Shuck and Jive

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

The Son of Man, Eschatology, Apocalypse and other stuff

Here is the latest from Bob Campbell in Conversations with Bob!

First, I know that this is John’s blog and he gets to set the rules but after reading some of the comments after John’s last response to me I want to say something: Ya’ll play nice, hear? After all, John and I are not just talking theology, agreeing and disagreeing. We are trying to go about the hard work of being the Church when we disagree. Too often we think those people over there (people not like me or who don’t think like me), are the problem. How John and I go about this is just as important, if not more important than what we say. To me, and John may use different words than I do, it comes down to humans being created in the image of God and Christians loving one another as Christ loves us. John and I were fortunate in that we knew each other and liked each other before this conversation. We know we disagree and could say all kinds of nasty things to each other. But we don’t. We respect each other. And because of that respect we can have this conversation.


Thank for saying you won’t call me a conservative. Frankly I find the idea that anyone can be placed on a continuum between liberal and conservative disturbing and far too confining. I do like the word Evangelical but I think it’s losing its meaning. And there aren’t too many people around today who actually know the meaning of the word Reformed, even in the Presbyterian Church! That’s why I like radically Biblical. Progressive? I’ll try to make a comment before I finish today.

As to the Wall Street Journal, if they do offer you a portfolio, may I have part of it, please? After all, I’m doing some of this writing too!

Let’s see, where shall we start? How about with apocalyptic?

I think we agree about the use of apocalyptic literature. It tends to be written during times of little hope. Daniel was probably written during the time of persecution by Antiochus Epiphanes. Notice, by the way, the second part of his name, meaning, “Revealed.” Antiochus was trying the whole, “I’m a god and having everyone worship me will solidify my empire” shtick. Didn’t work. It set off a rebellion in Judah. And John’s Apocalypse was written during a time of persecution of Christians in the Eastern part of the Roman Empire with the Romans, as you have pointed out, trying the whole emperor as god thing. It didn’t work for them all that well either.

So apocalypses are written when people think there is no hope in this world and people believe that God has to come in, clear the whole mess away and start again. What the faithful are to do is to simply withstand the persecution either continuing to live until God steps in or dying and receiving a promise of life beyond this life. To put it in Wink’s terms, negative apocalyptic sees that one can only try to live through it. Anti apocalyptic tries to make a stand and fight against the evil. To make things really complicated apocalypses are written in code so that the evil empire won’t understand the message.

On the origins and use of apocalyptic literature I think we agree, in part. I’ll get to the part I think we disagree about later.

The Son of Man. Well, you made a more extensive list of possible meanings than I did. I’m not sure I agree that the all added possible meanings are really possible. I don’t think that Son of Man refers to restored Israel. Having said that, scholars who study Isaiah tend to think the Suffering Servant originally referred to the whole of Israel. And I do think that Jesus used the term to refer to himself, (yours truly), most of the time. The real question is, as the Jesus Seminar has wrestled with and it seems that Walter Wink disagreed with it, at least from what you linked to, what exactly did Jesus mean by the title?

It will not surprise you that I disagree with the attempt by the Jesus Seminar to avoid any apocalyptic and, if I understand you correctly, even any eschatological meaning to the term. I wonder if we shouldn’t consider the possibility that Jesus used the term but that he meant different things at different times.

I find your use, borrowed from Walter Wink of eschatology, apocalyptic and anti-apocalyptic interesting. I’m not sure that they can be separated so easily. After all, a literal translation of eschatology is “study of the end.”

So what does an apocalyptic situation look like today? For the people caught in the concentration camp system of Nazi Germany I’m sure it felt like apocalyptic times. When evil is rampant and you can’t do anything about it but try and survive then the only hope there seems to be is that God will step in and clean up the mess. And eschatological times are more hopeful, that there is indeed an end game but maybe we can work towards it. I’m not quite as sure about anti-apocalyptic. I would agree with you that the human race seems to be in a headlong, well, race, towards destruction. And I agree that humans, Christian or not, have the responsibility to apply the brakes as much as we possibly can, to use a NASCAR image. Ya can’t win the race if you car slams into the sidewall and bursts into flame!

