2005-03-11

Who brings the Kingdom?

In my "Church and Social Context" class of 2005.03.11, an interesting debate was brought up concerning Evangelicalism and the current bunch of End-Times apocalyptic novels (like Tim LaHaye's "Left Behind" series). The professor is a liberation theologian who believes in realized eschatology (which means that the end will be "realized" as God's people liberate the world from bondage and bring about the Kingdom of God on earth). Because of his theological stance, the professor had a big problem with the idea of apocalyptic eschatology. Apocalyptic means "un-veiling" or "Divine intervention". It is the idea that the world will get worse and worse until God has to un-veil Himself and intervene by invading the world and establishing His own Kingdom. So the tension in the argument was set up like this:

Realized eschatology: We will make the world better and better until all heaven breaks loose and the Kingdom comes by our efforts.

Versus

Apocalyptic eschatology: We will make the world worse and worse until all hell breaks loose and God has to intervene to bring His Kingdom.

So, I wrote this:
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Dr. Recinos,

There was an interesting connection and paradox that you made in your two lectures about the rise of Evangelicalism, versus the discussion over realized eschatology versus apocalyptic eschatology.

In the former lecture, you started by speaking of the "Camp meeting" themes of being lost in sin and relying on Christ alone for salvation, and you ended by saying that these themes were something you could listen to, resonate with, and say "amen" to.

Then, in the discussion over realized versus apocalyptic eschatology, you recoiled at the idea of supernatural intervention to save the world from our corporate sins. You said the message is that we are stuck in our own mistakes, and we, as God's people, must get ourselves out of it. There will be no cosmic Savior to save us.

I know you say this because of your pre-commitment to Liberation theology... an admirable and righteous commitment. I believe that liberation and healing spiritually, physically, psychologically, socially, vocationally, economically, and even politically is at the very heart of the Gospel of Jesus Christ (cf. Luke 4.18-19).

Your idea seems to be (to me, and I could be wrong) that if we, as God's people, are called to struggle for liberation, then we cannot expect Him to intervene. Furthermore, His direct intervention in history would undermine our mission of liberation, for, why should we struggle for liberation if God will do it for us, right? Struggle is ultimately meaningless is liberation will be done for us by someone else. Thus, the hope for divine intervention becomes merely "historical escapism".

This leads, it seems to me, to four paradoxes: First, as INDIVIDUALS you affirm our total lost-ness in sin and utter need for Christ's salvation. But, as a COMMUNITY you say that the only way we can be saved from our corporate sin is for us to save ourselves. Why can we rely on God's intervention as individuals, but not as communities or as the world? Why not in both?

Second, I find the history of the 20th century absolutely devastating for all forms of eschatology that rely on solely human means to establish equality and utopia on Earth. I am sorry, but sin, evil, and suffering permitted by God is a permanent reality in this Age, and no amount of legislation or political programmes will be able to ameliorate it for good. Legislation and Church declarations will never bring about Christ's Kindgom. The 20th century (indeed, the last 20 centuries) is empirical proof of it, if there was ever sustained, repeatable, empirical proof of anything. The hope of cosmic salvation by organizational change is a great myth inherited from enlightenment humanism. Yes, we can band together and liberate whole portions of society (cf. the evangelical movement to free the Dalits in India going on right now). But, we cannot effect an ongoing, multi-generational transformation of all of society as a whole. To have that done can only be accomplished by God Himself.

Third, the denial of a future cosmic hope of divine intervention has resulted in what seems to me to be hermeneutical gymnastics to avoid the clear implications of the Bible's apocalyptic literature. A plain reading of such literature, whatever its original context may have been, is that society will only be radically transformed by the hand of God intervening in history. Other interpretations which fervently try and paint a picture of realized eschatology only, seem to me to be forced, contorted, and implausible for contextual and historical reasons.

Fourth, is the dichotomy you make between social responsibility and divine salvation a real dichotomy? Or are you just so shaped by the way that people like Tim LaHaye have treated Liberation theology that you reject the whole concept of divine salvation of the cosmos altogether? Is there not a way past this dichotomy?

