Jesus – An Apocalyptic Prophet
Written by: Robert D Brinsmead
I was confronted recently by someone who questioned my construction of a profile of Jesus as being wholly human like the rest of us rather than an apocalyptic prophet. I think he deserves the status of making the greatest of all breakthroughs in theology; the theology of a God of unconditional love and non-retaliatory violence
I am reminded of my brother, who was at first scandalized by my rejection of the Reformation doctrine of the Third Use of the Law, which rejection logically went on to reject Sabbatarism. He pranced around my then private library of 10,000 books like a crazy man, pulling out Luther, Calvin, Wesley, Buchanan and Spurgeon, telling me I was not just rejecting Adventism, but I was rejecting what every great and good scholar had said about the Third Use of the Law. I had rejected Sabbatarianism on the grounds of my reading of Paul – there was no Third Use of the Law, and there was no Second Use. My attitude on this point was as stubborn as Luther. “Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also. Here I stand, so help me God”
I say all this with a big smile on my face.
My brother commented recently that the most violent, terrifying figure that surpasses everything else in the Bible is the Christ. Mirror, mirror on the Wall, who is the most violent of them all! The followers of Jesus gave him the most violent persona of all. Their hero was to express the most violent intent to the enemies of the faith. Rather than making it just a faith to die for, this became a faith to kill for. I had a friend among the students at Avondale who told me that when he heard a really good band play Onward Christians Soldiers, he really felt like violently grabbing someone by the throat. We can’t bypass this aspect of the Christian religion. What was it that made it shed more blood than any other religion in the history of mankind. This cannot be passed off as if it is like some barnacles on the good ship. The violence is intrinsic to the religion, and the only reason the religion is no longer violent is because it had been emasculated from what it was.
Let me put on my apocalyptic glasses for a minute…ah, what a marvellous spectacle of re-interpretation… Jesus acting as a Lamb is just interim-ethic stuff, strategic stuff to beat his enemies…just wait until the real action starts, what he is really on about, his coming in fire to punish his enemies with everlasting destruction, and to throw the overwhelming majority of mankind into the place made for the devil and his angels….rejoice all you saints and apocalyptic spirits in the prospect of the splendour of superior violence. You will, with apocalyptic glasses on, understand that the real strategy of doing good to them that hate you and the tactic of non-retaliatory violence is just for the now, but it will serve to heap coals of fire on the heads of your opponents ( Paul says so in Romans 12) in the soon-coming day of rewards, and as another bonus, great will be your reward in heaven especially when you see what will happen to all those who don’t believe what you believe.
Yes, with these apocalyptic glasses on you will see that the core teaching of Jesus about love and non-retaliatory violence is just like God’s sunshine and rain on the ungodly – it is only for the now, it is only to last just a very little bit longer before the unveiling of the Day of wrath upon all the rejecters of our message.
Now if you take off these apocalyptic glasses you will see that the saints arrayed in these ascension robes are not whit better than those they have written off for destruction, they are no better than those whom they regard as the inhabitants of great Babylon and the slaves of the great whore, no better than those who live in the cage with every unclean and hateful bird. See those Millerites who thought they had pure hearts and clean hands, if not literal ascension robes, eagerly waiting the Second Coming, and then crying like children for days on end when they suffered “the great Disappointment.” Their real human wickedness was not so much displayed in the tantrum of their disappointment as in their attitude to their decent neighbors who were not caught up in their fanaticism. If the Millerites were truly human they should have been rejoicing in sheer relief and compassion for these neighbors who were supposed to be destroyed like the wicked in the days of Noah
I am now inclined to think that much of the sorrow and disappointment among the followers of Jesus when he died is that, despite all his efforts to quench their apocalyptic hopes, their hopes were dashed when he died. Instead of renouncing their apocalyptic error after their disappointment, they looked for “some great face-saving philosophical phenomena” that would explain the great disappointment. And lo, with the special heavenly visions of Paul, they found it in the apocalyptic doctrine of the substitutionary atonement on the cross. A shiny new apocalyptic doctrine explained the failure of the old apocalyptic hopes. The more polite scholars such as Geza Vermes have simply said that this doctrine of Jesus dying for our sins was motived by the need for an apologia for the death of Jesus.
When Schweitzer came to the view that Jesus was a mistaken apocalyptic prophet and that this determined his ethics, he gave Christian theology away en toto and decided he should do medicine and join the human race. His conclusions about Jesus were no doubt honest, but his argument virtually said that Jesus was really nothing more than a deluded Millerite. Given his view of an apocalyptic Jesus, one cannot argue with his conclusions.
Some are anxious that evil guys like Adolph Hitler are going to confront justice in the end. What we need to acknowledge is that as bad as Hitler was, we are no better, with the conclusion that if there is no hope for such sinners there is no hope for us either. Even Paul could say, “Are we better than they” – the very big and worst kind of sinners portrayed in Romans 1. And his answer: “No, we are no better than they are…you who are so anxious to judge and condemn these sinners do the same things.” Wesley confessed this when he said that the evil in the vilest wretch that ever lived is in us. Who are we to say that if we had the same background, the same education, and walked in the same shoes would have done better? Let me suggest a good place to start. Justice requires us to at least think about the empathy we owe to those who went down the wrong track and wrought so much human havoc.
I will grant that aphorisms are not to be turned into law, that aphorism’s can use hyperbole; but one needs catch the spirit of what is being said and understand the free spirit and the passionate “madness” of Jesus that is behind the sayings. But to say this is just apocalyptic-speak, an interim ethic, not ethics for the long-haul of the here-and-now is to destroy the whole spirit of the teaching.
It is said of Beethoven that he would not be upset if a musician, in rendering one of his symphonies, made a few mistakes; but if the performer mispresented the whole spirit of his composition, then Beethoven would fly into a rage. Me too. I say, “Damn all these interpretations of the teaching of Jesus.” Or with Luther, “My spirit will hit this kind of teaching on the nose.”
These sayings in Matthew and Luke are the sayings of a teacher who regarded (1) all retaliatory violence as repugnant, (2) all notions of a Messiah as repugnant, and (3) all apocalyptic expectations as repugnant. These three points are all saying the same thing three different ways.
Thus I utterly and totally reject the suggestion that Jesus was on about an interim (apocalyptic) ethic. This is as repugnant as saying that God’s love in the same passage is only an interim love. The ethic Jesus was on about was the long-haul stuff for this life rather than temporary stuff to transition us to some great “reward in heaven” as that crass old moralist “Matthew” has it.