In the last few days, those of us in evangelical/Pentecostal circles have laughed along with most everybody else in the world at Harold Camping’s expense. We’ve laughed at the folly of a notorious doomsday prophet who already has ruined people’s lives with false predictions about the end of the world before, and marveled that there are still people gullible enough to cash in their life savings on such tomfoolery. Okay, I have had a good laugh too. If you follow my Twitter feed, some of the one-liners cranked out from me and my friends have actually been pretty funny. And I’m not even feeling guilty about that. One of the interesting things about our brand of evangelical gallows humor how it unites so many across a diverse spectrum of views within the larger Body of Christ.
But I want to make a claim today that may make you stop laughing for a minute. A large percentage of people in the evangelical world are laughing about Harold Camping and his followers ONLY because he called an exact date, and they are convinced of Jesus’ direct claim that “no man knows the day or the hour” of Christ’s return. But many of those same folks approach matters of eschatology in an eerily similar manner. As long as you don’t go around calling exact dates, they would have no problems with the basic premises of guys like this. The same baseline set of assumptions that underwrite the worldview of the Campings of the world will not be challenged just because he got another one wrong. As it turns out, Harold Camping is not the only one who is waiting for Armageddon.
I carry with me this slim hope that these kinds of incidents could bring the day where Christians begin to question not only the wisdom of speculating about the end of the world, but the kind of textual gymnastics that set up these very systems. But alas, recent history is not on my side. Even if Armageddon does come today, I’m convinced that fundamentalist dispensationalism will be right there with Cher and cockroaches carrying on like usual. Not feeling inclined these days to speak politically, I will be frank: I would like to see the whole system burn down-as it is the source of countless fallacies (I might event suggest heresies) that don’t just threaten abstract doctrines of the Church, but the daily lives of real Christians.
At a meeting at Evangel University last week, I settled into watch the documentary Waiting for Armageddon in the hotel. A couple of days later, I watched it again with Amanda. The film chronicles the lives of ordinary folks who are all in their own way waiting for the world to blow up. They aren’t presented as evil people, they are not somehow equivocated with radical Muslim terrorists. They love their families, work regular jobs, raise their kids in a caring, respectful manner. But as the film progresses, the logical implications of their beliefs are teased out further. They believe that any sort of compromise between Israel and Palestinians will disrupt their end-times chart, they hope that the dome of the rock will be obliterated by a missile…their political efforts attempt to turn prophecy into foreign policy. The further we journey with these folks, the more we see the self-fulfilling nature of such “prophecy;” that not only do we expect the world to end but we feel the need to help God along in the process.
These ideas are not new to me. After all the historic atrocities committed by the Church against Jewish people, I am thankful for the clear condemnation of anti-semitism by these Christians. I certainly think we should support the right of Israel as a nation to exist. I don’t think any of that entails the kind of radicalism demonstrated by people like John Hagee, who are obssessed with supporting a nation-state and fail to care for the plight even of Palestinian Christians. And they certainly aren’t dreaming up ways to love Muslims well in the Middle East or at home, because the gospel of enemy love does not exist for them. There is us and there is them, and we are just making preparations to see those hateful infidels get what they deserve when Jesus comes after them. Most of these scenarios are difficult to even call “interpretations” of Scripture, as so little actual Scripture is engaged on its own terms in this worldview. Scripture, just like Jewish people themselves, is objectified–even they are not loved as humans, but as pawns that can help us see our apocalyptic fantasies fulfilled. And these fringe “interpretations” take clear precedence apparently over everything that the Lord of the Church Himself taught about how His Bride was supposed to demonstrate His love to the world. I wish I could just say that I consider these theories wrong. But at this point, I think they are often sick, depraved, dastardly distortions of the heart of the Father and the love of Jesus for the world. The attitudes of the folks who are waiting for Armageddon don’t stop in the Middle East. They result in the same kind of militant, us vs. them rhetoric against our neighbors who disagree with us at home. (By the way: in case you don’t know, I am not the sort of person that believes that “all religions really say the same thing anyway so let’s just all get along.” I am the sort of person who believes that the first task of the Church is to love those around us deeply and sacrificially, making the gospel of the kingdom irresistible to them.)
