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Jesus Did Not Return Soon (!)

Fundamentalist Christians claim to be biblical literalists, i.e., they say that they take every word of the Bible literally as the inerrant Word of God, as dictated by God to the scripture writers.  Strictly this means that the dictation and its writing down are literal, so literalists do permit themselves to concede that some of the Bible’s texts contain poetry (for intance) in addition to literal history.  But in the main, biblical literalists tend to take scripture at face value, especially those passages that they deem prophetic.  However, as we shall see, fundamentalists’ claims to literalism fall flat when applied to their most cherished prophetic book, the final chapter of the New Testament, the Book of Revelation (The Apocalypse of John).

For decades, fundamentalists have used Revelation as an End Times chart that might inform them when the end of the world and the second coming of Christ will occur.  Many fundamentalist groups have predicted Jesus’ return based on Revelation, and they have, obviously, been as wrong as it is possible to be.  However, undaunted by past failures, many of today’s literalists continue to delve into the Apocalypse for juicy End Time morsels.  However, one tidbit all of them have overlooked is the End Times timetable of John himself.

John himself references the time for the end of this age and Jesus’ return.  John does not predict these events as unfolding in our century (a century that he probably never imagined).

Instead, John expects the End to happen in his own century.  Not just in some vague future year or decade, but in his own time: soon, in fact. And “soon,” and terms like it, are exactly the ones chosen by John.  In this, John’s own prophetic sense is unbridgeably separated from that of modern fundamentalists.  Let’s view a few examples of John’s soon expectation of Jesus’ return:

‘things which must shortly come to pass’ Revelation 1:1

‘…for the time is at hand.’  1:3

‘Look, he [Jesus] is coming with clouds; and every eye shall see him, even those who wounded him’ 1:7  (Jesus is already on his way and will come soon enough to be seen by those who killed him, who are still alive in Judea)

‘sent his angel to show his servants the things which must shortly be done’ 22:6

‘Look – I come quickly!’ 22:7a  (this is Jesus speaking; Jesus himself conceptualizes his quick return)

‘for the time is at hand‘  22:10

‘Look – I come quickly; and my reward is with me, to give every one according to his actions’  22:12

‘He {Jesus] who testifies to these things says, Surely I come quickly.  Amen! Even so, come, Lord Jesus.’  22:20

Clearly, from these passages, it is shockingly plain that the New Testament has a far different view of the End’s timeframe than do modern fundamentalists.  They have much to answer for.

First:  Fundamentalists must explain their basic inability to understand the word “soon.”  It is not sufficient to say – as many do – that God’s view of time is different from ours, that for instance, for God a day may be a thousand years.  But it is not “God’s time” that concerns the author of Revelation: rather, it is the time known to the “seven churches” to whom he is writing – their time, their world, their current affairs.  And that time is soon.

Second: Fundamentalists must explain Jesus’ tardiness in not having returned soon.  This they do by (erroneously) claiming that John’s “soon” is not a real soon.  This is not only intrinsically unlikely.  It violates the fundamentalists’ own cherished claim to read scripture literally.

One might guess that these two embarrassments alone would keep fundamentalists occupied in tending to their own house – either valiantly updating their theology to conform to the Bible’s actual meaning, or scurrying around performing damage control – instead of attempting to reorder secular society.  Alas, one can only hope… a forlorn hope indeed.

Jesus and “Salvation by Works”

In contradistinction to the extreme Protestant/fundamentalist-evangelical standard of “salvation by faith alone, [not works],” it is important to realize that the NT is ambiguous on the sources of salvation, because it is made up of different strata reflecting different stages in historical, christological and theological development, and the earliest strata suggest a Torah-faithful Jesus whose salvation-teaching was Torahide and works-centered.

1) In certain NT texts, salvation is claimed to derive from sources other than Jesus’ “atoning death on the cross.”

Matt 5:12 Endurance of persecution is rewarded in heaven
5:20  Perfect righteousness permits entry into the Kingdom
25:31-46  At the final judgment, kind works will be rewarded; while unkind works will be punished.
(Note: This is pure Torah teaching. The coming Son of Man will judge by the Torah’s standard of works, not Paul’s standard of grace.)

Mark 10:17-22  Eternal life comes from observing the Mosaic commandments;
giving to the poor;
taking up one’s “cross”;
following Jesus

Luke 7:30-48  An excess of selfless human love calls forth God’s forgiveness

9:23-24  Following Jesus means the action, the procedure and/or the course of “losing one’s life to save it” and it is thought to be a “daily” process. The Lukan description is paralleled in:

John 12:24-25  The act of losing one’s life in this world will “keep it unto life eternal”

John 5:25-29   At the final judgment, resurrection “into life” is granted to those who have done good; and resurrection “into damnation” is given to those who have done bad

Romans 2:5-7  God’s righteous judgment “will render to every one according to his deeds

2:13  “For not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law will be justified.”

8:24  “For we are saved by hope

2 Timothy 4:14  God will reward (Paul’s enemy, Alexander) “according to his works.”

Revelation 15:13   The blessed dead are rewarded with “rest”  in heaven because “their
works do follow them.”

Even more NT descriptions of salvation without reference to Jesus’ “atoning” death could be adduced, but these suffice to establish the basic fact that not all NT soteriology references Jesus’ “atoning” death. The existence of one white crow suffices to invalidate the claim that all crows are black. Similarly, one example of NT non-atonement soteriology suffices to invalidate the claim that all NT soteriology is centered on the atonement. For that reason, therefore, I have seen fit to provide not one, but several such examples – and as a bulwark against virulent but mistaken fundamentalist claims to the contrary.

That these examples abound is not surprising, since as an apparently Torah-faithful Jew, Jesus realized that Torah is forever, not to be supplanted by any kind of (Torah-prohibited!) human sacrifice – and the earliest Gospel strata as well as the historical situation support the image of a Torah-faithful, Jewish Jesus, for whom in religious matters the pre-existent and eternal Word of God sufficed.

It was only after his unexpected murder that Jesus’ followers tried to salvage some dregs of meaning from this unheard-of and un-prophesied death of their Messiah. This is why later strata increasingly show Jesus making prophecies about his own death, and why the four Evangelists and Paul so desperately seek to project onto the earlier image of the Torah-faithful Jesus their own explanations for Jesus’ otherwise meaningless death.

Simply put: Jesus was crucified – everything else is interpretation.

“Crossianity” emerged out of early Christians’ insistence that, because Jesus (so loved by God), was shockingly murdered by “unclean” minions of darkness, this must have been divinely intended to have happened; it must have been foreordained, even prophesied. So they rummaged through the Hebrew Bible (in a process known as “oracle-hunting”) to locate texts that they could apply like bandages to the gaping wound of Jesus’ sudden, inexplicable death. The further we go from the Torah-faithful Jesus who found his own center and salvation in Torah, the closer we come to the secondary “atoning death” interpretations of his later followers.