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Friday, May 15, 2009

Is This the End Time?

FROM ROBERT LAWRENCE KUHN, HOST AND CREATOR OF CLOSER TO TRUTH: In every generation, in virtually every religion on earth, some believers have imagined their time to be the “End Time,” a pivotal epoch of disruptive change, usually generated supernaturally, that brings about perpetual transformation. These End-Time seekers have expected, or hoped for, the obliteration of society and often the intervention of their God, the return or advent of a messiah or the equivalent. And there were always some who saw signs of apocalypse just over the horizon.
Each generation has thought itself unique—our generation, it seems, particularly so.
In our time, “End Times” abound. What drives such zealotry?
James Tabor is a leading scholar of early Christianity and a careful observer of apocalyptic and messianic thinking. He is the chairman of religious studies at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte and the author of The Jesus Dynasty. There is no one with whom I would rather start. (In the spirit of full disclosure, Jim is a lifelong friend.)
The contemporary End-Time emphasis, Tabor says, “is mainly coming right out of the Bible. Particularly in the Hebrew prophets, the Bible focuses on this ideal time of the future, this ‘eschatology,’ this story of ultimate things.” Then, he adds, “as time goes on, particularly into the time of Jesus when Christianity and other apocalyptic movements (such as the writers of the Dead Sea scrolls) arise, we find them saying not only is the End Time coming, but we will likely live to see it.”
Although “apocalypticism, this idea that the End Time is in our day, is a very interesting idea,” Tabor says, he reminds his students that it has “a 100 percent failure rate.” So, he tells them, “you’re buying into an idea that may be fascinating, but so far it’s always been wrong.”
Tabor believes that “what fueled the kind of apocalyptic fervor that we find among fundamentalist Christians is the establishment of the State of Israel, and then the Six-Day War [1967], where Jews occupied Jerusalem—or re-gained it, depending on your point of view—for the first time in 2,000 years. So now, supposedly, one can open the Book of Revelation or the Book of Daniel, which are two of the Bible’s primary prophetic books, and you can think that you are reading events in a very literal way.”
Granted, the “End Times” is a compelling, even intoxicating idea. It reaches deep into human longing by extending the abstract meaning and often distant impact of religion into, allegedly, real-world relevance. It also has a way of generating group cohesion among believers and bringing, so the believers believe, just desserts to nonbelievers. But with its history of “100 percent failure,” why do some scholarly believers still take it seriously?
Robert Saucy is a professor of theology at the Talbot School of Theology at Biola University in Los Angeles. He takes the “End Time” seriously—not as sociological substrate, but as prophetic reality.
Key to Saucy’s understanding, which is widespread among many Christian groups, Is the notion of “dispensationalism”—different periods in biblical history, and the anticipation of the literal fulfillment of biblical prophecies in the “End Time” period.
“Dispensationalism is prominent in today’s theological discussions,” Saucy says, “largely because of Israel.” Dispensationalism, as an understanding of the Bible “by those who take the Bible fairly at face value,” Saucy says, “puts more emphasis on prophecy, and that includes restoration of the State of Israel.” He differentiates dispensationalism , which he says “takes biblical prophecies fairly straightforward,” from non-dispensationalism, “which tends to believe that the church has replaced Israel.” This means that non-dispensational interpretations of Old Testament prophecies are made with references to the spiritual church, and not to the nation of Israel. Israel is left out of the non-dispensational picture, Saucy says, and “the re-establishment of the State of Israel would not have biblical significance for the non-dispensationalist.”
I ask Saucy whether he, in a serious cerebral way, looks forward to a literal millennium.
“I do,” he says without equivocation, again stressing the restoration of the State of Israel after 2,000 years as the critical phenomenon.
Saucy is not alone. Many evangelical Christians believe that the existence of Israel heralds the beginning of the End Time, and that its culmination may be imminent.
Bizarre as this may sound, to be fair, if one’s beliefs are based on a word-by-word reading of the Bible, it’s a view that seems consistent with the literal texts. End-Time prophecy is intoxicating because, If true, it would prove the veracity of the Bible and the existence of its God.
But there are other understandings of Christian prophecy.
Nancey Murphy is professor of Christian philosophy at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. A committed and devoted Christian, she is not at all concerned with prophecy.
“There's no way to know when the End Times will happen,” Murphy says. “I grew up in the Catholic tradition and the emphasis there was Jesus saying that even he didn't know when the end of the world was coming.”
Although a “remarkable number of Christians” seem to adhere to a “millennialist theology,” Murphy explains that “the more sophisticated biblical scholars would deny almost all, and perhaps literally all, of the predictions purportedly drawn from Scripture about when the end of the world is going to come.”
Yet Murphy does believe, in a more fundamental way, that there will be an end to this physical world in some God-directed way. I push to get her to give me some kind of time frame.
“OK,” she says reluctantly, “here's a not terribly serious order of magnitude. The Earth is about four and a half billion years old. The sun is going to expand and burn us all up in about four and a half billion years from now. So Jesus came right smack dab in the middle of that, give or take 2,000 years.” She then concludes, with a laugh, “So, I think we're right in the middle.”