I got to chat with my spiritual grandmother Margaret Gaines this week, as some friends of ours are looking to publish her manuscript Small Enough to Stop the Violence. Having lived through the implications of the contemporary Church’s teachings on these things from the opposite side–as a lifelong missionary to a Palestinian village, Margaret speaks directly in the book about the “meddlesome zealotry of the Church” who won’t simply trust matters of the end with the Master. Now 78, she laughed as she told me that she knew she would step into a minefield when it gets published, reminding me of the backlash people like Jimmy Carter experienced for calling attention to the mistreatment of Palestinians. No depth of experience or love for God or love for people gives you a right in evangelical circles to question the script, which has become more sacred even than the Scripture.
Especially as I am teaching through the book of Revelation, I am even more surprised than usual at the amount of speculation (accepted as doctrine on par with John 3.16) that never appears in John’s apocalypse. Revelation holds the promise of rescuing the Church’s imagination, but perhaps we must rescue Revelation from the hands of those who cannot handle it well first. As I shared in my last post, the primary theme of the book is that of witness–the faithful witness of Jesus who defeats the forces of darkness by His sacrificial death, the faithful witness of His Church who shares in His sacrifice for the sake of the salvation of the nations. Don’t skim past that sentence, because I just summarized the book for you. There is no but at the end of that sentence. The literal, wooden application of Revelation that fails to show regard for its shape, structure or context has many convinced that it empowers this sort of “let’s go beat the bad guys” kind of worldview. But that is not what Revelation is about! The other day, I recommended some resources on Revelation and forgot a key one–Richard Hays’ Moral Vision of the New Testament. In his foundational book on ethics, Hays, a very faithful man who annoys conservatives and liberals alike because of his insistence on sticking to the texts on their own terms, demonstrates brilliantly how Revelation is not an endorsement of human violence as a means of bringing about God’s purposes in the world. Rather, Revelation shows how God’s people reject human violence and instead embrace the way of the cross in order to see God’s purposes fulfilled in the world.
I am always fascinated by the fact that people who have heard this other brand of “prophecy” teaching all their lives are so suspicious of different approaches to the text–as if they somehow complicate the Word of God and refuse to believe what God has clearly said. Especially since there is no theological system in contemporary history that contorts and distorts the “plain” meaning of Scripture more than fundamentalist dispensationlism. No wonder you have to be an “expert” to read it that way, given the nonsensical, labyrinthine interpretative moves you have to make to come to those conclusions.
I need to stop prattling on about Of Gods and Men (per my last post), but I’m still so struck by the imagery of that film–where a group of priests refuse to compromise their witness for Christ in the face of certain death at the hands of radical Muslims. They are not starry-eyed idealists, they are men who come to understand full well what it will mean to love violent enemies in their community, and yet choose to stand with other-wordly grace and courage. It’s a more Biblical picture, a more Revelation formed picture, than Left Behind could ever be. I am desperate, in a way that makes my bones physically ache, to see God’s people embrace their role of witness as defined by Revelation rather than as fortune tellers and prophecy fulfillers. This isn’t a peripheral issue. The Church is the only hope of the world, people!!! This stuff matters more than we know.
If this seems offensive in tone, forgive me. But I do believe the times are urgent, and I don’t think we can continue to speak in whispers about these matters. Harold Camping is not just a man who is wrong because he called a wrong date. He is representative of a system that continues to keep the people of God from being the people of God in a desperate world. When the only gospel we are given is the gospel of the cross of Christ, and the gospel we are taught empowers us to look to vanquish our enemies rather than lay down our lives for them, heresy is not too strong a term. The way that many of these teachings are being played out are not wrong, they are destructive.
Am I suggesting that any of these people are insincere, or that they really don’t love God or the Church? God forbid. Forgive me for putting it this crassly–but it just seems that when it comes to matters of the end, even those of us who are good, generous loving people who really have encountered Jesus just seem to lose our minds.