As I write this, Jerusalem—the city that many Jews, Christians and even some Muslims consider the navel of this world—quietly slips into the early hours of September 23. While most of its citizens sleep and dream, thousands of Christians around the world hold their breath in anticipation, hope and, for some, even fear. A little more than a month after a rare solar eclipse traversed America, an even greater sign has now appeared in the heavens: the constellation Virgo (the virgin) finds herself situated with the sun and moon near her feet; Jupiter (the king of the gods; representing for Christians the true God revealed in Jesus the Messiah) shining in her midsection (womb); while nine stars and three naked-eye planets (Mercury, Venus and Mars) crown her head. And so, we are told, for the first time since well before the Apostle John penned the words of Revelation, the heavens align in perfect fulfillment of a key aspect in his divinely inspired vision of the Apocalypse:
And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pains and the agony of giving birth. Revelation 12: 1-2
And if that weren’t enough, other supposed prophetic teachers and seers have noted the wars raging around the Middle East as well as in other parts of the world; the severe earthquake that struck Mexico three says ago; the unprecedented fires burning across America; the incredible devastation hurricanes Harvey and Irma brought to the Caribbean and the United States; and the current nuclear smack-down between Trump and Kim Jong-un and have interpreted them all as fulfilling—or at least pointing to—the dire warnings Christ gave about what many interpret to be the end of the world:
“There will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and pestilences… And there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves, people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world. For the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Luke 21: 11, 25-28
But wait, that isn’t all. For even as the great alignment in the heavens takes shape, two more hurricanes dance their way across the Atlantic: Jose and Maria, Spanish permutations of the name Mary, the virgin mother of God, and her human husband, Joseph. (Note that the storms never touch one another, echoing the great truth that Joseph played no part in Jesus’ conception.)
Add it all up and it’s little wonder so many believers who hold to a particular brand of eschatology (the study of last things) are thinking something momentous is about to unfold.
The return of Christ, the rapture and the beginning of the end it all triggers, perhaps? More than a few think so and are shouting it from the proverbial housetops of Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. The final countdown to Jacob’s Trouble and the Great Tribulation? “Amen!” say others. Some more cautiously speculate that the signs are to be understood as but a major birth pang in redemptive history (Roman 8:22); perhaps a trumpet blast calling the recently eclipsed America to repent: that her lampstand is about to be removed—something, by the way, Kim Jong-un would only be too happy to help with. Others are more focused on the canary in the coal mine of nations, Israel. After all, some say this great heavenly sign will be most prominently manifest in the sky above the “Holy Land.” And not only that, Rosh Hashannah will have begun, leading up to the highest of the High Holidays in the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement).
Are you ready for Armageddon?
More than a few people, impressed by the data points noted above, have asked me what I think about all of this. All of them are friends and solid Christians, people not known for chasing myths and endless genealogies (1 Tim. 1:4), much less believing in a domed flat earth or the planet Nibiru. (Did I mention that a number of apocalypticists read Planet X—Nibiru for those in the know—into Revelation 12 and September 23rd as well? After being a no-show on several previously predicted, world-ending collisions, this ghost planet has been guaranteed by some to finally get the job done tomorrow.)
And so, for what it’s worth…
I think all of this is precisely what Paul warned Timothy about in the verse (1 Tim. 1:4) just mentioned: a myth. Worse, it’s just another of the seemingly endless speculations/genealogies that pattern-seeking humans of the Christian variety—many of them sincere and well-meaning—have gotten wrong as they have offered them up to a watching world for nearly two millennia.
And sadly, tragically, the end result has been in the end to bring ridicule on both the Name of Christ, His Bride and His Kingdom message. After all, if we can’t get the end part of redemptive history right, who’s to say we don’t have the beginning and the middle all muddled up as well?
I’ve been working for some time on a series of responses to the New Atheists, a movement—make no mistake—that is having a profound impact on the Western world. Having read a number of their books and listened to dozens of lectures, I can tell you that one of the top five sticking points with Hitchens, Dennett, Dawkins and particularly Harris, is that Christianity appears to be a clown car of apocalypse-chasers who are constantly getting their predictions wrong. Worse, it seems to them that we could care less about making the world a sustainably better place.
But there is a sense in which I truly do hope, yearn and pray that September 23rd and the days that immediately follow do spell the “end of the world as we know it.”
1. First, that it signals the end of professing Christians making like holy scripture-breathing prophets and taking it on themselves to use whatever pulpit they can find to share their personal interpretation of scripture and the signs they see in the times to say anything about the specifics of God’s prophetic timetable.
I mean, how many times do the great commissioned have to get the terminus of their commission wrong before we finally shut up?
Five? Ten? Fifty?
The fact is, the true number swells into the hundreds.
A generation from the first one AD has not gone by without some useful idiot (I say that as someone who struggles—as all of us do—with bouts of idiocy) declaring “The end is near!” Shoot, in just the short, vaporous passing of my 63 years—punctuated by the admittedly interesting and likely significant recreation of the land of Israel after almost 2,000 years—I’ve seen millions of Christians chasing the apocalypse. And I’ve lost count of how many drop-dead dates have been set…and then passed by without so much as a howdy-do.
As I write this I’ve been listening to 1000—A Mass for the End of Time for inspiration. The album is a collection of songs taken from the Ascension mass and apocalyptic texts that were everywhere as great swaths of Christians anticipated the end of the world as the first millennium AD wound down…only to then give birth to the second.
And now were into the third.
Ezekiel’s fourth (Eze.47:3-6) anybody?
I hope, I pray, our descendants are up for it.
2. Second, that we finally see the end of professing Christians tolerating even a whiff of Gnosticism: the satanic, Hellenistic-based idea the early church faced off against on the left even as they had to contend with the Judaizers on the right. Boiling it all down, Gnosticism is salvation/transcendence through knowledge; glomming onto the hidden keys of truth that have been lost or obscured from the common man. Discover this hidden knowledge—and, just by the way, whozzit can help you along if you will just buy his or her book or DVD—and you will become one of the chosen, the truly enlightened.
