Tuesday, November 27, 2007
given over to the gentiles
of my heart.
Shape my desires in such a way
that new reservoirs of hope
open up my eyes.
These are days of hope,
that spring from
depths of despair.
God has given me
all that I might need.
So that I might search for him
in all that I desire.
Search me out
and seek me now
so that I may be found
Cadence and rhythm
are only found
Wednesday, July 04, 2007
calm the tumult of my soul.
Speak peace into chaos, calm
into raging waves.
Speak words of rest into
restless hearts filled with
clouds of doubt and pain,
such as mine.
Lord of spirits, reign supreme
over rebels, con-men, hustlers,
windswept mists driven by
powers of deceit.
Restore the child in my heart
by a truthful word spoken
to a lie believed too soon
such as mine.
Lord of the heavens, brought down low,
lift our hearts above the clouds.
See into our darkness, open our eyes
to the beauty all around.
Lift our feet upon the Rock
that stands beneath our strength,
and splits open tombs held closed,
such as mine.
Lord of the earth, bridge between
the spirit and the flesh.
Join together my longing grasp
with Your consummating touch.
Fill with life the desolated emptiness
that speaks with muted cries
of a heart longing for reunion,
such as mine.
Wednesday, June 06, 2007
Digging through the walls
Temples are places where the divine meets the human. Temples have been around since the beginning of human history. They’re as natural as anything we’ve ever known or done. It’s a part of who we are as human beings that we seek to connect or reconnect with some sense of the divine. We seem to have ingrained in us some sense that we need to meet up with the gods or a particular god. Thus we build temples. Years ago I went to Arizona to attend a conference on church growth and evangelism. One day I had enough free time that I was able to drive north towards the Grand Canyon. I didn’t make it to the Grand Canyon, since it was further away than I thought. That and I got caught in a snowstorm halfway up there. So I ended up turning around and stopping at Red Rock Canyon in Sedona instead. I drove through the town, noticing that there were numerous ‘new age’ type stores, but didn’t pay much attention to it, as I was headed for the park. Once I got to the park, I parked my rental car and hiked up the path to one of the peaks overlooking the area. There were some other tourists around along the pathways, so I found my way off the beaten path and headed up to an unpopulated area near the top of a peak. I remember that it was spectacular. The soil is really red. As you look around you, all you see are the surrounding peaks of the other mountains. As I drove up I could imagine the early people riding across the valleys, hunting deer, living off of the land. As I found a secluded spot near a mountaintop, I rested and just sat, enjoying the splendor of the surrounding scenery. But as I wandered a bit more, I came across something that I hadn’t seen in years, not since my childhood on Staten Island. In a clearing on one of the plateaus was an altar. It had been set up by someone else who had climbed the same mountain. They had climbed up seeking a place alone. They had sought a place to meet the divine. They had set up an altar. It wasn’t much. It was a simple collection of stones set up in an unmistakable arrangement. It was built with the idea that it would help in the establishing of a connection with spiritual reality, whatever that reality might be. Maybe it was offered to a god the supplicant or supplicants knew by name. Maybe it was seen as an impersonal force that nonetheless needed a structure to help in the sending and receiving of spiritual signals. Maybe it was seen as a way to communicate with previous generations passed on before. I wondered if anything had been sacrificed when the altar was built. I don’t recall seeing any remains. I think there were items that had been left on the stones, personal items of importance to those who had climbed up high, hoping to somehow connect with some ‘other’ or others. Beckoning to some great unknown, hoping that there is someone or even something there to listen to words spoken, words cried out, words unsaid, needing to be said. I’m sympathetic to their need. I know that I want there to be someone or something ‘out there’ who can hear me ‘down here’ and maybe even give an answer or two. We all climb hills. We all instinctively climb upward, seeking to find answers that seem not to reside in us. I am sympathetic to there needs. But I still destroyed the altar.
Would you drink water from a spring near Love Canal? Would you dare risk putting a cup to your mouth, knowing what might be in the water? Maybe it’s clean. It probably isn’t though. It’s probably been polluted by the nearby toxic waste that will not stay put. The pollution has seeped down and out into the soil and underground springs. Deep waters normally safe are no longer safe. If I were to block up a spring I knew to be polluted, yet nearby others cried out from thirst, I would, at first glance seem heartless, cruel even. Drinking waters from broken cisterns is a double tragedy. The cisterns are useless for what they’re intended. They can’t hold the water needed so badly. But the water that gives life is spilt. Is falls to the ground, unused. Energy spent to no end.
Temples meet us in the heights. They lift us up. They fill a need. The issue isn’t whether temples are needed or not. We cannot avoid temples no matter what we do. The question is what temple and to what end? The Jewish and Christian scriptures are filled with temples, both sacred and idolatrous. As we’ve seen before, the first temple was the Garden in Eden. It was a place set apart from the surrounding environment. It was a place of life, cultivation, name-giving, and authority. It was the place where God dwelled more tangibly than anywhere else. It was where He rested after His great creative work. We, through our primordial ancestors, the first couple, were called into His presence, breathed into and given life. We were called to bring order out of and into the chaos of the surrounding world. We were called to be the intersecting point between heaven and earth and spread the garden outward. Remember, we are soil and spirit, and we are very good.
When sin entered into the picture, when sin entered into our experience and we entertained sin, sin entered into us. We knew sin. Sin knew us. God recognized sin. God acknowledged sin’s presence, even in the garden. God warned our parents, our human representatives, of its presence, and of its consequences if partaken of by them. When our parents were bedazzled by the delights of knowledge and thought that being in the garden would automatically keep them safe, they took, ate, knew, and were blinded to God’s presence even as they saw their own nakedness. Then they were expelled.
We’ve been climbing hills ever since. It didn’t take long for the death predicted by God to fully enter into the picture. Only one generation after our first parents two brothers competed over a sacrifice to God. One’s was accepted, the other’s wasn’t. Words came to blows. Blows came to an end. One brother lays dead. One brother offers up meat. It’s accepted. Another brother offers up grain. It’s rejected. One offering from the soil is inadequate to the task at hand. It seems God wants more. The other offering takes a life as a first-fruit. God is pleased. If God won’t accept a grain offering, but wants an offering of blood, then he’ll get blood. Since death entered into the picture in the garden, death has spread out into the surrounding environment ever since. Abel’s blood still cries out and the soil still groans beneath our feet.
