Will tomorrow be the ‘end of the world’?

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)

R.I.P. “Evangelicalism”?

Ah, we hardly knew ye...well, we hardly knew what ye meant

I am beginning to wonder if the time has come to retire the term “evangelicalism” from its role in describing the faith community to which I belong (or rather, less presumptuously, its role in my own self-identification).  The problem with using this term at this point in history comes from its association with two different contemporary phenomena:

  1. The term “Evangelical” has now been used in the media to describe the members of Insane Clown Posse.  I quote from an article Elijah pointed me to on The Guardian website:  “Insane Clown Posse have this entire time secretly been evangelical Christians.”  I’m not sure what exactly in the ICP statement of faith led to using the adjective “evangelical,” but it seems like it is sticking.  And if you know anything about this group, we should be heading a million miles an hour in the opposite direction of anything associated with them.  But beyond that, the term has also been used in connection with (almost) Koran-burning pastor Terry Jones, God-Hates-Fags-sign-holding pastor/dbag Fred Phelps, the founders and participants in the so-called “Jesus Camp,” and in reference to many more wackos and imbeciles.
  2. On the other hand, there are a number of quite intelligent Christian groups who want to co-opt the term “evangelical” to describe ONLY those who agree with the doctrines of  their particular tradition.  In other words, they want to re-write the definition of what it means to be evangelical…and due to their aggressive fervor and polemical methods, they are actually succeeding to some extent!  Suddenly, certain leaders, churches and organizations are declaring that Pentecostals are not “truly” evangelical, Arminians are “heretics,” theistic evolutionists are rushing headlong into apostasy, etc. and that only their doctrinally-pure tradition can safe-guard “true evangelicalism” from these heterodox movements.

Both of these appropriations of the term “evangelical” bring me to the point where I feel uncomfortable associating myself with this tradition, although evangelicalism is CLEARLY my background, these folks are “my people” in a cultural and traditional sense, and I have some inclination to maintain my affiliation with the term “evangelical” (albeit with some modifiers i.e. “post-conservative” as described here) in that it connects linguistically to “the Gospel” and historically to a Protestant heritage in which I find much to appreciate.

However, I also wonder if it might be helpful to dissociate from some of the term’s negative connotations for a period and allow a later generation to re-appropriate the term once the “ass” is removed from its “association” with these embarrassing and narrow-minded movements.  It seems obvious that Christian groups have often used a variety of labels throughout the centuries to identify their faith stance (beginning with the biblical moniker: “Followers of the Way”) and perhaps it is our turn to “re-invent” ourselves in this cultural era.

  • If you disagree and think those of us considered evangelicals should keep the label, how would you suggest we deal with the connotations which are being attached to this term?
  • If you agree with me or  have the slightest inclination to sympathize with this assessment…what should we begin to call ourselves (consider this a creative experiment intended more for fun–we mustn’t take this all too seriously)?

I have a few ideas, but I’d love to hear any of your thoughts first!

UPDATE:  One of my main theoroes, Roger Olson, has started a blog and wrote about “Deconstructing Evangelicalism.”  Here’s a pull quote that illustrates point #2 above:

Rather than practicing hospitality through dialogue and consensus-building, today’s conservative evangelicals are too concerned with excluding people.  In some cases this lack of value placed on alternity borders on violence.  Not physical violence but spiritual abuse which is another kind of violence.

Imaging the Kingdom II: Orthodoxy vs Orthopraxy

I believe that Greg and I were exercising a subconscious experiment to see if we could go the entire month of May without a post, but I am pleased to continue the Imaging the Kingdom series.

The terms ‘orthodoxy’ and ‘orthopraxy’ are tossed around a lot in contemporary Christian circles.  Among Protestants two groups seem to gravitate toward one or the other: Emergents (Post-modern Christians) toward orthopraxy (emphasising the practise of religion) and Evangelicals toward orthodoxy (emphasising the belief of religion).  It might seem obvious to you, my beloved readers, that any branch of Christianity that is exclusively given over to one of these two positions is incredibly weak.  Perhaps you’re not so convinced that both are absolutely essential to members of the kingdom of God (which they are) or you want to explore how the two relate to one another in the kingdom of God (like me).  This is a long conversation that goes back through the ages.  It seems that within the Church people are often reacting to one side, then to the other.  This is especially evident since the Protestant Reformation, which I will expound [crudely for the sake of brevity].

In his Ninety-Five Theses (written in 1517 – the document that sparked the Protestant and Catholic Reformations, essentially) Luther argues against clerical abuses and explicitly states that both outward and inward repentance is important.  Luther believed—and I would say believed rightly—that the Church was abusing authority primarily with regard to specific gifts to the Church (indulgences) that were being used to fund the building of the papal palace.  In return for these gifts, people were given pardons from certain amounts of time in Purgatory (as is the purpose of indulgences in the Catholic tradition).  In his Theses Luther also argues against the demotion of the Scripture in Church worship for the sake of things like said pardons.  At the time it was not Luther’s intention to break away from the Roman Church, but to reform it.  Still, Luther’s refusal to back down from his increasingly hostile criticisms against the Catholic Church brought about his excommunication in 1521.

