World to End May 21, 2011?!
If you haven’t been living under a rock lately, you will know that there are a lot of people who think that the world is going to end soon — either because of the Mayan calendar apparently ending in 2012, or because of the Apocalypse and the Rapture occurring and/or Jesus’ returning on May 21, 2011.
I’m baffled that so many of my (mostly white and wealthy) fellow Americans are concerned about something that has to do with ancient Mayans. I haven’t seen too many of them actually practicing Mayan rites and rituals so why they’ve latched on to their calendar is puzzling. But in either case, to me, paying attention to those calls for alarm is akin to to paying attention to, let alone caring about, what’s going on with Snookie, Bristol Palin, Jake Gyllenhaal, Tila Tequila, Justin Beiber, or the recent royal wedding in England. Much ado about nothing.
It would be irresponsible, however, to just dismiss out of hand the concerns, fears, and anxieties of so many of my fellow citizens. The recent alarm about May 21 came about because of a radio personality in California — one who apparently has followers who believe him (despite his being wrong about an earlier prediction in 1994). Billboards warning fellow Californians to repent have gone up and the alarm has spread beyond.
While concerns about “eschatology” (studying the end-times/last of days, etc.) is not a central component of my theology, I would like to offer the 10th chapter of my new book,Kissing Fish: christianity for people who don’t like christianity, so that folks can see a progressive Christian approach to these matters — and realize that we aren’t all off our rockers. (Note: there are more than 10 chapters in the book ; )
The End — or is it?
It’s the end of the world as we know it – REM
When soldiers put down their weapons and monarchs step down, the messiah will be rescuing us, and that means sorrow no more. (paraphrased)
– Sorrow, Bad Religion (see Revelations 21:1-4)
It’s over and not going further. (paraphrased) – The Future, Leonard Cohen
Waiting on the world to change – John Mayer
If by some miracle and all our struggle, the earth is spared, only justice to every living thing (and everything is alive) will save humankind.
No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven,
nor the Son, but only the Father. Jesus, Mark 13:32
Non-judgment Day is Near! / Jesus is coming look busy! / Come the Rapture can I have your car? (bumper stickers)
In 1999, many Americans were anxious about the potential end of the world because of Jesus possibly returning in 2000 and/or because of the “Y2K” computer glitch. I couldn’t believe how so many people were alarmed by what seemed clear to me to be superstition, mass paranoia and ignorance.
Around that same time, I was utterly dismayed that so many people in the U.S. were so enthralled with the “Left Behind” book series. I read the first book and didn’t care for the retributive, “us versus them” theology and anti-intellectual arrogance it exuded. I couldn’t relate to it and found its lack of compassion and love disturbing. The idea that people may’ve thought that they presented authentic Christianity is troubling.
Break it Down XIV
Jesus wasn’t born in 1 A.D. When the Western world switched from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian one that we now use, the dating for when Jesus was thought to have been born was inadvertently altered by 4-6 years. In 525 A.D. a monk named Dionysius Exiguus, acting under the orders of Pope St. John I, retroactively set the start of the current era to 1 Anno Domini (meaning “year of our Lord”) — the alleged date of the birth of Christ – but he made a mistake in doing so. He forgot to factor in that Jesus was born under the reign of King Herod and Herod is known to have died in what we now refer to as 4 B.C. (B.C. is the English translation that means “before Christ”). If Jesus were born later than 5 B.C., he would have been too young to fit the Gospel of Luke’s report that he began his ministry at about 30 years of age. Since there is no year zero, that means that the third millennium after the birth of Christ probably started in November or December 1996. This also means that you need to subtract 4–6 years to whatever year it happens to be when you read this book; for example, if you read this book in 2011, it’s actually 2005-2007!
Certain forms of Christianity have become so widespread in the U.S. that even the non-Christians among us have become absorbed by the drama of the notion of a “looming end of the world,” based upon certain interpretations of the book of Revelation in the Bible. Bottom line: progressive Christians think that those interpretations are misguided and based more upon fear than faith. Progressive Christianity doesn’t make a priority of discussing these matters. I haven’t come across any people who identify as progressive Christians who say much about the allegedly biblical end-time beliefs. I suspect that this is because Jesus had so little to say about them. It’s the area of theology that we know the least about, and if Jesus didn’t say much about it, why should we?
