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Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Jesus Tells a Hard Story

“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man's table.”

So opens the story Jesus tells in Luke 16, which I recently preached on. Lots of preachers from various traditions don’t find it to be such a difficult parable to interpret. (I’m aware of the minority view which holds it isn’t actually a parable at all—more about that view in a bit.) At the same time, I think conservative Lutheran preachers approach this text with a fair amount of trepidation, worrying they’ll either have to soften what Jesus says so he doesn’t really mean what the story implies, or they’ll have to preach a message which can’t be squared with the rest of the New Testament message.

Why is this parable such a problem? (Let’s assume for the time being it is a parable.) How is it a problem text, and how can we deal with it responsibly?

You probably know it well enough, but the synopsis of the story is this: Two men, a nameless rich guy and a beggar named Lazarus, have their life stories intersect twice—once in this life, and again in the afterlife. In this world the rich man has an abundance of wealth, so that day after day he lives the good life, while in contrast, Lazarus has a truly wretched and miserable life. Dressed in rags, starving, with open sores all over his body, Lazarus spends his days lying at the rich man’s gate, hoping for just crumbs and scraps from the rich man’s table.

Then they both die. And after his time is over, the formerly-Rich Man looks up from torment in hell and sees ol’ Lazarus now enjoying the good life at Abraham’s side. When he asks Abraham to send Lazarus on a mission of mercy with a little water to cool his tongue, Abraham tells him why it isn’t possible. When he follows up with a request to have Lazarus rise from the dead and go back to earth to warn his brothers, Abraham tells him they can listen to Moses and the prophets, and if they won’t listen to them, neither will they be convinced if one rises from the dead.

At least the plot is pretty easy to follow. Now what did Jesus mean by it? And how does this story raise issues?

A good place to begin is how this text is usually preached, which is moralistically. The rich man is so well off he could easily use the wealth he’s been blessed with to make an impact in the life of Lazarus. The mere fact that life never improves for Lazarus, that Lazarus dies in poverty, reveals the hard-heartedness of the rich man. Having no mercy on the poor or suffering, it is no wonder when he’s judged he is judged without mercy. This passage then gets used as a basis for sermons about social justice, compassion on the poor, the way money and luxury corrupt the soul, and the necessity of using earthly resources to help others.

All of which are worthwhile things to teach on. All of which are conclusions one could draw from other Scriptures. On another blog I’ve written about how concern for social justice should be one dimension of our proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But if I interpret the story this way, I simply make it little morality tale, like a Christian fable or a Just So story: “Here’s what happens to rich people when they aren’t willing to share.” Or, if you prefer to dress it in more pious language: “Here’s what judgment awaits those whose religion doesn’t prove itself genuine through acts of mercy.”

So if I’m a theologically liberal or moderate preacher in a theologically liberal or moderate mainline church, I don’t find it hard to preach on this text. It simply becomes a convenient pretext for talking about social issues. There’s no issue if I believe (as some do) that when God judges a world divided between Haves and Have-nots, He’ll condemn the Haves, or at least condemn the Haves who lacked compassion.

There. Easy.

But what if it’s not obvious how this conclusion squares with the rest of the New Testament? Also, what if this terrible confusion of Law and Gospel (because that’s what it is), causes souls who are already troubled enough as it is to now wonder if they’re going to hell? What if I’m that troubled soul, reading these words of Jesus and worried whether they portend bad things for me? How do I know when I’ve been compassionate enough? As long as there’s anyone poorer than I am, how do I know if I haven’t held on to too much wealth? Responsible preachers ought to think about where people’s imaginations are going to run with that. But the biggest issue is finding a morality lesson where Jesus’ story really doesn’t have one.

