The Story is Mightier Than the Sword
The Historical Roots of Apocalyptic
Written by: Robert D. Brinsmead
The course of human history is not shaped by rulers, political leaders or marching armies nearly as much as it is shaped by its great story-tellers. These are story-tellers with big ideas, but they embody those ideas in grand narratives that sometimes capture the human imagination on a scale that can shape human culture and even change the course of history.
The founders of the Christian movement were story-tellers. Christianity began as an insignificant movement in lower class society, but it went on to capture the Roman Empire. It was able to profoundly shape Western culture because it embodied its theology in a grand narrative of the world that appealed to the Greco-Roman world. Islam was stunningly successful because Mohammed was able to embody his ideas in a grand narrative that appealed to the Semitic culture of the Arab world. Joseph Smith was a great story-teller. Mormonism would not have enjoyed its success in America unless it had embodied its ideas in its own grand narrative of the world. Karl Marx revamped the Judeo-Christian narrative about the Fall of man at the dawn of history. Marxism would not have enjoyed its international success unless its revolutionary ideas were embodied in a grand narrative about mankind’s Fall from the ideal world of communism at the dawn of human history.
Other story-tellers gave birth to the modern Environmental Movement. Like Marxism before it, Environmentalism has embodied its ideas in a story re-vamping the old narrative of the Fall of man at the dawn of history. We are now told that the world that has to be restored is the ideal one that existed when mankind lived in harmony with an unspoiled natural world. This environmental grand narrative obviously resonates with an enormous number of people.
Within all of these grand narratives, there are story-tellers who embody their ideas in stories that live within the larger stories. These stories spawn movements within bigger movements or political parties within nations. This is how it was when the Protestant Reformation formed within the broader Christian World; or the Labor Movement was formed in Australia with its grand narrative of becoming “a light on the hill.”
Mankind does not live by ideas alone, but by ideas that are embodied in stories. Ideas become powerful weapons only when they are embodied in a grand narrative. To re-phrase an old truism, the story is mightier than the sword.
THE TWO MOST INFLUETIAL STORIES EVER TOLD
The two most influential stories ever told are the story of the lost Paradise and the story of the Exodus out of Egypt. Their impact does not derive solely from their being imbedded in Judeo-Christian scripture. They are what Jung calls “archetypal stories,” meaning that they have become templates for re-telling them in a whole variety of ways. This is how these two stories are both very old and very new.
Whether these stories actually happened or to what extent they are myths makes no difference. Ideas that are embodied in story are no less powerful because the stories are myths. The old Greek legends about Achilles, Prometheus, Narcissus and others were no less winsome because they were myths.
There are many versions of the story about the lost Paradise at the dawn of history. The ancient Greeks had their story of a lost Golden Age. Within most nations and religious movements there are stories of a legendary period of the founding fathers, followed by a great falling away from how things used to be. These stories inspire dreams of finding a way back to how things were at the beginning. Rousseau (1712-1778) dreamed about a return to the age of “the noble savage.” The Marxists dreamed of a return to the state of pure communism that they said existed at the dawn of human history. Environmentalism now dreams of a return to how things were when mankind lived a simple life in harmony with nature.
The archetypal story of the Exodus has also been re-enacted or re-lived again and again. The early Christian Church saw itself re-living the Exodus when it broke away from Judaism to begin the journey of the Christian movement. So did the Reformers when they made their exodus from Rome to begin the Protestant movement. The Pilgrim Fathers who set out from the Old World in the Mayflower to find their Promised Land in the New World of America fondly thought of themselves as re-living the story of the Exodus. The Boers in their Great Trek to South Africa; the Mormons in their journey from Michigan to Salt Lake City; Martin Luther King in the civil rights movement in the United States, and the Liberation Theologians in South America all embodied their ideas in a new Exodus story. The Hebrew dream of the Promised Land forms the template of the American dream, the African dream and all Third World dreams of a better life. The Exodus story is right up there among the greatest stories ever told because it is a universal story of the quest to improve the human condition.
THE EXODUS MODEL
The story of Exodus is overwhelmingly the dominant story in Hebrew history and scripture. Hereunder we identify the main features of this classical, archetypal story.
(1) It is a story with a very unpromising beginning.
The story begins at a time when Egypt was building pyramids as monuments to its unrivalled political and religious power. Firmly under Egypt’s control and subjected to appalling conditions of slavery, was a minority group known as the Hebrews. They were descended from a tribe of shepherds, a class of people whom the Egyptians had traditionally despised. As the Hebrews came to recite, “My father was a homeless Aramaean who came down to Egypt…but the Egyptians ill-treated us, humiliated us and imposed cruel slavery upon us.” (Deuteronomy 26:5). One of the prophets likened the human circumstances of Hebrew beginnings to the state of child that is helpless, filthy and abandoned. (Ezekiel 16:5) One could hardly imagine a more unpromising national beginning than this one.
(2) It is a story of a human progress.
When the Hebrews escaped from Egypt and settled in Palestine, it soon became apparent that the so-called Promised Land left a lot to be desired. Compared to the fertile lands along the Nile river in the south or the Tigris and Euphrates rivers to the north, Palestine’s land was all too hilly, rocky, without a great river system, and was subject to uncertain rainfalls. The territory was also infested with hostile tribes who were not inclined to put out a welcome mat for the refugees from Egypt. The Promised Land was more a potential than an empirical realization. The Hebrews may have put a foot on some challenging real estate, but turning it into the Promised Land was to become a work in progress.
The early part of this historical journey was quite messy and marked by all too much violence and bloodshed which, unfortunately, the Hebrews undertook in God’s name. InThe God Delusion, Richard Dawkins has a field day finding things to ridicule about this God of the Hebrews. It is true that the vision of their God rose no higher than their vision of what it meant to be human – as it never does! Dawkins’ argument is like criticizing the American dream because the Pilgrim Fathers mistreated the Indians.
