November 12, 2010

Lest We Forget

Just as individuals can suffer from a variety of delusional mental conditions, so too, whole societies exhibit signs of collective psychoses.
This hidden malady becomes especially apparent to me every year around the ironically named 'Remembrance Day.'

To me, that is the day we (society) pay special tribute to the soldiers who gave their lives or their health while serving in uniform in some military capacity... so that we can purge our emotions about the whole foolishness of war, and carry on for another year without reconsidering it.

For Canadians, it's a day when we can feed our fantasies about our military adventures with the comforting assurances that our troops, like glorified boy scouts, go abroad to bring peace, order, and good government to hapless nations. There's a whole matrix of subsidiary delusions that all contribute to the military myth. A major element is patriotism, which entails not only love of country but protection of all things Canadian, especially our soldiers... or perhaps, our illusions about our soldiers.

If we really wanted to protect our troops, we would simply not send them into far-away wars with no obvious benefit to Canada. But that little truth is always plastered over with copious platitudes about 'defending democracy,' and such flimsy nonsense. A little insight should show anyone that a poverty-stricken region like Afghanistan poses no threat to Canada, especially if we'd been prudent enough to maintain at least the thin veneer of honest broker that this country once enjoyed before becoming what amounts to 'Amerika-lite.'

Of course, any suggestion that 'our wars' are as futile as all the others is met with instant hostility and accusations of dishonoring our valiant soldiers who died so that I could make my outrageous claims. Yes, the regular soldiers place themselves in harm’s way to carry out the commands of the generals back in HQ... who are carrying out the orders from the politicians who happen to be in office when the 'threats' are addressed. We must honor their sacrifices, and that means a group pretense that it was all worthwhile, and forget about nagging doubts that haunt the memories of the survivors and their loved ones.

We are locked in this sick pattern of lamenting the loss of our youth in recurring wars, while refusing to squarely face the question of why we get involved in these conflicts in the first place. As long as society persists in this unhealthy cycle, there is no hope of ever ending it.

And so, while individuals can go to psychiatrists for deliverance from their delusions, societies simply lurch along, nurturing their myths until some national crisis arises to render denial no longer viable, and the therapy is drastic.

It's early November and, once again, time to remember, lest we forget. But, what do we choose to remember? We get focused on the departed, and invent a mythos that makes their untimely demise somehow valuable. Anyone who tries to ask the fundamental questions about how this happens, is ignored or denounced as unpatriotic.

It’s November 12, and we can now carry on sending more young soldiers off to war, satisfied with the promise that we’ll honor them next Remembrance Day if they should make the ultimate sacrifice.

I call it madness; few seem to agree.

Has Jesus Already Returned?

To the majority of mainstream Christians, the assertion that Christ has already returned for the second time seems absurd, even self-evidently absurd. Yet,
there are a number of sizable cults or faiths that believe exactly that notion-- that the ‘Second Coming’ has already happened.
Let’s quickly survey some of these beliefs, and then examine whether there can be any reality to this claim.

First, as to who believes such a strange-sounding notion, there are a few notables. Perhaps the best-known of these groups are the Jehovah Witnesses (also called the Watchtower Society). In their view, Jesus returned in a ‘spiritual manner’ in 1914, and the world is living in the so-called Last Days, and awaiting Armageddon and the subsequent Millennium. How they arrive at this conclusion is not in the purview of this essay; the essential point is that they claim something like 9 or 10 million members who adhere to this view.

Another group, of similar range of worldwide membership, is the Bahai faith. In the Bahai theology, their great patron, teacher and guiding light, Baha’ulla (an adopted name meaning ‘glory of God’) is revered as the promised Second Coming, the (re)incarnation of Christ. They are convinced that their avatar represents the fulfillment of the Christian scriptures that foretell the Second Advent of Jesus, and thus, that events since his appearance in the mid-1800s, fulfill those described in the apocalyptic literature of the New Testament.

