All posts in “eschatology”

Jürgen Moltmann on the Rapture and “Left Behind”

 

Jürgen Moltmann discusses the problem of religious escapism, with a particular appeal against the rapture theory, in his book, Ethics of Hope:

Here a religious escapism is coming to the fore especially in the present spread of a vague Gnostic religiosity of redemption. The person who surrenders himself to this religiosity feels at home in ‘the world beyond’ and on earth sees himself merely as a guest. So it is only by the way he is concerned about the fate of life on this earth. His soul is going to heaven, that is the main thing. In the body and on this earth, it was no more than a guest, so the fate of this hostelry really has nothing to do with him. Religious practices lauding an indifference to life are offered under many high-sounding names. […] American pop-apocalyptic offers an especially dramatic escapism. Before the great afflictions at the end of the world, true believers will be ‘raptured’—snatched away to heaven, so that they can then build the new world with Christ at his Second Coming. All unbelievers unfortunately belong to the ‘Left Behind’, the people who are not ‘caught up’ and who will perish in the downfall of the world (‘Left Behind’ is the title of an American book series read by millions). Whether people throw themselves into the pleasures of the present or flee into the next world because they either cannot or will not withstand the threats, they destroy the love for life and put themselves at the service of terror and the annihilation of the world. Today life itself is in acute danger because in one way or the other it is no longer loved but is delivered over to the forces of destruction. 1

When our Earthly/bodily life is not loved, affirmed, and accepted, we either resign ourselves to a religious escapism or numb our senses with hedonistic pleasures. Moltmann’s ethic of hope insists that a truly Christian ethic, based on the bodily resurrection of Christ, says Yes to this life; it must include a love for our life on this Earth as human beings (not as disembodied souls).

A few years ago I wrote a book called 10 Reasons Why the Rapture Must Be Left Behind (free as an eBook). One of the ten reasons I argued against the rapture was that it promotes a kind of gnostic escapism. The rapture plays into the idea that we do not have to take care for this world (the ecological crisis is a result, in part, of this neglect), that we are not responsible for the Earth, and that we do not belong to it—because one day we will escape the Earth for a spiritual world somewhere else, while this world is annihilated.

But this is not the Christian hope. The Christian hope is hope for a new heaven and a new Earth. With Paul we must recognize that the whole creation is groaning for redemption (Rom. 8:22). We belong to this Earth. Redemption does not mean an escape from this world, but we hope that together with creation we will be made new. One of my favorite quotes from Moltmann emphasizes this point:

I don’t want to go to heaven. Heaven is there for the angels, and I am a child of the earth. But I expect passionately the world to come: The new heaven and the new earth where justice dwells, where God will wipe away every tear and make all things new. And this expectation makes life in this world for me, here and now, most lovable. 2

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Notes:

  1. Ethics of Hope, 52-3
  2. Quoted by the Moltmanniac

Fundamentalism as Fear (Tillich)

1891063I’ve been reading recently Paul Tillich’s (in)famous book The Courage to Be. I have many suspicions about Tillich’s theology, and, from what little I’ve read of him, I inherently feel predisposed against his general method, as well as many of his conclusions. However, he is still an influential thinker and well worth the effort it takes to engage with. And sometimes he has some rather interesting and helpful things to say.

I will note too that I appreciate Tillich’s task: to make God relevant for today’s age. I am just afraid he took this too far and tried to relativized the entire Christian faith. But I appreciate his efforts, and plan to engage more with his thought as I read this book (and his Systematic Theology, which I’m planning to read sometime in the future).

This quote sums up well what I do appreciate about Tillich: “I hope for the day when everyone can speak again of God without embarrassment.” It seems to me a noble task, to make God relevant for today’s world, but the way he sought to do this is one I cannot condone.

Regardless, while I was reading The Courage to Be, I came across an insightful analysis of fundamentalism. Fundamentalism, especially in America, is a serious problem for Christianity. It is a way of thinking, more than anything else, which holds to strict black and white, either/or dogmas. For a fundamentalist, questions are not welcome, or maybe it’s better to say, questioning the “fundamentals” is not welcome, no matter how logical or factually based those questions are. It depends on who you ask what these “fundamentals” are actually, but the classic ones for Christianity tend to include biblical inerrancy, a literal seven day creation, penal substitutionary atonement, and, especially in modern times, homosexuality as a sin.