Throughout human history, there are two basic types of temples gone bad. The first type is the one that starts out bad. Like the tower at Babel, built to reach up to the heavens. But we also see it in Pyramids, various smaller hilltop sanctuaries, Pantheons, Monoliths, and any number of other meeting places of the gods. In each of these, the gods intersect with humanity, usually through a vice regent. Either it’s a priest or a king. Sometimes it’s both in one person. Usually that person is seen as a direct descendent of the gods himself. Sound familiar? Scary? It should sound familiar. But it shouldn’t be too scary. Again, even though there are numerous similarities between the Hebrew/Christian writings and the surrounding cultures they inhabited, common language and common imagery do show neighborly relationship but not necessarily total dependence. Again, the surrounding cosmologies had their similarities to the Hebrew narrative, but their differences were also quite striking. It’s in seeing both of these that we can better discern how to be on our guard to any idolatries that might make a claim to our spiritual loyalties.
In a little bit, we’ll look at the problem of when good temples go bad, and how that needs to be understood accurately. But for now, we should see how ‘out of the gate’ bad temples distort God, humanity, creation, and our relationship to God.
HAVE IT YOUR WAY
Ready made gods serve our whims. But these same gods do eventually want something, or better yet, someone, in return. The light gleams brightly and my eyes are dazzled. Its’ sharpness is almost painful. But it’s a pain that gives me that immediate rush I love. Every ounce of my being quivers in delight at the filling I’m feeling. Rushing torrents of power course through me and I feel so alive. I have the gods in my hands. I control them. I am their master. Our gods are the ones we seek after. They’re us, but more manageable. They’re us, but more powerful. They’re us, but more of what we wish we were. They’re us, and that’s why we hate them so much. Our gods are always too much and not enough. They always promise us more than they can deliver. As we gaze into their awful visage, we are transformed into their image. We ultimately become what we most fervently dwell on, or more accurately, dwell in.
My needs are many and my wants are even more. I want love. I want sustenance. I want meaning. These are all good, legitimate wants, even needs. But my wants go beyond my needs. My wants stretch out my needs until they don’t fit me anymore. My wants need more than my needs ever wanted. I’ve become super-sized in my appetites. And I need a super-sized god who can feed that yawning emptiness. But the strange reality is that this god of my understanding ends up being lesser than anything I could ever actually need. My super-sized god gives me fast food spirituality. He, she, it, ends up mal-nourishing me as I gorge myself on its paltry poisons masquerading as food for my soul. Instead my soul becomes the food fed to my gluttonous appetite god.
Our idols sell us to the highest bidder. We bid ourselves out to those who promise us everything, but in the end take us for all we’re worth. That’s the irony of idolatry. We sell ourselves for such a cheap price, when the One who made us tells us we’re priceless and offers Himself as the only payment worthwhile, just so that we’ll be able to take freely from the table prepared before us.
In days of yore, our ancestors built towers, shrines, and various other temples to reach out and placate deities afar off. Our modern totems speak volumes of what our idols are today. We have our towers. We have our shrines. And of course we have our many temples that speak to our ‘gods’, whether they are traditional spirit beings or our recent tendency towards material satisfactions. Being sold a bill of goods until you’re sold off as a bill of goods isn’t very good. But to our culture of consumerism, everything is a product including us, especially us. Walk through a mall sometime. Visit the latest incarnation of the oldest faux temples. It’s striking how much has stayed the same.
BEHIND THE WALLS
I titled this essay “Digging through the walls” because in Ezekiel, he is told to dig through the walls of the Jerusalem Temple. When he does so, he finds that they hide an untold number of abominations and idolatries. These are the hidden things of the priesthood. These are the secreted away corners that they don’t want anyone to see or find out about. The Jerusalem Temple was commanded by God Himself to be built by David’s son Solomon. The true God of Israel, Yahweh, not the false gods of the surrounding peoples, called for this temple to be built to honor His name above all other names. And yet this same temple had become corrupted. It held detestable things inside it. It had become a haunt of wickedness and rampant immorality. This temple that God had commanded to be built and had commended to His people was now a hateful thing in His eyes.
This is a work in progress, so I'll hopefully wrap it up soon. But since I'm moving right now, we'll see when that'll happen!
Sunday, May 06, 2007
BUILDING THE THIRD TEMPLE
What does it mean to build the third temple? Should we be looking about for a red heifer, in hopes that it might cleanse some future temple in Jerusalem? As the previous weeks have shown, the Old Testament tabernacles and temples all hearkened back to the Garden of Eden. Then we saw that when Jesus came, He was God “tabernacling” in the flesh. John uses the most explicit temple imagery regarding Jesus. Jesus is the new temple. He replaces the old, temporary, hand-made temple that stood in Jerusalem. While Herod’s temple stood as the second “incarnation” of God’s dwelling place in Jewish history, God’s kingdom was still a far off hope, not yet realized. Herod’s temple was a temple built from violence. It was a temple that reflected more his own quest for glory than the dwelling place of the shekinah glory of God.
When Christ came and began proclaiming that the kingdom of God had been inaugurated with Him, He spoke of the promises of the prophets being fulfilled in Himself and His ministry. The prophets promised that a new temple would come that would not be made with hands. Instead, the final temple would be built by God Himself, and this temple would be the perfect embodiment of where righteousness would dwell. This temple would be built with living stones that would cry out praise to God and proclaim His faithfulness to all the creation. Christ was the Cornerstone of this new temple that would spread out across the world. The stone would be the Cornerstone that would become a mountain that would fill the whole earth.
That building project has been going on for two thousand years now, and each new believer and the sanctifying presence of God within them has spread out God’s recreating work until the day when God says “It is done” and all of normal human history will be wrapped up and all things will be reconciled and made new. As we have become believers, the temple has been built. And with each new believer, the building project continues. But the temple grows in other ways too.
As the primordial garden brought order into chaos, life out of death, fertility out of desolation, and the direct rule of God through His appointed vice regents, the new, third temple inaugurated by Christ has the same effect on the surrounding world, even to today. It will reach its climactic pinnacle at the end of history when God, through Christ, will radically intervene into our mundane history and set things right. Christ will vindicate those who have put their trust in Him and have been willing to suffer for His name’s sake, even unto death.
The new third temple, like the previous temples, and the garden before them, will have a dual focus in enacting its God-given purpose. It will minister to its own, the covenant people called by God’s own name, in order to sanctify them through and through. This ministry of sanctification, of making a holy people unto Himself, is not an end in itself. The point of making a people that are holy, set apart to do the Lord’s work, is to have them get about the work at hand! We are made holy in order to be used by God to bring in righteousness. We are called to be light shining in the darkness. We are called to be salt that preserves. We are called to follow in the footsteps of our master, friend, and older brother, Jesus, and take up our cross, kneel low to wash feet, turn over tables in holy places defiled by lust and greed, and more. Jesus even says that we will do greater things than He did during His ministry. That’s hard to imagine. But He did say it. Do we believe Him? Can we trust His word? Are we yet fulfilling His word for us?
