Yesterday, as President Obama was sworn in, the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir sang ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic.’
As catchy as is the chorus of that hymn, I’ve never enjoyed singing it in church. Whenever you conflate the Second Coming of Christ with the justness of an American war you’re on dangerous theological ground. Anyways, more on that later.
This weekend we conclude our Razing Hell sermon series talking about the Second Coming. Perhaps no other Christian doctrine is so fraught with popular misunderstandings and willful, fanciful misinterpretations of scripture.
You know what I’m talking about: guys like Jack Van Impe making dire predictions about current events, identifying politicos like Obama with the Antichrist, interpreting Middle East Politics according to the coded schema of Revelation. And don’t even get started on the rapture.
These ways of reading Revelation, popularized in our own day by the Left Behind novels, are actually quite new and modern ways of interpreting, beginning with the rise of the modernist movement in the late 19th century.
These readings distort John’s original hope. Typically, such movements join visions of cosmic, final warfare with political action, divide the world into good and evil, demonize all who disagree, and are convinced of the rightness and righteousness of their view.
Such groups differ in the extremity of virulence of their views but all of them see present world events as fulfillments of biblical descriptions of the end time and as heading, by God’s predetermination, toward the cataclysmic end of history.
There’s a reason this way of reading Revelation is appealing. It gives gravity to the events of our own day. It makes scripture ‘exciting’ in that Revelation becomes like a treasure map or crystal ball, and it raises the stakes of my own individual belief.
As you’ve probably been exposed to before, contemporary apocalypticism predicts an exact timetable leading to the awful end ordained by God and predicted in the bible. It sees the beginning of this end ushered in by the modern state of Israel and it will culminate in a final battle of Armageddon. The faithful, however, will be ‘raptured’ to the Lord, escaping the tribulations and destruction. Evangelization before the final destruction will be done by 144,000 converted Jews. This will happen in our lifetime, according to such groups.
The problems with this way of reading Revelation are many and it departs from an authentic hope in Jesus Christ in significant ways:
1) It depends on and feeds fear.
2) The ‘rapture’ is based on a solitary biblical text (1 Thessalonians 4.17).
3) The notion that the faithful will be exempt from tribulation or suffering is alien to the Gospels.
4) It elevates the power of Evil to almost godlike proportions.
5) The timetable is deterministic. God’s set it in stone from the beginning. There’s nothing we can do to change history nor does our faithfulness effect it.
6) The world is divided between believers and infidels.
7) Jews are not sisters and brothers in the covenant nor are they people whom God loves and we must love too. Israel is important only for the role it plays in a timetable towards Armageddon.
8) Reconciliation of sinners is impossible.
9) The real object of hope is not Christ or New Creation but rapture.
10) Most importantly, the life, death and resurrection of Jesus are secondary, in this view, to the apocalypse. The Cross is less decisive than a final, cosmic war. Armageddon is more significant than Golgotha. Christ’s work on the cross was not ‘finished.’ Moreover, the Cross is no longer the full disclosure of God’s character or nature. In the Cross, we see a God who suffers wrath in our place: ‘while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.’ By contrast, contemporary apocalypticism sees it as ‘while we were still sinners Christ smote us in a cosmic battle.’ What emerges from this view is an almost schizophrenic Jesus.