The Way the World Ends: What if Jesus Doesn’t Come Back to Save Us?

treeoflife01Over the weekend, some of my progressive Christian friends were grousing on Twitter about how growing up in ‘90s Evangelical culture and being taught that we would be raptured up to heaven before anything terrible happens in the world, ever, left us ill-equipped to face the reality that we would one day die.

I quit believing in the rapture early on in high school when I realized it was inconsistent with Jesus’s own teachings on the end-times, but in retrospect I can see how this denial of death bled over even into the forms of Christianity towards which I was drawn in my teens and early twenties. In the doomsday cult I was a part of in college, we believed we would be impervious to the bullets fired at us in the Middle East by the Antichrist and his hordes of demonically driven Muslim supporters.

“If it wasn’t time for us to be dead,” my friend April* told me, “God could just send us back down. So that might be a really great option! Whenever we’re in any kind of danger, we can just shoot each other! Like if they were going to behead you, I could just SHOOT you and then Jesus could send you back!”

“I don’t think I like where this is going…” I said in a low voice.

April cocked an imaginary gun. “‘I’LL SEE YOU IN A MINUTE!’” she yelled.

After I left the group I began studying Gnostic groups (like ours) that believe they have a special mission to accomplish at the end of history. This sense of being in a cosmic drama relieves us of the appalling tedium of being not-particularly-special people living in a fairly uneventful period of history. One writer made a point that has stuck with me: he said that these Gnostic groups, even the ones that call themselves Christian, deny the wisdom of the Old Testament writers that life is an incredible mystery, and that everything that has a beginning must also have an end—ourselves, our relationships, our accomplishments, the world itself.

And I don’t think I fully got that until I stood in front of my friend’s coffin, face to face for the first time in my life with the awful specter of mortality. Nothing in my upbringing or religious education had prepared me for this. Bethany had been there not long ago and now she was just gone. I could spend the rest of my life roaming the earth trying to find her and would never find her. The body in the coffin had once belonged to her, but now it resembled her less and less. I had no idea what to make of this. As I wrote in my journal on the day after the visitation, “She was dead and I suddenly had no idea where her soul had gone, or if she even had one.”

I had already begun to abandon the convoluted eschatological scheme accepted by most Evangelicals (seven years of tribulation followed by a thousand-year reign of Jesus) before Bethany’s death—the Catholic Church which I was in the process of joining teaches only that Jesus will return at some point in the future and set up his kingdom forever. The rest is just speculation. But it was only after I had thrown out most of what I had been taught and believed all my life about the end of the world that I ran into a problem—namely, that science already has a pretty clear idea how the world is going to end, and it’s pretty grim.

Basically, carbon life has only existed on earth for about two billion years out of the roughly fifteen billion years of the lifespan of our universe. The first Homo sapiens emerged some tens of millions of years ago, only a second ago in geologic time, sweeping down out of the trees onto the savannahs with a miraculous awareness of themselves that is surely the greatest mystery and miracle of cosmic history—“the universe,” as one scientist put it, “becoming aware of itself.”

Barring some nuclear or ecological disaster, our species and life on our planet as a whole will lumber along for another few hundred million years until we are wiped out by an asteroid, a comet, a meteor, a chance collision of two black holes somewhere in our galaxy, an explosion from a neighboring supernova or some other ghastly and xenocidal event. Assuming we manage to survive each of these extinction-level threats, within a mere five billion years the sun will enter the next stage of its life cycle, becoming a red giant and swelling up to gargantuan proportions, in the process casually destroying the three closest planets in its orbit.

Of course by then it’s entirely possible that we’ll have developed the means of leaving earth and colonizing other solar systems. But even if we do, it turns out we’re only delaying the eventual end of our species, for the stars are going out one by one, leaving us in a cold void of perpetual night.

On the bright side, if there is one, this is still an inconceivably vast number of years away from happening, and by the time the sun winks out, everyone you know will be dead. Maybe you’re okay with that. It’s hard enough getting people to care about rises in ocean levels that will flood coastal regions and cause massive droughts, leading to war and famine, in the lives of our children and grandchildren. Still fewer are kept up at night by the cosmological certainty that our species will eventually be annihilated when the sun, the giver of life, blows up and devours its own offspring. But I am.

