Pilgrim Pathways: Notes for a Diaspora People

Incarnational Discipleship

Christian Hope and Millennial Delusions: A Brief Guide for the Perplexed

Well, here it is, Sunday 22 May 2011, and no one has been “raptured.”  To the surprise of few, Rev. Camping was wrong.  What would surprise many non-Christians having a good laugh right now is that, historically, the majority of Christians have never believed in anything called “the rapture of the elect.”  It is a view which did not even exist in Christianity until the 19th C. when it was invented by a British fundamentalist named John N. Darby and popularized by an American follower named C. I. Scofield.  Scofield attached his particular eschatological and millennial views to his footnotes to the King James Version of the Bible.  Because “the Scofield Reference Bible” became wildly popular as a gift Bible among English speaking conservative Protestants (especially in the United States), and because many readers were unable to distinguish the authority of the Bible from the authority of Scofield’s notes, the heresy begun by Darby, known as Dispensational Premillennialism (or, more briefly, simply as Dispensationalism) became widespread among evangelical Christians.  It is particularly widespread among TV preachers, thereby giving the false impression to non-Christians (and even many Christians) that this is what most or all Christians believe.  It is not.  Not even close.

It is true that Christianity is a thoroughly eschatological faith.  That is to say that mainstream Christian theology has always taken a narrative shape, believing that humans inhabit a Story with a beginning (Creation and Fallenness), middle (“salvation history,” or the many chapters of God’s redemptive work in a broken Creation–seeking to mend, restore, heal, SAVE lost and estranged humanity–and eventually the entire cosmos) and end (the conclusion of story–the End of fallen history in a New/Renewed humanity and Creation).  The details vary from theologian to theologian, biblical interpreter to biblical interpreter.  A few, very liberal, modern Christians have abandoned this belief.  For instance, the theological ethicist James M. Gustafson (1925-), who retired in 1998 after teaching at Yale Divinity School and the Department of Religious Studies of Yale University (1955-1972), the University of Chicago Divinity School (1972-1988) and in the Religious Studies Department of Emory University (1988-1998), eventually adopted the view that there would be no parousia (“return” or “unveiling”) of Jesus Christ, but that the universe would simply continue in entropy and experience heat death some millennia from now–as most astrophysicists believe. (See Gustafson’s Ethics from a Theocentric Perspective, vol. 1.)  But the vast majority of Christians, across denominational and theological differences, live in the general eschatological perspective that I outlined in brief, above.  There are 4 broad variations (and some modern alternatives to be outlined later)–and only one of them entails any concept of a “rapture.”

