Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Forget All That Mayan Stuff in 2012

The Countdown to Armageddon will begin on my birthday

The Last Judgement, by Peter Paul Rubens (1617)

I saw this in the Huffpo the other day:
Sorry, Maya. Just when peculiar apocalyptic interpretations of the ancient Mayan calendar were about to thrust you into the media frenzy sure to come in 2012, some knuckleheads cut in front of you by predicting the return of Jesus on May 21, 2011.
It's a reference to a bold prediction by Harold Camping, described in Wikipedia as the May 21, 2011 Doomsday scenario.

I hope I have a chance to finish my cake and ice cream first. Even more importantly, I hope my wife isn't raptured up if we're in the midst of canoodling. If there's anything to this Millerite or Darbyite reading of scripture, she has a better chance of getting raptured than I do. It would be just my luck...

Joking aside, where lies hope? Christians are supposed to be hopeful people by definition, but just what is it that we are supposed to be hopeful for? In his autobiography Just As I Am, the celebrated evangelist Billy Graham described a meeting he had with German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer shortly after the end of World War II, as Berlin still lay in ruins. Graham picks up the story as he stands waiting in the man's office as Adenauer gazes out of his window at the shattered city below.
Even more memorable was German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer. One time when I was preaching in Germany, he invited me to his office. Coffee was served, but before my first sip, he started in.

“Young man, do you believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ?”

“I most certainly do,” I replied.

“So do I. If Jesus Christ is not risen from the dead, there is not one glimmer of hope for the human race. When I leave office, I’m going to spend the rest of my life studying and writing about the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It’s the most important event in human history.”
I don't know if he ever made good on that conviction or not, but I do know that Adenauer, a devout Catholic, skillfully led the rebuilding of Germany from out of the ashes with his Christian Democratic Union Party, which has dominated German politics almost up to the present day. After the war, Prussia lay behind the Iron Curtain. As a result, Catholics from the south and the west were quite influential in leading the way towards building a society and a body-politic in West Germany that was heavily influenced by Catholic social teaching and the principles of social justice. Germany became a highly prosperous and efficient social democracy, respecting both the rights of capital and labor (union members sit on corporate boards and consult with management at every level), while providing universal health care and affordable education to its citizens. Even today, despite having high labor costs, it is a creditor nation, a net exporter of goods, and has even been able to bail out struggling neighbors after having successfully absorbed and re-integrated a failed socialist state. Perhaps in all this, they've been too successful. In parallel with this lofty and enviable level of security and equality, the practice of faith in Germany has fallen through the floor in a manner that surely would have distressed Konrad Adenaur.

On the other hand, in a land with far less security, equality and public trust, Billy Graham's son Franklin has been parlaying a less hopeful message about what lies ahead for mankind to the benefit of his own success (examples here and here) in a manner his father probably never would have.

So who's right?

Ironically, to borrow the German term of "schadenfreude," many so-called evangelists in the USA have been doing very well for themselves presenting a vindictive vision in which their enemies - the secularists, the unbelievers, the liberals, the skeptics, the scoffers - will suffer their just deserts at the hands of a wrathful God, while they themselves are whisked away from the awful tribulation beforehand.

This represents no small fringe movement in the USA. Hal Lindsay's The Late Great Planet Earth was one of the biggest selling books of the 1970s and 1980s, and the books in Tim Lahaye & Jerry Jenkins' Left Behind Series have been some of the biggest sellers of the 1990s and 2000s. There are even video games based on them.

Earlier this week on Drudge there was a big hoopla about a CBN (Christian Broadcasting Network) report that the clerics in Iran are saying that recent world events point to the imminent arrival of the Mahdi (also known as the "Twelfth Imam") and a series of apocalyptic events to shortly follow.

With alarmist tones, and with typically superficial simplicity they make it seem as if the entire Islamic world puts stock in this. Never mind the fact that the majority of the world's muslims are Sunnis who discount it, resent Iran's muscle-flexing, and reject "Twelver Shi'ism" out of hand.

In any case, why all this alarm on the part of the CBN? Well, actually, I know why. It's because they are heavily lobbied and funded by AIPAC to show alarm over it, but in their heart of hearts, don't they actually predict (and actually hope for) essentially the same thing?

Now, it's true that it is a tenet of faith for all Christians that Jesus will return. After all, we recite in our Creed at every Mass "He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and His kingdom will have no end." When we consider, however, the "End Times," or the "Last Things," what is it that we are hoping for?

It is certainly fair enough to hope for a transformed world, of God finally setting the world right and of peace and justice to reign. Professors like Bart Ehrman are quick to point out that in the academy, it is the widely accepted view among New Testament scholars, first posited by Albert Schweitzer a century ago, that this was exactly the agenda of Jesus - that Jesus was just who he said he was - An Apocalyptic Prophet for the New Millenium (think of the Son of Man as described in the Book of Daniel).

