A Journey Through Apocalyptic and the Great Myth
Written by: Robert D Brinsmead
The Bible is the record of the faith journey of a certain people – the Hebrews of the Old Testament and the early Christians of the NT. This implies a growing awareness; a process of learning and a process of the development of human consciousness. Even in Paul’s terms, there is a need for a process of growing up and coming of age and transcending the need to live by pedagogic religious regulations. I too am part of this tradition. There is nothing wrong in retaining a deep respect for this collection of literature called the Bible.
But there is something else we must face up to. It is the problem of treating the Bible as so uniquely containing (and I use this word like neo-orthodoxy) the Word of God that it appears that we are still thinking that God has only spoken to one little section of the human race – first to the Hebrews and then to the Christians, or that this little section of the human race alone have had the Word of God. We might notice a few chinks in these assumptions about being the only people on earth to have the Word of God. Job was not a Hebrew, not one of the so-called Chosen People, yet somehow the Word of God came to him too.
In this long history of the human race, God was also communicating with other peoples besides the little tribe of Hebrews? Are the little bits of writing that the Hebrews and Christians preserved, the only books that we could call inspired? Did not other people, like the people of the East, have a faith journey too? We only have to consider the great advancements for the better in human consciousness and human culture, in the development of human rights, and in the fight against racism, intolerance and discrimination. There have been great human improvements on many fronts, all of which have greatly improved the human condition. We can’t say that there was only a little group of people, (Christians for instance), who lead in things like the abolition of slavery; the attainment of civil rights for al; the abolition of the death penalty; women’s suffrage, and even the more humane treatment of animals.
Were the millions of Greeks; many of the sages of antiquity; Buddhists; Hindus and Confucians left without any access to the Word of God? While Biblical literature is diverse, we have taken only a very little step toward relinquishing the deeply entrenched Judeo-Christian hegemony.
All apocalyptic is based on the Fall narrative, of a world in which everything is getting worse and worse; no hope for this world; it is a sinking ship. That’s the context of the story of Revelation too. Each seal that is opened brings a worse disaster, in all the sequences of the sevens, each seal, trumpet, plague gets worse, so we don’t look for a better world, we look for a new one. The despair in the book of Revelation mediates the despair for this world in other parts of the NT. Paul calls it “this present evil world”. Another tells us, “Love not the world or the things that are in the world.” “We look for a new heaven and a new earth.” “Our way of living is in heaven …” This is pure apocalyptic. It is contrary to the original vision of the Hebrews that was focussed on creating a Promised Land in this world. Judaism believed the creation was good and life was good and was focussed on the life in the here and now and making this world all that it can be.
When the events of history made the Jews despair of this earth-based vision of Exodus and Promised Land, through Apocalyptic they created a whole new focus, believing that this world can only get worse and worse. This is in the book of Daniel, starting with the vision of the image descending from gold to feet of clay, and that story of everything becoming degraded was taken right out of an original vision of Zarathustra a thousand or so years earlier. This is the essence of apocalyptic, a theology of despair concerning this world and a focus on something heavenly.
This is the sort of thing that turned Christianity into a world-hating, man-denying movement. It created all the asceticism of celibacy, misogyny, caused book burning and the destruction of the great Library of Alexandria; it turned the new Christian world against medicine, and instead, had monks boring holes in the head of the sick to let the devil out. This negative, ascetic, world-denying, fun hating, man-hating culture led to Julian’s famous lament, “O pale Galilean, you have conquered.”
This helps understand why the worldview of real Judaism (even the post-temple Judaism that utterly rejected apocalyptic and returned to the earthy focus of the real Judaism), was in many respects a better religion than Christianity. It does a lot to explain the resilience of the Jewish culture wherein nothing could eradicate, not even the Holocaust, this Jewish optimism founded on the belief that creation is good, eating is good, sex is good, this world is good, and our task is to make it even better. And that is why the Jews have always been massively over-represented in all branches of human knowledge – whether in medicine, physics, astronomy, agricultural science, music and the arts.
But the book of Revelation inspires to none of this kind of optimism and human progress. Its message is that everything is getting worse, so “let the wicked go on being wicked, the filthy go on being filthy (don’t waste your time trying to change this) for behold I come quickly.” It is not true. It is not going to happen. This is the apocalyptic hope that creates disappointment – after disappointment. The real Christian solution for this wicked world as mediated by the book of Revelation, is the Second Coming of the Messiah. This is the great disappointment, not just of Adventism, because it is built into the original Christian apocalyptic. It is a lie. This is why I follow the teaching of the first great Antichrist who was none other than the historical Jesus who had not one apocalyptic thought in his teaching.
