An American Myth

As I write, Election Day is in full swing and we’re hours away from the first results being tabulated. We’re living through the most divisive election since 1968 and probably the most divisive season in American life since the run-up to the Civil War in the 1850s.

What I’m struck with is how divisive this election season has been among American evangelical Christians. Inter-evangelical conflicts have been front-and-center ever since Donald Trump came down that New York City stairway five years ago, and the online sniping, dueling blogs, and downright boorish behavior by people who should know better has not enhanced our reputation. It’s even made me wonder whether American evangelicalism can survive as a renewal movement within American Christianity.

The political and theological battles among folks who claim to follow Christ have been percolating for at least two generations, ever since the so-called Moral Majority was established by Jerry Falwell in 1979. Those evangelicals who opposed Falwell, Pat Robertson, and other minions that made up the “religious-right” coalesced around the Post American magazine (later Sojourners) and the 1973 Chicago Statement of Social Concern. While their numbers were much smaller than those of the religious-right, they made up for that with influence in many of the Christian liberal arts colleges that are part of American evangelicalism. From the 1980s on, there has been a low-level cold war between the two with the typical political insults hurled back and forth every so often. With the retirement and eventual death of Billy Graham, the forces that restrained this cold war were removed and we’re at the point where for many, evangelicalism is defined more by political ideology than theological conviction.

I don’t think there is a quick way to put this genie back in the bottle. There are no trite little religious sayings or slogans that can address all of the complexity at the heart of this. So what do we do? In this writer’s view we need to grasp both Christian purpose and American purpose. Let me start with the latter.

Perhaps the greatest driver of American Christianity’s understanding of political life has been its embrace of the myth that the United States is somehow God’s chosen nation to carry out his purposes in the world. In other words, the United States has become a “new Israel” commissioned by God. God has made America and its citizens “exceptional” in the world. We’re different than Canada, China, Japan, Germany, the UK, and so on because to use the words of those great theologians Jake and Elwood Blues, “we’re on a mission from God!”

More Religious, More Secular

The roots of this are both religious and secular. When the Puritan communities settled Plymouth and later Boston they envisioned themselves commissioned by God to establish a Christian society based on John Calvin’s Geneva (in Switzerland), that would provide the half-hearted monarchs in England, France, Spain and the Roman papacy with an example of true Christianity applied to political and social life.

This Puritan dream collapsed in the early 18th century and was replaced in the American Revolution by a secularized version. The new American elites viewed the new country they had created as an example to the European monarchs of what a virtuous political community should look like. While for the Puritans, their settlements were a “city on a hill” (to use a term from Matthew’s gospel), the deistic, more secular revolutionaries of the 1770s viewed their revolution as creating a more secular “city on a hill” based on political and economic freedom.

Their vision was noble, but misguided. The reality is that the American founders envisioned a nation-state based on republican principles that came from enlightenment rationalism. The American founders were scared to death of the religious violence that decimated Europe in the 17th century, violence created by different forms of Christianity vying for superiority in the European monarchies. Jefferson, Adams, Washington, Franklin and others desired a government that would eliminate religious competition for government status and the violence that often went along with it.

American evangelical Christians in the late 18th century were more than happy to go along with this arrangement. They were willing to give up formal endorsement from the government in exchange for religious freedom–the liberty of individual Christians to choose their church according to their conscience and the freedom of churches and religious groups to conduct their work free from government intrusion. At once, the United States became more religious and more secular. Government could not interfere in religious life (as was the case in England) nor could churches demand some kind of religious test to hold political office (as was the case in most European monarchies at the time).

Resisting the Political Illusion

What does this mean? Three things. First, while Christian and Enlightenment ideas strongly influenced American society, the United States was (and is) not a “Christian nation” in the sense that many use this term today. We are a nation-state like all of the others which exist in our world. We are no different or no better than Canada, the United Kingdom, Japan, or the other nation states that make up our world. Second, no matter what country in which they live Christians have a responsibility to make better their communities and their countries. Our focus is the Kingdom message of the Christian gospel. Christians believe that God is doing something radically new through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. We offer the gospel, the news that the crucified Christ has been raised from death to life and that he offers life to all who will come to him in faith. We speak the words of life, but we also act in ways that allow human beings to flourish in our congregations, in our communities, in our cities and states. We speak and act on behalf of the poor. We desire that human dignity apply to all in the human family no matter their race, ethnicity, gender, or geography. We’re even foolish enough to care for others with whom we disagree.

Finally, we resist what Jacques Ellul described as “the political illusion” the idea that everything can be reduced to politics. The political illusion is rampant throughout American Christianity to the point that what I think of Joe Biden or Donald Trump is almost determinative of our faith. How we need a return to the Gospel. How we need to speak the words of life. How we need to act in ways that address the physical, social, and spiritual needs of our communities. How we need to foster human flourishing for all in our churches and in our communities.

Let’s make our churches far less political. Let’s drop the partisan politics. Let’s make sure that our churches are welcoming to people who are Democrats, Republicans, Independents, or whatever political group they identify with. No political endorsements from our pulpits. No letting politicians address our worship services. Instead let’s be gospel Christians, ones who tell others about our Lord Jesus Christ, who call them to repentance and faith, and desire to see everyone in our communities flourish where God has placed them.

The Gospel of King Jesus

Early in his ministry, Mark records Jesus coming to the region of Galilee “proclaiming the good news of God.” Some translations use the phrase “proclaiming the gospel of God.” The gospel. The good news of the Christian faith. Exactly what is that good news. Jesus tells us: “The time has come. The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:14-15). Good news? About a time? About a Kingdom? I thought the good news was about my personal salvation. What is all of this about a time and a kingdom? And what is all of this about repentance?

Let’s unpack this a bit. When Mark uses the word “time,” the word is kairos which means the significance of a specific moment or event. What is that specific event? It is the coming of God’s Kingdom, the time when God will reign over all the earth. The rule of Israel’s God will come over all of the earth. There is an echo of a passage from Isaiah:

“How beautiful on the mountains, are the feet of those who bring good news,

who proclaim peace,

who bring good tidings,

who proclaim salvation,

who say to Zion, “Your God reigns!” (Isaiah 52:7).

The kingdom of God is nothing less than the reign and rule of God. It has come to earth through the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord. It is what the late George Ladd called The Presence of the Future. We see signs of the Kingdom all around us now. We will see it in its fullness when our Lord returns to set all of creation right. This is the real good news of the Gospel.

How do we prepare to receive this good news? Jesus tells us that we must repent and believe. Repent from what? Our sinful self-centeredness which shapes how we live in the world. Believe what? That Jesus is the one who will bring God’s rule to bear in our world. If we put it into colloquial terms, we might say something like, “Listen up. It’s about time. God is going to take over. And you need to get yourselves right with him!” It’s a message not only for individuals but a challenge to God’s people to collectively get ourselves right with God.

This is much more than simply acknowledging that God exists or affirming some statements or teachings about God. It is not a mere transaction where we say what we think God wants to hear and then go on our merry ways. To “repent and believe” involves relationship. The key word is not “decision” as in making a “decision for Christ. It is not “acceptance” as in “accepting Jesus Christ as your personal savior.” The key word is “allegiance!” To be converted in the biblical sense is to declare our allegiance to Jesus Christ, and become his follower.

So what?

“So what? you might ask. “All that matters is that there is a place for me in heaven and I will be comfortable after I die.” But the point is this. While God’s purposes include individual believers, that is not the entire story. What is God up to in all of this? It’s pretty clear in the New Testament, especially in Romans 8 and in the final chapters of the book of Revelation. God’s project is to redeem and renew the entire created order, including us! Our individual salvation, while important, is only a small portion of a much larger story.

In reading the entirety of Holy Scripture, we can see God’s activity as a four-fold symphony that unfolds on its pages. The first movement is that of Creation. In other words, the heavens and earth and all they contain exist because of the creative activity of God. Genesis 1-2 do not describe the mechanics of creation and I am one who thinks that science and faith are not enemies, but complement each other. Hence, I see no need to worry about long it took God to do all of this because that is not the point of this passage.

The second symphonic movement is the tragic song of our rebellion against God, a rebellion that echoes what happened in the very dimensions where God lives. We call that “the fall of humanity” and we use terms like rebellion, depravity and (the one we are most familiar with) sin. I’ve seen a thousand definitions of sin but its essence is that humanity as a whole as well as each human individual have decided that we can live our lives independently of our Creator. To live as God designed us to involves living in dependence on him, on keeping his statues, and living out the agenda he gives us.

