Tag Archives: apocalyptic

Eschatology Without Ethics is Just Religious Escapism

The Christian bubble I grew up in was pervaded by talk about “eternity.” Over time this word has taken on an unfortunate connotation of dualism, a contrast between the compromised and fleshly experience of this life and the hyper-spiritual forever-dimension that is its opposite. This is a major mistake, as biblical talk of “eternity” and “eternal” things is actually concerned chiefly with the continuity of both human society and creation as a whole. Our hope is not that this life be forfeited in exchange for another one, but rather that it be redeemed and fulfilled.

lecrae nonsenseA popular meme in my Facebook feed says (in words attributed to evangelical rapper Lecrae), “If I’m wrong about God then I’ve wasted my life; If you’re wrong about God then you’ve wasted your eternity.” Not only is this sentiment oddly aggressive and sanctimonious, it also reveals a problematic underlying theology. According to this meme, the purpose of believing in (or being right about) God is to secure a happy afterlife, and it would be OK to appear to “waste” this life as long as one was prepared for the next.

There was a time when I was deeply committed to that logic, but now it makes no sense to me. In addition to a strong moral sense that this is a flawed and dangerous way to look at life, I also find that this is out of line with the way Jesus talked about God, humanity, and the world’s future. Jesus never separated eschatology from ethics, and neither should we.

You Got Ethics In My Eschatology!

“Eschatology” simply refers to an idea, view, or belief about where the world is heading. This is not so much about predicting the future as it is about diagnosing the present. It’s about seeing the handwriting on the wall and calling for change in light of it. The eschatology of Jesus was centered around what he called the “kingdom of God,” a spiritual and ethical reality into which he invited his followers. In the kingdom espoused by Jesus, life, law, and justice are reoriented away from the familiar machinations of power and domination and toward love, empathy, and forgiveness. The kingdom is radical, political, and social as well as spiritual. It is both present and future, it comes from heaven but is already inside and among us.

Jesus’ eschatology employed (and subverted) the language of Jewish apocalypticism which insisted that God’s kingdom was actually becoming a reality, on earth, in history. This is not “just a metaphor” or some future disembodied experience in an alternate dimension, it is a vision for the real and tangible future of humanity and creation. For Jesus, time and experience are not to be divided between life and afterlife, this doomed world and “eternity,” but between the world as it is and the world as it must soon be. And far from teaching people to sit on their hands while they wait for a postmortem reward, Jesus invites us to live out the reality of the kingdom. 

Divorcing ethics from eschatology has left many Christians with an unhelpful bifurcated view of time and the universe. The present and its concerns are seen as pale and irrelevant, and the future as a disconnected dimension where life will really begin. This is not the vision of Jesus. This is not how the kingdom of God works. The kingdom is forever but it starts now, and it is only as real and visible as our love for each other. The ethical vision of Jesus is not a set of suggestions for killing time until the apocalypse comes, it is the content of his eschatology. Because apart from love and forgiveness today, “eternity” is a pretty grim prospect. 


Quest for a Violent Jesus, Part 2: Away From Me!

In part one of this series I examined two gospel passages commonly used to suggest that Jesus advocated (sword-based) violence. That post was basically an apologetic, as I sought to demonstrate that the ethos and message of Jesus was consistently and inherently nonviolent. But it’s important to note that apology is not my default approach to every troublesome Bible text. In this case, I strongly believe that the true sense of the texts in question had been misunderstood and needed correcting. But in general, I am not committed to defending the Bible at all cost. I am open to being challenged and corrected, and I am willing to learn from or ultimately even to disagree with the text. The material today will put this to the test.

Many Christians, in service to inerrancy and systematic theology, accept apparent tensions and contradictions in the Bible as part of some grand, unifying plan. When it comes to Jesus, many Christians have no problem acknowledging that he was a teacher of peace, even as they have no doubt he will return to earth riding a wave of fire and retribution. Round one may have been all hugs and back pats, but round two will be a different story.