This third temple is to be the place where righteousness dwells. It is the place of the New Covenant people. We are the ones the prophets spoke about when they said that hearts of stone would be made flesh. In the New Testament witness, we see the most explicit temple imagery in the letter to the Hebrew Christians and in Peter’s first letter to the exiles spread out over modern day Turkey, not to mention John’s Revelation. All of the New Testament writers understood that Christians, those who trusted in Jesus as Messiah, were the true heirs of the Old Testament promises. Their words were no more radical than anything the Old Testament prophets had said concerning the people of their own day. Jeremiah made it abundantly clear that just saying “the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD” as some magical incantation, would then, nor will it now, protect a rebellious people from God’s righteous judgment.
The New Covenant, New Living Temple people of God, made up of believing Jews and gentiles, are to be the temple of God on earth. And being the temple on earth means doing the work of the temple. Remember that the temple of God is where God dwells directly. It is where God reigns directly. It is where God does the work of bringing reconciliation to the world broken by sin and rebellion. Thus it is the place where sacrifice happens. In the garden God dwelled. God reigned directly. God cultivated an oasis in a land of chaos. When rebellion occurred in the garden, God expelled the offenders, but also clothed them with an animal skin to cover their nakedness. The tabernacles and subsequent temples also served those same purposes. Christ comes in the flesh as the embodiment of God’s presence and reign. He finally fulfills the garden mandate. He obeys as Adam and Eve had not. He becomes our covering, sacrificed for our sin, covering our nakedness.
Since Christ fulfills the reason for the garden, the tabernacle, and the temple, and we are in Him, we reside, spiritually now, fully at His return, in the place of rest that is His body. The work has been done. It is finished. Now the kingdom spreads like a fertile vine in a land already full of weeds. It springs up with life giving water, feeding all those who would drink from this One Spring. Wrapped in His cloak, we are hidden in His life because we have already shared in His death. And unlike the kings and kingdoms of this fallen world, we set out to spread the kingdom of God by following after our greatest example, Jesus.
To know how best to bring about the kingdom of God means that we need look no further than the life of Christ. He alone is our standard. He alone is our starting point and goal. He leads us to the cross, only to see us through to the broken open grave. The consummation of the kingdom of God, when the kingdoms of this world will be the kingdom of Christ, will not fully come about until His return. But what will be seen in fullness then, vindicated then, finalized then, is now seen only in part.
The temple image is very physical. It immediately brings to mind brick and mortar. It’s very ‘this world’ in its impact. But the kingdom of God being spread out across the world through the ministry of the church doesn’t seem so physical, since we have no physical holy place in Jerusalem, Rome, or Athens. This lack of a physical building is often thought of as being more ‘other-worldly’ because of that difference. After all, we’re the ‘heavenly’ people of God, whereas the Jews were the ‘physical’ people of God. At least according to the dispensational understanding. But if the dispensational view that sets apart the Jew from the gentile is wrong, and I believe it is, then how should we see the temple at the end of time? What is the temple in Revelation?
REVEALING THE HIDDEN TEMPLE
The temple in Revelation is seen in different imagery from chapter 1 through to chapter 22. The fact that Revelation itself is written in a seven-fold manner attests to a very Jewish, Zechariah influenced literary motif. Revelation uses much, if not most of its imagery from Jewish apocalyptic writings such as Daniel, Zechariah, and Ezekiel. All three of these Jewish apocalyptic writings are very temple oriented themselves. Since they were all written during the exile, when the first temple had already been destroyed, and the hope for a new temple was only on the horizon, or at best only getting started, as in Zechariah.
The seven lamp-stands that are featured in chapters one through three are symbolic of the fullness of the presence of God’s Spirit dwelling in their midst. The lamp-stands are menorahs, which are standard temple décor. So already, John is linking the churches and the presence of God together in a way that hearkens back to the Jerusalem temple. As a side note, whether John wrote his revelation before or after the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70 AD does not dramatically change the importance of the imagery he uses throughout the book. If he wrote it before the destruction, and the temple was still standing, his temple imagery would point out to those reading it that they were the true Jews, the true priesthood, and the true temple of God, not the unbelieving Jews who were persecuting them. If he wrote it after Titus’s army destroyed the temple, then his temple words and images would simply be a way of pointing out that the old Jerusalem temple was done and over with and that the only true temple left was the one made up of those who belonged to Jesus Christ.
John also would want to make it clear that no other temple would suffice in revealing God’s holy presence. The Roman emperors had temples to their own glory set up all throughout the Roman provinces, and any good Jew or Christian that these were idolatrous and blasphemous competitors to what God had commanded. Much of what John wrote was concerned to keep his readers strong in the faith in the face of severe persecution and temptation to give in to the ‘little pinch of incense’ that the emperor demanded.
Most likely John was writing to a community fighting a two front war. On one side were the other Jews who did not believe in Jesus and who were accusing Christians of every possible crime against the empire, and on the other side was the empire itself, trying to either co-opt or wipe out this still young community of Jewish and gentile believers in this Jewish Messiah. The Revelation was given to give hope to a desperate band of believers, warning to others among them, and a promise that God, through Christ, and in a mysterious way His church, was going to overcome and defeat the kingdoms of this world. I believe that the book was written later, so that the Jerusalem temple had already been destroyed by Titus’s army. Thus the temple language used by John spoke to a temple that was currently hidden from sight, but “real” nonetheless. The temple in Revelation is in the heavens until its “revelation” later on when it descends to earth.
Chapter 4 of Revelation is a scene of the throne room of heaven where the four living creatures, as in Ezekiel 1, continually praise God. Chapter 5 has the prayers of the saints in bowls of incense. Chapter 6 has the souls of saints under the altar asking how long before their blood would be avenged. Chapter 7 has the 144,000 Israelites sealed and the great multitude from every nation praising God who “serve him day and night in his temple”. John continues to reside in the heavenly temple courts seeing these fantastic visions of what was soon to come.
Chapter 11 has the most temple language so far, and has John being told to measure the temple, the altar, and those who worship there, but not the outer court. That’s left to the nations to trample for a season. Interestingly, the outer court of the temple is also referred to as the ‘holy city’ in this same passage. At the end of chapter 11, the heavenly temple is opened and the ark of the covenant is displayed for all to see. Chapter 14 has the Lamb on Mount Zion with his 144,000 ready to do battle. Chapter 15 has the sanctuary of the tent of witness being opened and the fiery judgments of God ready to be poured out on earth.
To be continued...
Saturday, April 21, 2007
The Temple of God. It's where God lives. He's present there in a way that He isn't elsewhere. But how can that be? God is omni-present isn't He? He is. But even at the very beginning of creation, God decided to build a place where His presence would dwell more tangibly than anywhere else. That first place is the garden. It's the first temple of God. God walks around its environs freely and nothing in that holy place is disturbed by His immediate presence. He takes a creature out of the ground outside of the garden and fashions a man, adam, from adama, which means dirt, soil, earth. He then brings him into the garden, breathes life into him so that he is now a living being, and places him in charge of the garden. Up to this point every thing has been 'good' but now adam is standing there twiddling his thumbs and God says for the first time that something isn't quite right. He even says that this situation is 'not good'. First God brings all the critters that He had made before adam up to adam in order to name them (an act of dominion by the way. We name that which we have power over). But none of the animals is quite right for what adam 'really' needs. Adam needs someone like himself. God knocks him out, splits his side, builds a woman, and then adam sees another living being just like him, but different. Humanity version 2.0! Now that's very good!