  1. Classical Premillennialism Sometimes adherents of this view call it “Historic Premillennialism,” but this carries the connotation that this was the earliest (historic) view of the Christian Church from which all others are departures.  My own reading of the writings of the early church (“Patristics”) suggests that some form of amillennialism (see below) is at least as early as Classic Premillennialism, so I want to avoid the impression that only one of these is “historic.”  In this perspective, the general eschatological perspective of which I spoke is assumed.  Christians believe they are in the middle of a Story that began with God’s creation of the universe (by whatever means, taking whatever millennia), continued with human sinfulness and rebellion, and with God’s many attempts–especially in and through the lives and history of the people “Israel,” to reclaim and redeem humanity (and, through them, heal the creation), culminating in the decisive action of God in and through the life, ministry, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth–proclaimed by Christians as God’s unique Son.  As a whole, Christians believe that a new era was ushered in by Jesus and, thus, that since his life, death, and resurrection, the world has been living in its final age, “the last days.” The end of the old era overlaps the inauguration of the new. But Christians, empowered with the Gift of the Holy Spirit, continue the work of Jesus in proclamation and ministry–awaiting in hope the parousia or “return” (the word actually means “appearing,”) of Christ to usher in the triumphant conclusion of history (the “LAST” of the last days, if you will.) In Classic Premillennialism, passages from the New Testament, especially the Apocalypse (“unveiling”) or Revelation of John, that Christ’s parousia will be followed by a thousand years of peace on earth before the Last Judgment and the end of the old creation for the New Heavens and New Earth.  No rapture. No date setting. Christ can be expected at any time (the Apostle Paul clearly believed in most of his letters that Jesus’ parousia would happen in his lifetime, although in his later prison writings, he does seem to accept that he could die before Jesus’ “return”). Christians are urged to be alert and ready always–and to be found faithful and about their appointed tasks of ministry, work for justice and peace, and proclamation of the Good News of Jesus to all.
  2. Amillenialism. Literally the term means “no millennium,” but this historic view shares much with the one just described. The major exception is that the “thousand year reign” mentioned in Revelation is thought to be symbolic (not referring to a specific time period) and to be taking place now in the age of the Church.  Amillenialists, including St. Augustine of Hippo and almost all the Protestant Reformers (e.g., Martin Luther, John Calvin, Huldrich Zwingli), expect the parousia of Christ and the culmination of history without any thousand-year interlude on earth.  A variation on this, which was especially strong in both the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic traditions in the Middle Ages, identified the millennial rule of Christ with the political rule of the Church since Constantine united the Church with the imperial power of the Roman Empire in the 4th C. In the West, this was specifically seen as the rule of Christ through the pope, seen as the Vicar of Christ on earth.  In the East, it was more identified with Christian rulers and emperors under the influence of Orthodox bishops, patriarchs, metropolitans, etc.  Some versions of this abandoned belief in a literal return of Christ, but most did not.  Generally speaking, by the high Middle Ages, those who believed the Church needed drastic reform, whether those reformers became Protestant or remained Catholic, were more likely to reclaim a literal return of Christ (in both salvation and judgment) than those who believed Christ was perfectly ruling through the glory of the Church on earth. 
  3. Postmillenialism.  In the post-Reformation era, especially with the rise of the modern missions movement in the 19th C. (16th & 17th Cs. for Anabaptists and Catholics), Christians became optimistic in their hopes. Many believed that Jesus’ parousia would only come after the evangelistic mission of the Church was successful.  The world would convert to Christianity, there would be a thousand years of peace and justice (this number may be literal or symbolic in different versions) and then Jesus would return and wrap up history. 
  4. Dispensational Premillennialism.  John Nelson Darby (1800-1882), a self-taught biblical interpreter, modified the classic premillennial position.  He divided salvation history (and the Bible) into a series of seven (7) periods or “dispensations.” In each of these different ages, God related to humans in different ways (this is part of what makes this a heresy since mainstream Christianity has always believed that God was a God of grace at all times and places).  According to Darby, only in the Church Age was salvation by grace through faith. (He relegated Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount to a future “Kingdom Age”–which meant that Christians could safely ignore it NOW! ) Darby and his followers reinterpreted Christ’s parousia as a “two-stage” Return of Christ.  First, Jesus would return and “rapture” the Church (believers, living and dead) to heaven. Rapture as a theological term (instead of a synonym for “joy” or “ecstasy,”) was invented by Darby in the 1830s. Prior to that time, the term was completely unknown by Christians.  (This view is not only heretical, but a fairly recent heresy!) After the church is “raptured away,” Darby and his followers taught that there would be a “Great Tribulation” in which God allowed many bad things to happen to those “left behind.” Then, Christ will return AGAIN followed by the millennial rule, the last judgment, etc.  Because Jesus specifically PROMISED tribulation to his followers (e. g., John 16:33), some Dispensationalist put the “rapture” in the middle of the Great Tribulation rather than before it. Classic premillennialists and postmillennialists hold that Christ’s return comes after the Tribulation.  Amillennialists tend to think that “tribulation” does not refer to any specific series of events, but to all the sufferings and persecutions of Christians throughout the ages. (Thus, for the perplexed, this is the difference between “pre-tribulationists” (Jesus returns to “rapture” Christians BEFORE tribulation) “post-tribulationists” (Christians must all go through the tribulation prior to Christ’s return) and “mid-tribulationists,” (Christians experience some suffering but get removed before the really rough stuff).  Only Dispensationalists are “pre-trib” or “mid-trib.” Classic premillennialists tend to be post-trib, and all postmillennialists are post-trib. Amillennialists and some classic premillenialists do not see any particular persecution or time of tribulation for Christians as more significant than any other.

