Shuck and Jive

Opinions expressed here are my own and do not represent the views of the congregation I joyfully serve. But my congregation loves me!

Monday, July 09, 2007

Rapture Wrap-Up Part 2

I thought the hoopla over my rapture posts would end after July 7th. Since my sitemeter is still going nuts, I thought it would be in good order to write about what I am thinking in a more analytical way.

One of the major crises in contemporary Christianity, as I see it, is the apparent inability to separate history and science on one hand, from theology on the other. Modern history and science are products of the Enlightenment. The only way these disciplines can function is that they operate from the assumption that there is consistency in the way things happen.

A ball does not roll down an incline plane because God wills it. The speed of light is constant everywhere in the universe regardless of the motion of the observer. Planets do not stop their rotation at the whim of supernatural goddesses and gods.

Similarly with history, human beings do not transform themselves into werewolves, rise from the dead, or fly off to space unassisted by rocket propulsion. Battles are not won or lost because of supernatural intervention.

When a person entertains these thoughts of supernatural invention, s/he ceases to be a scientist or an historian. One may think these conclusions are narrowly focused, and they are. History and science can tell us nothing about God. They can only speak about the circumstances in which certain views about God might have arisen.

Theology speaks about meaning. It is a rather esoteric discipline that seeks to understand why we exist (as opposed to how), what is good about us, what is wrong, and what is our hope. Its tools are symbols, stories, art, liturgy or worship, sensitivity, spiritual disciplines, and imagination.

The problem, as I see it (as well as countless people before me), is that we have mixed these disciplines and produced a mutt that while may be lovable for some, does no service to science, history, theology, or the human race.

So-called "creation science" is one such mongrel that makes science a slave to the mythologies of Genesis. Rapture or end times theology is another mongrel that attempts to interpret apocalyptic texts such as the symbolic Book of Revelation as a timetable for future historical events.

I am not bashful in pointing out what I believe are "bad theologies." For instance, the radical Muslim theology of suicide bombers is bad theology. It is not enough simply to say that and then dismiss it. We need the tools of history and other social sciences to help us understand the social and political situation out of which this bad theology arises and then seek to address those conditions.

I see the contemporary American rapture/end times theology also as bad theology. Again, we need the social sciences to help us understand why this theology is arising in our time. The reason that LaHaye and Jenkins of Left Behind fame have sold so many books is not because they are brilliant writers or have insight into the mind of God. They have capitalized (and quite well, I might add) on the existential angst of modern Americans. We are scared to death about what is happening in the world. We are not people of great faith in God. In fact, quite the opposite. We are a fearful and pessimistic bunch. LaHaye and Jenkins have succeeded because Americans are scared, and by and large illiterate regarding the disciplines of science, history, and theology. We will believe anything that will give some hope of getting us out of an uncertain future.

I don't intend to insult by saying that, I am just stating an observation. For illustration, watch any one of Jay Leno's person on the street interviews. I am not speaking about our lack of knowledge of facts or trivia, but our lack of understanding regarding historical and scientific method. We have not on the whole developed the skills to distinguish between mythology and history. Further, we have not internalized the spiritual wisdom we need to hope and work for a positive future.

This is where theology (good theology) should assist us. When I say "good theology" I am not speaking about one brand of theology over another. I am talking about a theology that can move us toward compassion, hope, joy, creativity, love, and justice. This is a theology that does not passively wait for a supernatural savior to come and rapture us from our problems or violently conquer our enemies. Good theology does not remove us from the responsibility of using the skills and gifts God has given us to make the world a better place for ourselves and for future generations.

I am a Christian. While it may shock some readers of this blog, I love singing hymns such as "Jesus Christ is Risen Today" and reciting the Lord's Prayer and the Apostle's Creed in worship. Only one phrase of the Apostle's Creed can be evaluated historically, "He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified and buried." The rest is theology. It is a far more beautiful and hopeful statement of faith than history could ever grant it.

