Jesus’ Anti-Apocalyptic Message

(This is the 6th of seventeen posts in my 200 for 200 goal. We’re currently at 140 followers, so please continue to send your friends my way!)

(P.P.S. it seems: While I haven’t been as good as I’d like to be about keeping my New Year’s resolution to write for at least an hour every day–life has a habit of intervening–I have been busy at work, though the lack of posts on the blog doesn’t seem to indicate that. Have faith and bear with me–there is much more to come, and soon!)

To be honest, I’ve pulled a little bit of a fast one on the title of the post in a blatant attempt to get your attention. I’m not going to deny that the message of Jesus is sometimes apocalyptic, nor am I going to overturn everything you thought you knew.

The word “apocalyptic” can mean a number of things, particularly the common/colloquial idea of “end times” and/or a style of revelatory writing and narrative (often, but not necessarily coinciding with the subject of the Second Coming or the Day of Judgment).  There are certainly times when Jesus speaks apocalyptically in both senses of the word: much of Matthew 24 and 25 contains apocalyptic speech in the sense that it offers revelatory information in the prophetic mode and that it discusses an end times. My NIV translation of Matthew 24 gives it the heading, “The Destruction of the Temple and Signs of the End Times,” and later, before the start of verse 36, “The Day and Hour Unknown.” Matthew 25 contains the Parable of the Ten Virgins–which we can certainly read as about those who wait patiently for the kind of apocalyptic salvation common to first-century belief in ancient Judea–and the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, perhaps one of the hardest sayings of Jesus.

As an aside, there is some interesting scholarship about the origins of some of the parables above in relation to the various source theories of the gospel texts. I’ll leave that to those better versed in such things.

So, by the title of this post, I do not mean to intimate that Jesus never spoke apocalyptically (regardless of sense of the word you want to use), that it is not possible to read Jesus as apocalyptic prophet, or to read themes of judgment out of Jesus’ ministry. None of these things would be correct in light of scripture.

However (perhaps in typical Methodist “both/and” fashion), I do want to nuance and complicate things a little and to challenge the proposition of some scholars (particularly Bart Ehrman, I think) that Jesus should be read only (maybe it’s more fair to say “primarily”) as an apocalyptic prophet who is simply repeating cultural ideas of the time.

Thus, we arrive at the title of the post: I want to offer a reading of certain scriptures (and I want to be careful to be clear here that this is not intended as a full synthesis of the Gospels and I am intentionally leaving intact the tension between my offered reading and those of Jesus’ sayings that are staunchly apocalyptic) that turns the standard idea of the apocalyptic on its head. Or, at the very least, points out a different but defensible interpretation.

Given the semiotic flexibility of the word “apocalyptic” (as mentioned above), I think it’s only right that I define specifically what I mean when I say “anti-apocalyptic.” For purposes of this post (title included), I use the term “anti-apocalyptic” to mean “something other than the idea that the world is a lost cause that must be suffered through with patience until some external eucatastrophe restores justice by punishing the oppressors and evildoers and rewarding those who have faithfully suffered.”

Let’s look at Luke 17:20-21 (NIV): “Once, on being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The coming of the Kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,” or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst.” The NIV includes a footnote that “in your midst” might also be translated as “within you.” Other translations also choose “within you”.

I do not claim to be a scholar of Koiné Greek–it’s something that I’d like to pick up some time, but this has not yet come to fruition. However, based on what understanding I do have–and particularly a reliance on Strong’s (the word “entos,” which is the Greek word we’re talking about is G1787)–“inside of you” (“sy entos“) seems to be the better translation.

I have seen it argued that “in your midst” is the better translation, but only to the result that the argument becomes “the Holy Spirit dwells within your soul,” which seems to me to be a distinction without a difference–unless we try to parse out “having” a soul as somehow different from “being a soul,” as if a soul is an attachment to one’s essence. We wouldn’t be the first to go there, of course–Egyptian and Zoroastrian religion (among others) have a complex relationship between different parts of the soul and the existential being of the individual. This, however, seems to become pure metaphysical speculation.

But I digress. As an existential theologian, I’ve argued on this blog (and in my first theology book, when I get around to finishing it and publishing it one way or another; for now, see this post) that the process of sanctification–of participation in the Kingdom of God–is a matter of an internal change of self and perception so that one adopts a “map” of right relationships that approaches the map God would have us see. If this is true, that the process of sanctification is one of gradual inward change and enlightenment spurred on by the revelation of the person of Jesus Christ, then it seems almost axiomatic that the Kingdom of God is within us all along–even if that does sound a little afternoon-school-special-y. Don’t worry, this isn’t another digression; this is the beginning of the argument I’m trying to make.

