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John Wesley on “Continual Enjoyment” in the New Creation

Is the New Creation something we should welcome, or something we should grieve? For much of my life, my study of the last things or “end times” brought little more than terror. Taught that the rapture was surely coming soon and fed by the overwarmed and more-fictional-than-they-let-on narratives of the Left Behind series, I was led to believe that the second coming of Christ was something fearful.

I was so wrong.

In his sermon “The New Creation,” John Wesley concludes with what is not only my favorite quote in the Wesley corpus, but perhaps the best description I know (outside of the Bible) of God’s Kingdom in its fullness:

As there will be no more death, and no more pain or sickness preparatory thereto; as there will be no more grieving for, or parting with, friends; so there will be no more sorrow or crying. Nay, but there will be a greater deliverance than all this; for there will be no more sin. And, to crown all, there will be a deep, an intimate, an uninterrupted union with God; a constant communion with the Father and his Son Jesus Christ, through the Spirit; a continual enjoyment of the Three-One God, and of all the creatures in him!

I was first exposed to this particular bit of Wesley thanks to my professor from Divinity School, Geoffrey Wainwright, in a lecture on the Kingdom of God and eternal life in Wesley. Some notable features:

  • Priorities. The end of death, sickness, and grief is a secondary joy to the end of sin, which he calls the “greater deliverance.” What would it mean if we lived as if we were more afraid of sin than illness, suffering, or death?
  • Communion. The theme of “constant communion” is used by various ways by Wesley. In a sermon by that name, he writes of the importance of the Eucharist as part of Christian piety.  Might it be that a constant communion via the sacrament is nearly the best we can do, this side of the parousia, to the constant communion of God’s unfettered presence in the Kingdom?
  • Father, Son, & Spirit. Wesley is unapologetically, explicitly Trinitarian.  The union that is the “crown” of all the New Creation is not with an ephemeral deity, some “force” or Ground of Being, but the particular God revealed in Scripture and confessed in the creeds and Councils of the Church.  Wesley is doubly clear that this communion is “with the Father and his Son Jesus Christ, through the Spirit,” whom he also describes via shorthand as the “Three-One God.”  In an age, at least in North America, of increasing Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, it’s important to remember that the vision of the Kingdom that has animated Wesley and the church across time and space is solely dependent upon the Holy Trinity.
  • A joyful union.  Like other Arminians (and his grandchildren in the faith), Wesley is less focused on God’s glory (as Calvinists love to ponder) and far more interested in the joy of unbroken, perfect relationship to the Godhead.  It is not only a knowledge or worship of God, but a “continual enjoyment” of the Trinity, with all creatures in him. Many visions of heaven or of the Kingdom (see N.T. Wright for this critical distinction) are so dreary that one would hardly want to go: the Father has not wrought our salvation through Christ and in the Holy Spirit so we could play golf in perpetuity.  The end is rather, as the Westminster Catechism taught (and Wesley quoted frequently), to “enjoy Him forever.”  That’s why for Wesley, the bottom line of the New Creation is nothing less than the “continual enjoyment” of God without end.

Of course, for Christians, the enjoyment of the Kingdom is not simply a promise that we reach through the door of death, but a way of life here and now.  In his classic The Divine Conspiracy, Dallas Willard defines the Kingdom as “the realm of God’s effective rule.” When Christ rules in our hearts, and with an increasing intensity as God’s ways hold sway over us through sanctification, we experience the joy of God’s reign.  This is why Wesley regularly insisted, contra the images of dour nuns and dull saints the media gives us, that holiness and happiness are joined at the hip.

That’s the unique enjoyment that only God’s rule in our lives and in our world can bring. That is the promise for which we hope. That is the longing – the one true desire – of which all others are only a pale imitation.

Why wait to experience that joy until the next life? We can enjoy God now, and, as Charles Wesley so beautifully put it, “anticipate that heaven below.”

When you think of God’s Kingdom, do you think of joy? Why do so many images of the last things focus on fear rather than the enjoyment of God? Leave a comment below!