Perhaps the most enduring aspect of Luther’s teachings in the Protestant world involves his principles of sola fide (‘by faith alone’), sola gratia (‘by grace alone’) and sola scriptura (‘by Scripture alone’).  Luther was convinced that the Church had drifted from the Pauline teaching of salvation by faith in Christ alone, instead opting for additional works in order to ‘acquire salvation’.  The Council of Trent in 1545 made clear the belief in the Catholic Church that it was exclusively by God’s grace that salvation came to the believer, but by this time the teaching of Luther and the reformers that followed after him had done its damage.  One of the central tenets of the ‘Lutheran view’ is that the epistles of St Paul dealt with the issue of the Jewish understanding of ‘salvation by works’ (a controversial notion that I believe is an inaccurate read of both Second Temple Judaism [6th century BCE to the 1st century CE] and the writings of Paul).  When Luther looked at Paul’s writings he saw his situation (a Christian dealing with the false teachings of an established religion based upon salvation by works) coupled with Paul’s dealings with the ‘Judaisers’.  As a result of this interpretation the Lutheran and Reformed traditions have had what some consider an disproportionate aversion toward the concept of ‘works’ ever since.  Luther’s view has been criticised by those that hold a more traditional view and the recent work by Protestants like  Krister Stendahl, E. P. Sanders, James Dunn and Tom Wright (the ‘New Perspective on Paul’), which in itself is a 20th century reaction to the Protestant Reformation.

As the Protestant Reformation made its way across Europe it opened the door for the replacement of the feudal social system with a more mercantile (eventually capitalistic) social system.  The Enlightenment came to pass, which generally pressed that the right beliefs (essentially by way of right logic) precede right actions.  In the late 18th and early 19th centuries The Romantic and Counter-Enlightenment movements reacted against the Enlightenment, stressing the inadequacy of bare logic and doctrine.  Friedrich Schleiermacher played an important role in the intellectual history of Europe at this time.  He held that experience was to inform doctrine.  Theological liberalism followed Schleiermacher and dominated Western Christianity for the next century.

In the early 20th century we see the birth of Modernism and WWI.  Karl Barth, reacting against the endorsement of the Weimar Republic’s expansionistic ambitions by his liberal theological mentors, rejected the conclusions of Schleiermacher.  Barth, inspired by Hegel and Kierkegaard, instead proposes a dialectic approach in which the unknowable God has revealed himself in Jesus Christ and it is through Christ alone, the Word of God, that a Christian might experience God.  Modernism pressed forward after the First World War, critiquing orthodoxy, which prompted the Fundamentalist Evangelical reaction.  This movement made way for the surge in popularity of the Restorationist Movement (emphasising ‘proper’ action) and the anti-intellectual Jesus Movement (emphasising ‘correct’—though not necessarily orthodox—beliefs).

Post-modernism has found expression in the Emergent Movement, which emphasises ‘belonging before belief’, prompting yet another Evangelical reaction emphasising ‘belief before belonging’.  In reaction to this whole mess we also have those who try to hold onto something universal and unchanging – ‘Ecumenists’, like me.

In looking very briefly at some Western intellectual history over the last 500 years I hope to have not offended too many readers.  If you feel my incredibly brief summary has not treated your views equally I apologise profusely and ask that you would please comment if you’d like to add something relevant – I might have more detailed reasons for much of what I did write and we can engage in an enlightening (excuse my language) dialogue.

So where are we now?  We’ve determined that [Protestant] Christians have frequently shifted between emphases on orthodoxy and orthopraxy.  We’ve also determined that two prominent Protestant movements are currently in conflict over this very issue.  What does the Gospel of the kingdom of God have to say about these two things?

We can look to Scripture for some insight, but I quickly want to express a few things with regard to Scripture.  We must understand that Scripture was written by different people at particular points in time, in particular geographical locations, for particular reasons.  This is not to say that the Scripture has become entirely inaccessible to anyone in our present age.  I believe that God has given the Church authority and therefore as a product of the Church, the Bible has authority.  God is also a living and active God and his Holy Spirit can provide guidance and insight in our explorations, potentially.  Still, the Scripture is not a treatise on everything – that is not its purpose.  I believe a sure way to orient ourselves in order to see the world (and this issue of orthodoxy vs. orthopraxy) in light of the kingdom of God we must look toward our example of proper living in the kingdom of God: Jesus of Nazareth.

With regard to the life of Christ, the primary focus of Christian tradition and the Scripture is the three-year period leading up to his death and Resurrection.  This is considered Christ’s public ministry.  When we look at Christ’s ministry, what is it characterised by?  Do we see an exclusive emphasis on orthodoxy?  What about orthopraxy?  It is quite clear that Christ valued both things and didn’t paint one especially important over the other.  Instead it is more of a process.

Some might say that works are necessary for a member of the kingdom of God.  I would say that works are inevitable for a member of the kingdom of God.  We do not enter the kingdom by our works, neither do our good works merely demonstrate that we are part of the kingdom.

I actually propose that our good works are a reaction in themselves, a reaction to the grace of God through the Gospel.  Some might say sceptically, “Oh great, the obscure ‘Gospel’ card again,” as if it is some inexplicable and abstract notion.  Others might argue that this emphasis on the Gospel seems to imply a preeminence of belief over works.  It is true that the Gospel is composed of data in part – historical facts regarding the actions of God, culminating in the death and Resurrection of Christ and the advent of his Church.  But instead of viewing the Gospel as brute facts I would rather see it as something we perceive with our whole being.  We do not merely hear its words and think, ‘I believe that.’  The Gospel is the effective power of God through his Holy Spirit and the invitation to participate in the redemptive mission of the creator of the universe as members of God’s family, the Church.  Therefore I would see this reaction to the Gospel not as a reaction to bare facts or experience, but the entirety of what it is to begin to comprehend the grace of God for his creation.

The God of history has entered into history and has redeemed all things, visible and invisible, and in this we cannot see a serious Christian faith without a balance of orthodoxy and orthopraxy.  In other words, Christianity is not merely about doing the right thing or believing the right thing.  Christianity is about doing the right thing based upon the right motives.  It is an active faith, that does not exclusively demand our beliefs, nor does it exclusively demand our actions – it demands all that we are, visible and invisible.

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.)