I believe it’s fair to say that our culture has an obsession with judgement and the end times. It’s an ironic obsession, given the way we often live our lives and structure our society. If we were really concerned about God’s wrath, one would think we’d take better care of one another.
The fact that we’re here today is testimony to a huge disappointment for some of our brothers and sisters in Christ. As many of you, I’m sure, have heard, a man who was already known for falsely identifying the date of an event known as the rapture of the church, predicted that it would occur on May 21, 2011 at 6 p.m. (there was evidently some confusion as to whether this was to occur separately in different time zones or not).
The idea of the rapture and its subsequent popularity has its origins in the work of folks like Irishman John Nelson Darby, a former Anglican priest and a leader of the Plymouth Brethren and William Miller (founder of the movement that would eventually become Seventh Day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses), and their particular readings of biblical prophecy–particularly Daniel, I Thessalonians and Revelation. In recent memory, these ideas have been popularized through the Left Behind series of novels. The problem, of course, is that these are rather odd ways of reading scripture and are not at all literal readings faithful to the texts, especially in those forms that attempt to determine, by applying biblical prophecy to current events, the specific time or date of Jesus’ second coming.
It is important to note that, in questioning the degree to which such millenarian or dispensationalist eschatologies (beliefs about the last things) are faithful to scripture, we are not questioning the second coming of Christ–which is, sadly, how some would see it. The second coming (parousia), is a core Christian doctrine, and we profess it in our Eucharistic prayers (along with the resurrection), for example, when we say as a body “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again,” or “We proclaim his death, we remember his resurrection, we await his coming in glory.”
The danger of beliefs such as the rapture, especially when they began as the apocalyptic beliefs of the oppressed, but are now the beliefs of people of significant power and means, is that they encourage sinful human beings to attempt to force God’s hand by becoming involved in world events in a particular way, or, alternatively, to abandon concern for the world because “it’s all going to burn anyway.” Neither response is appropriate for Christians.
But even more problematic, is that speculation about the time of Christ’s return–something the Lord himself forbade–also seems to encourage speculation about who, precisely, is in or out of the kingdom of God. Below is an example of the sort of thing these ideas can result in. It’s a painting by a preacher, McKendree Robbins Long of North Carolina. (Long’s grandson, incidentally, Ben Long is a well known fresco painter who has worked in many churches in the US and Europe). McKendree Long was a classically trained portrait painter who acted as an ambulance driver in the first world war. When he came home, he stopped painting for years as he ministered. When he took up painting again, he did so in a surrealistic style in a subject matter that is more reminiscent of folk art:
While the work is striking and, in a way, I think we’d be poorer for it as a culture if it didn’t exist, it’s subject matter is problematic from a theological point of view. It’s a picture of the last judgement with people being thrown into the lake of fire. Of particular interest is that you can make out specific historical and philosophical figures in the painting. Some are not surprising, and we may even agree with Long’s placement of them; Hitler is there being squeezed and bitten by a boa constrictor or other snake. In the middle of the lava you see a bird attacking Joseph Stalin. But there are others there as well. Over to the right side it’s pretty easy to make out Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Friedrich Nietzsche and Albert Einstein, not to mention a sizable number of women who seem to be dressed in a manner that, for Long, was probably provocative. At the top of the hill, talking to Dante Alighieri and looking on with evident satisfaction is Long himself, observing as divine punishment is meted out.
This painting is an example of someone taking upon themselves the authority of a judge. In fairness to long, it’s possible in the context that it’s less a theological than a social or political statement, but I would submit that it is a good illustration of a dangerous tendency. People are sinful and hurtful enough without ascribing to themselves the role of arbiter and judge of others’ eternal fate. And this is precisely what follows from attempts to predict when Jesus will return. It’s an exercise in hubris that leads to others. The person who attempts to calculate the time and date of Jesus’ return is claiming that they know more than Jesus himself. Once we believe we know more than Jesus, it’s not far to believing we know better than God. And we already know we have that sort of tendency toward judgmentalism (think Jonah and the people of Nineveh, among other numerous examples from within and outside of scripture). In other words, we often move the short distance from believing we know when Jesus is going to return and judge to believing we know how Christ will judge–that we know precisely who (and what sort of people) will be cast into fire.