For instance, Jesus said two things: first "The poor will always be with you" (i.e. There will always be pain, suffering, injustice, poverty, and problems in this Age). Second "Whatever you have done for the least of these, you have done for me" (i.e. We are called to be transformative agents of liberation in society for Christ's sake). The realization that the current world system is doomed and ultimately needs Divine transformation and intervention to be redeemed, did not stop the early Church from becoming the ancient world's primary source of liberation, healing, and societal reform. The Roman empire was literally transformed and converted by the love, charity, and faithfulness of persecuted Christians. (Now, what happened to Christianity after it became the socially accepted religion is another subject altogether). But, my point is that the early Christian Church BOTH believed strongly in immediate apocalyptic intervention to save the world AND the mission of societal liberation.

Is not the truth of Christian eschatology to hold in tension two essential truths: First, we are called to bring God's Kingdom by being God's agents of revolution, transformation, and liberation. Second, God's Kingdom will not fully come until Jesus Himself comes back personally and apocalyptically to redeem and transform the cosmos.

I see no problem holding both of these truths at the same time, and I believe that an acute, contextual reading of the Scriptures also shows that Jesus, the Apostles, and the Prophets held these two truths as well. It is certainly a better reading of the Scriptures than the Fundamentalist reading that says we give up on social transformation altogether, and re-interpret the Scriptures which call for a radical transformation of society. It is also better than the more liberal reading that says we give up on apocalyptic salvation altogether, and re-interpret clearly apocalyptic passages to not expect divine intervention in history.

What if the Kingdom is truly "Already" and "Not Yet"? What if eschatology is ultimately both "realized" and "apocalyptic"? For me, there is absolutely no contradiction in hoping for Jesus to "come again in glory to judge the living and the dead [where] his Kingdom will have no end", while ALSO living right now to "preach good news to the poor, proclaim freedom for the prisoners, give sight for the blind, release the oppressed, [and] proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."

Yet, there seems to be two irreconcilable truths which are both spoken clearly and unequivocally in Scripture and Tradition: First, that things will get darker and darker and worse and worse until the Messiah will have to come and save everyone and everything, and establish His Kingdom. Second, that things will get better and better and brighter and brighter as God's people share His Love and liberation with the whole world and bring His Kingdom. It seems that Christendom has a tendency to choose one side and exclude the other, so that two sides arise. One side caricatures the other as overly pessimistic escapists who deny our God-given mission in the world. The other side responds in kind by caricaturing the others as overly optimistic humanists who deny God Himself and His intervention in the world.

I think there is a third way. I could be wrong, but I think so. The first step is for both sides to enlarge their concept of salvation. Evangelicals must enlarge their concept to include the communal, material aspects of life among those areas which Christ came to redeem. Liberation theologians must learn to actively include the personal, spiritual aspects of life under the Gospel proclamation. I think that the root of changing our understanding of the Gospel is to build our concept of God on a different foundation. To many thinkers- liberal, conservative, classical, neo-classical, process theists, traditional theists, modern, and ancient- have rooted their ideas of what God is up to in the world on a wrong concept of God. They begin with a philosophical abstraction of what ultimate reality must be like, and then they shape Jesus and the Gospel narratives to fit that God. This process often truncates Jesus, and slices off His arms and legs as we put Him in the box. Many conservatives have been prone to cut off His arms of compassion and social justice. Many liberals have been prone to cut of His legs of miraculous healing and exorcism. I think we need to start our concept of God, and of what God is doing in the world, with the Christ revealed in the Gospels. Only then will we gain a clear concept of what the Gospel in the Gospels is all about.

The second step is that both sides must enlarge the reality of the evil we are facing and the reality of the warfare that Christ has enlisted us in. I believe that Evangelicals are on track when they paint evil in personalistic and supernatural terms as deceiving spirits who blind the eyes of the unbelieving and separate us from Christ. I believe there is a spiritual war with personal forces who want to cut us off from God. I believe that Liberation theologians are on track when they speak of evil as societal, organizational, communal, and largely impersonal forces that foster injustice and inequality, and all the material and social hardships that go along with these things (cf. Walter Wink's work in "Naming the Powers" and "Confronting the Powers"). The "forces of darkness" we face to war against are destructive in every way that the Gospel is liberating. They oppose us in personal, communal, spiritual, and material ways to destroy society and disconnect us from the God for whom we are made. As long as we, as the Church, mistakenly think that evil is just spiritual, or just physical, or just personal, or just societal, then the enemy has us beat, because as we attack the evil we are able to name, s/he/it will attack us where we are not aware.