It troubles me because even as a child I had a mystic’s eye for the goodness and beauty of the world, because I believed that this world is full of more good things than we can possibly dream or imagine, and love makes it hard for me to accept that all this—the churches of Greenwich, the bistros of the Left Bank, the factories of Birmingham and Philadelphia; every piece of flannel, every strip of paper, everything you ever built or wrote—will perish in solar fires, unobserved and unremembered. Surely if anything can test a person’s faith, it is this. Philosopher Bertrand Russell felt keenly the implications for humanity when he wrote, “All the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system … The whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins.”

Perhaps Shakespeare glimpsed something of the futility in which all humanity’s ambitions must end when he had King Lear ask, “Is man no more than this?” This is the sort of question people of faith are going to have to take seriously, if we want to be taken seriously by the rest of the world in our time.

As a Christian blogger, I’m supposed to state here that it’s all going to be okay and we don’t have to be afraid of extinction and Jesus will come down and save us before the universe reaches Threat Level: Midnight. But I don’t know that for a fact, and you don’t, either. In this life we’re given promises, but no guarantees. We have assurances, but no certainties. That’s why it’s called faith.

Ironically, part of what led to my current existential crisis was the Catholic faith in natural processes, in the idea—going all the way back to St. Augustine, who developed an early theory of evolution to describe how life on earth had come into being—that God uses natural methods and natural laws to accomplish his purposes in the natural realm. (This is still a major source of division between Catholics and Protestant fundamentalists: it was a Catholic priest and astronomer, Georges Lemaitre, who first proposed what became known as the Big Bang theory, which is almost uniformly rejected by fundamentalists who don’t seem to realize how it converges with the Genesis account). Once I accepted that maybe God had used a slow unfurling of cosmic evolution to bring the worlds into being over a span of eons, I couldn’t help wondering if maybe God would end space-time in precisely the same way: slowly, over many billions of years.

I spent much of yesterday reading a book by John Polkinghorne, a renowned Cambridge physicist—his work was instrumental in the discovery of the quark in the 1960s—who is also an Anglican priest and amateur theologian. The book, The God of Hope and the End of the World, summarizes his conversations with several other scientist-theologians at Yale University who are trying to reconcile our scientific knowledge of the eventual extinction of our species with the Christian faith in a bodily resurrection in which God raises individuals from death and restores them to their bodies in a natural environment. (The belief I was taught growing up, that when we die, our spirits leave our gross bodies behind and fly up to heaven to be with Jesus forever, is actually Gnostic).

Polkinghorne and his colleagues raise several possibilities for how this might happen in a way that doesn’t contradict current scientific findings or Christian orthodoxy. For example, maybe the information-bearing part of a human being (what we call “the soul”) is stored in God’s memory after death until the day of resurrection. Maybe we all die at different times and then find ourselves together again at the same time, as happened in the final episode of LOST. Maybe we awaken to find that the billions of years between our death and the end of the old universe have already transpired while we slept.

Ultimately, as even Polkinghorne himself seems to concede, none of these answers can be entirely satisfying because they all have to be taken on faith. “Any hope of a destiny beyond death,” he writes, “can ultimately rest only on the faithfulness of God the Creator.” In the end we’re left only with hope: hope that we were created for a purpose; hope that our creator loves us; hope that this world of unthinkable beauty is leading us towards a world of beauties even more unthinkable.

And, if I’m being honest, hope is what I’ve been missing ever since Bethany’s death. She trusted God to protect her, and God seems to have failed her. After she died, I could no longer entrust myself to pious certainties. People die. People are murdered or take their own lives and no deity intervenes to save them. Terrible things happen because this world can be a terrible place, because humans are terrible and depraved and a savage darkness lurks in even the most devout heart. Just look at what they did to Jesus.

And ultimately that’s why I remain a Christian, because even with all my doubts and questions I know I’m not asking anything new or original. Nothing has changed in human nature just because we now understand that the sun will eventually destroy us. It was Thomas Kempis in the twelfth century who said, “Look on all things as passing away, and thyself as doomed to pass away with them.” It was Job who asked why man is born to trouble, and it was Jesus who in the agony of his final hours dared to ask God why he had been forsaken, and heard only silence in response.

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Thirty Days of Poems: Dolorosa (Day 4)

          039_3888x2592_all-free-download.com_18102988  I went to a wedding today

            the second I’ve attended since

            you got married.