But after the tragedy of the second movement comes the hope of the great third movement in the symphony of Scripture–the movement of redemption and rescue. God could have simply walked away and left us to our own designs. Fortunately, he did not. God instead established a rescue plan for his creation, a rescue plan that includes us. The score of the symphony describes the plan and its culmination in Jesus Christ. Jesus comes announcing the Kingdom of God. But many of his hearers misunderstand him and think he has come as a political messiah–one who would reverse the humiliation of Rome and move the capital of civilization from Rome back to Jerusalem where they think it should be.

That is not what Jesus does. Instead, he comes as a suffering messiah and one who dies for the sins of his people, and indeed the entire world. As he describes in Matthew 13 through the stories he tells, that Kingdom has come but is now small as a tiny seed. But a time will come when all will see that Kingdom has become a giant tree that lives life to all. Jesus comes to die, but God raises him back to life as a picture of what all of God’s people and indeed all of creation will experience.

That’s the fourth movement, the movement that comes at a future point known only to God. Our risen Christ will return to earth and his entire creation, all of heaven and earth, will be restored to its original intent and design. And, if we are “in Christ” we will be part of a new creation rescued and redeemed, and like Jesus after his death we will be raised with him as this giant reclamation project reaches its crescendo.

Citizens of the Future

We who are followers of Jesus are citizens of the future. Paul makes that clear at the end of the first chapter of his letter to the Philiippian congregation. The Philippians, like all followers of Jesus, now have a citizenship far greater than any national allegiance. So, Paul wants them to live as citizens of a Kingdom that transcends all of time and space, a Kingdom that will come in God’s time and in God’s way. “Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” (Phil 1:27ff).

How do we do that? Let me tell you first how we do not do that. Karen Swallow Prior, one of the finest evangelical scholars of our day, puts it so well:

“There is a deep, tragic irony in the fact that one of the traditional hallmarks of both [political] conservatism and [American] evangelicalism is the distrust of centralized power. Yet here conservative evangelicalism stands. And falls.

“In the name of conservatism, we conserve the wrong things.

“In the same of evangelism, we evangelize for the wrong gods.

“In the name of religion, we harm those entrusted to our care.

“Jesus had severe words for such actions: “Things that cause people to stumble are bound to come, but woe to anyone through whom they come. It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble. So watch yourselves.”

Perhaps, we followers of Jesus need to start by stop doing the things that Karen describes. From there, we can start the Kingdom work that God gives us:

In the name of Christ, we learn to conserve the right things. Things like the fruit of the Spirit, the classical Christian virtues that order lives that are healthy and whole, and integrity of human relationships.

In the name of evangelism, we evangelize for the right things, namely God’s rescue project for all of creation and for human individuals found in Jesus Christ.

In 2020, God is speaking to his people, especially those of us in North America. It is clear what events God is using–Covid-19, the conflict over continuing racism, the fragmentation of our politics, our deepening environmental crisis, indeed our growing inability to speak with others with whom we disagree. We need a huge course correction.

Karen Swallow Prior’s Let Liberty University Be a Lesson in Unchecked Power, which I have cited above can be found at https://religionunplugged.com/news/2020/8/27/let-liberty-university-be-a-lesson-in-unchecked-power.

Ethics and Eschatology

Two weeks ago, my colleague Dr. Rodney Cooper and I were leading a group of doctoral students and during his first presentation to the group, Rodney said something that struck me: “Our eschatology determines our ethics.” I’ve been mentally kicking that thought around since I heard it, pondering its meaning and its implications for American and Canadian Christians who live in what has become a divided, fragmented culture driven more by images from social media than any disciplined  and thoughtful approach toward individual and corporate life.

As one fascinated by the assumptions that historians bring to the subjects, I’m mindful of several ways that historians can approach their work. Some work from a “progressive” stance and assume that humanity is constantly improving and that historical events demonstrate a movement from the primitive to a world where human agency will solve all of our problems. Others are “Marxist” historians in that they see everything through an economic lens with history representing the struggle of the working classes to overcome the power of the upper classes and create a world of genuine equality. (Please note that the Leninist revision of Marxism practiced in the Soviet Union represented only one, albeit deeply failed, way of looking at this. Marxists come in several varieties.) Still others view history in cyclical terms, with events repeating themselves in different ways as the world cycles through time. Cyclical historians give wide berth to the idea of “fate,” an unknown indecipherable force that controls the how historical events unfold. The term “accident of history” gets at this idea.

Christianty and history

Christianity offers a very different understanding of history. In the Christian understanding of history, all activity is seen as the outworking of God’s purposes for creation and the creatures that inhabit it. God’s providential care is at work, although as human beings we are mostly unable to discern how specific events and movement fit into those overall purposes. Still Christians trust in the God revealed in Holy Scripture, and trust that in the midst of our fragmented, chaotic existence, God is providentially working out his purposes.

Moreover, like the historical progressives, Christian historians are ultimately optimistic about the course of history. The big difference between the two schools of thought is that while progressives place great value in human agency, Christians are deeply skeptical of human nature and therefore look to God to bring its ultimate outcome. In other words, history points toward eschatology and the events described by the Apostle Paul in Romans 8 and John in Revelation 21-22, when all of creation will be redeemed and the people of God will dwell with God eternally in a “new heaven and new earth.”

If history points us to the future that God has for creation and for the people of God, and if that future determines how we live and work, then a biblical eschatology is vitally important for Christians like you and me (and if you are not a Christian, I invite to read, study, and reflect not on all of the “noise” coming out of American evangelicalism these days, but on the overarching purposes of God for creation and for us). Scripture is clear that the Christian understanding of history centers on the coming of Kingdom of God from heaven to earth where God’s rule over all of creation will be demonstrated first in more hidden ways, and finally in a visible Kingdom at the return of Christ at a future time.

So, what does a “Kingdom eschatology” look like. The late New Testament theologian George Eldon Ladd described it well with the title of one of his books, The Presence of the Future. In other words, followers of Jesus become citizens of a new reality that is not yet fully realized on earth.  We can describe this new reality with the phrase “already but not yet.” In other words, the Kingdom of God has come to earth through the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, but in a hidden sense not visible to most. Jesus describes it this way in Matthew 13 in a series of parables. When you read that passage, note that most of the parables begin with “The Kingdom of Heaven is like…”

But, the biblical writers teach, a time will come when the Kingdom will be fully visible, when Jesus returns to make all things right in all of creation. I’ve already referenced the eighth chapter of Paul’s letter to the church at Rome. That chapter is perhaps my favorite in all of the Bible. As you read that passage, note that our Lord’s return will bring the fullness of the Kingdom of God and with that includes the entire created order. That renewal of creation includes you and me, but is much more than us. All of creation will be renewed according to God’s purposes. The Kingdom of God which is now present but hidden, will become visible. (My favorite description is found in C.S. Lewis’s The Last Battle, the seventh and last of his delightful series of books titled The Chronicles of Narnia.)

Misunderstanding the Kingdom of God

Nineteenth-century American Christians made two great theological mistakes regarding the Kingdom of God. The party that came to be associated with theological liberalism associated the Kingdom of God with our contemporary world and argued that human enlightenment and effort could and would usher in a near perfect society. Proponents of a so-called “Kingdom Now” eschatology argued that the return of Christ was a mere symbol of the Kingdom that human agency and effort would build on earth. Their influential adherents included Harry Emerson Fosdick, a well known Baptist pastor in New York City, and Shailer Mathews, the noted theological historian at the University of Chicago.

The other party (which came to be associated with Fundamentalism) argued that the kingdom of God was “postponed” until after Christ returned to earth at a future date. This postponement led to a “lifeboat eschatology” embraced by the noted evangelist Dwight Moody, and C.I. Scofield, the composer of the popular Scofield Study Bible. Christians should mostly ignore the problems of the world and focus on getting people into the “lifeboat” of Christ before it was too late.

What is problematic about both of these views is that each one ignores a significant aspect of what Holy Scripture teaches about one of the central Christian doctrines–the “already but not yet” nature of the Kingdom of God. Both divorce individual salvation from ethical concern for our fellow human beings and the welfare of society. This bifurcated teaching even impacts our personal eschatology. We talk about “going to heaven when we die.” But what does that mean for most people. I think it often gets reduced to a kind of gnosticism described in the gospel song “I’ll fly away.” That was exactly the teaching of the second-century gnostic heretics who argued that any physical reality was evil and created by some secondary god and not the God described in the New Testament.

Instead, let me suggest that God’s purpose is the very redemption of our bodies (Romans 8:23) along with the redemption of all of creation. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul speaks of our Lord’s resurrection as the “first-fruits,” as the paradigm for our individual resurrections when we are raised from death as fully embodied persons! Our Christian confidence is grounded in our expectation that when Jesus returns and all of creation is redeemed we will be raised from death as embodied persons in the same way that God raised Jesus from death.