It is a theological/poetical work of worship that affirms, among other things, that the one on the right hand of God is the Jesus we see eating with outcasts, turning the other cheek, and loving his enemies. That, the creed says to me, is what it means to be truly human. It speaks of great hope. Christ will come to judge the quick and the dead. That doesn't mean he is coming at some time in history to dole out eternal lollipops or spankings, but that the justice and compassion of God will come to fruition in our lives if we would only open ourselves to it. The "second coming" of Christ has already begun. It is the hope and the presence of God in our midst, raising our awareness, enabling us to live with all the things for which Jesus lived.

I don't write this to be a Christian apologist. It is simply my faith. I do apologize if my rapture posts offended you. I did not write them to offend (although I am not naive enough to think they wouldn't). I wrote them to expose a bad theology that is incredible both historically and scientifically. More insidious than that, it is a theology of a violent and vengeful God that is ultimately ourselves writ large. Maybe we can find the angels of our better nature.

32 comments:

  1. John,

    Why is your theology always expressed in terms of anthropology? You say that it "seeks to understand why we exist (as opposed to how), what is good about us, what is wrong, and what is our hope." Is there any room for a personal actor named God in your THEOlogy?

    You say that "[b]attles are not won or lost because of supernatural intervention." Does that include the fight for civil rights, justice, equity, etc? Is there any room for a change of heart that doesn't originate within our own concerns - that isn't a result of human machinations or enlightenment?

    What I find so frustrating about your theology is that it abounds with seemingly endless hope for human ability to pull ourselves out of the "verity" of the evolutionary cycles of consumption, competition, and dominance. That somehow we'll overcome the evolutionary impulses which you so strongly affirm - when there seems to be absolutely no evidence for it. Where's the hope? For every Martin Luther King, Jr. there are a hundred assassins waiting. For every Mahatma Gandhi, there is a Nathuram Godse with a will to power. For every Maximilian Kolbe, Paul Schneider, or Dietrich Bonhoeffer, there are entire nations willing to be complicit in the banality of evil.

    The criticisms of escapist alarmism on the part of pre-tribulational premillenialists are never turned on your own brand of environmental alarmism. Instead of God coming to rescue us, we just need to put our trust in governmental oversight, regulation, and scaling back the plebes' cut so that the elites can keep jetting around the world telling us what we need to give up.

    Honestly, I just don't get it. Give me some hope!

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  2. John, that was really a wonderful posting. Thanks for writing that.

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  3. Chris -

    Why would you look to John for hope? You have a God, and you say you know how to use It. Please do so.

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  4. I've lurked on your block for some time now and always find myself asking the same question: what do you believe, where do you place your faith? It seems to me your faith is in humanity - that we can pull ourselves up to live the ideal Eden-life if only we'd believe in ourselves. There is no Christ, no Savior sitting at the right hand of the Father, interceding for us. There is no Holy Spirit guiding us and teaching us to lean on His understanding. If this is correct I must wonder -- why are you a pastor in a Christian church? If you started your work as a pastor with the understanding that the orthodox church holds, when and why did you leave that understanding?
    What do you know that makes you thumb your nose at the orthodox church and say, "You are/were wrong and I know the better way/true meaning of what Jesus was teaching." I don't mean to sound snarky, but why do you think you are so much more enlightened than the rest of us?
    I agree that there is much bad theology out there. I turn away, and ask others too, from the Left Behind understanding of Revelation. But man, you've tossed any idea of spiritual life out the window. I just had to ask, because I've been wondering.

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  5. **Instead of God coming to rescue us, we just need to put our trust in governmental oversight, regulation, and scaling back the plebes' cut so that the elites can keep jetting around the world telling us what we need to give up.**

    Therein lies the complication, though. There's that parable of the man who was in a flood and climbed to his roof, confident that God would save him. Three people passed by, on three seperate occasions, and yet the man turned them down, confident in God. The man died, and when he was face-to-face with God, he asked God why he wasn't saved. God pointed out that He had sent three people along.

    So at what point do we stop waiting for God, and just dive in? At what point do we realize that we already have the tools? Even in terms of the rapture and redemption: it's been 2,000 years, and quite a few false predictions. As it is, even Paul's genuine letters come across as him expecting it within his lifetime.

    In many ways, Jesus taught us what it meant to be truly human. And to be human means that you use the good gifts you have, the grace in your life, and go preserve the world and make it a better place.