Now, Rev. Camping, and most people who set dates or make predictions concerning Christ’s return and/or the end of the world, are Dispensational Premillennialists.  Though loud, they are a distinct minority among Christians–even very traditional or conservative Christians.  It is true that the Apostle Paul thought, for most of his ministry, at least, that he would live to see Jesus’ return. Christians in every century have often felt the same.  But MOST have adhered to Jesus’ saying that no one, not even Jesus the Son (Matthew 24:36) knows when the end will come.  The idea is to live each day as if it could be the last one. There are specific ethical and ministerial consequences:  We are admonished to fulfill our collective and individual callings (proclaiming the gospel, working for justice and peace, visiting the sick and imprisoned, healing and reconciling all we can) without delay.  We are not to sin deliberately–thinking that we can always repent tomorrow.  We are not to live in fear of the future, but trust in the God of the future and present.

Date setting and predictions of the end violate all this.  Belief that Christians will be “raptured away” instead of suffering along with the rest of Creation leads to callousness toward others.  Obsessing over eschatological details–instead of trusting to God and living in the hope of the renewal of all things–is sin–and trivializes the Christian life.

It reduces salvation to “fire insurance” from hell or suffering and leads its adherents to minimize or deny altogether the many teachings in Scripture, especially by Jesus, of care for the poor, for the earth, and work for peace.  After all, in the Dispensational “date setting,” Bible-as-code-book mentality, the world MUST get worse and worse until the “rapture,” then get even worse and eventually be destroyed.  Dispensationalists seldom see any continuity between the current Created order and the promised New Heavens and Earth–so they see all environmental work as “paganism.”  Heresy upon heresy.  And most Christians, even most conservative Protestant evangelicals, are EXTREMELY TIRED of others thinking that they believe this nonsense.  It is a heresy–but one that has convinced much of the non-Christian world (especially in the Western media) that this heresy is mainstream Christian teaching. IT IS NOT.

Rev. Camping is hardly the first date-setter to be disappointed. In 1844, William Miller (1782-1849), a self-taught Baptist preacher led his followers that Jesus would return in 1844. Many sold their property to wait this. The “Great Disappointment” did not result in the end of date-setting. In fact, Miller’s followers formed several later movements, including the Seventh Day Adventists, other Adventist Christians, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses.  Hal Lindsey wrote his Dispensational bestseller, The Late, Great, Planet Earth in 1970.  He predicted an entire series of events leading up to the “rapture” and beyond. When they did not materialize at the predicted dates, subsequent editions of the book revised the dates and/or events–and it continued to be a bestseller no matter how many times Lindsey was proved wrong.  It’s probable that Camping will simply recalculate–as he did after being wrong in 1994. But it is best to leave Dispensationalism and date-setting behind altogether–and concentrate on what we are to do while the world lasts and the Lord tarries.


May 22, 2011 Posted by | eschatology | 3 Comments

Resurrection Day: The Heart of Christianity

The Adult Sunday School class at my small church (Jeff Street Baptist Community @ Liberty) has been studying The Meaning of Jesus:  Two Visions by Marcus Borg and N. T. (Tom) Wright.  At no point do these two Jesus scholars disagree more sharply than over the nature and meaning of Jesus’ resurrection.  Wright defends a traditional bodily resurrection in which the dead Jesus is raised to a “transformed form of physical life” by God.  In a fashion similar to Wolfhart Pannenberg’s approach in Jesus–God and Man, Wright argues for the historicity of both the empty tomb and the appearances of the risen Christ–as Wright does at much greater length in The Resurrection of the Son of God. 

By contrast, Borg argues that Jesus’ resurrection appearances, though real, were visions or apparitions. Reading 1 Cor. 15 very differently than Wright, Borg claims that Jesus’ resurrection is in some way spiritual, that the appearances of Jesus to the disciples and to Paul were not qualitatively different than believers’ experiences with the Risen Christ ever since that day.  He argues that the empty tomb traditions developed separately, that we, today, cannot know the historical reliability of the empty tomb stories and that whether or not the tomb was empty is irrelevant to understanding Jesus’ resurrection.  He sharply contrasts resurrection with the resuscitation of a corpse (a contrast which implicitly mischaracterizes Wright’s view, since he clearly distinguishes Jesus’ resurrection from resuscitation).

I tend to side more with Wright than Borg on the nature of Jesus’ resurrection.  He argues well that spiritual life after death would not be termed “resurrection” by first century Jews and Christians.  Like Karl Barth, however, I’m somewhat more skeptical that historians qua historians can demonstrate the resurrection.