It is not until we come to the great Hebrew prophets ( 7-8th century BCE) that the Exodus narrative unfolds into an astonishing vision of a truly humane future for mankind. The theology and the ethic of the prophets is based on the Exodus narrative. Rarely has any literature of any age risen to the high moral and ethical vision of the prophets, or excelled the fury of their passionate protest against man’s inhumanity to man. With them, the Exodus demands liberation from every form of human oppression and injustice. It meant that the Hebrew people were obligated to treat others with the same kind of compassion and liberating justice that had been extended to them in the Exodus event. What mattered to the prophets was not observing religious rituals or offering sacrifices at the temple (to which they were either indifferent or even hostile), but becoming truly human in the practise of justice, mercy and regard for others.
This prophetic vision of the Promised Land meant creating a society in which none would be without food, clothing or shelter. It meant that no human being would oppress another human being. The prophets even dreamed of a land in which no one would be sick. In an age when the average human life span was about 30 years, they dreamed how this would improve to 100 years. (We are not quite there yet!)
Finally, this vision of the Promised Land expanded to take in the world. In keeping with their growing consciousness of monotheism, their vision of justice and human compassion took on a world-wide scope. The nations of earth would see the light and learn what it means to be truly human. They would beat their swords into plough shears and their spears into pruning hooks. “Nation will not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” The time would come when even the wild beasts would find a peaceful existence in a more humane order. The prophets embodied some of this in flights of poetic imagery, but for the most part they always remain within the reality of possibilities within the historical process.
In short, the Exodus story finally unfolds as a journey toward universal brotherhood and peace on this earth. It is a story of unlimited human progress toward an ever improving human condition. Even the environment is depicted as sharing in the benefits of this humanizing process. The goal of the journey is always ahead. It is never a story about going back to some better, Golden Age in some mythical past. As one of the Hebrew prophet puts it, “Before us is a garden of Eden, and behind a desolate wilderness.” Putting in today’s language, “The good old days? They were terrible. The best is yet to come.”
(3) It is a story about a journey within the historical process
From beginning to end the Exodus grand narrative is about a journey within the historical process. It is not an allegory of a journey to another “heavenly” world as in the Bunyan’s Pilgrims Progress. To be sure, the Biblical story of the Exodus from Egypt was embellished with some myth or poetic flair, but for all that, Egypt was a real place with a real history. The Hebrew settlement in Palestine took place in real history. Notwithstanding the legendary elements that became part of the story, the violence and bloodshed of this early period was also a real part of the historical process.
In the great Hebrew prophets, the Exodus journey always remained firmly set in this world with the goal of the journey seen as something to strive for within the historical process.
THE APOCALYPTIC MODEL
By about 200 BCE, the Jews (as the Hebrews were now called) had abandoned the prophetic worldview based on the Exodus model. They began to develop another worldview that became known as Apocalyptic. The word itself means that something is being uncovered or revealed.
(1) Apocalyptic was theology of despair.
During the Second Temple era that began around the 5th century BCE, the Jews suffered a series of setbacks and national calamities that crushed their hopes of realizing their national dreams within the historical process. They employed another grand narrative to explain why the present age is hopelessly flawed. It was a “theology of despair” called Apocalyptic
(2) Apocalyptic was based on the mythology of a lost Golden Age
This “theology of despair” was based on the grand narrative about the Paradise that was lost through the defection of Adam and Eve at the dawn of history. Prior to this period when Jewish Apocalyptic developed, this story which is featured in Genesis 2, never received any attention in Hebrew thinking. It played no role at all in the theology of the Hebrew prophets. It was as if this story of the lost Paradise lay unnoticed in the nest of Hebrew scripture like some cuckoo egg waiting to be hatched out as Jewish Apocalyptic.
As the Apocalyptic is a story of human regression rather than human progress, the question is raised of how a story so fundamentally at odds with the Exodus story, got to be included in Hebrew scripture. Did the early Hebrews know that the Genesis 2 story even existed? Did the Hebrew prophets know it existed? We do know that the story of man’s Fall in Genesis 2 is remarkably like an old Persian mythology about a Fall from an original age of light into the present age of darkness. We also know that Judaism absorbed a lot of Persian influences when it came under the sway and patronage of the Persian Empire in the Second Temple era.
We can’t go into some of these intriguing literary questions here, but one thing is crystal clear, that all the Jewish Apocalyptic books of this era ( The Books of Enoch, Daniel, Jubilees, Tobin, Ezdras 1 and 11, etc.) based their theology or worldview on the grand narrative of the Fall of man and the lost Paradise.
(3) Apocalyptic was a model of human regression and inevitable decline
The grand narrative of the Fall of man from the age of light was interpreted to mean that this present age was given over to the evil powers. Everything man now touches tends to become corrupted and short of its original purpose. Even the righteous remnant of humanity are consigned to live in a world that is ruled by evil powers that are sometimes depicted as wild, ravaging beasts (Daniel 7). This grand narrative meant that the national dreams could never be realized within the historical process. Until this historical process ends it can only be expected that things would become worse and worse. History runs downhill and everything is in inevitable decline. That, in essence, was the Apocalyptic worldview – a kind of theological version of the second law of thermo-dynamics.
(4) Apocalyptic put its hope in an end to the historical process.
In Jewish Apocalyptic (as in Persian Apocalyptic before it), the only hope was for this present age to be swept away by a violent act of divine intervention. Apocalyptic put its hope in the arrival of a new age that would be created beyond the cataclysmic end of the historical process.
The word “Apocalyptic” came from a word to suggest that some secret plan for the world was “uncovered” or “revealed.” Apocalyptic not only claimed to reveal this catastrophic solution to the hopeless historical process, but it revealed ways people could prepare for it and even hasten its arrival. Some of these ways were innocent enough (like ritual baths or strict Sabbath observance), but some of them were fanatical and violent. For instance, during the horrific religious persecution inflicted on the Jews by the Syrian king, Antiochus Ephiphanes, the idea developed that the suffering and martyrdom of the righteous could atone for the sins of the nation.
(5) Apocalyptic was fundamentally ahistorical and surreal.