I think the core difference between you and me on this particular issue is that you seem to have more hope in the ability of the human race to do the right thing and fix everything up, make the world and the human race perfect with God’s help. I think the human race is more like a 3 year old holding a loaded revolver, looking down the barrel and trying to figure out how this particular toy works. Having said that, I think it is the responsibility of every Christian and every other person on the face of the earth to try and get the revolver away from the 3 year old. One problem is that too few people have their fingers on the trigger and most of them are too power hungry to really understand what they are playing with. The other problem is that those trying to take the gun away from the 3 year old, to expand the analogy, are part of the three year old. We gotta be very careful!

So, do I think that God will eventually have to come down here and clean up the mess? I do. But, and I think this is the true blessing of the Reformed tradition, I also believe that God wants everyone to work as hard as they possibly can to fix things now. And yes, I do think that being a follower of Jesus has something to do with that. So while we agree that humans are called by God to work as hard as we possibly can to bring about the Kingdom of God, I don’t think we will succeed. It is what some scholars call the already and the not yet. The Kingdom is here because the King came. We are to live as if the Kingdom was already entirely present. The Kingdom will not be here in all completeness until the King returns.

Now, some new terms, some of which you haven’t mentioned: premillenial, postmillennial and amillennial. Great, MS Word’s spellchecker doesn’t recognize my position, amillennial! You have talked about and mocked one kind of the premillenial position, the whole rapture idea. Personally, I think the whole rapture idea comes from a mistranslation of a word in 1 Thessalonians 4. In any case, the premillenial folks believe Jesus will return and then there will be a millennium with him ruling before the forces of evil rise up for the final battle. I think that’s a bit too much of a literal interpretation of one chapter of Revelation. The postmillennial folks are like you, John. They think that we are in the millennium and that it is our task to make the world perfect for Christ. Then they disagree with you because they believe that Jesus will return when things are perfect. Most reformation thinkers and Reformed types in the past were postmillennial. Jonathan Edwards was one of them. The folks who participated in the first two great Revivals were postmillennialists. That’s part of the reason they worked so hard to not only to convert people but also to change society. They did a lot of good when they forgot that they were white and from Northern Europe and therefore thought they had the responsibility to bring the world up to their standards, curiously, by colonizing the rest of the world. After all, ending slavery, starting schools everywhere they went, encouraging healthy eating and living a simple lifestyle, (all from the second great revival) were all great ideas. The white man’s burden was not a great idea.

Amillennialists like me think that humans should try as hard as they can to make this world look like the Kingdom of God in this age but that we can’t do it perfectly, that Jesus can return at any time, that no one knows when that will happen or will be able to figure it out, and that when Jesus returns, that’s it for evil in this world. No second chance for evil after a thousand years.

Which I think brings me around to the word progressive. Progressives, as I understand them, believe in progress. As your link to the Center for Progressive Christianity points out, few used the word in the Church in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. There were a lot of politicians who did. Teddy Roosevelt was a progressive and proud of it. So, curiously enough, was William Jennings Bryan. No matter what you may think about Bryan and his opposition to the idea of evolution, he was the Secretary of State under Woodrow Wilson who resigned because he would not support US participation in WW1. And part of the reason he opposed the idea of evolution was because he hated what the monopolists where doing to the American working people because the monopolists believed that the theory of evolution should be applied to economics and that the riches went to the fittest, namely, themselves, while the working man and woman in the factories and the fields, and the little children in the factories went hungry and got sick because of where they worked. Which reminds me, we are back to those bad times, aren’t we? We just do it to illegal immigrants and in the factories we sent overseas.

Anyway, I don’t believe in progress in the sense that things are getting better or in the sense that humans can make all things better. Humans may get a massive shock and a sudden deletion of a significant part of the population if the avian flu makes the jump from birds to humans easier. And ironically that might be the best thing for the earth, at least for most species. But it sure won’t bring progress for humans. It would probably dump humans back into feudal societies which were pretty brutal times.

