Maybe, but I’m suspecting no. [Greg adds: Suspicion was correct.] Readers will no doubt have heard about a Christian group going around, informing the world that 21 May 2011 is the day that God will issue his divine judgment upon the earth. This is said to include an event called the ‘Rapture’, in which Christians will be taken from the earth before God begins a period of judgment that is called the ‘Great Tribulation’ or the ‘Seven Year Tribulation’. Their efforts have spawned a waves of both curious attraction and intense ridicule (which they expect, going up against the ‘Antichrist’ – see 1 John 2:18). One public Facebook event, ‘Post rapture looting’, has, by this afternoon, amassed more than half a million ‘attendees’ prepared to take full advantage of the potential ‘end’ and illegally acquire new stereos in the event of a ‘Rapture’.
If I was going to even begin to really analyse the many facets of this convoluted and heterodox belief system it would take thousands upon thousands of words and I suspect that out of my own personal frustration I’d actually want the world to end after all. I am not trying to pick on these Christians, as I am certain that they truly believe the things that they are preaching, and that if I was convinced the world was going to end on 21 May 2011 I could only hope to demonstrate the passion and fervency to make that fact known like they are. But I really think they’re wrong.
Where do they get these ideas? Well, without getting into the interpretive and mathematical gymnastics required to extrapolate ‘THE END OF THE WORLD IS 21 MAY 2011’ from the Bible, it’s important to know why these people have been looking for this date.
We must begin our brief exploration of this issue in the Book of Revelation, which is probably one of the most misunderstood sections of Scripture. In American Evangelical Christianity (especially within the belief systems called Dispensationalism and Progressive Dispensationalism) there is a widespread view that the Book of Revelation foretells the end of the world in very literal terms. What is meant by ‘literal’, I can’t quite grasp, but it’s some way of applying a particular interpretive method described as ‘literal’ that is a somewhat willy nilly version of what we might understand as literal-minded (according to the OED, ‘having a literal mind; characteristic of one who takes a matter-of-fact or unimaginative view of things’, the term ‘literal’ being used ‘to denote that [an accompanying noun] has its literal sense, without metaphor, exaggeration, or inaccuracy; literally so called.’).
According to this interpretation (and there are many variations), the Book of Revelation is entirely futuristic and eschatological, that is, something that takes place at the end of all things. I’m not interested in exploring the legitimacy of this view right here, right now, but I will say that some startling insights for the Book of Revelation come from reading 1 and 2 Maccabees (considered apocryphal by most Protestant denominations) help illuminate the Second Temple Jewish context of the New Testament and the Book of Revelation and lead to some dramatically different interpretations of things like the ‘Seven Year Tribulation’ and the ‘Antichrist’.
Either way, this literalistic/futuristic view believes that God will bring judgment on the earth according to a complex set of events and periods of time. One of these events, as mentioned earlier, is called the ‘Rapture’. The concept of the ‘Rapture’ is primarily based upon one reference in Scripture, 1 Thessalonians 4:15-18, which states,
For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.
This passage provides those who hold to the idea that the Book of Revelation informs us that God will judge this world during a period of ‘Great Tribulation’ with a bit of relief: they won’t have to endure this period of judgment. But in light of the Second Temple Jewish context of the Book of Revelation, I don’t believe in this future ‘Seven Year Tribulation’, and my disbelief is not a result of a lack of faith in God or an interpretation that isn’t ‘literal’ enough. I merely believe that the best understanding of this issue within the Bible would indicate that the great tribulation in the Book of Revelation 4-19 is a reference to the occupation and oppression that the Jews experienced in the Second Temple Period (i.e. the ruler of the Seleucid Empire, Antiochus IV Epiphanes is the ‘beast’ from Revelation 13:5-8; see 1 Maccabees 1:20-28).
While I generally hold to this preteristic (as opposed to futuristic) view of Christian eschatology, I do believe that God will bring about his kingdom in its fullness at some point in the future. I certainly wouldn’t say that these doomsday folk are wrong in believing that there is something significant to come, but I do have trouble with their views on what that looks like and how/when it happens. With regard to the pressing issue of time (being that I may only have 24 hours before the end [15 in Australia!]), the time of God’s full bringing of his kingdom, the end of the authorities of this earth, Matthew’s Gospel (24:36) records Jesus as saying,
But about that day and hour [of my return] no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.
