Is eschatology important?

EschatologyIs Eschatology Important?

Eschatology is the study of last things (εσχατολογία).  Most often it refers to the end of the world, particularly Jesus’ prediction that within the lifetime of some of his disciples he would return to usher in the end times.  The prediction is found in Olivet discourse, referring to the Mount of Olives where Jesus delivered his prediction in Matthew and Mark.  It is found in all three synoptic gospels in similar form (Matthew 24, Mark 13, Luke 21). 

At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. . . . Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away. (Mark 13: 26,30-31)

Jesus was wrong.  He didn’t return within the lifetime of some of his followers.  He hasn’t returned yet, and doesn’t seem likely to.  His return is unlikely because we live in a different world, in which the magical reappearance of the Lord is unbelievable. 

A great deal of energy and ink has been spent justifying Jesus’ claim.  Rudolf Bultmann states the problem clearly.  Modern man no longer believes, and can no longer believe, in the cosmology of the biblical world, the world of myth, magic, and wonder, where heaven is above and hell below.  The return of Jesus on clouds of glory only makes sense in that world.  In today’s world, the hope that someday Christ will return is impossible even for many who want to believe.  What is a deeply religious man like Bultmann going to do?  What are the rest of us who long to believe going to do?

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It should have been a good book by a dying man.

dying manIt should have been a good book by a dying man.  Review of The end of Christian life, by J. Todd Billings

This should have been a good book.  Billings is dying of a slow-growing cancer.  He will not die young, but he will not die old either.  Billings’ reflections on death have an urgency lacking for most authors.  But the book doesn’t work.  He criticizes the prosperity gospel, but a heavenly version takes its place.  Why can’t people just die?  Is the question too simple?  Too harsh?

The pit

Sheol, misleadingly translated in the Septuagint* as Hades, is the pit, Gehenna, a burning garbage dump outside Jerusalem, generally considered a metaphor for Hell.  Sheol is mentioned 66 times in the Hebrew Bible (Strong’s Hebrew 7285).  Most of the time it sounds like Sheol in the Odyssey (book 11), where feeble shades float around in what we might call a semi-conscious state.  Eleven times Jesus refers to Gehenna, only once to Hades (Luke 16:19-31).  Never does he go into detail, for he is far more interested in heaven, the kingdom of God on earth.  That’s what the Sermon on the Mount is about (Matthew 5-6)

“In general, I suspect that no mortal lives for long without visiting Sheol for a time.” (p 30)  Billings makes a good point.  If Sheol is alienation from God and man, then one might say that it is the living, especially when confronted with the death of a beloved, but also in states of serious depression who are in Sheol.  For some, a diagnosis of incurable cancer will be enough to send them there. 

But we are the ones wailing, not the deceased.  It’s almost as if we are the ones who have gone to Sheol, not them. (p 34)


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Heaven can wait: Three Views of Heaven

Heaven can waitHeaven can wait: Three Views of Heaven.

If you’re good, then when you die, you’ll go to heaven.  This seems to be the traditional Christian view.  In fact, Jesus never said any such thing. 

The ideas of a glorious hereafter for some souls and torment for others, to come at the point of death, cannot be found either in the Old Testament or in the teachings of the historical Jesus. To put it succinctly: the founder of Christianity did not believe that the soul of a person who died would go to heaven or hell. (Ehrman, p 16)

Ehrman is correct, but he is making some implicit distinctions that are not obvious.  Jesus believed in the resurrection of the body, not the soul.  Jesus also believed that the Kingdom of Heaven would be established on earth, not somewhere in the sky.  So, one could just as well say that Jesus believed in a glorious life after death for some, and death for others.  Hell plays a relatively small role in Jesus’ teaching. 

Three views of the afterlife

Three views of the afterlife are present in the Bible.  The third is implicit, and probably the most important.  The three are:

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What’s wrong with a secular world?

A Secular Age, by Charles Taylor, is 874 pages long.  A critic says “its size is preposterous.  No work of philosophy needs to be anywhere this long.” (Larmore).  A Rumor Angels, by Peter Berger, is 104 pages long.  It makes much the same argument as Taylor, and makes it more clearly.  Clarity is almost always a virtue; in this case, because it allows us to see where each goes wrong.  Berger appears more obviously wrong than Taylor, but that is mostly because we can see his argument more clearly.      

Both seek an experience of transcendence that lifts us out of a strictly secular world.  Both use human needs as the basis of transcendence, indeed as the basis of belief in God.  And both have it backward.  Founding the experience of transcendence in human needs makes the experience of God a strictly human affair.  Perhaps this is not such a terrible thing, but it is not what they are aiming at.   

