Saturday, 7 January 2012

A different end of the world

Here we go, then, with an alternative take on what will happen at the end of this era or system of things. I'm quite looking forward to writing this post as I enjoy exploring the boundaries of orthodox Christian belief. Some people see these boundaries as fences to keep us safely under the umbrella of God's protection, but I don't see why we need to be so cautious. So many of the renewal movements and Christian social action initiatives that have shaped the history of the faith have been pushed along by people who weren't afraid to swim against the tide of their times. Imagine if the Reformation had never happened, or if Wilberforce and others had not fought against slavery, just to quote two examples.

As I said in my post a few days ago, the typical evangelical Christian view of the end of the world is this: Jesus will return to the earth, and people will be judged according to whether they believe in Jesus, with those who do believe going on to spend eternity in God's glorious presence and those who do not either spending eternity in torment or being wiped out of existence. Brian McLaren's book, A New Kind of Christianity (or ANKOC for short) proposes a different view which starts off by focusing on an important little Greek word, parousia.

This Greek word is commonly translated as 'coming' or 'arrival'. It's used in the New Testament to describe the arrival of people in a certain place (e.g. in 1 Corinthians 16:17 and 2 Corinthians 7:6). Most often, though, it refers to Jesus in passages that are usually taken to be about Jesus' Second Coming. In particular, see 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 and 2 Thessalonians 2. These passages refer to 'Lord himself... com[ing] down from heaven with a commanding shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet call of God' and 'the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and how we will be gathered to meet him'. The exact sequence of events around the Second Coming are disputed, as I noted in my previous post. Here's a diagram from Wikipedia:

It's important to note, though, that the New Testament writers seemed to believe that this 'parousia' of Jesus would happen fairly soon. Look at Mark 13 and the parallel passages in the other Gospels; Jesus says, 'I tell you the truth, this generation will not pass from the scene before all these things take place.' Some Bible versions fudge this by translating the Greek word genea as 'age' or 'nation' but I gather that in almost, if not completely, all the other times it appears in the New Testament and other documents from that time (do your own research, but here is an interesting point to start at) the word means 'generation'. Which means that Jesus, Paul and the others got it wrong if it does refer to a future, epoch-ending event...

So what if, instead, it referred to the full replacement of the Jewish religious system with the new covenant between God and humanity? From ANCOK p266-7:
[I]f the New Testament writers were in fact correct in their expectations of a close-at-hand parousia[I]... the term could mean the arrival... of a new age or era – a new season of growth. It could mean not the full arrival of 'the end of the end', but the full arrival of 'the beginning of a new beginning'. Parousia[I], in this way, would signal the full arrival, presence and manifestation of a new age in human history... This would be the age of the Spirit and grace rather than law and law-keeping. It would be the age of God's presence in a holy people being formed in all cultures rather than God's presence localised in a holy temple centralised in one city.

(Sorry for all the '…' by the way; McLaren makes several references to ideas and phrases from earlier in ANKOC, which won't make sense unless you've read the book. I hope I've managed to preserve McLaren's meaning, though.)

In New Testament times, the old covenant was clearly still in operation. Jesus himself was circumcised as a baby and accepted the title of rabbi, taking students (or disciples) as rabbis did in those times. He spoke in synagogues and, in many ways, behaved as a devout Jew. He was brought before the Sanhedrin and accused of blasphemy against God. But in AD 70, the Romans destroyed the Jerusalem Temple, bringing all of that to an end. Here is how McLaren relates these events to the arrival of a new age:
[T]he parousia – the arrival or presence – of the new era or covenant began after an in-between time during which the old era or covenant co-existed with the new. In other words, the age of the new covenant had been conceived[I] in the birth, life, teaching, good words, death and resurrection of Jesus. Then, after Easter, the new era continued gestating[I] in the community of his followers through several decades of struggle and persecution, culminating in a time of great tribulation, when persecution and danger intensified like labour pains[I]. During these years, the new age, like a gestating baby, was already[I] here, but not yet[I] fully born. During this time, the old system of animal sacrifice, priesthood, temple and holy city had not yet[I] ended, yet the new system (or covenant) that would outlast it was already[I] developing in secret.