I’m not saying these are correct of incorrect just because they are the fundamentals of fundamentalists. But the main problem with fundamentalism is that it is a close-minded, black and white way of thinking about truth. Questioning these fundamentals will immediately lead to the application of the (over used) label “heretic”. So it doesn’t matter what the fundamentals are, the fundamentalist is one who cannot question them, and accordingly, who cannot allow anyone else to question them either! This is, as Tillich says in a moment, a kind of defense mechanism in reaction to modern and postmodern claims. But it is an over-reaction in most cases.

In the final analysis fundamentalism worships idols of its own making. Anything beyond questioning is an idol. Which does not mean that there is no such thing as truth, but that the truth is true no matter how harshly you question it; true remains true. Truth does not need a defender if it is true, fundamentalism decides beforehand what is true and rejects any attempt to verify or reject that claim.

But why, within fundamentalism, is there no room left for questioning or doubting “the fundamentals”? Paul Tillich sheds light on the matter:

“Fanaticism [fundamentalism] is the correlate to spiritual self-surrender: it shows the anxiety which it was supposed to conquer, by attacking with disproportionate violence those who disagree and who demonstrate by their disagreement elements in the spiritual life of the fanatic which he must suppress In himself. Because he must suppress them in himself he must suppress them in others. […]

[The fundamentalist] flees from his freedom of asking and answering for himself to a situation in which no further questions can be asked and the answers to previous questions are imposed on him authoritatively. In order to avoid the risk of asking and doubting he surrenders the right to ask and to doubt. He surrenders himself in order to save his spiritual life. He ‘escapes from his freedom’ (Fromm) in order to escape the anxiety of meaninglessness. Now he is no longer lonely, not in existential doubt, not in despair. He ‘participates’ and affirms by participation the contents of his spiritual life. Meaning is saved, but the self is sacrificed.” 1

In other words, fear; the fear of meaninglessness. There is always this fear in the questions of doubt which lead to new ways of thinking about a problem, a fear that in questioning our presuppositions our worldview will effectively become empty. But if we wish to seek the truth earnestly, we must risk asking hard questions and at times doubt our presuppositions in order to arrive at the truth. This isn’t necessarily Tillich’s point, but it’s something I’ve thought of before in regards to fundamentalism. Any system of thinking that stands above criticism is an idol.

But there is a danger here; there is the equal error of falling into a perpetual state of doubt. But this too is ultimately another defense mechanism in the form of nihilism, which at its core seeks to negate all propositions as meaningless and empty. But questions are a good thing; curiosity is a blessing. It takes risk to ask hard questions. But the adventure of discovery and of truth is well worth the effort. And in the end, truth ultimately is an eschatological term. We will never perfectly acquire truth until the eschaton. And how we all will laugh at our so-called “fundamentals” on that day!

Edit:

I’ve just found a fantastic quote which sums up quite well my difficulties with Paul Tillich, and I thought to include it here:

“[Paul Tillich’s] problem and danger, to put the matter simply, is the lack of a consistent focus on the revelation of God in Jesus Christ” – Alexander McKelway

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Notes:

  1. pp. 49-50

Jürgen Moltmann’s “Universalism of the Cross” (A Book Review of “The Annihilation of Hell” by Nicholas Ansell)

PrintBook: The Annihilation of Hell: Universal Salvation and the Redemption of Time in the Eschatology of Jürgen Moltmann by Nicholas Ansell (2013). (Amazon link)

Publisher: Cascade Books, an imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers.

Jürgen Moltmann is one of my favorite theologians, and so I was delighted to have the opportunity to read and review Nicholas Ansell’s book The Annihilation of Hell from the kind people at Wipf and Stock publishers. Thank you!

This book is a sympathetic engagement with Moltmann’s eschatology, specifically focusing on universal salvation and the nature of time in Moltmann’s theology. Generally speaking, I greatly enjoyed reading this book and appreciate the tremendous effort Ansell has put forward in it. I recommend it to anyone interested in the theology of Jürgen Moltmann, especially in how it pertains to universalism.