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The baby logic of C. S. Lewis: Jesus was either mad, bad, or God

The baby logic of C. S. Lewis: Jesus was either mad, bad, or God

A popular way of thinking about God among evangelical Christians is C. S. Lewis’ forced choice strategy: Jesus was either mad, bad, or God (pp 52-53). Chuck Colson, Nixon’s hatchet man, was sentenced for obstruction of justice. He spent seven months in prison, and there become an enthusiastic evangelical Christian.  It was this choice between mad, bad, or God, he said, that convinced him to become a Christian (Silliman, p 120). 

What does Lewis mean?

A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse . . . . But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to. (Lewis, p 52)

Right away the equation of madness with thinking you’re a poached egg, while amusing, biases the question. It assumes that there is only one degree and type of madness, total bonkers, and that madness today looks like madness then. What if Jesus was neither mad, nor bad, nor God? Why are these the only three choices? What if Jesus were mad in a way that was a socially recognized, even acceptable, form of deviance?  

The Dead Sea Scrolls

Around the time of Jesus, there were a number of men running around Judea and the Galilee claiming to be the Messiah predicted in Jewish scripture. After the Dead Sea Scrolls were finally published (in the late 1980s), Israel Knohl wrote The Messiah Before Jesus: The Suffering Servant of the Dead Sea Scrolls.  There he refers to the “son of God” text, one who would be “great over the earth.”

These are exactly the terms in which the archangel Gabriel described Jesus in the annunciation to Mary (loc 789-790).

He would be “the son of God and son of the Most High.” (loc 793-794)

Michael Wise has made a similar argument in The First Messiah: Investigating the Savior Before Jesus, also based on the Dead Sea Scrolls. His point, like Knohl’s, is that the idea of the suffering servant of God would have been available to Jesus during his lifetime. It was not a subsequent invention. If this is so, then Jesus could have been filling a socially recognized role, badly needed during the turmoil following Herod’s death (4 BCE). 

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I read these Christian evangelical novels so you don’t have to. But maybe you should.

I read these Christian evangelical novels so you don’t have to.  But maybe you should.

Evangelical novels are not a niche market.  This Present Darkness, by Frank Paretti, is included among PBS’s “America’s 100 most-loved books,” selling over five million copies ( The Shack, by William Young, sold over ten million copies.  It was the top paperback trade fiction seller on The New York Times Best Seller list for almost two years. The Shack is currently published in forty-one languages (Silliman).  The Left Behind series has sold 65 million copies. Desecration, book nine in the series, was the best-selling book in the world in 2001.

They are not quality literature, and I don’t judge them by their literary merit, but by their relationship to Christianity.  First, I’ll summarize each book; then I’ll say in what way each conveys a different but equally disturbing picture of Christianity.

The Shack

The story is fairly straightforward.  Mack’s youngest daughter, Missy, is kidnapped and murdered.  In deep despair and religious alienation, he receives a note from Papa, his wife’s name for God.  Mack goes to the shack where Missy was murdered, and there he meets God.  God, it turns out, is a large black woman who recalls the stereotype of a southern mammy, a warm good-hearted maid who cared for children in the south.  The Holy Spirit is an Asian woman who shimmers, whose boundaries are never quite clear.  Jesus wears a construction worker’s belt, and—no surprise—is a carpenter.

Some theologians have objected to this portrayal of the Trinity since Peretti’s God emphasizes that there is no hierarchy among them.  Each has his or her own role, and together they make a whole (Roach).  This is not my objection.

By the end of the weekend with God, Mack is restored to wholeness, “The Great Sadness,” has lifted, and he is ready to get on with his life.  The conclusion also introduces some doubt about Mack’s experience.  It turns out that on his way to the shack he was in a serious automobile accident and in a coma for several days.  It was while in a coma that he had his encounter with God.  Mack’s friend Willy actually (so the novel says) wrote the book.  The protagonist is thus curiously at a double remove from the events of the book.  In this regard the novel deserves praise.  Its actual author, Young, understands that an account can be fictional while stating a deeper truth.  Fiction isn’t a lie; it’s a suspension of disbelief.

So what’s the problem with the book

God is a grief counselor.  His job is to help Mack feel better about himself.  This view of God is no surprise.  It seems to be what most Americans expect of God.  The philosopher Charles Taylor writes that in the modern era there has been a “revision downward of God’s purposes for us,” so that now there are “no final goals beyond human flourishing, nor any allegiance to anything else beyond this flourishing.”  People seek spiritual fulfillment not in transcendence over self, but in the realization of their best selves, and they want that realization to happen now (Taylor, p 18; Silliman, p 35).