For the most part, this tense view of a peaceful-but-eventually-violent Jesus comes from contrasting what the gospels report about Jesus with what other New Testament texts (eg. 1 Thessalonians or Revelation) say about his return. But even in the gospels, Jesus offers his own vision of the “coming age,” replete with dramatic prophetic imagery. Since this series is concerned with the presentation of Jesus in the gospels, we will focus on his apocalyptic sayings, especially some in Matthew which seem to promise violence. Continue reading


Jesus and “Family Values”

American Jesus is all about marriage and family values. For generations Christian leaders have linked the mission and legacy of Jesus with the health and centrality of the married couple and the nuclear family. If you grew up in an American church, especially in a conservative or fundamentalist tradition, you most likely learned a lot about “biblical” dating, marriage, sex, manhood, womanhood, parenting, etc. The impression is that Christian faith, while rooted in the person and way of Jesus, is most chiefly concerned with and most legitimately expressed in the life and home of a family. In this version of the religion, single adults are often viewed as deficient or suspicious, and cultural changes related to sex and marriage are viewed as threats against “traditional” marriage and values, dangers to the integrity of the gospel, and affronts to God.

There are, however, two realities which complicate these abiding assumptions. First, there is the fact that when the Bible does speak of marriage and family, it does so with a set of ancient cultural presuppositions which often do not match our own. Levirate marriage, polygamy, and primogeniture (favoring the firstborn) are commonplace in the Hebrew Scriptures, for example, and largely unknown in the modern first world. This does not necessarily preclude those texts from being read and interpreted fruitfully, but it does mean that they cannot and should not be read as instruction manuals for our own family lives. At the very least it ought to keep us mindful of the inevitable fact of cultural and societal change across the generations and the globe.

More pertinent to this discussion, however, is the complicated and even dismissive attitude of Jesus toward family and marriage according to the gospel accounts. In fact, an honest assessment of what Jesus apparently believed and taught about “family values” can be downright unsettling. The subject doesn’t come up as often as you’d expect, but when it does the words of Jesus are almost always shocking. Consider:

  • A curious episode in Mark 3 where Jesus’ own family, including his mother, accuse him of being “out of his mind” and try to drag him back home. Jesus ignores them and asks his followers, “Who is my mother?” He answers that “anybody who does God’s will is my brother, sister, and mother.” (The later gospels revise or omit this bit, and scholars of all stripes have wrestled with Mark’s depiction of Mary in this scene. Remember that Mark does not provide a birth narrative for Jesus!)
  • In Matthew 8 a new follower asks for Jesus’ permission to “first go and bury my father.” Jesus commands him, “Follow me! Let the dead bury their own dead.” Disciples of Jesus are expected to abandon their families and responsibilities.
  • Later in Matthew 10 Jesus describes how his gospel announcement will result in fathers betraying children, and children rebelling against their parents. He famously adds that he “didn’t come to bring peace – I came to bring a sword! I came to divide a man from his father, a daughter from her mother.” And further, “If you love your father or mother more than me, you don’t deserve me.” This is rhetoric, to be sure, and it actually affirms the importance of familial bonds by challenging them. But challenge them it does.
  • Jesus’ argument with Pharisees about divorce in Matthew 19 is typically used by today’s Christians to demonstrate Jesus’ affirmation of “traditional marriage” (especially verses 4-6). In the context of the passage, Jesus’ point is that divorce should be seen as a concession for cases of adultery rather than a loophole for men who tire of their wives. But it is Jesus’ private conversation with his followers after the argument that is seldom discussed. Disappointed in his teaching about divorce, the disciples ask “given this, wouldn’t it be better for a man not to marry?” Jesus apparently agrees, and his cryptic response in verses 11-12 seems to indicate that marriage itself is a concession and a compromise of the kingdom ideal of celibacy.
  • Along similar lines, Jesus engages with another Jewish sect in Mark 12 and Matthew 22 on the topic of resurrection. The Sadducees were the conservative elites of Jerusalem, who rejected the relatively new notion that God’s people would be resurrected at the coming of the kingdom. They mock Jesus regarding the logistics of marriage among the resurrected population of New Jerusalem. If, they ask, a woman marries several brothers after each one dies, to whom is she married after the resurrection? Jesus responds with the bombshell that there will be no marrying in this kingdom, and that current marriages will apparently be dissolved. This detail is not featured in many sermons about heaven.

