Book Club: Apocalypse Then

A reader writes:

Beyond all the crap about resurrection, Jesus was an apocalyptic preacher who predicted the end of the world would come very soon, probably in his own lifetime. And that realization colors how I view Jesus’ most important message.

I am not a Christian. But my religious identity has nothing to do with belief (what do I know?) and everything to do with the way I live my life. The only parts of the New Testament that I admire are Jesus’ parables and his teachings. Leave your family. Give up material things and live in poverty. Don’t worry about tomorrow. Don’t show off or try to be better than others. This is radical stuff – a lifestyle I respect, but am too cowardly and weak to pursue. Therefore, I do not call myself a Christian, because I cannot live up to Jesus’ commands. And as far as I’m concerned, anyone who doesn’t live like Jesus (i.e. a vagabond) has no right to call himself a Christian.

So a big thought hit me hard: Jesus’ unique and radical teachings only make sense because he was an apocalyptic preacher. Leave your family and pay no attention to tomorrow because the world is about to end. In the context of the end of the world, it all makes sense. Of course you should abandon material things; they’re all about to be wiped away.

So now I’m left with this conundrum: Jesus’ teachings only work against a background of imminent destruction. AND, obviously, the world did not end. Does that then invalidate his teaching? Without the apocalypse at the foundation of Jesus’ ministry, aren’t we badly misinterpreting what he really meant?

We’re certainly avoiding a rather obvious point: one of Jesus’ most emphatic predictions in his lifetime was wrong. Dead wrong. Now you can try and elide this by insisting that he didn’t put a date on the end of the world, but that ignores the urgency of his warnings. Does that invalidate Jesus’ teaching, as my reader suggests? Well, the first thing to say is that Christianity spread rapidly even as its main prediction turned out to be wrong. And, as Ehrman notes, it seems that the reality of the belief in the resurrection is what galvanized and sustained this religious movement after its guru’s untimely and dishonorable death. The resurrection occluded the failed prophesy.

how-jesus-became-godDoes that in turn render the radicalism of Jesus’ calls for total poverty, homelessness and suffering less powerful? I’d say it makes them more powerful. They become less a last-minute preparation for the end-times than a deeper and more radical critique of worldliness in all its forms. They become less a means to an end, and more an end in themselves. And Jesus taught these things, in the Gospels, without constantly referring to them as mere end-times necessities. Power over others is to be foresaken as an eternal truth about human life; wealth is an obstacle to happiness; what matters at all times is being present to others and to God, not running around with this goal or that; forgiving makes you happier than bearing grudges; revenge only perpetuates the cycle of hatred, rather than breaking it. All of these counter-intuitive ideas are our true destiny as humans if we can only master them. They are the only sure means to internal and external peace.

Now, of course, other religious traditions speak of similar things. You can see in Buddhism, for example, the insight that possessions hurt rather than help. You can see in Taoism the wisdom of letting go, of seeking peace by striving for less. And all of these impulses – which contradict what we now understand as our evolutionary nature – transcend “the restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death.” This profound insight – the early Christians believed – didn’t come from within us, but somehow from above us. And a person who walks this Bronzino-Christ-Nicewalk is indeed living as close to divinity as human beings can get.

This insight is perhaps encapsulated by the word logos, a form of divine wisdom about how to be happy and at peace through the law of love; and it is easy to see why Jesus’ life and example came to seem to his subsequent followers an incarnation of this logos, which of course is eternal. And Jesus’ decision to embrace his own torture and death with stunning equanimity and compassion represented the pinnacle of that divine achievement. How many of us could forgive those driving nails into our body? How many would stand by and say nothing when we are accused of something we never did? The Passion narrative is crafted to show how deeply Jesus walked the walk. It is by giving that we receive. It is by forgiving that we can be forgiven. Even in extremis. We will all die some day – which is our own looming apocalypse. And the only true way of grappling with that is through Christ’s logos.

Another reader:

I want to ask, (1) can a believer truly be open to evidence that Jesus, perhaps at one part of his life, said and believed things very different from what we normally attribute to him, and (2) can one – can a Christian – be open to the idea that, in these early beliefs at least, Jesus was wrong?