I do think humans can make some things better and that we have to work to try and make them as good as possible. That means that we need to work together and try and make things better. Alas, I don’t see many humans doing that. We don’t, as a group, play together nicely. A lot of us want to be in charge and tell others what to do. A lot of us rush off to the latest new technology thinking that it is going to solve everything. Now can technology solve some things? It sure can. After all, scrubbers on smoke stacks have made the air cleaner. On the other hand taller smoke stacks on coal fired electricity plants in the Ohio Valley just sent the emissions problems farther away and caused acid rain in upstate New York. Science is a double edged sword and we need to be very, very careful how we apply what we learn. Too often there are unintended consequences.

For example, did you know that the automobile at the beginning of the 20th century was touted as the answer to pollution? It worked! Cities were full of horse droppings, which caused illness in the cities. A lot of people had the job of shoveling the manure every night. Others had the wonderful task of getting rid of dead horses. The automobile got rid of all that! It just polluted the air, something no one considered as a possibility at the time. After all, horses caused pollution. Cars were pollution free, right?

In other words progress isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be. Consider the internet. People can have nice conversations like we do. Others log on and flame people. Today you can insult a lot more people in a few short minutes than you could 30 years ago!

And just what is progress? The feminist movement pushed for women to be able to go out to work and hold the same jobs men did. It worked, somewhat. Women still don’t have the earning power that men have. In the meantime women who don’t go to work or stop working to raise their children lose standing in their companies and some women treat them like they are letting down the cause. The average salary of a worker in any position today is much less that he (after all, for the most part it was he then) earned in the early 1950’s. Companies now take into account the fact that a lot of homes have two workers and so pay each worker less. And worst, women who lived by the societal rules of the 50’s and 60’s ran into one of the unintended byproducts of the feminist revolution: no fault divorce. The quickest way for women and children to drop into poverty is through divorce. And on top of that in most homes women come home from work and do most of the labor at home. Men “help.”

In other words, sometimes what we think is progress really isn’t. Progress is, if anything, a form of trial and error. Sometimes what we think will be progress isn’t and what we think isn’t progress is. So I don’t hold out too much hope from progress. I prefer the Bible, rightly exegeted and then applied, as best we can, in our current cultural context.

One last comment on being progressive, and this is a discussion for a later post, I read the website of the Center for Progressive Christianity. One of their 8 points is this: “Recognize the faithfulness of other people who have other names for the way to God's realm, and acknowledge that their ways are true for them, as our ways are true for us. I have a strong suspicion that we are going to disagree about this.

This is getting long, but I can’t let your comment on life after life pass. You may not want to live on after you die. What if God wants you to? Resurrection for the rest of us and the Kingdom of God and hell were talked about by the writers of the New Testament long before there was any real hierarchy in the Church. It wasn’t an attempt to keep the sheep in line, unless you think that’s what Paul was trying to do. Personally I suspect that Paul would have been just as glad to not have to write letters to deal with problems in churches. What shall we do with Paul’s comment in 1 Thessalonians 4 that the dead in Christ will rise first and that we will be with the Lord forever? I suspect with the coming down and rising up and caught up together in this passage that you may have a concern about cosmology.

I suspect that you resonate with Schleiermacher who tried to put the gospel in terms that the cultural elite of his day could accept. I, frankly, am not too concerned with the cultural elite. I’m more concerned with the people who live down the block from me and the poor farmer over in Africa who just got run off his land because there is oil underneath it and the cultural elite in his country want the oil more than they want him. The gospel for the 21st century may use different words and a different cosmology but I believe it is the same gospel preached by those eschatological/apocalyptic Christians in the 1st century.




  1. **Resurrection for the rest of us and the Kingdom of God and hell were talked about by the writers of the New Testament long before there was any real hierarchy in the Church.**

    I actually find those concepts vague in the NT. The idea of a place of eternal punishment didn't seem to be the big focus in Acts, or Paul's letters: rather, the day of Judgement. When preaching in Acts, no one ever said to repent or they'd suffer in hell, but rather to not die in one's sins. Perhaps 'hell' can be inferred, but if it were that important, why leave it up to inference? Paul's letters also don't mention a place called hell -- perhaps it can be inferred, but again with something so important, why not state outright?

    I know it's been said that Jesus refers to 'hell' most often, but when looking at the two words used for hell, Sheol/Hades and Gehenna, hell doesn't seem to be a 'set' idea, especially since that valley that Gehenna modified had fires that didn't end and a particular worm lived there. There are references to weeping/gnashing of teeth, outer darkness and eternal fires/punishment, but even in the context those are using, it's more of an inference to 'hell.' And contradictory, if both outer darkness and eternal fires refer to the same place.

