Gospels and in Paul’s letters we do read about the faithful being caught up to Heaven in an instant, in the twinkling of the eye, to join our Lord when he returns; but those writings have no mention of a tribulation to follow. They are simply inconsistent. Any attempt to harmonize them is a human interpretation, often masquerading as divine prophecy, which is rarely good. In the hands of Evangelicals, the symbolism and poetry and artistry and reassurance of the many Biblical apocalyptic writings became a theological Rorschach ink blot, where each one sees what he or she wants to see and what one sees says more about oneself than the object one is looking at. In the millennialist theology of today, the “Left Behind” theology as it is known (sorry, Omega Code!), the theology intended to comfort the poor and persecuted becomes a message to mostly white, middle-class American Christians. Whether you’re a hotshot reporter played by Kirk Cameron, or an airline pilot, or even a black pastor of a fairly large, nice-looking church, you’re one who up until that moment in the movie was doing pretty darned well. And if you’re the sort of person who buys these books and videos and movie tickets and who believes this message, you’ll stay well-off. All the good people, the ones who call themselves “the faithful,” get raptured out of the book or movie before the Antichrist gets cooking, before the Tribulation occurs; they’re off in Heaven in comfort, watching and munching divine popcorn I assume with front-row seats to the divine drama playing out on Earth without them, until the story ends and they get to take their place on the stage with their golden crowns and white robes. The people who get persecuted, who have to endure the Tribulation, are the ones who didn’t quite believe strongly enough or correctly enough or soon enough, who are perhaps good people but who weren’t sufficiently Evangelical so now they’re stuck until the seven years of terror are ended.

That is not what the Bible says. We may disagree exactly what it does mean, but it doesn’t mean that. Every mention of the Rapture agrees that after it occurs, the world is over. Jesus returns and the Kingdom comes; there is no Tribulation during which the faithful get to finally watch the others suffer and thus avenge themselves on all the people who mocked them or ignored them or had more fun than them. The Tribulation is not a show; it is not a spectator sport. It is now. Now is the time of trial. And all of us are in it together.

One of my teachers, Diogenes Allen, wrote a very fine and very readable book, Finding Our Father, discussing the importance of humility. Humility is both the cardinal spiritual virtue and the cardinal epistemological virtue. That is, we need humility to see God and to see ourselves accurately, and really we need it to see ANYTHING accurately. Without humility, we naturally see the world as a child always sees it: revolving around ourselves, judged “good” or “evil” based on how it makes oneself feel. Allen lists five implications of the sort of humility we are to have, and one in particular seems relevant to my purpose here: “We are not to seek to live in glory before our time.”[1] When any of us realizes some spiritual truth, we naturally want to think “Well, now, I know the truth, I am freed from my old errors and sins, I’m now one of the faithful. Maybe I should seek to help others, or maybe I should just rest secure in my salvation and let God save the others; but at least I know I’ve run the good race.” But we’re not there. We never will be “there” in this life. Every momentary realization of our true place, utterly insignificant in the world and simultaneously God’s beloved, humble yet secure, is the next moment threatening to slide either towards self-importance or anxiety. The Christian life is a paradox (and if you’re a religious person who isn’t Christian, I suspect you’ve also encountered the same truth). The objective reality of the universe says each of us is just a dust-mote floating on the breeze, and accidental collection of chemicals with delusions of grandeur. The life-giving spirit assures us that we are, despite all objective evidence, of infinite worth, what the philosopher Immanuel Kant called “dignity.” But that feeling of being valued by the source of the universe tempts us to push back against the threatening message of insignificance which the universe sends us with every reminder of our weakness and mortality, by instead thinking of ourselves as more and better and more powerful than we are. And one way we do that is by seeing ourselves as already freed, as children not of this world of pain but of the Rapture. It is hard to wake up every day and remember that Christ calls us to get out of bed and go out as servants to an ungrateful and unknowing world, servants even to neighbors who fundamentally reject the truths we hold dear and which hold us. It is much more pleasant to see ourselves as the world’s rulers already, any moment to take our rightful place in Heaven to look down on those sinners around us while they finally get their comeuppance.

Perhaps that is why Jesus gave us these saving words: Of that hour no one knows, not even the Son, but only the Father. Your job is not to try to find out what God has not seen fit to reveal even to the Christ; your job is to watch, and wait. For too many Christians, the message of Christ’s sudden return becomes an excuse to not care about the world, or about our neighbors. If they’re worthy, they’ll be fine just as we are; if they’re not, that’s their choice, their problem. Why clean up the world when God is just going to end it any day now? So what if today children are drinking lead-poisoned water, if tomorrow they’ll be sipping ambrosia and eating manna in Heaven? That is pretty much the opposite of what Christ says. He says, I may return tomorrow, or the next day, or a thousand years from now; but whenever I return, you’d better look busy doing the things I told you to do: feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked, comforting the suffering, sharing good news, showing love and respect for the poor, the one with no family, and to the foreigner. Whatever you do to the least of these, you do to your Lord.

This world is the one that God has given us as our task, our stewardship, our job. The pay isn’t always great, but the retirement package is out of this world! But for some people, waiting for that final day on the job seems to drag. They go through life as if it were Friday at 4:30. They don’t want to start working on anything new. They don’t want to help one more customer. They’re terrified of being “left behind,” but don’t worry about what they might be leaving behind: tasks undone, suffering people uncomforted, faint-hearted unencouraged, hungry unfed, or strangers unwelcomed. Millennialism wants to be done, wants the work to be over, and reduces the Christian life to simply believing that the Christian life is already concluded. There is no need to serve others as Christ did, to follow in Christ’s footsteps. All you need to do is believe in the Rapture and you will be raptured. Again and again in millennialist movies and novels there is some character who is good, loving, goes to church, believes that Jesus is Lord, but doesn’t expect a literal rapture and thus is left to suffer. The works-righteousness of the Middle Ages was replaced by thought-righteousness, so that even believing in Jesus and loving God and the Church isn’t enough if you don’t love in the right way, with the right theology. That isn’t what Jesus said. That isn’t taking up your cross and following Jesus. What that is, is not doing your job because you’re staring at the clock waiting for time to go home. We need to do the work that God told us to do, and seek to imitate the life of the actual Jesus we see in the Gospels. That is what the Bible tells the faithful people to do. Because whether there’s a literal Rapture ten minutes from now or ten thousand years, I can promise you this: each one of us will end. Your world will end, and you will find yourself alone with God. As Kierkegaard said, this is “the earnest thought of death,” which makes life so serious. It definitely will happen, and it almost certainly be a surprise, the most certain and unexpected of all things. So as Christ says: Keep watch.

[1] Diogenes Allen, Finding Our Father (John Knox Press, Atlanta GA: 1974) p. 74

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