Sermon for Pentecost 23 2020

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

A few years ago I was taking the elevator back down to the lobby in a hospital after visiting somebody, when a man with whom I was sharing the ride asked me “going up?” I thought it a strange thing to ask since he knew as well as I which direction the elevator was headed. I said “no, I’m going down to the lobby, too” and he replied “I mean are you going up in the rapture when Jesus comes back?” I chuckled uncomfortably and said “well, that’s a different question,” and then, thank God, the elevator door opened and I escaped. As I was walking away I heard a woman who was also in the elevator, and whom I assumed was my inquisitor’s wife, say in one of those whispers you can hear across a room “I think that means ‘no.’”

I imagine I’m not the first person of whom this man had asked this particular question on a descending elevator. I imagine he thought himself rather clever. I wonder if I was the first person in a clerical collar he had asked and how he would recount that story later to his co-religionists. Would he say that he had run into a preacher that didn’t believe the Word of God? Would it be further evidence of some prejudice he or his friends held about churches that weren’t really Christian? I’ve debated with myself whether I should have engaged the man and his wife in a theological conversation, whether such a conversation would have done any good for any of us or if we would have all left such a conversation feeling more smug and superior than he, she, and I already probably felt. I just don’t know.

In his First Epistle to the Thessalonians, from which we just heard, Paul writes:

For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first; then we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.

This has become a key text in the ideology of modern Christian fundamentalism, as many of you are no doubt aware. What you may not be aware of is how this came to be the case.

In the year 1827 an American preacher named John Nelson Darby popularized a theory called premillenial dispensationalism. He was building on some of the hypotheses of the seventeenth century puritan preachers Increase and Cotton Mather and the eighteenth century Welsh historian and Baptist preacher Morgan Edwards. While the Mathers and Edwards were somewhat oblique in their description of the eschaton, or end-times as some have taken to calling it, Darby developed a remarkably specific vision of the future. Taking the passage from First Thessalonians as his central text and placing it in the context of apocalyptic events described in the books of Daniel and Revelation, Darby presented what he believed to be a timeline for the end of the world.

While the theory is complicated the short version is as follows: Jesus will return and believers will be raised bodily into heaven and disappear, the unfaithful will be subjected to seven years of tribulation, Jesus and the Church will return to reign on earth for a thousand years, there will be a final battle between good and evil, and then the final judgment will take place and everyone will go to either heaven or hell.

This remained a somewhat marginal view until the 1909 publication of the Scofield Reference Bible. As far as I know, it was the first English bible since the 1560 Geneva Bible to include commentary right alongside the Scriptures themselves, and it encouraged one to read the bible in such a way as to accept Darby’s theory. Incidentally, it was also the bible which introduced the modern strain of “Young Earth Creationism”- the idea that God created the world sometime in the last ten thousand years. It is Scofield whom we can thank for Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth, the popular Left Behind series of books, the virulent antiscientism of tens of millions of US Americans, Christian Zionism and Christian Nationalism, and the most terrifying website I’ve ever seen-

The most remarkable part of this story is that a guy in the nineteenth century basically made it all up. The Mathers and Edwards notwithstanding, virtually nobody believed any of this stuff two hundred years ago. This is not to say that every Christian in the world believed exactly the same thing about the eschaton prior to Darby. There have been good and healthy debates between people who believed different things about the second coming of Christ, particularly whether things were going to get better and better or worse and worse leading up to Christ’s return and the General Resurrection. Each of these schools of thought can be argued on the basis of Scripture and traditional Church teaching. But each of these schools of thought reads the fourth chapter of First Thessalonians as referring to the General Resurrection on the Last Day which immediately precedes Christ’s judgment and his gracious act of establishing a new heaven and a new earth.

This is neither a conservative nor a liberal point of view. Anglicans believe it. Lutherans and Presbyterians and Methodists believe it. Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians believe it. Moderate and Progressive Baptists believe it. The Amish and the Mennonites believe it.

But a heck-of-a-lot of Christians in this country have been taught premillenial dispensationalism. Seven of the Left Behind books have reached “number one” on the New York Times Best Sellers list, which gives you a good idea of how popular the theory is. I’d be willing to bet that the vast majority of television and radio preachers teach the theory- a theory (and I don’t normally make such a bold claim, but in this case I believe it to be justified) which simply doesn’t hold up under any serious program of reading and interpreting the bible. But why, you might ask, does it matter?

Is this not an issue on which we should just agree to disagree? I don’t agree, for example, with the Presbyterians on how many sacraments there are or with the Roman Catholics on papal infallibility. These issues seem more important or at least more relevant, yet I don’t get really exercised about their points of view, at least in my preaching.

First, I think theological positions like that have a basis in at least some ways of faithfully interpreting Scripture and Church Tradition. One can have civil, theologically informed debates over those issues. Maybe it’s some unexamined prejudice on my part, but I just don’t see the same conversation being possible with the issue in question. It’s almost like fundamentalist eschatology uses a language which isn’t intelligible to me, like I’m speaking in English and they’re speaking Mandarin, and neither of us even has a phrase book.

The other reason is that I honestly believe that premillenial dispensationalism produces a dangerous worldview. This is not a politically correct or absolutely inclusive thing to say, and I beg your pardon, but I believe this to be both true and deadly serious. The idea that one smart or lucky enough to be a believer should be spared difficulty while the nonbelievers deserve tribulation leads one to one of two equally dangerous conclusions- either we should stop caring about the plight of those whose creed is different from our own because God ordained them to suffer or else our only responsibility in this world is to rack up converts, put notches in our belts for the souls we (not God) have saved. I’ve not read the Left Behind books, but I have read excerpts of some of the nasty bits as well as interviews with the authors, and the tortures they describe being inflicted on nonbelievers(by Jesus himself, no less) is nothing short of despicable. It reminds one of the genre of film that has come to be called “torture porn” in which one is meant to get a kick out of horrible violence being inflicted on people. It dehumanizes “the other”, making the most depraved, wicked sort of hatred not only palatable but fun. It is not hyperbolic to say that this sort of “entertainment” harms one’s soul, and when one doesn’t believe it’s entirely fictitious it can eventually make one vicious.

The most terrifying thing to me is that there are people who completely buy in to this theory in positions of power in business and government making decisions based on it. I know there are people here, considering our currently divisive political reality, who agree with me on certain matters of our country’s foreign policy and those who don’t. That’s perfectly fine. Reasonable people can disagree. It scares me witless, though, to think that there are some people with a lot of pull with regard to our policy in the Middle East who honest-to-God believe that the modern state of Israel has something to do with Jesus’ second-coming.

I’m sure there are some here who disagree with me with regard to education and energy policy. That’s fine, too. Reasonable people can disagree. It horrifies me, though, that there are people deciding what textbooks our children read who don’t believe in science and that there are lawmakers and bureaucrats who believe that the world is going to end anyway, Jesus is going to give us a thousand-year-long do-over, so our planet is more-or-less expendable.

So, what do we do? I believe it is time for reasonable Christians to start talking about eschatology again, both in private conversations and public forums. We’ve been reticent to do so and have ceded that topic to a very vocal minority. It’s time for us to say that Jesus is coming again, but not to torture heathens. He’s coming to breathe new life where death reigns. It’s time to admit that we’ve made a hash of things, but we don’t get a millenial do-over so we’d better start being more virtuous and responsible and loving here and now. It’s time to start preaching the Resurrection again, because that message is a whole lot more compelling than anything a fundamentalist post-apocalyptic horror story can come up with.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.