While I think that God does care for his people between the time of our physical death and his return and that the only thing we are aware of during that time is his care for us, that is not the end of the story. Our Christian hope is resurrection and redemption. And, that is what a Christian understanding of history points us toward. Christian historians write history with God’s providence in mind. While much of God’s providence is hidden from us, we write knowing the ultimate outcome–that the Kingdom of God that is now hidden from view will be made fully visible for all at the return of Jesus Christ.

Eschatology and ethics

So, what does this mean for how we live? How does this connection between eschatology and ethics work its way out in our lives, in our Christian communities, even in our society? Let me suggest three important ways.

First, God values human persons, all of them! He values them no matter who they are and he desires that they flourish, both now and in eternity. He even values folks in the political party that you don’t like.

Second, God values justice, both in this age and in the age to come. The prophet Amos makes clear that justice concerns God in our present age, and that justice is integral to human flourishing. And, he wants us to value them here and now.

Finally, our efforts to bring justice and reconciliation to our fellow human beings will be proximate and subject to the realities of our fallen, sinful. But, that doesn’t mean that we don’t try to encourage justice.

We don’t need utopian schemes. Instead we need to work for justice in the concrete realities of life. When we see ethnic cleansing, racism, slaughter of innocents, people living without hope, mental illness, God challenges us to act. We act with words–the words of the grace-filled gospel of Jesus Christ. And we encourage actions that bring justice in our congregations and in our communities.

Wow. Our eschatology really does determines our ethics.

Tiki-torches and American Exceptionalism

Who qualified as an American? To whom did the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights refer?

Four-hundred years ago, the Mayflower Puritans made landfall near modern-day Plymouth, MA. Fleeing religious persecution from both church and state authorities, this small group wanted to establish their version of a Christian society where the church would be reformed and government would take its cues from Holy Scripture. Their colony would shine as a “city on a hill,” to use terminology from Matthew’s gospel (5:14) and demonstrate to others how such a society should function.

Obviously, reality came nowhere close to that, but the idea of an “exceptional” society was birthed in documents like the Mayflower Compact. Like the Old Testament nation of Israel, the Puritan settlers saw themselves as fulfilling a unique destiny and special purpose that God had given them.

A century later, this idea of a special destiny and purpose became secularized by the revolutionaries who replaced the British monarchy with a republican form of government and emphasis on individual liberty (at least for men of European descent). In other words, the United States was an “exceptional” nation with a unique destiny that set it apart from the monarchies of Europe, and its early history was a rejection of European notions of birthright, social class, and patronage. Integral to American exceptionalism was expansion from east to west, from Atlantic to Pacific, described by the mid-19th century phrase “manifest destiny.” Events like the Louisiana Purchase in 1811, the forced removal of most Cherokees from their homelands in Georgia and North Carolina in the 1830s, and Texas annexation in 1845 were viewed as fulfillment of divine national purpose.

A Two-edged Sword

“American exceptionalism” was born in the 18th century, survived the bloody Civil War of the 19th, and reached full flower at the turn of the 20th. It was embraced by white American Christians of all stripes (with notable exceptions) and reached fruition after the second world war. It had deeply religious overtones, and by mid-20th century most Caucasian American Christians had given the country significant theological meaning that identified national purposes with God’s mission and purpose. Many Americans became advocates of “civil religion,” a linking of God’s purposes with the fate of the United States. Moreover, nobody wanted to be excluded from the party. Despite their divorce from each other in the early 20th century, liberal and fundamentalist Protestants did not want to be seen as opposing American purposes and supported American patriotism. Roman Catholics went to great lengths to portray themselves as loyal Americans especially when John F. Kennedy was elected the 35th president.

American exceptionalism was the air we breathed at mid-20th century. Our nation-state had a divine purpose, and there was nothing we could not accomplish if we put our minds to it. That conservative Christians embraced this exceptionalism is seen in the sermons, speeches, and writings of evangelical stalwarts like Harold Ockenga, J. Howard Pew, Carl F.H. Henry, and Billy Graham. In my own doctoral research I discovered an apt example in a letter to the editor where the writer desired that “Christ and the liberty that made us free would reign supreme” at an upcoming denominational meeting. In other words, for most American Christians at mid-century (with some exceptions), Christianity was a two-edged sword that embraced both faith in God and loyalty to the United States, both of which guaranteed our individual freedom and prosperity.

Still, underneath all of the rhetoric were fundamental questions: Who qualified as an American? To whom did the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights refer? Did they refer in the 1830s to native Americans like the Cherokees who were forcibly displaced from their homeland? Did they apply in 1860 to the four million African Americans whose ancestors were brought to American shores forcibly to work in bondage to their so-called “masters?” Did they include those who resided here when the United States conquered and annexed 40% of Mexico in 1845? Did they mean that 22 million people could be denied education, housing, and economic freedom until 1954 when the Supreme Court decided that “separate but equal” policies actually discriminated against people based on the color of their skin?

These questions, and others like them, lie just below the surface of American political, social, and religious life–and they have been there ever since the American Revolution. They make us uncomfortable, because they challenge the very notion that the United States is different from all other places, even today. Is it possible that we are just like many other places and nation-states? Adolf Hitler once observed that he used how the United States treated African Americans through slavery, Jim Crow, and segregation as a framework for what became the Holocaust, the wanton slaughter of six-million Jewish people. Like so many white Americans who viewed native Americans, African Americans, and other ethnic peoples as “inferior” and undeserving of true American citizenship, Hitler simply argued that Jews were somehow sub-human and needed to be eliminated so that Germans could realize their Aryan destiny.

Good and Bad Exceptionalism

Despite the sordid underbelly of American history, I’m actually hopeful. Why? Because unlike most other nation-states in the world, the United States has a reformist spirit in our DNA. We have been on a 250-year journey to apply the ideals of freedom, liberty, and equality to all who live here. We are not there yet, not by a long shot, and as the United States becomes more ethnically diverse over the next 30 years, we will have to face more uncomfortable matters. But confronting and addressing the sins of our past and present is American exceptionalism at its best.

But exceptionalism at its worst is once again on display. And, it is impacting American evangelicalism. Bad exceptionalism is now front-and-center through identification of Christian faith with a nationalistic agenda that views others with fear and suspicion. Bad exceptionalism was on full display two years ago when white nationalists marched through Charlottesville, VA with tiki-torches in a display that brought to mind Nazi Germany in the 1930s. Bad exceptionalism is found at the southern border when children are separated from their parents and people seeking political asylum in fear of their lives are treated as if their claims do not matter. Bad exceptionalism occurs when evangelicals replace the Christian gospel with trying to impose a religious establishment on our fellow citizens.

Of all Americans, evangelicals should be the ones we can look to when we want to see examples of good exceptionalism. After all, the essence of the Christian faith involves bringing the Kingdom of God to bear on our present existence. Men and women, boys and girls need to hear the good news of the Gospel. Christians need to be engaged not so much in the agendas of political parties, but in addressing the needs of our communities, things like poverty, affordable housing, racism, family life, and educating the next generation. We do those things because God’s goal for all humans is that we will flourish in relationship with him. We know that God’s kingdom will be fulfilled at the return of Christ. Yet, we follow Jesus Christ by being what the late George Eldon Ladd once described as “the presence of the future.”

In my view, it is time for American evangelicals to reject bad exceptionalism and recapture the reformist spirit that was part of evangelical DNA especially in the 18th and 19th centuries. How can we do that? Here is what I think. Not an exhaustive list, but some food for thought.

First, American evangelicals of all kinds should withdraw from the two major political parties and become political independents. We have become too closely identified with a particular political party and it is harming our gospel witness. Moreover, our relationship with both American political parties should be to call them to account for the massive corruption that they have fostered in our society during the past half-century.

Then, our focus must become more local. Lots of evangelical energy has been wasted on party politics at the expense of human need in our communities, cities, and states. In my city–Charlotte, North Carolina–we face significant local problems–poverty, upward mobility, affordable housing, transportation and evangelicals in my city are needed to address those matters so that our fellow citizens can flourish.

In addition, let’s turn off most television and cable news. Television is an entertainment medium and your favorite Cable TV news channel has one goal–to get you to watch so they can charge higher advertising rates. And to do that, they will do anything to get you upset. Watch a news summary (I usually watch the NBC Nightly News a couple of nights a week), and then turn the news off. Better yet, get your news by reading.