But traditionalists like Wright, though having the better case than liberals like Borg on the bodily nature of the resurrection, are remarkably tongue tied on the tbeological meaning of the resurrection. (Wright does see that it leads Paul and other early Christians to rethink radically traditional Jewish eschatology.) Borg is stronger at this point. He outlines 5 dimensions of the meaning of Jesus’ resurrection in the New Testament–or, more accurately, 5 dimensions of the death/resurrection of Jesus considered as one event.  While I am not sure these 5 (or any list) can fully exhaust the meaning of the cross/resurrection, I certainly think that these are important dimensions–and that each point would be strengthened by viewing Christ’s resurrection as a bodily resurrection–though our language, like Paul’s in 1 Cor. 15, strains to the breaking point in attempting to say what kind of bodily resurrection.

  1. Resurrection/Vindication.  The Domination System ( a term Borg borrows from Walter Wink) rejected and killed Jesus.  The resurrection is God’s vindication of Jesus. “This Jesus whom you crucified, God has made both Lord and Christ.”
  2. Defeat of the Powers.  This is the story of God’s victory over Pharoah in the Exodus now projected on a cosmic screen.  God in Christ, “disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in the cross.”
  3. Revelation of the Way.  Because of the resurrection, early Christians concluded that following Jesus is the way to God.  “I am crucified with Christ.  It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”  They remembered Jesus’ saying, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and takeup their cross and follow me.”  In his life and ministry, Jesus and his prophetic renewal movement within Judaism, tried to teach the Way to and with God.  Now, the early Christians conclude that not only are Jesus’ teaching and example the Way, but Jesus himself is the Way.
  4. Revelation of the Love of God.  The New Testament writers also see the Good Friday/Easter pattern as revealing the depth of God’s love for us. As Borg notes, this interpretation depends on developing the completed Christian story–in which Jesus is seen as God’s only and beloved Son.  Within this framework, the death of Jesus is not simply the execution of a prophet or the rejection of Jesus’ message by the rulers of this world.  It is also God’s giving up of that which is most precious to God–namely, Jesus as God’s only Son. John 3:16; Rom. 5.
  5. Jesus as sacrifice for sin.  Borg describes this dimension in greater length because it is central to many versions of Christianity–but some in ways that he believes are not helpful.  When Borg is asked, “Do you believe that Jesus died for your sins?” he answers “no and yes.”  If the questioners mean “Do you think that Jesus saw his own death as a sacrifice for sin?” He answers “No.” (Here I side with Wright who argues strongly that many would-be 1st C. Messiahs saw their impending deaths as redemptive for Israel and there is no reason why Jesus wouldn’t view his death similarly.) If the questioners mean “Do you think that God can forgive sins only because of Jesus’ sacrifice?” Borg also answers “no.” (Here I agree. I find it strange that conservative Catholics and evangelical Christians, many claiming to believe in biblical inerrancy, can so quickly throw out all of the First Testament examples of God’s forgiveness!) But if the questioners mean, “Is the statement that Jesus was a sacrifice for our sins a powerfully true metaphor for the grace of God,” Borg answers “yes.”

What would it mean in a 1st C. Jewish context to say, “Jesus is the sacrifice for our sins?”  Borg notes that there is both a negative and positive meaning and both are strikingly radical. 

Negative:  In the temple theology, the temple claimed a monopoly on forgiveness of sins–and, thus, an institutional monopoly on access to God.  So, negatively, the statement “Jesus is the sacrifice for our sins” is a subversion of the temple.  “You don’t need the temple; you have access to God apart from the temple.” “Jesus is our sacrifice” is an anti-temple statement.

Positive: “Jesus is our sacrifice” is a metaphorical proclamation of the radical grace of God and our unconditional acceptance.  To say, as the letter of Hebrews does, that Jesus is the “once for all” sacrifice for sin means that God has already taken care of whatever it is that we think separates us from God.  If our own sense of sin and guilt, or unworthiness or failure, makes us feel unacceptable to God, then we simply have not understood that God has already taken care of it.  Borg asserts that this is also what Paul is getting at by saying that “Christ is the end of the Law.” (I think I hear Borg’s Lutheran childhood coming out here.)

April 24, 2011 Posted by | Biblical interpretation, Christology, Easter, eschatology, hermeneutics, resurrection, salvation | 2 Comments

War of the Lamb: Violence & Nonviolence in the Book of Revelation

War of the Lamb: Violence and Nonviolence in the Book of Revelation

by Michael L. Westmoreland-White
[First published in the November-December 2005 issue of The Baptist Peacemaker.]