            You would have loved the venue:

            a small stone chapel

            almost like a cottage

            in the woods

            with a high Gothic ceiling

            and a stained-glass portrait

            of the via dolorosa

            hanging just over the altar.

 

            And the ceremony

            may have been more high church

            than what we were used to

            growing up in Texas

            but the bride processed in

            to some Elvish-sounding music

            and after the exchange of vows

            we all had communion

            and the newlyweds came in together

            bearing the grail and bread.

 

            The whole first year after

            when I heard about a friend’s engagement

            my immediate reaction

            was to try and stop it.

            It was silly of me, I know:

            not every walk down the aisle

            has a cross at its end.

            And over time

            I got better, or

            learned how to fake it.

           

            But today

            when the priest said,

            “Speak now, or forever hold your peace”

            it was hard not to think of that moment

            in your wedding

            and the silence where

            no one spoke.

 

           And when the bride and groom

           pledged their fidelity to one another

           in sickness and in health

           to have and to hold

           from this day forward

           I thought of you and him

           the vows he made to you that day

          flanked by the groomsmen

          with whom he had already

          betrayed them.

 

          One day

          a few years from now

          I’ll have my own ceremony.

          And with laughter and communion

          my friends will escort me

          into a new realm of life.

          But even amid the celebration

         there will be a quiet ache

         dull but persistent

         because of the empty space

         where you should have been

         and the marriage you never had.

God Will Not Become a Monster to Defeat the Monsters

the-deposition-1507You know what really disturbs me? The fact that seemingly every time I try to talk about the meaning of the crucifixion to my Christian friends, someone will begin singing:

“♪ He’s not a baby in a manger anymore;
He’s not a broken man on a cross!” ♪

Really? Do you know what you’re saying?

My problem is not with the song (or with the writer, whom I know & respect), but with the way people are mis-using it. Continue reading

How Reading C. S. Lewis Changed My Mind About Hell

FrankcoronationI’ve been thinking about the dangerous group I was once a part of and trying to understand how so many innocent Christian people could be tricked into following a predator.

And the truth is, we were pre-disposed to trust him because of the spiritual culture we were raised in.

Growing up, I was taught to make a clear distinction between people of the world and other believers. A Christian was someone who believed in Jesus, prayed, read his Bible, didn’t drink or smoke or sleep around. It was easy to tell when you met a true believer. You could *trust* those people.

But you couldn’t trust unbelievers. They were all depraved and damned and on their way to hell.

And of course, I thought this was all scriptural. Because once I got an idea in my head, I could find it throughout the Bible.

*          *          *

But everything began to change for me when I read the Chronicles of Narnia. In The Last Battle, a character who had served the evil god Tash his entire life is welcomed by Aslan into the new Narnia. To his own surprise, he realizes that he had really been pursuing Aslan this whole time, although he didn’t know it.

“If any man do a cruelty in my name,” says the Great Lion, “then, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash his deed is accepted.” And, “Beloved, unless thy desire had been for me thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek.”

And it makes me wonder. Because the Bible doesn’t actually have a lot to say about people being saved on the basis of their “profession of faith.”

But it has an awful lot to say about how we treat the poor, showing mercy to others, forgiving our enemies, resisting injustice, standing up for the abused and oppressed.

Jesus says that the ones who do these things are the true sons and daughters of his father.

But in our churches, we don’t evaluate people based on the quality of their love. We evaluate them based on whether they conform to our idea of what a Christian should look like. Do they have all the “correct” beliefs? Do they listen to Christian radio? In short, do they look like us?

And the sad truth is that this way of evaluating people makes the church painfully vulnerable to predators and abusers like Tyler who can so easily adopt the language and rhythms of the Evangelical culture. Anyone who speaks against them becomes an “outsider” and carries a taint of distrust.

We should never allow tribalism to replace our moral judgment. There are *bad* people who profess the name of Jesus and *good* people who don’t. Rather than judging everyone based on the group they belong to, get to know them. There are atheists who are nearer to the kingdom of God than many Christians because what they’ve really rejected is a false Jesus. There are undoubtedly thousands of zealous, radical, “Bible-believing” Christians who are creating a hell for themselves by the god they worship, a proud god, a god who despises learning and beauty and exalts violence and hatred.

