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Top 5 Reasons Why the Rapture is a False Doctrine

by Drew 12 Comments
Top 5 Reasons Why the Rapture is a False Doctrine
From a t-shirt available at www.tshirtvortex.net.

Spoiler alert: there is no rapture.

Hopefully you’ve heard this somewhere before.  Astute readers of Scripture or serious theologians will note it is totally absent from both the canon and leading Christian thinkers of this or any age.

And yet, like a cockroach in a slum, this patently false teaching seems determined to pop up in all kinds of places.  Why should you care? Because this is not just a matter of one interpretation versus another; something serious is at stake in this teaching (more on that at the end).

In the liturgical calendar, followed by all Christian churches, this is the season of Advent (or, for those of the Eastern persuasion, the Nativity Fast).  During Advent, we look back to first coming or “advent” of Christ and also ahead to his glorious return.  But that return has nothing to with a “rapture.”  Everywhere in Scripture God’s people are called to endure suffering and care for all of God’s creation; nowhere are we promised an escape from the travails of this fragile existence while the heathen and all of creation suffer in agony.  It is anti-gospel.  It is a false doctrine.  Here’s why, in 5 easy steps (and a tip of the hat to Talbot Davis for letting me borrow the “Top 5” idea).

  1. Rapture teaching is new.  Rapture teaching mostly originated in the 1800’s with John Nelson Darby, a Plymouth Brethren preacher.  He in turn influenced Cyrus Scofield, who edited an infamous, early study Bible named after himself.  It spread across the Atlantic and through folks like Dwight L. Moody and institutions like Dallas Theological Seminary.  Later popularizations included Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth (see both parts of my review of this classic dumpster fire here and here) and the best-selling-novels-ever-written-for-adults-at-a-third-grade-reading-level known as the Left Behind series.  The short version: until the 19th century, there was no mass of Christians anywhere who taught that Jesus was going to return (halfway) and give all the living Christians jetpacks to heaven while the world goes to hell.
  2. The rapture is exclusively Protestant and almost exclusively American.  Catholics and Orthodox don’t remotely take dispensationalism seriously, and certainly not the rapture.  Add to that what NT Wright and others have pointed out – that it is pretty much only Americans who care about rapture teaching – and you have a recipe for a suspect doctrine.
  3. Oddly, the rapture requires a two-stage return of Jesus.  The return of Christ and “day of the Lord” traditions in the Bible are always singular events that comprise a variety of occurrences in close succession.  Passages like, “Watch ye, therefore, for you know not when the master approaches,” never posit a multi-stage return. (Mark 13:35)  The Nicene Creed, the most authoritative of the ancient summaries of Christian doctrine, says simply of Jesus, “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead and his kingdom will have no end.” He does not return, take a few with him, and come back later.  He comes in glory to judge all and establish his kingdom.  That’s it.
  4. The rapture is not remotely biblical.  Not even remotely.  The main passages used to defend a teaching of the rapture, Matthew 24 and 1 Thessalonians 4, can only do so if taken horrifically out of context and misinterpreted.  In Matthew 24, the language about “one being left behind” is a reference to Noah and the flood, such that any attentive reader can tell the logic of the passage is that one should want to be “left behind” as Noah and his family were.  In 1 Thessalonians 4, the word translated “caught up” (harpazo in Greek) appears elsewhere in the New Testament and means nothing like escaping to heaven.  Moreover, 1 Thessalonians 4 speaks of the dead in Christ rising first, a fact most versions of the rapture overlook completely.  Ben Witherington does an excellent job explaining all this in more detail in a Seedbed video here.
  5. The logic of the rapture is Gnostic, not Christian.  Fleeing a flawed and decaying physical world for the purity and joy of a spiritual realm sounds much like that prolific heresy – perhaps more prominent today than in ancient times – known as Gnosticism.  Gnostics believed that a secret knowledge had been revealed to them (“gnosis” means “knowledge”) and they held a very low view of physicality.  Everything physical was evil and corrupt, while the spiritual was pure and noble.  Gnostics varied greatly, but all versions united in a vision that desired to escape the world of matter to a realm of pure spirit.  Many heretical forms of ancient Christianity were gnostic and gnostic-influenced, and despite the ink spilled by skilled hacks like Elaine Pagels and Bart Ehrman, these psuedo-Christianities were quite properly rejected by the church in her wisdom (which is exactly what we should do today with the gnostic eschatology of the rapture).

upset memeYou may be asking yourself, “so what?”