So they get to work. It's not hard. All they have to do is tend the garden and do like the rest of the critters by being fruitful and multiplying. Eventually, even if there were no rebellion,the garden would have had to grow beyond it created space. All these critters, plants, and humans multiplying would have led pretty quickly to some mighty cramped quarters. And besides, outside the garden was barreness and chaos, and it needed to be restored (if you hold to an angelic fall preceeding the human one) or organized/ordered in order to reflect the heavenly/cosmic temple. Either way, this primordial couple had some work to do, and they were God's vice regents in charge of getting it done.
But even in this primordial paradise, there were other creatures that had other ideas. A creature that can be seen as a spirit being also lurks in this garden. He speaks to the woman first, asking her about what God had said previously. Did God really say...? Something in this line of questioning must have tickled the ear of Eve (the name means the mother of all living), so that the words sunk down into her. She listened to these accusing, questioning words. But so did the man, Adam, standing next to her. They both gave in to the impulse to take the shiny serpent's word over that of the One who had created them. Somehow they didn't take seriously the warning that they would 'die' that very day if they disobeyed God's command.
This shiny serpent (I use the term 'shiny serpent' because the Hebrew, nachash, can be translated either as a noun, serpent, or as an adjective, shiny one. Since later Scripture describes our great adversary, Satan, as being both, I lean towards a both/and rather than an either/or approach to translating the term) gets them to take the first bite. Their eyes are opened now. They see they're naked in a different way than before. Before this moment they knew they were naked, but they were OK with it. They weren't ashamed. Now they were. Something had changed. Now they had something to hide. Something, or better yet, someone, had to die.
They hear God walking around nearby. They're scared. They run and hide. They cover up. God asks His own questions. He isn't so much interested in finding out what happened. He knows full well what just went down. He wants to know their 'story'. How are they going to explain themselves. Thus from this moment on, we find our own story told for the first time here. It's not my fault! God asks the man. It's the woman's fault who 'You' gave me (bad move!). God asks the woman. It's the shiny serpent's fault. God doesn't ask the shiny serpent anything. All three get judged. The man has to work harder to get the same or lesser results. The woman gets painful childbirth and submission to the man. The shiny serpent gets thrown to the ground and a death sentence that is irrevocable, even if somewhat delayed in the sentencing phase.
Meanwhile, the first couple get their walking papers. They get the very first pink slip from the royal residence. They're evicted from the garden. Their charge, their responsibility, is still intact, but now they get to share in the primordial chaos surrounding them. That chaos is now in them. They now are that chaos.
God was pleased to have them dwell in His midst as long as they 'dwelled' in His Word, His command. But now that they had decided to follow a different path, He sent them out from His midst. A flaming sword made sure that they could not turn back to where they had come from. They were now 'separated' from God because of their rebellion, their sin. Their relationship with God had been ruptured. They were no longer on speaking terms. The honeymoon was over. The sweet communion was over, it was dead. And soon they would be too. And the dying began.
Every time someone in Scripture is confronted with the immediate presence of God since then, they always cry out "Woe is me! For I am undone!", "Get away from me, a sinful man!", "I fell as a dead man." To be in the presence of God without some sort of mediation was and is a very dangerous thing. In fact, it's deadly. All of the Biblical writers knew that. We would do well to know that too. To entertain God glibly is to invite His holy wrath. Strange fire still burns deadly. God will not be mocked. But God was also pleased to provide a way. More temples will show up.
The greatest 'cover up' in history!
Something, or as I put it earlier, someone, had to die. An animal, we don't know what kind, was sacrificed in order to provide a covering for the man and the woman. This second 'skin' would protect them until something better came along. Temples throughout the world have, almost to a one, a sacrificial system in place to appease various deities. A pinch of incense here, a pure virgin there, a grain offering can't hurt. Somehow, we have to get those angry gods off our backs. That, and they always seem to have these temples on hilltops and mountaintops where high priests and kings intercede between us and them. The Bible also talks about temples on mountains, gardens, sacrifices, and being 'right' with God. Why is it all so familiar? Did all of these pagan religions and cultures 'borrow' these ideas from God's people? Worse yet, did the Hebrews 'borrow' these ideas from their pagan neighbors? Which came first, the sacrificial chicken or the fertility egg?
These kinds of questions scare us. Can I hold on to my faith in what the Bible says when I find out that there were/are religions that speak of almost all the same themes? In reading about the Temple and its importance to the church's ministry, I was surprised at how much overlap there was between the Biblical witness and the imagery and even content of the surrounding cultures. The Ancient Near East (ANE) is filled with creation narratives and judgments from the gods on humanity. Yet in each of these accounts, there are also striking differences between the Biblical account and what the ANE describe.
While to our modernistic and materialistic ears the Biblical account of creation and the fall may seem quite fantastic, it is surprisingly tame and materially coherent compared to the surrounding narratives of the ANE. The striking similarities between the Biblical narrative and the surrounding culture is counterbalanced by the wildly fantastic differences found in some of those other stories. Yes, they all have similar creation narratives. But unlike the Biblical narrative, which sees the physical realm as inherently good, the surrounding tales find the physical creation being born out of conflict and violence. We, as physical beings, exist because of war. We are the offspring of violence. In other words, what's the matter with matter? In the Hebrew Scriptures, nothing. In much of the surrounding narratives, everything.
Thus the 'end' or 'purpose' of our story in the pagan world is to either escape this inherently flawed world (think gnostics) or duke it out on the ground level in imitation of the pantheon of gods vying for head man (or woman) on the totem pole. In either case, we escape or we compete violently to get the upper hand.
A Violent Peace
But what about the blood? Many people get queasy at the sight of blood. Some Christians do too. Blood seems, well, so bloody. The whole idea of blood sacrifices seems like something more akin to a vampire movie than to anything modern Christians could believe. But it's our modernism that's the problem, not the blood. Christianity has always acknowledged the importance of blood. After all, it's the blood of Jesus that washes away my sins isn't it? Nothing but the blood? We sing it, but it still makes us uneasy. Blood implies violence. But isn't the gospel about peace? Is the gospel message about God reconciling a people to Himself. He makes peace with us, His enemies. But how does God, at least the God of the Hebrew/Christian Scriptures, make peace?
