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how to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference

Will Jesus save us from the wrath to come?

We went to see Surviving Progress last night at the Dubai International Film Festival. Based on Ronald Wright’s A Short History of Progress, this powerful Canadian documentary argues that humanity has got itself stuck in a global “progress trap”. The fundamental problem is that we are running modern software on mental hardware that has not been upgraded in 50,000 years, so technology is exploited to satisfy immediate needs but the invisible or remote costs are not factored in. As a result we are consuming ourselves to death. Global debt is the massive suction force that ensures that the world’s natural resources are continually over-exploited to feed the insatiable appetite of the various unaccountable oligarchies that control the system.

What makes the outlook especially grim is that the whole world has fallen into this trap—there are no counter cultures, no alternative civilizations. Some solutions are tentatively put forward: the colonization of other planets, the development of synthetic organisms that will produce food and fuel, the reduction of the world’s population to a third of current levels. But in the end the audience is told that humanity faces a simple challenge: to “prove that making apes smarter was not an evolutionary dead-end”.

I sat through the film thinking, “How is the church to engage with this metanarrative of human destiny?” It happens that I’m reading Joerg Rieger’s book Christ & Empire: From Paul to Postcolonial Times at the moment. Like much of the empire-critical work that is currently being done on Paul I think it overstates the case for reading him as a self-consciously anti-imperial figure—Paul is much more pro-Christ than anti-Caesar. But unquestionably the early Jesus movement has to be understood as a radical and hazardous repudiation of an over-bearing and idolatrous imperial culture, and perhaps this suggests one way of approaching this really quite challenging question of narrative engagement.

We cannot read 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10 as a report of merely personal faith. By abandoning the worship of idols the Thessalonian believers had knowingly rejected the belief system that sustained the empire and the culture of empire. They did so because they had been persuaded by Paul that the wrath of God was coming on the ancient world, that the God who had made all things was no longer willing to overlook the age-long defiance of pagan Europe, that he had determined a moment in history when this corrupt and corrupting culture would be overthrown, judged “in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed” (Acts 17:29-31).

They understood, moreover, that they had taken a dangerous step. They would be violently opposed by the Greeks for their repudiation of the gods and by the Jews for their belief that Jesus was the Christ (cf. Acts 17:1-9). But they were confident that Jesus would save them from the crisis to come, that they would be vindicated for their radical counter-cultural stance both before the throne of God and in the court of public opinion.

The churches in Thessalonica had opted out of the dominant culture. They had been set free from the powers—the gods, the rulers, the customs, the oligarchies, the blind assumptions—that controlled the ancient world (cf. Col. 2:15). They had been set free internally from a sinful nature that was all to willing to conform (cf. Rom. 12:2). They therefore behaved differently.

What they then became was not merely congregations of the saved but prophetic communities of eschatological transformation. By their bold defiance—in the name of Jesus, in the power of the Holy Spirit—of an ineffective Judaism, on the one hand, and a moribund pagan culture, on the other, they constituted a communal sign that the one true creator God was not ineffectual, was not powerless, could not be sidelined, but would act in the foreseeable future to justify himself in the eyes of the nations.

It was by no means a cheap and easy option. It meant surrendering their bodies—their material selves, not merely their souls—as a “living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Rom. 12:1). This was simply the beginning of the long story of self-denial, suffering and martyrdom that was so central to the experience of the early church.

We have moved beyond this eschatological event. It is not now the crisis of the death of pagan imperialism with which we are confronted. It is a crisis of the future of humanity. But we are implicated nevertheless. We are not bystanders. And there is much that we can learn by transposing the New Testament story into a creational key.

For example, we may suppose that the same creator God is calling people today to opt out of the dominant system, visibly and concretely, in order to form contextually appropriate prophetic communities of eschatological transformation, trusting that Jesus will save us from the “wrath” to come.

If that is the case, then the first task is to hear what the creator God, who raised Jesus from the dead as a guarantee of a new creation, is saying to his world. Paul understood very clearly that if Jesus had been appointed Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead, Caesar’s days were numbered. The church at the moment lacks a coherent and relevant voice, so it is hardly surprising that no one is listening. We long ago ceded the prophetic high ground to secular protest movements.

