Sermon for the Twenty Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

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

The current Middle East crisis is complicated, and I’ve seen enough folks online, including some colleagues, providing simplistic, ill-advised “hot takes” to know that this is not a wise thing to do. The only thing I will say is that for years it has troubled me when certain American politicians get this complex issue all tangled up with a peculiar and, frankly incorrect, eschatology (that is, a theology of the end times). That is to say that a view which holds that a particular political settlement in the Holy Land will hasten Christ’s return, as if we can manipulate Divine Providence, and that this will bring about a state of affairs having something to do with a rather fringy interpretation of today’s Epistle is more than a little scary to me.

In his First Epistle to the Thessalonians 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. You may know that already, but 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, Darby developed a remarkably specific vision of the future. Taking the passage from First Thessalonians as a centerpoint 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. Taking a cue from the 1560 Geneva Bible, this translation included extensive commentary right alongside the Scriptures themselves, encouraging 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 (as well as the feature film starring everyone’s favorite crazy man, Nicholas Cage), and a whole host of prognosticators who have from time to time speculated on the timing of the Apocalypse.

The most remarkable part of this story is that a guy in the nineteenth century basically made it all up. 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, 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 Ressurection on the Last Day which immediately precedes Christ’s judgment and his gracious act of establishing a new heaven and a new earth, not some early boarding pass for the heavenly banquet while the unbelievers are left to suffer below.

This is neither a conservative nor a liberal point of view. Anglicans teaches it. Lutherans and Prebyterians 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 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 polite or absolutely inclusive thing to say, and I beg your pardon for that, 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 exerpts 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 which includes the Saw movies (which just released its tenth film) 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 hyperbole to say that this sort of “entertainment” harms ones soul, and when one doesn’t believe it’s entirely fictitious it can eventually make one vicious.

The most terrifying thing to me, as I suggested earlier, is that there are people who completely buy in to this theory and believe the State Department should making decisions based on it. I imagine there are people here 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 and environmental 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. 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.