Before we get to how God makes peace, let's get a better idea of why there needs to be peace in the first place. If we need peace, maybe that's because there is currently war. But if we need peace because there is already war, then how did we get war? War came about because of rebellion. Back at the beginning, as we saw earlier, there is a rebellion. There is a rebellion of humans against God. But there is also a rebellion of the angelic realm against God too. We know that not only from the Genesis account with that nachash character asking all the wrong questions, but because of other accounts that tell us about an earlier (apparently) cosmic rebellion. Isaiah alludes to it in chapter 14:12-14 when he speaks of the fall of the king of Babylon. Ezekiel too speaks the same way when he describes the fall of the king of Tyre in chapter 28:11-19. While this is a lament against the king of Tyre, verse 14 seems to point pretty strongly towards something or someone beyond and before a mere mortal king. By the way, it's in this passage that we see the garden of God, Eden, also being described as the holy mountain of God. There are several other passages that also describe the cosmic rebellion, but the main concern here is to bring out that there was a spiritual rebellion among these angels and other spirit beings that occurred before the human fall. One of the characteristic features of these descriptions of the cosmic fall is that these powers are always violent and perpetrate injustice. They are unholy, both in their idolatry and in their impurity.
Meanwhile, back to the blood. One day Abraham gets told by God to sacrifice his son Isaac. Go up to this mountain and offer him up as a burnt offering. Again, this is hard stuff. We recoil at this idea. We always breath a sigh of relief when God intervenes through His angel by providing a lamb/ram tangled in a thicket nearby. "God Himself will provide a lamb." That was the promise to Abraham. He did provide Himself a lamb to Abraham. The Son of promise lived so that a still later Son of promise might die.
To be holy is to be in the presence of God. To be holy is to have the presence of God in your midst. To be holy is to dwell with God. To be holy is to have God dwell with you.
In the Mean Time
God meets people in all kinds of interesting places. He meets them on roads to Damascus. He meets them when they're asleep. He meets them out in open fields while they tend flocks of sheep. He meets them in burning bushes. He just shows up. Sometimes a particular person is looking for God. Many times they're not. In fact, sometimes they're running headlong in the other direction. But each time God meets someone, they remember the spot they wer at when it happened. It's kind of like "Where were you when 9/11 happened?" We all know. It's seared into our memories because ot was such a traumatic event. Well, meeting God is traumatic too. You don't soon forget that moment either. That is, of course, if you live to tell about it.
Each time someone met God in the period of the patriarchs, they set up altars, usually a collection of stones, in order to commemorate the event. It also set aside that spot as a sacred space, holy ground. It's the place where God met with us. Heavenly-earthly intersections. Portals to the spiritual realm that had a dangerous, special significance. Take off your shoes. Treat this spot with care. God was here. These stones remember that. These meeting places are heavenly footsteps, spiritual impressions left behind that somehow still resonate with a shimmer of His presence. He keeps showing up. First with the first couple in the garden. Then with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Even more so with Moses. We see a much more developed scene of the heavenly realm when God talks to Moses. He even commands Moses to build a tabernacle that corresponds to the heavenly original! He gets the specs direct from God! That way, whenever they moved, God's special presence (His shekinah glory) moved with them. He traveled with them as they sojourned through the wilderness. Eventually, they would make it to the promised land. But not yet. Even more temples were to come. A king would need to build a more permanent structure. But the temples soon to be built left something to be desired. They were too handy so to speak. That's not the kind of temple God really wanted anyway. But it's a good pointer to the real deal.
The first Temple; that is, the Temple of Solomon, was commanded by God. He had commanded David, but David was a man of war, so he couldn't lawfully construct the temple (1 Kings 5:3). Only a man of peace could build the temple. David's son's name Solomon means "peace." It's a variant of the Hebrew word shalom. God's Temple could only be built by a man of peace, during a time of peace or rest. Thus David could not, but his son, Solomon, could and would. God commanded the Israelites to build Him a Temple in order to make His name known (1 Kings 5:5). But even Solomon seemed to acknowledge that what he built was wholly inadequate for the task at hand.
Looking for God in all the wrong places
There were other "temples" too. Human beings can't help but be religious. We have to worship something! Either it's going to be the God who actually created all that is, or it's going to be other spiritual beings in the heavenly realm, or it's going to be a creation itself, or it's going to be the most available candidate for worship, ME! As Bob Dylan says, "ya gotta serve somebody."
Temples, towers, shrines, altars. They all evoke images of sacred space, holy ground, places of worship. All of human history is filled with these places in one form or another. According to the Biblical account, the prototypical idolatrous temple is the tower of Babel. It's the original rebellious power. All other images of rebellion and idolatry hearken back to that original act and place. Whether it's the Assyrians, the Baylonians themselves, the Chaldeans (another name for the same people), or the later Persians, Greeks, or Romans, they all speak of setting up a counterfeit version of what God intended. It's what I like to call the "evil twin skippy" effect. It looks like the real thing, but it's a counterfeit. It has to approximate the real thing in order to be able to pass itself off as the real thing, and I'm not talking about Coke!
The idolatries and false temples of the Old Testament, and of the other parts of the world even up to today all speak to this copy-cat tendency.
Tuesday, February 06, 2007
A SECULAR FAITH:
WHY CHRISTIANITY FAVORS THE SEPARATION OF CHURCH AND STATE
By Darryl Hart
Darryl Hart has written an unusual book. It is unusual primarily because he argues for a secular viewpoint regarding governance, yet from a conservative protestant perspective. Typically, most advocates of governing from a secular basis have themselves come from a non-religious, or even an anti-religious perspective. Hart’s twist is that he is a religious conservative, and argues his thesis for a secular politics from his theological orthodoxy, not from any underlying liberalism.
In writing his book, Hart is concerned to protect the orthodoxy of basic Christian teaching and practice from the corrupting influence brought about by politicizing the faith, whether from the left or the right. In the Preface, as well as in the Introduction, Hart presents his argument that Christianity is essentially an apolitical faith, and that any attempts to use it for political ends “fundamentally distort the Christian religion because it is essentially an otherworldly faith.” (p.16). Thus Hart offers up what he calls a “Christian secularist” alternative to “values evangelicals” on the one hand and “legal secularists” on the other.
In chapter 1, “City on a Hill,” Hart recounts the famous sermon of John Winthrop aboard the Arbella called “A Model of Christian Charity” and shows how influential that sermon has been to America’s self conception since then. Yet, more importantly, Hart points out that Winthrop’s understanding of the Puritan experiment in America was “an effort to perpetuate Christendom” (p.38); a concept that Hart clearly is glad to see as a past tense reality.
In chapter 2, “Whose Freedom, Which Liberty?” Hart describes in great detail the work of John Witherspoon, the only minister to sign the Declaration of Independence. I had always understood Witherspoon to be one of the most orthodox Christians among the founders of the nation, yet I had not realized how politicized, and thus distorted, Christian teaching had already become, even with him. He basically argued that ““the temporal and eternal happiness of us and our society,” depended on political autonomy” and that “true religion, that is, Protestant Christianity, flourished only where civil magistrates protected civil liberties” (p.51).