When we look at the fear-mongering going on, however, isn't it important to stress that no one knows the hour? Instead of looking for signs according to earthquakes, floods, famines, war, and rumors of war, isn't it at least equally valid exegesis to look at the words of St. Paul and realize that he thought all of these last things were to occur once the "full measure of gentiles" had been brought to faith (Romans 11:25-26)? By God's standards, who knows what that full measure might be? Nearly everyone? Everyone? Wouldn't that be a positive sign being manifested instead of the envious, vengeful, fear-ridden, and bitter scenario being pushed by the Armageddon peddlers?

Did God so love the world that he gave his only Son so that we may have eternal life, or did God hate the world so much that he punished his only Son so that a few elect could escape a doomed planet? This is one of those areas where the strength of the incarnational and sacramental emphases of our tradition can be brought to bear. Thomas Groome, in a recent review of a new book by Michael Leach, Why Stay Catholic, writes:
In my view, the two best reasons for staying Catholic, as the book stresses, are the twin principles of incarnation and sacramentality. Of course, Catholicism is incarnational in its focus on Jesus. Leach is convinced that the Jesus event and his paschal mystery is not about a God who needed to be appeased for our sins but one who came looking for us out of love....

The other side of the incarnational coin is the sacramental nature of Catholic faith. Again, this emphasis reaches a climax in the seven great liturgical sacraments that we celebrate in church, but these arise from and flow back into the sacramentality of the ordinary and everyday of life. Because “God is everywhere,” God looks for us and we respond through our lives in the world. In the words of St. Augustine, “If you have an eye for it, the world itself is sacramental.” It is the sacramentality of Catholic faith that makes it so humane, so life-giving. “Catholicism seen through the eye of a needle is a religion of rules and regulations.

Seen with the sacramental imagination, it is a unique take on life, a holy vision, a way of seeing the chosen part of things... These twin principles—the incarnational and sacramental—are what make Catholicism most worthwhile, why anyone can well stay, regardless of disappointments and complaints and the scandals that beset the church. Indeed, these very principles lend Catholic faith its rich spiritualities; “When it comes to spirituality, “the author writes, “the Catholic Church is a Garden of Eden


Garpu said...

The whole influx of evangelicals have brought their eschatology, though. (Funny how my spellcheck wanted "scatology" for eschatology.) I've heard such viewpoints on EWTN, even.

I'm often reminded of the quote, “You can safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”

Jeff said...

Hi Jen,

I know what you mean. I was pretty excited when I heard about 1060 radio here, but when I heard the programming schedule...

crystal said...

What is 'canoodling'?

I actually did read the first of those Left Behind books and another book too by James BeauSeigneur on the same theme - the main character's wife and children got raptured and he was left behind and ended up accidently raising the anti-christ as his adopted son :)

I'm confused about what's supposed to happen - after the secnd coming, will there still be heaven and hell or will everyone be living on a refitted earth forever, and what about all the dead people who are (I guess) now in heaven - do they have to leave there and move to the planet?

Jeff said...

What is 'canoodling'?

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The ambiguity was deliberate, but whatever it is, it's probably a case of me being overly optimistic. :)

Jeff said...

I'm confused about what's supposed to happen - after the second coming, will there still be heaven and hell or will everyone be living on a refitted earth forever, and what about all the dead people who are (I guess) now in heaven - do they have to leave there and move to the planet?

Yeah, interesting questions, aren't they? As you know, NT Wright has been writing a lot about this sort of thing lately.


The idea of disembodied souls in heaven or hell sounds rather Hellenistic, right? Jesus, Paul, and the Pharisees talked about the resurrection of the body, and apparently it is supposed to be some kind of glorified, spiritual body. In the Creed, we say we believe in the "resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come."

The closest descriptions we are going to get, I suppose, come from St Paul, and also from when Jesus was sparring with the Sadducees, who didn't believe in an afterlife at all:

Some Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to him and put this question to him, saying, "Teacher, Moses wrote for us, 'If someone's brother dies, leaving a wife but no child, his brother must take the wife and raise up descendants for his brother.' Now there were seven brothers. The first married a woman and died, leaving no descendants. So the second married her and died, leaving no descendants, and the third likewise. And the seven left no descendants. Last of all the woman also died. At the resurrection (when they arise) whose wife will she be? For all seven had been married to her."

Jesus said to them, "Are you not misled because you do not know the scriptures or the power of God? When they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but they are like the angels in heaven.

As for the dead being raised, have you not read in the Book of Moses, in the passage about the bush, how God told him, 'I am the God of Abraham, (the) God of Isaac, and (the) God of Jacob'?

He is not God of the dead but of the living. You are greatly misled."

Still leaves some questions though, eh?

Jeff said...

In any case, I'm willing to concede that this rapture stuff might have been believed by St. Paul (and perhaps even Jesus himself), who seemed convinced that these events were absolutely imminent, but in view of where we are today 2,000 years later, it seems rather silly.

Christians have endured persecution and suffering for centuries (as have non-Christians as well). Why should a present generation of believers get comfort out of thinking they'll be whisked away before all the horror they want to see inflicted on non-believers? Why not embrace the thought of martyrdom themselves, like their predecessors?

I don't really know all the fine distinctions made by people who obsess over these things, but I guess we'd be seen (along with the original Reformers) as "amillenial" (as opposed to premillenial or post-millenial). We see the Kingdom of God already at work among us.