Two-hundred-and-fifty years ago, the great British statesman, William Wilberforce was deeply influenced by the work of John and Charles Wesley. The Wesley’s passionately believed that the Christian faith was meant for the working-class and the poor of Great Britain. Sadly, the Anglican state church had become elitist and aristocratic. Wesley brought the gospel to coal mines and to places where common people could come.  Christian faith deeply impacted Wilberforce’s work in Parliament and he advocated two great concerns: the abolition of slavery and the “reformation of manners.” Both were eventually accomplished after decades of work, and their impact on British society was deep.

We need a contemporary reformation of manners especially given the coarseness and vulgarity of contemporary American society. That reformation must start with us, our congregations, and how we interact with others. So how will American evangelicals respond. Will we repent and turn from worldly ways. Or will we degrade American culture even more?

 

 

 

Churches in a Distracted, Ideological Age

Last week, I found myself watching Netflix and decided to watch one of their original programs, a series that had moved over from one of the major networks after being unceremoniously removed last year. I thought the premise was fascinating so decided to watch what the streaming service had done to it.

Was I ever surprised. With the transition to Netflix, the characters–men and women both– were now using the F-word so liberally that it made it hard to watch. Everyone was channeling their inner Howard Stern. Then came the portrayals of deviant sexual behavior and acts of gratuitous political power. The remote got a workout fast-forwarding through all of this garbage. And I thought, “Why take a good story premise and ruin it with all of this stuff!”

Coarseness now dominates American life

This was one instance of what I see as a dangerous pattern emerging in American life. Neil Postman, Jacques Ellul, and others have told us that visual media like television cause us to see life and all it contains as entertainment designed to amuse our individual selves and arouse our individual desires. And, with so much distraction, with so much competition for our shortened attention spans, what catches our attention is shock value.

I think that now frames almost every other aspect of life, and in an age dominated by social media it is almost impossible to escape. Now you can read and hear the President of the United States and his political opponents in the other party spew out expletive after expletive on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Even preachers are getting into the act as witnessed by the gratuitous tawdry attack on Pastor David Platt after he tried to do what is right in terms of praying for a politician who showed up as his Sunday service with little notice. (I won’t name the guilty party as he doesn’t deserve the publicity.) American evangelicals have jumped into their own food-fight over how politics and faith should intersect.

American culture has always struggled with this. It didn’t start in the 1960s, and if you don’t believe me look at the writings of prominent Americans throughout our history. We like to idolize the American founders like Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, and others. But go back and read their thoughts about each other as well as about their fellow citizens. Don’t forget to read what they wrote about slaves and native Americans while you’re at it. Look at the rhetoric throughout American history and you will see it.

Coarseness has always been part of American culture, but now our postmodern technological world means that we confront it every day on television, on social media, even in our workplaces and out neighborhoods. It’s like the old adage of the frog in the kettle. All around us, the temperature is slowly almost imperceptibly being turned up and we don’t realize it. Meanwhile, the things that actually matter are lost in webs of distraction and we’re unable to think clearly, feel appropriately, and live well.

Living differently and living well

I don’t claim to have all of the answers for how we confront this. Like you, I’m trying under the guidance of the Triune God to follow Jesus both individually and in the various communities in which God has called me to live and work. But I think that one big place where we can begin to address these matters is within our congregations among the people whom God has called us to worship with. Whether you go to a numerically small or large congregation, whether you go to a rural, small town, suburban, or urban church, whether your’re in New England, the Midwest, the American South, the mountain states, or the west coast, our congregations are key to helping us live faithfully and well in a world filled with coarseness and destructive tendencies.

Richard Foster has written that most sin falls into one of three categories: money, sex, and power. All three are on regular display in the media we consume and they form a world-view that when combined with American individualism is a destructive brew whose coarseness destroys any sort of human flourishing. I’m convinced that this wicked brew has become so ubiquitous that only the work of communities driven by a different way of living and working in American society can help people flourish as they follow Christ.

Andy Crouch has called this work “culture-making,” the creation of an alternative way of life that functions as an outpost of the Kingdom of God in a corrupt culture. I think that must be the work of the church in congregations throughout Canada, the United States and Europe. Stanley Hauerwas has argued that Christians must be described as “resident aliens” who live in our technological, materialistic society with allegiance to God alone.  But I wonder if we are up to the challenge? We’re driven by theology turned into ideology where viewpoints become weaponized and used to distinguish “us” from “them.” We treat other Christians who disagree with us about some secondary piece of theology with the same coarseness we find in society.  Our churches, small and large, seem driven by values alien to God’s kingdom. We approach church with a “what’s in it for me” view of life. Our worship either recreates a modern rock-concert or yearns for 1954. We have desacralized Baptism and the Lord’s Supper to the point where many Christians would be shocked to realize that our Lord actually commanded us to practice them with regularity. We’ve even fallen for what Jacques Ellul has termed “the political illusion” where we think that all of our problems will be solved if only we can get “our people” into office.

Christ-centered and person-centered

I think our congregations need to become more Christ-centered and person centered, and less institution centered. Size doesn’t matter much here. Churches, large and small, are often institution centered and the results of that are things like the cover up of clergy sexual abuse in many Catholic and Protestant (even evangelical) settings. The reputation of the church becomes more important than the dignity and worth of the abuse victim.

Being Christ centered and person centered in my view means that congregations are there to provide a fellowship where all of us learn to follow Jesus in the course of our daily lives. This culture has been very hard for many people. it can be a welcoming place if you have enough money to engage in its pleasures, but by the time you realize that those things have done deep harm to your soul it is often too late. I think our congregations need to be places where lonely and broken people can learn to flourish in Christ. That means congregations offer not only love, acceptance, and forgiveness in Christ, but that we help people come to terms with the harmful effects of a sinful world and learn to follow Christ. That is one reason why I think the exposition of Holy Scripture combined with prayer and the care of souls is so vital to pastoral ministry. It is another reason why well-run small groups are become places where Christians can learn to practice Christian koinonia to others.

Let me ask you a question that I have asked my pastor on more than one occasion Would members of the Democratic party feel welcome in your church? I’m not a Democrat or a Republican, but in hanging around churches for much of my adult life I get the sense that in many evangelical congregations most of those who attend are Republican in their political orientation. A couple of Sundays ago, when my pastor was on vacation the individual who filled the pulpit in the midst of his message took a swipe at the British national health system and proceeded to claim that having lived there for a couple of years as a young adult, he hoped that something like that would never come to the United States. I happened to disagree with him (I have heard other anecdotes from those who think the British and Canadian systems are great) and I wondered how many others in the church disagreed but were afraid to say anything. The point is not an argument over the merits and demerits of American health care health insurance reform, the point is using our congregations to foster partisan political views on which well-meaning Christians might disagree.

This is what I am getting at: Being Christ-centered and being person-centered means that our primary concern is not the preservation of an institution, an agency, an ideology, even the organizational form of a congregation. The church does not exist to preserve itself, that is the work of the Spirit. Organized congregations have come and gone for 2,000 years and the church is still alive and proclaiming “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” The church does not exist to baptize whatever political party or leader currently is in power. The Deutsche Christen made this mistake in Germany and acquiesced to Hitler’s mad destruction of Europe and ultimately of Germany itself. The church does not exist to fight over tertiary theological matters like the mechanics of how God created the heavens and earth, whether premillennialism or amillenialism is the best teaching regarding the return of Christ, whether God’s providence is meticulous or general, even whether an individual is  conscious or unconscious during the intermediate state. When our theological views become ideological, the “good news” of the gospel becomes the bad news of human intolerance.

Our congregations are filled with people who struggle with the brokenness of sexual sin, the lust for power, the fracturing of family and other human relations, the love of money and things. They need our congregations to be places where they hear every week of a better way,  the way of Christ and the path toward human flourishing in Christ. They need our congregations to be good listeners as they process these things. They need our congregations where to be places where the real presence of Christ is experienced in the sacraments of baptism and holy communion. (If your church does not celebrate the Lord’s Supper at least monthly, I challenge you to do so in obedience to our Lord’s command.) They need congregations who declare that the things of this world, including political leaders, are merely temporal and that only the eternal Kingdom of God is worthy of our allegiance.

Above all, they need congregations and people that are faithful to Christ, and who flourish as they follow him no matter their economic, ethnic, or cultural background.

 

 

 

 

Was Nero Caesar “Left Behind?”

 Since the Second World War, biblical prophecy has driven Christian book sales especially in the United States. With each new decade, a new best-seller promises to solve the puzzles and offer us a reliable countdown to the end of history. Moreover, the best seller of all best sellers in the 20th century was none other than The Late Great Planet Earth.[1] To be honest, in my early years in the faith I was captivated by the prophetic speculations of Hal Lindsey and others. Fortunately, my engagement with Christian theology leads to the rest of the story.