Now hold on there, you may say. What prophecy experts are making such claims? With some fringe exceptions, these are all good Christian leaders who believe in salvation by grace through faith and not through some hidden, obscured knowledge.
Well, I have no doubt that this is their heart and intention. And I’m also not in any way questioning their inclusion in the elect of God.
But you know what they say about good intentions.
The fact is I have not found a single end-time prophet, teacher or fiction writer who has not declared, or at least implied, that unless a person gets it right as to the specifics of their particular take on eschatological matters, it will not go well with them.
Some will say it straight up. In researching this, I’ve processed numerous articles and YouTube videos where the authors declare that the skepticism about their position I voice in this article means I am yet in darkness; that I’m bound by carnal thinking rather than embracing the enlightened insights they have received and are now sharing with the world.
The worst? Despite my sincere belief and embrace of the Gospel of the Kingdom, my bedrock confidence that Jesus was bodily raised from the dead and is now the LORD of heaven and earth, I remain a deceived, unregenerate spawn of Satan and on my way to hell.
And all because I haven’t grasped the hidden wisdom they’ve received concerning the trajectory of redemptive history and the last days.
Don’t believe me? Think I’m being harsh and unfair?
I’ve visited with Tim LaHaye on one occasion I remember. More his wife, Beverly, and the wonderful organization she and Tim helped found, Concerned Women for America, where I have spoken at two national conventions as well as being interviewed on their national radio program. I consider them both to be wonderful, anointed Christians who very likely will have a place of honor on the New Earth that eclipses mine.
With that said, however, when you boil down the theology of Dr. LaHaye’s incredibly popular (65 million sold) Left Behind series—a fictional representation of the dispensational eschatology that informs so much of the September 23rd speculation—one is left with a number of a proverbial flies in the ointment.
For example, Revelation 14:9-11 straightforwardly declares that anyone who receives the “mark of the beast” will face an eternity of hell, where “the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night.”
But what does it mean to take this 666 mark on the hand and/or head? Well, perhaps most broadly: to be a mere man (6 in Biblical numerology) who strives to supplant the Triune God (3); to be self-rather than God-referential in what we ultimately trust and believe (the head) and what we do (the hand).
This is what many Christians, myself among them, have believed for over two millennia.
Or what of the Roman emperor cult the early Christians had to face off against? After all, it was to them John was writing about things which will soon take place (Rev. 1:1).
The Romans had no problem with their subject nations maintaining their distinctive cultures and paying homage to their traditional deities. The rub came when they were required to honor the Caesar as kurios, the Lord, the King of all Kings.
No problem for the majority polytheistic cultures. They and their gods, after all, had been conquered by Rome. Might, in the end, is right.
But for Christians, it was another matter all together. Jesus had been executed via Roman crucifixion, vindicated by the Holy Spirit through a bodily resurrection from the dead, had ascended into heaven where He was enthroned and made LORD (kurios) over everything in heaven and on earth.
This was the bedrock of the Christian faith, the truth that stood above every other pretender to truth and homage. To confess instead that Caesar was LORD was unthinkable. It was to deny both Christ and the very foundation of the Gospel.
But to not honor Caesar as LORD could mean—and at various times over two-and-a-half centuries did mean—that Christians were severely marginalized (for example, their ability to engage in commerce—to buy and sell—was restricted) and even jailed, tortured and executed.
And to make matters worse, there is the curious fact that the emperor who kicked off the first serious persecution of Christians—a man who eventually degenerated into the most beastly state of mind and behavior—had a title whose letters added up to the very number John used to represent the beast. (Greek, like Hebrew and later Latin, did not have a separate number system but instead pressed their letters into doing double duty. And it was very common for people to add up the number values of the letters in a name or phrase, a practice the Jews called gematriya (gematria).)
After killing himself to avoid assassination, both the empire and emperor cult fell into confusion and looked to be “dead”, on its way to oblivion. But thirteen years after Nero’s passing, Domitian, a man who some Romans believed to be the second coming of Nero, came on the scene and righted the floundering ship of the Roman state. A gifted statesman and strategist, he was also a remarkably cruel and vainglorious man, one the historian Pliny described as a beast from hell who sat in its den, licking blood. Beginning in 89 AD, for seven years the self-titled “God the Lord” unleashed a torrent of persecution against what was commonly seen as a sect of Judaism: the Christians.
The 666 death cult was reborn.
Could what is now past be what John the revelator was primarily pointing to, encouraging his fellow believers to endure with hope in the eventual victory of Christ over the emperor cult? Could we be barking up the wrong tree as we speculate about future fulfillments: for example people being eternally doomed or at least having to go through the Great Tribulation because they’ve accepted a particular credit card, smart card, biochip, vaccine or whatever else becomes the mark de jour?
I’m not saying definitively that we are, though I personally believe it to be the case. God-fearing and learned folks look through the Bible’s admittedly difficult and at times mysterious eschatological lens from different angles and, of course, reach different conclusions about these matters.
But shouldn’t the ancient paths carved out by the many that have gone before us be taken seriously rather than simply ignored? Shouldn’t the indisputable fact that Christians have gotten it so often and so spectacularly wrong before—with no little damage being done to our testimony before men as a result—give us profound pause before chasing after the newest sign in the heavens or earth?
In much the same way, what of the passage in Revelation 12 that has become the focus of this new wave of end-time speculation: the great sign of the woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars?
Many, perhaps even a majority of theologians over the intervening years, have viewed this passage as being fulfilled nearly two millennia ago: imaged first by Mary, the infant Jesus and Herod standing in for the dragon and then more completely as the young church had to endure the persecutions of imperial Rome.
But you would never know about this common interpretation listening to all the fevered speculation concerning September 23rd.
