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Apocalypse Now? A Christian Understanding of the End Times

Posted: Updated:
MAY 21 2011
flickr: Lord Jim

Sorry, Maya. Just when peculiar apocalyptic interpretations of the ancient Mayan calendar were about to thrust you into the media frenzy sure to come in 2012, some knuckleheads cut in front of you by predicting the return of Jesus on May 21, 2011.

They insist the world will end a few months after that, unfortunately ruling out the possibility of my San Francisco Giants repeating as World Series champions.

Of course, Christians have been proclaiming the nearness of Jesus' return ever since there have been Christians. The New Testament reflects this, even as it gives evidence of a growing acknowledgment, as the first century transitioned into the second, that the "imminence" of this hope need not imply its "immediacy." The church learned it would be in it for the long haul.

Yet some of the more fringe members of the Christian family have never stopped casting out predictions of a specific day on which human history will dramatically change forever, usually accompanied by fire and brimstone. So far, one might conclude, Jesus has been uninterested in taking the bait.

Despite the history of failed speculation about a precise advent of this new future, some Christians keep going with exuberant talk about the end of days. Whatever their motives, the results are sometimes good for the bottom line: numbers of butts in pews, as well as authors' bank accounts.

Witness the Left Behind franchise, which has made millions promulgating a theology based on the notion of a "Rapture," in which living Christians are snatched away to an otherworldly existence while the rest of earth slides fearfully into political and moral chaos. This theology comes from a very idiosyncratic view of the Bible that is popular in fundamentalist circles but has also infiltrated wider Christian discourse. Yet it represents a way of thinking about God and history that possesses, at best, dubious biblical support. Its retribution fantasies hardly align with notions of divine love and justice found in many other parts of the Bible.

There are, of course, many passages in the New Testament that steer attention toward the dawn of a new era -- begun in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, but also finally to be fulfilled in his future "appearing" and the expectation of a coming judgment. These themes remain a key feature of Jesus' teachings. We can't evade those texts if we hope to understand the New Testament, as a whole. Serious, thoughtful Bible-readers ignore them at their own peril, for doing so allows the distortions of the Left Behind juggernaut to fill the void.

Christians, and those who observe Christianity from a distance, need to be aware of what these texts describe and the functions they should fulfill.

(There is not space in this post to delve into the Bible's thoughts about the end of the world or the possibility of an afterlife. Although they are tempting, those related topics will have to wait for another day, assuming I make it.)

So, how should we read?

First, we have to note how context matters. Future hopes are given greatest attention in the New Testament usually when two other things are in view: the corrosive effects of religious hypocrisy and early Christians' experience of persecution. Biblical passages about Jesus' return therefore reiterate that God's commitment to the world is not warmly embraced by the world's business-as-usual religious, social, and political routines.

Second, biblical images associated with Jesus' return are highly symbolic. Clouds, trumpets, stars falling from the skies, angelic shouts -- these are familiar tropes in the Bible and its related literature. They became staple symbols, ways of signaling the divine presence. They are more theologically evocative than physically descriptive.

Third, "symbolic language" does not mean "not to be taken seriously." These texts are important in their ability to communicate that we don't live in the best of all possible worlds. They point toward the promise of a better future. New Testament scholar Dale Allison likens the Bible's visions of the end to its visions of the beginning:

"Genesis is no historical record of the primordial past, and the New Testament offers no precognitive history of the eschatological future ... We must interpret them not literally but as religious poetry, which means with our theologically-informed imaginations." (page 97)

Therefore, these passages prompt us to let the dimensions of our "longed-for future" be creatively informed by our "present religious experience and faith and theological reflection" (page 98). What Christians say, then, is the state of affairs Jesus promised the world has yet to come to full fruition. New Testament talk about the future issues vivid reminders that God still has work to do among us. The specifics about the future remain wholly mysterious. Still, the dominant emphasis is on promoting hope, not inciting fear.

All this could leave Christianity vulnerable to charges of escapism, but only if it leads people to ethical and social passivity. Or to paint motor homes like this.

A fourth observation pushes against passivity, however. Biblical images about Jesus' return evoke the sights and sounds of Roman propaganda. For example, caution expressed in 1 Thessalonians 5:3 concerning seductive reassurances spoken about "peace and security" in the world refers to an imperial slogan. Also, as one might expect given Christians' occasional status as a marginalized group in the first century, these images sometimes also imitate Roman propaganda. The description of Jesus' return in 1 Thessalonians 4 depicts him with language recalling Roman dignitaries' official visits to cities.

These passages' subtle connections to imperial rhetoric allow them to subvert it, too. They thus can commit Christians to an unwillingness to rest content with the status quo of human political existence. They portray the future that God will inaugurate as showing up our inferior ideals -- exposing all that humankind settles for (and gets oppressed by) as false substitutes for true peace and true security. They speak about a world that is sick, about people who abuse power. At the same time, they call people of faith not to shun or denigrate human society but to work for the world's redemption.

And so I'm already making plans for May 22. In fact, I'm predicting the Giants will beat the Oakland Athletics that afternoon.

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