The book of Revelation is notoriously difficult to interpret and for 1,900 years Christians have been wrestling with how to make sense of the visions and dreams reported by John the Elder. This writer does not pretend to have the book figured out, not even close. Moreover, the more he reads and engages with the text, the more questions emerge. So these reflections are based on several recent readings of the text along with interaction with the work of Gordon Fee, N.T. Wright, John Stott, and others.

As one who affirms the inspiration and inerrancy of Holy Scripture, this writer thinks that understanding the text must begin with trying to get at the author’s original intentions (something that is not as easy as it might seem).[2] What was John the Elder attempting to communicate to his audience, the church leaders and congregants of the seven Asia Minor congregations that the author lists in chapters two and three. The entire book of Revelation was written to address their concerns, concerns rooted in the opposition and selective persecution they faced from Rome and its governing authorities. That reality must shape how we understand the book in our day and time. Revelation cannot be understood apart from its first-century context.

In the aftermath of the modern Enlightenment, several interpretive schools of thought have emerged concerning how to interpret the book and its content. While each has positive things to contribute to understanding Revelation, too often they lead us away from the text and what the author was attempting to communicate to his original listeners. The book of Revelation has at least three literary genres that shape its interpretation. The book is a prophecy (1:3), a declaring of the Word of God by John. Revelation is also an example of apocalyptic literature. The proper title is “The Apocalypse” and this form of Jewish literature was common in the first century and focused on conflict between God and the forces of evil (which Christians believe is rooted in Satan, the devil and the enemy of our faith) in language that describes a global and heavenly confrontation.[3] Finally, the book contains letters written to seven specific congregations which were written to be read during worship, probably with the contents of the entire book.

What does the text say?

While this cannot be an exhaustive exposition of the entire book, there are several keys that shape how we understand and interpret the book. First, while the author identifies the book as “the Revelation of Jesus Christ” (1:1), he does indicate that the book is written to the “seven churches in the province of Asia (1:4) that are identified in chapter one, verse eleven. John follows the same pattern as the Apostle Paul in his letters, and this tells us that the book of Revelation in its entirety is addressed to Christians in these seven congregations, not only the letters of chapters two and three, but the visions of the 24 elders in chapters four and five, the visions of the conflict described in chapters 6-18, and the return of Christ and the eternal kingdom articulated in chapters 19-22.

Second, more than any other New Testament document, the book of Revelation cites or alludes to images found in the Old Testament, especially from the books of Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, and Zechariah.  For example, John liberally uses the number “seven” and speaks of seven churches, seven lampstands, seven seals, seven trumpets, seven trumpets, and so on. The allusion to Genesis 1:1-2:3 is apparent where “seven days” is used to indicate that all of creation is the result of God’s creative activity. Even in the seven seals, trumpets, and bowls, we see a parallel to the seventh-day in Genesis 2:1-3 where God rested. In the same way that the number seven alludes to the perfection of God’s creative activity, so the same number offers an indication of God’s consummation of his Kingdom, or what N.T. Wright terms “new creation.”[4] Scripture offers a Christian understanding of human history through its sequencing of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation (or “new creation”) and the book of Revelation is integral to that.

Moreover, understanding the text of Revelation means grasping the significance of the many Old Testament allusions found throughout the book. This reflects what the evangelical New Testament scholar Ben Witherington sees as foundational to understanding New Testament teaching in its entirety.[5] Witherington remarks that the New Testament represents the efforts of its writers, indeed of all first century Christians, to come to grips with the significance of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and how all of the Old Testament is fulfilled in his life, death, and resurrection. The resurrection of Jesus is so significant that for the New Testament writers, everything has changed. In the face of the first-century Roman religion of emperor worship, Christians can no longer say that “Caesar is Lord.” Now they proclaim that “Jesus is Lord” and this proclamation has deep implications for how they live in the midst of a hostile Roman society.[6]

Third, because all of the book of Revelation is addressed to hearers and readers in the seven Asia Minor congregations, they will naturally understand the images found throughout the book. For example, they will understand the use of gematria in Revelation 13:18 where John identifies the “beast” with the number “666” (more on this later, but this writer is convinced that they knew the meaning of this number in terms of the identity of the beast).[7]They will understand the significance of the number “144,000” found in Revelation 7 as representative of the people of God. They will grasp the meaning of the measurements of the New Jerusalem described in Revelation 21. The visions articulated by John are not meant to be mysterious to his readers. Instead they are to provide concrete hope to the people of God who face political and religious opposition from the Roman Empire. As strong as Rome now appeared, it was temporal. But God’s kingdom is eternal and will be fully revealed by Jesus Christ at the end of history when he returns to earth. In other words, God wins!

Finally, while in the eyes of John and his readers the book represents both present and future events, for those of us reading the book 1,900 years later the book represents past, present, and future. This is where the various schools of interpretation often lead us astray. Preterists often see the book as almost entirely taking place in the past (even for some the return of Christ). A number of Historicists see the images of the book as representing specific historical events over the past 1,900 years.[8] Futurists see everything after Revelation 3 as located entirely future to our 21st century historical location.[9] None of these views do full justice to a historical, grammatical, literary, and cultural reading of the text. Our goal in reading is not to adhere to a specific school of thought but to read the text on its own terms.

This writer suggests that a proper reading of the text leads to an interpretative schema that sees chapters 6-18 as having past, present, and future dimensions with its ultimate goal reflecting the bodily return of Jesus Christ to earth and the “already but not yet” Kingdom of God being fully realized in a “new heaven and new earth,” ie, “new creation.”

Two interpretive issues

The brevity of this paper only permits time for exploration of two interpretive issues that shed light on how we read the text. The first is the tendency of some scholars to identify the second beast of Revelation 13 with the term “antichrist” identified in 1 John 2:18-23. The term “antichrist” is only used in 1 John, and he offers a clear biblical definition of the term. “Who is the liar? It is the man who denies that Jesus is the Christ. Such a man is the antichrist—he denies the Father and the Son” (1 John 2:22). Earlier in the passage John indicates that his readers have heard that the antichrist is coming, but “even now many antichrists have come. This is how we know it is the last hour” (1 John 2:18). John seems to indicate that the term “antichrist” does not refer to a single individual but to multiple persons who deny Christ and who despite outward appearances have not gone out from the people of God (1 John 2:19).

This biblical understanding of antichrist as describing multiple individuals frames this writer’s interpretation of Revelation 6-18. Before we get there, we need to return to Revelation 13 and speak to the identity of the second beast in that chapter. Insight into that identification is actually found in Revelation 17 in the identification of “Mystery Babylon the Great.” Babylon is described as “the woman who was drunk with the blood of the saints, the blood of those who bore testimony to Jesus” (17:6). That woman rode on “the beast which has seven heads and ten horns” (17:7).

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Anyone who attempted to force Christians to proclaim that “Caesar is Lord” is an antichrist because Christians could only claim that “Jesus is Lord.” And John shows why by linking Rome to Babylon and describing its destruction, while showing that the Kingdom of God transcends all temporal empires. 

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This beast is identified in two ways. First, “the seven heads are seven hills on which the woman sits” (17:9). Rome has always been known as the city of seven hills, and this is an obvious reference to that city. Moreover, it is not surprising that John would equate Rome with Babylon. In Daniel 2 and Daniel 7, Babylon and Rome are two of the four great world empires, each of which stand in opposition to God and his purposes. The second way the beast is identified is through the curious phrase “who once was, now is not, and will come up out of the Abyss and go to his destruction” (17:8). This is a play on the phrase found in Revelation 1:8: “who is, and who was, and who is to come,” a phrase that clearly identifies Jesus Christ.

So if this identifies Jesus Christ, then who is identified by this strange phrase in chapter 17. Assuming that John wrote the book in AD 90-95, this writer suggests that it refers to Nero Caesar. Nero was probably the most feared emperor of the first century and most likely the man responsible for the deaths of the Apostles Paul and Peter, as well as hundreds of Christians whom he blamed for the fires that swept Rome as part of his failed efforts at urban renewal (“who once was”). He had been dead for over 20 years at the time of John’s writing (“now is not’). Now a new Nero would return in the person of the current emperor Domitian and in future emperors who would bring opposition, even death, to those Christians who refuse to take the mark of the beast (which in my view simply means their refusal to confess that “Caesar is Lord”). So Revelation 17 helps us understand the gematria of Revelation 13:18 and make a primary (but not a sole) identification of the second beast as Nero Caesar.[10]

The second interpretive issue is that John’s intent is probably not to identify the second beast exclusively with Nero Caesar but with the theological character of Roman state religion. In the first century B.C. Rome began to identify their emperors with deity at their death. But beginning with Nero the identification of deity with the emperor happened while the emperor was still alive. Nero, Domitian, and their successors were now seen as objects of patriotic worship.  Anyone who attempted to force Christians to proclaim that “Caesar is Lord” is an antichrist because Christians could only claim that “Jesus is Lord.” And John shows why by linking Rome to Babylon and describing its destruction, while showing that the Kingdom of God transcends all temporal empires.  This fits nicely with John’s description of multiple antichrists that we noted earlier in 1 John 2, and suggests some fresh ways of interpreting the book of Revelation that are relevant to the people of God in the 21st century.