Jewish Apocalyptic was based on the account of a world at the beginning of time that never did exist. In despair of the present age, it turned its back on the present historical process and put its hope in the arrival of an end-time event that was as surreal as the Golden Age at the beginning of time. Borrowing from Persian Apocalyptic, it set its hopes on a future life rather than this present one (Daniel 12:1). Even the literature of Apocalyptic was filled with lurid images of surreal animals and symbols that did not exist in the real world. It was a flight from this world into a mythical world.
(6) Apocalyptic was soaked in bloodshed and violence
Jewish Apocalyptic lost the high ethical and humanitarian vision of the Hebrew prophets with whom nothing was more important than the practice of mercy and justice – and nothing was more evil than man’s inhumanity to man.
The Apocalyptic books were generally written by anonymous authors. They forged the names of the sacred heroes of long ago such as Enoch, Abraham, Baruch and Daniel. These anonymous authors made it appear as if these great ones of the past had written these recent Apocalyptic documents to accurately foretell, sometimes in great detail, events that were actually happening when the documents were being forged. This created a false belief in the accuracy of their predictions. Apparently these Apocalyptic authors thought that their cause was more important than literary integrity. Like all fanatical ideologues, they ultimately felt that their cause was more important than people.
Jewish Apocalyptic was all about the process of history coming to a violent end. It not only saw this end as imminent, but prayed, hoped and worked to hasten its arrival. To use an analogy made famous by Albert Schweitzer, the Apocalyptic mind-set not only waited expectantly for the wheel of history to turn, but it threw itself on the wheel to make it turn. The results were not pretty.
In the older Persian mythology, the sons of light and the sons of darkness would be locked in mortal conflict with each other until a great final battle at the end of history would deliver the sons of light and destroy the sons of darkness. Those who counted themselves on the right side demonized those on the other side. This aspect of Persian Zoroastrianism was absorbed into Judaism and, as we will see, it lived on within the Christian movement. Apocalyptic inevitably produced a lot of hostility and sectarian violence – not just violence toward the national enemies such as the Syrians and the Romans, but violence toward those in opposing Jewish factions.
Apocalyptic inspired the Jews in the time of the Maccabees to fight their Syrians oppressors with amazing courage and ferocity. At the same time, Jewish factions demonized and slaughtered fellow Jews in opposing factions. As very graphically described by Josephus, this kind of sectarian violence was still going on with incredible ferocity in the city of Jerusalem even while the Roman armies had the city under siege (69-70 CE). Yet the Jewish Apocalyptic fanatics went on killing each other while they confidently expected a divine intervention to punish both Romans and their factional opponents.
What they proved has been demonstrated many times in history. Whatever starts in a hope for violence will end in violence. Jewish Apocalyptic literature embellished its vision of the end with frightful images of a fiery hell full of torments awaiting their national and factional enemies.
Apocalyptic demonstrated that those who go down this road of demonizing their opponents and proclaiming that they will soon be objects of the end-time vengeance, will not only hope they will be punished, but will become all too willing to start that punishing process. To demonize other people is to de-humanize them. No group of human beings can de-humanize other human beings without de-humanizing themselves. As Bertrand Russell once argued, those who elevate themselves above the rest of mankind will inevitably stoop lower than the rest of mankind. One brief story mentioned by Joseph Campbell illustrates this point:
“…the Maccabees [the Jewish Apocalyptic heroes who liberated the Jews from Syrian rule] themselves then impudently assumed the titles of both the kingship and high priesthood, to which they were not by descent entitled, and there were perpetrated within that family a number of ugly betrayals and murders in subsequent struggles for the inheritance. The Pharisees, Hasidim, and others, resenting these impieties, rose presently in a revolt that was put down with the greatest cruelty by the reigning Alexander Jannaeus (r. 104-78), who crucified eight hundred of his enemies in a single night; slaughtered their wives and children before their eyes, and himself watched the executions, drinking and publicly disporting with his concubines.” (Myths to Live By, p. 185)
Jewish Apocalyptic inspired a revolt against Rome (66-70 CE) that was never going to succeed. The city was reduced to a heap of ruins, its temple was completely destroyed, and hundreds of thousands of Jews perished. It was not the kind of end-time that Apocalyptic had hoped for, but for Judaism – its culture; its history; its priesthood and temple that never would exist again – it was the end of their world.
One might have thought that Jewish Apocalyptic would never raise its sorry head again in another revolt against Rome. But it did just that about 60 years later in one final sally known as the Bar Kokhba Revolt (132-136 CE) .Bar Kokhba was an insurgent warrior, widely thought to be the messiah. He led his countrymen in one final, bloody assault on Rome. By this time Rome had lost all patience with the Jews. Not only was this military messiah and all his followers put to the sword, but thousands of innocent Jews were slaughtered along with them. Jews were totally banished from Judea. Thereafter any uncircumcised male found in Palestine was summarily put to the sword.
The only end of the world which arrived was the end of the Jewish nation and homeland for the next 2,000 years. After the Bar Kokhba disaster, the rabbis, who were now in control of the Judaism of the dispersion, pronounced a curse on anybody within their community who would again promote Apocalyptic. Was this to be the end of Apocalyptic? Not at all. Another fledging movement eagerly took it up, having inherited it from Judaism. The movement was called Christianity.
In the first century of the Common Era, Judaism was suffering from an Apocalyptic fever. As one statement from the New Testament puts it, “All men were in expectation.” John the Baptist heightened the end-time expectation with his preaching about an imminent fiery end of the world. The Christian movement began as a sect within Judaism. It did not abandon the Apocalyptic expectations of Judaism, but re-worked and re-interpreted those expectations along Christian lines. As the German scholar E. Kasemann put the matter in a renowned 1969 statement, “Apocalyptic was the mother of all Christian theology.”*
Whether the historical Jesus was an Apocalyptic teacher is another matter. Kasemann argued that he was not .and so have many scholars since, including Robert Funk, founder of the Jesus Seminar. Other scholars still cling to Albert Schweitzer’s 1903 thesis that Jesus was an Apocalyptic prophet. Kasemann, Funk and others of this view, make observations along the following lines:
(1) The whole spirit and ethic of Jesus’ core teaching stood in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets. Some renowned thinkers of the last 200 years share that view.