And this brings me to my third and last “please let tomorrow and the days that follow be the end” hope and prayer.
3. That we will finally see the end of the anti-historical, new (or recovered) revelation perspective that has tainted so much of modern, and particularly American, evangelicalism. Millions have been infected with a “vain imagining” that has either taken over their minds and hearts or—and I would take this to be by far the majority report—bubbles quietly beneath the surface of their consciousness, creating confusion where there should be clarity as to the task that is before them. This thought-virus takes many forms but is perhaps best expressed in the idea that the Church has to varying degrees floundered since Constantine; that true New Testament, Spirit-filled Christianity has only recently been recovered (many would date it to the Azusa Street revival); that only now, in our generation’s time has the latter rain truly fallen and a nascent Daniel generation come on the scene that will ultimately usher in the return of the LORD.
In opposition to the Prime Directive given to us by our LORD (Matthew 28:18-20), millions now limp about, tethered to the subtle belief that Satan and his seed are the ones really alive and well right now on planet earth. Ignoring or watering down Jesus’ clear admonition that no one knows the day or hour of the Son of Man’s return (Matt. 24:36)—as well as the two angel’s gentle and rather humorous rebuke of the disciples’ “standing around and looking into the sky” rather than hoofing it back to Jerusalem and engaging with the new commission they had been given (Acts 1:11)—a majority of U.S. Christians believe that Jesus will either “definitely” or “probably” return to earth on or before 2050. (2010 Pew Research Study). Abandoning the long-term strategy and commitment to occupy or do God’s business until He returns (Luke 19:13), millions of Christians’ fascination with supposed end-time’s doom and gloom is becoming—even has become as regards the West—a self-fulfilling prophesy.
Father, forgive us.
May all of this nonsense finally come to an end as we see 2017 come and go without the occurrence of any great apocalyptic event.
I’m going to informally “predict”—more offer a hunch—that God could very well frustrate the sign-chasers and predictors by making the September 23 and the rest of 2017 an ocean of relative calm. (Note the qualifier “relative.” Crazy and tragic stuff will continue to occur with some frequency as it necessarily must in a fallen, yet-to-be-fully-redeemed world.) The One who holds together the cosmos by the word of His power (Col. 1:17; Heb. 1:3) might very well grant our planet an extra measure of grace so that the trend we already see emerging in 2017 relative to earthquakes—we’ve actually seen the least in relation to the past decade—will manifest in other areas watched by apocalypticists as well.
Trump and Jong-un will continue to bark at one another, but a nuclear holocaust will be averted. Islamists will carry on with their war against the West and Israel, but nothing unusually horrible will come of it.
And maybe, just maybe, the Church can put away her fascination with myths and endless genealogies and give renewed energy and attention to the Gospel of the Kingdom as December 25th and January 1 roll around.
And that, by the way, includes calling America to repent. We didn’t need our own special eclipse to let us know that America is under the judgment of God. It has been for years, with 1973 (Roe v. Wade) and 2015 (Obergefell v. Hodges) serving as true signs of the tragic process of being given over to believe the lie. (2 Thess. 2:11)
Lastly, as long as this article has turned out to be, there’s much I have had to leave out. And that includes an idea—an eschatological riff on Pascal’s famous wager—that may somewhat smooth the ruffled feathers of those I’ve put-off by the perspectives I’ve shared here.
More importantly, it just may show us a better way forward.
I hope to have it out within a few days.
So too with the greatest story ever told.
A little less than 2,000 years ago, Jesus was wrapping up his three-year ministry intensive with his small band of eleven disciples. Forty days before, He had graduated from death to life, becoming the first fruit of the New Creation, the model Man who then breathed on his astonished followers and transformed them into chips off this new Cornerstone. Now He was about to step back into His Father’s dimension and sit down on the throne as the dread Sovereign over heaven and earth.
He leaned into His eleven disciples and a great hush fell.
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me,” He said. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Matthew 28:18-20
And so He summed up the raison d’être of His life…and ours.
Now depending on one’s eschatological view—whether a-, post- or historical pre-millennial— we can disagree as to the extent we will be successful in this grand enterprise of discipling nations before the Lord returns. We can even disagree as to how true success is defined.
But there should be absolutely no question as to what that commission is and means: to love others as He has loved us; to strive to bring every thought in obedience to Christ; to seek first the Kingdom and His righteousness; to pray and then work for that Kingdom to come and for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven.
And die trying (in more ways than one).
Anything less is to cease being a disciple; to quit the game, leave the field and shuffle off into the inglorious stands.
There’s much in the Bible that can confound or offend non-believers and believers alike. And with the rise of the so-called New Atheism, as well as movements seeking to normalize what the Bible condemns, more and more attention is being paid to what professional skeptic Richard Dawkins calls the “nasty bits” in the Scriptures.
The imagery, focus on and ritual use of blood─something inexorably linked to Calvary’s cross─is among the most common points of contention.
This series will focus on one aspect of this “bloodiness” that is rarely discussed or even thought about by most Christians: that is blood’s connection to sex. And in doing so I will address the proverbial “elephant in the room.” When Christians rightly invoke Leviticus 18 (among several other verses) to challenge the loosening of sexual mores─specifically homosexual behavior (vs. 22), critics love to point out that the same chapter similarly condemns sexual intercourse between a husband and wife while she is menstruating (vs. 19), something that many (most?) Christian couples have experienced inadvertently or even intentionally.
Are these Christians guilty of cherry-picking the Bible─of selective application and gross hypocrisy?
To “rightly divide” (2 Tim. 2:15), to properly get our minds around these admittedly difficult passages, it is vital we first acknowledge where the true difficulty lies in regard to them. It is not so much with the Bible as it is with us.