In our reading of Revelation, I suppose we'd be "preterist" instead of "futurist," meaning we'd be inclined to read Revelation mostly as a description of things that have already occurred, such as the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 and the persecution of the early church by the Roman Empire. The 666 mark of the beast, for example, is a reference to Emperor Nero, not the Pope or the head of the European Union.

Jeff said...

A couple of links on the End Times that might be useful.

The Catechism covers it in ARTICLE 7
"From Thence He Will Come Again
To Judge The Living And The Dead" - 668 - 682.


And these books:


A couple of articles...



I like this from the first article...

Perhaps the best way to describe the end of the world is to see it as history coming to term. This is a birth image, which is one of the images Jesus used. We are within history, which is like being in the confines of the womb, and what a mistake it would be to think there is not a wider reality ahead of us. It would be equally a mistake to think that what we are about now is unimportant. Just as in a pregnancy, what is being formed is very important to what shall be, so in the process of history, what is taking shape will be very much related to what is born into the reign of God. We are not throwaways, and this is not a throwaway world...

We have a wide picture of salvation. We really believe in the saving of this world, the one we’re living in. In his miracles Jesus gave us a taste of the Kingdom emerging into this world, and the world into the Kingdom. We don’t take this world or history lightly.

Catholics generally are not preoccupied with prophecies of impending doom. They have an optimistic view of the world, and see the end as the gradual (not sudden) passing of creation into God’s realm. They give value to the things of earth by incorporating them into their journey to God. Perhaps this is related to our rather “earthy” tradition of using material things— palms, ashes, water, bread, wine, oil, fire, incense, vestments, colors, icons, symbols—in our worship...

Apocalyptic imagery can be used badly to make it seem as though “the end” were simply a matter of the just being plucked from the deck of a sinking ship (the universe) and transported to a new ship unrelated to this one. It can trivialize the significance of Jesus becoming part of our world in the incarnation. In so doing, it can trivialize the length and breadth of salvation...

nstead of fretting about the question of “when,” therefore, we are wiser to focus on the question of “who”—namely, upon a loving God who promises to walk with us to the end, whenever that occurs. Our understanding of the “end” flows from a real-life conviction about the here-and-now meaning of our lives and our universe. In short, we believe with St. Paul that the same God “who began a good work in you will continue to complete it until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil 1:6).

crystal said...

It is an interesting topic. Keith Ward wrote about JPII's idea of embodied afterlife - I think he thinks we won't have bodies, at least not in the typical sense ... http://www.gresham.ac.uk/lectures-and-events/john-paul-ii-as-philosopher

I read that Augustine thought that women will retain their sex organs, not for purposes of intercourse and childbirth but in order to become 'part of a new beauty', so that in heaven men can enjoy a woman's body visually but without lust. - BURN, BABY, BURN What a cheeseball :)

Jeff said...

I read Casey's book. I've got a couple of posts percolating on it. Specifically, some critiques he has to offer on Catholicism and Calvinism.

Speaking of which... yeah... Augustine... what a mixed legacy.

victorsavard said...

I Jeff, Crystal and friends,

The way I see "IT" The Countdown to Armageddon is as simple and/or as hard as we want to make "IT" and truth be known, our souls all need a good scare then and NOW.

As far as I'm concerned, "IT" is as simple NOW as when Jesus walked this earth in The Flesh over two thousand years ago. On one occasion, He took a little mud and mixied "IT" with some of His DNA and then put "IT" on a blind man's eyes who had been blind since his birthday.

To make a long story short, some people who followed Him back then believed that Jesus did heal this blind man because Jesus probably was the Son of a God but not even this man's parents dared say so in fear of death.

Were these people really 'evil' like Jesus said in so many words, you who are evil know......... Sorry, I got "IT" backward in reality, I meant to say that because of Adam and Eve we 'live' and are sinners and did Jesus not say somewhere in so many words that the wages of sin is death?

Does any of this sense? :)

God Bless Peace

victorsavard said...

After reading what I wrote, the only thing that makes any sense to me right now is that I can still be my own worst enemy and "IT" is not too hard to figure!

Sorry folks

cowboyangel said...

Having grown up in an environment steeped in last days thinking, I've had to spend much of my adult life trying to shake off the psychological, spiritual and emotional damage. And it did serious damage. It DOES serious damage. It's a totally fear-based world view that leads to the opposite of agape love. I would go as far as to say that obsession with end-days scenario is evil, leading to paranoia, hatred, mistrust, violence, etc.

So, I'm afraid I can't comment much on the various scenarios. I do hope, however, that you're able to canoodle in peace.

Jeff said...


I think I've got it. It was relevant to yesterday's gospel reading. Recognize that we have blind spots towards our own sinfulness, and remain aware that there will be a reckoning someday?


I didn't realize that you had to go through all that growing up. That wasn't from your own family upbringing, was it? That was more of a consequence of being raised in Texas?

cowboyangel said...

It was my mother. She remains obsessed with last-days stuff. I just have to ask her not to go on about it with me. But it was in the air during the 1970s, as you point out with Hal Lindsay. Later, when I was moving in Evangelical circles, it was pretty strong as well.