I do not believe that the arithmetic these doomsday folk have derived from the Bible to draw the conclusion that the end of the world is tomorrow is actually faithful in any way to the content and purpose of Scripture. Even if the Bible was explicitly clear about this date, when tomorrow rolls by without the end of the world, God would not be made a liar. God is not the Bible. The Bible is a result of God inviting his people into his story. St Paul writes that no one will know when the end will come, as it will come as a ‘thief in the night’ (1 Thessalonians 5:2)
I don’t think we should waste our time with conjectures about when the unknowable will come to pass. Every Christian generation from the Apostles to our present generation has anticipated the immanent end, but no Christian generation has ever been the Church that loves and serves in the power of God’s Spirit; the Church that fights for the rights of the poor, the oppressed, the marginalised; the Church that extends to all people an open invitation into God’s loving family through the wholly effective death and resurrection of Jesus Christ; the Church that has become what it is called to be. That is our goal and that is our priority. I hope that if tomorrow isn’t the end, these doomsday folk will experience the love and grace of God in a way that will encourage them to divert their incredible faith and energy back to the task at hand.
(Originally posted at Things & Stuff)
The issue of homosexuality is probably one of the more heated social issues facing the contemporary Church. Among different denominations (and even within single denominations) the issue divides on a scale from peaceful disagreement to violent hatred. Perhaps the most visible and widely despised of these positions is illustrated by the antics of the Topeka, Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church and their signature slogan: ‘God Hates Fags’.
Needless to say, this is a MASSIVE conversation in the Church and society at-large. Unfortunately the debate within the Church—the topic of this post—frequently results in an ever-divergent hatred for the opposition. One view (we’ll call it ‘Perspective I’ to avoid confusing, overused and unhelpful ‘conservative’ vs. ‘liberal’ labels) essentially believes that the Church and the Scripture attest to the opposition of homosexuality in the kingdom of God. In this view God has designed sexual relationships to take place in a particular way – in other words, heterosexually. This is often supported with social and psychological analyses of homosexuality in Western culture. The ‘slippery slope’ is often appealed to here, concerning the possibility in a culture that grows more accepting of public homosexuality. An example of how this view sees homosexuality adversely affecting the Church follows: homosexual marriage is made fully legal, churches will lose tax-exempt benefits for teaching portions of Scripture that seem to attest to the prohibition of homosexuality in the kingdom of God and ultimately conservative priests will be prosecuted and imprisoned for merely teaching what the Church has generally held to for nearly two-thousand years.
Another view (which we’ll call ‘Perspective II’) essentially believes that the Church is mistaken and that the Scripture is not explicitly clear regarding homosexuality, oftentimes appealing to socio-historical evidence for the manner in which homosexuality was practised in the Scripture’s first-century-Roman context. In this view homosexuality is not generally considered a choice, but a specific sexual orientation that defines a significant part of what makes an individual an individual.
There are numerous positions around and about these two views (including two views based upon the assumption that homosexuality is natural – one view holding that homosexuals are called to celibacy in the kingdom of God while the other holds that homosexuality is natural and should be openly embraced in the kingdom of God) and it is would be impossible to explore them all, but I believe we’ve got a moderate sample of the two major ‘sides’ of this argument within the Church in Perspectives I and II.
One interesting thing I feel the need to point out is the general historical oppression of homosexuals in Western society. Even today, with the elimination of laws prohibiting homosexual practise in Western countries (though these are still quite present in many nations today), massive stigmas and stereotypes are used to oppress homosexuals. In my experience I have heard many-a-Christian rants on how homosexuality has ‘infiltrated our culture’ and is being used to ‘pervert our youth’. I don’t know how fair that assessment is, but I am generally sceptical of such sweeping statements regarding a group of people who by and large don’t even have the legal right to marry in the vast majority of American states. Homophobia is rampant and this (like other forms of xenophobia) oftentimes leads to very aggressive mistreatment of homosexuals. Even the recent claim by Cardinal Bertone that homosexuality was to blame for the Catholic abuse scandals ignored the fact that many of the abused were in fact females (and also that the large number of males abused might be a result of the general pairing of girls with nuns and boys with priests) in exchange for trying to oppressively pin the failure of the Church on a whole people group.
My honest opinion is quite open in general, although my tendency is to lean toward Perspective II. Whilst I hold Church tradition in high esteem, the Church has certainly been wrong in the past with numerous issues and our trusty Nicene Creed makes no mention whatsoever concerning the nature of sexual relationships in the kingdom of God. For now I merely want to pose two brief lines of questioning to the two main camps on either side of the issue of homosexuality. These questions are not meant to pull the rug out from either side, but to promote a more compassionate and gracious way of thinking about the debate. I do not necessarily agree with each one of these questions on either side, but they seem to be valuable things to address.
- Is it possible that in the Church homosexuality is often treated very differently than other issues that are considered sins (even other sexual sins) in an unfair manner?
- In Mere Christianity, Lewis argues that the nature of particular sins can make them more or less cancerous within the Church. For instance, pride involves sinfully elevating oneself above another. Is it possible that an egotistical zealot might be more divisive and harmful to the community of a local church than a homosexual couple in a committed relationship?
- Can the few passages in Scripture that are often associated with anti-homosexual views be interpreted in any other manner? What are we to make of the lack of teaching regarding homosexual relationships in the teaching of Christ found in the Gospels? Let me stress that I do not believe that these issues alone make or break Perspective I (the general tradition of the Church might be able to provide some added strength to this view), but I do believe that these possibilities might serve to soften the tone of Perspective I.
