June 29, 2006

The Apocalyptic Worldview: Part 2

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 1:04 pm

In my last post, I argued that while apocalyptic belief gives hope to those whose life seems hopeless, it also is a very tempting worldview for those who feel culturally oppressed because they find themselves powerless to prevent changes occurring in the world around them. But the important question isn’t about worldview, but about truth: what does Scripture say about the end-times?

First, let me say that I’m not questioning a belief in the second coming of Christ. As a Lutheran, every Sunday in church I affirm this belief as I recite these words from the Apostles Creed:

On the third day [Jesus] rose again.
He ascended into heaven,
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again to judge the living and the dead.

Instead, I’m addressing the pre-trib pre-millenial belief that we are currently in the end-times, that Jesus’ return will happen in our lifetimes, and that the Bible describes events happening in our world today. Is this belief based on exegesis (letting the Bible speak its own truth to us through the action of the Holy Spirit) or is it based on eisegesis (looking for evidence in the Bible for beliefs that we already hold)?

I wanted to take a look at the Scriptural evidence myself to see whether it really says what so many assume it says. I found myself falling in a rabbit hole for the past week, and finally gave up before I reached the bottom of it. All I can say is that the Bible is not at all clear on the end-times. It’s confusing. Let me give you some examples.

I started with Matthew 24, which I had always thought was an unambiguous description of Jesus’ second coming. But even here, I found it’s not clear what Jesus is telling his disciples. He begins talking about what sounds like the tribulation, which flows straight into a description of the destruction of Jerusalem (which happened in 70 A.D.), which then flows into a description of Jesus’ return. I turned to my Eerdmans Commentary, one of the most respected Bible commentaries in print, where it says (p. 1051):

Commentators disagree about which predictions and warnings refer to what. [… A] precise chronology is doubtful. The end of ch. 23 and beginning of ch. 24 already merge the destruction of Jerusalem and the end of the world into a single, complex topic.

Part of our confusion comes from one word at the end of verse 3. Here are the various translations I have in front of me:

NRSV and NIV: “…what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”
King James: “…what shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world?”
Living Bible: “What events will signal your return, and the end of the world?”
The Message: “What will be the sign of your coming, that the time‘s up?”

The greek word aeon, as in “the end of the aeon“, is translated variously as age, time or world. These different translations give very different meanings: is Jesus talking about the end of a certain period in history (i.e. the era of the Second Temple in Jerusalem), or the end of all history? Big difference.

Matthew 24 refers to the “the desolating sacrilege standing in the holy place, as was spoken of by the prophet Daniel.” So next I was off to the Book of Daniel. The first half or so of Daniel is very clear — he’s talking about his present. But as I got into chapters 8 on it gets more and more, um, unclear. Again, I turned to Eerdmans for enlightenment. From its introduction to Daniel (p. 665):

The book has remained a vibrant source of comfort and hope…whether in the broad sweep of its message or in its rather more dubious employment as source material for the construction of a detailed timetable of the “events of the end times.”

Then I dove into Eerdmans’ detailed verse by verse commentary, particularly about the second half of Daniel (pp. 672-675.) Besides getting lost in the intricacies of 5th century B.C. middle east history, it struck me how, shall we say, humble the commentary is.

Yet it is unclear in the Hebrew that…

This latter passage is difficult because of uncertainties…

This last point, however, is not clear…

This would perhaps then be…Alternatively…

It is exceedingly difficult to understand…

At this point, before even thinking of moving on to Revelation, I realized that understanding the apocalyptic books of the Bible is not a task for the layperson. So I then began to survey some of what the academic theologians throughout Christendom have to say on the topic, since they have devoted their lives to understanding the whole of Scripture and its historical context.

Which I will get into in my next post.

June 24, 2006

The Apocalyptic Worldview: Part 1

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 8:28 pm

The L.A. Times had an article last week about the apocalyptic themes running throughout the major monotheistic religions. It turns out that apocalyptic beliefs show up in Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

[M]ega-church pastors recently met in Inglewood to polish strategies for using global communications and aircraft to transport missionaries to fulfill the Great Commission: to make every person on Earth aware of Jesus’ message. Doing so, they believe, will bring about the end, perhaps within two decades.

In Iran, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has a far different vision. As mayor of Tehran in 2004, he spent millions on improvements to make the city more welcoming for the return of a Muslim messiah known as the Mahdi, according to a recent report by the American Foreign Policy Center, a nonpartisan think tank.

To the majority of Shiites, the Mahdi was the last of the prophet Muhammad’s true heirs, his 12 righteous descendants chosen by God to lead the faithful.

Ahmadinejad hopes to welcome the Mahdi to Tehran within two years.

Conversely, some Jewish groups in Jerusalem hope to clear the path for their own messiah by rebuilding a temple on a site now occupied by one of Islam’s holiest shrines.