Kingdom Values Are For Humans, Not Just Families

The takeaway is not that Jesus hated families or disapproved of the institution of marriage. However, given what we read in the gospels, it is virtually impossible to argue that family and marriage were the foundation or even tenets of the movement which Jesus started. Quite the contrary, since at every turn Jesus challenged the common obligations of family and matrimony as distractions from the real mission of proclaiming the Kingdom of God. To be sure, Jesus preached fidelity and compassion in all human relationships, but he did not prescribe a particular lifestyle or family configuration (though he was apparently keen on celibacy).

In conclusion, I want to say two things: 1) Despite the radical apocalyptic origins of the religion, marriage and family came to be inextricably woven into the fabric of Christianity. This is a strange tension, and it’s something we could actually stand to wrestle with a bit more than we typically have. But I do not think we ought to feel conflicted or guilty about loving and cherishing our families, whatever they look like, as good gifts from God. This seems self-evident. 2) At the same time, Christianity has a built-in defense against those who would beat the drum of “family values” and “traditional marriage” as if these were the things most precious to Jesus, most essential to his message, and most likely to anger God if we get them wrong. The sorts, names, shapes, and sizes of families and communities change with the centuries. Fidelity, selfless love, and empathy are always the same, and these are the heart of the gospel.


When Scholarship Reveals Jesus

fall of jerusalemPopular Christianity taught me to be dubious and careful in regard to scholarship. Liberals and atheists are crouching everywhere, I was told, waiting to undermine my faith with science and reason. Some evangelicals welcome a modicum of safe, authorized scholarship to provide “background” for Bible reading, but as a rule modern scientific criticism is to be avoided and even combatted when necessary. And by far the greatest scholarly boogeymen are the “Jesus scholars,” those professors and researchers who have made their careers exploring the historical imprint left by Jesus of Nazareth. They present the greatest danger, we are told, because they want to deny Jesus’ miracles and divinity, and convince us that he was “just a man,” a guru not a savior.

For my part I’ve learned that scholarship – balanced, diverse, and collaborative – can actually help to correct and deepen faith. When we push past the false dichotomy of “faith vs. scholarship,” we enter into an ongoing and fruitful conversation between smart and helpful people across all kinds of disciplines and perspectives. If we filter out the voices of scholars because we’re afraid of what they might say, it says more about us than it does about the scholars. And when it comes to Jesus scholarship, I think Christians put themselves at a serious disadvantage by shutting it out. In the context of their discipline, most Jesus scholars are not on a mission to deny or debunk anything about Jesus, they are simply committed to exploring the historically explorable aspects of Jesus and his life. I want to briefly demonstrate how their work can add startling dimension to our understanding of who Jesus was and is.

What Scholarship Says About Jesus

For the purposes of this post I want to focus on one aspect of Jesus scholarship, namely what it has to say about Jesus’ teaching. Even more precisely, what it says about the “Olivet Discourse,” the apocalyptic prophecy delivered by Jesus to his followers shortly before his death (recorded with variations in Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21). Dense and cryptic compared with his ethical sayings, Jesus’ words in the Olivet have been a source of debate, distraction, and confusion for Christians of many stripes. Given its intensity and the eschatological fervor it has inspired, conservative believers might expect scholars to downplay Jesus’ “little apocalypse” in favor of his more palatable teachings about peace and brotherly love.

However, this is not the case. In fact, scholarly consensus identifies the apocalyptic sayings of Jesus as the authentic kernel of his public ministry. And while Christians may not need scholars to tell them what Jesus did or didn’t really say, consider what this tells us about the scholars and their willingness to draw conclusions apart from bias or agenda. Far from reducing Jesus to a mere teacher of moral self-help, they affirm that Jesus really did declare himself to be the Son of Man, and his self-identity and message were truly and primarily prophetic.