Thomas Jefferson thought that the words of Jesus were “the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man” (Letter to John Adams, October 12, 1813). “In the NT there is internal evidence that parts of it have proceeded from an extraordinary man; and that other parts are the fabric of very inferior minds. It is as easy to separate those parts, as to pick out diamonds from dunghills” ( Ibid., Jan 24, 1814 ) Commenting on Jefferson, Stephen Mitchell says, “Jefferson was morally shocked to realize that the words of Jesus had been added to, deleted, altered and otherwise tampered with as the Gospels were put together…all reputable scholars today acknowledge that the official Gospels were compiled, in Greek, many decades after Jesus’ death, by men who had never heard his teaching, and that a great deal of what the ‘Jesus’ of the Gospels says, originated not in Jesus’ own Aramaic words, which have been lost forever, but in the very different teachings of the early church.” (The Gospel According to Jesus, p.5)
Ralph Waldo Emerson declared: “Jesus Christ belongs to the true race of prophets” Mohandas K. Gandhi said, “What then does Jesus mean to me? To me, he was one of the greatest teachers humanity has ever had.”
(2) Like the prophets before him, Jesus placed no value on religious rituals. He was opposed to offering sacrifices, citing one of the prophets, “I will have mercy and not sacrifice.” Temple and priests were redundant.
(3) His teaching was wholly focused on living in this world in the here and now. As Leo Tolstoy put it, “We must first understand that all the stories telling how God made the world six thousand years ago; how Adam sinned and the human race fell; and how the Son of God, a God born of a virgin, came on earth and redeemed mankind; and all the fables in the Old Testament and in the Gospels, and all the lives of the saints with their stories of miracles and relics – are nothing but a gross hash of superstitions and priestly frauds. Only to someone quite free from this deception can the clear and simple teaching of Jesus, which needs no explanation, be accessible and comprehensible. That teaching tells us nothing about the beginning, or about the end of the world, or about God and His purpose, or in general about things which we cannot, and need not know…it is only necessary to treat others as we wish them to treat us. In that is all the Law and the prophets, as Jesus said.”
(4) Literary scholars have demonstrated that the earliest writings about Jesus contained only a collection of his sayings. One of these was a document now called “Q” (from the German word Quelle). It was a source for much of what was written in Matthew and Luke. By careful analysis, scholars have found that this earlier “Sayings Gospel” called “Q” contains no Apocalyptic teaching whatsoever. Neither does another early “Sayings Gospel”, bearing the name of Thomas. Among its 114 “Sayings,” there is not one word of Apocalyptic. All the sayings of Jesus are focused on living in the here and now. Nothing is said about an imminent end of the world, the sweeping away of the present historical process or the life to come.
(5) The core of Jesus’ teaching was an insight that neither John the Baptist or even Jesus’ own followers could grasp, but it was something that the greatest spiritual teachers of all ages have realized – namely, that “the kingdom of God” is already present, nearer than your hands or breath. It is like leaven hidden in the dough, ubiquitous mustard seed springing up all over the place, treasure hidden in a field, or as one of the Sayings in Thomas puts it, it is something spread out across the face of the earth. While people keep looking for a spectacular, visible arrival of the end-time kingdom, Jesus said that it was already present “in you” and in all the world. He invited people to celebrate its presence in the here and now by “eating and drinking” in open table fellowship. This attracted derision from his opponents who said he was “a friend of custom collectors and sinners” and “a glutton and a drunk.”
In the words of Robert W. Funk: “The kingdom of God was the world as Jesus imagined it…The gospel of Jesus is not mythological. The major mythic themes of the kerygma [message of the early church] and creed are missing from his pronouncements…The language of Jesus is exhaustively focused on the mundane, the ordinary, the non-mythological…[Jesus] does not appear to resort to anything outside the domain of his secular life world: His message does not traffic in mythology at any level.” (The Incredible Creed, May-August 1997)
See also Mitchell’s comment on the presence of the kingdom in the teaching of Jesus: “Like all the great spiritual Masters, Jesus taught one thing only:- presence. Ultimate reality, the luminous, compassionate intelligence of the universe, is not somewhere else in some heaven light-years away. It didn’t manifest any more fully to Abraham or Moses than to us, nor will it be any more present to some Messiah at the far end of time. It is always right here, right now…When Jesus talked about the kingdom of God, he was not prophesying about some easy, danger-free perfection that will someday appear. He was talking about a state of being, a way of living at ease among the joys and sorrows of our world. It is possible, he said, to be as simple and beautiful as the birds of the sky or the lilies of the field, who are always within the eternal Now. This state of being is not something alien or mystical. We don’t need to earn it. It is already ours.” (Ibid. pp. 10-11)
We simply note that Jesus was the master story-teller. His teaching was embodied in stories. The stories he told lampooned and repudiated the Apocalyptic mood and expectations of his generation. Patricia Williams says that this aspect of his teaching, along with his repudiation of temple sacrifices, led to his condemnation and death.
The Apocalyptic features of Christian theology and the great Creeds of the Church are plain to see.
(1) Christian Apocalyptic was also based on the myth of the lost Paradise
Like Jewish Apocalyptic before it, the Christian movement that developed after the death of Jesus based its theology on the old narrative about the Fall of man from an original perfection. More than this, Christian Apocalyptic teased out the implications of the old narrative beyond anything attempted in Jewish Apocalyptic. Adam’s transgression was now viewed as separating man from God by an unbridgeable gulf. The whole human race was now in a state of alienation from its original state. The narrative of the Fall of man became embellished with what came to be called (after the fashion of St. Augustine) the doctrine of original sin.