The Revelation to John at Patmos, like most examples of apocalyptic writing, is filled with violent imagery. “Apocalypse,” means “unveiling,” and apocalyptic writing “unveils” a global conflict between Good and Evil in cosmic terms, a ‘war to end all wars’ between God and the powers of Light and Satan and the Powers of Evil. Unlike prophetic eschatology, apocalyptic writing seldom mentions judgment on the supposedly righteous community(ies) and doesn’t deal with ambiguity or humility.For these reasons and others it is hardly surprising that those Christian groups which are most obsessed with studying the details of the Book of Revelation are usually also the most militant: They draw strong lines between the “lost” and the “saved,” and they look forward almost in glee to the way that the forces of evil will “get theirs” when God brings cosmic revenge upon them. Most of these groups also justify Christian participation in military violence. The best-selling “Left Behind” novels portray Christians (those converted after the pre-millennial “rapture” has removed most of the Church from the scene) forming holy death squads and raids on the enemy. Many sermons from popular TV evangelists from this school are hardly more restrained.

So, it probably isn’t a surprise that Revelation is fairly unpopular in Christian peacemaking circles. Reversing Ernst Käsemann’s dictum (which controlled New Testament scholarship for two generations) that apocalyptic was the underlying substructure that birthed both the New Testament and early Christian theology, some recent researchers into the “historical Jesus” have argued that Jesus was a non-apocalyptic figure who did not expect an imminent end of the world. Passages such as Mark 13 are seen by these scholars as coming later than Jesus and being read back onto him. (My own view is that Jesus’ eschatology was both prophetic and interacted with the popular apocalypticism of his day, reforming rather than rejecting that genre. But that is an argument for another time.) Sermons in progressive or peace-oriented churches seldom come from Revelation.

This strikes me as understandable-but-mistaken. It allows a very thorough misreading of the Revelation to continue to dominate popular Christian thought. In the Revelation to John, the followers of the Beasts and the Dragon do violence, but the followers of the Lamb do not. Instead, a central theme throughout the book is that the followers of the Lamb do the deeds that Jesus taught (Rev. 2:2, 19, 23, 26; 3:8, 10; 9:20-21; 12:17; 14:4, 12; 16;11; 19:8, 10; 20:4, 12-13; 22:11). In fact, the Revelation gives Christians clear teaching against doing violence, “Whoever takes the sword to kill, by the sword he is bound to be killed” (Rev. 13:10 NEB, echoing Jesus’ in Matthew 26:52). The verse then gives a call for endurance and faith.Richard Bauckham, a perceptive student of apocalyptic writing in general and Revelation in particular, observes:

No doubt in the Jewish circles with which John and his churches had contact . . . ideas of eschatological holy war against Rome, such as the Qumran community had entertained and the Zealots espoused, were well known. . . . Therefore, instead of simply repudiating apocalyptic militancy, [John of Patmos] reinterprets it in a Christian sense, taking up its reading of Old Testament prophecy into a specifically Christian reading of the Old Testament. He [John the Revelator] aims to show that the decisive battle in God’s eschatological holy war against evil, including the power of Rome, has already been won–by the faithful witness and sacrificial death of Jesus. Christians are called to participate in his war and his victory–but by the same means as he employed: bearing the witness of Jesus to the point of martyrdom. (Bauckham, The Bible in Politics [Westminster/John Knox Press, 1989], pp.233ff.)

G. B. Caird, an Anglican New Testament scholar and pacifist of a generation ago, is also helpful:

Throughout the welter of Old Testament images in the chapters that follow, almost without exception the only title for Christ is the Lamb, and this title is meant to control and interpret all the rest of the symbolism. It is almost as if John were saying to us at one point after another, “Wherever the Old Testament says, ‘Lion,’ read ‘Lamb.’” Wherever the Old Testament speaks of the victory of the Messiah or the overthrow of the enemies of God, we are to remember that the gospel recognizes no other way of achieving these ends than the way of the Cross. (Caird, A Commentary on the Revelation to St. John the Divine [Harper & Row, 1966], pp. 74ff. Emphasis in original.)

