Thursday, November 28, 2013

When Is Jesus Coming Again?

About one hundred years after Jesus rose from the grave, a Christian prophet named Montanus preached that Jesus would soon return. He said the Holy Spirit told him so. Montanus and his fellow prophets were probably the first Pentecostal-like groups in the early church. One of Montanus's fellow prophets, Maximilla, even said, "after me there will be no more prophecy, but the end." She was wrong. Jesus didn't return after her death.

            About four hundred years after Jesus rose from the grave, a barbarian chieftain named Alaric sacked Rome. Christians were sure that the prophecy of Daniel 2, the prophecy about how a fourth empire of iron and clay would fall, had now been fulfilled. One preacher wrote, "Behold, from Adam all the years have passed and now comes the Day of Judgment." Well, even though Rome was sacked in 410, and fell forever in 472, Jesus did not, as it happens, return on those dates.

            About one thousand years after Jesus rose from the grave, kings and commoners both feared that the millennium of Revelation was finally done. They went on pilgrimages and to confession to prepare for Jesus' return. He didn't. Others argued that the millennium began when the emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, meaning Jesus would return in 1326. He didn't.

            About 1200 years after Jesus was born, Joachim of Fiore, a Roman Catholic priest, told the English crusader King Richard the Lion Hearted that the sixth head of the dragon mentioned in Revelation 20 was Saladin, the Turkish ruler of Jerusalem--an early example of mistaking the mystical and symbolic texts of the book of Revelation for today's headlines. Joachim of Fiore also told King Richard that Innocent III would be the last pope and Jesus was coming back soon. But Jesus did not return.

About 1600 years after Jesus' resurrection, the great Scottish Mathematician John Napier was born. He was the mathematician who first worked out the concept of logarithms, which most of us studied in high school or college. Based on his study of Revelation, and after running his own numbers, Napier insisted that his current pope was the antichrist. He wrote an immensely popular book that predicted that Jesus would return in 1688 or 1700. But Jesus did not return.

About 1650 years after Jesus rose from the grave, Czar Alexander tried to reform the Russian Orthodox Church to be like the Greek Orthodox Church, which mostly involved changes in the liturgy. Many people thought this made the Czar the Antichrist of Revelation. Worship wars are an ancient Christian tradition, I guess. Anyway, these opponents to Alexander's changes predicted that Jesus would return in 1666--666 being the number of the beast. Rather than obey Alexander, who sent his armies to force people to worship his way, tens of thousands of the people committed suicide by burning their churches, barns and homes down around themselves and their families rather than submit. Jesus, however, did not return. 

About 1700 years after Jesus' resurrection, Sir Isaac Newton, the first person to describe the theory of gravity as we now know it, and perhaps one of the greatest geniuses of all time--Sir Isaac Newton predicted that the end of the world would come in 1944. Jesus did not return at that time, however.

            About 1750 years after Jesus was born, the Puritan Reformed scholar Jonathan Edwards, predicted that the papacy would fall in 1866 and that Jesus would return in the year 2000. Now, even though Jonathan Edwards was perhaps the greatest revival preacher ever, and even though he is still thought of by many people as the greatest philosopher and theologian in the tradition of John Calvin ever—Jonathan Edwards was wrong about Jesus coming back in Y2K.

            And so it goes. Charles Wesley, who founded the Methodist church (one of founding United Church denominations) believed that Jesus would return in 1794. Jesus did not. William Miller predicted that Jesus would return in 1843. Millions of Americans believed him. Jesus did not return. Miller's follower, Ellen White, founder of the Seventh Day Adventist Church, made a career out of predicting the end of the world. Jesus did not return on any of the days that she promised he would. Jacob Smith, the founder of the Mormon Church, promised us that Jesus would return in 1891. To this day, in spite of Jesus' failure to return in 1891, the head of the Mormon Church is still titled the "Prophet, Seer, and Revelator." Jehovah's Witnesses predicted that Jesus would return in 1914, 1915, 1918, 1920, 1925, 1941, 1975, and 1994. Jesus did not.

            About 1950 years after Jesus' birth, Hal Lindsay promised us that Jesus would return no later than 1980. Jesus did not return, so Hal Lindsay revised is arithmetic and interpretations and said that he was sure now, Jesus would return no later than the year 2000. Jesus did not return. He's still writing and doing TV though, and now promises that Jesus will return sometime around 2048. I'm betting he's wrong.