First, there is our pride, our innate tendency to not trust in the Lord with all our heart but rather “lean to our own understanding.” (Pro. 3:15). At its worst, this “birth defect” (Psa. 51:5; Jer. 17:9; Eph. 2:1&3) will drive us to sit in judgment of God and the Bible, to search the Scriptures to find fodder for our rebellion rather than for illumination. This is precisely Dawkin’s and every other skeptic’s primary approach.
It’s no wonder the Bible seems foolish to them.
Second is our laziness and intellectual indifference and/or our ignorance. We don’t do the “heavy lifting” necessary to knock, seek and have the doors of our understanding opened. Three key aspects of this (there are others):
- Truly believing that all of Scripture is God-breathed and is profitable for teaching, correction and training in righteousness (2 Tim. 3:16). All scripture doesn’t just mean each of the sixty-six books individually (seventy-three if one is a Roman Catholic; seventy-six (or so) for the Greek and Eastern Orthodox) but also all of the books corporately. (Matt. 4:4; note every) To truly, ultimately understand any passage—particularly the surprising, difficult and shocking ones—we have to process them within the context and light of the entire Canon; to let the Bible interpret the Bible.
- We need to understand the language of the Bible. By language I don’t necessarily mean the original ones the Bible was recorded in: biblical Hebrew, Aramaic and Koine Greek—though no doubt that can help. More importantly, we need to set aside our modern (or post-modern), Western, so-called “enlightenment” presuppositions and strive to enter the world of the inspired human authors: to let the Bible and its worldview interpret a passage instead of imposing our personal interpretive lens on it. This involves picking up on the figures of speech (similes, metaphors, metonymies) and idioms of the time and culture. To differentiate between the different styles of writing: historical narrative, poetry, apocalyptic, law/statutory, parable, epistle, genealogical, prophecy, proverbial and hyperbolic. And, of course, it also means depending on the true Author of the content and language: God the Spirit.
- Vitally connected with #’s 1 and 2: we need to also read the Bible against the backdrop of the big picture—in the context of God’s redemptive purposes and their arc in history. Some of the more salient features of this relative to the task at hand:
- God created a “very good” world with man set in as His vice-regent, His high priest operating from within the temple/control center of Eden’s garden. He was called to cultivate and keep it, eventually exporting its divine beauty and order throughout the rest of Eden and then the outlying world. (Gen. 1:31; 28; 2:15; Num. 3:7-8; 8:25-26; 18:5-6; 1 Chron. 23:32; Ezek. 44:14. For more on this go here.)
- Man fell (Gen. 3) and the chaotic, dark void (Gen. 1:2) that had been divinely transformed in six successive stages returned with a vengeance. Now only through toil and pain can the chaos and darkness be defeated and the work of “heavenizing” (cultivating, keeping, filling and ruling) the earth be accomplished. (Gen. 3:16-20) The ultimate expression of this pain and toil became quintessentially incarnate in Christ, reaching a horrifying crescendo on the cross.
- God then sets about fixing and re-launching the original project, specifically by redeeming a segment of mankind and introducing into the world a “new” or “second” Adam, both the Person and His descendants. (1 Cor. 15:45; Rom. 5:12-21; John 20:22 (compare to Gen. 2:7); Matt. 18:28, Rom.8:19)
- A vital, early stage in this project involved drawing out from the morass of fallen humanity a people─one that God set His Name upon and then proceeded to both teach and reveal to the world His ways. Eventually, and with signs and wonders following, YHWH gathered Israel to the navel of the earth. He put them on the world-stage stage to act out the covenant relationship He had established with Israel…and in doing so to potentially redeem the world.
- Israel spectacularly failed at this—of course, something that did not take LORD by surprise. But they did do a good job—in most cases inadvertently—of serving as object lessons for those upon whom the promise/fulfillment of the ages would later come. (1 Cor. 10:11)
- From the Jews would eventually come the true Israel, the One who in fact would redeem the world and inaugurate with His own body the New Creation that God from the beginning sought to bring to the world. (Col. 1:15-23)
- A vital corollary to these last three points are the laws, rules and ritual acts YHWH gave Israel to obey and model as a key aspect of His covenant with them. Some were based on eternal moral absolutes, rooted in God’s own nature. The Ten Commandments are the most obvious examples of this. But many were temporal and deeply, powerfully symbolic—typological and recursive actions that called to, invoked and provided insight into the mysteries of God’s plan of redemption. Perhaps the best example of this was the elaborate system of ritual sacrifice—most of it involving blood—that pointed to and then passed away when the true Sacrifice was taken to Calvary’s altar. (John 1:29; Heb. 10:1-8; Rev. 5)
In this sense, the people of Israel were like actors on Shakespeare’s world stage, unknowing participants in a kind of cosmic, ritual folk dance that overflowed with symbolic and pedagogical meaning. (There likely were times when the more spiritually attuned of them were aware of the symbolic/prophetic nature of their particular steps in the dance, particularly when those steps became very, very odd. (see Isa. 20:2; Jer. 13:1-7; Eze. 4; Hos. 1; among others)
It is against this backdrop—and particularly in the light of the point just made—that we turn our attention to the “blood and sex” passages in the Old Testament. (Stay tuned for Part Two)
“All who are baptized into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, recognizing the Trinity of Persons in the Godhead, the incarnation of the Son and his priestly sacrifice, whether they be Greeks, or Arminians, or Romanists, or Lutherans, or Calvinists, or the simple souls who do not know what to call themselves, are our brethren. Baptism is our common countersign. It is the common rallying standard at the head of our several columns.” A.A. Hodge, Reformed scholar and president of Princeton Seminary between 1878 and 1886 (Evangelical Theology, p. 338).
Like many thinking and engaged Protestants, I was trained from the get-go of my newly born-again life to be suspicious of Roman Catholicism. (It is important I think to use the descriptive “Roman” when referring to it because, in truth, all Christians are Catholics: meaning members of the universal church.)
