A reader wants to know how I would answer

this bit of Atheist Fundamentalism. (It’s somebody playing the standard game of “Gotcha” with Jesus’ Olivet discourse in Matthew 24, in which he predicts sundry direnesses, some of which sound like the sack of Jerusalem in 70 AD and some of which sound like the End of the World and then seals it all with “Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.”

My answer comes in two parts. The first part is, “If you read in merely in order to attack without first reading in order to understand, you will never understand the text. That’s because elementary questions will not occur to you since, in your pride, you believe the authors and the community who preserved the text to be utter morons and not reasonably intelligent people like yourself. So, for instance, it never occurs to you to wonder why a community which you constantly charge with altering the historical record about Jesus would not have just snipped out this passage when Jerusalem fell and the world did not come to an end. Your contempt blinds you from supposing that the interpretive community of the Church never read the passage in the simplistic Fundamentalist way you do.”

The second part would be to suggest reading it as the first Christians did, making use of the senses of Scripture, which have illumined biblical interpretation since the start of Church (as I discuss in Making Senses Out of Scripture: Reading the Bible as the First Christians Did). Here’s a little excerpt from that book on Matthew 24 and the way in which Jesus’ polyvalent words are working at multiple levels on the Olivet Discourse:

The Christian’s Shared Destiny with Christ

Our destiny, then, is bound up with Christ’s. This means, in the most childlike terms, that because Jesus went to Heaven, those in union with him will too. But there is more, and it is something comfortable Americans like us do not like to hear. Namely, as George Macdonald said, “the Son of God suffered unto the death, not that men might not suffer, but that their sufferings might be like His.” In short, we don’t share only in his glory. Rather, as Jesus shares in our sufferings so we share in his. Both the Church and its individual members are bound to participate, not only in his resurrection, but in his cross. That is why Jesus himself says,

If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, “A servant is not greater than his master.” If they persecuted me, they will persecute you; if they kept my word, they will keep yours also. (John 15:18-20)

Individually, the members of the Church experience this frequently. Disciples of Christ suffer and even die for Christ all over the world to this day. And, in our daily lives, all Christians experience various trials and tribulations ranging from illness to divorce to family difficulties to the inevitable death that we all must sooner or later endure. In all this, we are called to deny ourselves, take up our cross daily and follow Christ (Matthew 16:24).

The Church’s Shared Destiny with Christ

However, what some people are starting to forget is that what is true of Christ and of his individual followers is also true of the Church as a whole. Some people dream of a happy earthly destiny for the Church of Christ. They hope that, as the Church spreads out across the world, then perhaps little by little and bit by bit, every day in every way, the world will get better until the Kingdom of Heaven comes in the Great Rosy Dawn. Others, most notably in this century, have tried to tinker together a man-made heavenly kingdom and have given it names like National Socialism, Communism, Maoism, Hedonism, Materialism, the Playboy Philosophy, the Triumph of Reason, etc. All these schemes share in the common hope of achieving the happiness of the resurrection without having to go to the trouble of dying. Several of the more energetic forms have, however, taken great trouble to kill on a massive scale. This “counterfeit messianism” is precisely what the Church warns us against. Indeed, the unbroken tradition of the Church holds precisely that “before Christ’s second coming the Church must pass through a final trial that will shake the faith of many believers. The persecution that accompanies her pilgrimage on earth will unveil the ‘mystery of iniquity’ in the form of a religious deception offering men an apparent solution to their problems at the price of apostasy from the truth. The supreme religious deception is that of the Antichrist, the pseudo-messianism by which man glorifies himself in place of God and of his Messiah come in the flesh” (CCC #675). The Church as a whole, like her members and like her Lord, will not get to take a shortcut. She too must pass through death to resurrection.

Here again, we find the image of Jerusalem being thrust at us by the gospel writers and endowed with the anagogical sense. In Matthew 24, for instance, the prophecies of Jesus concerning the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD and his prophecies concerning his coming at the end of time are almost seamlessly intermingled (something that has caused endless puzzlement for Bible students as well as guaranteeing job security for biblical scholars all over the world). Why do the gospel writers mix these prophecies together? Because, in a very real sense, the gospel writers see them as referring to nearly the same thing. This does not mean the gospel writers fancy that the world came to an end in 70 AD with the sack of Jerusalem. Rather, it means that the “death” Jerusalem suffered when the Temple was destroyed is an image of the death Jesus suffered in the temple of his body and an image of the death the Body of Christ will one day undergo in the final climactic battle between light and darkness before the return of Christ. In the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (#677):

The Church will enter the glory of the kingdom only through this final Passover, when she will follow her Lord in his death and resurrection. The kingdom will be fulfilled, then, not by a historic triumph of the Church through a progressive ascendancy, but only by God’s victory over the final unleashing of evil, which will cause his Bride to come down from heaven. God’s triumph over the revolt of evil will take the form of the Last Judgment after the final cosmic upheaval of this passing world.

The destruction of the Temple *is* the end of a world for the New Testament writers: the world of the Old Covenant. For the temple is a microscosm of the world just as the world is a macrocosmic Temple. Jesus sees in the destruction of the Temple an image of the final judgement to come, the hour of which he himself does not know (as our skeptical Fundamentalist could have noted if he’d just read on to Matthew 24:36 instead of rushing from the text to fire away his latest round of ammo). That Jesus said this, we surely need not doubt, since nobody but an idiot would attempt to invent a God who is self-professedly ignorant.

The anagogical sense of Scripture. Fundamentalists, whether, atheist or Christian, should really learn about it.


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