Witherspoon also argued that not only did ‘true religion’ only flourish under civil liberties, but that ‘true religion’ itself was responsible for those very liberties. Hart goes on to describe how this unproved assumption permeated American Christian thinking from Witherspoon, and his “Christian republicanism,” through to the Social Gospel era, even to the modern “Christian Right” and their conservative allies. Later on in the same chapter, Hart points out that the Westminster Assembly, which produced the famous Confession of the same name, met during deeply politically charged times. Yet in the parts of that confession that would seemingly have the most political importance, in those parts that spoke of Christian liberty, “the Westminster divines paid no attention to politics.” (p.62). And as he says on the next page, “this freedom had nothing to do with politics because it was as much the privilege of the “martyr at the stake, the slave in his chains, the prisoner in his dungeon, as well as the king upon the throne.”” (p.63). Basically, for Hart, a Christian is free because of Christ, not because of any civil liberties he may or may not enjoy. Amen to that!
In the next chapter, “For Goodness’ Sake,” Hart illustrates the moralism that many, if not most, of the founders infused into public schooling and how they used Christian language to legitimate that political purpose. Yet it was a Christian language that was gutted of any particular doctrinal content, leaving only the ethical behavior, so that better citizens might be produced. Yet biblical and historical Christianity has always held that true Christian faith must have the doctrinal underpinning in order to make any sense of the ethical behavior. As Hart says,
What is remarkable is that more Protestants did not see the problem, and that present-day Protestants who advocate religion in public schools do not understand the way in which their religion is abused when used only for its ethical norms while neglecting the centrality of its redemptive message. One plausible explanation for the disparity is that the believers who desire a common morality for public institutions like schools are actually better republicans than they are Christians. (p.93)
In “Under God” Hart has two main points. The first one is that America is no more “under God” than any other nation, in the sense that God is “over” every nation, whether they acknowledge Him or not. Our saying so or not changes that reality not one whit. He then goes on to describe the development of the redefined “kingdom of God” theology that shaped America’s “Christian” identity between the Civil War and World War I. A theology that, in Hart’s estimation, was “fundamentally flawed.” (p.116). Essentially, the state’s purpose is justice and the church’s purpose is mercy. And “[t]o confuse the two is to misconstrue the bad cop (the state) and the good cop (the church).” (p.122). And both Christian liberals and conservatives have “to answer the question of whether in fact God or liberal democracy is Lord.” (p.122).
Hart follows up with “The People’s Faith,” which describes the democratic impulse in America’s religious life, best described by its anti-creedalism and its anti-clericalism. This also left American Protestantism deeply anti-Catholic and led to the chronic “Americanist” controversies. But primarily, Hart is concerned to point out how a “democratized” Christianity presented itself as the necessary ingredient for a successful democracy. This interplay is described and challenged by Hart, as well as by such luminaries as J.Gresham Machen and Stanley Hauerwas. In other words, just because American Christianity got “democratized” doesn’t mean that democracy “needs” Christianity.
In “Impersonal Politics,” John F. Kennedy’s Roman Catholicism, and Al Smith’s before him, was seen as being too influential for many American Protestants. Since the constitution made clear that no religious test could be required for serving in any public office, these candidates had to prove that they were not “too” Catholic. Oh, how times have changed! Now, every candidate for elected office, especially the presidency, has to prove how their faith has impacted their policy decision-making, or else they are seen as suspect. More interestingly, Hart brings out how American Christians have given themselves over to a view of the self that is not necessarily biblical, but may in fact be more informed by modern therapeutic concepts and political ideologies.
Hart advocates a Christian life that is better understood as a “hyphenated” existence, segmented by parallel commitments that don’t necessarily always overlap. Hart also brings up the apparently contradictory advice given in the two scriptures of Luke 16:13 and Matthew 22:21, where believers are alternately told to not serve two masters and to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. His answer to this dilemma is strikingly similar to what John Piper says in his recent book, “What Jesus Demands From The World.” Basically, “by serving Caesar, Christians may better serve Christ.” (p.174).
In “The Tie That Divides” Hart gives a broad overview of the work of the Protestant ecumenical movement in the twentieth century through the Federal, then National Council of Churches, which sought to further “christianize” America through social action and influence. All the while radically watering down the doctrinal content of the Christian message in order to make the appeal as broad as possible. He also shows the similarity of the National Association of Evangelicals to the earlier ecumenism, in that they also sought to set aside divisive theological issues among “conservative” Protestants so as to better influence and impact the greater culture. Hart more than adequately points out the fundamental difficulty of giving up theological distinctives in order to “redeem” the culture.
In “The Dilemma of Compassionate Conservatism” Hart enters into the current period of values politics. Here, Hart argues his most contentious view, that the pursuit of “Christian politics” is a fool’s errand. He recounts the developments over the last thirty or so years of the re-entry of the fundamentalist and evangelical fold back into politics, after having self-segregated themselves to pursue the saving of souls to the exclusion of the culture wars. Hart’s description of the difficulties inherent in president Bush’s Faith Based Initiative is well put when he says,
the issue of federal funding for religious charitable organizations begged a fundamental question in pursuit of the legal one. Instead of asking whether the constitution permitted such entanglement of religion and politics, Bush, DiLulio, and others weighing in should have been asking whether the teachings of Bush’s favorite philosopher were compatible with the essential logic of the faith-based initiative. (pp.212-213)
Later in the same chapter, Hart describes the efforts of evangelical progressives such as Jim Wallis and Ron Sider to reintegrate “evangelical” beliefs into public policy as early as the seventies. How that re-engagement first showed itself in the Christian Right of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. And then the ultimate irony of how “[n]ot until George W. Bush’s election in 2000 and his faith-based initiative did the largest and oldest institutional guardian of the evangelical movement adopt a social agenda comparable to the 1973 Chicago Declaration of the evangelical left.” (p.225).
Further along in this same chapter Hart becomes clearer in his own affinities regarding Christian involvement in public affairs when he mentions the impact of Calvin College and Seminary and their influence from Abraham Kuyper, who ultimately believed that “all of life is religious” (p.229). Hart’s critique of this perspective becomes obvious when he says, “The idea that the affairs of civil society or public policy are part of a cosmic contest between the forces of good and evil nurtures a zero-sum approach to government that leaves little room for compromise and raises questions about what to do with nonbelievers and idolatry.” and even more troubling, that “the most God-honoring state would at least be one that tolerates only the true faith, with theocracy being a distinct possibility.” (p.229).
