Despatches from the front line of the Church
When I was about fifteen, a book appeared in our house.
Back then, there were no e-readers, no blogging, no internet, no smartphones. If you wanted to phone your mother to pick you up from town you needed to find 10p and a telephone box. If you could find neither, you had a long walk in the rain. Perhaps you could use the compass in the heel of your Clarks Wayfinders to help (except you couldn’t, because it didn’t work).
So if you were eccentrically religious with views described by others as ‘fringe’ (but presumably by you as ‘innovative’) and wanted to air them in public in the hope that a couple of people might believe you (much like telemarketing), you had to save up enough money to self-publish your exotic manifesto.
The book in question was called The Appointed Times by the straight-facedly named Randy Bullock, an American of unclear scholarly pedigree who claimed to have interpreted the Biblical evidence and was able to show that the end of the world would be in May 1997. I am told that when this didn’t happen (I remember being rather disappointed that my mathematics class on the day in question proceeded without incident), Randy revised his prediction to 2004.
Randy, along with many other Christians, felt that part of the process of Armageddon would be the ‘Rapture’. This is the concept that all Christians will vanish prior to the end, whisked off to Heaven and therefore be spared the wrath of the Antichrist, Facebook memes and more Tim LaHaye books. It is based on a somewhat questionable interpretation of 1 Thessalonians 4.
The problem with this view is the same as the problem with the view that when you die you go to Heaven (which isn’t a full representation of what the Bible actually says either). It promotes the view Earth = Bad, Heaven = Good, and encourages us to look forward to the time when we leave this place. Some people talk about dying as ‘going home’ or ‘going to be with Jesus,’ which is reassuring but nobody seems to ask, “Well, hang on – Jesus is here as well, though, right?”
This isn’t the view of the Bible or original Christianity. It’s a view heavily influenced by Greek religious philosophy, in which spiritual things are seen as good, and material things as bad, and God-forbid the twain shall meet.
The truth is that God is going to redeem this planet – and Heaven is going to come here. This is amazingly exciting, because it rather explains why God expects us to take an interest in the world around us, promoting forgiveness, defending rights, taking care of the lost, and lonely, and loveless. It’s because we are actively involved in the process of setting up this new world.
Christianity is not a faith about a God who wobbles between being a bit grumpy about the Earth and actively looking forward to destroying it. It is not a faith about a God with a list of who’s been naughty and nice, like some kind of intergalactic Santa Claus.
Christianity is a faith about a God who is interested in the Earth and in love with it, interfering all the time in a giant, messy and chaotic sequence of zillions of events that defy our tiny human understanding – but all of which are rolling inexorably towards a conclusion as part of a coherent Divine plan. And I rather prefer thinking of those who have died as having fallen asleep, and will wake up when Heaven and Earth merge. So from their perspective, they’re fast-forwarding to the good bit.
So candy-mountain Christianity, where when we die we go to a magical fairy kingdom made out of lollipops where everything is fine, is dangerous because it makes us focus all our religious effort on trying not to sin (lest we invalidate our tickets) and reduces our hope in being able to change the world around us. In other words, it makes us focus inwardly. We’ve seen that sort of religion before – search the Gospels for the word ‘Pharisee’.
Jesus however wanted us outwardly-focussed, actively trying to bring peace and hope and love and justice to the world. He wanted us to start making Earth look like Heaven… because that’s exactly what He’s planning for it to eventually be.
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