What Progressive Christianity Needs Is More Apocalypse

Four Horsemen of Apocalypse, by Viktor Vasnetsov. Painted in 1887.

I appreciate what Richard Beck did in his series of posts, calling on progressive Christians to recover the biblical language of spiritual warfare. But, as I noted yesterday, I think there are a couple of weaknesses with that line of reasoning. One is that, while spiritual warfare language is biblical, it does not emanate from Jesus.

So I’d like to offer an alternative, and highly related, corrective to Richard’s.

I think that progressive Christians need to reclaim the biblical language of the apocalyptic.

For one thing, apocalyptic language begins in the Hebrew Scripture. It’s rife in the prophets, especially the later prophets, and most notably in Daniel. (Spiritual warfare language is almost completely absent from the Hebrew Scripture; in fact, in Job, it seems that YHWH and Satan are card-playing buddies.)

Secondly, Jesus is an apocalyptic preacher. From the oldest and probably most reliable Gospel, Mark, comes the “Little Apocalypse.” Therein, Jesus says,

“When you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs…

“But when you see the desolating sacrilege set up where it ought not to be (let the reader understand), then those in Judea must flee to the mountains; someone on the housetop must not go down or enter the house to take anything away; someone in the field must not turn back to get a coat. Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing infants in those days! Pray that it may not be in winter. For in those days there will be suffering, such as has not been from the beginning of the creation that God created until now, no, and never will be.”

There’s more as well — the entirety if Mark 13 is an apocalyptic sermon by Jesus. The other Gospels have plenty of apocalypticism as well.

The apocalyptic comes up elsewhere in the New Testament, and is obviously the whole point of the Book of Revelation. (Thus, the apocalyptic get many more column inches in the New Testament than does spiritual warfare.)

Thirdly, the apocalyptic was central to the self-identity of the early church. For example, the Didache (which was likely written in the 50s, contemporaneous with Paul’s letters, ends with this apocalyptic passage:

Watch over your life, that your lamps are never quenched, and that your loins are never unloosed. Be ready, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. Come together often, seeking the things that are good for your souls. A life of faith will not profit you if you are not made perfect at the end of time. For in the last days false prophets and corrupters will be plenty, and the sheep will be turned into wolves, and love will be turned into hate.

When lawlessness increases, they will hate and persecute and betray one another, and then the world-deceiver will appear claiming to be the Son of God, and he will do signs and wonders, and the earth will be delivered into his hands, and he will do iniquitous things that have not been seen since the beginning of the world. Then humankind will enter into the fire of trial, and many will be made to stumble and many will perish; but those who endure in their faith will be saved from under the curse itself. And then the signs of the truth will appear: the first sign, an opening of the heavens; the second sign, the sounding of the trumpet; and the third sign, the resurrection of the dead—not of every one, but as it is said: “Then the Lord my God will come, and all the holy ones with him.”

Finally, “Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven’ with power and great glory.”

Indeed, throughout the last two millennia, the church has seen itself as an apocalyptic community — both as a witness to the eschaton of God, and as evidence that the eschaton is just around the corner.

Here’s the thing about the apocalyptic texts in the Bible (as opposed to spiritual warfare), and why I think that the apocalyptic will appeal more to progressives: In the Bible and early Christian literature, the apocalypse is always the result of human behavior. Yes, God is involved. But God does not inaugurate the apocalypse: God appears on the scene because everything has gone to hell. God then sets things right, and God ushers in The End, wherein justice and mercy and equality reign.

So, as we look around and see the degradation of our planet, witness overpopulation, mourn our never-ending wars, and grieve that billions still live in poverty and hunger in spite of the fact that we’ve got plenty of food for everyone, the Bible has an answer. God will return in glory — God will be fully present in a way that God has not been since Jesus of Nazareth.

So, Richard and others, what do you think? Can progressive Christians embrace and preach the apocalyptic language of the Bible?

  • J Ryan Parker

    If you hold this in tension with “apocalypse” as the notion of unveiling or exposing a current reality or near future possibility (seeing the world as it truly is or might soon become), then I think this could be helpful, and to a degree, many Progressives are committed to that. If, however, it’s used for some futuristic, supernatural, sic-fi blockbuster event (as it has been so co-opted by many conservative Christians) then I think progressives could do without.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/tonyjones/ Tony Jones

      Bingo!

      • Richard

        I’d agree with Tony’s Bingo. If I’m right about this, this is basically the understanding of apocalyptic–”the notion of unveiling or exposing a current reality”–that N.T. Wright uses in describing Jesus as an “apocalyptic prophet” in books like Jesus and the Victory of God, a vision that I think would resonate well with progressives and be deeply rooted in the biblical witness, something I think progressives really need. Why? Because I’m Church of Christ and we like to thump our bibles….