Ansell’s critique

Ansell presents an overview of his work in a summary at the end of the book. He writes,

This study is an engagement with the theme of universal salvation as viewed within the overall structure of Moltmann’s theology, eschatology, and theocosmogony. Consonant with Moltmann’s understanding, the main title, The Annihilation of Hell, refers to the overcoming of Hell as our eschatological hopes are realised, whilst at the same time alluding to Hell’s own annihilative power in history—a power with which hope must contend. For Moltmann, Hell is the nemesis of hope. Yet hope clings to the certainty that God in Christ has embraced all things, even death and Hell, so that creation may participate in the divine Life of the Age to Come. (P. 424)

Prior to this remark, Ansell gives an overview of his general critique of Moltmann’s position.

Although I accept Moltmann’s ‘universalism of hope’ and greatly appreciate his ‘universalism of the cross’, his ‘theocosmogony of the cross’ is a very different story. (P. 372)

Ansell argues quite well in this book that Moltmann’s universalism of hope and of the cross is a commendable one, but he is critical of his theocosmology. Particularly, he is critical of how Moltmann seems to blur the line between creation and fall in his usage of zimzum, and in turn of his negative assessment of creation (and thus of time). Ansell proposes a way forward which I find insightful and constructive. He spends a great deal of time in the book dealing with the nature of time. It may very well be time well spent (see what I did there?), but I was less interested in this section than in his overall affirmation of Moltmann’s universalism.

In this review, as the title suggests, I want to focus on what Ansell says positively about Moltmann’s universalism. Because, frankly, most of what Ansell had to say negatively about Moltmann’s theocosmology  I had not picked up on in my reading of his work. Most of his insights were great in this regard: that I felt as if I was learning a new way of reading Moltmann. This is the most notable factor of his carefully nuanced critique. (And from this I am challenged that I need to read Moltmann again, and perhaps more carefully!) But obviously this also means I would have difficulty engaging with Ansell’s criticism of these ideas. Though I do commend his work and think he is certainly right about much of his critique.

(And it is generally a constructive critique, as Ansell offers many helpful alternatives which he feels strengthen Moltmann’s universalism. I’m just not as well versed in the philosophy of time as Ansell is.)

Ansell’s affirmation

A better understanding of Moltmann’s universalism of the cross is the primary gain I take from this book. The key feature that I found commendable was how Ansell placed Moltmann’s universalism into conversation with modern theologies, asking: Does Jürgen Moltmann’s eschatology present a kind of universalism which might be approachable for today’s evangelical theology? Ansell offers a supportive yes.

For Moltmann, universal salvation is not a dogmatic assertion, but it is a certain hope. (I’ve written more on this here.) It is a certain hope not because of theological deduction, but because of what God has done in Jesus Christ, specifically because of what has taken place in His death and descent into hell. For Moltmann, then, universalism is best argued from the standpoint of the crucified Christ. Moltmann writes in his famous work, The Crucified Godthat “the theology of the cross is the true Christian universalism.”

For Moltmann, the basis of universal salvation is the cross of Jesus Christ, who was buried and descended into hell. In this way God may truly become “all in all”, because even in hell there is hope because there is the presence of Christ.

For this reason, Ansell calls Moltmann’s universalism “pre-theological”. He writes what follows, summarizing the difference between a dogmatic universalism and a merely hopeful one (apart from the substance of the cross):

A universalism of hope, I was thereby suggesting, is neither a dogma nor a ‘nice idea’. Those who, in looking forward to God’s final victory over evil, find themselves looking forward in hope and confidence to a ‘universal’ salvation are convinced of something that others cannot be convinced of unless—or until—they come to share in that hope. In my view, a conviction of this kind, which is pre-theological and pre- doctrinal in character, is legitimate—at least in principle—even if those who hold to it cannot justify it theologically. Moltmann himself captures this pre-theoretical confidence well when he describes his own position as “a universalism of hope which is not a doctrine . . . but is a presupposition.” This is a hope I share and a ‘universalism’ I accept. (P. 211)

That in the end all will be redeemed is not the theological doctrine Moltmann claims, but rather it is his theological presupposition. As I’ve written elsewhere, for Moltmann the fact that Christ has descend into hell means hope  for the redemption of all creation. The famous warning over Dante’s Inferno, “Abandon all hope…”, is deemed null and void in the light of Christ’s cross and descent into hell. Because if even in hell there is hope, we can presuppose that in the end all will be saved. This is not because we think God should or must do this, but because of what God has done in Jesus Christ and His cross we can presuppose this as the ultimate goal of redemption.