For example, as a young campus minister I attended a series of classes on the cults where I was instructed in the inherent errors of Mormonism, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Way, Scientology, EST, Islam, and the main eastern religions. But there was also an entire session on RCism. Because it was Trinitarian, used and professed to have a high view of the same Bible we had (with seven questionable books thrown in—but, hey, they’ve been around before Christ so it’s not like the Book of Mormon or anything) and enthusiastically embraced the life, death and resurrection of the God/man Jesus as the key to redemptive history, RCism couldn’t quite be lumped into the same camp as the others.
Nevertheless, some extra-Biblical–and many would argue contra-biblical—weirdness (to me and most Protestants) existed in spades. Then there were the hundreds of thousands of former RCs who had had born-again experiences and now made up a significant percentage of Protestant congregations, many angry because they felt they had been inoculated against the Gospel of grace by what they now saw as rote ritual and a works-oriented system of salvation. Finally, toss in the Dark Ages, some ridiculously corrupt popes and the millions who were killed, directly or indirectly, by RCism—including the hyper-cruel torture and martyrdom of many Protestant heroes. Add it all up and the conclusion seemed clear: Roman Catholicism may not be a anti-Christian cult in the classic sense of the term, at least not in its 20th Century form. (The Reformers may have been right to label the papacy as the seat of Anti-Christ during the medieval period.) But it sure was cultish…and we needed to call people out of it.
But then the RC church had been and was changing, clearly impacted by the growth and influence of Protestantism, particularly in America. The Jesus Movement and the charismatic renewal suddenly had RCs and Protestants rubbing shoulders in big ways. And when it came to standing strong on two key social issues—the sanctity of life and biblical marriage—RCs were often leading the way…while half of the Protestant church seemed to be more a part of the problem than the solution.
It was in the epicenter of pro-life activism that I began to get to know sincere RCs and, through them, better understand the heart of their faith. (There were several times when we had entire days to discuss things: while we were in jail together, having been arrested for blocking clinic access while praying in front of abortion clinics.) As we prayed together and allowed “iron to sharpen iron” (Proverbs 21:17) in a spirit of humility and mutual respect, I began to realize I had something of a cartoon-like, “Jack Chick” version of their beliefs in regard to a number of suspect doctrines: purgatory, Mary, praying for and to the dead, the Eucharist, penitential works, the Magisterium and papal infallibility, etc. I was challenged to and agreed to read some of the writings by the early church fathers (most notably the three book compilation by William Jurgens) and was surprised to see how many of their distinct doctrines were hinted at, if not down-right espoused, by more than a few of the great men of God who were the immediate heirs of the Apostolic era.
My pious, pro-life RC friends also kindly pointed out to me one distinct area in which the Protestant emperor had the back of his hospital gown flapping in the wind: with all their problems and failures, the RC church had a credible claim to still be standing and unified after two millennia. While Protestants? Still protesting, the little cusses, and not just against the RC church. We have divided and split like a science project run amok, forming hundreds if not thousands of denominations—many of which have descended into abject loopiness and error.
I wasn’t buying it all—at least not hook, line and sinker. But as I was growing in my faith and walk with the Lord, I was also coming to understand that some of my own pet—and often overly pat—doctrines were at best approximations of much deeper truths. I began to humbly appreciate the inherent limits of the human mind in fully comprehending ultimate truth and God’s mysteries. Feedback loops, cognitive biases, the impossibility of true and sufficient fact gathering, the influence of propaganda and manufactured consent, and the fact that the closer we get to the mind of a God who lives and moves and has His Being in utter Transcendence, the more fragile our four-dimensional time/space perch becomes. (Yes, one of Christianity’s many unique doctrines is that God is simultaneously Immanent—and was even wonderfully, physically so in the Incarnation. But as Phil. 2:7 and other verses makes clear: from our vantage point as fallen, fallible, finite beings, all we are capable of grasping from this Immanence are the barest outlines—the form or likeness—of His Being.)
I also began to deeply appreciate some aspects of their faith and religious traditions. The ancient liturgy, for example: how in every service over 2,000 years the Word was sung, prayed, preached and—in climax—eaten. Communion (the Eucharist) seemed charged with reverence, meaning, transcendence and a gracious power that made my Protestant experience of passing grape juice and a little hardtack cracker down the aisle seem lame—almost blasphemous—by comparison. I learned there were Protestant services that were roughly equivalent and began attending them. And frankly, I still stand with Calvin and other Reformers—over and against the RC tradition—in seeing the Real Presence of Christ spiritually manifest in the bread and wine. They are not mere mementoes or symbols but rather are infused with His Presence: the miracle of con- rather than tran- substantiation.
But at the end-of-the-day, I prefer what humbly seems to me the RC error in regard to this sacrament to the anemic (a rare instance where a descriptive is scientifically/medically accurate) version offered in the majority of Protestant churches.
And therein may be an example or metaphor we would all do well to consider. We’re dealing here with mysteries. And each of the three main approaches to the sacrament of communion, I believe, is sincerely seeking to honor and glorify Christ as the center and fount of this mystery. I’ve got my own take on the Eucharist; one that is pretty different from the one I had thirty years ago. I think…I hope I’m right about it. But I will not succumb to the hubris of insisting I’m right and then, even worse, condemning those who believe differently as being in error.
And I can say the same thing about the ordo salutis, election, predestination, baptisms, eschatology, ecclesiology, the scope of atonement, perseverance, tongues, the place and state of souls after death and a hundred other doctrines and mysteries over which Christians disagree and even divide. That’s fine, even necessary and helpful…as long as it is done in a spirit of charity and humility, allowing iron to sharpen iron so that greater truth and understanding can eventually emerge.
But it is bad for the Church, tragic for a lost and hurting world, and a wound to the heart of the One who prayed the words of John 17 when these disagreements and divisions become a tool of strife, accusations, condemnations, fighting and even war.
God knows. And only God knows. And in the end, will not the Judge of the whole earth and men’s hearts do right?