What’s at stake is nothing less than Christian discipleship and ecclesiology (what you believe about the church).  That’s because what we believe about the last chapter of the story impacts how we live out the preceding chapters.  If God’s grand finale involves removing all the Christians while the world goes to hell (as most versions of premillenial dispensationalism espouse), then it is okay for us to let the world go to hell now.  If the destiny of the world is to burn up while Christians escape, then our only job now is to save (disembodied) souls and ignore the work of justice, reconciliation, community, and creation care.

But if, on the other hand, God has promised to renew the whole earth and all of creation, we are given a vocation of care and concern that invites us to share in and witness to God’s kingdom coming “on earth, as it is in heaven” (as Jesus taught us to pray in the Sermon on the Mount).

The bottom line:

  • The rapture invites Christians to be spectators while the world goes to hell.
  • A classic understanding of the kingdom calls Jesus-followers to live into the new shalom that is breaking in even now.

What are other reasons the rapture is a false doctrine? What ways have you found effective in challenging this teaching? Leave a comment below!

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Calvinists and Hell: A Love Story

Erasing Hell: What God Said About Eternity, and the Things We've Made Up

Calvinists seem to be really into hell.  I mean, really.  And, apparently Rob Bell is the new Dan Brown; his latest book is spurning a cottage industry of books from every yahoo with a Master’s Degree from their pastor’s basement.

Here’s an interview with Francis Chan about his Erasing Hell, a book written in response to something Rob Bell doesn’t do in his book.  And as I’ve said before, Bell’s book isn’t original in its arguments.  Check out Von Balthasar (or really, Origen), CS Lewis, or as my buddy Nick pointed out, Willimon’s Who Will Be Saved? for better fare.

I don’t know much about Chan and he’s not currently on my reading list.  That doesn’t mean he doesn’t have valuable things to say, though I’ve become as suspicious of megachurch pastors as I am of the head chef at McDonald’s; when you’re serving that many people, the quality has to be in question.

Can you judge a book by a back cover?  I won’t go so far as to do what Bell’s opponents did – brand him a heretic and a universalist before the book was even released – but though I’m sure Chan is a well-meaning writer and a gifted speaker, I think I can smell some unpleasantness here on the back:

“Like you, sometimes [the authors] just don’t want to believe in hell.”  I don’t “believe” in hell.  I believe in God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Hell describes life – here and into eternity – without that God.  But hell is no more central to my faith than it is to the Apostle’s Creed or, for that matter, the teachings of Jesus.  I believe in the Kingdom, in the triumph of grace, and the love of God for all.  Hell? I can’t ignore it, but I can “dare to hope” that that not many of my brothers and sisters get a bird’s eye view.

“It’s a book about what God says.”  If God already said it and it is that clear, why do we need a separate book?  If it were that simple, then Rob Bell never would have written a book whose sales incited such jealousy in the industry whose arguments so incensed Chan and Sprinkle.

The cover can’t be ignored either: “What God said about eternity, and the things we’ve made up.”  This is a convenient subtitle.  It indicates off the bat that whatever the authors are going to claim is straight from the mouth of God – itself an interesting take on biblical interpretation – and anything else that someone would say is purely and simply made up.  Sorry, Isaiah, it turns out that my thoughts are God’s thoughts (see chapter 55).

At the end of the day, hell is something so horrible and the ways of God so strange to my own that I think we cannot but leave room for questions, mystery, awe, and wonder.  Drawing easy lines about who will and will not be with God in the end to me misses what, to me, is a fundamental thrust in the Scriptures: God is constantly blessing those purported to be “outsiders” and calling those who think they are right with God to account.  (For instance, Jesus entrusts his message to tax collectors but calls the holy people vipers.) Hell seems to be a possibility most of all for those who know and heed not.  Those who think they have God figured out are constantly wrong, and their arrogance puts them at distance from God.

Let those with ears, hear.  May I be one of them.

