June 11, 2006
Some believe that a peaceable kingdom where the lion will lie down with the lamb (or dogs, cats, and birds will laze together as in this photo) will come after a period of great tribulation.
You may have noticed some of media hype last Tuesday about the significance of the date: 6/6/06.
Some people associated the day with 666, the "number of the Beast" mentioned in the New Testament Book of Revelation, which a large number of Americans interpret literally as a prophecy regarding the imminent second coming of Christ.
One television report even claimed that some parents-to-be deliberately postponed caesarian operations until the following day to avoid giving birth on that date.
Millions of Americans, including a sizeable portion of the electorate, believe that we are living in the last days and base their views of current events on that belief. Books and videos about the last days, such as the "Left Behind" series by Tim LeHay and Jerry B. Jenkins, have reached millions of American and become a major industry. Apocalyptic themes often dominate religious broadcasting, sometimes to the neglect of any other religious message.
In the next few posts, El Cabrero will explore a little of the background and history of apocalyptic religion and its impact on the current situation in the US.
(Full disclosure: El Cabrero is a practicing but not very proficient Christian from the Anglican tradition with a background in sociology and a long standing interest in the history of religious ideas.)
First some words. Two terms that commonly come up in discussions of this topic are "eschatology" and "apocalypse." Eschatology (not to be confused with scatology, although in some versions the difference is subtle) refers to last things, as in death, judgment, and the end of the world. Apocalypse comes from the Greek word meaning to uncover or reveal, hence the English name of Revelation for the last book of the New Testament).
Apocalyptic religion and literature developed in Jewish and later Christian communities in the two hundred years before and after the time of Jesus. The main apocalyptic books in the Hebrew Bible (the Christian Old Testament) and the New Testament are Daniel and Revelation respectively, but these are only two examples of a common literary form (more about this next time).
This approach to religion developed in response to persecution of Jews and later Christians by violent empires. The underlying message is for believers to remain faithful and resist (usually nonviolently) the temptations of empire until God decisively intervenes in history.
At a very basic level, apocalyptic religion is one of many attempts to deal with the problem of evil, which is a persistent question in monotheistic religions, one that becomes more pertinent in times of social unrest, injustice and persecution. The term for this effort to prove the justice of God in a very unjust world is theodicy, from the Greek words for God and justice.
Consider the following three statements: God is good (as far as people are concerned); God is all powerful; and evil exists. If any two of these are true, there is no logical problem for believers, but asserting all three requires some explanation.
For example, if God is good and all powerful and there is no evil, there's no problem. The same is true if God is all powerful but not all good and there is evil. Ditto if God is good but not all powerful and evil exists.
But those who believe in an all good and all powerful God in a world where evil exists and seems to prevail have worked hard for thousands of years--from the biblical Book of Job to bestsellers such as When Bad Things Happen to Good People--to come up with a satisfactory explanation.
There are many proposed solutions to this problem, none of which are always entirely satisfactory, particularly if one is on the receiving end of evil. One is that evil has no reality. Another maintains that it is the result of human freedom. In the Book of Job, God speaks to Job out of the whirlwind and basically says that it's beyond our insignificant human comprehension, which isn't bad as such explanations go.
Some of the deeper approaches to this question in Christian theology maintain that this is a profound mystery but that God shares in the sufferings of the world through the crucified Christ.
Apocalyptic religion answers the question this way: God is good, but the present world is under the domination of evil forces hostile to God. In the fullness of time, God will intervene, often after and through a series of cataclysmic events and sometimes through the agency of a messianic figure.
In the end, there will be a final judgment where the good who have suffered and died in this life will be resurrected in glory and the evil will be punished, sometimes forever. The sufferings of the innocent will be compensated by an eternity in paradise.
One doesn't have to be too much of a psychologist or follower of Nietzsche to see that this can sometimes express an all-too-human desire for revenge. The early church father Tertullian, who lived in Carthage in the 2nd and 3rd centuries of the Christian era, maintained that the sufferings of the damned in hell would make up part of the pleasures of being in heaven.
While there has always been an eschatological dimension to Christianity (this is less true of Judaism), it has seldom been the main focus of religious teaching. When it has been, the results have generally been disappointing.
Next time: the development of apocalyptic religion in the biblical period.
GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: ELEVATED
by El Cabrero