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.

Five Reasons I Still Believe (Even When My Faith Is Shaken)

tree_of_life_81In the final pages of my memoir, I describe how my faith was shaken after the untimely death of my close friend in 2012. Seeing her lying in a coffin, realizing she would never get out of it, I wondered where she had gone and whether she had ever had a soul to begin with. I wondered if there was any chance I would see her again.

These aren’t the musings of someone who’s losing his religion but a natural cry of the heart in the face of death. You’re not human if you don’t ask yourself these questions when confronted with the mystery of suffering and evil.

Nevertheless, for several years thereafter my faith was shaky. I read essays by atheist philosophers and Christian theologians in the hopes of uncovering a satisfying answer to the question of what awaits us in the undiscovered country. And today I still have questions. On my worst days I find myself wanting to jump ship as I contemplate the eventual annihilation of our planet and the ultimate heat death of the universe. But I’ve managed to hold onto my faith in the Christian God, though sometimes by fingernails only. Here are some reasons why.

The Existence of Humans

Back in the 1990s Christian apologetics was fascinated by the anthropic principle, this idea that the universe and our planet are perfectly fine-tuned for the existence of life. I find that argument less compelling than I once did—newer scientific models are suggesting that, given certain conditions, the emergence of life is not only possible but likely. Even the Vatican has conceded that there may be other planets inhabited by creatures like humans.

Yet the fact that over the centuries the basic building blocks of life would have evolved from single-celled organisms into primates and eventually into humans who can write books and design towering cathedrals remains impressive. In the words of Catholic film critic Steven Greydanus, “The riddle of existence is not a riddle the universe poses to us, but one we pose to ourselves . . . We are the riddle, and the very fact that we ask the questions we do is one of the best clues we have to the answers we seek.”

The Survival of the Jewish Race

According to legend, when the anti-semitic emperor Frederick the Great of Prussia asked his wise men to provide one irrefutable proof for the existence of God, they said simply, “The Jews.” The survival of the Jewish race into the present era has been called, even by secular writers, the greatest miracle of modern times. It’s all the more remarkable given the various attempts to exterminate them wholesale, and the promises in their scriptures that they would be protected and return to their own land.

The Survival of the Christian Church

When Attila the Hun was ravaging Italy in 452 and the nascent Christian faith was threatened with destruction, Pope Leo I personally confronted the invader and persuaded him to leave the peninsula and return to his homeland. The Emperor Napoleon threw Pope Pius VII in prison and allegedly said, “I will destroy your church.” Within a few years Napoleon was in exile and the pope had returned to Rome and the newly restored Papal States. Stalin is reputed to have said, “How many armies does the pope have?” but in June 1979 Pope John Paul II led a rally in his native Krakow in which over a million people gathered in the town square and shouted, “We want God! We want God!” This rally set in motion a chain of events that ultimately led to the downfall of the Soviet Union. “I will build My church,” said Jesus, “and the gates of hell will not prevail against it,” and he has been true to his word.

The Shroud of Turin

I’m generally skeptical of alleged miracles, but the Turin shroud is not easily dismissed. True, an early test of the fabric concluded that it was woven during the twelfth century, but subsequent analysis has found that the patch tested was not consistent with other portions of the cloth, and had in fact been added after a fire. Moreover, Shroud skeptics must account for the presence of pollen that is only found in the Jerusalem area in the spring, along with the growing scientific consensus that the image could only have been made by a single burst of ultraviolet light.

The Character of Jesus

If you read Christian apologetics books from the ‘90s, it’s obvious that amateur theologians were obsessed with this idea that the Christian religion is true because the Bible is a single perfect work written over a span of several thousand years that has been passed down to us in dozens of ancient manuscripts. There are problems with this argument, one of them being that it doesn’t matter how many copies of a text we have, if the text promotes and teaches terrible things.

I’ve lost friends for questioning the accuracy and wisdom of certain Old Testament passages where God commands the slaughter of innocent women and children. To its credit, the Christian church has always been troubled by these passages because they don’t reflect the image of God that we now see reflected in the life and character of Jesus. Even with all my questions I remain fascinated by the vision of Jesus presented in the four Gospels, by the only man who has ever led a lasting revolution of the human heart, the one man without whom the past 2,000 years of human history would be inconceivable. In many ways our world has not yet met his equal in wisdom. I’m reminded of the young atheist girl in Soviet Russia who, after reading the Gospel of Luke, said simply, “I fell in love with Him.” So may we all.

AIDS, Authoritarians, & the Demon-Possessed Man, Part 3: When You Become the Monster

Jesus-expulse-the-gadarene-demonsAfter I left the group I began studying the mechanisms of scapegoating.

