Sources of Christian Pessimism and How Wesley Saw It

In the last post I wrote about the optimism the Gospel brings to my life.  In fact, as I read back some of these blogs, I don’t like that my sense of irony, playful sarcasm and critique sound pessimistic. I think people who follow Jesus and work for His Kingdom have every reason to be the most upbeat, optimistic, hope-filled people on the planet. I want to caveat about contexts where great persecution or starvation persist, although, incredibly, folks there seem to have a much better handle on joy than we in the comfortable West do!

I do, however, run in many western Christians who are very gloom and doom, even in their theology! For sure, childhood experiences, temperament, or wounds in life cause pessimism. However, I suspect there are also a couple of theology reasons: first, some versions of Reformed theology have a pretty gloomy view of this life on earth, and we just need to hold on until we get to heaven. For the record, I’m not laying that at Calvin’s door.

Secondly, the predominant American view of St. John’s Apocalypse/ the Book of Revelation is so awful, nearsightedly tied to newspaper headlines (even though that approach has utterly failed for twenty centuries!), and pessimistic, that it’s no surprise people assume things will get worse and worse and then the end ( a comment Jesus makes about Jerusalem and the Jewish-Roman War, but taken by Americans and those they influence to mean something at the end of time, which of course must be our time, since it’s all about us!).

Fortunately, a look at history refreshingly shows that the world is not getting worse and worse. The leaven of the Kingdom of God has indeed been working its way through the batch of dough. The influence of the Way of Jesus has had marvelous results in the last 2,000 years.  Our mis-use of the Apocalypse brings pessimistic, and often very fear-driven, worldviews that shadow peoples’ lives and folks miss out on a lot of joy. The Gospel gives us every reason to be optimistic, upbeat, and hope-filled.

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodists understood this. In his sermon The General Spread of the Gospel, after leaving no stone unturned describing the ills of the world and fallen-short Christianity, Wesley then goes on to argue, using profuse Scripture, that God is wonderfully at work in the world and that surely the power of the Gospel is such that we can have great hope that the whole world will come to faith in Christ:

in general, it seems, the kingdom of God will not “come with observation;” but will silently increase, wherever it is set up, and spread from heart to heart, from house to house, from town to town, from one kingdom to another. 

…. And in every nation under heaven, we may reasonably believe, God will observe the same order which he hath done from the beginning of Christianity. “They shall all know me, saith the Lord;” not from the greatest to the least (this is that wisdom of the world which is foolishness with God;) but “from the least to the greatest;” that the praise may not be of men, but of God. Before the end, even the rich shall enter into the kingdom of God. Together with them will enter in the great, the noble, the honourable; yea, the rulers, the princes, the kings of the earth. Last of all, the wise and learned, the men of genius, the philosophers, will be convinced that they are fools; will be “converted, and become as little children,” and “enter into the kingdom of God.

…. All unprejudiced persons may see with their eyes, that He is already renewing the face of the earth: And we have strong reason to hope that the work he hath begun, he will carry on unto the day of the Lord Jesus; that he will never intermit this blessed work of his Spirit, until he has fulfilled all his promises, until he hath put a period to sin, and misery, and infirmity, and death; and re-established universal holiness and happiness, and caused all the inhabitants of the earth to sing together, “Hallelujah, the Lord God omnipotent reigneth!” “Blessing, and glory, and wisdom, and honour, and power, and might, be unto our God for ever and ever!”

In this sermon, he even goes as far as to attempt to predict the order, the geographical sequence of nations in which the Gospel would succeed, first to last! Humorous as that seems, one thing for sure, the power and grace of the Gospel made Wesley an optimist.

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The Point of Holiness

NT Wright has expended considerable ink in saying that the point of Israel was not for Israel itself, but for the whole world. Israel was chosen by God to be the vehicle through which He blessed the Gentiles with the knowledge of the One True God. Copious amounts of OT scriptures can be cited. Most Christians and Jewish folk themselves agree with this reading of the OT. Israel did not exist as an end in itself – all nations were to be blessed through Abraham’s descendants. Israel was called for the sake of the Gentiles.