Next, Hart offers a view that is better understood as Lutheran than Reformed when he argues for a “two kingdom” approach to the church’s interaction with civil society. He also parts company with many of his Presbyterian brethren when he argues for a much more discontinuous view regarding the church and Israel in the Old and New Testaments. Hart’s no dispensationalist, but he clearly repudiates, without even having to directly say so, the theonomist and reconstructionist view, which sees almost total continuity between the covenants and the church and Israel.
The traditional Lutheran two kingdom theology sees the church being responsible for spiritual needs and the state being responsible for the physical, temporal realm. The other distinctive that is seen much more clearly in Lutheran thought, is that they emphasize the theology of the cross, which takes more seriously the value of redemptive suffering, over the theology of glory typically seen in Reformed circles, which tends towards identifying the church with Israel “entering and inheriting the land” during this age. This mindset naturally leads to a “dominionist” attitude that sees the use of statecraft and its’ leverage as being a necessary component of “bringing in” the kingdom of God.
Finally, in “A Secular Faith,” the final chapter, Hart offers up his defense of the “Christian secularist” approach to the church’s appropriate interaction with the larger culture. He argues that not only did the reformation secularize the West, leading ultimately to the disestablishment of the church in the French and American revolutions, but that Christianity (and even earlier, Judaism) were/are inherently secularizing religions. Since Judaism posits a transcendent God that cannot be manipulated magically by its adherents, and Christianity cleaves even further the sacred/secular divide through the teachings of Christ and the apostles, contra the monistic political/religious construct of Islam, and Protestant Christianity has deepened that secular impulse, we, as American Protestant Christians, should welcome living hyphenated lives that can be “in, but not of” the world around us. As Hart says at the end, dare to be a Daniel! Since “This Daniel, the assimilated and devout prophet, may be the best model for American Christians wanting to know how to participate meaningfully in public life.” (p.256).
Darryl Hart has written an unusual book. But it’s also an important book for anyone concerned to be faithful to Christ and his call to our lives as Christians. Whether you agree with everything Hart says or not is less important than acknowledging the importance of how our interaction with American politics has impacted our witness as Christians, whether individually or as a church. If Hart is largely right, then we need to reconsider where we spend our energy. Are we going to run around, seeing who we can get elected into various offices in order to bring about certain legislation that we see as being more “Christian” or “evangelical,” or are we going to get to the work that Christ and his designated heirs commanded us to do?
And if there is a concern that Hart is advocating a type of Christian quietism that reverts back to the self-segregation that typified an earlier American fundamentalism, he points out that “with a properly high estimate of the created order, human nature, and the relative importance of civil society for maintaining order and restraining evil (at least), Christians may fruitfully participate in public life not as a site of redemption but as an essential part of their humanity.” (p.257). In other words, “secular politics is thoroughly compatible with orthodox Christianity.” (p.257). As a thoroughly political person who is also trying to be faithful to my Christian calling, this is music to my ears!
Wednesday, January 24, 2007
END TIME DELUSIONS:
The Rapture, the Antichrist, Israel, and the End of the World
by Steve Wohlberg
I read this book anticipating that I would find myself agreeing with much of what was written within its pages. Since I knew that the author, Steve Wohlberg, is very critical of popular end time views popularized by such novels as Left Behind, I knew that I would at least agree with much of his critique. His style of writing is very engaging and easy enough to understand and he has a flair for turning a phrase. This makes the book a quick read for those interested in delving into end time issues. The book itself is broken down into four sections that deal with what he believes are delusions concerning the rapture, the seven year tribulation, the Antichrist, and Israel.
In the first section dealing with the rapture, Wohlberg does a very good job of showing scripturally that the ‘rapture’ is neither pre-tribulational or secret/invisible. He follows in the tradition of many classical Protestant writers who have taught that Christ’s church will be ‘caught up’ to be with the Lord upon Christ’s glorious appearing and not seven years earlier in a secret rapture. He also points out that the doctrine of the pre-tribulational rapture did not come about until the 1830’s under the teaching of John Nelson Darby and the Plymouth Brethren. It was through the study notes of the famous Scofield Bible that Dispensationalism, which teaches the radical separation of the church and Israel and the pre-tribulational rapture, became the dominant eschatology in America. As far as section one is concerned, Wohlberg is standing with historic Protestant teaching concerning the end times. So far so good.
In section two, dealing with the doctrine of the seven year tribulation, Wohlberg again critiques the traditional Dispensational view of the prophecy of Daniel 9, which has posited that there is a break between the 69th and the 70th weeks which constitute the ‘church age’ we live in today. Again, he adequately illustrates that church teaching has historically held that all 70 weeks dealt with the period leading up to the first advent of Christ and the destruction of the second temple by Titus’s Roman army in 67-70 AD.
Again, so far so good.
In the third section, dealing with the issue of the Antichrist, Wohlberg starts off in the first four chapters pointing out what scripture teaches concerning the Antichrist, and again stands with historic church teaching (Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox) on that issue, contrary to modern Dispensational teaching. In chapter 11, Wohlberg argues emphatically that the Antichrist cannot be an individual person, but must be a kingdom, based on his connecting the 2nd Thessalonians passage describing the man of sin with the Daniel passage describing the 4th beast. While this may be an accurate interpretation, it is an issue many sincere, godly, and theologically orthodox Christian teachers have come to different conclusions about. Thus being dogmatic about this can bring unnecessary division among those who would otherwise agree on more fundamental issues of faith.
It is in several of the subsequent chapters that Wohlberg begins to express views that differ significantly, not only with traditional Dispensational teaching concerning the Antichrist and its interpretation of John’s Revelation, but also with historic church teaching concerning eschatology and even the incarnation of Christ.
Wohlberg adheres to an eschatological viewpoint called ‘historicism’ which sees the majority of John’s Revelation being a rough timeline of church history until Christ’s return at the end of the age. Many of the Protestant reformers and many well-respected Protestant teachers up to today have held to historicism or variants of it. Many of my favorite teachers and theologians held to that view. I do not. It is, to this day, a minority viewpoint among Protestants, even among those who do not hold to Dispensationalism. Historicism has always been strongly anti-Catholic, since it sees the Roman Catholic Church as the apostate ‘Whore of Babylon’ described in Revelation. Strangely enough, Wohlberg quotes Dave Hunt, a fellow anti-Catholic as a trustworthy source concerning the Catholic church, even though Hunt holds strongly to traditional Dispensationalism, a viewpoint Wohlberg later on describes as being a false teaching and a product of demonic ‘frogs’ sent to delude Christians! Apparently, Hunt is still trustworthy enough to speak on all things Roman Catholic, even though he is also a purveyor (according to Wohlberg’s own arguments) of demonic deception through his Dispensationalism. Strange indeed.