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  6. John,
    Come on... a bit of intellectual integrity here. Who honestly cares how much you like singing, "Jesus Christ is risen Today" or saying the Lord's prayer-- if Jesus' corpse has rotted, or there's only the divine in us to which we must attend. Why are you singing and praying? Why keep up the charade? You can't really change the meaning of words to suit your naturalistic reductionism and historical positivism, and expect those who are your equals to take you seriously, can you?

    Your rapture posts were not vs LeHaye, et al, or even pre-mil dispensationalism per se, they were against anyone who held that Jesus bodily rose from the dead that first Easter morning. Essentially anyone who is a Christian, yet doesn't hold to your naturalism. And please, you did intend to insult people, or else you're completely obtuse- which is hard to believe, given your obvious cleverness.

    Is the enlightenment really the end all be all? Aren't you the least bit uneasy at the whole idea a progressive metanarrative, given that its 2007 and not 1907? Wasn't it Nietsche who gave us Hitler, Marx- Stalin, and the Salons of enlightenment Paris-Pol Pot?

    There seems to something fundamentally bent within the human animal, that won't be fixed by understanding ourselves better.... it remains bent. If you've assigned Holy Scripture to just so much quaint, perhaps pernicious, mythological irrelevancy, then read your Dostoyevski and Conrad and Wiesel. Deal with reality, not the straw men you set up in your posts and do away with so easily.

    If you don't believe in the Christian God-- as understood by the church catholic, why are you masquerading as a minister of a pernicious gospel?

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  7. **There seems to something fundamentally bent within the human animal, that won't be fixed by understanding ourselves better.... it remains bent. **

    Except we see what we wish to see: for those who are convinced that human nature is fundamentally broken and generally wants to do bad, then experiences will be matched to fit the perception. Same as if someone is convinced human nature can eventually become better. It's like dealing with a person who is absolutely convinced s/he will never be married -- odds are that will happen, because the person has already decided the outcome on some fundamental level.

    Besides, if you understand yourself better, your motivations for why you do what you do, then you're addressing the root of the problem. At which point, the problem can start to be fixed.

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  8. John,
    I have lurked about your blog for several days without writing. It has been too ugly to respond to. You have drawn many others to your post, but you have offered them only ashes not redemption, not transformation, not forgiveness through Jesus Christ.

    When I read this last post and your nod to the enlightenment I think of C.S. Lewis and his three science fiction books, in particular the last one, That Hideous Strength. Lewis was always writing with the truthfulness of Christianity in mind, the “mere” of Christianity, the essentials of the faith. He was also always writing in opposition to his nemesis the logical positivist who denied that one could hold any truth claim beyond the empirical.

    In That Hideous Strength he ties the positivism to several of his characters. In Lewis’ apocalyptic ending John Wither comes to the end of his life in what I think is one of the most horrifying scenes in literature. It is the picture of a person that rejects truth until he/she has nothing more to grasp. Lewis writes:
    “… he [Wither] had long ceased to believe in knowledge itself. What had been in his far-off youth a merely aesthetic repugnance to realities that were crude or vulgar [like the atonement or the bodily resurrection of Christ], had deepened and darkened, year after year, into a fixed refusal of everything that was in any degree other than himself. He had passed through Hegel into Hume, thence through Pragmatism, and thence through Logical Positivism, and out at last into the complete void. The indicative mood now corresponded to no thought that his mind could entertain. He had willed with his whole heart that there should be no reality and no truth, and now the imminence of his own ruin could not wake him. … the indulgence of some fatal lethargy, seems to him at that moment more important than the choice between total joy and total destruction. With eyes wide open, seeing that the endless terror is about to begin and yet (for the moment) unable to feel terrified, he watches passively, not moving a finger for his own rescue, while the last links with joy and reason are severed, and drowsily sees the trap close upon his soul.”

    I keep thinking of your constant rejection of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, of any Christian truth, and of those you are so gleefully taking with you on your journey. Have a care, John, Jesus Christ died for you.

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  9. Thanks all:

    History and theology. Two different disciplines. Repeat. History and theology. Two different disciplines.