Consider what Abraham actually says to the rich man when the first request is made: “Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony.” Of course Abraham also adds the part about a chasm in the way, but the main answer is that both of them are getting the opposite what they’d experienced before death. Abraham doesn’t say anything about compassion or mercy, or sharing or social justice, and he never says the rich man would have escaped destruction and torment if he’d only been more generous in his previous life—all that is just stuff people read into the story, because otherwise Jesus makes no sense to us. After all, on the surface it simply sounds like he’s saying it’s only fair if Lazarus gets good things now, since he had to suffer so much before. And it’s also fair that now the formerly rich man should be getting bad things; he got his good things in his earthly life, and it would be unfair if he got more good things in his afterlife on top of it.

You can have your good things now—your comforts and pleasures and partying—or you can get the nasty bits out of the way first (like Lazarus), and save your good things for the afterlife. That’s certainly the plain-sense meaning of what it says. But can any one imagine this is what Jesus means? If he did mean it that way, could anyone believe it or think it was a good thing?

So you see, as soon as you take the actual words of the text seriously, you’ve got issues! If you approach it as a morality story, you still have issues, because you put it firmly into people’s heads that generosity and deeds are what count in the end, and therefore all that stuff about grace is mostly a fiction.

Getting back to whether it’s actually a parable or not, most people who say it isn’t a parable only make things worse. They dispute it being a parable because: 1. Neither Jesus nor Luke say it’s a parable, and 2. Abraham appears in it, and he was a real, historical person, and 3. the beggar is named Lazarus, and characters in parables aren’t given names. These three points are taken to prove that Jesus is relaying something that actually happened. In other words, according to this view Lazarus was a real person, the rich man was a real person, the rich man really went to hell when he died, Lazarus really went to heaven, and the dialog between the rich man and Abraham really took place.

So taking this to be historical narrative (albeit a narrative Jesus only knows because he’s omniscient), they use the story to intentionally terrify people with literal fires of hell. But all the same issues still remain; they’re only made worse because now it doesn’t involve fictional characters, but supposedly real people! It makes the literal implications for us who live in the materially prosperous West so much worse when we consider all the Third-world Lazarus-figures lying at our gates! Parable or narrative, the issues don’t go away, although it’s easier to ignore Jesus’ words so long as he’s just telling a made-up story.

I don’t apologize for having issues with this. As much as I believe the social implications of the Gospel are important, such interpretations undercut the message of the cross.

Of course I haven’t said much so far about the request to send Lazarus back to the brothers. The climax of the story is in the final words of Abraham: “If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if one rises from the dead.” This is clearly a forward reference to Jesus’ own rising from the dead. Had the unbelieving Jews listened to Moses and the prophets, they might have repented at the rising of Jesus from the dead, but as they refused to hear the witness of Moses and the prophets, the message of the Gospel and the empty tomb was scorned by them. Here at least we have an angle for working in the need to believe in Christ, right?

Sure. And a good Lutheran preacher will run to that climactic point and embrace it. And he’ll be right, because in those final words we are pointed away from basing our chances of getting into heaven on our own goodness. The reference to Moses and the prophets call to mind when Jesus lectured the disciples on the road to Emmaus about how Moses and prophets testified that the Christ would have to suffer and die, and rise again on the third day. In the story, Abraham implies the only way the brothers will avoid destruction in hell is if they listen to Moses and the prophets, and a Christian interpretation takes that to mean believe on God’s Christ. By further implication, the rich man would have not have found himself on the wrong side of the chasm if he’d only listened to Moses and the prophets.

So that takes the story, from the Christian preacher’s point of view, in a more helpful direction. Unfortunately, it doesn’t cause the earlier issues to go away. Even if now a faith component is added, the words of Abraham still amount to, “Lazarus never got a break before, so he’s comforted, but you had your good things, so now you’re in agony. You’re out, and he’s in.”

So how should we understand this? I’m going to suggest we interpret this very differently than it normally is interpreted, and it may be such a radical reinterpretation as to be unsettling to both liberals and orthodox alike. I hope so, anyway.

First things first; for now I’ll take this to be a parable, even though Jesus doesn’t say it is. Honestly, before I’m done I’ll offer something else it may be besides a parable, but for now that’ll work.

