The End of the World As We Know It - Part 1: Growing Up

Saturday, July 30, 2016

 A reader asks,

“Both Jesus and his followers seemed to believe his return and the last days were imminent. Yet here we are 2,000 years later and no Jesus in the flesh or end of the world. Was Jesus wrong? Is our record of what he taught wrong? If I am honest I can see how people can dismiss Jesus as an end times prophet anticipating a soon-coming final judgment that has not come soon. Growing up shaped by Pentecostal emphasis on the second coming I have heard many explanations of this that just seem to ignore the simple conclusion that Jesus was wrong. And if so, was he in fact divine like no other? And if he was wrong should I treat his teachings as authoritative?”

This is a question I have struggled with too. At its heart is a desire to see suffering and injustice come to an end, to see things made right. Those are good desires. However, it’s pretty hard to deny that 2000 years is by no definition “soon.” So what do we do about that? What do we do about the seemingly unavoidable conclusion that Jesus and his early followers’ hopes and expectations were apparently wrong? This brings us to the broader question of what do we do when we find that any part of the Bible is wrong. Does this cause our entire belief to collapse? Does this invalidate everything else?

If we have a faith rooted in authoritarianism and the way of unquestioning obedience, then the answer is, yes, it does. Because of this, many fundamentalist Christians convert to being fundamentalist atheists. That’s one possibility. Another possibility is to double down and argue that we are misunderstanding things and that everything is fine, and the Bible and Jesus are never wrong. That’s another possibility that is widely taken. I’ve heard lots of attempts at doing this in relation to eschatology, and I have to say they all left my heart still longing for a better answer. What my heart wanted was to see the world made right, and so somehow all explanations of why I should accept things as they are just rang hollow.

The way I see it, on a deeper level, this is an issue of growing into adulthood, and that is a painful and difficult passage. As children we idealize our parents and teachers. We place child-like trust in them. When we become parents ourselves, we are faced with the staggering responsibility of taking care of our children. We take on that seemingly god-like role in their lives, all the time painfully aware how inadequate and unprepared we are to live up to that. We try the best we can to keep them safe, but we know we cannot shelter them from everything. We try to do our best, but we know we will fail, we will make mistakes. It’s hard to know that our kids will get hurt in this world, but it’s harder to face that we will hurt them, we will fail them.

The same is true of anyone who is a position of authority in our lives, teachers, managers, mentors, politicians, and pastors... no matter how much they try not to, will all fail us. That can be devastating. Many people, when faced with the moral failings of their pastor, walk away from their faith altogether – just like many people do when they find that the Bible is not a flawless book.

Note that "authority" and "authoritative" are not the same as authoritarian. Adults have people in authority over them, and exercise authority themselves within their lives as parents and professionals. Adults also regard things as authoritative when they deserve to be regarded as such.  But authoritarianism is synonymous with a child-like and developmentally immature approach to life. To the extent that we are nurtured in an authoritarian church, people are conditioned to remain developmentally immature. We need to have a faith that allows us to be morally responsible intelligent adults.

So the question becomes, how can we come to terms with our own imperfections and failings, with the imperfections and failings of those we look up to, and the imperfections and failings of scripture, and still hold on to what is good in ourselves, in our mentors, and in the Bible? That is the core question of what it means to move from childish faith to an adult faith. An adult faith is not one that has all the answers. It is not a faith that is rooted in certainty. That is what a child imagines it is like to be a grownup. Those of us who are adults and parents know full well that the reality of adulthood looks very different.

This new perspective of adulthood does not have the perspective that says if someone is wrong about one thing, therefore we must reject everything. After all, you are wrong sometimes, and that does not mean you are always wrong. The same goes for me, and the same goes for the human Jesus (it’s important that we hold that Jesus was not just divine, but both human and divine!). That means that you cannot blindly and without thinking accept everything I say, or accept everything anyone else says for that matter, including Jesus. We need to seek to understand so we can follow well, not blindly obeying without understanding – which means we will (because we do not understand) follow wrong, leading to hurt.

From what I can see, Jesus was wrong about the timing of the end. He was also wrong in his understanding of medicine, which he (like everyone else at the time) attributed to invisible demons rather than invisible germs. I put all of this to the limitations that Jesus experienced in being a human being, and to be fair, Jesus himself does say “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Mt 24:36). In the same way that Jesus is both fully divine and fully human, the Bible as a whole is also both divine and human, too. It is possible to encounter God in its pages, to encounter a love and goodness that puts us in direct contact with the divine, the eternal, and the holy. The challenge for us as adult believers is to learn how to find and embrace the good parts so we can get to the holy, so we can get to the heart of Jesus.