Moltmann’s universalism, therefore, is deeply connected with the whole of his theological project, which is centered upon the sufferings of Jesus Christ on the cross. Hope for the universal salvation of the cosmos is affirmed, according to Moltmann, on the cross.

Beyond this focus, Ansell also shows how Moltmann navigates the two major arguments often spoken against universalism. First, that it negates the freedom of mankind, and second, that it negates the freedom of God. Dogmatic universalism perhaps does this, but Moltmann’s universalism of the cross is not stuck in this same position. Dogmatic universalism is often plagued with a sort of determinism, in which ultimately all will be saved because God “must” save and we “must” be saved. The problems of this position are address well and their relation to Moltmann’s position are very insightful. It is one of my favorite aspects of this book, that Ansell strives most of all to engage Moltmann with the contemporary theology of both the Arminian and Calvinist positions. Moltmann’s universalism of the cross untangles itself from this dual problem of freedom in an admirable way. Thus, Ansell seems to conclude that Moltmann’s universalism, with some alterations, is one which the Christian community at large might engage and possibly accept as viable.

Conclusions

Ansell’s book is an excellent and nuanced study on Moltmann’s eschatology and his universalism of the cross. I look forward to further work from Ansell, as he wrote in a clear yet erudite manner. This book is approachable for most informed readers, though I do recommend, if you’re interested in reading it, that you have at least a basic understanding of Moltmann’s theology beforehand. (It’s especially helpful if you’ve read God in Creation, The Coming of Godand Theology of Hope.)

This book helped me see many aspects of Moltmann’s theology I may have missed otherwise, and I plan to revisit some of the key books he mentions to study further Moltmann’s thought. This book has also helped me come to greater terms with Moltmann’s universalism and the commendable features of it. I appreciate far more Moltmann’s theology and especially his kind of universalism, which I personally find quite viable for the church today.

You can buy the book here from Amazon or directly from the publisher.

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Universalism: A “Certain” Hope (Jürgen Moltmann)

PrintI’m currently reading Nicholas Ansell’s book on the universalism of Jürgen Moltmann, entitled The Annihilation of Hell: Universal Salvation and the Redemption of Time in the Eschatology of Jürgen Moltmann. (LINK) So far I am enjoying it tremendously, and I have no doubt that I will eventually have more to say about it later, along with a full review of the book once I’ve finished.

But from the first chapter there was an interesting idea Ansell brings up that I wanted to share here. I have said before that I am not a universalist, though I could rightly be called a “hopeful” one. With Balthasar I believe it is not only permissible but essential that we hope for all humanity, that in the end all will be redeemed. We cannot dogmatically assert this, but we can and should hope for it. 

This tension between dogmatic and hopeful universalism, one of which is heretical and the other of which is acceptable and encouraged, is something which Ansell clarifies through highlighting what he calls Moltmann’s “certain hope”. He writes:

This ‘certain hope’, as I have referred to it, and the “confession of hope” with which he [Moltmann] brings his discussion to a close, need to be carefully distinguished from the ‘hopeful’ universalism that finds approval in The Mystery of Salvation. In the latter, the universal salvation we ‘hope’ for is something that we desire, without knowing for sure what God will finally be able to achieve in the face of human freedom. Because there is no way that we can be certain, in this understanding, the best we can do is ‘hope’ for the best. ‘Dogmatic’ universalism is thus inappropriate. Moltmann’s ‘theology of hope’ is very different. While he would certainly agree that God’s eschatological Judgment is still to come, and is thus not something we can describe, at the same time, he insists that because the revelation of God’s purposes in the Christ event has already taken place, a hope that is rooted in the cross is not simply an expression of what we would like to happen. Given God’s decisive action in Christ, we can be confident of the outcome: “What Christ accomplished in his dying and rising is proclaimed to all human beings through his gospel and will be revealed to everyone and everything at his appearance.” The “confession of hope,” as articulated by Christoph Blumhardt, can and should be preached with conviction. This has nothing to do with merely ‘hoping for the best’. For hope, in Moltmann theology, provides the way to certainty. And the cross provides the way to hope. In “submerg[ing] ourselves in the depths of Christ’s death on the cross,” Moltmann writes, “… we find the certainty of reconciliation without limits.” 1