I don’t believe that the incarnation was a unique and unrepeatable event in Jesus and I don’t believe Jesus thought that either, especially when he said, “You are the light of the world.” And I don’t think God was just speaking to the Hebrews in OT times. I suggest God was speaking through the amazing progress of the Greeks and everywhere there was human enlightenment. No one segment of mankind has some kind of monopoly on inspiration. If you look at the great progress in human consciousness in the last 100 or 200 years, one might easily come to the conclusion that most of this progress has not come just through the Christian influence, but sometimes in spite of the Christian influence and outside or apart from the Christian influence. It seems to me that we must redefine what we mean by the Word of God and who has access to it.
I have looked into so much of the Christianity of the first 100 years and I’m convinced that there was so much crackpot asceticism going on there, a plethora of divisions, and sects within sects. This group of the so-called Jesus movement against that group. If you got the parties in one room, you would have one mighty babble of interpretations and contradictions. Never was the so-called church more diverse and possessing so many differing voices as was manifested in the so-called apostolic period. People and reform movements who have talked about returning to the faith and purity of the “apostolic period” have had no idea of the confusion that reigned until the Bishops finally brought the religion under the hegemony of the Bishops and finally the Bishop of Rome. There were weird prophets wandering around and different tests advocated to sort out the phoney from the genuine. There was no canon of Scripture in existence. The divisions of the early church in Rome were so bad that the authorities felt they had to intervene. I could put up a list of crack-pot teachings that were being peddled, including weird attitude to human sexuality, excessive fasting, and speculations of whether you could sin once or was it twice before you forfeited any chance of salvation after you were baptized. The Christian religion only survived because it was eventually institutionalized and brought under the strict dictatorship of the bishops – even though they fought and wrangled among themselves like magpies, using political skulduggery and thuggery until the Bishop of Rome got the upper hand from the rival bishops and then gave the church some order; a canon of Scripture; some stable theology, and a set of Creeds. How did the book of Revelation manage to get included in that Canon? That is another long story. And that institutionalized religious dictatorship told us which books were, and which books were not, the Word of God.
The dreadful genocides which were ordered by Israel’s God in the book of Joshua is another example of God’s justice at work? That was just a reflection of the primitive view the early Israelites had of God. The prophets were still on a faith journey. They had hardly grasped the implications of a true monotheism (a late development in OT thinking) and so they were still hanging on to inconsistent views of God. The human vision of God cannot rise any higher than the vision of what it means to be human. The development of a truly human consciousness must be seen as a work in progress. I would protest what some of the prophets say about calamities in Israel just as I would protest the genocides of Israel in the book of Joshua.
When the Assyrians and Babylonians descended on Israel (the ten tribes) and then on Judah to loot, burn, rape and slaughter little children indiscriminately, the prophets were hard put to explain this or reconcile this with God’s election and his protection of the chosen people. So according to their current worldview they said that all this was how God used the Assyrians and Babylonians to punish Israel for not obeying his law. So God is made complicit in having women and children taken as loot – like Muhammad and the Muslims felt they had a right to do on the basis of what is written in the book of Joshua. How is any decent kind of justice at work in burning villages, with screaming children taken into slavery for life, never to see home again, and in all too many cases becoming sex slaves to heathens in far off lands. Is that justice for a simple agrarian people who fell short in keeping the Torah?
How is the theodicy of the prophets on these calamities any different to the Reverend Pat Robertson and others of his prophetic ilk declaring that the heinous 9/11 event was how God was punishing America for supporting abortion or gay rights? What if we had a prophet telling us that the Holocaust that befell the Jews was another mighty act of God, punishing the Jews for killing Jesus or for rejecting the Christian message? Well, that’s the kind of theodicy found in the OT prophets, and for all their grand vision of God’s love, they still leave a very dark cloud over it.
Similar things are found in the Psalms – grand visions of God’s majesty, love and mercy, but lapses into expressions of hatred of other people and talk of happily dashing the heads of their little ones as a kind of repayment for what they did to Israel.
The OT features over 600 acts of divine violence, like sending the Assyrians and Babylonians to punish Israel; like God delivering a people from Egypt only to execute at least 30,000 of them in the desert. I cannot join in lauding the Bible above any other collection of literature that has ever been written? In places this collection of literature rises to the level of pornographic violence, like the teaching about punishment in the fires of Hell for ever and ever combined with the doctrine of the blood atonement and the Fall of Man – all part of one hell of a story.