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What if God Gets What God Wants? Thoughts on Rob Bell’s ‘Love Wins’

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Minus bathroom breaks, I read Love Wins in one sitting.  I wouldn’t say this is because it is engrossing, but rather because the 200 pages is made up of such short, choppy sentences and large print that it reads more like 100 pages.  Compare this, for instance, to the considerably shorter, but much more difficult Nature of Doctrine.  Lindbeck’s classic was one of the densest tomes I’ve read; Bell, while a good read, feels unnaturally inflated to me.  But I suppose no one would be willing to part with $20+ for a hundred page hardback.

That said, I liked the book.  I didn’t find anything I really disagreed with in the book (it’s hard to disagree with something that is chock-full of questions, though).  A few main points:

1) Bell is not saying anything new.  He’s upfront about this.  These issues have been wrestled with since the origin of the faith.  Why is this book so controversial, then?  Honestly, I’m not entirely sure.  Resurgent Calvinism, so common in low-church Protestantism today, will despise this book.  Anyone who likes to draw really clear and easy distinctions about the saved and the damned will not be happy with his reflections.  Many of these folks didn’t like Bell to start with, as evidenced by the fact that he was being condemned as a universalist before the book was even released. I find it laughable that churches who subscribe to no official creeds, no Magisterium (an official compendium of teaching, like in the Roman Catholic faith), who lack any formal denomination or structure from which to excommunicate someone have still attempted to erase Bell’s name from the evangelicals’ Book of Life.  Perhaps such folks are not so Protestant as they imagine themselves to be.

2) Bell has an astounding gift for communication.  He is, no doubt, a smart guy, but that’s not what makes his work so impressive.  His gift is communicating complicated ideas in ways that are engaging and attractive.  I got to see him speak at Duke last year and I was floored.  As a pastor, watching him made me feel like I was watching Mickey Mantle while I was still stuck learning t-ball.  This is not a book that should be evaluated as if it were systematic theology; it’s not.  It’s a book of meditations and questions, none of which are original.  He is no Luther or Barth; he’s not dropping a theological bomb.  He’s restating some old questions for a new generation in a way that is profoundly helpful.

3)  This is solid, practical, and whimsical theology.  At various points I laughed out loud and was tempted to cry.  He goes between exegesis, stories, poetry, and theology with the nimbleness of a ballerina.  If you haven’t read much in the areas of soteriology, the question of other religions, or the nature and scope of Christ’s grace, you may find a lot here that is difficult.  For instance, the Bible knows nothing of oft-repeated concepts such as “the age of accountability” and a “personal relationship with Jesus.”  Bell may well burst your bubble – but you’ll thank him for it.

A couple of critiques, for good measure:

Given the actual density of the book, I think it’s fair to say it is overpriced (at least if you pay full price for it).  The total page count is, frankly, bloated beyond necessity.

He doesn’t cite his sources.  There is a brief list of acknowledgments at the end, which is helpful.  To his credit, he lists N.T. Wright (probably enough reason, right there, to earn the disdain of the John Piper fanboys).  His view is heavily influenced by C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce, which he does mention.  But there is a lot that isn’t credited.  At one point, for instance, he references “gospels of sin management,” which I’m pretty sure is a direct allusion to a chapter in Dallas Willard’s wonderful The Divine Conspiracy.  But no reference is made of Willard or the book, even in the acknowledgments.  I have heard it said that source citations scare publishers because they scare away potential readers, so perhaps this was not Bell’s choice.

Read this.  Share it with friends, especially friends who have been exposed to a Jesus that doesn’t look anything like the Jesus of the gospels.  I wish this book had been available to me when I was journeying from fundamentalism to Jesus; it would have been profoundly helpful.  As is, it was a fun read, something I heartily recommend, and something I will use as a reference and source for inspiration.

If you like it, do yourself a favor: read The Great Divorce.  If you are really feeling froggy, go on to read Hans Urs Von Balthasar’s Dare We Hope?, which asked these exact questions, in a more direct and controversial way, decades ago.  I personally found C.S. Lewis and Balthasar much more engaging, but Love Wins is a much easier read than these and a great introduction to the notion that maybe – just maybe – God gets what God wants…everybody.

P.S. I said MAYBE.  Don’t try to burn me at the stake.

