July 7, 2006

The Apocalyptic Worldview: Part 4

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 2:57 am

In an interview by Salon, Sam Harris, the author of The End of Faith and a very vocal anti-monotheist, responds to a question thusly:

Salon: If you’re a Christian and you look at the figure of Jesus, you can easily read his core message as being about love and compassion and caring, particularly for the outcasts of society.

Harris: That is Jesus in half his moods speaking that way. But there’s another Jesus in there. There’s a Jesus who’s just paradoxical and difficult to interpret, a Jesus who tells people to hate their parents. And then there is the Jesus — while he may not be as plausible given how we want to think about Jesus — but he’s there in scripture, coming back amid a host of angels, destined to deal out justice to the sinners of the world. That is the Jesus that fully half of the American electorate is most enamored of at this moment.

Harris has been listening to the pre-trib pre-millenialists and their interpretation of Jesus’ return. And it is a Jesus I don’t recognize.

Are there really two Jesuses? A loving and compassionate Jesus and a vengeful smiting Jesus?

Lets compare two images of Jesus. First, a bit of stream of consciousness from the gospels:

Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy…If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also…Love your neighbor as yourself…Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you…For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son…Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.

Now here’s another image of Jesus:

Rayford watched through the binocs as men and women soldiers and horses seemed to explode where they stood. It was as if the very words of the Lord had superheated their blood, causing it to burst through their veins and skin. . . . Their innards and entrails gushed to the desert floor, and as those around them turned to run, they too were slain, their blood pooling and rising in the unforgiving brightness of the glory of Christ.

This is from Glorious Appearing, the twelfth book of the Left Behind series, as quoted by Harpers.

No wonder Sam Harris speaks of “another Jesus in there”. Here is the evil inherent in the fundamentalist eschatology, the conservative apocalypse. Jesus becomes transformed from loving savior to savage killer.

This hope for a warrior Jesus isn’t new — after all, the disciples were expecting the messiah to overthrow the Romans and institute a new kingdom in the Temple. There’s a scene in the wonderful Christian movie The Last Temptation of Christ when, as they are walking to Jerusalem, Peter asks Jesus “is an army of angels going to meet us at Jerusalem?” While not biblical, it certainly captures the disciples’ expectation. In the Bible, Peter, the wonderfully dense Rock, is ready to fight when Jesus is arrested:

Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it, struck the high priest’s slave, and cut off his right ear.

But Jesus chastises Peter, and goes peacefully with the soldiers. In the gospels, Jesus’ kingdom is not one enforced by military power.

So why would anyone want to believe that when Jesus returns there will be “blood pooling and rising in the unforgiving brightness of the glory of Christ”?

Vengeance.

Going back to my first post in this series, the apocalypse in general gives hope to the oppressed. In America, it gives hope to the culturally estranged, conservatives who see the culture changing around them, outside of their control. The government, liberals, Hollywood, globalization and pluralism are all blamed for rising crime, a coarsening culture and changing cultural norms. I’m sure it’s hard for many rural, conservative Christians to adjust. It’s not just that the world is changing, but that the conservative Christian culture has gone from the dominant societal norm to being marginalized. It would be easy to slip into resentment, anger and hatred of the prevailing culture, along with a growing conviction that the old ways were godly and the new ways are not.

It’s a small step from there to hoping, even confidently anticipating, God’s violent vengeance being wreaked upon the sinners. It would be a vindication, justice, revenge and restitution all in one, accomplished by a stroke of the sword coming from the Lord’s mouth. This desire for revenge isn’t seen as self-serving, but as God fulfilling his promise to institute his reign on earth. The victims of Jesus’ wrath are goats, not sheep, and it is divine justice he is meting out, not insanely bloody and horrific warfare. We Christians are not allowed to commit murder, but we can take joy in the anticipation of God’s perfect judgment upon those He condemns to hell. God (and we) have been patient, long-suffering, and merciful. In Armageddon, God, in His own time, has unfolded his plan to cleanse the earth of those unworthy of the new millenium by spilling their “innards and entrails” on the desert floor. Praise God!

At the heart of pre-trib pre-millenialism is a desire to see the “other” punished by God, and violently so. What’s worse is the belief that the Christians who have been raptured will have a ring-side seat in heaven to watch it all unfold. Not only does God smite our enemies, but we get to watch!

This is the Gospel of Jesus Christ turned upside down.

More next time…

1 Comment

  1. I don’t agree with the particular spin Harris puts on it, but he’s certainly right that there is something paradoxical, strange, and even a little frightening about the Jesus portrayed in the gospels. I think Christians, especially of the liberal persuasion, often forget that. I recommend Michael McClymond’s book “Familiar Stanger” in this regard.

    Comment by Lee — July 7, 2006 @ 1:16 pm

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