Monday, November 18, 2013

Rethinking eschatology (the study of end times)

Most people, particularly Christians, have an unbiblical view of the arrival of God's kingdom. This set of beliefs is notable for expecting that Jesus will physically return to earth, ushering in the fullness of God's kingdom. That view, however, is at odds with what Scripture actually says.

Among some of the Christians who take the Bible literally, passages such as Luke 21:5-19 enjoy an enduring popularity. Those Christians generally hold a worldview that sharply contrasts with mine in three relevant ways. First, in their geocentric cosmogony, they expect the triumphant, resurrected Jesus to return bodily to the earth and establish the fullness of God's kingdom. In contrast, I do not believe that the earth is at the center of the cosmos, that neither this planet nor humankind is necessarily the center of God's activity, and find the idea of physical resurrection incomprehensible at best and nonsensical at worst. Remember, the people who wrote the gospels lived in a world in which people generally believed the world was flat, the earth was at the center of creation, and had no knowledge of atomic structure. The latter is especially pertinent when thinking about resurrection because scientists think it probable that many of us have shared one or more atoms with Jesus and certainly with other people. If there is a physical resurrection, what happens to molecules that have been part of more than one person's body?

Second, many of the Christians who emphasize this morning's gospel reading view Christianity in general and themselves in particular as persecuted by our larger society. I do not experience that conflict. Instead, I experience Christianity in a diametrically opposite manner, more likely seduced and subverted by the larger culture. Christianity, once the established religion, is now marginalized; the larger society easily ignores or reframes its calls for justice and compassion. Maybe I am oblivious to the real state of affairs, but I am unaware of anyone ever persecuting me for my religious beliefs and only occasionally ridiculing me for those beliefs, to which I respond with bemusement rather than anger.

Third, Christians who focus on readings such as Luke 21:5-19 frequently see the passage as providing clues for the timing of God's activity in the world. For me, not only do I reject an anthropocentric, geocentric view of creation and the idea of culture wars, I also find the idea of attempting to discern God's future timetable a folly against which Scripture and eighteen hundred years of failed predictions should warn us.

So, set aside a literal view of the gospel reading. What, if anything, can we make of this text? I want to suggest two thoughts. First, God remains active in creation. Second, being a Christian is no guarantee or prophylactic against bad things happening to us.

For a fuller development of those thoughts, you may want to read my sermon on Luke 21:5-19 that I preached yesterday in Raleigh.

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