St. Paul, now regarded by many as the real founder of Apocalyptic theology, put the matter clearly in his greatest NT letter: “It was through one man that sin entered the world, and through sin death…the wrong doing of that one man brought death upon so many…” (Romans 5:12-15). One only has to read any standard Christian Catechism to realize that the narrative of the Fall of man and the lost Paradise is the real starting point that provides the whole rationale for Christian theology of salvation. The same old Genesis 2 narrative was the starting point for the great Christological debate between Arius and Athanasius in the 4th Century, as well as the starting point of the debate between Anselm and Abelard in the 10th Century. If proof is needed how central the old narrative about the lost Paradise is to the Christian story, then John Milton’s famous epic, Paradise Lost, should put to rest any doubts about that.
(2) Christian Apocalyptic also taught that the world was becoming worse and worse.
True to this outlook based on the narrative of the Fall of man, St. Paul called the age in which he lived “this present evil world.” He and his Christian contemporaries had nothing good to say about a “world that lies in wickedness.” It was irretrievable and awaited its imminent destruction. The curse of the Fall of man rested even on the natural world which “groaned in birth pangs” as it waited for its re-creation at the end of history. This kind of Apocalyptic gloom is difficult to reconcile with the outlook of the historical Jesus who constantly spoke about the goodness of the natural world – of carefree lilies and birds, life-giving sunshine and rain upon good and bad alike; the prodigious generosity of nature, and stories of life to be constantly celebrated in eating and drinking, music and dancing.
Just as Jewish Apocalyptic had done for 200 years before him, St.Paul viewed the world and the human condition as in a state of rapid deterioration. That was also the view of those Apocalyptic passages in Matthew 24 and Mark 13. The last book of the NT is fittingly called The Apocalypse. It borrowed much of its imagery from the Jewish Apocalyptic book of Daniel, re-affirming as Daniel did, that the world would become worse and worse as the end of history approaches.
This kind of apocalyptic pessimism is hard to reconcile with the enormous strides the world has made toward improving the human condition since the first Century. At the time this gloomy Christian outlook on the world was being written, the average life-span was not more than 30 years and more than 95% of the population in the civilized world were illiterate. A large section of even the Christian community were slaves, and civil rights and democratic rights were non-existent. There was no forty-hour working week; workers’ compensation; sick leave; social security, or pensions for the aged. This was an age when nothing moved faster than a horse. There was no modern transportation; communication; refrigeration; scientific medicine; hospitals or universities. Urban centres had neither running water, sewage systems or what we would consider basic standards of hygiene. The world and the human condition have improved beyond the wildest dreams of those early Christians who imagined that everything was in a state of inevitable decline. They could not have been more wrong.
(3) Christian Apocalyptic also taught that a fiery end of the world was imminent.
An imminent and fiery end of the world is a constant theme in Christian Apocalyptic.
“On that day the heavens will disappear with a great rushing sound, the elements will disintegrate in flames, and the earth with all that is in it will be burnt up.”(2 Peter 3:10) St. Paul too spoke of an Apocalypse Messiah returning with “flaming fire to take vengeance on those… who do not obey the gospel.” (2 Thessalonians 1:8) The Apocalypse (or book of Revelation) speaks of “blood up to the horses’ bridles,” birds feeding on millions of dead bodies killed by a warrior Messiah, and as if that is not enough, a further lake of fire into which the great majority of the human race are going to be tossed for everlasting punishment. The so-called “Second Coming” of Christian Apocalyptic is not portrayed as a pretty sight for most human beings on this planet. It is depicted in terms of unimaginable horror, bloodshed and violence on an unprecedented scale for the inhabitants of this world. Only the few Christian believers are destined to be rescued from this end-time holocaust. Christian Apocalyptic ends in the portrayal of an orgy of human suffering beyond all human imaginings. It is even more difficult to reconcile this with the teaching of the historical Jesus (“love your enemies, do good to them that hate you”), or his final prayer for his murderers (“Forgive them, for they know not what they do.”).
The early Christians thought and taught that the end of the world would take place within their lifetime. The first community of believers sold their possessions and lived from a common fund as they awaited the swift return of their Messiah. Paul advised the Church at Corinth it would be better not to marry in view of the shortness of time. Other Christians were like the American Millerites in the 1840s who gave up working for a living as they waited for the end of the world to arrive. As that first and second generation of Christians passed away, later church documents began to rationalize the delay of “the Second Coming.” Christians were now counselled to marry and raise families. From time to time throughout the history of Church, the sense of imminence of the end of the world was revived, and sometimes in fanatical movements which were an embarrassment to the Church.
(4) Christian Apocalyptic was all about things outside of real history
Like Jewish Apocalyptic before it, Christian Apocalyptic was all about things not pertaining to the real history of space and time as we know it. First of all, it was based on a myth about a primeval Golden Age that never existed, and a Fall of man that never happened. Declaring the historical process as “this present evil world,” Christian Apocalyptic focused its attention on a “heavenly Promised Land” and opted out of this world. Paul exhorted believers to “set their affections on things in heaven, and not on things on the earth.” Christian teaching was focused more on the life to come than this present life.
The Christian narrative of the Fall of man and the doctrine of original sin meant that humanity was inherently and essentially evil, by nature an enemy of God and a defiling influence on earth. Under the influence of this teaching, a God-pleasing life had to be based on self-loathing, the constant denigration of oneself as a miserable worm on the one hand and the constant flattery of God on the other. Given the exhortations to “love not the world neither the things of the world,” and to “crucify the flesh with its affections and lusts,” in the context of “original sin,” it all tended toward a world-denying, man-hating attitude. Strong tendencies developed within Christianity in favour of asceticism, celibacy (even within marriage), misogyny and withdrawal from this world. Julian, “the Apostate” Emperor, lamented the triumph of Christianity within the Roman Empire with his famous one-liner: “O pale Galilean, you have conquered.”
The irony is that Christian theology and the great Creeds of the Church had nothing at all to say about the life-affirming teachings of Jesus. Apocalyptic Paul confessed that he had no interest in the historical Jesus. He declared that his gospel came directly from his own heavenly visions rather than from any contact with anybody who had known the historical Jesus. In the Apocalyptic theology of St. Paul, the real Jesus of history morphed into a cosmic divine man who came from another world, returned to that other world, and will come again as an Apocalyptic warrior to destroy all of mankind who do not embrace his gospel.
