Friday, November 20, 2009

Doomsday is so AD 33

Enough has probably been said here and elsewhere (quite excellently, Colin) about the upcoming movie, The Road, and the extent to which it will fail to be true to the book from which it derives. It should be no surprise, given the dearth of Hollywood films portraying an apocalyptic Judgment Day in recent decades, that it will contain dramatic scenes of the global disaster that merely provides the (gratefully) un-described backdrop for the book's true focus, which is the grasping for life of a father and son in bare crisis.

Be that as it may. But what I want to think about is why? What is this fascination with the "end times"? To my dismay it seems that my evangelical church experience emerged from the suffocating fear-mongering of "end times" paranoia just in time for the culture at large to pick it up and take it (even less redemptively) from there.

Okay, I don't exactly know why. Its one of those film-trends I don't get, along with Vampire movies and the whole freakish Saw thing. But I've been thinking about all of this ever since reading NT Wright's Surprised By Hope (and before that I'm sure):

What is our fascination with doomsday? Especially in the church. Should our forward outlook not be characterized by hope? And, to take it further, is Judgment Day ultimately even a future event?

I left my copy of Wright's book at home, but what I am reading these days is Karl Barth's Doctrine of Reconciliation, and this all came flooding to mind again as I read the following words from volume IV.1:

"All sin has its being and origin in the fact that man wants to be his own judge. And in wanting to be that, and thinking and acting accordingly, he and his whole world is in conflict with God. It is an unreconciled world, and therefore a suffering world, a world given up to destruction. . . . And as a world hostile to God it is distinguished by the fact that in this way it repeats the very sin of which it acquits itself. . . . And for this reason the incarnation of the Word means the judgment, the judgment of rejection and condemnation, which is passed on all flesh. Not all men commit all sins, but all men commit this sin which is the essence and root of all other sins. There is not one who can boast that he does not commit it. And this is what is revealed and rejected and condemned as an act of wrong-doing by the coming of the Son of God. This is what makes His coming a coming to judgment, and His office as Saviour His office as our Judge" (220, emphasis mine).

Did you catch that? Is it possible, even proper, to speak of Good Friday--and not some future cataclysm however possible or likely--as the paradigmatic Judgment Day? Is that not the day where we see definitively our sin and our judgment? On the cross (condemned) and from the empty tomb (overcome)? And if so, what does it say that we are now, in the present, alive and looking back on it through Easter Sunday?!! More from Barth:

"The Christian community are those who hear the promise given to the world of people, just as they are those who hear the verdict pronounced on it and the direction given to it. . . . They are those who have the perspective that they will "live under Him in His kingdom, and serve Him." In "Jesus Christ the promise or pledge of God--which cannot be compared with anything we might promise ourselves--is already given to us. It is actually made to the world. So then (without having to create illusions about itself) the world is no longer a world without hope" (114-115, emphasis mine).

I'm not trying to deny the biblical portrayal of a day of reckoning of some sort, nor that the hope laid out in Scripture is a new heaven and earth that eclipses the old in some way. I do not wish to counter the error of earthly despair with one of naive triumphalism. But I most certainly do not believe in a pre-tribulation rapture or a tribulation of the sort envisioned by the over-productive pens of Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. I have some thoughts and opinions brewing about such things as hell and heaven and the so-called "end times", but what I believe in and am oriented by is Jesus Christ, the hope of the world.

In Surprised by Hope (which I can't recommend highly enough (if for no other reason than its mixture of readability and intelligence), Wright addresses the question of Jesus' sovereignty over the messed-up world (upon which these doomsday movies seem so intent to fix our eyes), and describes the startlingly hopeful life to which only the risen Jesus can summon us:

Living in this hope is not a matter of “simply taking over and giving orders in a kind of theocracy where the church could simply tell everyone what to do. That has sometimes been tried, of course, and it’s always led to disaster. But neither is it a matter of the church backing off, letting the world go on its sweet way, and worshipping Jesus in a kind of private sphere. Somehow there is a third option, . . . [and we] can glimpse it in the book of Acts: the method of the kingdom will match the message of the kingdom. The kingdom will come as the church, energized by the Spirit, goes out into the world vulnerable, suffering, praising, praying, misunderstood, misjudged, vindicated, celebrating: always—as Paul puts it in one of his letters—bearing in the body the dying of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be displayed” (112).