As a final example, there are the Preterists, yet another splinter group of Christianity, culled from a variety of denominational backgrounds, who are of the conviction that the eschatological (end times) writings of the NT were all fulfilled in 70 AD, at the sacking of Jerusalem by the Roman legions under their commander, Titus. This opinion is primarily based on ‘the Apocalypse of Jesus’-- i.e. the Olivet discourse recorded in Matthew 24 (and the parallel passages in Mark 13 and Luke 21). In those verses, Jesus is quoted as assuring his listeners that ‘this generation’ will not pass away before all his stated predictions would occur. Among those predictions was the one that must have been particularly chilling to his Jewish listeners-- namely, the destruction of the great Temple that had been built centuries earlier by Solomon, destroyed and rebuilt in roughly the 5th millennium BC, and again restored by Herod (then a recent event). Since the Temple and its bureaucracy (the Sanhedrin) were at the heart of the Jewish religion as it had come to exist, any prediction of its destruction was taken as signaling the ‘End of the Age,’ in the minds of Jewish listeners.

So, the question stands: did Jesus return, as promised in the NT, in year 70, or in 1844, or 1914.... or any other year following his death on the cross at mount Calvary? To begin with, it is obvious that one of the strongest arguments against an already accomplished Second Advent is the very fact that there is such a divergence of accepted dates! They can’t all be correct; and if there is such disagreement, then clearly, the matter is hardly a black-and-white case.

While one may wonder how these believers can support such a theory, you have to understand that the only resort they can employ to support their view is to invoke the spiritual realm. What they all claim is that the eschatological scriptures are not to be taken in a literal sense, but they must be interpreted symbolically and as reflecting a purely spiritual reality. Thus, for example, when Jesus states that his return will be as the lightning that flashes from the east to the west, Bahai’s regard this as a symbolic reference to the fact that their message originated in Persia, and spread from there westward, to the Middle East, Europe, and then North America, all within a very brief interval, in historical terms. Similarly, the Preterists interpret all the language in Jesus’ apocalypse as allegorical, finding plausible, local scenarios that could account for details that read as global in the literal sense. Similarly, the JWs have developed a figurative interpretation of all the Biblical scriptures that bear on the question of Jesus’ Second Advent, and make the ambiguous claim that he returned ‘in spirit’ in the early 20th century.

Any analysis of the ‘already arrived’ claim must, therefore, consider whether the scriptures invoked in that scenario are purely symbolic or literal in nature. Or, in the third situation, we acknowledge that the words remain ambiguous. In that case, tho, one can still make educated guesses based on certain ‘hermeneutic’ principles (i.e. protocols of ‘exegesis’-- scriptural analysis).

To be transparent, my outlook is that the eschatological texts fall into recognizable classes that the context itself determines explicitly. In my view, ‘context overrules pretext!’ The books of Daniel and Revelation are undoubtedly symbolic-- they are full of visions of ‘beasts,’ horns, dragons, damsels, etc. Both Daniel and John make it clear that these books are records of their ‘visions’ or dreams-- information obtained in an altered state of consciousness. On the other hand, the predictions of Jesus, recorded in the synoptic gospels, are almost undoubtedly literal. Whenever Jesus spoke symbolically, the writer tells us that he was speaking in parables. The apostles were simple men, and every time Jesus told a parable, they asked him to explain it for them. In the Olivet discourse, they do not anywhere make reference to parables. Their question that time was: ‘When will this occur (ie. the destruction of the temple), and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?’ (Matthew 24:2) Certainly a straightforward question... in terms of semantics.

On second glance, however, one can see clear evidence of conflating two separate events, thus leading to an unavoidable degree of confusion. You see, in the minds of the apostles-- who were either Jews or gentile converts-- the two events had to be one; i.e. the destruction of the temple would signal the End of the Age, which would occur at Jesus’ return. Remember, Jesus had not been arrested and executed at that point, so the disciples were not even necessarily thinking in terms of a Second coming; merely his ‘coming out’ as theocratic ruler. There is plenty of possibility for confusion in this whole chapter. Since the writers (the evangelists) had their own preconceptions of the Messianic Kingdom to come, it is clearly reflected in the way they asked the question. Hence, it is not unreasonable to expect that they quite likely construed Jesus’ response in a way that conformed to their presumptions. Each of us does the same thing, regularly, in understanding new information.