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TS Eliot and Advent

In the lectionary readings for Advent, we look forward to Jesus’  birth by reflecting on the prophecies of his return.  The first coming and the second coming are shown to be two acts in the same play, two chapters in the same story.  Beginnings and endings have relationships that often go unnoticed.  In my sermon this Sunday, I am drawing some inspiration from TS Eliot’s Four Quartets.  I am reminded of CS Lewis, who points out that the Father, who exists outside of time, must have seen the crucifixion present in the incarnation and birth of the Son.  It follows that the 2nd coming, then, was imagined even at the first.  In His beginning is our end.  As I will tell the saints on Sunday, get ready!

In my beginning is my end. In succession

Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended,

Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place

Is an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass.

Old stone to new building, old timber to new fires,

Which is already flesh, fur and faeces,

Bone of man and beast, cornstalk and leaf.

Houses live and die; there is a time for building

And a time for living and for generation

And a time for the wind to break the loosened pane

And to shake the wainscot where thefield-mouse trots

And to shake the tattered arras woven with a silent motto.

(TS. Eliot, “East Coker” in Four Quartets)

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Hal Lindsey on Ecumenism and Antichrist: Suffering through ‘The Late, Great Planet Earth’ Part II

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I don’t know if there are purple hearts in the study of theology, but in helping some of you to avoid this atrocious book, I hope you can see that I am jumping on a grenade on your behalf.  I’ve never read anything that made me want to throw things, weep, and laugh all in such short succession.

Today, for your intellectual abuse stimulation I have a few bits of Lindsey’s wisdom about the ecumenical movement.  These are culled from chapter 10, “Revival of Mystery Babylon,” in which he argues that a renewed interest in the occult across the world, combined with a unified but apostate church, will serve to empower the coming Antichrist (who supposedly is coming from a renewed Roman empire, which Lindsey claims is basically the EU).  Now, be prepared for your laughter to be turned to mourning:

We believe that the joining of churches in the present ecumenical movement, combined with this amazing rejuvenation of star-worship, mind-expansion, and witchcraft, is preparing the world in every way for the establishment of a great religious system, on which will influence the Antichrist. (Lindsey, 104)

There is, in this chapter, an astounding gap: nowhere does Lindsey endeavor to explain what will become off all the other religions of the world and their practitioners.  One can only assume that he either thinks there will be no more Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims at this time, or else he puts all of them in league with the hippie kids dancing in the forest.  At any rate, it is a major flaw in his argument.  Not that the argument itself is strong to begin with, of course.

There is obviously a free-church bent here, insofar as the target is very clearly Mainline Protestantism (that is, all the major denominations such as Methodists, Lutherans, Episcopalians, and Presbyterians).  He also has a very stunted ecclessiology, simply saying that the “true church…includes all believers in Christ.” (116)  I wonder if he would include Mormons in that list? Jehovah’s Witnesses?  If the only criteria is “believing in Jesus,” understood in a purely intellectual and consensual way, then he really has a broader definition of church than he should be comfortable with.  I suppose it was too much to hope, at a minimum, for something like Luther’s definition of true Word and sacraments.

And now for a real gem:

When people move away from Christianity the church will lose its power and influence to a great religious movement, a satanic ecumenical campaign…

Years ago when we first heard about the ecumenical movement, we couldn’t pronounce it(*) but we thought it sounded like a great idea.  It seemed plausible that all the “good guys” (**) in the churches should join together to fight all the evil on the outside.  There are many fallacies in that way of thinking.  When all of the various churches begin to amalgamate in one unwieldy body, soon the doctrinal truths of the true church are watered down, altered, or discarded. (119)

At this point, I can only suggest that you find a bottle of Advil, take two – with water – and perhaps look into some blood pressure medication.  If you’re anything like me, you’re now infuriated. In the unlikely circumstance that you care about Jesus but aren’t infuriated by Lindsey’s sentiments, then go read John 17 and reconsider.

*I take this to mean that they don’t use big words at Dallas Theological Seminary, Lindsey’s alma mater.

**Oh, c’mon.  I don’t need to say anything here, do I? You know why this was stupid.

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Suffering through ‘The Late Great Planet Earth’: Part I

by Drew 23 Comments

In preparation for leading a Bible study at my church on Revelation – which is a source of concern anyway just because of the incendiary nature of conversations centered on the book – I’m attempting to look at all sides.  Attempting, I say, because I can’t pretend to give a fair reading of certain materials.  At a young age, I was influenced by the premillenial dispensationalist crowd.  I read the Left Behind books and all jazz.  Only later did I realize what a house of cards that whole system was and is – but not before wasting a good deal of time, energy, and money on trying to know things beyond my station in life.