Mack doesn’t go to God pleading for fulfillment.  Both share the assumption that this is what God does.  That Mack might, four years after Missy’s death, be concerned with the grief of other parents who have lost children, that he might share his loss so that others could learn from his experience: possibilities like these are not considered.  Nor does he seem more open to other teachings of Jesus, such as love of neighbor.  The relationship between God and Mack is strictly personal, as though Mack were seeing a therapist.  Not even the comfort of a reunion between Mack and Missy in the afterlife plays much of a role.  It’s all about how Mack can be fixed now.

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William James and the Varieties of Religious Experience

William James and the Varieties of Religious Experience (1902)

The book I’m reviewing, over one-hundred years old, is as important today as when first published, maybe more so, as its arguments against what James calls scientific materialism speak to the aggressive atheism of today. 

James argues that religion gets its energy from spiritual experience.  Religion itself is an “over-belief,” an elaboration of spiritual experience.  The elaboration, such as the teachings and doctrines of Christianity, are relatively unimportant.  Important is the spiritual experience that gives rise to belief structures.  James, however, was unable to hold to this view.  The “belief structures” of Christianity may have saved his life. 

The book was so important and remains important because it redirects the argument from “does God exist?” about which we can argue, to spiritual experience itself.  It doesn’t matter where it comes from, it doesn’t matter to what it corresponds.  If some people have what James calls spiritual experiences, then spiritual experience exists.  The experience itself is real, even if its object remains in doubt.  Possibly it has no object but itself.

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How to study the psychology of Jesus. Don’t.

psychology of Jesus

How to study the psychology of Jesus.  Don’t.

It’s both impossible and undesirable to study the psychology of Jesus.  I say this in full awareness of some of the interesting work that has been done on this topic by Albert Schweitzer (1913), and John Miller (1997), among others (Darroch, 1947; Lee, 1948; Besdine, 1969). As the dates suggest, the psychoanalysis of Jesus is not currently a  hot topic.  However, the question of whether it can and should be attempted remains important.   

The primary sources for the life of Jesus, the Gospels were written between 40 and 90 years after the death of Jesus.  They were written with an agenda: to show that Jesus is the Messiah referred to in the Hebrew Testament (Tanakh). 

Knowing this gives us a criterion for deciding how much to rely on particular statements by and about Jesus.  If they further this particular agenda, they are less likely to be genuine Jesus.  But only “less likely,” for we do not know the degree to which the historical Jesus (in contrast to the Jesus of the Gospels) regarded himself as the son of God.  Aside from a brief mention by the first-century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, we know almost nothing about the man outside of the New Testament. 

Scholars reconstructing a historical Jesus rely primarily on the synoptic Gospels, as they are called: Mark, Matthew, and Luke.  Mark seems to have been written first, and there are passages in Matthew and Luke that are virtually identical to Mark.  Other passages in Matthew and Luke are virtually identical to each other.  About one hundred twenty years ago, scholars decided that there must have been a document, now lost, that contained the material relied upon by Matthew and Luke not found in Mark.  It is called Q, German for Quelle, the source document.  It seems to have consisted almost entirely of the sayings of Jesus.  Whether the sayings are genuine the document does not resolve.

Is Jesus sane?  Does the question even make sense?

Consider the question of the sanity of Jesus.  The most famous work in this genre remains Albert Schweitzer’s The Psychiatric Study of Jesus, originally published in 1913.Schweitzer argues, as does Miller, that Jesus was sane because many of his otherwise psychotic beliefs were widely held at the time, above all that a Messiah was coming who would descend from heaven with an army of angels and establish a new order among men and women, in which the last would be first. 

Neither author adequately distinguishes between believing in such an order, and believing that one is the Messiah who will usher in this order.  It’s the difference between believing in the divinity of Jesus Christ, which millions of presumably sane people believe today, and believing that I am Jesus Christ.  To believe this is to be mad, though it’s worth noting that dozens of men were running around at this time claiming to be the Messiah.  It’s one of history’s mysteries why Jesus won out over the others.  Much of the credit must go to the indefatigable Paul, but that’s a story for another day. 

Shared madness and the charm of Jesus

The genius of Jesus is found in the way his madness fit the needs of his followers.  Most madness is expressed in a private language, one generally not shared with the world, such as the “influencing machine” as it is called.  My thoughts are being controlled by the CIA, Antifa, or whomever.  While not entirely unreasonable (the media are an influencing machine), the mad hold that the degree and extent of this influence is total.

Some mad men become leaders, and Jesus was one according to this theory.  His madness was expressed in a language his followers could share: the Messiah is coming, and Jesus is it.  Jesus’ distant nearness, the way he drew people to him while resisting their embrace, charmed the poor who desperately wanted to be saved from their suffering.  Evidently a man of enormous charisma, a term that was later seen as a gift of the Holy Spirit, Jesus shared his belief in his divinity with those who wanted to participate in it. He was the creation of oppressed peasants in desperate need of salvation from their greedy landlords.

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