  • susanfrederick

    I, for one, cannot embrace it as a progressive. Its basic premise is that no matter what we do, the world is going to fall apart anyway. People will get worse and society will come unraveled and God will have to supernaturally intervene to straighten things out. That does not inspire me to work toward justice and equality and to protect the earth from man-made disaster. If it’s hopeless anyway, why bother? Just get people saved and in church and wait for the inevitable end to come. Ugh.

    • Chris Baca

      Perhaps the perspective needs to shift on what ‘apocalypse’ means. If it simply means the end of the world at some fixed point in time in the future, then sure, I think your conclusion is valid.

      But what if there’s already apocalypse? What if we’re already in the midst of it, and our ‘mission’ as the Church is to enact and bring about the Kingdom in the midst of apocalypse. This might require a re-working of God’s sovereignty from a classic-theist perspective, but I think a case can be made that an eschatological focus could serve to energize the Church to live out the Kingdom now.

      • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/tonyjones/ Tony Jones

        That’s what I’m talking about, Chris. And that’s what I think the early Christians thought — that they were living in apocalypse.

        • Dustin Ryman

          Good point. And Can you imagine telling the Christians during the Dark Ages that they were NOT living in the End times or were not going through Tribulation?

          I think when Constantine made Christianity a state religion, the world slowly plunged into darkness brining about a great tribulation. “Think woman(apostate church),drunk with the blood of the saints(inquisition), sitting upon a beast(Rome).

      • Headless Unicorn Guy

        Problem is, “Apocalypse” has come to mean only The End of the World (any minute now… any minute now… any minute now…) instead of the original meaning of “unveiling” — seeing beneath the obvious surface appearance into essential reality.

        (Just as “Prophecy” has come to mean Predicting The Future instead of the original meaning of “saying what God wants said”.)

        Because when The World Ends Tomorrow and It’s All Gonna Burn, don’t expect anyone to make plans or dare great things. Instead, “Just get people saved and in church and wait for the inevitable end to come.” A Gospel of Personal Salvation and ONLY Personal Salvation.
        Especially insidious when the default Secret Rapture belief means you get beamed up to Fluffy Cloud Heaven before anything bad personally happens to you. (You can see how dangerous an attitude that can become.)

        See the Internet Monk posting at http://www.internetmonk.com/archive/thoughts-on-hell-house-an-evangelicalism-eager-to-leave

    • John Contabile

      Pretty much exactly what I wanted to say, Susan!

    • Chris Baca

      To tack on to my previous comment, I think Zizek has an interesting notion of apocalypse that may be relevant. See Tad DeLay’s blog here:

      http://taddelay.com/blog/13584319#.Ud8QAvmyBWN

    • PAUL RACK

      Apocalypse dos not mean hopeless. Just the opposite. It means God wins. (Though it is hopeless for the wealthy, powerful, winners of this present order. They don’t do so well.)

    • Dustin Ryman

      Exactly! that is the danger of all these tribulation/end of world teachings. They immobilize the church from wanting to take any real action. Instead, we are taught to huddle around and wait for everything to get worse so Jesus can come and fix anything.

      How ridiculous. I thought Christ gave us resurrection power?! This whole ‘Left Behind’ Hollywood series mentality is actually slowing down the Kingdom of God from manifesting in the earth here and now, and hindering Christians from wanting to build it.

      As long as people are waiting for Jesus to come fix everything, we are saying 1) we have no power to change things or manifest good in the earth
      2) We don’t fully understand the Churches purpose and mission in the earth.

  • Sleeping Realities

    The problem with the final conclusion is how one decides to interpret “God” as, essentially, “saving the day.” Where many get uncomfortable with that is in the idea that “therefore, we don’t have to do anything. God will fix it all.” That’s pretty much what the Fundies say. If you define “God” as “the good that works through us,” though, then there’s less of a problem.

    The entire set of imagery is probably too mythic for the tastes of most moderns, though, in my opinion. Great fantasy story. So… how does it apply?

    • susanfrederick

      Part of my theology as it has unfolded is the understanding that we are one with God, as Jesus prayed in John 17. So I agree with you that if we view God as working through us, and not as some separate intervening Entity, then that works. My problem with much of biblical imagery is that it reinforces the notion of separateness rather than the oneness that Jesus seemed to embody and teach as ultimate reality.

  • John Fease

    I think the premise is valid and serves to promote a culture where the church can still live and work toward the “Kingdom of God,” but not grow discouraged if the efforts do not result in “success.”