But, she continues more seriously, “I think it depends on whether there's extraterrestrial life. For all we know, there are other planets with life spans that will last far beyond that of the Earth.”
Murphy is clear. She believes in God, the Bible, Jesus, and the ultimate transformation of the heavens and earth. But not in the near-term prophecies that many of her co-religionists propound and preach.
Although prophecy today is largely the province of Christians, there is also a long Jewish prophetic tradition. Arthur Hyman, a professor at Yeshiva University, is a leading authority on Jewish eschatology—what is prophesied to happen in the End Time. In explaining the Jewish view, Hyman calls attention to the biblical requirement that “there are conditions that have to be fulfilled.” He then reiterates “the Jewish claim against Christianity—which is part of many medieval discussions—that Jesus cannot be the Messiah because the conditions of the coming of the Messiah had not been fulfilled.” Primary among these, he says, is “a kind of a big cataclysmic war between Gog and Magog, who were biblical characters sort of projected into the future.” And then after this war, Hyman continues, “the Messiah will come and the dead will be resurrected, which is then followed by ‘the world to come,’ which brings peace on earth, no sickness, no death, and so on.”
Hyman notes that in Jewish history, there have been “Messianic pretenders in almost every generation,” but “the counterclaim always is that the conditions of the Messiah have not been fulfilled.”
The specific events that some Jews claim will lead to the Messiah’s first coming are similar to those that many Christians claim will lead to the Messiah’s second coming. Though they disagree on what “number coming” it will be—the first or the second—fundamental Jews and Christians agree that these kinds of events will signal the advent of the End Times.
But End-Time thinking has minimal importance in mainstream Judaism. What about in mainstream Christianity?
I ask Greg Boyd, founding pastor of the Woodland Hills Church in Minnesota, who has a doctorate from Princeton Theological Seminary.
Boyd recognizes that “the present state of the world, this present era, isn’t eternal—it comes to an end.” It’s like a chapter of a book that’s going to conclude, he says: “We don’t know when. We don’t know the details of how.” He then adds, “But there are plenty of people out there who say they know when, and say they know how, but they don’t know what they’re talking about—and they do damage by ranting like that—though they usually make a lot of money.”
Boyd is adamant: “But we don’t know when, and we don’t know how,” he asserts. “However, our present Earth will come to an end—the Bible describes it as the coming of the Kingdom of God, when God’s going to make right all that is wrong.”
Boyd sees the Kingdom of God as a literal kingdom, not just something “spiritual in your heart” as some believe. “As depicted in the New Testament, God brings the Kingdom to earth,” he states.
It will happen, he reiterates, but he is loathe to even hazard a guess as to when. “If there is anything we should know from history,” he says, “it is that we shouldn’t try to guess when. Such speculation only sets up people for disappointment. It sometimes gets them to do crazy things.
“We should leave the things of God to God,” Boyd stresses. “God will know when to wrap it all up. Our job is to live every day like it’s our last. Speculating about the details of these sorts of things is the equivalent of going to a tarot card reader and trying to find out exactly how you’re going to die—it’s morbid.”
In contrast, Boyd asserts, “the thrust of the teaching in the New Testament is that we’re to live with the anticipation that the Lord is going to return and set up his Kingdom. And that could happen at any time. So live every day like it’s your last and don’t sweat the details.”
Does that mean Boyd doesn’t pay attention to world news in the sense that perhaps current events may have something to do with Bible prophecy?
“No, I really don’t,” he says. “It’s so speculative that I don’t see any good fruit coming of that at all. I really don’t think that God so loved the world he gave us a jigsaw puzzle so that we could figure out what’s going to happen in the last seven years of world history.” He adds: “When God wants to be clear, God is clear.”
Still, throughout its history, Christianity has had groups and sects preaching “End Time,” imagining all varieties of prophecies about to be fulfilled. This was true in the early church, and it is true today. And not only in Christianity. The vision of a culmination of human events cuts across cultures—which anthropologists take as shared transmissions or common thinking, but which believers take as common truth.
The eschatological hope is a natural one. If one is a believer, one would certainly wish the advent of a new age and the unambiguous presence of God. Glorious rewards. All wrongs made right. All doubters convicted.
So here’s how the opposing views line up. On one side is psychology and sociology, personal hopes and social movements, all energized by anthropological trophisms that explain why such false beliefs take root and propagate. On the other side is the claim that our generation, as opposed to all other generations, really is special—with nuclear proliferation, global warming, escalating religious conflict, confrontation in the Middle East, “wars and rumors of wars” in the oft-quoted warning.
The former, with 100 percent historical success, must be the default position. The latter, with 100 percent historical failure, must bear the full burden of proof.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn speaks with James Tabor, Robert Saucy, Nancey Murphy, William Grassie, Arthur Hyman, and Greg Boyd in "Is This the End Time?" the 36th episode in the Closer to Truth: Cosmos, Consciousness, God TV series. The series airs on PBS World (often Thursdays, twice) and many other PBS and noncommercial stations. Every Friday, participants discuss a recent episode.