An interpretive schema

In thinking about interpretation, it is important to grasp the difference between exegesis and interpretation. Earlier, we described the importance of authorial intent for understanding the message of Scripture. Exegesis involves just that, in that we strive to determine what the author attempted to communicate to his original hearers. Only after that can we engage in hermeneutics, toward interpreting and applying Revelation (or any biblical text) for our contemporary context.

This is where the various schools of interpretation come into play. The various forms of preterism, historicism, and futurism are mostly questions of hermeneutics as opposed to exegesis in that they address how the text speaks to contemporary Christianity. The interpretations that draw around Reformed amillennialism, Dispensational premillennialism, parallel historicism, ,and other schools of thought speak primarily to how we interpret the text in our present day. But for any of those interpretations to be valid, they must be grounded in what the author desired to tell his readers and listeners.

This writer seeks to build his interpretive schema on the conviction that Revelation speaks to past, present, and future. Some argue that properly interpreted, the New Testament must been seen as teaching there are two distinct peoples of God. This is a complex argument that cannot be described here, but the point is that only chapters one through three are seen as applying to the church, while chapters four through eighteen are viewed as applying only to a national Israel.[11] The fundamental problem with this viewpoint in this writer’s opinion is that it reads a theological schema on the biblical text that the author did not intend. In Revelation 1:10-11, John indicates that while he was “in the Spirit” he was commanded to “write on a scroll what you see and send it to the seven churches.” Moreover, what he writes is “what is now and what will take place later” (1:19). From this passage, it is clear that the message of entire book is for those seven churches, not just one portion of it. Everything in the entire book of Revelation is written for Christians in those seven congregations (and by extension to us).

An important corollary to this conviction is that because the entire book is written for these followers of Jesus who face significant opposition from the Roman government, especially in the eastern provinces of the Empire, the apocalyptic images and references in chapters four through eighteen speak of Rome as a political entity. In other words, the evil described in those chapters finds its initial fulfillment in the Roman Empire itself. As John weaves vision after vision, image after image, followers of Jesus knew exactly what he was speaking about. They faced incredible opposition from a powerful force about which they could do nothing. But as powerful as Rome was, a day would come when it would be smashed by the eternal God. Caesar thought he was god, and indeed Caesar was powerful. But like all human empires, Rome would fall in the face of the eternal God who was working out his purposes in human history.

Moreover, the sequencing of the seven seals, trumpets, and bowls found in chapters 6-18 points toward an intensification of opposition. For example, notice that each of the sequences ends with activity in heaven. The opening of the seventh seal in Revelation 8 leads to silence in heaven followed by the inauguration of the seven trumpets. The blowing of the seventh trumpet in Revelation 11 is followed by worship in heaven followed by even more significant destruction on earth. The seventh bowl is poured out with the cry, “It is done” (Revelation 16:17) and followed with unprecedented destruction visited on Babylon/Rome. This intensification can be seen in the all of the seals-trumpets-bowls.[12]In terms of our exegesis, we discover that chapters six through eighteen primarily reference first century Rome and that the beast (or “antichrist”) referenced is the office of the Roman Emperor. The question then becomes whether or not the seals-trumpets-bowls schema in Revelation speaks to future periods of Christian history as well.

Many preterists would answer “no” and argue that Revelation 19 speaks to something other than a literal return of Christ to earth. Historicists will see Revelation 6-18 as speaking to a progression in human history leading up to a future return of Christ. Futurists see everything from Revelation 6 on as referring to events still yet to take place.

What is John the Elder attempting to communicate in these texts? How should we read Revelation 6-18 as the people of God today? Can we make sure that our reading takes into account the intent of the author in terms of his historical and cultural context, and in terms of the grammar and literary forms found in the book?

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Evil will continue to intensify. But we take courage in the same way that Christians did during John’s time. No matter how evil the times seem, no matter what happens, we have confidence that the Triune God is present with us, and that we will see our Lord Jesus Christ face to face at his return. Amen. Come Lord Jesus Christ.

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I think the literary structure suggests good ways to read the text and make the following observations:

  1. The seven churches found in the first three chapters are real congregations and all of the book is addressed to them. Moreover, John has written to them in language that they would readily understand given their personal, political, and cultural contexts.
  2. The heavenly scenes communicate the nearness of heaven and earth. Modern people are used to thinking of heaven as something far distant and ethereal and not connected to the reality of earth. But for John, heaven is a concrete reality that will be fully realized on earth at the return of Jesus Christ.
  3. John’s understanding of multiple antichrists in his first letter fits well with his identification of Babylon with Roman emperor worship. Even after the fall of Rome, antichrists will continue to appear in human history right up until the return of Jesus Christ. Mohammed, Charlemagne, Napoleon, Stalin, Hitler, Mao and others fill the bill, and historically the number of antichrists can be expected to grow and intensify leading up to the end of this age.
  4. The seals, trumpets, and bowls convey an intensification of evil from the time of the resurrection until Christ’s return. They are parallel accounts of this intensification of evil, and while we cannot equate specific historical events with the pestilences described, they do demonstrate that evil will grow stronger as world history moves toward the return of Christ. This “parallel historical” description fits the intentions of the text better than the preterist, continuous historicist, idealist, and futurist schools of interpretation.[13]
  5. This interpretative schema leaves open the possibility of a future singular antichrist who will dominate the political, cultural, and religious landscapes of the world. While the text does not require a future singular antichrist, it certainly leaves room for it but refuses to be dogmatic. This is a matter that well-meaning Christians can and should disagree over and it certainly is not central to the faith.
  6. A parallel historical schema reflects the entire New Testament teaching that the return of Jesus Christ will be personal, visible, and not subject to any secret prophetic knowledge that some may claim. Too many people have argued about various prophetic interpretations, and attempted to make certain images and symbols fit with historical or future events to the point where the people of God have been distracted from their mission in the world. The reality is that only the Father knows the day and time of Christ’s return (Matthew 24:36-37) and useless speculation is harmful.

In no way do I pretend that this is the final word on understanding and interpreting the book of Revelation. I think this is the best way to understand the book in terms of reading the text on its own terms, but I recognize that well-meaning Christians will disagree. Our interpretation of Revelation should not be a test of Christian orthodoxy unless that interpretation denies the core of Christian faith and the Christian understanding of history in terms of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation. I simply offer this as my understanding as I try to be faithful to the author’s original intent.

All of this to say that we can be confident that evil will continue to grow and expand during this age when the Kingdom of God is “already but not yet.” Christians are not immune from suffering, persecution, and death. Indeed, even today Christians are suffering and facing death for their faith in places throughout the world. Evil will continue to intensify. But we take courage in the same way that Christians did during John’s time. No matter how evil the times seem, no matter what happens, we have confidence that the Triune God is present with us, and that we will see our Lord Jesus Christ face to face at his return. Amen. Come Lord Jesus Christ.

Notes

[1] Hal Lindsey, The Late Great Planet Earth (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1970). Ironically, the title was a take-off from Curt Gentry’s 1969 novel titled The Last Days of the Late Great State of California, a description of events that might occur if a massive earthquake destroyed everything west of the San Andreas fault.

[2] Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart make this this important point in How to Read the Bible for All its Worth 3d.ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003), 23-24; 249-50. David Bebbington in Patterns in History: A Christian Perspective on Historical Thought 4th.ed. (Waco, TX: Baylor UP, 2018) describes the impact of Postmodernism on historical and literary research and points out that characteristic to postmodern interpretation is the assertion that authorial intent is essentially undiscoverable and therefore, all interpretation is “reader-response” meaning that each reader “interprets” the text apart from any historical context. See 139-141 for discussion.

[3] For a description of this literary form, see Leon Morris, Apocalyptic (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1972).

[4] N.T. Wright uses the term “new creation” when he speaks of this fourfold movement of God in human history. See N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (New York: HarperOne, 2008), 67.

[5] Ben Witherington, New Testament History: A Narrative Approach (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007).

[6] The second-century text, The Martyrdom of Polycarp offers a dramatic illustration of Christian unwillingness to practice emperor worship. In 167 AD, when Polycarp is ushered into the stadium to either deny Christ or face certain death, he replies “For eighty-six years, I have been his servant, and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?” cf. Michael W. Holmes, ed. The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, 3d.ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2007), 317

[7] See G. B. Caird, The Revelation of St. John the Divine (New York: Harper and Row, 1966), 174-77).