 French sociologist Rene Girard said that all human conflicts are built around something called “mimetic desire.” Here’s how it works. Suppose two brothers are happily playing in their front yard. The older one grabs a toy soldier from their pile of toys and begins playing with it. The younger one immediately wants it—not because of its inherent worth, but simply because his brother has it. This makes the older brother want it even more, and before very long the two are engaged in a huge fist fight.

 Luckily, though, the neighborhood whipping boy, Jerry, happens to walk by at that moment. Jerry wears glasses and is chubby. The two boys forget all about their argument and run off together to torment Jerry.
Continue reading

“Trust God & Listen to Your Own Heart”: A Video Chat with Stephen Lovegrove

On Saturday night I participated in an hour-long video interview with Stephen Lovegrove, creator of #StephenSoulTalks. Stephen is an independently ordained minister, a Human Rights Campaign emerging leader, and the future pastor of Chrysalis, a church for everybody launching in Southern California in 2015. He’s passionate about giving people a platform to share their stories and advocating for human rights and social justice.

In this video we discussed my five years in an end-times cult, the unhealthy religious mindset that led me to be a part of one, and how I finally broke free through encountering the love and acceptance of God. Stephen called it the most powerful interview he’s ever done. You can watch the whole thing below.

AIDS, Authoritarians, & the Demon-Possessed Man, Part 2: The Night I Stopped Hating

Tree-of-Life-ShadowIt’s not hard to see how an environment dominated by authoritarians can rapidly take on the contours of a nightmare.

For example, in a 1989 criminal case, psychology student Mary Wegman realized that some of her fellow jurists could not remember important pieces of evidence, invented evidence that did not even exist, and drew faulty conclusions from the evidence that everyone could agree on. (Subsequent tests indicated that each of these jurists scored highly on the RWA scale).

Imagine being the defendant in a trial in which certain jury members, perhaps because of the color of your skin, already presume your guilt and are literally incapable of seeing anything that might contradict it.

It sounds more like a situation out of Franz Kafka or The Twilight Zone, and yet it really happens.

In 1982 seven people died from taking poisoned Tylenol pills. Within two months 31 million bottles had been recalled. The New York Times covered the story over fifty times in the final three months of that year. The FDA immediately established new packaging guidelines and made product tampering a federal crime.

That same year the AIDS epidemic first burst into the national consciousness. Of the 771 people who had been infected, 614 had already died. Yet although this was ten times the number of Tylenol deaths, the New York Times ran only three stories.

The government largely ignored the problem until the end of the Reagan administration. Evangelical Gary Bauer, Reagan’s chief domestic policy advisor, blocked a report from the surgeon general on AIDS in the United States because he believed those who had AIDS deserved to die from it. Nor was this a fringe position. Jerry Falwell said, “AIDS is the wrath of God upon homosexuals.” Said White House communications director Pat Buchanan, “With 80,000 dead of AIDS, 3,000 more buried each month, our promiscuous homosexuals appear literally hell-bent on Satanism and suicide.”

What the media, and the White House, and the general public largely seem to have missed is that actual people were actually dying of a devastating plague, and that a significant number of these cases had not resulted from gay sex. Yet the meme persisted. “People need to awaken to the reality that this so-called love story does not have a happy ending,” said a recent essay, almost gleefully, going on to claim (erroneously) that the average homosexual male has between 200 and 250 partners in his lifetime. AIDS was obviously a gay pandemic (no matter what “science” tells us), and no one who’s gay could possibly be a true Christian… so, largely ignored by the rest of the Christian community, nearly 450,000 Americans died within a twenty-year period.

Here they are, in their own words:

“We were secluded from the rest – sequestered from the rest of the world so it was like where we were living . . . it was war and everywhere else it was peacetime and they didn’t want to know, and that’s how we lived.”

“To be that threatened with extinction and to not lay down, but instead to stand up and fight back – the way we did it, the way we took care of ourselves and each other.  The goodness that we showed, the humanity that we showed the world is just mind-boggling, just incredible.”

index.phpYet AIDS victims and gays continued to be demonized. Just as the Jews were held responsible for the Black Death in 1348, the homosexual community was blamed for terrorist bombings, earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, “and possibly a meteor.” Those who were suffering the most now had to contend with insane allegations about inflicting suffering on others.