Artisans have re-created priestly robes of white linen, gem-studded breastplates, silver trumpets and solid-gold menorahs to be used in the Holy Temple — along with two 6½-ton marble cornerstones for the building’s foundation.

Of course this isn’t new, especially for us Christians. The early Christian church was expecting the imminent return of Jesus, and since then this apocalyptic worldview has periodically taken hold among various Christian groups. But why? Why, at some times and places, are Christians content to let God’s plan work itself out in history, while at other times and places Christians center their faith around an expectation of Christ’s imminent return and the end of the age? And of all times, why in the conservative Christian U.S. today?

Apocalyptic worldviews seem to take hold among the oppressed. The early Christian church was clearly an oppressed people, especially under the Emperors Domitian and Nero. Christians were rounded up, tortured, and executed. This nascent religious movement seemed on the verge of being snuffed out, and their hope for Christ’s return in their lifetimes may have been all that kept them faithful. It’s no coincidence that eschatological themes appeared in slave spirituals in the U.S. south so often. I’ve heard it said, although I can’t provide a source, that Dietrich Bonhoeffer felt the only book of the Bible that made sense to him while he was in a Nazi prison was the book of Revelation. Clearly, the promise of Christ’s return to earth gives the persecuted hope to carry on.

But how could any citizens of the wealthiest, most free country on earth in the history of mankind consider themselves oppressed?

Oppression is in the eye of the beholder, and those of us in the metropolitan “blue” counties need to see things through the eyes of conservative Christians in rural America. A generation ago, teachers could lead children in prayer and ignore the teaching of evolution. The civic square was unabashedly Christian and popular culture was reliably inoffensive. Gays (and in some places, blacks) could be safely ignored or dismissed as ungodly.

We Christian progressives need to acknowledge a simple truth: rural, conservative Christians in America have suffered a loss over the past 50 years. For many, this loss is felt as a genuine sense of being oppressed by those with political and cultural power over their lives. A belief in the rapture is an understandable response to what is felt as a loss of a way of life that couldn’t possibly be recaptured without divine intervention.

That doesn’t mean it’s right. But before I dig any deeper into the apocalyptic worldview, it’s important to recognize the profound sense of loss in many Christian communities, and how it shapes their theology. It’s so easy to demonize “the other”, as much for us progressives as conservatives, and I hope to avoid this temptation by looking at the world through their eyes first.

More in my next post.

June 20, 2006

It's All About Worldview

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 9:22 pm

I’ve been away from blogging for quite awhile. I’m sure my feed has been removed from all of your blog readers, and that you’ve pretty much given up on me. So it must be a shock to see that I’m still around.

So why the long absence?

At the end of last year, I had a growing sense that 1) everything I set out to say when I began blogging had been said, either by me or by others far more persuasive than I, and 2) if anyone was not convinced by what had already been said, then there was nothing that I could say to change their minds. After all that had been written and said by the likes of Jim Wallis, Jimmy Carter, Bill Press, Bill Moyer, John Danforth, Robin Meyers and so many of my fellow bloggers, it was hard to believe the entire Christian right hadn’t switched sides, and since they hadn’t, it must be futile to even try.

I kept myself entertained blogging on health care for awhile, but eventually CrossLeft seemed to go radio silent, so finally it just seemed that blogging was a somewhat futile exercise.

So, why am I back?

I’ve been trying to figure out this conundrum, this apparent futility of persuading Christian Americans to embrace a more compassionate Christianity, mainly by not thinking about it too hard. And after months of mentally sneaking up on the problem when it wasn’t looking, it seems to me that the answer is one word: worldview.

Or is it two? Or hyphenated? Whatever.

For many of us, worldview is a bad word, associated with the Worldview Weekend and Tom Delay’s statement that

[God] has been walking me through an incredible journey, and it all comes down to worldview…He is using me, all the time, everywhere, to stand up for biblical worldview in everything that I do and everywhere I am.

But I’ve come to believe that it really is about worldview.

If the scientific evidence for evolution (not to mention statements by mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic leaders that evolution is entirely compatible with the Christian faith) fails to convince someone of its truth, then there is something bigger at play than logical reasoning.

If a Christian can read Matthew 25 and still believe that universal healthcare is a bad thing, then this is no longer a discussion about politics.

If anyone can listen to Ann Coulter for ten seconds without subsequently assuming her book “Godless” must be an autobiography, then no amount of well-marshalled arguments will convince them otherwise.

It’s bigger than mere political beliefs and allegiances. It’s about worldview.

So I want to spend some time blogging my thoughts about competing Christian worldviews — a Christian worldview based on compassion, love and caring versus a (supposedly) Christian worldview based on judgement, punishment and isolation.

So I’m back, at least for now, and have found that perhaps not everything has already been said.

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