Again, while historicism is one of several Protestant viewpoints concerning how best to interpret Revelation, Wohlberg takes what ‘could’ be interpreted a certain way and makes it into what ‘must’ be interpreted that way. The net result of this method is that if anyone takes another viewpoint from his, they are misled at best, probably deluded, and maybe even under the influence of demonic powers. This lack of humility in interpreting the text of scripture leads to a type of Protestant popery itself. Wohlberg, unfortunately is guilty of an arrogant assumption that his reading of scripture is the ‘plain’ and ‘obvious’ reading, uncontaminated by any influences of culture, ideology, or personal interest. Later on, I will show that Wohlberg himself has been influenced greatly by teachings that he does not acknowledge, yet which have deeply shaped his theology. But more on that later.
The most troubling aspect of Wohlberg’s book has to do with his Christology. In his zeal to be as anti-Catholic as possible, he ends up doing fundamental damage to the doctrine of the incarnation of Christ. In chapter 18, “The I.D. of Antichrist”, Wohlberg brings up the key passages from John’s letters concerning the Antichrist. Passages stating that the spirit of Antichrist is shown by those who deny Christ as having come ‘in the flesh’. Wohlberg then goes on to explain what denying that Christ has come in the flesh means. It is here that he gets into heretically deep waters.
On page 106, Wohlberg says:
Here’s a key question: What kind of flesh did Jesus become when He fused with humanity? Paul answered with the utmost clarity: “Forasmuch then as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, He also Himself likewise took part of the same” (Hebrews 2:14 KJV, emphasis added). Don’t miss it. Paul said Jesus took “the same” flesh as “the children” have. “The children” doesn’t apply to Adam and Eve, for they were never babies but were created directly by God in the Garden of Eden. Rather, “the children” applies to their descendants after sin entered the world, that is, to fallen humanity. (all emphasis in original)
Also on page 106, Wohlberg then goes on to explain what “the flesh” is.
“”The flesh” is a biblical expression which describes our basic human nature as it has been affected by sin. Paul said, “For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells…” (Romans 7:18). In other words, the flesh itself is bad. It’s our enemy. It’s like a nasty cesspool that often stinks and seeks to drag us down. “The flesh” is the channel through which satan works to tempt us and lead us into actual sin.”
Here, Wohlberg seems to be stating that the term “flesh” can only mean our sinful/bad/fallen nature, and that it cannot have any other meaning. However, the passages that speak of Christ coming “in the flesh” use that language not to connote Christ’s supposed sharing of our fallen status, but of being fully “physically” human. In particular, the apostle John wrote what he did precisely because he was dealing with those who denied that Christ had actually come in the flesh. These proto-Gnostics were saying that Christ only “appeared” to have come in the flesh, since, in their eyes, the flesh was inherently evil, and therefore could not inherit salvation. The essence of the spirit of antichrist was twofold: that Christ had not “really” come in the flesh, and that God had not ‘incarnated’ Himself through Christ Jesus. In other words, Christ’s deity was also denied. There is nothing in John’s letters or his gospel that imply in any way that Christ possessed a ‘fallen’ nature like ours. To be fair to Wohlberg, he does make clear that Christ never sinned. Yet even what he has affirmed is far beyond what scripture itself states concerning Christ’s nature in the incarnation.
In the following chapter, entitled “Battle of the Isms”, Wohlberg argues that the Roman Catholic Church, through two Jesuit priests, has conspired to divert the church’s attention to antichrists in the distant past and the distant future. He presents this in such a way as to give the impression that these views, “Preterism” and “Futurism” only came about from their writings. Yet many other writers have illustrated quite well that these views have existed throughout most, if not all, of church history, far pre-dating these two Jesuit authors. Thus, his conspiracy theory ends up falling rather flat in light of the easily found church views on the antichrist. In the next chapter, called “Faith of our Fathers” Wohlberg gives a stirring account of the martyrdoms of John Wycliffe and John Huss. The “Faith of our Fathers” is an apt phrase for Wohlberg to use, since it gives a clue to his own views, which I will bring up after the next section.
In the fourth section called “Israel Delusions” Wohlberg starts out quite well. In the first several chapters, he points out many of the problems inherent in the popular “modern Israel is a signpost to the end times” viewpoint we see so often on “Christian” TV and radio. Yet in his final few chapters, Wohlberg becomes more fanciful in his interpretations of biblical texts and more dogmatic in his ascertains of the clarity of these texts; texts in apocalyptic literature such as Revelation and Daniel and Ezekiel that have always been notoriously difficult to understand, even for the most serious and devout students of scripture.
The last three chapters of Wohlberg’s book reach the final crescendo of what he believes the real “end time delusion” really is. It is in these chapters that his influences begin to come out more readily. Several times during the reading of the book I had an inkling of something more going on than meets the eye when it came to where Steve Wohlberg was coming from in his views. The first clue came from his strong defense of historicism. Again, even though it was the majority report among the early Protestant reformers, his argument for that view raised some red flags for me. Then came his view of Christ’s incarnation that obviously rang some very disturbing bells. It took till the end section, and his argument that the ten commandments would be the dividing line between true believers and the apostate church, to have the rest of the pieces fall into place to help me to realize that he did indeed hold to a consistent viewpoint, but that it had to do with a lot more than just end time issues.
What finally nailed it down for me in fully understanding where Wohlberg was coming from was his own writings on his website that he mentions in the book. On his website, not only does he advocate for the views he expresses in the book, but he also argues for soul sleep, conditional immortality, a non-literal and non-eternal hell, and for full observance of the seventh day Sabbath.
Throughout his book, Wohlberg gives clues to these viewpoints rather indirectly. But he never once acknowledges his own inspiration for these views. He presents his book as the sincere search for biblical truth that’s willing to look beyond what is popularly taught in modern churches. What he does not share, and this raises concerns over his straight-forwardness, is that in every major divergent view, he squares perfectly with Seventh Day Adventists. Many of his references in the book come from Adventist sources, though the names are not well known outside of Adventist circles. In fact, if you do an internet search of his name, you can find that he pastors an Adventist church in California. Yet, even this fact, which most authors are more than happy to include in their biography, is missing from his book. The fact that Wohlberg advocates for every major Adventist viewpoint, yet never acknowledges that in his book, or even on his website, brings out a major feature of Seventh Day Adventist behavior that has plagued them for many years. Adventists have frequently been rightly criticized for not being up front about their identity when they present themselves or their teachings to the general public. Since Steve Wohlberg is himself an Adventist pastor, this criticism holds true for him as well.
Finally, “End Time Delusions” seems like an unusually appropriate title, considering Steve Wohlberg’s own background and views. As much as I agree with much of his critique of popular end time teachings, he ends up representing another fundamentally flawed perspective. Not only on end time issues, which are certainly important, but on even more important doctrines concerning our Christian life and even touching on how we view Christ’s incarnation. It’s ironic that if we are living in the end times, his own book could then be classified as an “end times deception” in its own right. Sad, but I believe, unfortunately true.