DON CUPITT

 

Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)


DENNIS NINEHAM

 

... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)


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The Historical Jesus
The Last Things


Few aspects of Christianity make less sense to the ordinary person today than the doctrine of the so-called "last things". It is a good example of the profound break between ancient and modern ways of thinking [1].

Not many today think that the world is going to end suddenly on a particular day. If they do consider the possibility, a cause might be a very large meteor or something similar striking our planet from space. Others think that the "last things" might be the demise of humanity, perhaps by an ecological disaster. There's a sense in which the world "ends" if human beings die out.

Some believe that the "last things" are imminent. They conclude that there's enough evidence - though not necessarily of the scientific sort - indicating that this will happen at some point in the near future. In thinking along these lines, it might be useful to recognise that "soon" in geological terms might be many thousands of years from now.

Yet others from time-to-time look at certain evidence and predictions and conclude that they have identified the precise date when humanity will experience the "last things". Some have gone to the top of a mountain to wait for such an event. Some, quite recently, went to Israel to wait for the final day. So far they have been disappointed.

The Christian expectation of the "last things" is somewhat unusual. Other great world religions either don't deal with the subject at all, or relegate to a minor place in their thought. 

In contrast, the Christian doctrine of the "last things" is central. It derives from the early days of the Church.

Church teachings were developed mainly during the first four centuries of the first millennium. Doctrines were influenced by the two major civilisations which had impacted the Palestine area by the time of Jesus. 

The first was the Greek/Roman culture. Every educated person during the entire period was expected to speak and write both Latin and Greek. Social and ethical conventions were an amalgam of both cultures. Greek and Roman religions were similar. But neither speculated much about the end of the world. The Greek word apokalypsis means simply "revelation".

The second major influence on Christianity was that of the Old Testament. The Christian doctrine of the "last things" was derived almost entirely from the Hebrew religion. Some elements may have come from Persian or Egyptian religion, but these were probably not extensive.

A massive amount of material has been produced over the last couple of centuries about Christian teaching of the "last things". It is termed eschatology from the Greek eskatos (last) and logos (discourse). It generally refers to the ultimate end of the world and the bringing in of a supernatural order of some kind.

All four gospels take up the Old Testament theme of God putting his chosen people in charge of the world. For example, Mark 13 has Jesus forecasting troubles and persecutions. The author goes on to relate how an "awful horror" will come to the world before the Messiah takes over to rule the world on God's behalf. Some think that Mark 9.1 indicates that the author expected God to wind things up soon.

The Markan author is followed quite closely by Matthew 24. Luke's Gospel is less clear, although Chapter 21 is quite similar to Mark and Matthew. Some have concluded that the Lukan author was not convinced that the "last things" would come soon (Luke 12.45 and 19.11). John's Gospel differs from the other three in this and in many others ways. Mention of the "last things" is more formulaic (5.29-29; 6.39-40), perhaps because the Gospel was written so much later than the others.

The letters of Paul show that there was probably a significant change in the view of Christians about the last things during his lifetime. In his first letter to the Thessalonian churches Paul writes as though it is the norm to expect the imminent return of Jesus to judge the world (4.13-5.11). He writes in much the same vein in in letter to the Corinthian Christians (15.20-55). Elsewhere Paul seems to hint that his expectations may not be realised.

That the Hebrew peoples should, almost alone amongst the religions of the times, place so much emphasis on the "last things" is understandable. They thought of a single, all-powerful God being in charge of history. God punishes sin and rebellion - hence all the terrible wars and famines God had brought upon the nation. It followed that one day God would bring it all to an end and usher in an era when everything would be put to rights.

The world is perceived in very different terms today. We now know that our planet is part of a huge solar system which has existed for some five billion years. It will probably continue for about the same length of time into the future. A billion is such a large number that nobody is able to comprehend it except with the help of abstractions. As far as we are concerned in our everyday lives, the world will continue more or less "for ever".

It's almost certain that by the time our planet ceases to be a viable place for life of any sort, the human race will  long since have died out. We don't and can't know how that will happen. But, given the size of the world's population today, it will most likely be with a whimper rather than a bang.

Even when this planet dies, the universe will continue. We have no idea for how long. In short, the end of everything is unlikely to be within any period of time we can either understand or know about.

Many theologians have recognised the clash between traditional "last things" theology and contemporary thinking. They have tried to moderate understanding of the "last things" by suggesting a number of alternative approaches.

Albert Schweitzer, in his famous book The Quest of the Historical Jesus proposed that Jesus spoke of himself as the one who would take over the world when God ended the corrupt rule of humanity. Schweitzer thought that the "last things" were a primary and central part of Jesus life and teaching. But his work was done long before theologians took a much more discriminating look at the gospels. It is still possible to reach similar conclusions - but only if the gospels are given considerably more credit as good history than the evidence suggests.

A conservative Roman Catholic theologian, J P Meier, thinks that Jesus did speak of a final ending of history when God would cause his kingdom to be installed. But Meier goes on to show that Jesus did not see himself as the Messiah who would take up the heavenly throne in the Kingdom of God [2].

Similarly "realised eschatology" attempts to explain the "last things" as both realised in the lives of Christians here and now, as well as potentially in the far future. In that sense, God's Kingdom can be said to have come already in the lives of those who repent. The prophecies in the gospels about the "last things" are not Jesus speaking, but are the product of the early Church looking ahead and hoping for Jesus to return soon..

R H Fuller in The Mission and Achievement of Jesus (1954) suggested "inaugurated eschatology". That is, the ministry of Jesus inaugurated God's Kingdom, but the latter did not fully come into being until after his resurrection from death and the start of the Church. In a sense, therefore, all history after Jesus can be construed as God's new rule being gradually brought into being.

Other critics such as the Jesus Seminar strip the historical parts of the gospels down to a bare minimum, retaining only that which can be rated historical to a very high degree of certainty. When that is done, almost nothing of the "last things" remains [3]. As A T Hanson puts it,

As more and more of the material in the Synoptic Gospels is being attributed to the early church rather than to Jesus himself, it becomes easier and easier to relegate to the same source the eschatological sayings attributed to him. [4]

A more reasonable position today might be to hold that the life and death of Jesus did usher in a decisive change. The history of the West was changed in major ways by his followers. And in that sense, the course of world history was substantially defined by a single person.
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[1] To get an idea of the severity of the problem, read The Great Divide 
[2] A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, Doubleday, 1994
[3] The Five Gospels, Polebridge Press, 1993
[4] New Dictionary of Christian Theology, SCM Press Ltd, 1983

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