When the Romans came to Jerusalem and crushed a Zealot-led rebellion in AD 70, the temple was destroyed, the sacrificial system ended, the priesthood was disbanded, and the old era came to its last day. With the cataclysmic last days of the old era ended, the new age, new covenant, new testament or new era was brought to full term, and its parousia[I] had come.
So this gives an alternative to the usual take on the 'Second Coming' but what about judgement? That's another thread running through the New Testament which could perhaps do with a closer look. The usual understanding is that all humanity will be judged (based on what is an interesting question – it could be faith in Christ or how we treat those in need) with those who 'pass' getting to spend eternity with God, and those who 'fail' going on to what Brian McLaren starkly describes as eternal conscious torment. Here are some illustrations...

But what if God's judgement is not about condemnation, but rather evaluation and reconciliation? I'll quote McLaren again, instead of trying to put his words into my own:
The reality of judgment seems to be a central theme across the biblical library [more on the library thing here), because in God's presence all pretence and hypocrisy, like all hidden virtues and goodness, are brought to light and our true colours shine through. This means that the true accounting, evaluation or assessment of our lives, our works, our nations, our world cannot help but happen. This true accounting, evaluation or assessment is what judgement means... As a first step in seeing judgement in our new eschatological context, we must stop defining it as condemnation. God's judgement... is not merely retributive – seeking to punish wrongdoers for their wrongs and in this way to balance some sort of cosmic equation. No, God's judgement is far higher and better than that; it involves 'putting wrong things right'. It means reconciling, not merely punishing; healing, not merely diagnosing; transforming, not merely exposing; revaluing (or redeeming), not merely evaluating...

Whatever the final judgement will be, then, it will not involve God (please pardon the crudeness of this) pulling down one's pants to check for circumcision, or scanning one's brain for certain beliefs like products being scanned at the supermarket checkout. No, God will examine the story of our lives for signs of Christ-likeness – for a cup of cold water or a plate of hot food given to one in need, for an atom of mercy shown to one who has been unkind or unthoughtful, for a visit to a prisoner or an open door and warm bed for a stranger, for a generous impulse indulged and a hurtful one denied, like Jesus. These are the parts of a person's life that will be deemed worthy of being saved, remembered, rewarded and raised for a new beginning. All the unloving, unjust, non-Christ-like parts of our lives – and of our nations, tribes, civilisations, families, churches, and so on – will be burned away, counted as unworthy, condemned (which means acknowledged for what they are) and forgotten for ever.

So when we say, with the writer of Hebrews, that 'people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment', we are not saying, 'and after that, to face condemnation'. We are saying, with John, that to 'see God', to be in God's unspeakable light, will purge us of all darkness.

I am sorry this is rather long and dense, but I hope you have found reading it even half as interesting as I have found writing it. I don't know what to make of a lot of what McLaren says in A New Kind of Christianity, if I'm honest. It is all so appealing and hopeful but it's in such stark contrast to what I've always been taught in my time as a Christian. The idea that Jesus is coming back to judge and separate everyone into 'sheep' and 'goats' (as per Matthew 25) is utterly central to evangelical Christianity. Am I just paying too much attention to someone who is 'teaching things contrary to what I have been taught' and using 'smooth talk and glowing words' to deceive people (see Romans 16:18)?

If you want to read some more (more? More!) then there's an article on McLaren's website based on material that got cut from A New Kind of Christianity. It's called 'Making Eschatology Personal' and covers the personal element of the 'end of the world' in more detail. Follow the link...


  1. Definitely want to read McLaren's book now.

    "Am I just paying too much attention to someone who is 'teaching things contrary to what I have been taught' and using 'smooth talk and glowing words' to deceive people (see Romans 16:18)? "

    There is that danger, itching ears and all. But on the other hand, McLaren seems to be trying to reconcile Biblical teachings with the character of God. How is it just to punish someone to eternal torment? How can heaven be a place of no more tears if your entire family is now undergoing eternal torture--does God wipe your memory of your family from your mind so you don't grieve for them? That seems at odds to free will, a concept so seemingly important that God allowed the entire world to be 'cursed'.(?)

    Faith needs to be reconciled with sense, and the "God moves in mysterious ways" and "Who are you to judge your Creator?" doesn't help with the reconciling.

    Lots to consider. It is rather encouraging to read about other people also doing lots of considering.

  2. Agreed about reconciling the whole Bible with itself and the apparent injustice of eternal conscious torment. I'd always thought that (assuming I made it to eternity with God) I'd somehow see the justice in those who'd rejected Jesus in this life going on to spending eternity without Him. But at that time I had no idea there was any alternative view that still sought to hold true to the Biblical witness.

    And yes, I too find it very encouraging that there are some theologians who are exploring the boundaries and not staying within so-called safe pastures!