- Is it possible that many of the people who espouse ‘Perspective I’ are not hatemongers, but Christians who genuinely care about the well being of homosexuals, even if possibly misguided?
- Drawing from what I believe is Christ claiming that marriage will not exist in the Resurrection (the eventual fullness of the kingdom of God) when responding to the Sadducees in Matthew 22, shouldn’t we as Christians place far more emphasis on our identity in the kingdom of God and not with regard to sexual orientation? I generally believe that we discover the greatest fullness of who we are as individuals as we relate to God and to the community of the kingdom of God. Is this the process in which one finds his or her identity?
- Is it possible that God’s will as revealed in Scripture and through the Church might be that homosexual practise is not part of the kingdom of God? If it became clear that it was God’s will that his people would not practise homosexuality would it be easier to walk away from homosexuality or to walk away from God?
I have many thoughts on these issues, but I’ll cease my questions and open up the discussion. What I hope and pray for in this conversation is mutual respect and beyond everything else, love and compassion. Profound love is what ought to characterise the words, thoughts and actions of a member of the kingdom of God who has been profoundly confronted by the immense grace and love of God as demonstrated in the life, death and Resurrection of Christ and the advent of his holy and inviting Church.
There are many good thoughts and perspectives on either side of this debate. Please share your input, but take care to use gracious language and to neither demonise nor dehumanise the opposing perspective or your comment may be deleted. I am not demanding that everyone shares my views or that no one holds firmly to his/her own view—I encourage you to share your convictions with a loving and gracious passion.
We believe in one God, the Father All Governing, creator of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible;
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten from the Father before all time, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not created, of the same essence as the Father, through Whom all things came into being, Who for us [humans] and because of our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became human. He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered and was buried, and rose on the third day, according to the Scriptures, and ascended to heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father, and will come again with glory to judge the living and dead. His Kingdom shall have no end.
And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and life-giver, Who proceeds from the Father, Who is worshiped and glorified together with the Father and Son, Who spoke through the prophets; and in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. We confess on baptism for the remission of sins. We look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Amen.
(Creed taken from John H. Leith (ed.), Creeds of the Churches [Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1982], 33.)
Read more of Imaging the Kingdom.
An added treat:
[Greg adds: One more?]
My favourite time of the year is here! Some look forward to the Christmas season, and while I admire the cooler weather, shorter days, and magnificent prospect of the Incarnation, it is the Anastasis—the Resurrection—and everything building up to it that I find most compelling.
As an Ecumenical Christian I am often asked (by others and myself), “What makes an Ecumenical Christian such?” I am excited to spend the rest of my life exploring this question, and one way that I can do that is by looking at the ways that the Church has historically rehearsed the Gospel, and one way to explore that rehearsal is through adherence to the liturgical year. Lent is upon us (when it began is dependent on whether or not you adhere to Western or Byzantine Lenten practice), a time in which Christians are challenged to participate in a communal fast. The whole concept of Lent, as you may know, is rooted in the narrative of St. Matthew’s Gospel, in which Jesus is baptized by John and is taken into the wilderness to be tempted, fasting for forty days and forty nights (3.13-4.2).
The severity and imposition of such fasts has changed dramatically throughout Church history. In 1966 Pope Paul IV issued the Apostolic constitution, Paenitemini, granting more freedom with regard to fasting based upon various economic situations. Paenitemini also orders that the abstinence that takes place during Lent ought to be substituted with “external acts of penitence” (Paenitemini, Chapter III). I find Paenitemini to be a very authoritative and valuable assessment of fasts, and so in my exercise of the Lenten fast I have made it my aim to first abstain with the trust that God will provide for my needs both physically and spiritually, and exercising discipline by the power of the Holy Spirit of God to give up some things and take up activities with the goal of very intentionally experiencing life in relationship with God. I believe that there are great benefits as one experiences life relating to God in the community of the Church, and essentially Lent is a great time to adhere to the Church calendar while practicing spiritual discipline (such as abstinence from food, communicating with God through prayer, spending time in solitude to meditate on the Gospel and God’s character, etc.).
I encourage you to take the time today, Ash Wednesday, to confess your sins before God and experience the great grace of the Gospel, one that invites us to participate in the mission of God—a mission fixed on recreating our hearts and minds as well as the hearts and minds of our neighbors—all for God’s glory. And maybe spend the next month-and-a-half abstaining from something you enjoy, replacing it with a focused practise to know God more intimately.
O Lord and Master of my life! Take from me the spirit of sloth, faint-heartedness, lust of power, and idle talk.
But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love to thy servant. Yea, Lord and King! Grant me to see my own errors and not to judge my brother, for thou art blessed unto ages of ages. Amen.
Lenten prayer of St. Ephrem the Syrian