At any rate, I’m reading The Late Great Planet Earth by Hal Lindsey just to say that I did;  from the get-go, I have not thought I’d get anything from it – a prediction (nay, a prophecy!) that was right, unless you count the headache of actually going through it page by page.

But this book is so utterly terrible, so lacking in anything close to good Scriptural interpretation, so mind-bogglingly unsophisticated in its understanding of prophecy and history, that I need to vent.  And unfortunately for all of you, that means writing about it.  My reading copy is a 1992 Harper reprint that I found somewhere for $2; I thought one day I’d want to have it, if nothing else just to reference it.  Now, as research, I think it is important for me to read it so that I can say I have given this system a shot.  So here’s part I – my beef with the Introduction of the book:

Part I

Introduction and Preliminary Issues

“This is a book about prophecy – Bible prophecy. If you have no interest in the future, this isn’t for you.  If you have no curiosity about a subject that some consider controversial, then you might as well stop now.” (p. vii, the opening lines of the book)

Several things come to mind, not least of which is the desire to throw my computer monitor through the window of my office.  But that can wait.

First things first.  Right off the bat, we can see that we are dealing with a very narrow definition of “prophecy.”  He uses that specific phrase – “Bible prophecy” – to indicate his perspective.  Mickey Efird has pointed out that this is also just another name for the whole Darbyist system. 

But Lindsey here is telling us that prophecy is, in its totality, a future-oriented activity. “If you have no interest in the future, this isn’t for you.”  But what was prophecy about for those that wrote it?  For those that read it in the past?  In our own recent history, the prophetic tradition has been seen to be effective and powerful, not merely in “predicting” or looking at the future, but also (and primarily) for empowering God’s work in the world right now. 

Granted, it is an annoying cliché for seminarians to speak of their prophetic desire to “speak truth to power” – in truth, they are often just adolescents/young adults who want to rebel against the system like everyone else their age – but the power of the prophetic worldview remains.  Much power to fight injustice comes from the Bible’s great prophets.  Even the Special Forces have drawn inspiration from Isaiah’s comment to God: “Here I am, send me.” (Isaiah 6:8)

Secondly, there is no questioning at all of motivations behind this desire to know the future.  Here again on the first page, Lindsey notes,

As a traveling speaker for Campus Crusade for Christ [sigh] I had the opportunity to give messages on prophecy to thousands of people.  These messages have consistently proven to be popular with every age group. (p. vii)

But popular and edifying are not the same things.  They are often the opposite.  It is troubling that Lindsey never stops to ask why people are hungry to know the future, or if this is even a desire that should be encouraged.  It is our Lord Jesus, after all, that taught us to pray, “give us our daily bread.”  (Matthew 6:11)  The same Lord said, “Do not worry about tomorrow, for each day has enough troubles of its own.” (Matthew 6:34)  And lest we forget, he also said –  for me, this is the real clincher – “No one knows the day or the hour…not even the Son, but only the Father.” (Mark 13:32)

He goes on to say,

This is not a complex theological treatise, but a direct account of the most thrilling, optimistic view of what the future could hold for any individual. (p. vii)

Will he is absolutely correct that nothing he writes is theologically complex.  We’re not even in the same neighborhood as theologically complex.  What I find preposterous is the notion that anything he writes is “thrilling” or “optimistic.”  He’s talking about massive wars, death and disease on a grand scale, and we are supposed to be thrilled?  I find that disturbing.

Lastly, a note on the final paragraph of the introduction:

In this book I am attempting to step aside and let the prophets speak. (viii)

An excellent sentiment.  Too bad it is total and complete poppycock.  When it comes to any Scripture, and especially those dealing with eschatology (study of the end times), we can never simply “step aside” and let them speak.  As a preacher, I am not a tabula rasa when it comes to the Bible.  Neither is Lindsey as an author.  We always come to Scripture with a hermeneutic of some kind, an interpretive lens through which read.  This is even, and perhaps especially true, for those who are the most radical sola Scriptura-minded.  Even if you go to 1st  Independent Fundamental Bible Church, someone has taught you how to read and interpret Scripture, whether formally or informally. 