On the day we stand at the judgment, there will be some surprises. I suppose where we all end up is measured by what we loved truly, even if we didn’t know its name.

The Question That Keeps Me Up at Night

the-tree-of-life-2A few weeks ago, a Tennessee youth pastor (Charlie Pittman) was suspended from work after being charged with murdering his girlfriend and staging her suicide.

The people who hired him were baffled.

Their church carefully screens all its employees. Only decent Christians are allowed to work there. He has to be a “nice guy, not on drugs, doesn’t smoke.”

And by that definition, Mr. Pittman was a pretty great guy. He was also, apparently, a murdering sociopath.

And it just makes me wonder. Because our leaders tell us that anyone who confesses Jesus is a born again Christian. But I see an awful lot of born-again Christians who are raping and killing and committing horrible abuses. Hell, I see a lot of *pastors* who do all of those things.

And I think it was Jesus who said, “Beware of false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing. You will know them by their fruits.”

And I wonder if perhaps our narrow, un-biblical definition of what it means to be a “true Christian” is what has made our churches so heart-breakingly vulnerable to predators and sociopaths.

Because a true Christian, we all know, is someone who professes Jesus. Who reads his Bible. Who doesn’t drink or smoke.

So we’re conditioned to trust those kinds of people automatically.

And every now and then – really, far more often than we would like to admit – one of them ends up being a cold-blooded killer.

*          *          *

And it makes me wonder. Because… if so many people who *claim* to be Christians are not —

and we know that these people are NOT Christians because of how they behaved –

then what if

– if –

there were some people, somewhere in the world, who really loved, who were kind and compassionate and merciful and forgiving…

the kind of people Jesus said are the children of God –

and they had no idea?

and we had no idea, because they never laid any special claim to God’s favor?

Just as there are some “Christians” who are Christians in name only –

what if there are some “unbelievers” –

who are following God with their whole hearts?

What if?

10 Verses That Scandalize Many Christians (Until They Learn They’re in the Bible)

Jesus at S Sophia Apr 00 ARAs Christians, we all read the Bible with selective lenses. Some folks are willing to admit it, and some folks aren’t. One of the reasons it’s so important not to keep yourself trapped in a bubble is because you don’t want to make the mistake of thinking that the way your group reads the Scriptures is the only way it’s meant to be read. Otherwise you might end up not even being aware of the existence of a number of tantalizing passages:

1. “We are God’s Offspring” (Acts 17:29)

 But really, the entirety of Paul’s speech on Mars Hill. The apostle off-handedly quotes a line from a great pagan writer to tell the Athenians that they’re all children of God. He says, “God is not far from each one of us” (v. 27). He says, “In him we live and move and have our being.”

Many teachers try to get around this passage by saying it’s an example of how Paul tried to be “cultural” and “humanistic”—and how he failed miserably.

2. The Fast that God Chooses (Isaiah 58)

“Is not this the fast that I choose:

to loose the bonds of injustice,

to undo the thongs of the yoke,

to let the oppressed go free,

and to break every yoke?”

The contemporary American church, having invented a gospel of saving souls from hell, is scandalized by the idea that the Bible might have more to say about this life than the next one. Yet there are countless passages in both Old and New Testaments where God is more concerned about how people treat one another. Fighting for justice is kind of a big thing for him.

3. “Everyone Who Loves is Born of God and Knows God” (1 John 4:7)

You could throw in most of the first letter of John here. But the winner is arguably this passage, where John says that, well, everyone who loves is born of God. Beware of saying this in church unless you make it clear that you’re quoting the Bible.

4. “All Those Who Use the Sword Will Die by the Sword” (Matthew 26:52)

Spoken by Jesus to his disciples on the night of his arrest, this statement epitomizes his ethic of compassion and non-violence even in the face of imminent death. Yet it’s rare to hear these words quoted in many of our contemporary churches where this is the preferred image of Jesus:

5. Paul Wishes That People Would Castrate Themselves (Galatians 5:12), Is Racist (Titus 2:12)

Am I putting words in Paul’s mouth? No, it’s right there in the text:

“I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves.”

I’ve seen King James-only defenders cite this as an example of how all the modern translations are demonic because they quote this verse accurately.