  • John Contabile

    Much like Jesus did in his day, I think we need to know the culture of apocalypse and speak to it, yet forge ahead with the message of the presence of the kingdom of God here and now and how THAT changes the game. Humanity loves the apocalyptic – the wrath, the judgment, the action in essence the right hand of God. Jesus modeled the left hand of God – love, mercy, justice, humility and sacrifice.

  • Richard

    For my part, I can definitely work with this view, leading with apocalyptic rather than “spiritual warfare.” I think what you are suggesting here is the way to go. That said, the very notion of apocalypse presumes a conflict between “this present evil age” and the new creation being revealed in Christ. And yet, I do think progressives would be more comfortable with a conflict between the “aeons” rather than with something called the “the Devil.”

  • NowHereThis

    How is it possible to keep apocalyptic fervor 2,000 years after Jesus promised to return within his own generation, and that the disciples would not finish going through the cities of Israel before he came?

  • NateW

    I don’t know Tony… If the goal is to describe Christian Truth in the most understandable and relevant way for people of a progressive/post-modern mindset, this seems more like a step in the wrong direction.

    I think that one if the primary things tht progressive christians are trying to distance themselves from is the idea that this world, that this present moment, is something to be waited out in faith that something better is coming “soon.”

    If any set of words is to be embraced by progressives it needs to focus on the radical relevance of all of scripture (including apocalyptic) in the PRESENT. In what ways is this all happening now? In what ways can we be a site of Christ’s second coming? In what ways can our lives manifest the truth of His resurrection NOW?

    • Headless Unicorn Guy

      Remember the original Christian afterlife: Resurrection of the Body into a New Cosmos (with “new” originally meaning “completely cleaned up and debugged). NOT floating around forever as a Soul(TM) in Fluffy Cloud Heaven while the Cosmos burns. On a truly unknown timetable instead of “any minute now…”
      In the original, you were restored to completeness (i.e. with a body) in the Resurrection. And the Cosmos was not destroyed but debugged into Cosmos 2.0. Something better WAS coming “soon”, but it was to be a perfection of what already was — your body, your land, your world, your Cosmos.

  • Lausten North

    I had to double check that I had come to the correct blog. Then I thought you would throw in some twist at the end. In the comments you finally did. But is this what you are suggesting? That the sermon should talk about the world coming to an end and we better get the world in order now before God gets here, and only if you come to Bible study or pastor’s office hours, then you say, well it’s just metaphor? How is that different than what is going on in progressive churches now, and how it is better?

    Sure the early Christians THOUGHT they were living in apocalypse, but they were wrong. I assume you know that we are not in apocalypse now, except in some metaphorical, rapidly changing world sense, so why use the apocalyptic language?

    • amaranth3

      it’s in the “rapidly changing world sense”, but definitely not in the metaphorical sense. It’s very real in the ecology. So why wouldn’t that apocalyptic language be in fact descriptive?

      • Lausten North

        Because the world is not coming to an end, and Jesus is not coming to save us. Countries collapse, civilizations end, species become extinct, but the planet will be fine. We need to figure out how we fit in the universe, not look to the stars for help.

        • amaranth3

          Sure I think that’s taking apocalyptic language too literally, which I don’t think is the way to go. But I would contend that stories of apocalypse and ‘revelation’ in the broadest sense can point the way toward what’s happening in the here-and-now (and yeah the planet might be fine, in geological time, but in civilizational time…not so much!) If we are truly talking about ecocide with massive turmoil and loss of human life and more division than ever before…then works of apocalypse can be worth grappling with. At the very least, mainline discomfort with even touching apocalyptic notions with a ten-foot pole ought to be unpacked.

          Also, Girard is very much interested in the apocalypse–but that is probably worth another post!

          • Lausten North

            Why not just work on the problems? Isn’t that what gets people to get up and join you, when they see you have a solution? Not simply that you can get some people to listen when you tell them things are bad or that you have some special power.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/tonyjones/ Tony Jones

      I’m not saying it’s a metaphor. Just that it needs to be re-understood.

      There’s a reason that the apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic are common and recurring themes in literature and film: this is an important aspect of current human self-understanding. The church should seize it — we know this language.