When it comes to Lindsey, he should be honest enough to put his cards on the table.  He should be honest enough to say he didn’t invent this mode of Bible “prophecy.”  A book like this doesn’t come from reading the Bible in a vacuum.  His lineage includes folks like John Nelson Darby and Cyrus Scofield.  His descendants include Tim Lahaye and the current crop of dispensationalists.

To conclude, I should confess to having no interest in the details of the many kinds of premillenials.  If you are looking for me to examine nuances in this field, you’re going to be disappointed.  People spend years and decades researching the nuances among different schemes of Bible prophecy.  I think this is a tragic, scandalous waste.   Jesus himself spent a great deal more of his own ministry doing things like eating with sinners, healing he sick, and teaching about the Kingdom than trying to help people figure out when he was coming back for them.

 Oh well.  More to come.

All this was from reading a two-page introduction.   I apologize in advance…

…and now its time to toss this monitor out the window.

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Sharpton Scary on Social Justice

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Interesting clip from the Rev. with the hair.  He insists that “the struggle [for social justice] is not over until we achieve equality…the dream [of Dr. King] was to make everything equal in everyone’s house.”

I’m no Glenn Beck, but I do think that the concept of social justice is nebulous at best and socially and economically harmful at worst.  I don’t know nearly enough about King to say if his ‘dream’ was absolute equality, not merely of opportunity – or even outcome – but of property.  (Or am I reading too much into Sharpton’s comments?)

If, however, Rev. Sharpton is right, we won’t see anything approaching social justice until Jesus comes back.  I’ve been saying this for a while now.  I don’t think ‘social justice’ as a concept is very useful for setting any real political agendas.  It has nowhere near the utility – or the Christian content – of something like a “preferential option for the poor.”  But hey, it does sound good.  Besides, as long as middle-class whites learn to despise their privilege at our institutions of higher learning, they will continue to shout the tropes of ‘social justice’ as a way of justifying their own existence.  Others will preach it and legislate it as a way of courting the masses to allow them to remain in power.

Rev. Al is right.  “We’re not there yet.”  We won’t be, either, not this side of the eschaton.  Social justice is here to stay…at least until Jesus comes back.

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The Pope on Sex, the Historical Jesus, and (maybe) Obama

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What does it look like when the head of the Roman Catholic Church, the man in Saint Peter’s seat, is also one of the most profound and prolific systematic theologians of our age?  It looks like now.  That is precisely the situation with Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI.  I’m not a Catholic, but you don’t have to be to appreciate his work.  Ratzinger has gotten an unfair reputation for being a pit bull, but in reality this is a liberal reaction to his being a faithful Catholic.  He was, for years, the head of the CDF, the theological watchdog of the RCC; but in his writing we see him as a servant of his Lord and his Lord’s Church.  I’ve previously highlighted some comments from his excellent little book Eschatology, which is well worth your read.  I’m currently working my way through his Introduction to Christianity, which is an extended meditation on the Apostle’s Creed.  Some highlights:

On Sex…

…the apparent liberation of love and its conversation into a matter of impulse mean the delivery of man to the autonomous powers of sex and Eros, to whose merciless slavery he falls victim just when he is under the illusion that he has freed himself.  When he eludes God, the gods put out their hands to grasp him. (114)

What prose! What wonderful use of irony, and how true!  Watch TV for ten minutes and tell me that the whole generation under 40 is not under the hands of “sex and Eros” under the guise of “liberated” love.  Seeking to free ourselves,we have, like Icarus, been too care-free and are in danger of falling to our deaths.

On  the “Historical” Jesus…

For my part I must confess that, quite apart from the Christian faith and simply from my acquaintance with history, I find it preferable and easier to believe that God became man than that such a conglomeration of hypotheses represents the truth. (215)

This is Ratzinger’s take on the thrust of historical Jesus research, which purports to explain how a failed Messiah, Jesus, was gradually transformed into the Christ of faith that the modern, rationalist mind can neither comprehend nor tolerate.  The more I read and reflect on the phenomenon, the more I loathe the whole historical Jesus project.  As Ratzinger points out, one cannot neatly separate the man Jesus from the office of Christ, the figure of history from the Son who is worshiped in faith.  His conclusion shows the absurdity of this “quest” with great humor and precision.