(In part 2, I will share a recent experience that I hope illustrates how this unity can work—as well as the mindsets that exist in the Church which will try and frustrate it.)
* I write this as one who has humbly studied the Roman Catholic faith with a willingness to join should I become convinced that it was the truest and best depository of the Apostolic faith. (Yes, RC friends, I’ve read and listened to a bunch of Scott Hahn…and a whole lot more.) To date, I remain a Protestant with both feet planted in the Reformed/Augustinian tradition. And that perspective or bias—for example, examining the potential error (graciously, I hope) inherent in the RC tradition—is obvious in this article. I want to acknowledge that a Roman Catholic apologist could and even should turn this on its head and write a similar essay describing how he or she had been raised to be suspect of Protestants and all their heterodox ideas and practices. And then with a tut-tut, advise RC’s everywhere to learn to love and work with their Protestant neighbors as sincere but errant, separated brethren.
What’s good for the reformer is good for the formed.
Once upon a time the son of a Great King decided to plant a vineyard on a certain hill.
His Father had done the same years before. But because the gardeners — husbandmen they called them in those days — had been unfaithful, the vines had withered and the fruit had turned bad. Now weeds and toppled stones were all that were left. Worse, those first husbandmen had also fraudulently mortgaged the land. Now the hill was “owned” — as far as any mere creature could ever own something that ultimately belongs to God — by a very evil man.
Still, the Prince saw something in the land — a potential treasure of great value. So he set out to redeem the hill and re-establish the vineyard.
We don’t have time now to tell of all the amazing things the Son did to fulfill His dream. In fact, all the time in the world wouldn’t do justice to His mighty deeds. Suffice it to say that the impossible happened. The hill was ransomed and the evil man’s authority was destroyed. The stones were removed, a walled enclosure was built, and a strong tower was placed in its midst. And perhaps most incredible of all, a vine of the most unusual sort was planted. Virtually impervious to disease and able to withstand every challenge that the weather and the environment could throw at it, this vine was guaranteed to produce bountiful harvests of the sweetest, most wonderful grapes.
Once again, gardeners were hired. But these were not just strangers as before, who worked only for wages. They were actual kinsmen of the Son.
And though they weren’t necessarily the smartest, or the strongest, or the best natural-born gardeners in the world, they were loyal to Him. They loved the Prince very much because of the way He loved them.
The Son trained these husbandmen well. He gave them a manual that contained all the information they needed to ensure both their well-being and the success of the vineyard. And on top of that, both the King and the Prince sent…well, we’ll just call Him the “Helper.” This is deep magic and hard to explain in human language, but basically having Him was the same as having the Father and the Son invisibly present, assisting the husbandmen, overseeing their on-the-job training, strengthening them when they grew weary, protecting them from the evil man and his friends who liked to roam outside the walls looking for trouble… all manner of wonderful and magical things.
One day the Son left to go on a long journey from which He would one-day return to receive the harvest of the vineyard. But having left both the manual and the Helper, the Prince had made certain His kinsmen-gardeners had everything they needed to ensure both their success and that the vine would grow to fill the entire hill. He reminded them one last time of his absolute authority over the hill and even the enemies who would seek to take it back. (Later, many would wonder, particularly when these adversaries would attack, why the Son didn’t use that authority to permanently banish or destroy them. But the wiser among them eventually realized that the Son was as interested in them as he was in the vineyard and that dealing with these enemies was preparing them for something even more grand awaiting them after his return.) Mounting his horse, the Prince turned and restated their Prime Directive as if it was a benediction: “Because I have won this hill and vanquished its enemies, fear not: go throughout this land, cultivate it and help this vine that I have planted send forth new branches until it covers the hill even as the waters cover the seas.”
Seeing this happen, they soon learned after he left, wasn’t going to be easy. But things of great value never are. There were times when the vine’s growth slowed. Often it was because of mistakes made by the gardeners. Eventually they would learn from their blunders and the vine’s growth would pick back up again….that is, until the next lapse or mistep occurred.
“Two steps forward and one step back!” became a common refrain among those gardeners who took their eyes off the temporary setbacks and considered the bigger, long-term picture. “He who has promised is faithful,” they would say, “and will He not bring to pass what He has promised?”
Other times the slower growth was caused by inclement weather over which the gardeners had no control. But over time they — or at least some of them — learned that the vine would grow even faster after these bouts of severe weather and, even more wonderfully, the next harvest of grapes would be all the more sweet.
Many years passed and the vine, by fits and starts, grew so much that over half of the great hill was covered. Seeing the great patches of green, some of the husbandmen began to forget that there was still much work to be done. Others made wine from the succulent grapes that previous generations had toiled to produce − and their over-imbibing resulted in an even more relaxed attitude towards the work at hand. And there were those who contemplated the growth, and then made the same mistake as previous gardeners who experienced their own season of blessed fruitfulness: they took for themselves the credit that belonged to the Helper, the wisdom of the manual, and the incredible vitality of the vine itself. Eventually there were even those who began to question whether the manual was the best authority on husbandry. New theories were floated and published—and in no time a good percentage of the gardeners were infected with these novel, man-made ideas.
The result was that the vine was increasingly left untended. More and more gardeners stopped cultivating the land where the vine was supposed to spread. The walls surrounding the vineyard were deemed unnecessary by many; and some even began removing its stones in order to build monuments to themselves or to some new idea. More and more, the tower was left unmanned.
And so the inevitable happened. The growth of the vine grew slower and slower. Weeds sprang up everywhere. And missiles from the enemy outside were increasingly able to find there way into the garden sanctuary. For those who had forsaken the manual, the explosions falling around them suddenly seemed fresh and even exciting. More stones were removed to let more rockets in. On and on it went, until it seemed — for about the tenth time in the history of the vineyard — that all hell was breaking loose.