I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away. “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come. Mark 13:30-33
Jesus was able to be faithful without having an overly defined set of beliefs about “the end-times,” and so can we. Jesus, however, did appear to believe in an ending of the oppressive ways of the world and in an ultimate fulfillment of the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven:
As he was leaving the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!” “Do you see all these great buildings?” replied Jesus. “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.” As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are all about to be fulfilled?” Jesus said to them: “Watch out that no one deceives you. Many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am he,’ and will deceive many. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and Kingdom against Kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places, and famines. These are the beginning of birth pains….
“Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that it is near, right at the door. I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.” No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come. It’s like a man going away: He leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with his assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch. “Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back—whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn. If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!’ “ Mark 13:1-8, 28-37
“Teacher,” they asked, “when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are about to take place?” He replied: “Watch out that you are not deceived. For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am he,’ and, ‘The time is near.’ Do not follow them. When you hear of wars and revolutions, do not be frightened. These things must happen first, but the end will not come right away.” Then he said to them: “Nation will rise against nation, and Kingdom against Kingdom. There will be great earthquakes, famines and pestilences in various places, and fearful events and great signs from heaven” Luke 21:7-11
It appears that Jesus truly believed that the end of the world would really happen soon. Certainly his earliest followers believed that too. It may be debatable if Jesus literally meant the end of the physical world would be ending soon, or if he meant terra firma (another way to say the Earth) would continue on, but that false powers and principalities would be no more and that the Kingdom of God would fully be realized. Either way, it’s been over 2000 years and neither of those things has happened.
So then, what are we to make of this? The options are that either Jesus or those who wrote about him were wrong about his second coming, that it has been delayed, that it will take a lot longer than he or his first followers expected, or it means something different than what many have thought it to mean. We need to keep in mind that the Gospels and the Book of Revelation were written first and foremost for their original, specific, audiences over 2000 years ago.
Another possible option is to posit that that the world as they knew would end soon. This could actually be said to have happened on two levels. Jesus died around 33 A.D. and the Romans brutally quashed an Israelite uprising in 70 A.D., completely destroying the temple in Jerusalem (as Jesus had predicted: Matthew 24:1-2). No longer having the Temple and the Temple system form of worshiping God meant that the world of those ancient Hebrews was effectively turned upside down. Similarly, it wasn’t too many years later that the Roman Empire itself collapsed. That empire was effectively the “known world” of West and it fell in 395, 476, or 603 A.D., depending upon what factors you consider. The early medieval era was known as the “Dark Ages” and one might argue that the end of the civilized world had taken place at that time. And yet, here we still are, in the early 21st Century and there are still oppressive empires and domination systems. It’d be hard for any one to say that we’re already living in the fully realized Kingdom of God or that this is as good as it gets.
There are two basic responses within Christianity to this predicament — a conservative one and a progressive one. The conservative approach is essentially a “dominionist” one that holds that Jesus really will come back again, descending from the clouds, “just as it’s written” (Revelation 1:7). It holds that Jesus will forcefully reclaim his rightful authority and dole out violent retribution on the false, un-godly, worldly “powers that be” and those who are aligned with them. He will judge the living and the dead. Those who are deemed worthy will dwell with him praising God forever. There are variances within that camp that concern which details happen in which order: a “rapture,” an anti-Christ, a judgment day, a violent war, a 1000 year reign of peace, and souls being sent to heaven or hell.
Break it Down XV
The most popular of these “millennialist” perspectives is “pre-millennialism.” The following is a helpful description of premillenialsim written by Wayne Jackson. [Bracketed remarks are mine]:
The premillennial concept is the result of literalizing a few symbolic verses in the book of Revelation, coupled with a considerable disregard for scores of Bible passages of clearest import. The word “premillennial” itself is derived of two components—“pre” signifies before, and “millennium” denotes a period of 1000 years. The theory thus suggests that Christ will return to the earth just prior to a 1000-year reign.