            Faith Healer and TV evangelist Benny Hinn said Jesus would return in in the 1990s. He's still on TV. The famous founder of the Charismatic Calvary Chapel chain of California mega-churches, recently deceased Chuck Smith, promised us that Jesus would return in 1981. He didn’t. Jack Van Impe said that Jesus would return in 1975 and 1976 and 1999 and 2000. Like Hal Lindsay and Benny Hinn, you can still find Jack Van Impe on TV hawking his latest prediction. He doesn't seem to be hurting, financially, for all his prediction failures.

            Since the founding of the church, Christians have been predicting the date of Jesus’  return. All of such predictions were, and continue to be, wrong. For all their Bible studies and adding and subtracting of millenniums and 666s; for all their book, TV and Christian radio exposure, for all their Bible thumping and endless diagrams and fear mongering and condemnations of those who disagree with them, for all their novels like Left Behind and Scofield Study Bibles--they have all been wrong. For all of their insistence over the past 2000 years that their earthquakes and wars and famines and antichrists are the ones mentioned in the book of Revelation--none of them has ever been right, for since the day Jesus left we have always had wars and famines and bad leaders and the poor with us. The truth is, everyone who has ever turned to Daniel or Revelation in order to tell us that Jesus is returning on some specified date, or soon, or that some empire is the one mentioned in Daniel, or some person we're reading about in the papers is the antichrist—all have been wrong. Jesus has not returned and none of their supposed insights into Daniel or Revelation has come to pass.

Of course, these end time predictions excite our curiosity, unbridle our imaginations, and arouse our appetite for mystery and a good story. But finally, all this excitement obscures what should be for us the central truth that really needs to be revealed and wondered over and celebrated and shouted from the rooftops. Something happened at Easter that changes how all of us will choose to live the future. We will follow him rather than wait for him to catch us up.

But of dates and times? Forget it. Forget trying to predict when (and if) Jesus will come back, because as scripture says in several ways and in several places, "no one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father." What could be plainer and simpler than that?

Monday, November 25, 2013

How Did Christianity Begin?

            How do new religions begin? Sometimes by inches, over long periods of time; sometimes by subterfuge; sometimes on account of a blinding, perhaps revelatory, insight.

            Judaism’s birth is lost in the mists of time. Canaanite religion contributed something to its genesis, and perhaps Egyptian faiths as well. Judaism had an insight, however, that was utterly different, namely that God was One. Over the course of hundreds or perhaps thousands of years, Judaism worked out the consequences of that insight—or revelation. Still, whatever Judaism was in Saul’s time is not what it was in Amos’ time. And from Amos to Second Temple to Pharisaic Judaism, it continued to evolve into the many sects we know today.

            Christianity, in turn, was birthed as yet another take on Judaism and inch-by-inch became the variety of different sects it is today. Christianity and Judaism, in turn—as well as local faiths known to the prophet and his contemporaries—birthed Islam. And the process doesn’t stop there. Consider Baha’i and Mormonism. And if Charles Taylor is right, even modern secularism was birthed in the womb of Christianity.

            And always, individual people—prophets, fishermen, marketing geniuses, mystics—played a critical and often surprising role. Whether it was Abraham or Moses, Peter and James (or perhaps Mary and Salome and Mary), the Prophet Muhammad or Joseph Smith, there is no shortage of people with some new idea or insight or manuscript, whether sensible or outrageous, who managed to find over time millions of followers.

            I began thinking about how new religions begin as I read Resurrection of Jesus: John Dominic Crossan and N. T. Wright in Dialogue.

            Wright and Crossan discuss the connection between Jesus’ resurrection and the birth of Christianity. Both Crossan and Wright agree that the founding of Christianity requires a precise historical explanation. And their dialog is about what that precise historical explanation might be. N. T. Wright argues, that at a minimum, the founding of Christianity resulted from the actual discovery of an empty tomb and the historical experiences of Jesus’ bodily presence. Crossan demurs. While not wanting to argue the empty tomb (it doesn’t figure in, for him) he does agree that resurrection experiences were key—though he might differ with Wright as to their nature. But Crossan adds that Christianity’s birth also depended upon what Jesus taught before he died, namely the kingdom as already present but not yet consummated. That teaching was the key frame that allowed the disciples to move from resurrection appearances to establishing the early church.