But where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more. The Helper began to move on the hearts of those gardeners who were trying to be faithful. Seeing all the chaos and damage, they were compelled to come up with answers, trying to make sense of what was happening around them. In time, two theories and plans of action were developed and then presented to the loyal remnant. Though frightened and at times confused, they all wanted to obey the Prince.
“This is primarily the Evil One’s doing,” proclaimed Mr. Moody. He was a good and well-respected gardener who had done much to help the vine grow. He had also become the primary spokesman for one of the two courses of action. “Let’s continue to do what we can to be personally faithful to the Prince and His manual,” he cried. “But it’s inevitable that the Evil One shall prevail against us. The weeds will all but choke out the vine. Look around you. It’s already happening. There’s no way that we, as mere gardeners, can prevail against the weeds. But do not fear,” he continued. “The Prince will return and take us away, and then return to judge the Evil One and this corrupt vineyard. And then He will plant the true vine — and we will be His true branches — and we will live with the Son forever.”
“No, No!” countered Mr. Edwards. “With all due respect to my dear brother, his way with a hoe is commendable − but he is dead wrong about this!” Mr. Edwards was a key advocate for the other position. He was also known as the great, great, great grandson of Jonathan Edwards; the famous husbandmen who helped tend the vine during one its greatest periods of growth. But most gardeners on this day agreed that his plan of action, like the Edwards’ name, had fallen on hard times.
“Yes, the Evil One is a party to this, “he thundered. “But the greater fault lies with us. We’re the ones who have forsaken the ways of the Prince. It is we who have been unfaithful in our care for the garden. We’re the ones who have damaged the wall and invited this wickedness in. It is no wonder that our world has become as it is. Truly, it is mostly our fault!”
Many of the husbandmen now looked nervously at the ground, not sure they liked where this was heading. Several looked back to Mr. Moody, hoping he would speak up and take back the discussion.
“But all is not lost!” Edwards continued. “For the Prince has promised that if we will humble ourselves and repent and give up our evil ways, that He will forgive us and the Helper will step in and heal the vineyard. We can, by the Helper’s hand, rebuild the walls. We can pluck up the weeds. We can and shall repel our enemies. Remember, the Prince, not the Evil One, holds the deed to this land. The Son has crushed Him before; He will do so again. Only now it is His delight to have us, His brethren, join Him in the battle!” Mr. Edwards then closed his impassioned speech with a great cry, “TO OUR KNEES—AND THEN TO THE WALLS!”
No sooner had Mr. Edwards uttered these words than a great missile landed in the midst of the gathered gardeners. Seeing the wave of fear rippling through the crowd, Mr. Moody stepped back to the microphone. “Take courage my friends! The Prince will soon come to save us. These are but the birth pangs; the sign that the end of all things is at hand.”
As the panicking crowd dispersed to their homes, Moody shouted one last word of encouragement. “I’ll see you here, there…or in the air.”
There were only a few left to notice as Edwards turned to face the tower that stood atop the great hill. “One step forward…and three steps back,” he said softly, as if to himself. And then louder, his voice echoing throughout the valley, “Another trip around the mountain, eh Lord?”
An explosion from just on the other side of the damaged wall cut him off.
“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself–and you are the easiest person to fool.” Nobel Prize-winning physicist, Richard Feynman, in his 1974 Caltech commencement address, “Cargo Cult Science”
Feyman was right*. But therein lies perhaps mankind’s greatest problem. If we’re predisposed to fooling ourselves, when can we know we have stopped and finally arrived at the truth? Could I be fooling myself when I think I have finally stopped fooling myself?
Like Vizzini trying to deduce which cup held the poisoned wine in The Princess Bride, the back-and-forth is endless. Regardless of “dizzying intellect” we can still drink the wrong cup. And end up in trouble or even dead as a result.
It could well be that the greatest ruin the Fall wrought was and is epistemological: that having fallen away from God, grace and the Divine referent point, we are left squinting into a near infinity of complexity through a mere peephole. Through hard work and availing themselves of others’ peephole perspectives, some are able to widen theirs a bit. But living inside the 1,450 cubic centimeter “home” of our heads and staring through them at an expanding universe (1.3×104 Gpc3 (4.1×105 Gly3 or 3.5×1080 m3; where Gly3 is shorthand for gigparsec, which equals a billion parsecs where a parsec is roughly equivalent to 19 trillion miles), however big our little peepholes may become, they remain profoundly restricted apertures nonetheless.
But the problem is not just their size, the profound limits on what we can see and comprehend in relation to the expanse and complexity of what can be known. The lens in our peephole is also fogged with the uncertainty that comes from being inside the “system;” from being creatures within the creation. Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg – among other physicists and theoreticians – have clearly demonstrated the observational limits this creatureliness places on us.
Left entirely to ourselves and our peepholes, finding “true truth” becomes a fool’s errand. And as a result, postmodernism actually has it right for once: Truth is a chimera. Everything becomes to some degree relative, personal and situational.
And true peace and progress become impossible.
But–and this is the biggest of buts–what if there is a Classical Eternal Observer who stands outside of the vast quantum event that is creation; who, in fact, is the Creator of it? This “CEO” would have access to Truth; more would be the source of it. And if this Source was to present or reveal His** Truth to us–perhaps through a prophet or, even better, by entering the creation and then teaching and modeling the Truth–Feyman’s epistemological dilemma would be solved. We could know the Truth and that truth would necessarily make us free. We would have a foundation upon which to stand and a long enough lever to move the world. True peace and progress would become possible.
And we could stop fooling ourselves.