    Viola wrote:

    "I keep thinking of your constant rejection of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, of any Christian truth..."

    You have no idea what I have rejected or not. I affirm that theologically as I explained in my post.

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  10. "You have no idea what I have rejected or not. I affirm [the resurrection] theologically as I explained in my post."

    Is that like how some folks say the EPC affirms womens ordination?

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  11. John,

    I thought the rapture posts were a bit one dimensional. I was struggling trying to understand in what universe they were either instructive or humorous. I couldn't see it.

    Now that you posted your intent, well, I still think they were one dimensional.

    See, what I think is that there are layers to reality that are true and self consistent, but that sometimes don't mix with other layers. People use words and metaphors to communicate within layers, but to use the language of one layer to support or refute another is by and large a fruitless exercise. So to speak of Jesus flying around the universe trying to decide what planet to land on next just doesn't make any sense. It violated the boundary conditions. Maybe that is what you were trying to illustrate?

    If so it functioned much like trying to show someone how not to play a piano. There are many ways not to play the piano. None of them serve to teach a good way to play.

    I think that if a certain music style is not to your liking, the most effective way to get people introduced to a different style is to play the best examples of the new style you can find, or play crossover examples that bridge the gap. Banging on the keys with your elbows, ... well, unless you want people to hate the piano altogether it's just not effective. My 2 cents.

    Jodie

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  12. Hi Jodie,

    Some folks liked the posts, others didn't. I'll count you as a "no" vote. Maybe you would like this one better!

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  13. John,

    I guess I'm just not in to the whole rapture thing, one way or the other...

    On the list of possible ways for my life as I know it to end its down there somewhere between getting hit on the head by a meteor and the sun going nova.

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  14. John,
    You don't seem to be able to make a distinction between what dispensationalist call the "rapture" and the second coming of Christ. Do you believe that the bodily resurrected Christ will come again? In fact, because of something I have been writing I was wondering do you believe in our union with the resurrected Jesus Christ?

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  15. Viola,

    You tell me what it means for the "bodily resurrected Christ to come again" in light of our understanding of cosmology and evolutionary theory, and I will tell you if I believe it.

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  16. Okay John,

    Jesus Christ will come back as a resurrected, bodily, person who is also God, Son of the Father.
    And I do understand how you might be having trouble with cosmology, although, I don't, but what does evolution have to do with the second coming of Christ. And please, anyone reading this, I am not writing about the rapture!
    I guess what I want to know from you John is do you believe you will see Jesus Christ face to face in reality?

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  17. "Jesus Christ will come back as a resurrected, bodily, person who is also God, Son of the Father."

    So, from whence will he "come back" and where will he "land?"

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  18. You know John in all fairness you have not once answered my question, and I have continued to answer yours. Are you afraid to answer my questions?

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  19. Viola,

    You answered nothing. You simply repeated the same creedal statement. Tell me what it means in a modern cosmological setting, and I can tell you if I believe it.

    Read my post again. I talk about possibilities of the meaning of "second coming."

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  20. **Tell me what it means in a modern cosmological setting, and I can tell you if I believe it. **

    Here's a random question: say that Jesus does return in a body for the second coming ... where does he get the body? If Jesus is awaiting in heaven (wherever that might be), Paul does state that flesh and blood cannot inhereit the kingdom of heaven. So if Jesus is to return 'bodily' in the same we have a body, wouldn't a body have to be created for that purpose? After all, the whole point of Jesus was to be the visible image of the invisible God, because no one has seen God at any time. And can it actually be a body such as we have, given that the corruptible must put on the incorruptible?

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  21. Maybe Jesus will come back from wherever in space he is floating, since, as we know, even if he left the earth at the speed of light 2000 years ago, he would not have even left our own galaxy.

    Perhaps the reason Viola can't answer John's question in the context of a modern cosmological setting is that her statement about Jesus's return simply makes no sense in that context. The ascension of Jesus into heaven as portrayed in the Bible clearly reflected an ancient, three-tiered cosmology. It makes about as much sense to say that Jesus will come "back" from heaven as it did to say that he bodily ascended to heaven 2000 years ago. Both statements are nonsensical given modern cosmology.