Going Deeper

But scholarship goes further than simply affirming the authenticity of Jesus’ apocalyptic sayings. It also places them in a corrective setting that illuminates them, challenges traditional assumptions, and (I believe) reveals something glorious about Jesus. Traditional churchly readings of the Olivet Discourse have interpreted Jesus’ words as a grim and cryptic warning about the end of the world in our own near-future. A careful reading, however, in dialogue with scholarship, takes Jesus’ words and their Jewish apocalyptic context seriously and sees instead an historically located prophecy which has already been fulfilled, thus punctuating his teaching and vindicating him as a true and prescient prophet, an unexpected and peaceable messiah. Scholarship cannot make these types of religious judgments, but it can equip us to interact with our ancient sources with intelligence and clarity.

Here is a quick overview of the Olivet Discourse from this perspective:

Jesus promised his followers that the Temple and Jerusalem itself would be destroyed, an inevitable judgment for the city’s addiction to violence and her political and spiritual rebellion. They asked him, “When will these things happen?,” and the Olivet was his answer. It is filled with specific predictions (“false messiahs will appear,“ “wars and rumors of war,” “one will be taken, the other left behind”) and bold apocalyptic images borrowed from the Hebrew Scriptures (“the moon will not give its light, the stars will fall from the sky,” “you will see the son of man coming on the clouds”). Each one of Jesus’ sayings, according to a scholarly reading, pertains to the destruction of Jerusalem by Rome in the Jewish War of 66-73 CE. False messiahs and failed revolutions? Check. Wars and rumors of war? Check. The Temple reduced to rubble? Check. Random murder and kidnapping by Roman forces? Check. The end of the Jewish world as they knew it? Check. Even the saying about the “son of man” in its original context in Daniel 7 is about the public vindication of God’s servant, not about rapture or second coming (the “coming” is upward, not downward, a possible analog to Jesus’ ascension?).

That is an all-too-brief breakdown of a very complex group of passages (explore more here  or here or here). There is much left to debate, to be sure. But there is one more crucial piece of evidence to consider. When Jesus finally gives an explicit answer to the disciples’ initial question (“When will these things happen?”) it is this: “I tell you the truth, this generation will not pass away before these things take place.” The scholarly view, in addition to taking the Jewish and first century contexts of Jesus’ words seriously, has the distinction of making sense of this promise. I can’t tell you how many awkward explanations I’ve heard over the years of what Jesus really means here. “This generation” refers to the church. He’s talking about apostolic lineage. It’s a metaphor for the twentieth century. On and on. But when the full picture of Jesus’ vision comes together, with invaluable assistance from scholarship, it seems downright obvious. Modern Christians may not consider the fall of Jerusalem to be an epic catastrophe with cosmic significance, but Jesus the Jewish prophet clearly did.

Why Scholarship Matters

Where traditional readings of the Olivet have led to endless speculation, politicizing, gloom, doom, and fear/warmongering, a reading informed by scholarship reveals Jesus as a true prophet whose message of repentance and judgment was vindicated by historical events. This in no way means that Jesus remains a mere artifact of history, his words bereft of meaning for the present or future. Nor does it mute the salient biblical hope for parousia, for the long-awaited ultimate fruition of God’s kingdom on earth. But how does a refreshed and vibrant new understanding of this troublesome passage inform how we read the rest of the New Testament? How does our posture toward world and neighbor change when Jesus’ lordship is not bound up with a promise of inevitable war that must be fulfilled before God’s kingdom can be realized? What does the fate of Second Temple Jerusalem say about the chance for repentance and peace in our own day?

Scholarship is a partner and companion that helps to illuminate questions like these. It cannot have the final word on matters of faith, but what human voice can? Where scholarship can offer correction and illumination, we would do well to give it a voice. If we think that we have nothing to learn from history, or that God would not allow us to err because we have a special religious arrangement with Him, then we need to hear Jesus’ call to repentance more than ever.


We Have Met the Beast and He Is Us

Beast666Somehow this is still a thing. Christian politicians and pundits routinely make fearmongering overtures about the identity of “the beast,” “the antichrist,” the cosmic boogeyman who will bring about the End Times™ and also happens to be their ideological opponent. Just pick a public figure you don’t like, label them “dangerous,” throw in a vague appeal to “biblical prophecy,” and you’re good to go.