Paul’s language about the Holy Spirit seems to indicate an understanding of sanctification similar to what I have described above, with the Holy Spirit as the believer’s guide on the path to Christ-likeness. Let’s look at Romans 8:

In 8:4, Paul writes “in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” Here, the Holy Spirit serves as the impetus that drives us toward righteousness, sanctification. In the words that follow, Paul argues that those who “live in the flesh” rather than the Spirit “are hostile to God” (8:7), and that only belongs to Christ if one “has the Spirit of God” living in him or has “the Spirit of Christ” (8:9). For Paul, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is an essential part of the Christian’s life.

Soon thereafter he writes, “For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God…the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship” (8:14-15, abridged). The guidance of the Holy Spirit brings about the right relationship with God as well as righteousness. This corresponds, I think, with the way I’ve described sanctification both here and elsewhere on the blog.

We should also note that Paul holds the same tension between inward sanctification through the Holy Spirit and the apocalyptic. Later in Romans 8, 8:20-21 to be specific, he writes: “For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and the glory of the children of God.” The rest of the passage focuses on patience in the face of suffering as we “wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies” (8:23b). Romans 8 ends with some comments about predestination that we won’t address here–though my post series “Roleplaying Games as a Microcosm of Free Will” somewhat addresses the topic. Likewise, I think it’s fair to read some conflict between belief and works righteousness in Paul’s words here, though that’s a topic for another time.

Of course, Paul also explicitly links the Holy Spirit to sanctification in describing the “Fruits of the Holy Spirit” in Galatians 5. The Fruits are qualities of character of both Christ and the one who has become Christ-like (through sanctification).

Jesus Himself alludes to the Holy Spirit as the driver of sanctification in John 16:13: “But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” I would argue that the understanding of truth is the understanding of the right relationships with God, self, others and creation, which itself causes the inner change that we call “sanctification.”

Here’s what I see as the fundamental dissonance between the interior view of a sanctification and the exterior or apocalyptic view–the apocalyptic view tends to draw our focus away from what we can do in the here and now to make the world we live in a better place–to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to earth bit by bit rather than waiting for some supernal (and divinely unilateral) invasion. An eschatological view that only looks for that promised eucatastrophe allows us to ignore present suffering we could do something about. When we see sanctification as a process of change within ourselves that draws us to be more compassionate and Christlike, it is inevitable that we will be drawn to serve the least and the lost and–thereby–to participate in some foretaste of the Kingdom of God.

It is true that I’m an idealist; but I’m also enough of a realist to see that our opportunities to enact change in the world are small and localized. We humans, without God, are unable to erase all of the evil and suffering out there (though that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try anyway). In light of that, we do need to have some idea of an “apocalyptic” intervention in which God sets all things right and fully and finally remedies the fallenness of man. I make no claim to know what that will look like (or be like, for that matter), but in light of the interior idea of sanctification, I have some confidence (though of course, not complete surety) in arguing that it won’t look like a literal fulfillment of the apocalyptic (in the narrative style, I mean here) images in the Book of Revelations.

We Methodists (and I’m sure we’re not alone) like to say that “the Kingdom of Heaven is a future promise and a present reality.” Perhaps this post just brings us full circle on this saying. I think it’s certainly possible to view the “traditionally apocalyptic” sayings of Jesus as indicating the future promise and those passages I have described as “anti-apocalyptic” as indicating the present reality. The two categories are not mutually exclusive, after all.

As this post draws to a close, this is what I mean to say: Although Jesus does sometimes speak of a time when, by God’s intervention, all wrongs will be rectified and Creation will be restored to what it has always been meant to be, that doesn’t mean that all there is for us to do on earth in the meantime is to wait and patiently suffer through the injustice of the world. Jesus also calls us to present participation in the Kingdom of God, both by exploring it within ourselves (through the process of sanctification) and then by pouring out that discovery into the world. Spoiler alert: Jesus also tells us exactly how to do this: clothe the needy, feed the hungry, visit those who are in prison, tend the sick, pursue justice in our society. Our guiding principles are simple in their utterance and infinitely complex in the doing: love the Lord your God, love your neighbor as yourself (and all people are your neighbors) and strive that it might be “on earth as it is in Heaven.”