            For the record, Crossan believes that while Wright’s two historical events could get you to an exalted Jesus as described in Philippians 2:5ff, it could not get you to the resurrection faith—an eschatological faith where God is now already cleaning up creation, a job that God expects Christians to get excited about and participate in. Of course, the cases that Crossan and Wright and the others in this book make for their perspectives covers a lot more ground and detail than I can go into here. But the point is, these two scholars, looking back to the time of Jesus’ death both believe that they can determine the “necessary and sufficient” (terms frequently used) conditions that led to the birth of the early Christian church.

            But given the history of religions, and the incredible diversity of founding stories people have believed and even been willing to die for through the ages, it strikes me as odd that when it comes to Christianity these two scholars, or any scholars, imagine that there are both necessary and sufficient reasons why any of today’s world’s great religions would became what they are.

            I’m reminded of what Malcolm Muggeridge once said. "One of the peculiar sins of the twentieth century which we've developed to a very high level is the sin of credulity.It has been said that when human beings stop believing in God, they believe in nothing. The truth is much worse; they believe in anything." Perhaps, but it is worth asking why Muggeridge thinks that only people who stop believing in God will believe anything. Is it not actually the case that just about anyone, anytime, deist or not, will believe anything? And isn’t the variety of world religions with their competing truth claims proof of this?

            In the case of Christianity, for example and for fun, imagine that Salome or Mary was so heart-broken at the notion that her beautiful new community of friends might fall apart after Jesus’ death that one of them concocted a resurrection story to keep her friends together? And what if after that a few others in that community (not surprisingly) had dreams about Jesus, or even visions of Jesus, a widely attested phenomenon in many different religions? Would such a beginning for Christianity be stranger than Joseph Smith or the Prophet Mohammad showing up with a manuscript and saying, “Thus saith the Lord?” In fact, we know from Rodney Stark’s work on the sociology of religion that people generally ask, “what do you believe and why,” only after they have joined communities, because it is the life of the community that draws them in, not theology. A few rumors within an existing and tight community like that of Jesus’ disciples might lead to big things.

            No, rather than insisting that their “natural theologies” based on “scientific” historical reconstructions (different though they be) provide the “necessary and sufficient” basis for Christianity’s birth, I think we are actually unable to historically reconstruct whatever miraculous things might have happened in those first few days, months and years after Jesus’ death. Something happened, of course, as is always the case with new religions, to start a snowball rolling down a hill. Both Wright and Crossan offer plausible scenarios. I can think of others more likely than the one I just made up, above. But none of them provide both the “necessary and sufficient,” conditions for the birth of Christianity. That’s claiming far too much.

            Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not arguing that the resurrection did or didn’t happen, but only that you can’t reconstruct what happened on the basis of its purported effect, the birth of a believing community.

            I’m also not arguing against research into the Historical Jesus or early Christianity or theological discussions about whether it was a resurrection or visions or dreams that people saw. We don’t know everything, and it may always be possible to dig a bit deeper and get a bit closer to the facts such as they were.

             I would argue, however, that whatever happened on Easter morning—and the years before and after—is something less than a matter of “necessary and sufficient” than it is of revelation and mystery. And if you are bound and determined not to merely go with the flow of what everyone else in your community believes but to make up your own mind, the only thing you can really do is go as far as the evidence will take you and then make a leap of faith.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Why Did Jesus Have to Die? Some Post-evangelical Musings.

            The Heidelberg Catechism asks, “Why did Jesus have to die?”

            It is an odd question. Of course Jesus had to die, because he was human. All humans and all creatures that have the breath of life in them must die. Only a Docetist—someone who says Jesus only seemed to be human but really wasn’t—would argue that Jesus didn’t have to die. But if he was a man, the die was cast. On Christmas Day only the when and how of Jesus’ death was still a mystery.

            So the question isn’t really “why did Jesus have to die?” Rather, the question—assuming that Jesus was (and is) God—the question is, “why the incarnation?” And from this follow several more questions, including the one that people seem to be asking most often when they pose, “Why did Jesus have to die?” namely, “why did Jesus have to die on a cross?”