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God’s Kingdom & Our Hands

by Drew 3 Comments

What role, if any, do our hands play in God’s Kingdom? In his collected essays and lectures titled Signs Amid the Rubble (edited by my former professor, Geoffrey Wainwright), bishop and missiologist Lesslie Newbigin describes the Kingdom of God as the realm of God’s rule in human society and all creation – a rule that will not be fully realized until the last things, the eschaton.  He elaborates on why God’s Reign cannot yet be fully realized:

The perfect society cannot lie this side of death. And moreover it cannot be the direct result of our efforts. We all rightly shrink from the phrase “building the Kingdom of God” not because the Kingdom does not call for our labor, but because we know that the best work of our hands and brains is too much marred by egotism and pride and impure ambition to be itself fit for the Kingdom. All our social institutions, even the very best that have been produced under Christian influence, have still the taint of sin about them. By their own horizontal development they cannot, as it were, become the Kingdom of God. There is no straight line of development from here to the Kingdom.

But if we, with all our our wisdom and sweat and blood, cannot help but fail in any effort to bring God’s Kingdom “on earth as it is in heaven,” does our effort still matter? Do we need to work towards the Kingdom in some capacity, or can we simply sit with legs folded and enjoy a latte while all creation languishes?

Newbigin describes how good ministry is reliant upon the resurrection for its meaning and purpose, and how in Christ even death does not completely swallow up our effort.  John Ortberg may be right that it all goes “back in the box” when the game is over, but as Easter people we also know that death does not get the last word. The work of our hands, directed towards God’s purposes, is not work done in vain:

Our faith as Christians is that just as God raised up Jesus from the dead, so will He raise up us from the dead. And that just as all that Jesus had done in the days of his flesh seemed on Easter Saturday to be buried in final failure and oblivion, yet was by God’s power raised to new life and power again, so all the faithful labor of God’s servants which time seems to bury in the dust o failure, will be raised up, will be found to be there, transfigured, in the new Kingdom.  Every faithful act of service, every honest labor to make the world a better place, which seemed to have been forever lost and forgotten in the rubble of history, will be seen on that day to have contributed to the perfect fellowship of God’s Kingdom. (46-47)

No act of faithfulness to God’s Kingdom is ultimately lost, just as no person who has turned to God will be lost, for God will raise us up and make us participants in the fullness of His Kingdom – a Kingdom which we have not built, but a Kingdom to which our work has pointed, longed for, and honored.

Rightly understood, Newbigin’s point undermines the regnant eschatologies (ideas re: the last things) of many conservative and liberal Christians.  This view of the Kingdom as God’s realm coming to earth mitigates against any view that our eternal life is some individualistic experience of pure spiritual being, which is really a sort of gnostic existence; the Reign of God is communal, embodied, glorious, and yet physical.  The Kingdom is not, as many conservative Christians name it, “going to heaven when we die.”

Newbigin’s insights also remind us that the Kingdom is not ours to build, contra the social gospel of the early 20th century and many liberal Protestants since then.  The most perfect society humans can build cannot and will never be God’s Kingdom.  Having the right people in power or the right system in place does not equal God’s perfect society.  And yet, with our hands we can move the needle here and there towards a better reflection of God’s purposes.  We participate in that perfect Reign that is inbreaking when we insist that the way things are is not the way things shall be or should be.

I’ll close with a prayer purportedly from Archbishop Oscar Romero, the Catholic martyr gunned down at the mass for his Kingdom stance on the widespread corruption at that time in El Salvador.  I believe this prayer strikes the balance that Newbigin names in the essay quoted above.  I hope, also, that you might find it meaningful for your life and ministry:

It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.

The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent
enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of
saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.

No statement says all that could be said.

No prayer fully expresses our faith.

No confession brings perfection.

No pastoral visit brings wholeness.

No program accomplishes the Church’s mission.

No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about.

We plant the seeds that one day will grow.

We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.

We lay foundations that will need further development.

We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.

This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.

It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an
opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master
builder and the worker.

We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.

We are prophets of a future not our own.

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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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