From that observation, we can at least suspect that Jesus’ response as recorded in scripture reflects a conflation of the two specific events-- the destruction of the temple, and his second coming. In fact, the text indicates that nowhere does Jesus try to differentiate the two! This strikes me as odd, since the question was clearly posed with two separate parts-- even if the questioners regarded them as one. Readers who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible may baulk at this suggestion! But note that I am saying that Jesus deliberately obfuscated with the intention of protecting the truth from the tampering of later interpreters. If the meaning is obscure, then there’s no obvious incentive to alter the text. As Jesus told his apostles, "From now on I am telling you before it comes to pass, so that when it does occur, you may believe that I am He” (John 13:19). In other words, you may not understand a prophecy in advance, but you’ll recognize it when it happens. This is a key concept in dealing with prophecy.

In any case, Jesus goes on to describe events that seem to jump directly to the end of the age, and largely (but not entirely) skip over the sacking of Jerusalem that was to occur barely 40 years later. Verses 15 to 20, however, refer directly to the “abomination of desolation spoken of by Daniel... standing in the holy place.” Now, Daniel 9:25-27, where the abomination is mentioned, clearly predict the destruction of Jerusalem that was to occur in 70 AD. [There are people like certain ‘Dispensationalists’ who disagree, but their view is influenced by the tenuous, subjective commentaries adduced in Darby’s Bible translation by Scofield. Space does not allow the required exposition, but it’s available in my other essays.] So, this segment (vs 15-20) is Jesus’ answer to the first part of the apostles question... BUT it appears that they still did not recognize that fact. That is, they still understood his words as if he were answering only one question.

Then Jesus’ apocalyptic descriptions go back to the frightening pictures of a planet and cosmos in chaos, and culminating in his coming on the clouds of heaven with his angelic host (verses 21 to the end of chapter 24). Just to illustrate the generally confusing nature of this chapter, notice verse 28, which states, “Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather,” which strikes the reader as a complete ‘non-sequitur’. It appears out of nowhere, and seems to relate to nothing previously stated.

Since there is no disclaimer by the gospel writers that Jesus was speaking parabolically, two millennia of Christian faithful have looked ahead to the return of Christ in which he subdues Evil, and assumes rulership of the Earth-- as described in scripture. The primary verses used to construct this belief are the following: Matthew 24/Mark 13/Luke 21, Acts 2, 1 Corinthians 15, 2 Thessalonians 2, 2 Peter 3, Jude, and Revelation (esp. ch. 19, 20, 21).

If one reads all these passages, a definite pattern emerges wherein Jesus returns to Earth from the heavens, with a great deal of noise (‘shouts’, ‘trumpet blasts’, etc.) accompanied by a vast retinue of angels who go out to gather up the believers, and he establishes the final, Godly kingdom of the redeemed on a renewed Earth. It is extremely difficult to try to cast this scene into allegorical terms, such that it is all accomplished silently, stealthily, and completely unnoticed by the majority of the world’s population... as would have had to occur in order to comply with the beliefs that Jesus has already sneaked back to Earth! To forestall the insistence that this could have occurred ‘spiritually’ with the proper insight, I have to point out Jesus’ specific mention in Matt 24:37 that his coming will be just like what happened at the great Deluge. The Flood of Noah’s day was certainly not a spiritual event, but a traumatic, physical, global destruction that marked the end of that age. And to emphasize the import of his warning, he states (vs. 39): “and they did not understand until the flood came and took them all away; so will the coming of the Son of Man be.” May I suggest that some of them did not understand because they insisted that Noah’s warnings must have been (only) symbolic, and not literal?

The other significant picture that emerges from the collection of apocalyptic, NT verses is that of judgement. Jesus’ Second Advent is concerned with a definitive judging of the living and the dead, and separating them into only two categories-- the saved (redeemed) and the lost (condemned). The saved are to enjoy new life in a new world under a new government. All those (of whatever stripe) who cling to an already accomplished Advent are burdened with the task of explaining how the world can exist in its present, chaotic state, where evil runs rampant, if the Kingdom of God has been secretly, spiritually installed. It can’t be logically done!