Just because Jesus was misinformed about medicine does not mean that there is nothing for us to learn about how Jesus treated the sick. In fact, there is immense, profound, life-changing moral insight that we can learn from how Jesus sees and treats the sick. Similarly, just because Jesus (and Matthew) were wrong about the imminence of the end, if we dig a bit deeper to look at what the Gospels, and in particular the Gospel of Matthew, has to say about the end time, what we find is a life-changing message that we desperately need to hear in our time, right now. I’ll discuss that in detail next time.

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16 Comments:

At 2:24 PM, Blogger Matt said...

They didn't believe the last days were "immanent." Immanent means indwelling. They believed the last days were "imminent." Imminent means coming soon.

 
At 6:36 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Haha, Matt you are a nerd.

 
At 8:23 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

You have to assume a fundamentalist understanding of Matthew's Olivet Discourse to conclude Jesus was wrong. What about a moderate prettiest view?

 
At 4:49 AM, Blogger Jonathan said...

Funny. I googled "moderate prettiest view" and found that google thinks it means what I thought it meant. :)

 
At 5:02 AM, Blogger Jonathan said...

Derek,

Wow, I was surprised to wake up and find your thoughtful and in depth response to my questions. Thank you so much and I look forward to the rest of the response. Taking time for me made me feel the way I bet it felt to people when Jesus took time for them in the Gospels. You help to reveal to me what made Jesus so attractive to people. Oh, and I am not a good speller. :)

 
At 8:19 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

Typo. Sorry. Moderate preterism.

 
At 1:31 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

There are lots of NT scholars who do not hold to a fundamentalist reading (really none do) who would nevertheless say that Jesus was incorrect about his expectation of eschatology. One of the most well known is Albert Schweitzer who began the whole "historical Jesus" thing.

One response to Schweitzer is, as you suggest, a "preterist" view which basically says that the "end" happened in 70AD with the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. N.T. Wright is someone who holds this view.

The problem with it is that eschatological anticipation is not really about anticipating the "end" destruction, but about hoping for God to end suffering and injustice, which clearly did not happen in 70AD. So even if one accepts that Jesus' warnings referred to Rome's destruction of the temple in 70AD (which FWIW, I do), one is still left to asking with the disciples "Lord when will the kingdom be restored?" (Acts 1:6) and the answer of "soon" seems off since it's been 2000 years since this was first asked. That's why I find the explanations I have read (including those of Wright and Moltmann) to not really solve the problem.

 
At 1:58 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Johnathan,

Thanks, glad it was helpful. It's something I've struggled with myself. I'll post the second part next week.

 
At 7:39 PM, Blogger Peter said...

As a Preterist, I don't think Jesus or the disciples were wrong. I think those of us who take things literally that were meant to be taken figuratively are wrong. We are currently living in the Kingdom. Jesus is currently reigning. No, it's not what many people expected it to be.

One day, probably thousands of years from now, God is going to wrap things up here on earth. And if I understand things correctly, when this happens, Jesus will step down and God will reign over a new heaven and earth.

 
At 7:27 AM, Blogger Terry Wildman said...

Derek, I have read one of your books and your discourse with Greg Boyd. I sure appreciate your respectful and honest approach to disagreements, and your desire to reconcile what sometimes appears to be irreconcilable. I have subscribed to your blog and look forward to your insights. But without wanting to enter into a debate, I didn't find your conclusions here to be helpful. I would rather conclude that Jesus wasn't wrong and that after two-thousand years there is a gap in our understanding of his statements. This may not be a good argument, because I think there was disagreement among the early church fathers, but I will posit it her in lack of something more satisfying. I currently agree with N.T. Wright and others who take a 'partial preterist' view that sees Jesus' imminent statements as referring to the end of the temple age and the beginning of the new covenant. Those things were fulfilled in 70 AD. The end of suffering and the fullness of his Kingdom would be a process worked out through the Church with no certain time frame attached. He must reign until all other powers and authorities have been brought to nothing, then the final end will come consummated with the end of death for all and a new heavens and earth (1 Cor 15:20-28). Perhaps you have fully studied this kind of interpretation, perhaps not, but it is more helpful, I think, than declaring Jesus to be wrong. Finally on Jesus' thinking that sickness was the result of evil spirits and not germs you might want to read Walter Wink's "The Powers that Be". From his well researched and thorough study of evil, the answer is not either or but both and.

