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Apocalypticism in a Modern Idiom

As I pointed out some weeks ago on the blog, in the mid to late 1980s, as a liberal Christian, I was fully aware that the Bible was filled with mythological views that could no longer be accepted as literal truths but had to be translated into a modern idiom if they were to have any relevance.  And I thought that the Bible did have relevance.  But not in its literal sense.

This made interpretation of the Bible an extremely important affair.  It was the *interpretation* of the text that determined how, in what sense and in what way, the Bible could and should determine how a person understood the world, the deity, and our relationship to both (the world and the deity).

The teachings of Jesus, the writings of Paul, and in fact most of the earliest Christian tradition as found in the New Testament, was rooted in apocalyptic views that were very much situated in their own time and place, but were no longer tenable for 20th century Americans (i.e., for me in my context at the time).   Jesus (and Paul, and all the others) literally believed the world they knew it was going to come to a crashing halt very soon – probably in a matter of months.  A cosmic judge was literally coming from heaven on the clouds to avenge God and his people by destroying everyone and everything opposed to them.  A utopian kingdom would arrive on earth that would last forever.

In the meantime, the devil – a literal being, very much present here on earth – and his henchmen, the demons – actual spiritual beings – were active and afflicting the human race with terrible suffering.   That is why, for them, there are so many problems here.   But God’s cosmic judge would destroy the devil and his demons, and a good kingdom would emerge.

I was never completely sure that this ancient apocalyptic view was entirely coherent.  That is to say,

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  1. Avatar
    Jim Cherry  July 18, 2017

    Once again, another great post – thank you!
    Modern apocalpticism seems to follow the fallacy of bifurcation, everything is black or white. No shades of gray nor compromise.
    The “End” is near, so to heck with the environment, etc.
    Perhaps its inherent simplicity with lack of serious thought is its attraction?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 24, 2017

      I’d love to hear of studies that might show whether people with rigorous apocalyptic views are more likely to be climate-change-deniers, etc. If anyone knows of such, let me know!!

      • Avatar
        twiskus  July 24, 2017

        I have often thought about this, not in the apocalyptic sense, but of conservative Christians in general. Why do so many fundamentalist Christians deny climate change/global warming? The only guess I can think of is they believe that a perfect God created this planet, and if it were intelligently designed, he would have forseen the causes for future climate change and prevented it. So climate change is a sign of a flaw with the perfect creation? I suppose a Christian who supports and believes climate change could easily blame it all on “the fall”. Moving goal posts.

        • Avatar
          catguy  July 26, 2017

          Don’t you think in the US at least it has a lot to do with Christian fundamentalists and right wing evangelicals being hooked to the Republican Party? I read a lot of political blogs and my view is that the fundamentalists accept the Republican business model that there is no global warming or at least no scientific correlation that human activity has any connection to it. Therefore as I often read in the blogs, it is a liberal (and therefore not a Christian) view that humans have something to do with making the climate hotter with extremes of draught and floods.

        • Avatar
          alsoov  January 15, 2018

          My Christian Orthodox inlaws are all climate change skeptics. They have been encouraged by their religion to distrust science in general, so I think the two go hand-in-hand.

      • Avatar
        llamensdor  July 27, 2017

        What’s the connection between an apocalyptic believer and a climate-change denier?

        • Bart
          Bart  July 27, 2017

          I’d love to know! (But the logic, whether right or wrong, is that if the world is going to end sometime this coming August, there’s really not much reason to be too worried about climate change or to do anything about it. My question is whether that logic can be borne out by social scientific research)

          • Avatar
            SidDhartha1953  July 27, 2017

            That’s what worries me about the climate-change advocates who say it’s too late. They are not helping, in my opinion. They are giving the general public permission to throw up their hands and keep doing what they’re doing, because there’s nothing helpful to be done.

  2. Avatar
    Alfred  July 18, 2017

    Bart I hate to think I am annoying you with my constant references to non-human suffering but it seems to me that this is the biggie, the overwhelming argument, the no-defence blow, the great-big-no-one-has-an-answer issue for the problem of pain. Sure you can argue about human pain, although with difficulty with little babies, but how on earth can non-human pain be explained and let alone justified from a Christian perspective? There is a hot of this in Genesis, with the lion and the lamb but little else on the Bible. And while you might (horribly) argue that the holocaust was a result of sin, how could you possibly argue that the pain of every predated animal was caused by sin?

  3. Avatar
    Seeker1952  July 18, 2017

    I’m wondering how to reconcile your (earlier) view of apocalypticism with a notion of a God who did not create this mess but is a force for good within it, ie, a force with which we can align ourselves and thereby make stronger. God emerging more fully but not the all-powerful creator out of nothing.

    As I understand it the current view of creation as described in Genesis is not “ex nihilo” but of God ordering/organizing a pre-existing chaos. The latter seems more consistent with the views in the first paragraph.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 24, 2017

      The kinds of apocalytpicism I was always drawn to insisted (forcefully) that God had (in some sense) created this world and would ultimately redeem it — even if “creation” was a formation of the world out of a chaotic mess that somehow had always existed before then.