The public execution of Jesus by the Roman authorities was a real event in time and space. Anyone viewing that Roman crucifixion of a man suspected of sedition (not a rare event in those times) might see this as the martyrdom of an innocent man. But Paul takes leave of this observable historical event. In his Apocalyptic theology, this event becomes the supreme cosmic end-time event which propitiates God’s wrath by making an atonement for human sin, and redeems the world that was lost by the Fall of man at the beginning of human history. This illustrates what is meant by Apocalyptic theology. The meaning of what would normally pass as just another tragic death is “uncovered” and “revealed” as the event by which sins are forgiven and the fallen race can at last be restored to the lost Paradise.
This was not altogether a new teaching because, as we have seen, it had its precedents in Jewish Apocalyptic which taught that the suffering and death of a righteous martyr could atone for national sins. Whether or not a blood atonement for human sin has any validity or reality is outside the concerns of this present paper. What is clear is that these kinds of claims are a matter of faith that can neither be proven nor falsified by any kind of real-life observations.
Given Apocalyptic Christianity’s jaundiced view of “this present evil world” and its focus on the next life rather than this one, it should not surprise us that the Roman Empire suffered a general decline after it embraced Christianity as its official religion. In its first blush of enjoying some imperial authority, the Church set about burning books and destroying the great libraries of the ancient world. Discarding the best Greek medicine, the Christian world eventually began boring holes in the head of the sick to let the devil out. Spurning the best learning of the ancient world, Christian Europe lost the knowledge of architecture, art and commerce, setting its course toward the great Dark Ages. It was the rival Islamic culture that kept learning alive, developing universities and hospitals, preserving knowledge of medicine, architecture and commerce while Europe stagnated.
(5) Christian Apocalyptic has been soaked in bloodshed and violence.
A movement whose central icon was Jesus of Nazareth may have looked like a lamb, but after, as it secured the patronage of the Roman Constantine, it soon began to speak and act like a dragon. After Christianity was declared to be the official religion of the Roman Empire, dissent and heresy were pronounced capital crimes. Donatists, Docetists, Nestorians and Arians were not permitted to live. The four hundred year battle of orthodoxy against the Arian heresy was won more by the sword than by theological arguments. Century after century there were Pogroms against the Jews. Their synagogues and books were often burned, and from time to time thousands of Jews were slaughtered in appalling massacres. Jews were sometimes scapegoated for the Bubonic plague which decimated the European population.
Alternative Christian communities numbering around a million (Albigensis or Cathari) were put to the sword and wiped from the face of the earth in the reign of Pope Innocent III (1198 -1216). Then came the horrific bloodletting of the Crusades and the Inquisition. Instruments of torture such as the world has never seen before or since were invented in the interests of maintaining the hegemony of the Western Church. Laws were passed in 1231 ordering that heretics suffer death by fire. Never in the history of the world have so many human beings been martyred, sometimes on the mere suspicion of having some false opinion or belief.
Even the Protestant Reformation did not put an end to the bloodshed and violence. Protestant Geneva burned at the stake the brilliant physician Michael Servetus because he questioned the doctrine of the Trinity. Anabaptists were drowned by the first Protestants for the crime of practicing adult rather than infant baptism. During the inglorious Thirty Year War (1618-1648), Catholics and Protestants engaged each other in an orgy of bloodletting. When 10,000 French Protestants were slain in the massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Day, August 24, 1572, Pope Gregory wrote this congratulatory message to the king of France: “We rejoice with you that with the help of God you have relieved the world of these wretched heretics.”
Religious persecution and intolerance did not even cease after the Pilgrim Fathers escaped from the religious persecution of the Old World, to found a home in the New World. Alas, it was to be a freedom only for the right kind of Protestants. They soon set about flogging Quakers and Catholics out of their colonies, or conducting their infamous Salem Witch Trials. The Christian religion has killed more people than any other religion in the history of mankind.
Over the last two hundred years, however, a growing Christian consciousness became acutely aware that intolerance and persecution is antithetical to the spirit and teaching of the historical Jesus – whose teaching had for the most part been pushed into the background by Christian theology and politics. Religious persecution also ceased because the development of liberal democracies and a growing human consciousness that rejects religious intolerance.
One great exception has been the Holocaust during the reign of the Nazi Germany. In Constantine’s Sword, James Carroll convincingly argues that two thousand years of Christian anti-Semitism prepared the ground for this final bitter harvest. Carroll is very aware that the Nazism was not a Christian movement, but he makes the point that the Holocaust would not have happened unless the Catholic Church had turned a blind eye to what Hitler was doing to the Jews, and unless the great majority of Lutherans declined to protest. Carroll shows that while a strong Christian protest stopped the Nazis from proceeding to euthanize those who were physically and mentally impaired, the same Christian community, with few exceptions, remained mute when the fate of millions of Jews was at stake.