But wait, don’t the Christian martyrs in Revelation ask God for vengeance? Yes, in 6:10, they cry out, “Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?” Such feelings are natural even among those committed to nonviolence. But the martyrs are not answered in a way that would encourage continuing their vengeful fantasies (or those of John’s readers who may take up the martyrs’ cry). They are “each given a white robe [symbolizing innocence] and told to rest a little longer.” They are not given “garments rolled in blood” as warriors. Further, when the Rider on the White Horse (Christ) goes into battle with the “kings of the earth,” he slays them with the “sword of his mouth” which is specifically called the Word of God. (Rev. 19) That is, the only sword with which the risen Christ is armed is the prophetic word of the Good News and he “conquers” by means of evangelism!

(U.S. Christians also fail to notice that the “kings of the earth,” the political Powers and Authorities, are arrayed against Christ. There is no description of an exception, a “Christian nation.”)

In this John of Patmos affirms that Jesus stands in continuity with the Torah and the Prophets, understood not in Zealot/Revolutionary fashion, but interpreted nonviolently as Jesus (following Isaiah) did. The two witnesses of Rev. 11:5 are the prophets Moses and Elijah. The Hebrew Scriptures describe Moses beginning his liberating career as a murderer of an abusive Egyptian guard, but, although Israel encounters armies and responds with violence during Moses’ career, his role in God’s exodus liberation is portrayed as prophetic–as testifying to the power of God and not human arms. Likewise, the prophet Elijah had not learned nonviolence, but had the priests of Baal put to the sword. But in Revelation these two witnesses to God, standing for the Torah and the Prophets, slay with fire that comes from their mouths, that is, with prophetic word, not physical violence.

The theme of the prophetic word as fire or sword is woven throughout Revelation (1:16; 2:12, 16; 19:15, 21) and builds on similar themes in Isaiah 11:4, Jeremiah 5:14, and the non-canonical Jewish writing 4 Ezra 13:25-39. 4 Ezra was an apocalyptic book in circulation during John’s day with which his readers were probably very familiar. Lest anyone miss the point, thinking that the fire/sword is inflammatory speech that could lead to physical violence, chapter 21 shows the same “kings of the earth” (previously slain by the sword of the mouth of the Rider on the White Horse, called Faithful and True, and specifically named as the Word of God) “bringing their glory” with them into the heavenly City. That is, evangelism backed up by Christian faithfulness may convert all cultures. The best of all cultures, now redeemed and transformed into respective “glory,” will become part of the eschatological joy.

The destructive Lake of Fire is reserved for “the Dragon and his angels,” not for humans, not even the “kings of the earth.”As Caird says again, “The Old Testament leads John to expect a Messiah who will be a lion of Judah [i.e., a Davidic military ruler, MLW-W], but the facts of the gospel present him with a lamb bearing the marks of slaughter (5:5-6). The Old Testament predicts the smashing of the nations with an iron bar, but the only weapon the Lamb wields is his own cross and the martyrdom of his followers (2:27; 12:5; 19:15)” (Caird, p. 293, cf., pp. 243-245). I would add to Caird’s insights that this conquering by Word and martyrdom is also attested in the Hebrew Scriptures. John of Patmos, like Jesus before him, does not reject the Hebrew Scriptures, but reads them selectively, with a different interpretive grid than that of Essenes, the Pharisees, the social bandits of popular messianic movements, or the revolutionary Zealots whose actions led to the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. and of Israel as a political entity in 144 C.E.

It seems to me as if Christian proponents of gospel nonviolence must cautiously re-embrace Revelation and the language of apocalyptic, instead of simply leaving them to the war-mongering fanatics. Nonviolent ministers must do the hard work of preaching from Revelation, because only by teaching our people to read this book as a handbook of nonviolent patience for persecuted churches can we inoculate them against the virulent war-mad interpretations so popular in many U.S. Christian circles. Why do so many resist reading Revelation in a nonviolent perspective? I have come to suspect that many of us Christians are embarrassed by the nonviolent Jesus of the Gospels. So, we invent theologies in which the “real” Christ who is Coming is a Warrior-King and invent atonement theories which both make God violent and justify Jesus’ nonviolence as a necessary detour—not as the Way in which God is to be followed. (It is very possible to affirm the atoning work of Christ in a way which supports nonviolence, but that is a topic for another time.) But Revelation insists that the Christ who Comes in Glory will be the same Lamb of God we met in Jesus of Nazareth. There is no other Savior, no other Way.