Stewart said...

i have your NT Wright book and am a good way through it...what a fantastic piece of theology/ literature. We must avoid an escapist mentality (we are on this earth for a purpose) while at the same time yearn for something better (both now and later). This kind of realism is so refreshing when compared to the hype of dispensational eschatology or the highly allergorical reaction of liberal theology.

Jon Coutts said...

I was actually just reading on in this section in Barth and he actually implies that Judgment Day was creation day, when God opted for order rather than chaos, being rather than nothing, and calling it good, resting it and calling it very good. the crucifixion and resurrection of the incarnate God, Barth says, are really God's affirmation of that creative event.

Matthew A. Wilkinson said...

Choosing to emphasize the life of Christ instead of Christ's day of judgement (not "judgment," Mr. Spellchecker) makes you polite and relatively inoffensive; but you've still got that skeleton of judgement in the closet. I'd be interested in hearing, Jon, your "thoughts and opinions... about such things as hell and heaven and the so-called 'end times.'"

I think artists are interested in end times/post-apocalyptic stuff because it's a great metaphor. The craziness of Christian artists cashing in on it all, is that they really believe it.

It's like Americans who believe the Old West existed like in a John Wayne film. It's absurd. It's not that we should attack the John Wayne films (as too many did in the 60s and 70s); rather, we need to educate people about the history of the Old West so that audiences can appreciate the Western without taking it as propaganda. Similarly, the genre of end times art is fine; I just hope not too many people actually believe it.

That's my cynical, obvious, predictable, liberal, Western, atheist response. I hope I haven't been too adversarial, and that I've made some sense.

Jon Coutts said...

Are you sure it is "judgement"? Microsoft Word only accepts "judgment". Oh well.

No worries about being adversarial. I've got plenty in that post to disagree with whether you are an atheist or a Christian.

I'll have to be the first to admit I have an allergy to "end time" stuff in Christian theology because it has had such a negative felt-effect on my life. I have to be careful my thoughts are not driven by my reactive presuppositions in this regard. Next to gender, this is the theological issue that drives me the craziest in church, mostly because one "reading" of the issues goes untouched and assumed, and though incredibly important to our life-outlooks, these issues are generally avoided with relative unconcern! And for some reason we'll tolerate more alternate views of Jesus Christ and Church than we will discussion on these things. But I digress.

I hope I'm not merely being polite and relatively unoffensive. Ugh. My point is not really to discuss "end times" scenarios, but nor is it to hide the skeleton in the closet. My point is that, even before we talk about interpreting such texts and potential events we have to get something straight, else we slide completely off the rails: There is no paradigmatic event which settles the score and simultaneously unveils and judges evil other than the crucifixion of the Son of God. And because He lives, Christians thus see sin judged and put in its place and are people who hope. If we get this wrong, then Judgment Day becomes merely a moral motivation tool, and Christ is almost left out of our lives until his return, like Santa Claus, to see whose been naughty or nice, who has responded well enough to his forgiving and inspiring pep talk 2000 years ago. Fear takes center stage in Christianity, and this in the very faith which makes the mind-boggling statement that "perfect love drives out fear."

So on principle I look at doomsday flicks and end times speech and I say our focus is all wrong. Not because we offer impolite reminders that God in our future will be just, but because it is theologically and perspectivally more concerned with (as Barth puts it) God's "No" than its prevenient and overshadowing "Yes" on either side! Thus we don't really know God all that well.....

Jon Coutts said...

I should definitely come back and discuss "end times" interpretations, but that's not my point here. I'll go ahead and say that I think biblical indications of tribulation and millenium are both concurrent apocalyptic metaphors for the time in which we now live. I also think that in the future there will be a new heavens and new earth in the same way that there will be a resurrection. No one things that on death I am annhialated and replaced with another person. Something of continuity will remain, something redeemed. I don't deny that there is death first, as for a seed, that life will bloom, and perhaps that means some kind of specific future cataclysmic event. As for hell, I'm unconvinced about eternal torment. This is one I'm still thinking through.