In the same way, Christians living a holy life  – a human living as the kind of creature she or he was made to be – is not an end in itself. It is for the sake of the whole creation: reflecting the image of God into the world around, something the entire Creation is standing on tiptoe waiting expectantly for according to Romans 8:19. As Wright says of 8: 26-27 “…this is no incidental reference to prayer and the work of the Spirit. The whole point is that when we pray we are not merely distant or feeble petitioners. We are starting to take up our responsibility as God’s image-bearing human beings, sharing God’s rule over creation.”*

Paul’s climax in Romans 8, overlooked in the Western tradition for a thousand years, is not that we are holy and get to go to heaven, but rather that God’s plan is coming together: holiness as humans finally leading the way expressing God’s rule to the whole creation as His stewards in the way it was always meant to be. Holiness is not an end in itself, in the sense that it is for itself; no, it is for the sake of the whole Creation. God’s world can only be put right when its masters are right. And saying we can’t finish the job of New Creation is no way to shirking our calling and duty, anymore than saying I can’t resurrect my own body so it doesn’t matter what I do with my body!

The holiness tradition that I grew up in, and I think our Pentecostal & Charismatic cousins, missed something vital here. Holiness, as I was growing up, was a goal in and of itself, something you aimed at for its own sake. Once you had it, you had sort of arrived, and now just needed to help other people get it. It was because God wanted people to follow a certain standard… this is how God is, this is how you should be. But the why and for what sake was often left out. Connecting it to the larger story in Scripture was left out… or just seen as part of getting to heaven… we were good at quoting “without holiness no man shall see the Lord”. In the end it was self-serving. That’s because we had virtually no theology of the Creation and ecology. Back then people would have laughed out loud at the thought that holiness was for the sake of the planet. That’s because our Hal Lindsay / Left Behind theology had us thinking God intended to burn the planet up and throw it in the trash. Yes, God’s “very good” Creation extolled throughout Scripture.

Instead of repeating the latest idiotic responses of the Far Right, US evangelicals need to read and consider carefully the theology they will learn when Pope Francis releases his encyclical on the environment. It’s time for us to grow up. Just as Jesus-generation Jews mistaked their calling thinking it was only about Jewish folk rather than the nations, so modern Christians need to stop the mistake of thinking our calling is only about humans, rather than the whole created order.

 

*Wright, N. T. (2014-06-03). Surprised by Scripture: Engaging Contemporary Issues (Kindle Locations 1364-1366). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Is the rapture a biblical idea?

Last week was a week of deer hunting with my kids. What a great week. In the meantime, standout Nazarene preacher and President of Trevecca Nazarene University (Nashville, TN) Dan Boone did a nice write-up concerning the idea of “the rapture.” This is a great little post. The only thing is, Dan constantly says he’s in the minority view. The thing to note is, the “minority” happens to be virtually everyone who is actually paid to study the New Testament. I’ll stick with the minority! I remember about ten years ago when I slowly discovered a better story in the Scriptures than what the “left behind” American version had taught me growing up, and what a radical, wonderful, joyful story the Bible’s story became, instead of the disheartening, dreadful one so commonly believed by American evangelicals. A friend of mine and I were talking and we agreed it literally changed our lives, and our understanding of the Gospel, in incredibly wonderful ways. Another friend of mine this weekend said “I am more hopeful these days” because of this re-discovered storyline the Bible tells. Thanks Dan. Here’s the link