The premillennial theory is advanced in several different ways. It is, therefore, not an easy task to generalize regarding this system of doctrine. We will focus mainly on that branch of millennialism that is known as dispensational premillennialism. The following quotations are introduced to bring some of the main points into focus:
It is held that the Old Testament prophets predicted the re-establishment of David’s Kingdom and that Christ himself intended to bring this about. It is alleged however, that because the Jews refused his person and work he postponed the establishment of his Kingdom until the time of his return. Meanwhile, it is argued, the Lord gathered together “the church” as a kind of interim measure (Kevan 1999, 352).
Pre-millennialists believe that shortly before the second coming the world will be marked by extraordinary tribulation and evil and the appearance of the Anti-Christ. At his coming, Christ will destroy this anti-Christ and believers will be raised from the dead. There will then follow a millennium of peace and order over which Christ will reign with his saints. At the close of this time, Satan will be loosed and the forces of evil will once again be rampant. The wicked will then be raised, and a final judgment will take place in which Satan and all evil ones will be consigned to eternal punishment (Harvey 1964, 151).
For centuries the Jews have been scattered among many nations. In preparation for the return of Christ and the beginning of the millennium, they are being gathered back to their own land, according to prophecy, in a national restoration. David’s throne will be re-established at Jerusalem, and through these restored people as a nucleus Christ will reign with his immortal saints over the whole world (Nichols n.d., 279).
To summarize, the premillennial view asserts that Christ came to this earth for the purpose of setting up his Kingdom. However, [he was rejected]. So, he postponed the Kingdom plans and set up the church instead—as a sort of emergency measure. When [Jesus] returns, he allegedly will raise only the righteous dead, restore the nation of Israel, sit upon David’s literal throne in Jerusalem, and then reign for a span of 1000 years—after which comes the resurrection of the wicked and the judgment.
…[And then, the wicked will go to hell, and, depending upon one’s sub-theology, God will destroy hell itself, along with those in it, or hell will continue on and those in it will suffer eternally]
With that background in mind, another writer has provided the following description of how the pre-millennial perspective undergirds the Left Behind book series:
Fundamental to the spirit of the Left Behind Series is the sense of vindication that “we” have been right all along. The not-so-subtle news headline that lies behind the entire series could well be, “Premillennial Dispensationalists Proved to Have Been Right All Along.” The message of this series is unadulterated triumphalism. -You can forget the business of Christians taking up the cross in this series! Premillennial dispensationalists have admittedly gotten rough treatment in the modern world. From a modernist or secularist point of view, the claims of a pre-Tribulation rapture of the church, followed by seven years of Tribulation, followed by the thousand-year reign of Christ just seems too preposterous to be believed. Combine that with the fact that premillennial dispensationalists have been prone to set dates for the Second Coming of Christ—and the fact that their batting average so far has been zero—and that well-educated theologians as a whole pooh-pooh their ideas, and you quickly come to a point of eschatological frustration with the way things are. It is not the Lamb who has conquered in this series, but the premillennial dispensationalists! “We win!” (4:247; 6:66; 6:179). Similarly, “You lose!” (9:179).
At the end of the day, this series is ultimately a rejection of the good news of Jesus Christ. I say this because it rejects the way of the cross and Jesus’ call to obedient discipleship and a new way of life. It celebrates the human will to power, putting Evangelical Christians in the heroic role of God’s Green Berets. In this story, premillennialist dispensationalism meets American survivalism. This is a story about so-called Christian men who never really grew up, who still love to play with toys and dominate others, and whose passions are still largely unredeemed. Love of enemies is treated as a misguided strategy associated not with the gospel, but with the Antichrist. Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins have the right to offer any kind of interpretation of Christianity and of the end times that they wish. Ultimately, it is not their interpretation of the end times that troubles me so much as their interpretation of Christianity. It is devoid of any real theology, or substantial Christology, or any ethics that are recognizably Christian. This is a vision of unredeemed Christianity. – Loren Johns
The perspective expressed in the Left Behind series is the exact same view that was the basis of Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth — a book that was wildly popular 20 years beforehand. The thrust of that book was espousing the pre-millennial theory of Christ’s second coming and interpreting present world political trends as signs of the imminent return of Jesus Christ. This end of the world mania has been with us for a while.