[8] This is characteristic of the continuous historical school of interpretation. While the continuous historical school of thought has few modern-day adherents, a strong intellectually sound defense can be found in Oral C. Collins, The Final Prophecy of Jesus: An Introduction, Analysis, and Commentary on the Book of Revelation (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2007). Parallel historicists would disagree with the continuous historical interpretive schema though both schools argue that the seals, trumpets, and bowls describe the period of time between Jesus’s resurrection and his return to earth in the future.

[9] For a scholarly commentary written from a dispensationalist futurist point of view, see John Walvoord, The Revelation of Jesus Christ (Chicago, Moody Press, 1966).

[10] For a further explanation of gemetria and its usage in this passage, see Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, 2d.ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2013), 757. Keener points out that the term translated as “mark” in 13:16 “is among other things, the regular term for the imperial stamp on documents and of the image of his head on coins.”

[11] Known as Dispensational-premillennialism, this school of thought originated with John Nelson Darby in the early to mid-19th century and had its ablest 20th century defenders in C.I. Schofield, John Walvoord, and Charles Ryrie. See, Charles Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today (Chicago: Moody Press, 1965). A more recent view called “Progressive Dispensationalism” offers a different reading of the Kingdom of God and embraces the “already but not yet” idea of the Kingdom of God while still holding for a distinct future for Israel as a political entity. See Craig Blaising and Darrell Bock, Progressive Dispensationalism (Grand Rapids, MI: Bridgepoint, 2000).

[12] J. Scott Duvall, Revelation, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014), 126.

[13] For a chart that demonstrates the interrelationship between the seals, trumpets, and bowls, see Duvall, 126. According to Duvall, “The three series of judgments cover much of the same ground but also increase in intensity….Revelation moves forward in cycles of judgment rather than a neat, linear, sequential progression. Perhaps this slow movement hints at God’s patience in wanting people to repent.” In this writer’s view, this is the reading that is most literal because it allows the text itself to shape the interpretive schema and does not seek to impose a school of thought on the text.

A Third Theological Revolution

Two times in my adult life, I have experienced dramatic change in how I understood and practiced Christian faith. The first occurred in my early twenties with a transition away from a more emotionally based faith (that even included some association with classic Pentecostalism) that could not address the intellectual questions I was wrestling with in college. The catalyst was a little book by John Stott titled Your Mind Matters and the heft was delivered by Os Guinness’s powerful tome titled The Dust of Death published by InterVarsity in 1972. Guinness not only help me to grasp the significance of the 1960s but offered an evangelical faith that spoke to the hard questions sparked by the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, and the various social revolutions that had emerged in the United States.

Finding a faith that spoke to the modern world

So, I found a biblically-based understanding of faith that served as an anchor for a season of deep emotional pain and stress that I experienced in the mid-1970s. If you are like me, you know that the stresses of our early young adult years can play all kinds of havoc on our persons, especially when we need to struggle with how our faith relates to the modern world. And, my introduction to the modern world of working in a Christian school for a couple of years was not a very happy one. In fact it was bad enough to drive me into therapy.

But Stott and Guinness were good guides, especially as I went off to Fuller Seminary to finish my first advanced degree and serve the Advent Christian Church with my vocation. Eventually, I wound up in Charlotte and found a whole set of new challenges–especially adjusting to how Christianity was practiced in the American South. I remember seeing my first public Ku Klux Klan demonstration in broad daylight at the corner of Independence Blvd. and Idlewild Road five months after we had moved. “You’re not in Kansas (or California) anymore,” I thought to myself.

Moving away from rationalist faith

Seeing the Klan do their thing was only part of it. I witnessed some pretty tough church fights and struggled to come to terms with how Christians could be so cruel to each other. I had seen the same thing in California, but this time it touched off the start of another important transition in how I looked at the faith. But the challenge reached a crescendo in 1989 at a theological conference I attended outside of Chicago. Here I saw the dark side of American Evangelicalism. The evangelical elite was attempting to draw doctrinal boundaries and a few presentations got pretty ugly, especially when one of the views I held was denounced as heresy by a TV evangelist. (No, it was not Jim Bakker.)

I didn’t react very well and looking back, I should have simply folded my tent and walked away. Driving home, I realized that I had pretty much bought into the standard Evangelical way of thinking. Believing the Bible, but analyzing it using the canons of logic and human reason. I was a Carl Henry evangelical, and all of a sudden I realized that would no longer work, and that I had become what the UNC Chapel Hill historian Molly Worthen would later describe as an “Apostle of Reason.” Richard Foster had opened my eyes to the affective dimension of faith, and now it was time to jump in. And, out of that, my faith came to a point where the cognitive and affective could be integrated in a way that would draw me toward what the Apostle Paul describes in Romans 6 as “union with Christ.”

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Western Christianity began defining faith as a transaction, as an enterprise, as something that can be manufactured by technology. We spend inordinate amounts of time patrolling our theological borders looking for the “undocumented” among us.

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And there I have lived for the past 25 years,  learning to read Scripture through a different lens and devouring works by Alister McGrath, N.T. Wright, and especially  Henri Nouwen, Dallas Willard, and a number of writers on the spiritual life. So I reached my sixties thinking that all was well–that is until 2016. It was a rough year–another back surgery,  the demands of a busy academic schedule, the death of my 95-year-old mother whom we had moved from New Mexico in early 2012, and a season when it seemed like the United States and American evangelicalism were coming unglued. I wasn’t looking for it, but I should have known. It was time for another major transition in the way I understand the Christian faith. This one has been sparked with my dissatisfaction with the sad state of American evangelicalism in America 2019.

Life in the Trinity

Anyway, I’m still working this one out, but I want to communicate its broad strokes. It has to do with a fresh reading of the early creeds and confessions, especially the Apostle’s, Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds, and my growing conviction that much of American Christianity has cut itself off from the historic Christian faith especially in terms of how we grasp the Triune existence and work of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Western Christianity seems to have reduced Christian faith to a transaction–a decision that somehow makes one right with God without the ongoing work of the Spirit. But the more one reads Holy Scripture, the clearer it becomes that the essence of Christian faith is relational–relationship with God and as a result learning practices that deepen that relationship and enable us to express it among the people of God and among people outside of the faith.

First the best way to read Scripture is through the the bifocal lens of the early Christian fathers and the creeds and confessions.  Scripture grounds the gospel in human history– in concrete events surrounding our Lord’s death and resurrection. Moreover, Jesus teaching about the Kingdom of God frames the Christian faith in the biblical symphony of creation, fall, redemption, and consumnation (what N.T. Wright calls “new creation”).

The early Church Fathers (and mothers) understood this far better than we do. I do not claim that these early Christian writers spoke with one voice on all matters. But I am saying that if we read early Christian writers like Athanasius, Gregory of Nyssa, and Augustine we discover an understanding of faith far more biblical than our modern encrustations allow us to see, especially because how we understand things is clogged by our addictions to technology and American individualism.

Even more, the sixteenth-century reformers, especially Luther and Calvin, understood this and their work reflects a love for the early Christian creeds and the value of the early Church fathers. They were in touch with the early Christian writers in ways that we are not. The Catholic scholar, Robert Louis Wilkin, argues that what emerged from early Christian writing was much more than mere teaching and writing. They crafted an intellectual and affective understanding of life and worship in all of its dimensions that was grounded in what the church taught about Jesus Christ.

Second,  adoption is the key metaphor in understanding the essence of Christian salvation. What happens when we commit to following Jesus? We are adopted as sons and daughters of God. In John’s gospel, over and over Jesus reflects on his oneness with his Father. It is the essence of his identity. Then, in Romans 6 Paul reminds us that followers of Jesus are “united with Christ” meaning that our very identity is shaped by our ongoing relationship with the risen Christ. Through Jesus Christ, we become adopted sons and daughters of God and through our adoption we are united with Jesus Christ in ongoing  relationship. Just as Jesus is the Father’s natural Son, so we are adopted sons and daughters of God through Jesus Christ. This leads to the following.

Third, the Christian life is “life in the Trinity,” where we learn to relationally participate in the Triune life of God as his adopted sons and daughters. I think I’ve known this intuitively but since 2016 it has come front and center especially as I’ve watched so many evangelicals sell their souls to the political idols of our day. About 250 years ago, Western Christianity began defining faith as a transaction, as an enterprise, as something that can be manufactured by technology. We spend inordinate amounts of time patrolling our theological borders looking for the “undocumented” among us. Even when we find agreement with others in different groups on 90 percent of what we believe, we become like those evangelicals at that 1989 conference I attended ready to go to theological war over things that we perceive as a threat.