http://www.danboone.me/left-behind-rapture-biblical/

John Wesley: the world will not be destroyed

The Left Behind version of Christianity claims God will destroy the world. (As if John 3: 16 read “For God so hated the world he sent his only Son into it to snatch a relatively few people out of it and then burn it to a cinder… not to save it through him!”). Here are John Wesley’s comments on Romans 8, and the whole Creation longing with eager expectation to be set free, liberated, when the sons of God come into their own, from the bondage to death and decay. As in our day, many people in Wesley’s time thought the world itself will end. In contrast to that, Wesley understood the great biblical expectation of God mending Creation, what Jesus and his generation called ‘the renewal of all things’ (Mt. 19:28) in the age to come. Wesley argues that a woman in labor doesn’t long to be destroyed, she longs to give birth to new life! And whatever is destroyed isn’t delivered at all – so it’s not the Creation itself that will be destroyed, but rather delivered from sin, death and decay.

“For the earnest expectation – The word denotes a lively hope of something drawing near, and a vehement longing after it. Of the creation – Of all visible creatures… each kind, according as it is capable. All these have been sufferers through sin; and to all these (the finally impenitent excepted) shall refreshment redound from the glory of the children of God. Upright heathens are by no means to be excluded from this earnest expectation: nay, perhaps something of it may at some times be found even in the vainest of men….

The creation itself shall be delivered – Destruction is not deliverance: therefore whatsoever is destroyed, or ceases to be, is not delivered at all. Will, then, any part of the creation be destroyed?     Into the glorious liberty – The excellent state wherein they were created.

22. For the whole creation groaneth together – With joint groans, as it were with one voice. And travaileth – Literally, is in the pains of childbirth, to be delivered of the burden of the curse. Until now – To this very hour; and so on till the time of deliverance.”

–       Founder of the Methodists, John Wesley (1703-1791) Commentary on Romans 8

 

Is the Bible’s Story What We Say It Is?

The way that the Bible’s story is often pitched in evangelicalism is that the point of life is that everyone has sinned, thus infuriating God and causing Him to send everyone to hell, and you have to ask Jesus to forgive you or you won’t go to heaven. So the point of life is actually afterlife, getting to heaven. Sometimes this story-line is expressed with an even more sinister tone:  a friend of mine the other day summed it up when asked, What’s the point of earth in this version: “just a testing place to see if God will let you into heaven.”

But I noticed some time ago that if you read the Old Testament you would never come away with this story line. Reading the Old Testament, the point of it all doesn’t come across that everyone is sinful and God will take you to heaven if you ask forgiveness. In the OT, the storyline goes more like this: life on earth is being ruined by violence, oppression and injustice. God wants people to live uprightly, the opposite of those things, and to follow Him and His ways for a good life here. Jesus, when asked, summed up the OT with “loving God” and “loving your neighbor.” The point is explicitly summed up in verses like Micah 6: 8

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
    And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
    and to walk humbly with your God.

This is a story about life on earth and how God wants it lived, and that the problem is the destruction of shalom here on earth. This is not a story about earth as a testing ground to see who makes it to heaven.

Consider the following books and ask yourself if their message is about making it to heaven: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy? Chronicles? Kings? The Psalms? Esther? Jonah?  The Prophets? Hmmmm.

As for after-life, in the Old Testament we get a comment about resurrection in Job, a two verse mention of the Great Judgment in Daniel, and a handful of verses in Psalms about escaping Sheol or dwelling with the Lord all my days.

The Old Testament seems to be about life on earth. But we talk like the New Testament is about life after earth. Why the switch of subjects? Is there really a switch? Or have we simply prioritized some texts, skipped over or misread others, and assumed things about phrases like ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ which are different than what Jesus actually meant? If we assume Jesus came as an answer to the problem presented in the Old Testament, why do the New Testament answers (as we typically discuss them) sound like they are about a different problem?  Some have suggested that we have gotten this point-of-life-is-escaping-hell-and-gaining-heaven from the soaking Christian theology got via passing through Greek philosophy. Perhaps we’ve developed a Christianity focused so much on afterlife that we’ve missed the point of much of the Bible.