  • http://anoigmatic.wordpress.com/ Simon Nash

    Yes. Apocalyptic is always grounded in a close analysis of what the powers are doing right now, which they are getting away with through a mix of crude violence and more subtle propaganda of legitimacy. The apocalyptic prophet redescribes reality with evocative imagery and energising poetry. Sometimes the hidden moves of power are so subtly dressed up as god-ordained expressions of providential order or as inevitable products of natural forces, that the only way to arrest the attention of the hearers is to draw cartoon images of angelic and demonic representations of the powers that be. Its not that the images are not true – they are more deeply true than the official script, just like a political cartoon can be more deeply true than a press release.
    For me I don’t see a gulf between SW and apocalyptic. The apocalyptic move takes me into the imaginal realm where I can see the powers for who they are, this drives me in to action to engage the powers in the here and now, through acts of justice, kindness and symbolic acts such as breaking bread – and there we see Satan fall.

  • Greg Gorham

    I’m not sure how this helps with at least one of points Richard made in his posts, which is bringing back together the idea of individual and structural sin. The idea of the apocalyptic may be helpful when talking about structural sin, but I’ve never heard it invoked to deal with the personal sins and struggles individuals were struggling with. By contrast, spiritual warfare is invoked in conservative circles all the time to fight everything from lust to anger to fear to just about anything.

  • mhelbert

    I may be totally off here, but what I get from this is not that we are to wait passively for some end that’s just over the horizon. The ‘glimpse behind the veil’ that apocalypse is reveals that God and the entire heavens is at work against the injustices of this world. We, then, should be encouraged to join in that work. Kinda like when Paul wrote to the Thessalonians to not stop working just because they thought Jesus was coming to dinner tomorrow. We can join now, today, in God’s work to bring God’s reign and influence into our world.
    Or, something like that.

  • Jonnie

    I like the apocalyptic move. It is a nice biblical way to cast the conversation in terms of nations and systemic oppression (of animals and people)–two things that are woven deeply in John’s apocalypse with the talk of the fall of Babylon in Rev 18, which interestingly describes that fall primarily in terms of the merchants and their spoils being spoiled.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy

      Mystery Babylon = corrupt economic system, NOT “Hattie the Hottie”.
      The Beast = corrupt political/social system, NOT a Romanian Robert Redford.
      The False Propher = corrupted religion, NOT The Vatican per se.
      And instead of TurboJesus kicking ass, what does the Lamb do when He returns? The “sword issuing from His mouth”? He speaks Words of Truth and the Beast and False Prophet and all their forces are slain. By Truth.

  • http://flavors.me/gflagg Greg Flagg

    Yeah, I completely agree. I think the church needs to re-embrace the apocalyptic as you and Richard have laid out. Mainly, because I think that a healthy understanding of apocalypse would help defend against the many misunderstandings of what the apocalypse is and “when” it might happen. I think that understanding that we are IN the apocalypse is very important. God has acted in many ways in the world already (Israel, Jesus, Scripture, etc.) and the world is always suffering under many of the things mentioned in apocalyptic scriptures. What prevents us as Christians from sitting back and riding this thing out is, I think, that scripture never has passive “wait it out” instructions. We are always called to act to enact God’s will “on earth as it is in heaven.” The Tabernacle was a moveable tent that was supposed to be with the people. It was never a bomb shelter. The Temple on the other hand…but I digress.

    One slight thing, when you say, “In the Bible and early Christian literature, the apocalypse is always the result of human behavior. Yes, God is involved. But God does not inaugurate the apocalypse: God appears on the scene because everything has gone to hell.” I have a bit of a problem with saying “God does not inaugurate the apocalypse” which honestly could stem from the heavy pre-millenialism/dispensational/fundamentalist teaching I grew up in. If we understand the apocalypse in the traditional sense as a “uncovering” or “revelation”, then isn’t God ultimately responsible for sharing his revelation with us and uncovering what has been hidden or is beyond our ability to see? Maybe response is a better word? I agree that humanity is responsible for the need for God to “appear on the scene”, but God inaugurates the apocalypse by his actions, no? Could be a chicken vs. egg argument anyways.

  • PAUL RACK

    YES! However, Progressives may have to terminate their infatuation with those who dismiss apocalyptic out of hand, eg. Westar. Or did they get over that?

  • Andrew Dowling

    The level to which Jesus’s ministry was interspersed with apocalyptic pronouncements is a source of great debate among biblical scholars. While I think its clear Jesus at least alluded to some sort of coming judgement, I think a huge portion of the apocalyptic sayings attributed to Jesus in Mark are products of an early Christian community embracing apocalyptic thought during the turmoil of the Jewish War. I think one can safely say that Mark 13 does not likely go back to the historical Jesus. The references to the fall of Jersualem are clear post-diction, and the language used in the discourse is far different than what is found in the parables and short sayings that would have survived oral transmission during the 40 or so years between the death of Jesus and Mark’s Gospel. It looks very much like a separate piece of apocalyptic literature Mark used to make a theological point.


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