Secondly, if the church is to have any integrity and credibility as a prophetic community in the midst of a crisis of human identity and survival, it will need the courage and faith to repent of its complicity in the idolatry of runaway materialism, to repudiate the powers that enslave and destroy in the name of progress. I’m not at all sure that we can do that, and judgment may well have to begin with the household of God.

Thirdly, assuming that we get beyond the second step, the church needs to work out how to articulate and practice alternative ways of being human. Paul speaks of putting off an old way of being human and putting on a new way of being human (cf. Eph. 4:22-24; Col. 3:9-10). What is in view here is not merely the isolated sinful individual. We are human in context; our humanity is a product of our context. We are inescapably social and political. Conversion cannot, therefore, be merely an inward change: it is a transplantation, from corrupt community to renewed community, from an environment of decay to an environment of regeneration.

I am not terribly optimistic. I suspect that the church today resembles less the faithful Thessalonians than the Jews of the Mediterranean world, whom Paul castigates for their hypocrisy, who claimed to have the truth but who were no more righteous in practice than their pagan neighbours (Rom. 2:12-29). We are as much in denial as everyone else. So perhaps we should expect the creator God to act again to vindicate himself before the nations in a way that first holds the church accountable for its failure to provide a benchmark of authentic righteousness in the modern secular world.

Comments

I am optimistic on a long enough timeline.  But, it might be a long trip from here to there.  The goal should be to value our future life in heaven with God versus what we experience in this life.  That means embracing the martyrdom worldview of the early church and walking away from our value of worldly treasure.  It also means we have to become a community that sees its treasures in heaven instead of on earth.  That means getting past Dispensational premillennial theology and not replacing it by a future hope on earth (Wright, IIRC Andrew, et al.).  In addition, we have to take Biblical commentary on debt seriously.  Once you come to realize the trap that financial debt causes (personally and corporately), and the resultant enslavement to mammon associated with it, you have the potential to escape it.  I am currently going through “Debt:  The First 5,000 Years” by Graeber.  It tracks the concept of debt (and accidentally has a lot to say about the ANE concept of redemption as well as non-debt based corporate living) throughout human history.  The point seems to be that healthy communities can operate without a numerical concept of debt, but that once the numerical version evolves there is inevitable inflation and thus enslavement.  The idea isn’t to repudiate any sort of concept of property rights as a last resort (and thus the basis for western conservative Christianity’s partnership with market economics).  But, it does point out the road you are on once you allow banking with interest (not to mention fractional reserve practices) and perpetual consumer debt (situations solved by the anti-usury laws and the Jubilee concept of the Bible).  My point is that as long as the Christian community is plugged into the debt based economy of secular elites we will not find our goal.  There is a danger that we might fall into the Amish trap of total withdrawal form society.  I am not advocating that.  I am saying that we live among the normal society modeling what it looks like to value our future with God more than success in the world and thus demonstrating what it looks like to be a bondservant of Jesus Christ.

Hi Andrew,

You have obviously got everyone thinking if the lack of conversation is anything to go by.

It was a very challenging post. As I am in the process of building a new home, run a business that needs economic growth to stay alive, and try to raise kids it does indeed come down to a question of courage and faith. Both of which I feel I dont have enough. My gut feel is that you are right about impending judgement, yet there is a real sense of being trapped in and by the system. The word I keep using in my conversations with others as I challenge them about our church community is ‘imagination’.You have mentioned before that what is needed is a prophetic imagination to live in a new creation way. But, as I sit here, it is hard to imagine any other way, especially given that I seek to protect myself and my family. Maybe that is the first problem.

The question also arises is what will survive, and what will be’ judged’? The end of the Roman empire saw many things ‘judged’ such as the sacrifice system and persecution, yet many things continued such as slavery. This is not to encourage us to hold on to anything in hope it will survive judgment but rather recognize that in order to try and articulate and live creationally we may need to reflect on what needs to be ‘judged’. What is corrupt in our world and lives? Again that takes courage and faith.