In contrast to such temptations, which are often ultimately constructed upon our own inmost fears, scripture invites us to let go of our fears and follow God’s call in our lives. “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” Jesus says, “Believe in God, believe also in me.” Jesus goes on to declare to the disciples, some of the most comforting words of scripture, but words that many of us have misunderstood:
In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?
If you’re like me, then you’ve often heard these words in a particular way. Specifically, you may have heard them as words of hope, at a funeral for example, declaring that Jesus was going to a sort of geographic/spacial location to prepare a dwelling. This misunderstanding is not helped by the fact that the King James bible referred to “mansions.” Instead of a considering this promise in light of a physical dwelling (or even a localized spiritual approximation thereof) it should be thought more of in terms of relationship. In the Father’s household there are plenty of places for you. There is plenty of room for everyone in the family of God. So when Jesus says “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also” (John 14:2-3), he’s speaking about his work on the cross–he goes to the cross and rises again to provide the means through which we may have relationship with the Father and through that relationship, be reconciled to one another.
This is why, when Thomas asks how they can know how to get to where Jesus is going, seeing as they don’t know where he’s going, Jesus refuses to get caught up in geographic thinking once again, and tells them “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Just as the idea of Jesus being the gate of the sheep was intended to demonstrate that the sheep must go through–that is, imitate–the shepherd in order to go anywhere, Jesus is telling his disciples to follow his manner of life, to adopt his care for others. In short, to continue his mission, because it’s only in fulfilling that mission out of gratitude to the grace and salvation we’re offered by Christ, that we can move closer to the Father and enjoy the sort of unity with God that is intended.
How does this effect the way we deal with our understandings of the last things? As Jesus said, the character of the Father is revealed in the Son. We know the character of God through the character of Christ, and therefore we can forgo the sort of fearfulness that dominates the apocalyptic thinking that many of our brothers and sisters embrace. This doesn’t mean that we assume ourselves worthy, it means that we’ve seen the grace of God. In contrast to the apocalyptic prophet that thrives on people’s fears of the unknown, we recognize that just as in Christ’s earthly ministry, God was keeping God’s promises to the people of Israel (as N.T. Wright has pointed out, Jesus is the new Temple, as things occur in the presence of Christ that had, up until that point only occurred in the Temple). God kept his promises then, and will keep the promises to come, when Christ returns. Of course there will be judgement, but for those who have their lives hidden with Christ in God, there is nothing to fear. Instead, we can rejoice in the knowledge that our God is merciful and full of grace.
So, rather than a bleak and judgmental image of the end that inspires fear, I would like to offer you another example, containing a different way of looking at this issue. The following is a selection from Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Revelation.” O’Connor is probably one of the few authors I’m aware of who grasp the concept of grace so well. In this story the main character, Mrs. Turpin has a run in with a girl who’s name is, not by chance, Grace. During an altercation Grace tells Mrs. Turpin that she’s a warthog from hell. This insult sticks with her and in the climax of the story Mrs. Turpin has a confrontation with God in which she demands to know how she can be both a hog and herself at the same time. Eventually she looks up into the sky and sees a streak in the sky, and has a revelation (keep in mind the time in which O’Connor is writing please, no hate mail):
[Mrs. Turpin] raised her hands from the side of the pen in a gesture hieratic and profound. A visionary light settled in her eyes. She saw the streak as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls were rumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white-trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of black niggers in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs. And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself and [her husband] Claud, had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right. She leaned forward to observe them closer. They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and respectable behavior. They alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away. (Flannery O’Connor, “Revelation,” in The Complete Stories (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1971), 508.)
I love the last line: “Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away.” This is the reality that Mrs. Turpin failed to grasp initially, but that, by the work of grace (one hopes) the truth has been revealed to her: all of us are ourselves and “hogs” too. We’re all saints and sinners. Simultaneously justified and yet sinful. Mrs Turpin trusted in her own righteousness, and is disabused of that conceit. She comes to see the broad and radical love of God for creation and all that is in it–especially, it seems, for those we would least expect. When we recognize this reality, we can give up attempting to find the date and time for the second coming, for the judgement, because we know that we are utterly helpless and unworthy before God. We depend upon grace, all the more so because every day is judgement day and we are always found wanting–none of our virtues can survive in the presence of God–only Grace can. And this is the message we’re called to proclaim and put on every billboard literal and figurative we can find: God loves you and sent Jesus so that you would be made aware of it, come to love God, and out of gratitude and amazement, love one another.