As an Irish American scholar who was ordained to the priesthood in the Catholic Church, Carroll is grateful for the Church’s apology to the Jews for centuries of inhuman treatment. He heartily approves that the Vatican has finally absolved the Jews from the crime of Deicide, that is, “the killing of God.” Yet Carroll does not agree when the Church declares that its crimes against the Jews were an aberration of its true mission and character. In his view they had their roots in the original theology of the first Christians:
“…Nostra Aetate implicitly raised the issue of whether, in its first generation, the Church had already betrayed its master.” (p. 552)
“And sadly, the apology for sins against the people of Israel that Pope John Paul 11 offered in the momentous ceremony in St. Peter’s on March 12, 2000, also avoided a direct confrontation with the source of the anti-Semitism… It was possible to hear that apology as regret for behaviour that was inconsistent with the core Church teaching, instead of set in motion by it.”( p.553)
And what, according to Carroll, is the core teaching of the Church that set in motion centuries of violence, ending in the Holocaust? He points out the church’s theology was centred not in the life of Jesus; not in his teachings, and not even in the resurrection. It was centred in Jesus’ violent death on the cross, a death that was planned by God for the reconciliation of the world unto Himself. According to Carroll, it was the Church’s theological spin that was put on the violent death of Jesus that from the time of Constantine, turned the cross into a sword for the killing of millions whose only crime was that they did not believe in this kind of God nor in this kind of salvation. So Carroll reflects:
‘Thinking of the Holocaust and all that led to it, what kind of God presides over such a history? But is that history’s version of a more ancient question? What kind of God shows favour to a beloved Son by requiring him to be nailed to a cross in the first place?” (p.23) “The cross at Auschwitz puts the question baldly: Who is this God who requires human suffering and death as a proof of human subservience: What does it mean that the death and suffering of Jesus have been made the source of salvation?” (p. 56)
“Had Jesus come to promote suffering or to oppose it? Could the cult of the crucifix and related phenomena, like flagellant movements, be a surrender to the very powers of sickness, suffering, and death Jesus had intended to overcome? Could God, in other words, be portrayed as a bit too invested in the misery, not only of the Son, but of the rest of us? Is there a curl of sadism in the economy of salvation…This paradoxical and tragic idea of God’s mercy bound to the cross, is profoundly violent.” (p. 288). Carroll suggests that the “violent theology of the cross” “sanctified” “the blood lust of the crusaders” on the grounds that “God, too, had blood lust.” (pp. 299, 582)
When this “violent theology of the cross” is placed in the context of the grand narrative of the Fall of man at the beginning of human history, then it becomes clear that we are dealing with a grand narrative that starts with the violence of mankind’s expulsion into a cursed earth, and ends with violence of the Second Coming or Day of Wrath. According to the story, the penalty for one human transgression at the beginning of history was a life of hard labour, pain for a woman in childbirth and death at last for all generations to come. As if that were not enough, there was added the final penalty of God’s wrath and eternal damnation in hell beyond this present mortal life.
God’s love, however, was said to provide one sole door to salvation from the penalty of eternal damnation. The arms of the cross somehow reached back to redeem the lost Paradise and reached forward to a Paradise restored. According to Christian theology, the violent death of the Son of God was said to be of sufficient worth to propitiate God’s anger on account of human sin and to bring salvation to those belonging to the believing community called the Church.
What we are dealing with here is the Christian version of a very old Apocalyptic myth about expulsion, separation, vengeance, angry gods and pay-back justice. In three massive volumes on Primitive Mythology, Occidental Mythology and Oriental Mythology, Joseph Campbell has demonstrated that the ancient world was awash with myths of this kind. He concludes the three-volume journey with this remarkable observation:
“Comparative cultural studies have now demonstrated beyond question that similar mythic tales are to be found in every quarter of this earth. When Cortes and his Catholic Spaniards arrived in Aztec Mexico, they immediately recognized in the local religion so many parallels to their own true Faith that they were hard put to explain the fact. There were towering pyramidal temples, representing, stage by stage, like Dante’s Mountain of Purgatory, degrees of elevation of the spirit. There were thirteen heavens, each with its appropriate gods or angels; nine hells, of suffering souls. There was a High God above all, who was beyond all human thought and imagining. There was even an incarnate Saviour associated with the serpent, born of a virgin, who had died and was resurrected, one of whose symbols was a cross. The padres, to explain all this, invented two myths of their own. The first was that Saint Thomas, the Apostle to the Indies, had probably reached America and here preached the Gospel but, these shores being so far removed from the influence of Rome, the doctrine had deteriorated, so that what they were seeing around them was simply a hideously degenerate form of their own revelation. The second explanation, then, was that the devil was here deliberately throwing up parodies of the Christian faith, to frustrate the mission.
“Modern scholarship, systematically comparing the myths and rites of mankind, has found just about everywhere, legends of virgins giving birth to heroes who die and are resurrected. India is chock-full of such tales, and its towering temples, very like the Aztec ones, represent again our many-storied cosmic mountain, bearing Paradise on its summit and with horrible hells beneath. The Buddhists and the Jains have similar ideas. Looking backward into the pre-Christian past, we discover in Egypt the mythology of the slain and resurrected Osiris; in Mesopotamia, Tammuz; in Syria, Adonis; in Greece, Dionysos: all of which furnished models to the early Christians for their representations of Christ.” (Myths to Live By, pp.9,10 )
The question that now begs for a clearer answer is this: Why did the Christian version of this very old mythology bring more bloodshed into the world than any of the other versions of the old myth? Why is it that Joseph Campbell, an authority on comparative mythology, was compelled to exclaim, “We have been bred to one of the most brutal war mythologies of all time.” (Ibid. p. 175) James Carroll (Constantine’s Sword) suggests that the violence is rooted in the violent theology of the cross, but he stops short of teasing out the logic of his startling observation.
Judaism, Christianity and Islam are the three great Western religions that share the same monotheistic vision. That vision has sometimes been expressed, as in the teaching of the Hebrew prophets and the historical Jesus, in terms of the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man. This calls for the kind of justice that brings compassion, unconditional love for friend and foe alike, and universal peace. Yet that same monotheistic vision of one single deity has brought with it a tendency to treat the perceived enemies of this single Deity as “our” enemies too. Or rather, that those who are not on our side are not on God’s side.
This idea that our enemies are also God’s enemies needs to be viewed against the background of the old Persian Apocalyptic myth that has influenced the development of the three great monotheistic religions of the West. In this old Persian or Zoroasterian myth, the “sons of light” are involved in a great cosmic battle with the “sons of darkness.” In this contest, those who are perceived as not being on the side of the One true God are demonized as if they are subhuman and have no right to live.
This divide between “the children of light” and “the children of darkness” becomes even more starkly drawn in Christian theology. The one true God was said to be fully revealed in the one man Jesus Christ, and in no other. “God designed him to be the means of expiating sin by his sacrificial death.” (Romans 3:25).
