I was recently entertained online by a reviewer of Christian books as I browsed their annual list of the year's worst Christian book covers. Their prize-winner for 2012 was the cover of a commentary on Revelation which depicted a gray-haired elderly man standing and pointing down a road toward a dark sky with his other arm around the shoulder of a boy, possibly his grandson. The subtitle of the book was "Hope Beyond the Horizon," which highlighted the object in the distance to which the grandfather was pointing the boy's attention: a mushroom cloud. The reviewer's comment, though sarcastic, identified the irony in thinking of any such event as being the Christian hope: "Look there, Sonny, it’s our long-awaited hope, appearing just beyond the horizon…and it’s a nuclear explosion!"
Of course, frightening images of people's interpretations of biblical prophecies aren't hard to find. The Left Behind series of books and movies was incredibly popular, and (I would argue) has had more effect on the beliefs about what the Bible teaches than has the Bible itself for many people in our culture. I certainly don't have a problem with authors and Bible teachers communicating their interpretations of scripture in the most effective ways that they can, but when interpretations of difficult passages of scripture become popularized we can unknowingly begin to think we're familiar with what the Bible teaches, even if it turns out that we've only actually become familiar with an idea from a popular book or movie. Then, we fail to ever wrestle with what the Bible actually says.
This week, I want to clarify what I understand to be the biblical picture of the events in the future for which Advent is our annual reminder to wait readily. In order to do so, in today's reflection I'll look at some views of the future which I think are inaccurate. Then, for the remainder of the week, we'll do our best to consider what Jesus and the writers of scripture were indeed trying to communicate.
From the previous paragraphs, you probably won't be surprised for me to state that I disagree with the widespread ideas about the end times which are communicated in many places by many people, most notably through the Left Behind series over the past couple of decades. For many of us, though, it may be a surprise that there even are any other interpretations.
I mentioned yesterday how I was a teenager during the years around the Gulf War, and I can remember the intensity with which connections were being made between biblical passages and the political events of those days. Because there were so many Christian books and videos identifying that period as possibly being the "end times," I assumed that even if they were wrong about the timing of the events they were predicting, I had no reason to doubt that the coming of those events was clearly prophesied in the Bible. In other words, because I so often heard Christians with more knowledge than me talking about things like the Great Tribulation, the Rapture, someone who would be identified as the Antichrist, and the end of the world in general, I assumed that the Bible taught those things(**).
I accepted those interpretations because of my limited knowledge of the scripture and because I was unaware of any alternatives. I can remember being shocked when a college friend who was a Bible major mentioned in conversation that he didn't believe there would be a rapture. I thought, "this guy is a Bible major and he doesn't even believe what the Bible says!" He challenged the beliefs that I had inherited from my culture, and as I have studied the scriptures in the years since then, I am thankful that he did.
I don't think it would be particularly useful to spend much effort writing here to detail why I think these others' interpretations are wrong. What I would rather do would be to assure any of you for whom these widespread conceptions of the future don't sit well that they are not the only possible interpretations. In fact, they have only become popular since the beginning of the 20th century, and largely only in America. Christians in other parts of the world today and for centuries have looked at the Bible in different ways.
What matters here is this: For what are we hoping? Advent is our annual reminder to live in a constant ready waiting, but for what?
To be honest, if the Bible insisted that our future includes a Great Tribulation, Rapture, Antichrist, and end of the world, I wouldn't want to wait for that. I certainly wouldn't long for it in hope––the only thing I would hope would be that I could somehow avoid all of it. Instead of these things which I'm proposing we aren't waiting for, we will clarify a longstanding Christian view of Jesus' return, judgment (and why it's a good thing), resurrection, and new creation. My hope is that with our lenses cleaned and better able to see ahead, we will be better able to join centuries of God's people in waiting for Christ's return and more clearly understand how to live and wait on God daily from now until then.
A Prayer for the Day:
O God, the King eternal, whose light divides the day from the night and turns the shadow of death into the morning: Drive far from us all wrong desires, incline our hearts to keep your law, and guide our feet into the way of peace; that, having done your will with cheerfulness while it was day, we may, when night comes, rejoice to give you thanks; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.*
A Prayer for the Week:
Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.*
Readings for the Week*:
*Prayers are from The Book of Common Prayer and readings are from the Revised Common Lectionary. **Though I have chosen not to delve into deconstructing these interpretations of scripture in this series, good resources are available to help anyone who wants to examine them in further detail. I have been most influenced by the writings of New Testament scholar N.T. Wright whose For Everyone series of commentaries on the entire New Testament is remarkably readable and helpful, and is available in Midland First UMC's church library. Here is a brief list of resources for anyone who may want to research further:
- N.T. Wright, "Farewell to the Rapture"
- N.T. Wright's For Everyone commentaries on the passages often misinterpreted, including: Matthew 24, Mark 13, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, 2 Thessalonians 2:3-4, 1 John 2:18, 1 John 4:1-4.
- N.T. Wright, Revelation for Everyone.
- For a more academic treatment of Revelation, see M. Robert Mulholland Jr.'s commentary in the Cornerstone Biblical Commentary series.