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  22. John said, “Tell me what it means in a modern cosmological setting, and I can tell you if I believe it.”

    Mystical Seeker said: “The ascension of Jesus into heaven as portrayed in the Bible clearly reflected an ancient, three-tiered cosmology. It makes about as much sense to say that Jesus will come "back" from heaven as it did to say that he bodily ascended to heaven 2000 years ago. Both statements are nonsensical given modern cosmology.”

    This is just a lot of rot as far as the question I asked which boils down to this: Was the tomb empty on Easter morning and will John see Jesus face to face as one sees another? We are after all talking about the Creator of the Universe who not only entered his creation but is outside of his creation. One does not have to answer cosmological questions to get to the bottom of those questions. My question isn’t how did he do anything but did he do it. Perhaps as C.S. Lewis suggested we are flatlanders and can make no sense of a three dimensional being entering or departing our world, but that doesn’t change the question about whether they have or not. It just means we can’t explain it.

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  23. Viola, John isn't asking you to answer cosmological questions. He is simply asking you to explain your conception of a return of Jesus in light of modern cosmology that all of us have a basic understanding of. We know that the Biblical depictions of Jesus's ascension and future return were both formulated in terms of a cosmology that was based on a three-tiered universe that is clearly invalid according to the basic understanding of the universe that even small children have today. Your ideas of Jesus's coming and going are founded on a cosmological house of cards that collapsed a few centuries ago. You are simply ignoring John's question of how you propose to translate mythological images, formulated on the basis of a three-tiered cosmology, into something that makes sense given the modern cosmology. And there is a good reason for your not answering the question--it is because what you are saying simply becomes reduced to nonsense in light of modern cosmology.

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  24. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  25. Mankind pretty much bungled Jesus' first appearance here on earth. I have no reason to believe they would perform any better the next time. Unless, of course, he returns as a talentless but cute Indian contestant on American Idol - then he might stand a chance. But eventually, and ironically, I bet he'll get voted off the show and lose to some goof who sings whitebread Christian Gospel songs.

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  26. Seeker,

    That last comment was a keeper. You said what I have been trying to say!!

    Snad,

    lol

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  27. Since this thread is still puttering along down here I have one more thought to add to the pile.

    The whole concept of incarnation seems to be predicated on God going out of his way to express himself in the language of humanity. We have to agree and come to terms with the fact that for this purpose he chose to manifest himself as a Semitic man, speaking and teaching in a human language, most likely in Aramaic.

    But “Aramaic” wasn’t the only form of language people were using in Palestine in 25 AD. They also used a rich religious and cultural vocabulary and Jesus spoke that language too. The incarnation was a local event. Just as he spoke in Aramaic and not English he also “spoke” in their Cosmology, not ours.

    “Ascending into Heaven” had a very specific meaning in that language. Just as being nearly flogged to death and then hung up by nails through his hands and feet and taking a spear through chest and then walking out of a tomb and eating bread no harm no foul.

    These events function as "words" that have special meaning in the language of that place and time.

    I see no rational reason to accept some of the "words" in the lexicon but not others. If you accept the premise that Jesus lives and is God then there is no reason to deny an ascension. It fulfills a lexical function in the incarnation story just as reciting Psalm 22 at the time of his death, in a kind of life-imitating-art sort of way. (Of course if you don’t accept the premise then the question is mute).

    It is also true that if you go through the story deleting words you don’t like you are simply going to mangle the story beyond repair.

    If we can translate Aramaic and Greek for those who are less linguistically adept then maybe we could translate the Cosmology as well. Instead of “ascending” we might say, “got promoted” or “expanded his sphere of influence”. OTH, maybe if the lexicon still has meaning “ascended” is still OK. It was used in the TV show Stargate SG1 with no difficulty at all. Truth is we still lack the words to describe the physics of what really >happened<. All we have is its meaning in a biblical context.

    The key to remember is that God is standing on his head to show us something from >out< of this world in the language >of< this world. The alphabet in some cases might seem obsolete, but the meaning is not. And just because the alphabet seems obsolete today does not mean that Jesus did not use it.