    Then we get the kingdom of Heaven/God/eternal life and so on. Much of the references there seem to refer to a future time of the new heaven/earth. It also seems to be something that develops on the inside as well, given that Jesus said the kingdom of heaven was "within you" and that it was like a mustard seed that grows -- and that implies development.

    To wrap up, I do agree that the writers speak of the resurrection and the kingdom of Heaven/God. However, the idea of hell, to me, is a lot more vague. Rather, I tend to read the NT as sin is naturally self-destructive, if endulged. We can see this on a day-to-day basis, and since it's self-desctructive, it tends to bring about it's own punishment.

  2. Bob said of John that he seems “to have more hope in the ability of the human race to do the right thing and fix everything up, make the world and the human race perfect with God’s help.”

    and of himself, “do I think that God will eventually have to come down here and clean up the mess? I do.”

    and, “God wants everyone to work as hard as they possibly can to fix things now.”

    So, really, is there any meaningful difference between these two perspectives? Either way we should all be trying to fix things up as best we can, right? It seems to me the same attitude can be applied towards being progressive. Will we solve all our problems by being progressive? Not likely, I agree, but we can solve some problems, which as Bob pointed out, may inadvertently cause new problems, and so it goes, it never ends, but we should never stop trying to make the world a better place, and I don’t see any disagreement about that.

    Unfortunately, I don’t think the world is becoming better either, not by a long shot, but I wouldn’t lay the world’s troubles solely at the feet of progressivism either. Many people feel that religion itself is one of the darker forces at work in the world (see Christopher Hitchen’s new book, God is Not Great for a radical example).

  3. Amen Bob! You sound like a person I would very much enjoy meeting. Amillenialism to me seems to be the only faithful way of interpreting jesus' own mysterious lack of knowledge about the "end times".

    The only point I disagree with you on here (and it is really a mild disagreement) is that the alternative to progressivism is radical biblicism. I think you demonstrate through your writing just as much dependence on reason as you do on exegesis (more actually). I think that it is really a difference in rational approach rather than a question of being "biblical" or not. After all the Bible is just a collection of texts which cannot interpret themselves. Too often differences in interpretation make biblical debates into insult wars, because neither side is willing to cede the title "Biblical".

  4. If Bob is claiming that there is no such thing as social progress, or that every kind of progress that we make is simply accompanied by a new and offsetting set of problems, then I would have to disagree with that.

    He cites the example of feminism, but I don't think that there are too many women who would want to go back to the way it was in the 1950s. Simply because things aren't perfect now, that doesn't mean that women haven't made real progress. The same thing goes for many groups of people who are marginalized in society, but who have benefited from improvements over the way things were at an earlier time. If you compare things against an absolute standard, and assume that anything short of perfection is absolute failure, then of course you are going to take this dim, pessimistic view of the world.

    But the reality is that we have seen major improvements in inclusive love as applied to societal values. Women are better off than they used to be, even if they aren't as well off as they should be. African Americans were legally enslaved in the US a century and a half ago, and were subjected to Jim Crow laws and other forms of humiliation until about 40 years or so ago. Gays have slowly been achieving progress in our society in recent years. The fact that there is still a way to go doesn't negate the changes that have happened.

    He raises a valid point about being careful what you wish for. Sometimes, progress is accompanied with a price that turns out to create its own problems. And maybe we will yet destroy ourselves and our planet, environmentally or in some other way. I am not a total optimist. Sometimes I get despondent about the fate of the world. But I don't agree that progress is always a double-edged sword or that there has not been real, substantial progress in human society.

    I think there has been a raised consciousness towards greater inclusiveness in human understanding. The fact that this consciousness is not universal is sad indeed. Not everyone favors extending God's inclusion to gays, women, or people of other faiths. This exclusionary attitude that many cling to lies at the heart of what is wrong with much of human society, I believe. Whether or not this raised consciousness becomes universal will be the key to whether or not we can develop a genuinely human, just society. It may not happen, but the very fact that this consciousness has taken root among a significant number of people is itself, in my view, a sign of progress.