V. V. Raman said...

On the End-of-Time conjecture
It is important in this context to differentiate between the three kinds of time I mentioned in a previous post: the physical, the conceptual, and the perceived time.
Per physics, physical time had a point de d├ępart: x-billion years ago. It will have an end if and when the universe collapses back into a singularity whence it might emerge once again with entirely different physical traits and laws which may or may not include time as a parameter.
Conceptual time has neither beginning nor end. If you can imagine a starting point and an end point before and after which there was and will be no time, your mind must be extraordinary or very limited.
As to perceived time, it begins for each individual with the conscious appreciation of time and ends somewhat abruptly with the last heart-beat or even before that if one becomes unconscious prior to the moment of death.
But then, there is also collective perceived time that humanity experiences as history and possible future. When one talks about the end of time two things are meant. First is the possibility of human extinction after which there will/can be not perceived time on earth. The second meaning – and this is religious – is that the world and the human condition such as we experience now, and have been experiencing during historical periods, will come to an abrupt halt by the emergence of the Divine in one form or another, as a result of which the whole world will be dissolved with all its dirt and debris, sin and immorality, pain and paltry pleasure, and be transformed into something glorious, ecstatic, and spiritual. This hope or belief is explicit in the Judeo-Christian vision, and also in the Hindu worldview where the corresponding Messiah is pictured the avatara (incarnation) of Kalki whose eventual appearance (as described in the Mahabharata and other sacred texts) have an eerie mystical grandeur that is not unlike what is described in the Book of Revelations.
That these ancient world pictures are taken seriously and even literally by so many alert people in the twenty-first century speaks to the power of traditions and persistence of ancient belief-systems. Whether and to what extent one attaches theological or cultural significance to these depends to a large extent on how deeply one’s understanding and outlook have been transformed by the findings and insights of science, history, anthropology, archeology, and matters of that kind. From some of the comments in this discussion one may be inclined to think that these have not had much palpable impact on the thinking of many people, including some scholars and deep-thinking people.
V. V. Raman
May 16, 2009

Anonymous said...

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