    The incarnation story is all about the fact that He did. Wonder of wonders.

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  28. Hi Jodie,
    way down here at the bottom of the comments. Maybe you won’t see my comments either. But I wanted you to know that I liked your ideas. I have always thought of Jesus disappearing into a different dimension (heaven) like people on Star trek, etc and then coming back into this dimension, with all seeing him, when he returns. Of course that is just an analogy but I just don’t have trouble with the return of Jesus Christ nor of his bodily resurrection which doesn’t mean his body wasn’t changed and different then before death, it just means that it was his body and the grave was empty. Jesus is God and he is a resurrected human who is going to come back for his church.

    In case John is listening in still on this conversation I just yesterday read the sermon Bill was taking about on his blog and was amazed. John you and I weren’t on the same wave link at all.

    After dismissing the literal meaning of the resurrection and wishing to go further than John Dominic Crossan you/John writes:

    “The resurrection of Jesus, while written about in metaphorical language by those who experienced his presence with them, is indeed about something very real. They saw in him and were drawn to him because he exhibited an awareness that they could only speak about by using the symbols and stories available to them. Jesus was far more conscious than we are. His followers sensed it. Jesus like the Buddha and other enlightened mystics had a heightened level of consciousness. They saw more reality than I see. They are, I think, the first fruits of a higher evolutionary stage for humanity. …

    To see the resurrected Jesus or the cosmic Christ is to glimpse in a person the summit of consciousness to which we are ascending.”

    What can I say to all of this kind of metaphysical and New Age thinking in a Christian minister who insists he can’t believe in scriptures because it is to outdated? Well in this scenario works are elevated and grace is destroyed. We are all according to this some kind of potential Christs working toward a higher consciousness. That is not new it is very old and belongs to the Garden of Eden.

    Praise God that Jesus Christ has done it all for me on the cross. I and all who trust in him can rest in his salvation.

    Jodie you might enjoy my granddaughters blog on Jesus Christ. Just go to http://stellatus.blogspot.com/, and scroll down, she just started it, but she is an amazing writer.

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  29. What can I say to all of this kind of metaphysical and New Age thinking in a Christian minister who insists he can’t believe in scriptures because it is to outdated?

    I see no answer in this to John's question as to how the literal stories of the resurrection can be reconciled with modern cosmology. Perhaps one can assume from this non-response that you think that the three-tiered cosmology on which these mythological stories is based is not outdated. So you believe in this three-tiered model yourself, do you?

    If you do think that this model is outdated (as anyone with, oh, I don't know, a third grade education would), then simply accusing John and others of being "New Age" is a way of avoiding the question. Either you believe in the three tiered cosmological model that these ancient writers worked from, or you don't. If you yourself believe that this old model is outdated, then your complaint against John for not accepting outdated notions is disingenuous, or at the very least a case of self-denial.

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  30. Like others, I've been mostly reading but would like to get in on the action.

    To answer John's question, I do it honestly: I don't know.

    There are some inherent mysteries in Christianity in general and in Reformed theology in particular. Calvin himself took a mystical approach toward the elements of the Lord's Supper by staking the middle ground between Luther and the Anabaptists. We acknowledge that the time and place of the Second Coming is not revealed to us and that Jesus himself said he would come as a thief in the night.

    To sum up my theology in a nutshell, God in Jesus instructed us to love God and neighbor, and leave the ordering of the cosmos up to the Almighty.

    I live in Georgia and am immersed in the Left Behind merchandising swamp. I personally think that the appeal of rapture theology is that it provides easy, concrete answers to the Questions of Life, the Universe and Everything. It's one of the things I like about Reformed theology: we don't try to explain away the mysteries, we try to learn to understand and embrace them.

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  31. Well, though I did REALLY enjoy your posts on the Rapture, I am VERY disappointed to learn that you don't believe that the Bible is the only Authortative, Infallible Word of God. How sad for you. I will pray for you, John, for your congregation, and for your followers. I will not try to change your mindset, as I'm not learned enough to do so; but I DO believe the Bible to be infallible, and I DO believe it to be literal, not interpretive. I pray God's blessings upon you and yours.

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