The third step will happen when Christians of all stripes begin to live and preach a "Full Gospel" that redeems and liberates the whole person and the whole society, and attacks evil on every front with the power of the Resurrection, then I think we will find that two things will happen: First, the Kingdom WILL start to manifest itself on earth as in heaven. Individuals and social groups will be liberated from bondage to spiritual, material, and psychological slavery and truly start to become all that Christ has made them to be. Second, when the Kingdom of Christ begins to truly forcefully advance into enemy controlled territory, I fully expect that the evil, whatever s/he/it is, will retaliate with a full scale assault on Christians as a last ditch effort to keep the Kingdom of darkness intact. Revelation 12 describes how the Dragon rages because he knows his time is short and, as a result, he "went off to make war against... those who obey God's commandments and hold to the testimony of Jesus" (Rev 12.17).

In short, I believe that the success of the Gospel of Liberation will bring about the final conflict between light and darkness, between the forces of goodness and justice, and the forces of evil and enslavement. But, like an individual trapped in personal sin who cannot save themselves and thus needs Christ to save her, so also our world will be locked in a struggle with the forces of evil which it cannot pry itself out of. It will need Christ to come and bring the final defeat of all that is anti-God.

This is not Tim LaHaye saying that the world will get worse and worse, so don't do anything and wait for the rapture. I do not believe that the fact that "Jesus is a comin"" in any way alleviates our responsibility to the poor, the needy, or the enslaved. I do not believe that Jesus will come secretly and rapture "the secret Jesus club" so we do not have to struggle for the salvation of the world. We will change the world by the power of the Gospel and all flesh will see the light of Christ. But I do believe that as the light gets brighter, the dark will get darker, and we will enter into an epic conflict with societal and personal evil which is merely glimpsed in the holocaust and the atom bomb over Hiroshima, and that this evil can only be properly named as "Anti-Christ", "Babylon", "Beast" and "Dragon".

But this is also not saying that we can bring the Kingdom in its fullness on our own power. This is saying that the Kingdom will only come as God's people struggle valiantly to free society from bondage, but while this Spirit-empowered struggle is the first step, it is not a journey we can complete on our own. We will need the hand of God to intervene as well. God will not bring about the eschaton without us, but we cannot bring about the eschaton without Him. As such, He is the "author" and "perfecter" of our salvation (Heb 12.2). He is the "author" of our salvation, because He has redeemed us by the Cross and empowered us by the resurrection and the outpouring of His Spirit. He has given us a mission of action AND proclamation to struggle mightily against the powers of darkness that enslave this world, and gradually overcome them. But when the time has come, and the final battle is waged by a desperate evil trying to keep its kingdom, Christ will come as the victor and perfect the salvation He has begun in us.

This is just what I have been thinking about for the last few years, and how I resolve the tension between realized and apocalyptic eschatology. I post it for your consideration.

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My professor replied with the following:
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Nathan,
Thanks for taking the time to share with me your theological outlook. Although I do not entirely share your rather pessimistic historical theological anthropology, your interpretation of points in my classroom lecture and remarks attribute a perspective to me that suggests revelatory religious language is devoid of meaning---"we cannot expect God to intervene."

Most assuredly, we would do well to sit down together and discuss how we pray, manifest a practical commitment to God, do theology and conceive God's self-disclosure in history. Lamentably, sin, evil and suffering find expression in history more deeply than the 20th century you name.

That you attribute sin, evil and suffering to God in your theology raises questions than clarity of position. If addressing the wounds of injustice and brokenness in our shared creation and finding more just patterns of life in the very modern world you describe, is not a more exact reflection of discipleship than passive waiting for divine intervention, then I am afraid Hebrew-Christian tradition speaks to me of God in history differently.