Why N.T. Wright is the Most Important Theologian Alive Today

N.T. Wright, former Anglican bishop of Durham, England, is the leading New Testament scholar in the world. He has been at the front of historical Jesus research for a generation as well at the front of Paul scholarship during the same time. It isn’t every generation of Christians who gets A) a world-class Bible scholar who is also B) a passionate, evangelical follower of Jesus, C) a very skillful writer with wit and color,  and D) an extremely wise person who can remain gracious and Christlike in the midst of controversy. Many generations get people who are 2 or 3 of these things together, rarely all four. You know you are on your game when publishers come to you to ask you to write the 21st century version of C.S. Lewis’ works (Simply Christian as the Mere Christianity for the postmodern world). There are certain Christians whose life’s work affects our understanding of the Gospel for a generation, or even multiple centuries. Wright’s work falls at least into the first category.

Specializing in the literature of the first century, Wright counsels us to read the New Testament in light of how people were writing and talking during that same time period. What were their expectations? What did they mean by certain words? How did they understand the Old Testament? Without careful attention to such things, Wright reminds us we are likely to simply read our own assumptions and theological ideas into the text. Or read the ideas of our favorite Reformation theologian from 400-500  years ago into the text.

Wright’s scholarship – and its ramifications – concerning Jesus, Paul, the Kingdom of God, and what the Gospel is even about, are landmark, groundbreaking. Entire sections of Scripture, Wright contends, have been mistaken to be about one thing when they are really about another. The results are big. For example, if you think Jesus’ apocalyptic sayings are about the end of the world, you expect certain things, the kinds of things prophecy preachers love to talk about. And these theological assumptions have deep social-political real world results:  fast-tracking weapons to the Middle East makes sense in that worldview, you are contributing to fulfilling prophecy! (BTW Is it alarming to you that evangelical church attendance correlates in statistical studies with approving of the use of torture?) However, if you think Jesus’ words are about the destruction  of Jerusalem in 72 AD and they are NOT about the end of the world, a whole other future comes leaping out of the pages of Scripture, a future written about, but which has been skipped over and ignored, due to the way we interpreted Jesus’ apocalyptic sayings.

For those who have inherited a Christianity which has not been able to answer adequately certain kinds of questions, or gives answers that are largely unsatisfying, N.T. Wright might be a life saver. Among other things, he opens the door to a larger, grander Gospel than many people grew up with.

Hebrew good vs. Greek perfect

More thoughts about Platonic assumptions and the World to Come. (I started these musings with https://toddrisser.com/2013/12/30/can-lack-exist-in-the-world-to-come-un-doing-platonic-assumptions/

I wonder if, when we think of things the way they ought to be, we tend to think in terms of Greek, Platonic ideas of ‘perfect’, rather than Hebrew concepts of ‘good’. After my last post my friend Butch texted me and said that when God created the world He said it was “good” not “perfect.” He said he always thought of the Genesis garden narratives taking place in a good area, not a perfect one.

When we confuse good with perfect, I wonder if we are importing ideas into our concepts of how God intends the world to be. Do we start labeling things as wrong with Creation when they aren’t? A Lutheran friend of mine this summer said about the goodness of Creation “Ah, but that was before the Fall…” How much of nature’s Created characteristics, which we look at everyday, do we assume are tainted by sin and less-than-they-should-be, because we are thinking with Platonic ideas about perfection rather than Hebraic ideas of Good?  If we do this with Nature, what other areas are we confusing?

When God rolls out his resume in Job and the Psalms – what does he talk about? His creating and sustaining work in Creation. And he talks about providing food to nature’s animals, including the carnivores. Isaiah talks about lions and lambs, but should we really make that literal biology? No hunting in the Age to Come?  What a disappointment to Native Americans hoping for the Happy Hunting Grounds!  Is this an area where we have strayed too far into Greek philosophical ideas, and off the narrative of Scripture…?