 
At 9:09 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

Terry,

Our first inclination is always to try to find an explanation to make sense of a problem. That's what I do too. In this case you feel that you have found an approach which satisfies that. I don't want to take that from you. However, there will come a time when you (and all of us) will encounter something where those explanations don't satisfy. Sooner or later, we all encounter things that really will give us problems. Maybe it will be with an issue like this. Maybe it will come as a result of some tragedy in your life. But it will come.

When that happens, what you will find is that these kinds of explanations (which basically say that the problem is not a problem) do not work for you. It is at that point that I think the explanation I proposed in this post does help, and has helped me.

Again, I could argue about your proposed eschatology, but I really don't want to. If it works for you, I don't want to kick at it. What I do want to do is for us all to get used to the idea that it is okay (and inevitable) that sooner or later we will encounter a problem that we cannot explain away, and when that happens it is good to have a way of dealing with it that does not result in a shattered faith. If our only recourse is to reach for denying that a problem is a problem then we will be without a foothold once we encounter the problem that we cannot explain away. I am hoping to provide a foothold for all of us for when that happens.

The "explain way the problem" approaches have their place. I don't want to deny that. But I do want to make sure that they are not the *only* tool we have in our belt, and that we don't inadvertently use them to shut down someone else's questions, but instead learn how to navigate these tough questions together--including entertaining the idea that maybe we will not always be able to find a neat answer to everything, and sometimes it's okay to be in a place where we don't have an answer. It's the idea that sometimes when a person is struggling with something, what they really need is not necessarily for us to "solve" it for them right away, but to work through the questions and longings with them together. That’s hard work, but results in a mature and strong faith.

 
At 8:02 AM, Blogger Paul Nuechterlein said...

I have a slightly different take on N.T. Wright's thesis. It's not simply the end of the Temple age but any recycling of significant, world-changing violence. The two World Wars was another of those times. Wright proposes that Jesus was in line with the prophets, who predicted not the end of the space-time continuum but prophesied about the continued cycles of world-changing human violence. One of those times was imminent, the destruction of Israel in 70 AD. Big in Mark, who set the pace for the Synoptics, was the passage in Isaiah 6 about God's people having eyes that can't see and ears that can't hear. Mark shapes his entire Gospel around the themes of trying to break through the blindness and deafness. And here's what comes right after those verses: Then I said, "How long, O Lord?" And he said: "Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is utterly desolate; until the LORD sends everyone far away, and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land" (Isaiah 6:11-12). In other words, a constant recycling of apocalyptic human violence. That's what Jesus is prophesying, and 2000 years later it is very much true. We keep coming closer and closer to the brink of destroying ourselves because we refuse to see and listen to God's way of peace in Jesus Christ.

 
At 8:45 AM, Blogger Paul Nuechterlein said...

There's one other perspective that helps me on this issue of "soon": placing it in the modern evolutionary context. Hominids have been evolving for over 5 million years. Homo sapiens really turned the corner on its evolution to who we are now in the past 75 thousand years. So for Jesus to bring about a pivotal point on our evolution 2000 years ago is still "soon" in that timeframe.

 
At 8:54 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

Paul,

Yes this is a plausible and insightful reading of the warnings of Jesus (and the prophets). What it does not address is the announcement of "soon" coming of the kingdom of God. I agree with Moltmann that this hope is the heart of eschatology. But in a violent world, it is a deferred and frustrated hope.

In regards to that hope, several folks have expressed a belief in the "second coming," and it is important to note that while this may be a plausible interpretation of how we should read the NT and Jesus, we need to at the same time differentiate this from what the authors of the NT actually believed at the time of their writing. Here what we can observe is that there are shifts, beginning with "the kingdom is coming right now" to "it's coming soon" to "it's coming in our lifetime" to "it's may not come in our lifetime, but we have hope in heaven" all of which we can find in the NT books, written at different times and/or reflecting the changing views as they adapted to their changed circumstance.

 
At 8:46 AM, Blogger ardale said...

Years ago, after hearing so many people argue about the "real", "core" message of Jesus, I decided to get out a red-letter edition and read through the synoptic gospels...just the red letters several times over. What struck me was how often Jesus used very divisive and violent language to talk about what is coming for outsiders after the "grace-period" has passed. (btw...it's not just Matthew ...sometimes Luke is worse)
I am tired of being diagnosed as some kind of fussy fussbudget who demands a flawless, inerrant Jesus. The problem here is not some minor apocalyptic timing mistake....the problem is the fundamentalist mindset that poisons the very words of Jesus himself.

 
At 5:38 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Ardale,

Those are good reflections. How have you been able to break away from the fundamentalist mindset, and what have you put in it's place?

 

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