Here we see a distinction between hope as merely “hoping for the best,” and hope as certainty grounded upon God’s actions and will in Jesus Christ on the cross. While this does not affirm dogmatic universalism, it does refine what we mean by “hopeful” universalism. It is not the hope of what we want, over and against what God wants; it is a hope based on the certainty that this is what God wants for the human race, as revealed in Christ and His cross. God wills redemption, not destruction, salvation, not damnation, restoration, not abandonment.

This certain hope is not the hope of wishful thinking, but hope in the certainty of God Himself, of God’s consistency with Himself, and certainty in His work in Jesus Christ. We hope with certainty because, as Peter writes, God wills that none shall perish. (2 Peter 3:9) And furthermore, God has acted with this purpose in mind. Our hope is certain because it is a hope not against God’s will and work in Jesus Christ, but with it! Thus it is a certain hope.

I am looking forward to reading more from Ansell and this book. I highly recommend this book if Moltmann’s eschatology interests you, especially as it pertains to universal salvation. You can buy the book here.

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Notes:

  1. Nicholas Ansell, The Annihilation of Hell,  2013 Cascade Books, pp. 39-40. (Bold text mine for emphasis)

Delighting in Humanity (Tertullian)

humanityI love old things!

Especially old books. If a book has made it through the test of time and into my hands today, it is unlikely to disappoint.

Recently I’ve been reading a collection of writings from the early church fathers. 1 I enjoy the clarity with which the early church wrote. And they had to have this clarity, they were practically inventing a new language to describe what took place in Jesus Christ.

While I was reading Tertullian, a particular passage struck me as profound and valuable for today’s church. This is what I read. It comes from his work On the Flesh of Christ

Christ loved that human being, that lump curdled in womb in the midst of impurities, that creature brought into the world through unmentionable organs, that child nourished on mockery. On his account Christ came down. On his account Christ preached. On his account Christ, in all humility, brought himself down to death, to death on a cross. Clearly he loved one whom he redeemed at great cost. …

He would not have redeemed what he did not love… By heavenly rebirth he remakes our birth, putting death away. He restores our flesh so that it is free from trouble; he cleanses it when leprous, gives sight to it when blind, heals it when paralyzed, purifies it when it is demon-possesed, raised it when it has died. 2

Tertullian here writes beautifully on Christ’s love for the flesh, for the human being. He states something like what Gregory of Nazianzus famously said. “The unassumed is the unredeemed.” Since Christ has come to redeem humanity, He has likewise assumed that very same humanity He seeks to redeem.

But what strikes me so profoundly is not just the Christological ramifications. Instead, take this passage and contrast it to the way we speak today. We often speak of the flesh, of our human existence, as a sub-par-existence. We believe that one day we will escape this flesh and fly of to a merely “spiritual” reality. But if Christ has come to redeem our humanity, whose to say that we will escape it in the end? 3

Simply speaking, in today’s church we devalue what Christ came to value. 

If Christ came to redeem our humanity, we must learn to celebrate our humanity. Celebrate the life you live and enjoy every second of it. We are not here to wish away our time until we die and fly off to some spiritual place. This life matters.

Earthly pleasures are a gift. Out of context they can be a pitfall, but when enjoyed as the bounty of God’s joyous heart this life and the good in it is nothing short of heavenly. We have been given the gift of existence, and we are not to waste it away.

Take delight in your humanity, for Christ has taken delight in it already.

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Notes:

  1. The specific book I’m reading is The Christological Controversy. It’s a collection of writings form the early church that all deal with the nature of Jesus Christ and the controversy of his dual nature as man and God. I recommend it as a great primer into the early church. Here’s a link.
  2. Chapter 4 sections 3 and 4
  3. This argument and line of thinking is more thoroughly argued and explained in the context of eschatology in my book We Belong: Trinitarian Good News chapter 14.