            And of course, scripture contains the seeds of many answers that were developed for this question over the next few centuries. One suggested that Jesus’ birth and death were together a positive moral influence. Another said that his death atoned for sins—made up for our sins, somehow. For the former, a favorite text is the Carmen Christi, Philippians 2:5-11. The idea there is that we should do as Jesus did—have his mind. And what Jesus did, of course—though he was “in his very nature . . . God” (2:6) was an act of surpassing humility, even death on a cross.

            Other passages suggest that his death was an atoning sacrifice, or a rousing victory against evil powers, or an act of surpassing empathy. Over time, various versions of Anselm’s theory of the atonement, in particular, won pride of place, at least in the West. You can hear echoes of that tradition in the statements of faith of the United Church, for example. According to the Basis of Union (1925), “For our redemption, He fulfilled all righteousness, offered Himself a perfect sacrifice on the Cross, satisfied Divine justice and made propitiation for the sins of the whole world.” The United Church’s most recent statement, A Song of Faith (2006) broadens the scope of Jesus’ work to his life, but finishes with a familiar, if somewhat more ambivalent statement, that echoes the older statements of faith. “In Jesus’ crucifixion, God bears the sin, grief, and suffering of the world.” The Heidelberg Catechism specifies the cross was necessary for Jesus to shoulder “the curse which lay on me, since death by crucifixion was cursed by God,” and only later gets into a substitutionary atonement description of the crucifixion’s benefits.

         All of these answers presuppose that crucifixion was necessary, in particular, because it was something God demanded of Jesus to set things right. Many will go so far as to say that crucifixion was not just a divine demand but also a cosmic requirement because only that sort of death could satisfy the honor or justice of God, which because of the very nature of things, or God, had to be satisfied. In other words, the how of redemption was really not up to God—God needed a crucifixion to make it happen.

            Really? Is God so bound by circumstances and legal theories and human ideas about what is fair? Can God not graciously, in his or her freedom and omnipotence and compassion choose to forgive those he chooses to forgive? Or does the “necessary” in Jesus’ words to some disciples on the way to Emmaus, as in “Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and to enter into His glory?” (Luke 24;26) speak to some sort of cosmic necessity that even God is subject to before humans could be forgiven?

         I doubt it. In the Old Testament, Jews were mostly of the opinion that they would be forgiven if they simply (but really) repented, and turned again to the Lord. Though there might be punishments for sinning against God—exile perhaps or losing some battle to the Philistines—yet repentance usually led to forgiveness and new beginnings. So the prophet Joel says, “Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart . . . Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and relents from punishing” (Joel 2:12-14).

         And as long as Anselm can use an analogy based on human experience, perhaps I can too. I often forgave my children, when they were little, when they were repentant. That is, they might break a vase or lamp by recklessly riding a trike through the house, even when warned not to. But usually the crash led to tears and repentance and how could I ever ask them to buy a new vase to make things right again? That would be ridiculous. I might even forgive people who did me great wrong in the past, but who have died without repenting, just so that the anger of it doesn’t eat me up. The point is, why wouldn’t God forgive people who made a good faith effort to follow Jesus’ example? Who, in the words of Joel, rend their hearts and not just their clothing? We forgive people who try and fail all the time.

         So why the crucifixion? Well, it was how some people in power—Pharisees and Romans—wanted Jesus to die. It was likely given Jesus’ counter cultural message and radical lifestyle and challenge to the powers that were. His courage in the face of possible crucifixion—he seemed to know that he would be crucified, one day—was the courage of a revolutionary who wanted to change the world (not to mention the cosmos). But I doubt that there was some constraint in the nature of God or the cosmos such that some sort of “an eye for an eye,” justice had to be inflicted on the perfect lamb to cover for the actual (never mind original) sins of people who were not perfect, even if they wanted to be.

         At least, that is what I’m musing about right now.

         I have sitting on my desk J.N.D. Kelly’s Early Christian Doctrines and Jaroslav Pelikan’s The Christian Tradition (all four volumes) as well as several systematic theologies. I’m going to make a bit of a project of rereading these works with a view to reminding myself what others have said about these sorts of questions. But as long as I’m musing, I think the greatest temptation we face when it comes to atonement theories is probably to make God too small; to impose upon God some finite necessity that we’re tied up in knots about but which also prevents us from focusing on the bigger picture: God’s infinite love, grace, and other perfect attributes, and especially God’s penchant for forgiveness.