Some would say that the way out of religiously-motivated holy wars and violence is to excise all military and violent images from our language, even our religious language and our hymns. I respect their motives, but I dissent. Following the example of Jesus, Paul, and even John of Patmos, I encourage rather the reinterpretation of military imagery for nonviolent purposes, subverting the standard uses of violent imagery and war language. This was also the pattern of the first generation of the Friends/Quaker movement, who did not hesitate to say that their “Publishers of Truth” were fighting “the Lamb’s War” by nonviolent means.

In a separate post, I will list good commentaries on Revelation that could help preachers and adult Sunday School classes see the book differently than the “Left Behind” militarism of popular culture.

August 4, 2010 Posted by | Bible, Biblical interpretation, eschatology, ethics, hermeneutics, pacifism, peace | 2 Comments

Of Oil, Eschatology and Creation Care

The  “oil volcanoe” from the British Petroleum-owned oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico has greatly depressed me.  At first, I was angry–full of righteous indignation at the “drill, baby, drill” crowd (because I feared exactly this when expanded offshore drilling was proposed in ’08) and at Pres. Obama for attempting to relax restrictions on offshore drilling as a way to buy Republican Senate votes for a climate change/clean energy bill–a ploy that wouldn’t work because Sen. Minority Leader McConnell (R-KY) has decided that the way back to a GOP majority is to block everything the president was elected to pass through whatever obstructive rules he can find.  But even if it would work, I fear the price is too high.  What is the use of tackling the problem of human-caused catastrophic climate change through shifting to clean energy if one is just going to trade it for the ecological disasters of drilling for oil in ecologically sensitive areas–or in places where one cannot shut off the pump if the worst happens?

I could say, “I told you so.” I could point out, as others have, that certain Southern governors are not decrying “socialist” big government, or threatening to secede, now, but are standing in line for federal disaster relief money! I could, but my Schadenfreude is as exhausted as my anger.  Watching the ecological disaster in slow motion in the Gulf is simply leaving me depressed.  I grew up in Florida and I know those fragile waters all too well.

One of my childhood heroes was the French-Canadian explorer and environmentalist, Jacques-Yves Cousteau, co-inventer of the “self-contained underwater breathing apparatus” or SCUBA gear.  In my house we had strict rations on the number of hours per week we could watch television and I would save up time for one of ABC’s two-hour specials, The Underwater World of Jacques Cousteau.  I learned so much from those TV programs.  I fell in love with the oceans even more than I already had.  Too young to know much about early environmentalists like Rachel Carson until later, it was, instead, Jacques Cousteau who made me an early environmentalist.  Even at 8 years old, I berated a guest-evangelist at our church for littering on the beach!

I saw no tension between faith in God and care for God’s good Creation.  Scripture is clear that humans have responsibility for the created order.  I can still remember reading 2 of the earliest examples of environmental theology as a child, Eric C. Rust’s Nature: Garden or Desert? (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1971) and Henlee H. Barnette’s The Church and the Ecological Crisis (Grand Rapids, MI:Eerdmans, 1972).  (Later, I found that the conservative Francis A. Schaeffer, who was a major voice in the founding of the U.S. Religious Right, had also written a pioneering environmental theology, Pollution and the Death of Man (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1971).  Sadly, that work had little effect on the Religious Right as a whole.)  So, it took me some time to realize that many U.S. Christians did not share my ecological concerns–and longer to figure out why.

One day in college (so it had to be the early ’80s), I was watching the TV news and saw a brief interview with James Watt, who was Secretary of the Interior under then-Pres. Ronald Reagan (R).  Watt was arguing for the privatization of much of the public lands of the Interior–including lands that had been set aside as public parks since the days of Pres. Theodore Roosevelt.  Watt wanted to lease much of this land out to oil companies and other major polluters. Asked why, he made it clear that his Premillenial Dispensationalist eschatology led him to have little concern for the environment:  After all, Jesus was coming back soon, so what did it matter?  A light dawned on me. I began to see why so many Christians could be so indifferent to the poisoning of God’s Creation.

The problem is a faulty eschatology–a faulty view of the future.  Instead of seeing the future hope as a motivator for ethical action, for what our Jewish brothers and sisters would call tikkun olam, “the healing or repair of the world,” too many conservative Christians believe that God’s Creation is expendable.  They believe that Creation is only a stage for the drama of salvation (which involves only the souls of individual humans) and will be destroyed at the Second Coming of Jesus. (This is also why they dismiss Jesus’ commands to be peacemakers or to feed the poor and clothe the naked. If you believe the world MUST continually get worse before the End, then action for social justice is useless at best and at worst delays the Second Coming!)