Another person who has made his career out of promulgating these ideas is Jack Van Impe. For years, he and his wife Rexella have hosted a TV program, “Jack Van Impe Presents,” which analyzes the headlines of the daily news and seeks to point out how they are “fulfilling prophecy.” It is incredible and disturbing how his eyes light up and twinkle with delight when he describes various tragedies taking place around the world. To him, they mean “Jesus is coming all the sooner!” I’ve even discovered a website that tracks and catalogs such alleged correlations of news headlines and “biblical prophecy.”
There is a sizeable percentage of the population that is highly attracted to the notion that Jesus will return as a vanquishing conqueror that kicks “bad guy” butt. However, that perspective contradicts the notion of Jesus’ unconditional love that he clearly espoused in the Gospels. Jesus taught against retribution. He championed non-violence, reconciliation and restoration.
There has never been any official gathering or council of Progressive Christianity that has met to declare an official position on eschatology (the subset of theology that pertains to the eschaton (the end of the world and/or humanity). Again, this hasn’t been a priority for progressive Christianity. Many believe that millennialism (of any variety) advocates an escapist form of theology that leads to social apathy and moral quietude. If people are expecting to be “raptured up” into heaven soon, they’re disinclined to be actively engaged in bettering the world here and now.
In my experience, progressive Christians tend to see Christ’s return as something that happens every day. We see it when people minister to, and especially with, the “least of these” (Matthew 25:40). We see it when oppressed persons are liberated and when oppressive systems are put in check. An example that comes to mind is the end of Apartheid in South Africa and the notably nonviolent transition of power that occurred afterward. Few of us would say that God’s Kingdom is fully realized and manifest here and now and we yearn for it. We share the evangelical notion that we live “in between the what is, and the what will be” — when God’s Will is fully done on Earth as it is in heaven.
Many progressives believe that Jesus “returns,” and God’s Kingdom is manifest, whenever we feed the poor, heal the sick, stand with the oppressed, seek to end their oppression, and love our neighbor. I might suggest that the return of Christ could be said to have “fully returned” and that the “fully realized Kingdom of God” could be said to have taken place when we eventually come to a place where a critical mass of the world’s population comes around to thinking and acting in these ways.
Living “in Christ” and living in Kingdom ways doesn’t make for an easier life. It is certainly far more challenging than merely making do while passively hoping for Jesus to come down from the clouds. In fact, this way of being Christian, intentional deep discipleship, may seem much more challenging. It creates yet another reason for many people to passively go along with the teachings of conservative Christianity. If we’re not really meant to dwell on the earth, if we’re really “just visiting” here, if what happens after we die is what really matters, then there’s no need for us to be concerned about the environment or the well-being of future generations. There’d be no reason to notice the irony of America a supposedly “Christian nation” being the largest consumer of the world’s natural resources and one of the top producers of the gases that contribute to aggravating global warming. It’s easier to just chalk it up to “God’s will” than to do the work of grappling with the morality of our fiscal and national priorities.
An approach within progressive Christianity that seeks to address the challenging and demanding ways of Jesus in light of the Book of Revelation is what I call the “radical discipleship view.” This perspective asserts that the Book of Revelation is best understood as a handbook for authentic discipleship — how to remain faithful to the spirit and teachings of Jesus and avoid simply assimilating to surrounding society. A premise for this view is that contrary to popular belief, Revelation wasn’t written during a time of great persecution against Christians. It was written during a time of relative calm and affluent stability in the Roman Empire. The primary agenda of the book is to expose worldly powers that seek to lead people away from the ways of God, as imposters. The chief temptation for Christians in the First Century, and today, is to adopt the worldly values of empire (domination systems, nationalism, patriotism, materialism, consumerism, corporatism, fascism, civil religion, etc.) and fail to hold fast to the anti-imperial, non-materialistic, and nonviolent teachings of Jesus. This perspective (which is closely related to Liberation theology) draws on the approach of Christian activists such as Dorothy Day and Bible scholars such as Ched Myers, William Stringfellow, Richard Horsley, Daniel Berrigan, Wes Howard-Brook, and Jorg Reiger.
For a compelling progressive Christian understanding that is written from this “radical discipleship” take on eschatology, the end times, and the Book of Revelation, see: Unveiling Empire: Reading Revelation Then and Now. It is the best resource I’ve encountered to help make the Book of Revelation understandable and meaningful.