The Moment I Realized That Other People Were Human

As one who was raised in a deeply religious and conservative environment, I was good at demonizing other people. Really good at it. In junior high I would gather in the courtyard every morning and give sermons on the dangers of gays, Catholics, and girls in short skirts, which won me a certain amount of popularity. Later in college, the end-times cult that I co-founded aligned itself with a nationally famous, far-right Evangelical ministry that said Jesus was going to return and physically kill thousands of people with his own hands. We were taught to beware the “gay agenda” and to view Christians in other denominations with suspicion. There’s a mass movement of young people doing works of justice, they told us, but because they don’t profess the name of Jesus, it’s a “false justice.”

As I absorbed these teachings my behavior changed radically, and so did that of the cult’s other members. I was belligerent and aggressive towards my gay and atheist friends. My thinking became compartmentalized and I was suddenly unable to have logical discussions. Yet the other cult members told me not to worry about it, said I was being “persecuted” for contradicting “the world’s” teachings. When a fellow student, who had been involved in peaceful demonstrations and interfaith dialogues, was accidentally run over, we celebrated his death as a sign of God’s wrath being poured out on campus.

But then when I moved to Kansas City and started getting punished constantly, something changed inside of me. Something deep and drastic.

It was a long process, but I think the pivotal moment happened one night as I listened to the community praying together from the floor of my bedroom, where I had been consigned following a series of truly disturbing events. Each night the group would gather in a circle and listen for two or three in minutes in silence to hear what “God” was saying. Then they would discuss what they had heard. On this particular evening a woman began the discussion by saying, “I feel like we’re being attacked. There are demons of control coming against us right now.”

The group prayed in silence for a moment longer. Then one girl said, “It’s Boze.” And another girl said, “I just heard the same thing.”

And they spent the next hour praying against me. As I sat there in my room listening to their prophecies about how God was going to “punish” me, at first I wondered what I could have possibly done to upset them. But then I realized: They’re wrong about me, and their prophecies are wrong, and the things they’re hearing from God are wrong. And I can prove it.

And gradually in those next weeks I quit being afraid of them. And though I wouldn’t have said it in so many words, I realized that I could never again single out any other group or person for shame and condemnation. I had been on the wrong end of that, one too many times now. I resolved to become an advocate for all who were trapped in nightmares.

 

AIDS, Authoritarians, & the Demon-Possessed Man, Part 1

an-active-service-unit-of-the-irish-republican-army-sets-up-a-vehicle-checkpoint-british-occupied-north-of-ireland-1994

In the 1960s and ‘70s, Northern Ireland was a nation at war with itself. Loyalist Protestants, seeking integration into the United Kingdom, took up arms against the Catholic republican majority. There were car bombings, gun battles, and random acts of butchery. Demagogues like the Reverend Ian Paisley fueled the fires of resentment.

 

 The song There Were Roses by folk singer Tommy Sands tells the true story of a tragic thing that happened to him. Growing up in the townland of Ryan, his two best friends were Allan Bell, a Protestant, and Sean O’Malley, a Catholic. Allan loved to dance; Sean loved a girl named Agnes. Some nights they would stay up late playing music. When the noise of guns disturbed the tranquil peace of the countryside, they swore their faiths would never come between them. Continue reading

The Bible Was Clear on Slavery (But Not in the Way You Might Think)

postfull-see-a-free-screening-of-12-years-a-slave-fassy_sarah_detIf you had lived in the days before the Civil War when the battle for abolition was heating up, whose side would you have been on?

It’s important to remember that for thousands of churches, this conflict was a religious conflict – with God and the Bible “clearly” defending a person’s right to own slaves.

It was a serious moral issue: the idea that slaves should be freed was dangerously immoral.

“The right of holding slaves is clearly established by the Holy Scriptures,” said the Rev. Richard Furman in 1823.

“How this question can at all arise in the mind of any man . . . that is acquainted with the history of the Bible, is a phenomenon I cannot explain to myself,” said Rabbi Morris Raphal in 1861.

Verses like Ephesians 6:1-5 and 1 Timothy 6:1-2 were marshaled by the pro-slavery forces, who in most cases were decent, God-fearing Christians who sincerely believed they were following the “plain meaning of Scripture.” (The Southern Baptist Church was actually founded on the belief that slave-owning was biblical).

Slave owners had the stronger biblical argument. To accept the arguments of abolitionists, our ancestors had to look beyond the literal reading of the Bible to its overall message about love, justice, and compassion.

Would we have done the same thing? To really see the heart of Jesus in the Scriptures may require tremendous moral courage and a willingness to resist the enormous social pressures to believe what everyone else does. In the 1860s when your pastor and your entire congregation said abolition was “immoral,” in the 1960s when Martin Luther King was condemned as a heretic in pulpits across the country, would you have had the courage to defy the convictions of your own religious community in defense of justice and freedom? Would you have that courage today?