It was right here that the early Christians began the horrible process of demonizing everyone who did not accept their apocalyptic interpretation of the tragic death of Jesus. For the Christians, the issue was as simple as this: “Those who believe shall be saved…those who do not believe will be damned.” (Mark 16:16) End of story! According to the best loved passage in the NT, those who believe “shall have everlasting life,” but then follows the dark threat that those who don’t believe are already judged and condemned. By not believing it, they just prove that their deeds are evil and they hate the light (John 3: 16-20). Yet another early Christian writer declared, “We belong to God, and a man who knows God listens to us, while he who does not belong to God does not listen to us.” (1 John 4:6).
St. Paul appeared to lose all patience with his fellow Jews who did not respond to his gospel, declaring bitterly that “wrath is come upon them to the uttermost.” (1 Thessalonians 2:16). Again he wrote: “The Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with his mighty angels, in flaming fire taking vengeance on them that…obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ: who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord.” (2 Thessalonians 1:7-9)
This kind of damnable fate was not only heaped on those outside the Christian faith, but true to vintage Apocalyptic, it was heaped with even greater vehemence upon any person or group of persons within the Christian movement who had a competing version of faith. In this vein, Paul damned some Jerusalem believers for bringing another version of the gospel to his Gentile converts at Galatia (Galatians 1:9); and when some leading figures in the Jerusalem church questioned his credentials, he declared that they were “false apostles, deceitful workers and ministers of Satan.” (2 Corinthians 11:13-15). .
There are passages within the New Testament that exhort Christians to shun or even refuse hospitality to those who have a different interpretation of the Christian faith. One letter, written long after St. Peter was dead, even forges his name to vehemently attack other Christians as “false teachers” with “damnable heresies…cursed children, which have forsaken the right way, and are gone astray…these are wells without water, clouds that are carried with a tempest; to whom the mist of darkness is reserved forever.” (2 Peter 2)
Some NT books launch their condemnation of other Christians by forging the name of Peter (as in the NT letters which bear his name), Paul (as in the letters to Timothy and Titus that bear Paul’s name) or John (as in the Apocalypse which bear John’s name.). Most literary scholars today acknowledge that these NT books are forgeries (see Bart D. Ehrman, Forged) Others passages do not hesitate to denigrate their opponents by putting words of condemnation into the mouth of Jesus himself. A classical example of this is Matthew 23 which purports to be Jesus’ bitter condemnation of the Pharisees. We now know that these defamatory statements were written by an unknown author two-generations after the death of Jesus and in the post-temple era. Jewish Christians were then in contention with the Rabbinic Pharisees for the control of Judaism. The Rabbinic party eventually won out and expelled the Jewish Christians from the synagogues and from any future influence within Judaism. Matthew 23 reflects that bitter dispute around 90 CE rather than any personal dispute between Jesus and the Pharisees.
The internecine strife of the early Christians demonstrates how they had betrayed the teaching of Jesus. His ethic of unconditional love, compassion, forgiveness and non-judgment of others was very different to a “Jesus” who bitterly denounced the Pharisees as the children of the devil who would be thrown into hell. The transformation of the non-violent Teacher of love for one’s enemies into the warrior Messiah who punishes his enemies is complete in the Apocalypse of St. John the Divine:
“Then I saw heaven wide open, and there before me was a white horse and its rider’s name was Faithful and True…His eyes flamed like fire…he was robed in a garment drenched in blood…from his mouth there went a sharp sword with which to smite the nations; for he it is who shall rule them with an iron rod, and tread the winepress of the wrath and retribution of God. (Revelation 19:11-16)
“The winepress was trodden outside the city, and for two hundred miles around blood flowed from the press to the height of the horses’ bridles.” (Revelation 14:20)
No sooner had these first Christians laid claim to be in possession of the only truth by which mankind could be saved, they were already headed down the long road toward the worst religious persecution that this world has ever seen. For it is not humanly or psychologically possible to start out saying that people who reject what we say are under divine condemnation without affecting our regard for them and finally ending up wanting to see them punished as God’s enemies and our enemies too. “Do not I hate them that hate Thee? Yes, I hate them with perfect hatred.” (Psalm) “Happy is he who shall seize your children and dash them against the rock.” (Psalm 137:9)
In the Apocalypse, the saints are repressed as rejoicing in prospect of the imminent destruction about to fall on all those people not on their side. When the early Christians started to threaten people with eternal damnation unless they embraced their interpretation of the death of Christ, the intellectual brow-beating had already started. When the Church received the necessary political support, the compulsion of sword and fire was applied.
The grand narrative of Christian theology ends in the final solution to the problem of “this present evil world.” That solution is the Second Coming when the Christ who was put to death “for our sins” returns as an Apocalyptic judge to remove the great mass of humanity from the face of the earth in one final holocaust. In this view of things, Apocalyptic Christianity simply recycled Jewish Apocalyptic which had re-cycled the old Persian Apocalyptic vision about the final, terrifying end of the world from which only “the sons of light” would be rescued.
The Christian world of today has largely moved on from the past history of religious intolerance. Claims about a one and only way of salvation through a one and only Saviour, along with claims that the Church alone possesses the keys to the kingdom of heaven, have been softened or re-interpreted to suit the demands of toleration in a global village environment. We who share this Western Christian tradition may see our own past being played out today by Islamic extremism. Well might we now recoil in horror from making arrogant claims of being in sole possession of the ultimate truth for mankind.
Apocalyptic Christianity has gone the way of the Holy Roman Empire. It will never lift its totalitarian head again. The reason we have spelled out its features is because Apocalyptic has a way of being re-born in a new host. For example, when Jewish Apocalyptic died out, it found a new home within the Christian movement. As the Christian movement has fallen into decline, Apocalyptic has found a new home in other movements that appear to be social, political or environmental rather than outwardly religious. Yet when we scratch beneath the surface of these movements we find that they have simply re-jigged the old Apocalyptic narrative.
Again and again we encounter the same old mythology of the Fall of mankind from a golden age of the past, some form of salvationism and a “final solution” to a world in rapid decline. That mythology was ubiquitous in the ancient world. The Christian West has been saturated with the same myth for many centuries. As Joseph Campbell says, these old myths remain like a floating filament in the air. These Apocalyptic movements are the crying babies of Apocalyptic Christianity.