Joseph Campbell calls these contests “mutual mythical defamation.” One faith tradition easily sees through the myths of other religious traditions, sometimes poke fun at them for being so ridiculous, and those of other traditions do the same thing with our myths. Think of that outrageous account in the Exodus story when the priests of Pharaoh throw down their rods which then become snakes, and then Moses and Aaron through down their roads which also become snakes. But then Moses and Aaron prove the superiority of their God because their snakes eat the snakes of the Egyptian priests. This reminds me of an account of the contest between the apostle Peter and Simon Magnus as told in one of apocryphal Gospels. These two got into a contest of doing miracles until Peter is able to draw out of his hat, as it were, some fantastic miracle that bested all the miracles of Simon Magus who was a serious competitor with early Christianity. Anyhow, according to this holy story, Peter was able to do far greater miracles than Simon, who of course was put to shame in front of the credulous crowd who witnessed the contest. The whole story of course is just a hoot that is no better than two little boys engaged in a pissing contest.
My comments are mostly about the institutionalized Church. It became the major agent to preserve the greatest myth in the history of man. My life has been involved in unravelling the myth. If I get to write up my journey, that might be the title of it – The Unravelling of A Great Myth. Starting with my own apocalyptic myth within the myth of Adventism, which was in turn only a part of a larger myth of the greater Church.
The myth received its first great blow in the Copernican Revolution and the discovery of a universe out there that is the same as down her – Imperfect and flawed. Then that Christian myth suffered a further unravelling with Darwin. Also with the Enlightenment and the Age of Science wherein Biblical literature came under scrutiny. Then came the forces of freedom demanding religious tolerance and the separation of church and state, the Global Village and the collapse of the world missionary movement as it had been conceived. With the investigation of the biblical literature there came modern archaeology, and the breakthrough into understanding apocalyptic as a separate genre of literature from rest of OT, then the discovery of the Q (both insights born around the middle of the 19th century), then the beginnings of the search for the historical Jesus (First Search, Second Search, and now the Third Search). In all these developments there has been a step by step unravelling of the Christian myth which centres in the Christ – his person and work being the essence of Christian theology. I could also mention the studies on Jewish Christianity, especially since World War 11.
The myth has unravelled. I have spent years studying the evidence and working through, even experiencing the unravelling. The process has not been unlike the unravelling of Adventism. The Bible has unravelled. It is not what it was claimed to be. The Church was not what it claimed to be. Christ was not he was claimed to be.
Did the myth serve a purpose? Yes it did. Can it continue to serve that same purpose? I don’t think so. We are witnessing a mighty turning of the wheel of history. The world, (and by the world I mean the best of what the world is with its vast cargo of human resources), is not going to return or even turn back to the Bible, it is not going to turn to the church or be greatly impacted by the church ever again – it will never be a great driving force in human civilization as it once was, and the world is not going to discover or be greatly impacted by the Christ.
A good Jew had a healthier real world view than any Puritan. True Judaism was more focused on this life and this world. The Promised Land was the earthy Palestine and the term embodied an ideal and a work in progress. Only Judaism could have produced a Song of Solomon. No Christian seemed able to give that book any face-value meaning, aside from the poetic and romantic metaphors about gardens and all the rest, it was still about genuine sexual love and needed to be interpreted on that kind of literal level. Not until very late could Christian scholars read it without turning it into a syrupy thing about love between Christ and Church.
The problem is that it has been maintained that Christianity is an historical religion, founded on real historical events that can be dated and verified as authentic. How far are Christians generally prepared to accept that the story of Jesus Christ is only myth and never really happened. I grant that many now admit that the virgin birth did not happen. Supposing there is evidence that the physical resurrection story told in the NT did not happen, and that the reports of the burial site of Jesus and his family found at Tapiot near Jerusalem, showed that like all others born of a woman, Jesus actually left his bones here. Suppose that along with this it is admitted that Jesus did not die to make an atonement to God to pay for the sins of the world? How far can you take it that the main details of the story never happened and still maintain Christian theology?
Efforts have been made to hide the discovery of the Tapiot tomb near Jerusalem that contained the ossuarys of Jesus, the two Mary’s, and three of the brothers of Jesus? The greatest archaeological find in history has taken place and the religious authorities, including the Israeli authorities, don’t want to acknowledge it or have a thing to do with it except to try and bury it. What about the proposition of Robert Price that the historical Jesus never existed? If that was true, could the Christian religion survive? Would the Fathers of the Church, or Luther and Calvin and Wesley and the Adventist pioneers have been as dedicated to their mission if they believed that the story of Jesus was a myth. The story of his death is only a fiction, there was no physical resurrection or ascension to heaven, and no second coming. None of it happened or will happen?