My Christian friends in eastern churches like the Coptic Orthodox and the Armenian Orthodox churches see the goal of the Christian life in far different terms. This is not to say that they are anywhere near perfect in following Christ or that they don’t have conflict over theological and political matters. Or that they have no need for reform. But while Western Christianity sees faith as transactional, Eastern Christianity sees it more in relational terms. Nowhere is that better seen than in how Eastern Christians understand the Christian life, what the theologians call “sanctification.”

Western Christians given their transactional approaches to faith see the Christian life reflected in outward practices. Catholics see outward participation in the sacramental life of the church as the ground for Christian life. American Fundamentalism has viewed it in terms of avoidance–non-participation in practices defined by their leadership as “worldly.” Mainline Protestants see it as participation in activities related to their approved understandings of “social justice.” Evangelicals have tended toward the need for theological precision, an impossibility given the conflicts between Baptists and Pentecostals, Methodists and Presbyterians, and a host of disagreements about how best to frame Christian teaching. Eugene Peterson describes all of this for what it is: “Spiritual pornography is prayer and faith without relationship, intimacy with Jesus reduced and debased into an idea or cause to be argued or used” (Tell it Slant, 2008).

Eastern Christianity (and not just Eastern Orthodoxy) tends to view the matter differently. The Christian faith involves learning to participate in the divine life of the Trinity as his adopted sons and daughters. One of my Gordon-Conwell colleagues commented about the importance of this discovery for his own faith. “Oftentimes, I would wake up and wonder how I could find Christian community. Now, I wake up and realize that I don’t have to go find Christian community, because I am already living in community with the the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”  Exactly.

For a few years back in the 1980s, I subscribed to USA Today. Then I stopped for this reason: Every time I read their editorial page it presented a new “issue of the day” for me to worry about and for me to “virtue signal” that I was fired up and concerned about their flavor of the day. That is an exhausting way to live. What is better is learning to know God and participate in his Triune life. From that posture, I can then live with purpose while recognizing my human limits. I cannot fix America or the world. I cannot even fix myself. But i can align myself with the Triune God because he is sovereign and he sustains me as I live in community with him simply because I am a recipient of his amazing grace.

As I said above, I’m still working out all of this especially as I witness the decline of American Evangelicalism. Perhaps that decline is best because we can stop with the “virtue signaling” and allow the Spirit to draw us deeper as individuals and communities of faith into what actually matters–the Triune God himself.

The World Upside Down

This morning the congregation where I worship, Calvary Church in Charlotte, NC, started their week-long annual missions conference. For me, this is the highlight of the year in terms of Sunday-morning worship. The music emphasizes world missions, and the 25 or so missionary families that the congregation brings to Charlotte for the week parade into the sanctuary holding the flags of the nations in which they live and work. We hear testimonies from several, and our pastor, John Munro (a native of Scotland who speaks with a delightful Scottish accent) issues a challenge for all of us to consider our role in the Great Commission.

The worship service is the first of an entire week of missions activities. The congregation contributes to the support over over 80 missionary families, and brings a third of those to Charlotte every year for the conference. It’s an opportunity for us to interact with those whom we support, and an opportunity for the missionary families to get a needed break from their busy lives and allow our congregation to express our appreciation for their work. Several of those who come back for the conference each year are believers who responded to a call to world missions they received 20, 30, even 40 years ago while at a missions conference.

All of this takes me back to my childhood at the little Advent Christian congregation (Parkside Community Church) on the corner of 24th Ave. and Ulloa St. just up the street from my house in San Francisco. Like Calvary Church today, that little congregation emphasized world missions too through missions Sundays, through visits from missionaries like Austin and Dorothy Warriner, Marion Damon, and Howard and Anna Mae Towne who would tell us about their work in far away (to this young person) places like Japan, India, and the Philippines. We supported Advent Christian missionaries, missionaries from evangelical agencies, and local mission efforts like the rescue mission and Young Life.  Pretty impressive for a congregation that averaged 55 in attendance on a good Sunday.

Global shift

While I didn’t become an overseas missionary, it is safe to say that those missions events in my little church not only gave me a passion for the Great Commission that Jesus describes in the last chapter of Matthew’s gospel, but pointed me toward investing my adult life in vocational Christian service. I don’t think I would have spent the last 22 years of my life involved in theological education without those early world missions influences. And, that work has provided opportunities to meet Christians from around the world and hear what God is doing as center stage for world Christianity has shifted to the global south. Imagine with me the drama of that shift. In 1910, 80 percent of Christians on earth lived in Europe and North America. Now, in 2019, 80 percent of all followers of Jesus live in the global south–Africa, Latin America, and Asia. Moreover, half of the Christians who have ever lived have lived in the last 100 years.

I thought about those realities as I listened to missionary families describe their work this morning. That work is often difficult. Serving as a missionary requires long hours, a tolerance for ambiguity, and a willingness to struggle with our own imperfections as well as the vast economic and cultural differences that confront those who live and work outside of North America. I have also heard many missionaries describe how their call was not well received by their own parents and others whom they love. In addition, in our own society, following God’s call to missionary service is controversial. What gives you the right to tell others to change their religion? Aren’t you just contributing to the destruction of indigenous culture and replacing it with American culture (and, yes, American culture has huge faults and problems). I remember reading a Charlotte Observer editorial written sometime during the early 1990s where the writer was complaining about the lack of good salaries for teachers. “After all,” he wrote, “this isn’t missionary work,” implying that missionary work wasn’t worth much.

Those struggles raise theological questions as well. For example, what are we to do when we see injustice embedded in political and cultural practice? How do we live in societies where poverty is endemic? (This morning, a medical missionary described how Burundi, the African country where she serves children with little access to medical care, is viewed as “the hungriest place on the continent.”) What does it mean to call people to follow Christ when their families threaten to disown them because another religion (Islam, Hinduism, or a form of tribal religion) is considered integral to tribal and  national identity? Is what I am teaching the gospel meant for all or some Westernized form of Christianity that shrouds the Christian message in cultural imperialism?

Human flourishing

The list could go on, and missionary theologians like Lesslie Newbigin, John Stott, Lamin Sanneh, and Miroslav Volf have wrestled long and hard with them. I think that we can learn from their work and from the work of veteran missionaries who have lived with these questions over a lifetime of missionary service. Let me add a couple of notes to that, notes that are not original with me by any stretch of the imagination. First, our call is to make disciples for Jesus Christ wherever God places us. We are to speak the gospel and call men and women, boys and girls from throughout the world to follow Jesus.

Second, integral to gospel proclamation is the Kingdom of God. Jesus teaches us that in Mark 1:14-15. Central to the gospel is that the “kingdom of God” is literally “at hand.” The biblical scholar George Ladd described it as “the presence of the future.” Making disciples means helping others learn to live as citizens of a new kingdom, a new order that through Jesus Christ is breaking into our world as we speak. Of course, that new order will not be fully realized until our Lord returns. But the Kingdom of God is entering our world now in a way that the future is just as real as the present.

Third, a biblical understanding of the Kingdom of God expands our understanding of what God is doing in our world even now. As I read the Old Testament and New Testament narratives, I see God concerned about the flourishing of his creation and about our flourishing as human beings. We live in a world overwhelmed by drugs, poverty, violence, racism and prejudice, hatreds of all kinds, and a general sense of despair. Human relationships are broken and fractured. Government corruption is rampant and even in the United States, millions experience alienation from the very institutions that are supposed to strengthen us. Technology has contributed to that alienation to the point where we cannot even carry on civil conversations with those with whom we disagree. Human depravity is not a pretty picture.

Andy Crouch suggests that what Christians are involved in is what he terms culture-making. Culture-making involves establishing outposts for the Kingdom of God in a world where hope is nearly non-existent and simple justice is illusory. Culture-making does not involve partisan politics nor creating elaborate institutions,  both of which lead to more disillusionment. Instead we build families, congregations, and communities (locally and globally) that begin to reflect the presence of the future.

In other words, the Spirit uses us to turn the world upside down. That in my view is what the Christian life is about and what world missions is about. We speak the hope-saturated message of the Christian faith centered on the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord and Savior. We establish outposts of the coming Kingdom of God, the “already but not yet,” where we learn to live a new way of life in relationship with the Triune God. We seek justice for the poor as the prophet Amos calls us to do, knowing that our efforts will be imperfect but knowing that a time is coming when our Lord will establish a world of perfect justice.

Come to think of it, how about we add missions conferences back into our congregational life. What better way for North American Christians to be counter-cultural in a society mired in hopelessness, despair, and injustice?