Once upon a time, the wisest of men boiled this all down very nicely: “Trust in the (CEO) with all your heart and do not rely on your own understanding.” (Proverbs 3:5)
* Feynman got this and many other things right. Ironically, however, he was unable to remain consistent with this key presupposition and fooled himself into thinking there was no CEO. (Psalm 14:1)
** I used the male pronoun in referring to God, the CEO, only because the Bible does. But the same Bible makes it clear that God is beyond gender; that “male and female” are a temporary–though very important–binary division for humankind created in the image of God. After the Resurrection and in the New Creation, that gender distinction, at least as we presently understand it, will be eliminated or transcended. (Matthew 22:30)
Source of all life, beauty, truth and goodness, you have created all things, to fill your creatures with every blessing and your redeemed children to the joyful vision of your light. Countless hosts of angels eternally stand before you, basking in your splendor, praising and enjoying your glory and perfectly accomplishing your will.
We thank you for the torn veil and our free access to this same reality through the blood of Christ. We join the chorus of these angels, with all your firstborn who are written in the Lamb’s book of life and all the departed whose spirits have been made perfect. United with them, and in the name of every creature under heaven, we praise your glory and desire to do your will as we declare:
Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might,
Heaven and earth are full of your glory.
Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest.
Celebrant: Father, we acknowledge your unfathomable greatness. All your actions show forth your wisdom, love and power. You formed man in your own likeness and set him over the whole world to serve you and to reflect your image, your glory and your dominion into and over creation. Even when man disobeyed and lost his fellowship with you and the light of your glory, you did not abandon him to the power of death, but helped the sons of Adam and the daughters of Eve to seek and find you. Again and again you offered a covenant to mankind, and through the prophets taught us to hope for salvation.
Father, you so loved the world that in the fullness of time you sent your only Son to be our Savior. He was conceived through the power of the Holy Spirit, and born of the Virgin Mary, a man like us in all things but sin. To the poor he proclaimed the good news of salvation; to prisoners, freedom; to those in sorrow, joy; to the blind, sight; and to those leprous with stain of sin, the cleansing power of his blood. In fulfillment of your will he gave himself up to death; but by rising from the dead, he destroyed death and restored life. And that we might live no longer for ourselves but for him, he sent the Holy Spirit from you, Father, as his first gift to those who believe, to complete his work on earth and bring us the fullness of grace. Father may this Holy Spirit sanctify these offerings. Let them become the body and blood of Jesus Christ our Lord as we celebrate the great mystery which he left us as an everlasting covenant.
Lord, we are not worthy to receive you. But only say the word and we shall be healed.
Celebrant: He always loved those who were his own in the world. When the time came for him to be glorified by you, his heavenly Father, he showed the depth of his love. While His life was lost the on that bloody Friday, it was given to us the night before when, at supper, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying:
Take this, all of you, and eat it: this is my body which will be given up for you.
In the same way, he took the cup, filled with wine. He gave you thanks, and giving the cup to his disciples, said:
Take this, all of you, and drink from it: this is the cup of my blood, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant. It will be shed for you and for all so that sins may be forgiven. Do this in memory of me.
Celebrant: Let us proclaim the mystery of faith:
Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.
Dying, Lord Jesus, you destroyed our death. Rising you restored our life. Ascending and being crowned and seated at the right hand of the Father and extending the scepter of your righteousness over us, you have inaugurated your New Kingdom reign and restored our vice-regency over this earth. Come to us now in glory and grant that we might better reflect its many-splendored light into your creation. As we eat this bread and drink this cup, we proclaim your death and your Kingdom until you come again in glory. Lord, by your cross and resurrection, you have set us free. You are the Savior and Lord of the World.
Celebrant: Father, we now celebrate this memorial of our redemption, this foretaste of the consummate wedding supper of the Lamb. We recall Christ’s death, his descent among the dead, his resurrection, and his ascension to your right hand where he rules heaven and earth as a glorified man (by corey jefferson). Looking forward to his coming in glory – when we too will be transfigured and become the Bride made fully ready as all the redeemed of the Lord will become one even as the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are One – we receive his body and blood, the acceptable sacrifice which brings salvation to the world.
Lord, look upon and bless these elements that manifest his sacrifice. By the Holy Spirit, may they become the true manna that comes to us from heaven; the very body and blood, life and power of our great Kinsman Redeemer. By this power deliver us from all evil and grant us the grace to purify ourselves even as you are pure in preparation for that great day and a better resurrection. And may the Holy Spirit gather all who share this one bread and one cup into the one body of Christ, a living sacrifice of praise.
(Eat, drink and pray.)
As someone who has always loved mysteries and pattern mining, one of my greatest delights after having my lights turned on by the Holy Spirit was then applying that light to the study of scripture. I was astonished to find that compared to the Bible, Moby Dick or Finnegan”s Wake were amateurish when it came to using symbols within symbols and other recursive patterns. And what made this even more mind-blowing was considering how the respective books were written: in the case of the later two, one author free to carefully think through and craft their narrative without regard to any thoughts or suggestions other than their own. Not too difficult when it comes to fashioning a coherent and consistent whole. But the Bible? Sixty-six books written by forty different authors over 1,500 years and spanning several different cultures and social classes and written in three different languages. That there”s any coherence at all is by itself pretty amazing. But that an incredible range of interlocking symbols exist that fold into one another and iterate over and over again variations of the same theme…well that, dear reader, is simply supernatural – and proves casinots sajt anpassas autmatiskt beroende pa om du spelar fran din dator, iPad eller annan mobil enhet. that the ultimate author of the Bible was indeed also One.
In this Advent season, I would like to explore one interesting example of interlocking symbols as it relates to the birth of the Messiah. In the same way that the location where Abraham offered up Isaac to God, where David displayed the severed head of Goliath to the city of Jerusalem, and where Jesus was crucified are at minimum thematically related – and I”m guessing precisely synced up geographically as well – so the birth of Jesus was sovereignly choreographed to coincide with the Old Testament birth of the precise child to a specific woman with a certain husband. Despite the scrambling randomness that on the surface seemed to attend the blessed event (“Sorry, no room at the inn. You”re going to have to look elsewhere.”), the true Father of the in-utero Babe was making sure that His Son was born in the exact place He needed to be to make the symbols sing.