Even as we roll our eyes, we think we know exactly which Bible prophecy is being abused: the book of Revelation and its warning of a coming antichrist. But it’s not simply that the words of Revelation are being misappropriated as political fodder, they have been completely misread and misunderstood in the first place. If we take an educated and careful look at the relevant passages, a very different picture comes into focus. Spoiler Alert: there is no singular “antichrist” figure in Revelation. There are several metaphorical “monsters” in the text, but the nearest contemporary analog for the “beast” in question is not a Muslim warrior, a popular Pope, or a socialist President. It’s something much more familiar and far more insidious.

(Actually) Reading Revelation

I get a little twitchy when uninformed Christians rant about “what it says in Revelation” concerning “the antichrist.” For starters, the word “antichrist” never appears in the text. It’s not there. Something like it can be found in John’s epistles, but not here. There is a “beast” in Revelation, a few of them in fact, and to put them into proper context we’ll need a quick overview of the whole thing.

The final book in the New Testament canon, Revelation was written as a coded message to first century churches from an exiled pastor named John. It’s an apocalypse, a sort of ancient political cartoon, imagining the imminent destruction of the Roman Empire and the vindication of Jewish-Christian martyrs who had been killed by the state. Apocalyptic literature allowed its authors and recipients to express their true feelings about Rome without incrimination, using cryptic metaphors and bizarre symbolic imagery instead of openly political language.

Revelation plays out as a pageant of symbolic tableaus. The martyrs entreat the heavenly throne for justice, Jesus (depicted as a slain lamb) opens a scroll containing God’s purposes, and bowls of consuming wrath are poured out onto the armies and superpowers of earth. In the end, the great Whore of Babylon (a.k.a. Rome) is defeated and God’s kingdom is established in its place, a glistening (earthly!) city called New Jerusalem. The end.

So where does “the beast” figure in?

Dragon and the Beasts, This Fall on ABC

The chapters in question are Revelation 12 and 13, wherein the narrative shifts and the Bible suddenly goes all Harryhausen. A “great red dragon” falls to earth and summons two “beasts” (or “monsters”), one from the sea and one from the land, who do the dragon’s bidding. The first monster speaks “blasphemous words” and “makes war on the saints,” while the second one “deceives” the people of the earth into worshiping the first monster. This is the beast that “marks” humans with a number permitting them to “buy and sell.”

The text explicitly identifies the dragon as “the satan,” the evil power which animates the two earthly monsters. The first monster is the Roman Empire, with its temporary authority to rule over the tribes of the earth and its thirst for the righteous blood of the martyrs. Who then is the second beast, the one which so preoccupies dispensationalist Christians that they’ve forgotten all the other apocalyptic critters? He represents the religious and economic systems that feed the ambitions of the first beast. He makes images of his counterpart to be worshiped and brands citizens for participation in the marketplace. And what is the “number” that this beast stamps on the people’s hands and foreheads? 666, the numeric name of Nero, the great persecutor of Christians. This beast dupes God’s people into bankrolling their greatest enemy.

Hitting Close to Home

This is the dreaded beast of Revelation: imperial consumerism that lulls people into working and buying and selling and worshiping against their own interests. Revelation wasn’t a warning to the future about the rise of a bad guy from an enemy camp, it was a clarion call to first century Christians against capitulation and collusion with the powers-that-be. It was an anti-establishment screed, reminding its hearers that Christians do not play at power and war and money like the beasts do. In a bottomless pit of irony, those Christian gatekeepers who most loudly sound the “antichrist” alarm in our own day tend to be those who are most sold out to nationalism, capitalism, and the established imperial order.

In context, the monsters of Revelation confront us with an unexpected threat. It’s easy to exploit weird, cryptic prophecies for personal gain, fearmongering, and drumming up the donor base. It’s easy to imagine some far off, foreign enemy who threatens to take our freedom away and disrupt our lifestyle. It’s quite another thing to imagine that our very lifestyle itself might have all the markings of a beast.

For a more detailed breakdown of Revelation, check out this podcast.