To the Bahai’s in particular, I have to point out that nowhere in scripture is it suggested that Christ will return in another incarnation, live a long life, and then die once more. This of course is what happened to Baha’ulla, who lived as an ordinary human, and died in 1892. Where is our ‘new heavens and a new Earth?’ They will respond that it is not yet revealed, but it’s coming. In that case, very little in Baha’ulla’s life corresponds with the details and sequence described in the Christian scriptures... at least not without a great deal of allegorizing and twisting of contexts.

Similarly, the Full Preterists are stuck with the task of explaining how all the details of cosmic distress, the universal appearance of Christ, and the great, White Throne judgement all occurred in 70 AD... while the world, apparently, carried on, oblivious. What they do, evidently, is invoke a yet-to-occur Third Coming of Jesus in some indeterminate future. In this regard, they are not alone, since many Christians believe in a literal thousand years of peace that is mentioned in only one place in scripture, the symbolic book of Revelation (Rev 20). If the Millennium is taken literally, then one must acknowledge that there must be three advents (as indeed, the Dispensationalists do, whether they recognize it or not). Yet, nowhere else in all of scripture is there reference to three advents of the Christ. He first incarnated in human form as Jesus, died as the redeemer, and was resurrected and returned to the heavenly dimension to await his physical return as the Lord of Lords in a renewed world. There is no intermediate coming.

The problem posed by the symbolic Millennium is similar to the problem of Jesus’ mentioning that: “Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened” (Matt 24:34). In ‘solving the problem’ of how his apocalyptic prophecies could all happen before the literal generation of hearers would pass away, the Preterists create far greater problems. Likewise, in taking a literal Millennium, Dispensationalists create the problem of three comings, which is nowhere else supported. Both these instances demonstrate the pitfalls of violating the ‘rule of simplicity’ (a.k.a. ‘Occam’s Razor’). That is, wherever possible, the simplest interpretation is to be taken in preference to a complicated one. It’s an elementary hermeneutic used in every discipline, not just exegesis.

What about the thousand years, then? Well, most scholars agree that Revelation presents several ‘parallel views’ of the same period, the ‘Church era,’ which is described as: ‘a time, times, and half a time;’ or as ‘three and a half years,’ or ‘1260 days,’ in various chapters, but which is, in any case, clearly symbolic. The pattern is altered in chapter 20, where it is now called ‘a thousand years;’ but the period is really the same as the others, i.e. the Church Age. And, concerning the phrase ‘this generation,’ used by Jesus in the Olivet discourse, many commentators regard it in one of its alternate Greek renderings as referring to the people born during the whole aeon-- the same Church era. Yes, there’s a certain amount of speculation here; but overall, it entails far less subsidiary chaos than does accepting a literal interpretation and then building a whole eschatology around the ensuing ‘damage control.’

To summarize, then, about the question ‘Did Jesus return during the past 2,000 years?’

1) The preponderance of historical, physical evidence, in combination with the most direct, common sense interpretation of the relevant scriptures, overwhelmingly support the negative response-- No, Jesus has not yet returned (in glory, as world ruler).

2) To construct a scenario in which Jesus has already returned, one must invoke figurative, spiritual interpretations of the eschatological scriptures, even where such understanding is not warranted by standard, hermeneutical practice, nor by the literal contexts.

3) Jesus told his listeners “Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: "As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. Even so, when you see all these things, you know that it is near, right at the door” (Matt 24:32-33). He specifically makes a parallel with something tangible and comprehensible to anyone-- a fruit tree. His example was not haphazard; Jesus said when we ‘see’ all these things, we will know. This analogy makes it clear, I believe, that he was NOT talking about symbolic (spiritual) events, but rather about physical events observable by anyone who makes the effort. It’s not something that only initiates of a school of Bible study will be capable of understanding!

"And behold, I am coming quickly: Blessed is the one who heeds the words of the prophecy of this book." (Rev 22:7)