Paul also employs his extensive knowledge of pagan writings to make racist remarks about the Cretans in Titus 2. Oddly, I haven’t heard many people complain about this.

6. Paul Urges the Colossians Not to be Obsessed with Angels, Visions, and Burdensome Regulations (Colossians 2:16-23)

The problem with a lot of the longer passages on this list is that if you read them to someone who’s living in contradiction to the message of the verses, they’re not even likely to hear what you’re reading. I once read this passage from Colossians (and the one below, from Matthew) to a group of people who were obsessed with angels, visions, and making up lists of things they weren’t allowed to do. I thought it might have some effect, but when I finished reading, it was like I hadn’t even spoken. Bizarre.

7. The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Matthew 25)

This is a fun one. Jesus tells his disciples a story of how he’s going to judge the nations when he returns. He’ll sit on his throne and divide the nations before him “as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats”: the sheep on the right hand and the goats on the left.

The sheep ultimately go into eternal glory because they fed the hungry, clothed the naked, visited the sick and imprisoned. The goats are thrown into eternal fire, “prepared for the devil and his angels” because they neglected to do these things.

Notice anything strange? Yes, those are all works. These people are judged solely on the basis of their works. As Keith Green so succinctly put it in an old song, “The only difference between the sheep and the goats, according to the Scriptures, is what they did—and didn’t—do!

What’s more, many of the sheep didn’t know they were sheep. Many of the goats didn’t know they were goats.

There are going to be some surprises.

8. “Those Who Eat My Flesh and Drink My Blood Have Eternal Life” (John 6:54)

As Peter Kreeft points out, this is one of the very few images in the Scriptures that literalists don’t interpret literally. I knew it was there, but pretty much ignored it until I decided to become Catholic.

9. Ezekiel 23:20

Don’t read this verse to your kids. Don’t read it in church. You will be thrown out.

10. Love is the Fulfillment of the Law (Romans 13, Galatians 5)

Trying to sum up the message of Jesus in a single sentence might be a fool’s errand, but Paul takes a good crack at it near the end of his letter to the Romans:

“Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Romans 13:8).

Jesus all but stated that this was the core of his message when asked to name the two greatest commandments. Without hesitation, he said, “Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself” (Mt. 22:36-40). He expanded on this idea in the story of the prodigal son and the story of the good Samaritan, one showing the super-abundant generosity of God’s love towards us, the other modeling how we should love others, regardless of their race, religion, tribe, or ethnicity.

You might even say the most shocking and offensive aspect of Jesus’ message was this, that he taught us not just to love those who love us, but to embrace all humans as brothers and sisters. As Paul says in Galatians: “In Christ neither circumcision nor un-circumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love” (Gal. 5:6). Faith, hope, and love. We love to make things more complicated than they have to be, but Jesus, Paul, John, and the other writers of the Bible are there to remind us—these are the things that matter. Do these, and the rest will take care of themselves.

Fourteen Questions About Heaven (Peter Kreeft)

angels&saints123Ran across this GREAT article by Catholic professor and writer Peter Kreeft answering fourteen of the most commonly asked questions about life in heaven, including:

Can the dead see us?

Is there music in heaven?

Are there animals?

How are we never bored?

I had to restrain myself from tweeting the whole essay, but here’s an excerpt. He’s answering the question of whether we’ll know everything in heaven, and comes to the conclusion that though we’ll know much more than we know on earth, it will be our joy to be as children as forever in the glory of our own smallness:

 

Even if there is no curtain in Heaven, even if our consciousness there dashes against no wall or limit, still we remain like the tiny figures in a Chinese landscape: small subjects in an enormously larger objective world. Even if we then escape from the tiny hut in which we are now imprisoned and through whose smudged windows or chinks in whose walls we now must look – even if we wander freely in the country of light – we are in the light, not the light in us. Our first and last wisdom in Heaven is Socratic, just as it is on earth: to know how little we know. If there is no end of the need for humility in the moral order (the saint is the one humble enough not to think he is a saint), the same is true of the intellectual order (the wise man is the one humble enough to know he has no wisdom). It all depends on the standard of judgment: by earthly standards most of us are moderately saintly and moderately wise; by Heavenly standards all of us, even in Heaven, are children. And by the standard of the infinite, inexhaustible perfection of God, we remain children forever. Happy children, fulfilled children, but children.

Read the whole thing here.