What Progressive Christianity Needs Is More Apocalypse

What Progressive Christianity Needs Is More Apocalypse July 11, 2013

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?

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