Nicolas Cage, Left Behind, and Why I Want to Vomit

Left BehindI think I’m going to be sick.

I was on Facebook today when all of a sudden I found myself watching one the most disturbing videos I’ve seen in a long time. I cringed, I cried out “oh no!”, and I just about threw up (well, not really, but I wanted to).

I watched a trailer for the new Left Behind movie staring Nicolas Cage (Wait, really?). Watch it here.

The Left Behind series presents, in my mind, one of the absolutely worst inventions of the 19th century in story form: the rapture.  1

I still find it ridiculous that anyone would believe that the rapture is a real event that will eventually take place. From a biblical standpoint, it’s wholly nonsensical and  has no evidence beyond out-of-context bible verses that “might” mean something like a rapture. 2 Yet thousands of Christians willingly believe in this, and hope that one day the rapture will actually happen.

I know firsthand because I was one of them. Growing up I was terrified of the rapture. I was terrified that I might be “left behind” one day.

It was a freeing experience as soon as I realized that the rapture is not real. In fact, I learned that the rapture was completely made up in the 19th century. You won’t find a single reference to the rapture before that time. No one in history believed in the rapture up until that time. No reformer, no medieval theologian; no early church father believed in it.

So why in the world do we believe it today?

I believe it has a lot to do with this movie. The Left Behind series made popular the rapture theory, thereby establishing the illusion that this is truth. Since most believers don’t read the bible or study theology for themselves, they gave into what appeared to be a sensational perspective for the end times.

In a literal sense then, we have injected a hollywood doomsday obsession into the bible. We love this stuff because it’s so sensational and exciting. The Left Behind series isn’t popular because it’s good theology, it’s popular because it’s a mixture of excitement, hollywood pizzazz, and biblical literalism. Essentially, Left Behind makes the bible interesting to a generation that’s no longer interested. We’ve traded a love affair with the Gospel for a love affair with the rapture, the return of Christ, and the apocalyptic imagery of Revelation.

We’ve become eschatologically obsessed.

Don’t believe me? Go look at Amazon’s best seller list for Christian books. I guarantee you that in the top 5 there will be at least a book about the rapture, a book about heaven, or a book about hell (or a mixture of all three). 3

The rapture is just a bad idea, and so is promoting it in hollywood. Do you know how much fear something like that induces? Especially if you believe it’s not just a fictional story? I was scarred as a child imagining all the horrific events that were taught to me as fact, instead of theory. 4

We need to get honest with ourselves and stop promoting this garbage theology. The rapture is not real. Let’s get past this eschatological obsession so that we can be the hands and feet of Jesus to this world. Let’s take care of our world, not look to escape it. 

What do you think? Am I fair in saying that we’re an eschatologically obsessed church? Do you remember the old Left Behind films? Let me a comment below!

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For anyone in need of an explanation as to why I think the rapture is a bad idea, see this article. 

Notes:

  1. I’ve written before about the rapture.
  2. Greg Boyd on the rapture.
  3. Popular books recently: The Four Blood Moons, and Heaven is For Real
  4. The rapture is just a theory, remember? And it’s a bad one.

Blood Moon Madness (End Times Info-Graphic)

Let me tell you an interesting fact:

End times prophetic words have a success rate of exactly 0% and a failure rate of exactly 100%. 

If that’s confusing data for you, let me help you with this info-graphic. (I’ve spent hours of research to compile this data for you. You’re welcome.)

End Times Prophetic Report

Blood Moons

What if blood moons are just something cool, not something apocalyptic?

Jesus said, time and time again throughout his parables, that we will never know when the end comes. I used to get super into end times predictions, constantly looking for the signs of Jesus’ return, and all that jazz.

So do these blood moons mean anything? No. 1

Let’s stop trying to divine something that is clearly a mystery. God forbids it. 2

Did you see the Blood Moon?

I’ve written a free eBook about the end times, download it here.

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Notes:

  1. Greg Boyd does a great job in this video talking about why the blood moon prophecy is false. Check it out
  2. It’s called divination. Here’s some great information about it.