On Obama (?)…

Hope would become utopianism if its goal were only man’s own product. (242)

This is not entirely fair.  I admit this up front; this book was written well before Obama was even a presidential candidate.  Here he is speaking of how Christian faith looks out in hope  – not simply thinking back to a fantastic origin – but forward to a blessed future for the whole cosmos.  We have hope because of what God has revealed in Jesus Christ, not because of our own capacities, ideas, and projects.

That said, I connected this with Obama because of the clever and effective use by his staff of the word ‘hope’.  I’m not surprised that an increasingly secularized, de-Christianed country went for this.  If Marx and his followers have taught us anything, it is that people want hope by the bushel, just leave God out of it.  (Marx has, at his core, an eschatology much like Christianity: the view of a perfect future of peace and justice.  Unfortunately for Marx, the materialist, bereft of God, must accomplish this future of his own accord.)

I was, and continue to be disturbed, however, that so many Christians bought into the President’s rhetoric of ‘hope’.  We witnessed a political usurpation – a hijacking – of a theological virtue, and many of us simply cheered without a second thought.  But as Ratzinger rightly points out, ‘hope’ without reference to Jesus Christ is a void; it is no hope at all; it can only tend towards the meaningless entropy of utopian fantasy.

Liberal Christians excoriated the Christian Right for taking religious cues for their visions of “family values” and morality, and in general, for blurring the lines between politics and faith.  But liberal Christians have seemed unable to stop themselves from making the exact same play now that it is their turn to call the shots.  Alas, more sweet irony.

Enough ranting.  Read some Ratzinger…you’ll be glad you did.

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The Pope on ‘Biblicism’

ratzinger eschatology

Reading through more of (then Cardinal) Joseph Ratzinger’s brilliant Eschatology, I came across a dandy of a quote:

One must be very cautious when using biblical data in systematic theology.  The questions which we ask are our questions.  Our answers must be capable of holding up in biblical terms…[but] this complicating factor in the theological appropriation of Scripture is in any case something demanded by the structure of the Bible’s own affirmations…the Bible itself forbids biblicism.

I just love that closing line.  The occasion for this quote is a discussion of the New Testament’s teachings on the resurrection, with its various and sometimes cryptic statements that often do not gel.  On this particular topic, though, of the Bible itself forbidding biblicism, I think especially of the “synoptic problem.”  This, of course, is the recognition that Matthew, Mark, and Luke share a great deal of material and structure in common (with Mark being a major source for the other two).  But the three get small details different, or tell things in different orders.

Thus Scripture demands exegesis.  Harmonizing these differences (making all the pieces ‘fit’ at the expense of the particular narratives of each gospel) has been ruled a heresy for a reason.  Only God is perfect – the Bible is indeed Holy, the absolute source of faith and practice for the Church universal – but it is not perfect, at least, if ‘perfect’ means completely in agreement with itself at all times.  But then, God’s ways are not our ways.  Our idea of perfect and God’s idea of revelation may not be identical.  And we can thank God for that…

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What hath the Pope to do with the President?

I came across this naughty little quote while reading the most recent edition of Ratzinger/Benedict XVI’s Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life:

People still have hopes for the historical process, but these impulses, now strangers to faith, have been transformed into a secular faith in progress.

This reminds me of the quasi-religious character with which President Obama’s campaign and current reign have been met.  Certainly the fervor and the frenzy surrounding Obama, especially by a 20-something generation normally marked by apathy, was something unique.  I think Ratzinger has hit the nail on the head here: in our modern Western search for meaning outside the Christian faith, we are looking for other outlets for our energy and our eschatological hope.

The liberal sentiment that Obama aroused is, of course, but a bastard child of Marxist faith in human progress (which is, as he points out, an attempt at eschatology without God).  It makes me question, though, whether we are so “postmodern” as our intellectuals seem to think.  The kind of secularized (read: vacuous) faith that Obama has roused can only lead one to believe that the project of modernity is alive and well.  As Mark Twain said upon reading his own obituary, “Reports of my death are greatly exagerrated.”

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