Theologians from many parts of the spectrum have been rethinking this view since the early 1970s. If one punches in “environmental theology” in the Amazon.com search engine, the titles will go on for 100 pages or more. If I were to list just the GOOD works in this area, it would be a long bibliography.  Yet, somehow, not much of this is finding its way into the average pulpits.  I met an environmental lawyer last month who is a fellow Baptist–and told me he has never heard a sermon on care for the Creation!   Some conservative evangelicals are actually anti-environmental because they believe that all those who are concerned for the environment are Wiccans or some other form of neo-Pagan.  Yes, Native American, Wiccan and other “new age” spiritualities do lend themselves to environmental concern, but I would argue that Scripture provides as much or more ecological resources. A knee-jerk reaction of “they are for it so we should be against it” seems terribly shortsighted.

John 3:16, the favorite Bible verse of evangelicals, does not say that “God so loved humankind,” but God so loved the cosmos,” the created universe “that He gave His only Son.”  Christ’s saving death was not on behalf of humans alone, but on behalf of the entire Creation.  “All things in the heavens and on earth, both visible and invisible, have been made through [Christ] and for him. He himself is before all [ta panta] and in him all holds together.  . . . [T]hrough him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of the cross.” Colossians 1:15-20.  Salvation is COSMIC, including the entire Created order, not just human beings.  In light of this, we need to see the “new heavens and new earth” of the Book of Revelation as a renewed heavens and earth–in continuity with our current order, not de novo after this order is destroyed. And since humans were given the task of stewardship over God’s earth, should we not tremble when we think of God’s judgment on how we have treated this Creation?

How could we have EVER thought that God was only concerned with us humans? Sure, in both Psalm 8 and Genesis 1, humans are called the “image and likeness of God” and no other part of the Creation is given such an honor.  But that hardly means that the rest of Creation has no intrinsic worth, but only worth as far as it is useful to humans–as I have heard so often.  In Genesis 1, every part of Creation is pronounced “GOOD” by God before humans are even around.  In Job, God portrays God’s self as finding food for hungry baby lions, roaring in their dens.  The Psalms are full of the praise of God’s creation.  How have so many churches missed all this and more?

I ask this because I believe God is weeping over the creation we are destroying.  The oil volcano flows onward, BP is not even sure it knows how to stop it, the fishing industry will be destroyed along the Gulf coast for decades–and still our churches are silent.  Where is the Christian outcry on behalf of God’s wounded planet? Where are the church leaders demanding that offshore drilling be stopped and DEMANDING a shift toward a Green Economy? 

Big Oil and Big Coal have big bucks and many lobbyists to look after their interests on Capitol Hill.  But we have the prophetic voices of the churches (and other faith groups).  Can we not lift those voices on behalf of God’s Creation and tell our elected officials to put the planet ahead of the profiteers?  For the sake of God’s wounded world, I hope so.

May 4, 2010 Posted by | environmental ethics, environrnmental theology, eschatology, ethics, theology | 7 Comments

Heaven in the Rear-View Mirror–And the Real Christian Hope

Ask many Christians what salvation is all about and they say something about “going to heaven when we die.”  Such a perspective has negative consequences:

  • It leads to neglect of God’s Creation, both in the sense of neglecting its care and in the sense of downplaying its importance–as if God was only rehearsing.
  • It leads to downplaying the importance of life in the body, allowing us to ignore human suffering.

In reaction to these and other negatives, or in realization that “heaven when we die” is not the focus of salvation in Scripture, other Christians focus entirely on this world and this life.  But this is also inadequate.  We have longings and hopes beyond the present life.  And if “heaven when we die” isn’t the point of Christianity, what is? 

Fortunately, Australian theological blogger, Byron Smith has written a great series on this called, “Heaven in the Rear-View Mirror.”  It’s a great series.  If you are a preacher or a Sunday School teacher who has ever had to say something about heaven and felt inadequate, he is a great resource.  I highly recommend it. It is also written in a way that does not take an advanced theological education to follow.   This page links to all the installments.

February 18, 2010 Posted by | blog series, eschatology, heaven, salvation | Leave a comment