Monday, March 15, 2010

McLaren 8: The Future Question, can we find a better way of viewing the future?

*** This is part of an ongoing series on Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christianity


The Future Question: Can we find a better way of viewing the future?

Brian’s 7th question is eschatological, a question of how we view the future and end times.  I’ll just put it out here at the beginning that I’m not a dispensationalist, nor do I expect to be suddenly raptured into the heavens to escape a tribulation any time soon.  That all seems a bit ridiculous to me, to tell you the truth.  I assume Daniel and Ezekiel were writing about the antichrists of their time and the temple rebuilt then (rather than the temple-after-the-temple that Dispensationalists today expect), and John was writing about Rome.  The whole Rapture/Trib thing just isn’t in the text.  I’ve written about it some before. I grew up on a steady diet of the Left Behind series, and have in fact read every one.  I obsessed over Revelation.  Like any good Evangelical boy, I even praying when I was 10 years old to Jesus asking if he could hold off on coming back until after I had had sex one day.  I bought every word!

Lately, authors such a N.T. Wright have (who describes the rapture eschatology as “cartoonish” in Surprised by Hope) done incredible work bringing back into focus the ancient Christian doctrine of the end times.  Popular as it is, Wright highlights how this Rapture doctrine is largely a novelty of 20th century American theology.  In fact, you won’t find hardly any Biblical scholars who buy the whole rapture/tribulation gig.  There’s just nothing ancient about it.  Thank god.

So now that I’ve gotten my biases out there…

So with that, I was eager to check out McLaren’s view on this, as I know he gets asked about this a lot.  He begins outlining Dispensationalism’s beginnings in the 1830s and its popularization via the Scofield Reference Bible since 1909 on.  Since then, it has taken over to the point that so many Christians consider it orthodox, ancient theology.  And with it came speculation that every world leader we don’t like could be the antichrist (recall the 2008 election and how many church leaders were unapologetically speculating one of the candidates was it).

When I was first realizing that this wasn’t even in the Bible, I immediately realized how this whole tribulation/end-of-the-world narrative, especially when combined with a belief in a literal hell, caused us to abandon so much of God’s work in the world.  As  McLaren also notes (and I’ve actually heard Christians make these arguments):

If the world is about to end, why care for the environment?  Why worry about global climate change or peak oil?  Who gives a rip for endangered species or sustainable economies or global poverty if God is planning to incinerate the whole planet soon anyway?… If God has predetermined that the world will get worse and worse until it ends in a cosmic megaconflict between the forces of Light (epitomized most often in the United States) and the forces of Darkness (previously centered in communism, but now, that devil having been vanquished, in Islam), why waste energy on peacemaking, diplomacy or interreligious dialogue?  Aren’t those simply endeavors in rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic?

One thing McLaren talked about when a group of us met with him last year was that we should perhaps test our theologies (when trying to choose between different interpretations of a vague text) by considering how it would play out if we replicated the type of God we believe in (sort of like a theological spin on Kant’s Categorical Imperative).  In this case, if God is intent on destroying the world with fire and showing no mercy to most of its inhabitants, then what would it look like if we were to emulate our god?  Not too pretty.  Definitely not too peaceful, merciful, ethical, or loving.

What McLaren’s main point seems to be in this chapter is asking us to consider whether reality is static, set, a closed system that is predetermined, or instead a fluid, dynamic system of free-will and call and response.  A god who is soul-sorting into the damnation or salvation bins is good news for me if I am on the list, but a dynamic God working to heal and reconcile everything is pretty good news for everyone (except, perhaps, for the vilest of holdouts who stubbornly wish for losers to lose in the end).

When Jesus predicted the Antichrist would come to Jerusalem, destroy the temple, and wreak havoc on that generation, I assume this did in fact happen (in 70 A.D.).  But that was not the fixed end of days.  It was a chance for the people of God to again pick up and choose again.  McLaren points out that the phrase “the second coming of Christ” never appears in the Bible, but parousia does, a term meaning “presence” or “coming alongside of.”  It’s the idea that god is here in us, in the world, calling us to participate.  And we can make the world better or more divided.  I like where McLaren is going with this, but I would have liked for him to flush out a bit more on whether he expects a literal return of Christ or sees the parousia as the ultimate coming of the Spirit into the world.

McLaren finishes the chapter with a quote from renowned theologian Jurgen Moltmann:

The Message of the new righteousness which eschatological faith brings into the world says that in fact the executioners will not finally triumph over their victims.  It also says that in the end the victims will not triumph over their executioners.  The one [Jesus] will triumph who first did for the victims and then also for the executioners, and in sod oing revealed a new righteousness which breaks through the vicious circles of hate and vengeance and which, from the victims and executioners, creates… a new humanity.


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