Take the body of assertions from Chapter 3 [in Ehrman’s book] about Jesus as an itinerant apocalyptic preacher.

I have heard such descriptions of John the Baptist and Jesus previously, but this is perhaps the first time when the sheer weight of these statements hit home. Ehrman’s evidence – supported by his criteria of independent attestation and dissimilarity – helped me to appreciate just how often the texts focus, as a whole, on judgment, on punishment, on reversals of ultimate fortune, and especially on a rhetoric of fear (and joy) in the face of an imminent end.  This vision of Jesus’ early and perhaps entire ministry seems as well founded as anything in the book.

But if you accept that we can indeed have a sense of what Jesus said and what Jesus meant by his apocalyptical proclamations – if we can get a sense of what these word meant in their historical and textual context – then how can this not have an effect on what one thinks of Jesus?

Sheep and goats; burning and wailing; shame and sinfulness; and the righteousness of new and better judgment: these are words that embody, for me, not an abiding love of humanity, but a mainly a hatred of sin. They do not promise to redeem creation, but rather revel in visions of un-creation, of joyous destruction.  These pronouncements do not so much love justice as much they enjoy imagining the punishment of injustice.  In loving God, this Jesus hates the world.

As a historical fact and a textual interpretation, this reading may be correct or incorrect.  But what if, on the whole, it seems right? What can one, as a Christian, do with these words and feelings?

We can balance them, I’d say, by other words and feelings, and see what was truly radical and new in Jesus’ teaching about how to live and die independently of the apocalyptic vision. But we cannot ignore that side completely. Jesus, Christian believe, was both fully human and fully divine. The human part was bound up in the culture and history of his time, its apocalyptic background, and its roots in Jewish scripture. The divine part escaped that. To believe in the Incarnation requires one to accept both, and to live with a Jesus we will never fully master and never totally understand.

(Read the whole Book Club thread on How Jesus Became God here. Please email any responses to bookclub@andrewsullivan.com rather than the main account, and try to keep them under 500 words.)

Update from a reader:

It seems to me a big reason Christianity spread after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, and the coming of the Holy Spirit, is that his followers began to reexamine his apocalyptic predictions in light of their post-Pentecost experiences. They understood “the age to come” to have actually begun – an age defined by the upside-down Kingdom Jesus had announced in his teachings, in which the last were now first, the greatest were those who served, and Jesus – not the Caesar whose government had put him to death – was Lord. The apocalyptic signs were all around them: “I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams” (Acts 2).

They had no reason to disbelieve Jesus on account of his prophecies not coming true; they were now living in the new age he had predicted would come.

Another:

Enjoying this thread. There are other interpretations of Jesus’ prophetic “mistake” about the literal end of the whole world, which does seem like a pretty big paradox for literalists. Instead, lots of the end times prophecies/symbolism make sense when interpreted as applying to the ~70CE Jewish rebellion against Roman hegemony and consequent destruction of the Temple and massive slaughter of the population of Jerusalem, followed by Nero’s persecution of the early Christians. This lines up nicely with the modern dating of the texts in the New Testament (soon after the historical events), and means we can end the idiotic game of deciding which contemporary political figures are candidates for the role of anti-Christ (though that game is too popular to end anytime soon).

Another:

Wow – great insights from the readers! “In loving God Jesus hates the world.” Strong stuff, and not to be dismissed lightly, since it has remained one pole of the dialectic that has driven Christianity from the outset. The “little apocalypse” of Jerusalem’s fall to Titus solves part of the problem, but it does not really reach the deeper issue, if Christ is speaking to mankind and not just the Jews. The response that the Pentecost renders immediate the new age is intriguing, but it cannot resolve the other great failed prophecy stated in the kerugma – the declaration of the Christian’s faith reduced to its essence: Christ has died; Christ has risen; Christ will come again.

Paul, the architect of the Church, understood Christ’s return to be imminent, like the prophecy of the apocalypse. Like the reader who suggests, correctly in my view, that Christ’s preaching of radical divestiture is made within the context of apocalypse, Paul preaches that his congregations must live their lives not in anticipation of Christ’s return, but live them in preparation for his return – tomorrow. As Christians, we can rationalize, but that path leads nowhere, I think. Best perhaps to focus on the here and now.