I will cast my theological lot here with the One who showed us that God does not give up on humanity, but goes to the Cross for the sake of our lives and to advance the cause of a God of life who promises to renew history and people. Before you stumble down the street of misinterpretation any further, lets find time to talk about the new narrative offered in history to us by the rejected, disdained, falsely accussed, executed and ascended One who asks us to live compassionately and vulnerably---yes in this world of sin, suffering and evil---for God's reign.

On the matter of the "poor you will always have with you," exegetical work will yield a very different theological outlook from the one you suggest here---that too requires a wonderful sit down converdation in the context of our shared Christian community. By the way, your vision for a conversation across theological camps has a great deal of promise and this I believe would issue forth in a fruitful process of faith maturation.

Have a blessed break, and I look forward to sitting down with you to talk in person.

Paz, Dr. Recinos

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My reply was as follows:

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Dr. Recinos,

Thanks for the beautiful reply! It was quite refreshing!

I am sorry if I was unclear about my concept of divine causality in the evil and suffering in the world. I do not mean to attribute the evil and suffering in the world to any active choice or "perfect will" of God. I do not think that He causes or desires suffering in any active way. I think that he has allowed freedom in His creation from the very bottom (in the free and non-determined movements of quarks and electrons), to the very top (in the free and non-coerced choices of both humans and spiritual powers). This, at least in my view, is so that God may share His love and abundance with free creatures, without forcing anyone (or anything) to accept Him, for love is not love if it is not free. As such, I think creation is a tremendous risk for both God and for us... a world filled with tremendous potential and tremendous consequences.

As a kind of theological shorthand, I often speak of God's will in three ways:

1. God's perfect will: for all creatures to be in harmony, shalom, love, and abundance, in Him, and with each other.

2. God's permissive will: allows free creatures to deny His love and abundance, and fall into sin, injustice, disharmony, and suffering.

3. God's redemptive will: acts in and through the suffering world, ultimately by becoming one of us and one with us in suffering and injustice, in which God-incarnate was crucified for us. But, as an eternal sign of how death is redeemed and turned into life, Christ defeats death and ascends to the Father, to pour out His resurrection power into those who follow Him by means of the Holy Spirit.

As such, Christ speads His Kingdom right now, right here through His Spirit enabled Body: the Church. But the success of the Church in bringing the Kingdom of Light will cause the final confrontation with the kingdom of darkness. Just as God intervenes in personal death by bringing resurrection and decisively destroying death, so also God will intervene in our final struggle to bring the Kingdom and decisively destroy evil.

Not only that, but I do not think there is ANY passivity or yeilding to the principalities or powers of injustice in our Age, because that will only allow darkness to continue, and cause the final manifestation of the Kingdom to tarry. In my view, the coming of the final conflict and the coming of Christ and His Kingdom is ONLY brought about by God's people struggling against evil for the liberation of the world. We do not get to the Kingdom by passivity in any way, nor by hiding in a bunker... but I also do not believe that the Kingdom will come without a cataclysmic, cosmic struggle against the forces of darkness in which God will bring the final victory for His people, for His creation, over evil.

Is this pessimistic? Yes, in that it expects suffering and struggle. No, in that it expects that the Kingdom WILL make significant advances over evil in this Age. No, in that it expects that God will crown our efforts with a final victory at the eschaton when He brings His Kingdom in fullness.

I really hope and believe this is a possibility to overcome the impasse between realized and apocalyptic eschatology... and speaking as a "post-evangelical" I actually hope and believe that there is a way to Christian unity beyond false dichotomies that have developed between liberals and conservatives, protestants and catholics, evangelicals and liberationists. I believe there is a way to read Scripture that is largely "both-and" instead of "either-or". I further believe that how I see eschatology allows me to stand side by side with both those who struggle for liberation and those who expect the immenant return of Christ.

I have thought about what my tag-line for eschatology might be, and I think this might express it:

Without God's intervention, we cannot build the Kingdom... But without our action, God will not bring the Kingdom.

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This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.