Is it possible for progressive and moderate Christians to take biblical apocalyptic seriously? Can progressives and open-spirited evangelicals reclaim the temporal immediacy and insights of apocalyptic writings from biblical literalists and numerologists? Or must we discard such writings as nothing more than relics of the outmoded cosmology of a bygone era?
More than a few of us awakened on May 22, 2011 with a sense of relief. The end time predictions of Harold Camping had been proven wrong just like every previous prediction of Jesus’ Second Coming. Five months later, only a handful of people noted that Camping’s rescheduled the Second Coming of Jesus to October 21, 2011 had also come and gone without fanfare. Despite a history of failure, apocalyptic writing has been big business, whether in the Left Behind series of Tim Haye or in previous end time best sellers by Hal Lindsay, beginning with his The Late Great Planet Earth. Always wrong, but always popular among those for whom the end time theology is an authentic litmus test for authentic Christianity.
I recall a conversation some forty years ago on a star-filled night in Big Sur. One of my camping companions was a lapsed Jehovah’s Witness, turned flower child. Awestruck by the immensity of the heavens above, our thoughts turned to our futures, both personal and cosmic. Though my friend no longer actively participated in the Jehovah’s Witnesses, he still followed the Jehovah’s Witnesses timetable that the righteous would be raptured, or meet Christ in the skies and then be part of God’s heavenly reign, before the mid 1970’s. He was certain that none of us would finish college or begin careers. I wonder what he thinks now that we are all at the descending edges of our sixth decade.
I am sure that many of us would be delighted if the apocalyptic writings themselves had been “raptured” from scripture, given the other-worldly mischief they’ve inspired for over two thousand years. As the saying goes, some people, including many who take the Second Coming literally, are so heavenly minded that they are no earthly good! Worse than that, most apocalyptic Christians hold beliefs that are harmful in terms planetary survival. Believing the earth expendable, they have little interest in environmental destruction and global climate change. Others question global climate change simply because it would interfere with their belief that only God can destroy the earth. They believe that we are passive in relationship to God whose cosmic timetable trumps anything humans can do, for good or ill.
Still, these scriptures have shaped the faith of Christians throughout the centuries and must be taken seriously by responsible preachers. Progressive, moderate, and open-spirited evangelical preachers are challenged to present a contrasting Christian voice to the apocalyptic prognostications of televangelists, radio speakers, and writers that many people identify as the only Christian position on the future of human life and planetary history. Sadly, many seekers as well as people within moderate churches see literal understandings of the apocalypse as the only viable Christian positions because their pastors fail to address end times literature head on. We need to explore ways to affirm the reality of mortality and impermanence of life and the realities of personal and global threat without succumbing to world-denying apocalyptic thinking.
The words of Matthew 25:1-13 challenge us to stay alert for God-sightings. As I am writing this evening (October 28, 2011), early season snow storms are expected throughout the Middle Atlantic States. People are jamming the supermarkets purchasing groceries in preparation for the possibility of being snowed in or losing power. No doubt, some people will fail to see the signs of the times, and find themselves stuck at home with bare cupboards. In contrast, the gospel reading calls us to mindfulness. Any moment can be an epiphany. In any moment, we may experience God in a life-changing way. God is not absent, but is constantly coming to us, inviting us to choose for or against taking our role as companions in God’s realm.
From the perspective of process theology, God is constantly addressing us with insights, possibilities, and lures for adventure. These may come from the unconscious through dreams, synchronous moments, and sighs too deep for words. They may also come through ordinary events and unexpected encounters. Each encounter provides the opportunity to move closer to God’s vision for our lives and the world. Our openness to God enables God to be more active in our lives. Our failures to attend to God’s movements in our lives diminish God’s power to transform our lives. Still, in contrast to the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids, process theology asserts that God continues to offer us possibilities and the energies to embody them in our lives. Although we may turn away from God, God will never give up on us. There is hope for the foolish as well as wise in God’s realm of love.
I am not entirely sure how to reclaim the Thessalonians passage, given its status as the primary “proof” of the rapture of the saints. According to a literal reading of the text, Christ will descend from the clouds, drawing the faithful heavenward toward him. Few of us believe in the three-story, geocentric universe described in this passage. In addition, the images of driverless cars careening down the highway, running down the unfaithful, hardly squares with the divine hospitality embodied in Jesus’ mission to outcasts and outsiders. There is something morally suspect about religious beliefs which see the destruction of the works of Bach, Beethoven, Plato, and Lao Tzu along with the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, the Pyramids, and the Great Wall as part of God’s redemption of the earth.
If there is any hope to reclaim and redeem the Thessalonians passage, it will come through grace and not destruction. We need to see it as an invitation to trust that our present and future lives are in God’s hands. Alive or deceased, healthy and dying, we are in God’s care. While my interpretation may appear to stretch the original intent of the author, I believe that this passage enables us to proclaim that God’s love does not end at the moment of death. The dead in Christ will rise! Death is an artificial boundary, theologically speaking. God will continue to work toward our wholeness in the afterlife just as God is doing right now in this lifetime.
The reading from Joshua involves both threat and promise. Those who turn from the Living and Faithful God to the God of the Amorites will suffer spiritual and personal diminishment. They will miss out on the fruitfulness of companionship with the One True God. While I do not believe that God is jealous or unforgiving, I believe that a God-oriented life – that is a life oriented toward love, beauty, wholeness – awakens us to greater possibility, energy, and overall wholeness, even in the midst of physical, relational, and economic challenges. Turning toward holiness – the wonder of life embodied in each moment – enables us to experience equanimity through all the changes of life. Our task is to “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Such virtue is not just restricted to Christians but to all – people of other faiths, seekers, and even “non-believers” – who seek to be faithful the Holiness that flows through all creation.
Life is a constant process of perpetual perishing. Each moment is a mini-apocalypse insofar as it calls for decision and creativity. In every nanosecond, God calls and we respond, inviting us to decide for God’s realm of abundance. This is an apocalypse we and our planet can live with.
Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, pastor, and author of twenty one books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the Perplexed, Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, Philippians: An Interactive Bible Study, and The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age. He is available for lectures, workshops, and retreats.