Progressive Christians believe it when we say, “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.” Yet, rather than spending our time and energy waiting and planning for Christ’s return, we think the world would be better served by reducing his level of disappointment when he does. Many of us share the view expressed in this assertion: “I am not as concerned about when the moment will be as I am about the fact that the moment is coming. I want to encourage you to get off the ‘Planning’ Committee and get on the ‘Welcoming’ Committee.” We’d rather see ourselves as being on the street team (like promoting an upcoming band gig or theater show). Instead of informing folks about Jesus with lots of information, we seek to simply be Jesus. We seek to be part of the incarnate, living Body of Christ — helping people experience his love and his Kingdom here and now.
Progressive Christians also resonate with the late Catholic Henri Nouwen when he said, “Where will you find the Messiah? — He is sitting among the poor covered with wounds…” as well as Emergent Christian pastor Brian McClaren’s observation that “The Gospel is a transformation plan, not an evacuation plan.”
We agree that our hope is in the future, but let’s embrace and be present to the present moment.
It’s hard to embrace the present without a sense of hope for the future. As Christians, we believe that God is actively seeking to move Creation toward a beautiful goal. Like Paul, we have “our eyes on the prize” and we “press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called us.” We sense deep in our bones that things will turn out okay — in fact, far better than we could ever imagine.
Progressive Christianity affirms Martin Luther King, Jr.’s remarks, “I refuse to accept the view that [human]kind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality …I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word,” “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” and, Martin Luther’s affirmation,“Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.”
Progressive Christians have hope in the conviction that somehow despite all sorts of evidence to the contrary, love wins.
 A calendar issue pertaining to IBM based computers.
 See this article by David Briggs of the AP about Paul Maier, “Bible Scholar from WMU says the 2,000th anniversary of Christ’s birth likely was last year,” Sat. Jan. 11, 1997, The Grand Rapids Press
 Wayne Jackson, http://www.christiancourier.com/articles/322-examining-premillennialism
 Even to the point of loving those who killed him.
 Such a meeting for that sort of purpose wouldn’t be a very progressive Christian thing to do.
 In addition to Historical Premillennialism, there are Dispensational Premillennialism, Postmillennialism, Amillenialism. Preterism. Moreover Dispensational Premillennialism has rival subgroups including those who believe in a Pre-Tribulation Rapture, a Post-Tribulation Rapture, a Mid-Tribulation Rapture, a Pre-wrath Rapture, or in a Partial Rapture. Ack. see: http://www.religioustolerance.org/millenni.htm
 This is ironic because Christians are supposed to practice good stewardship of the earth’s resources, yet the U.S. is clearly not engaged in good stewardship of them.
 My addition to the entry on the Book of Revelation page on Wikipedia,
 for more about Civil Religion, see Appendix VI.
 Liberation theology suggests that Christianity should focus upon liberating economically oppressed persons because of God’s “preferential option for the poor.” Liberation theologians claim to be in sync with the Spirit of Jesus’ first sermon and they seek to see it manifested (Luke 4:16-20).
 By Wes Howard-Brook and Anthony Gwynther, Orbis Books, 1999.
 A common litany that is part of the liturgy in mainline Protestant denominations.
 James McDonald, http://blog.harvestbiblefellowship.org/?p=3699
 I’m reminded of the song Right here, Right now by the British alternative rock band Jesus Jones. See: http://www.lyricsmode.com/lyrics/j/jesus_jones/right_here_right_now.html
 Based on 1 Corinthians 9:24 and the Civil Rights era folk song, Keep Your Eyes on the Prize. See also my description of this at http://wiki.answers.com/Q/What_is_All_eyes_on_the_prize_definition
 Philippians 3:14
Some playful (but potentially meaningful) responses to the May 21 phenomenon have popped up on Facebook including an effort to re-label May 21 as “Non-Judgment Day“and an announcement of a global “After Rapture Party” for those of us who get “left behind.”
As for me, I’m busy planning various summer camp and road trip experiences for my son this summer as well as gearing up for what will be a fantastic year for the campus ministry that I direct in Boulder. I’m especially looking forward to meeting the incoming class of 2015 and helping them plan for their glorious futures.
Wolsey is the author of Kissing Fish: christianity for people who don’t like christianity, published in January, 2010.