  4. Avatar
    johnlein  July 18, 2017

    Following psychologist/theologian Richard Beck and his new book “Reviving Old Scratch” (http://experimentaltheology.blogspot.com), I’ve been considering the possibility of seeing ideologies as these “forces of evil”. Rather than evil being an embodied entity or “bad people”, it’s the “memes” that infect us as populations.

    Hence we struggle not against “flesh and blood” but “powers and principalities”: empires, ideologies, planetary forces, economies, prejudices, biases, etc.

    Along with recent scientific study into the possibility that we actually don’t have free will at all, it’s very interesting to see how these rough ideas might come to be relevant again in mythological and metaphorical ways.

  5. Avatar
    hasankhan  July 18, 2017

    From Qur’an we know that ‘time’ works differently for God than for us humans.

    Qur’an (22:47) And they ask you to hasten the torment! And Allah will never fail His promise; and surely a Day in the Reckoning of your Lord is as a thousand years of what you count.

    So literal six days doesn’t mean days of our time as it is on earth. Also by judgement day being near, also doesn’t mean it is happening in next few months according to our time.

    Qur’an (70:4) by which the angels and the Spirit ascend to Him, on a Day whose length is fifty thousand years.

    For example we know that judgement day is going to be the day where accounting of every human being will happen from the start of humanity till the end, so it is not 24 hours only. It is going to be a very long day.

    The term day therefore is interpreted to mean ‘period of time’. Not necessarily 24 hours as we know it.

  6. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  July 18, 2017

    Excellent summary. I think you had gotten close to the same liberal views as those Spong describes in his many books although Spong does not write much about apocalypticism. Thanks

  7. tompicard
    tompicard  July 18, 2017

    I personally, wouldn’t consider you a 20th century apocalypticist (not to the extent I consider myself) if your description above is the extent of the commonalities between your christian understanding and that of Jesus’ ministry.

    You saw a dualism, but did not clearly identify it with a ‘Satan’ being, but Jesus clearly did. I also have a hard time believing in this being. And you don’t mention if you believe in a historical dualism (evil old age/beautiful new age).

    You don’t mention if you believed in an imminent change coming, But Jesus did.

    I am not sure of what to make of your explanation of this (I have never seen Jesus’ message as pessimistic, of course the apocalyptic book of Revelation is) did you think the world was, in the short term, getting better or worse?

    In the most general terms Good triumphing over Evil – How did you see that as occurring, if at all?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 24, 2017

      I didn’t have a concrete scenario — in fact, I thought all concrete scenarios were simply mythical inventions — but a general sense that in some way somehow God would make it all right in the end.

  8. tompicard
    tompicard  July 20, 2017

    I don’t think the core of the apocalyptic view is at all inconsistent, it when you add all the presumed supernatural components that it gets very weird. And it works equally well in 1st century Palestine or 21st century America.

    dualism – good and evil forces at work in the world (outside the individual) and even within each individual – see Rom 7:22 (Law of God in my mind law of sin in my members)
    vindication – Good ultimately prevailing over Evil – see precedents in Is 2:4 (spears to pruning hooks -peace in the external world) and Jer 31:33 (Law of God\covenant written in people’s hearts -peace within the person)
    Imminence is a matter of hope and faith

    Apocalyptic preachers certainly use very very symbolic language that can be interpreted as predicting supernatural occurrences. Whether the author of book of Revelation (19:15) meant that Jesus would come with a literal sword coming out of his mouth rather than biting statements is a decision each reader of that book must make.

  9. Rick
    Rick  July 24, 2017

    Professor, a bit off topic perhaps but, when did the Jews actually hold themselves out to be monotheist; and, how did they reconcile angels and demons (as you say “spiritual beings” who are clearly superior to humans) to monotheism? In an otherwise polytheistic world with greater and lesser gods (Zeus/Jupiter vs . whatever lesser god from the pantheon you want to pick) Judaism with Satan, Gabriel et al would have looked pretty similar.

    Hope you enjoyed getting away for a while!

    • Bart
      Bart  July 24, 2017

      The first outspoken proponent of something that we would identify as monotheism was probably 2 Isaiah (from the 6th century BCE). In Judaism, of course, it was not just a matter of believing there was only one God but also acting like it — monolatry as well as monotheism. For most kinds of Judaism, as long as you did not *worship* any other beings, it was fine to recognize that there were other “super-human” divine beings in the world. All of these were created beings, though, not uncreated like God himself, and were subservient to him, and were no where *NEAR* him in power and glory. But yes, from the outside, it can indeed look a lot like some forms of paganism as well.

      • Avatar
        llamensdor  July 27, 2017

        In my opinion, one of the best works in this area is Larry Hurtado’s “How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God?”

  10. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  July 27, 2017

    Do you think the various social conflict theories (Marxism, for instance) qualify as modern apocalypticisms?
    Also, I think it’s helpful in dealing with natural “evil” to consider that we live in an imperfect universe and, as President Kennedy expressed in his inaugural address that, “in the world, God’s hands are our hands.” It is for us to ameliorate, as best we can, the ills of humanity and the planet we live on, whatever their cause.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 28, 2017

      Great question. Unfortunately, I don’t have a great answer! But maybe someone else does.

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