As the past couple of weeks have revealed, Christians have some disagreements on exactly what the end of the world is going to look like. Many of those disagreements are centred on just how literally or symbolically we are to understand some of the details in certain parts of the Bible referred to collectively by scholars as ‘apocalyptic’.
Apocalyptic literature is resistance literature, typically created by oppressed peoples to give hope in the midst of suffering and injustice. It uses highly symbolic language, much as we today use phrases like ‘It was an earth-shaking event’ although in fact we know quite well that the earth was not shaken. Rather as political cartoons of a generation ago used symbols like the bear (Russia), the old man in the stars-and-stripes top hat (the U.S.A.), and even the beaver (Canada), so apocalyptic literature uses beasts and dragons and false prophets to symbolise evil empires and false religious movements. Unless you are well-informed about what was going on politically when the book was written, you’re likely to find this literature a little confusing.
Yesterday’s misunderstandings centred around 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17:
For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.
As Tom Wright points out, this highly symbolic passage is based around the arrival of an emperor for a state visit to a local city. The trumpet sounds to announce his arrival, and the citizens of the town go out to meet him and escort him into the town. The passage is not about Christians being ‘snatched away’ (Latin root ‘rapio’, from which ‘rapture’ comes from) to meet the Lord in the air and go to heaven with him, leaving the other poor sods to go through untold miseries. Rather, the emphasis is on Jesus, whose reign has so far been hidden, finally being revealed as Lord and King of the world, on the day when God remakes this earth, freeing it from sin and evil and establishing justice and peace forever.
However, despite the fact that Harold Camping and his followers not only misunderstood this text but also willfully ignored sayings of Jesus which plainly show that no-one knows when the last day will come, I’ve been a little wary of the cynical statements and superior attitudes of some mainline liberal Christians in the blogosphere. They seem to be at pains to distinguish themselves from the lunatic fringe. ‘We’re common-sense Christians with sophisticated university degrees, not fundamentalist fanatics. You don’t need to worry about us; we’re normal’.
Yes, but – mainstream Christian teaching about the last things is, quite frankly, still more than a little weird! ‘He (Jesus) will come again in glory to judge both the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end’ is not part of the faith statement of Harold Camping’s Family Radio organisation. It’s part of the Nicene Creed, recited regularly not only in my own Anglican denomination but also by Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Lutherans and millions of other Christians around the world. We believe that our Lord Jesus Christ is the Son of God whose reign is currently hidden in heaven, but he will one day be revealed for every eye to see as Lord of all. We believe that on that day God will judge the living and the dead, and that justice and peace will be established forever under God’s anointed king, Jesus. Quite frankly, if you’re a modern scientifically-educated unbeliever, those statements sound more than a little wild-eyed and fanatical (not to mention totally unscientific). So I don’t think we should get too smug about Harold and his friends!
There is, however, one statement I want to make. Some Christians in the blogosphere have said that they are glad that the world didn’t end yesterday. I know what they mean and I sympathise, but I’m not sure I want to go there. The biblical vision of judgement affirms that there will be a day of reckoning for all that is evil and unjust in God’s world. ‘Why does God let them get away with it?’ we ask when some tyrant commits another unspeakable act of atrocity and murder. The message of judgement affirms that they are not going to get away with it forever.
The day will come when every wrong will be righted and every evil undone. The day will come when God will cast down the mighty from their seats and exalt the humble and meek. The day will come when the faceless kings of multinational corporations will no longer be able to exploit millions of people to benefit their privileged shareholders – when the earth will finally be protected from the rapacious ways of people whose only thought is their own profit and to whom God’s glorious creation is there to be plundered to pad the bottom line – when the victims of oppression and injustice will be vindicated and their oppressors will no longer be able to get away with their crimes. Yes, 2 Peter affirms that God is delaying that day to give everyone a chance to repent and return to him (‘The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance’ – 2 Peter 3:9). But that day will not be delayed forever. One day it will come, and it will be good news for this tired, wounded, and suffering world.
It has often been remarked that Old Testament people seemed to long for the day of judgement far more than modern Christians do. That’s probably because Old Testament people were far less introverted than we are. When they thought of the sins that would be judged on the last day, they didn’t tend to focus on inner personal evils as we do; their focus was more on acts of violence, injustice, oppression and crime. For them, judgement day was the day when the rich and powerful would be punished and the little guy vindicated. That’s why, to them, God’s judgement was good news.
And Jesus shared their perspective. He taught us to pray ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven’. And that’s why, although I am sorely conscious of my own sins and failings, I am sorry that things went on as normal yesterday. The world is groaning under the weight of evil and injustice. We human beings have shown ourselves throughout our history to be spectacularly incapable of fixing the situation. We long for the day when God will finally save us from the time of trial and deliver us from evil. When the early Christians thought of the coming of that day, they didn’t say “I’m glad it didn’t come yesterday, because I like the world as it is”. Rather, they prayed ‘Maranatha!” – “Lord, come quickly!”
“Amen” (“Make it so!”)