Tuesday, December 30, 2008

God of Wrath or God of Love?

I have been shaken to the core of my eschatology through the book “Everything Must Change” by Brian McLaren. McLaren deconstructs evangelical Christianity and I can’t argue with his conclusions. I can sum it up with saying that he does a good job of relating evangelical Christianity with the doctrine of the Empire instead of the gospel of the Kingdom. He reminds the reader of the Jewish (oppressed by the Romans) context of Jesus’ ministry. However, it does change how we interpret certain parables and miracles. For example, the feeding of the 5,000 was Jewish and there were 12 baskets left over. The feeding of the 4,000 was Gentile and there were 7 baskets left over. The 12 baskets for the 12 tribes and the 7 baskets refer to the 7 Canaanite nations displaced by Israel. It happens right after Matthew refers to the Syro-Phoenician woman as a Canaanite. It is the only reference to Canaanites in the entire NT. They were displaced by the Jews and the use of Canaanite means that God was no longer punishing, or calling for a separation of, the Jews and the Canaanites. The parable of the unjust steward finally makes sense when we see the steward as a minion of a landlord with sharecroppers who have lost their land due to the taxation system of the Romans. The land barons augment the oppression by making an almost feudal system. All of a sudden Jesus praises a steward for giving justice and appeasing the oppressive landlord at the same time. I never understood that parable before and could never justify the lying until I saw it in this context.

That brings me to eschatology and the “shaken to the core” statement. I have always been suspicious of the wrath and anger of God in Revelation, but have been afraid to mention it because “if any one adds to this book….” Here was my dilemma: If the wrath of God against humanity was satisfied on the cross, against Himself as the incarnate God, then why is there more wrath at the end of the current human existence? McLaren verbalized my fear in bold language when he says: “the cross then, is a fake-out and God really is a God of wrath.” I guess he verbalized a fear that I have. The fear being that I can’t reconcile Revelation with the rest of the Bible. (I have no problem reconciling the destruction of Canaan with the NT when I recognize how evil the Canaanites were. God was making an example out of them after He gave up on convincing them to repent.) Why Revelation? Why this second judgment? Wasn’t the cross enough? Isn’t the unfairness of the cross, the Innocent One dying for everyone else the most pure form of justice? Somewhere justice wasn’t going to be fair, so God took the unfairness oh Himself. What love! But then Revelation shows God getting revenge for it. I had this dilemma.

Then I understood it from the perspective of the oppressed. I am not buying into all of McLaren’s explanation that Jewish Apocalyptic literature was merely a Jewish liberation theology technique designed to give hope to the Jewish people in the form of a coming judgment against the Imperialists and their collaborators. (A point he makes in the book “The Last Word, and the Word After That.”) In that book, he deconstructs the doctrine of hell. And I did change my theology of hell after reading it. My theology of hell, as you know is: “Hell is the divine act of Love by the righteous judge of all the earth on behalf of the oppressed.” Hell is important. Without hell, the oppressors go free. That could be mercy, but it isn’t love on behalf of the oppressed. Sure, they can, and have to forgive. But the loving parent gives justice to all of his or her children. Brian alludes to his belief that Jewish apocalyptic literature is merely oppressed people seeking hope, I tend to believe that Daniel and Revelation are supernatural visions from God. All that aside, I am still relived to have an answer to my dilemma. The answer comes in Revelation 19. This chapter takes place after all 21 judgments are meted out. In the chapter, the saints of God and the oppressed are praising God for giving them justice. It changes the whole book from Angry God to God of Justice (who loves the oppressed). It certainly explains the soteriology of Lazarus and the statement by Jesus about the rich man who was in torment: “You had your leisure on earth; he now has his in heaven.” (Lazarus never answered an altar call -it appears he was saved merely because he was poor.). It explains Luke’s telling of the beatitudes: “Blessed are the poor (without the words “in spirit”), for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.”

However, the question of imperialism and current eschatology comes to play here as well. I think from reading Brian McLaren that he resists current eschatology because it isn’t green. I am not a tree hugger. But I concur. As a registered theologian for over 30 years, I have always wondered just what would happen if Jesus didn’t return in my lifetime. I mean we all expect it and hope for it. But honestly, so did Paul and Peter. So did those who died in concentration camps in Germany. So did Christians during the reign of Communism in the USSR. So did the Huguenots during the mini-ice age when it snowed in July and they were being oppressed. Realistically, we could be wrong and I don’t think any sincere Bible scholar disagrees. Brian’s problem then is this: If we believe this is the final generation, then a PASSION for caring for the earth is not important and that could have terrible ramifications for our children. As a matter of fact, if the earth falls under the manifold problems of pollution, then perhaps the plagues in Revelation have the impudence to happen, (And, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy). Brian’s point is that we should care. I would say that even if we believe that it will happen, we must live like it won’t happen. The book of Genesis makes it clear that God entrusted the earth to us to care for, not exploit.

But that isn’t the imperialistic problem with current eschatology. The symbol of the cross was pretty significant to any Jewish person. The Empire of Rome made it clear that if you did not accept their peace, then you would be tortured into submission. If God is a God of wrath who will torture and burn his enemies, then Empires who use torture are partners with God in the way they treat the people they have conquered. McLaren’s point is that we have justified aspects of our warfare based on this incorrect eschatology. Amen. That is the difference between the good news of the Kingdom of God and the doctrine of the Empire. God has called Christians to another way of living. Jesus said it like this: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.”