I am more than happy to come back to that, its just that for now it isn't my point. My view of hell will have to deal with my belief that on the cross justice was done. The first doctrine submits to the latter, and not vice versa.

A couple things I'll disagree with. I agree that these movie makers probably don't believe what they are saying, but by and large this doomsday idea is pervasive in our culture because people believe it. They believe that if humanity does not alter its course there is big crap in its future. I think that paranoia is real outside the church, even though, you're right, these films are just cashing in on perhaps one of the biggest untapped resources for CGI imaginable, the book of revelation. I understand that. What I don't understand is how it hasn't been untapped yet already!

I'll also disagree that this is a skeleton in the closet of Christianity. Admittedly our rendering of the end times is embarassing, if not for its manipulative use at least for its extremely cheesy Left Behind rendering. I am ashamed of those things. However, I think that Justice, and being able to trust God to be, in the "end", Just, is incredibly important and central to Christianity. And I think the Christian account of God's justness, if taken properly, has the most potential for promoting peace, love, and relative justice in our own time. If the Christian notion of a Judgment of God is hidden in the closet then another supposed skeleton replaces it, which we also get accused of often enough: Not taking evil and suffering seriously.

At least when Christians get off the rails taking justice in their own hands, there is something in the faith which can reel them in. I'm not sure there is for any other religion, not least of all atheism. I can talk more about that, but my post on Zizek from a couple years ago addresses this a bit if you are curious about it further. For now I'll sign off. Thanks for raising that.

My intent was to talk about focus, and wasn't trying to start something, but that said I'm happy to elaborate and explore pretty much anything that I've not satisfactorily addressed or explained.

Jon Coutts said...

great illustration with the Old West genre. I may use that myself someday if that's alright with you.

Colin Toffelmire said...

I love the Good Friday stuff, and I completely agree that the Cross is the best place to see the judgment of God. When you read Isa 53 typologically and hold it up to the cross we see that there, in Jesus, the concept of one being judged for all is there given its full expression (...why have you forsaken...).

I think you are totally and completely wrong about end-of-the-world movies and the psychology behind them, though. No matter how producers and movie stars talk when they promote their doomsday films, the doomsday film is, in almost every incarnation, NOT about how bad things are or how much trouble we're in. The message of all (proove me wrong) doomsday movies is that no matter how tight a bind we get ourselves into, we'll be okay. The great hero will rise up and save us. We will change in time. The human race cannot conceive of the concept that we will honestly destroy our race. Doomsday movies aren't about confronting the reality of our situation, they are about not confronting the reality of our situation.

The Road (the novel), might be the one exception to this that I can think of. When I closed that book I did not think that the boy would be okay. In fact The Road is really about the idea that humanity can't not keep going. We can't lay down and die (en masse I mean). Even when the journey is truly hopeless (where are they going anyway?), we keep walking.

The difference between secular doomsday movies and Left Behind isn't that the Christians acually believe their crazy stuff. There isn't a difference. They all believe. They believe that the world (their world) will never end in a truly final way.

The reasons that the films work is because that's what you and I believe too. Not to put it too bluntly ;).

Jon Coutts said...

I think you may be right about that assessment of doomsday movies, Colin. Actually, I'm pretty dang sure you are.

Ha, I'm enjoying being disagreed with. Anyone else?

Anonymous said...

I had a real full weekend - sorry I missed out on this one so far.
The funny thing to me about the Christian apocalyptic mindset is that, in a weird messed-up kind of way, dooms-day has somehow become our hope. I continually try to preach/live Christ as our present hope, but still, people get their backs up when I mess with Revelation, because it has essentially become their "preferred future". Absolutely mind-boggling...

Also, I mentioned this a few times before, but McLaren's "The Last Word and the Word After That" has been an excellent book for me in rethinking judgment, heaven, and hell. It's written as a narrative, but it's still deeply theological. I think it would help you process.

Jon Coutts said...

Thanks Jon. I think the next step for me is a thought-experiment on hell where I "test" some of "my" ideas against the passages in question honestly as possible.