In reply to Doug, how will seeing ‘treasures in heaven’ help us much? Is that not more head in the sky stuff? I can’t see how replacing Dispensational premillennial theology can be anything other than some sort of future hope on earth. Isn’t this the creation humanity was created for. Unless you replace it with a body/soul dualism where the soul gets whisked off to heaven. Will not living lives that ultimately become vindicated because they where resilient and lasting ones, ones that our ancestors thank us for, and ones which looked more like they where lived as image bearers, be more what we where created to live? After all, we may be on this planet and others for another 100,000 years or more.

A good friend of mine often asks, “How would we live if Jesus was Lord Mayor of our town”?

Daniel

Without pretending to have all of the answers, I think that we need to start from the position that we are strangers her on earth and look forward to casting off our tents to move on to the heavenly city (per Hebrews 12).  That’s our goal.  We have certain behavioral expectations while living here, one of which is to stay out of debt as much as possible.  That’s a principle given long before the present elite debt slavery was put into place.  But, since our current situtation is only the outworking of a common trend repeated throughout history I think that God gave us this guidance to provide us some sanctification from this system.

Regarding the issue of dualism, I’ve tried to read up on related topics and can only conclude at this point that the definition of dualism and the current attempt to wash it against scriptural expectations is a muddled mess.  You might have a title in mind that will clarify the issue for me (which I’d appreciate and will vow to read), but I’d respond with “No Longer Jews” by Carl Smith.  The book attempts to nail down exactly when Gnosticism started and concludes that it was first coherently formulated in about 115AD by former Jews who were frustrated by repeated defeat by the Romans which they saw as evidence of rejection by God.  The author points out that there were strains of thought leading up to this, but that they didn’t become unified with the three pillars found in Gnosticism (the idea that YHWH was a second tier evil entity, the idea that the earth was inherently corrupt resulting in strong dualism, and the idea that spiritual success would be through individual enlightenment).  One of the other options the author mentions is the proposal to eliminate the entire category since it is very hard to define outside of these basics.  I have never seen Christian academia engage the weakness in the field of Gnostic studies, which leads me to wonder if they realize it’s even there.

The historical problem presented by  Smith’s thesis is that there would have been no such thing as a Gnostic when the New Testament was written and thus no passages that are unambiguously pushing back against Gnosticism.  This might seem strange to our ears, but it turns out that much of the Christian opinion in the 20th Century (for instance Bultman’s work) assigning anti-Gnosticism to Paul’s epistles (i.e.,Colossians) should probably more properly have been seen as arguments against something else (possibly 2nd Temple Judasim, from which the Gnostic writers evolved).  My point is that academic analysis of the definition and history of Gnosticism have not stood still even though people such as N. T. Wright (who I still like very much) are still admittedly engaging Gnosticism according to the categorical terms they learned in school decades ago.

Doug

Hi Doug,

As far as a title that you could read that deals with dualism and the implications of having misguided views on helll/heaven and the ‘goal’ of the Christian then I would strongly recommend ‘Hell and Heaven in Narrative Perspective’ by Andrew Perriman.  I’ve got it and its great!  If you look slightly to your right on the screen you can even find the link :)

If what Andrew has to say on this blog can’t enlighten the matter then I’m not sure much else will.

 

Maybe you’ve answered this elsewhere and i simply missed it, but are there any passages at all that you believe are rightfully understood as referring to a *final* advent of Christ and judgment day?  Or are all of them referring only metaphorically to some now-past manifestation of God’s judgment?

 

–guy

Have a look at my post on “Eschatology”. I think that any “coming” of Jesus has to do with judgment, deliverance and vindication in the course of history—the judgment of AD 70, for example, or the deliverance of the early churches from pagan persecution. But there will be a final judgment of all the dead, those whose names are written in the book of life will not be finally destroyed, and there will be a new heavens and new earth.

I work with a simple three horizons model of New Testament eschatology, which I think does justice both to the historical and the cosmic dimensions: Jesus’ horizon of the war against Rome, the early church’s horizon of the overthrow of classical paganism, and the final horizon of the utter destruction of evil and death and the renewal of all things.