Secondly, I’ll agree up front the words about listening to Moses and the prophets are key to understanding what Jesus means, and how it applies to hearers today. This is not a motivational story to get us to be more generous. This is not a thinly veiled threat that the rich will have to make up for any excesses in the hereafter. Jesus’ story is consistent with the Gospel, both as Jesus preached it, and as St. Paul preached it, and no history of good works gets around the necessity of hearing Moses and the prophets.

What’s the main thing that drives this story? Isn’t it the total reversal that takes place between the two characters in the story? Consider the rich man first. He’s not only wealthy, it would be hard to imagine in Jesus’ day how anyone could be wealthier, or more comfortable, or more blessed. He’s not just dressed in fine clothes, he’s dressed in purple, which represents the most expensive clothing one could have. He doesn’t just have more than enough to eat, he feasts at a sumptuous banquet every single day! He’s not just rich, he’s super rich. And don’t even start about his house! When it says Lazarus was lying at or in his gate, you can’t think of a little gate in a white picket fence in front of a four-bedroom, two-bath, split-level. Instead of house, think castle or villa, with a defensive wall going completely around his property, with a gate in the wall for traffic to go back and forth through. Lazarus lies in the gate, not only because he hopes to beg alms from the traffic passing him by, but because the enormous gate in the wall provides shade. No one could live a better life in this life than the rich man.

In the same way, no one could imagine a more wretched life than the one Lazarus was living. Without health in his body, or any means of support, he exists every day in crushing poverty. He’s in rags and he’s starving. And he doesn’t have a single thing on his horizon to suggest things will ever get better for him. One assumes he survives as long as he does on the occasional table scrap he gets from the rich man’s table.

The rich man’s situation is as good as it can get, and the poor man’s is as bad as it can get. And then a life-changing event happens to both of them, namely, death, and after each dies, everything is changed. At Abraham’s side, enjoying the pleasant comforts promised for Abraham’s offspring, Lazarus finally experiences relief and acceptance. Likewise, the rich man now experiences for the first time what it feels like to be rejected and miserable and the lowest of the low. After death, nothing could be better for Lazarus. After death, nothing could get worse for the rich man.

Mark this fact well—this story hinges on a total reversal situations. The rich man, who formerly was “in,” is now completely out, but where he’d always expected he’d be someday—at Abraham’s side—is Lazarus instead. Lazarus is in that position of blessing and honor that the rich man no doubt assumed was his as his birthright. If there was ever a story that illustrated the truth that “the last shall be first, and the first shall be last,” this is it. It illustrates it even better than the parable of the Workers in The Vineyard, when Jesus originally made the point.

But can we understand this story in a way that doesn’t contradict the Gospel as it is explained in other passages? We can. But to get at what it means, we have to pitch out what doesn’t mean and what it’s not talking about.

It’s not talking about heaven. It’s not talking about hell. It’s not talking about money. It tells us almost nothing about personal salvation. Abraham in this story isn’t the real, historical Abraham. Abraham is only important in this story for what he symbolizes, or more specifically, what being at Abraham’s side symbolizes. Also, as far as this story is concerned, heaven and hell only matter for what they symbolize, that one either finds oneself inheriting the blessings of Abraham, or shut out from them, comforted or being destroyed. Heaven represents the final vindication, the fulfillment of the ultimate hope, and hell represents retribution and a tragic downfall beyond imagination.

Needless to say, if Abraham appears in this story as a symbol, so also does Lazarus and the rich man. These are not historical people. They aren’t even a general type of person, as if the rich man represented all hard-hearted, wealthy people, and Lazarus represented all the world’s destitute. Actual money doesn’t figure into this story at all, which is why all the morality lessons about showing mercy to the poor are misplaced. Just as when Jesus talks about sowing and reaping he’s never really talking about agriculture, and when he’s talking about sheep he’s never really talking about four-footed, fluffy animals, when he uses money to make the plot work, it never is really about money.

So let’s consider what Jesus does mean in the parable, even if later we have to reconsider whether the story is a parable after all.

The Rich Man is unbelieving Israel. The riches are spiritual riches, blessings beyond compare. Lazarus lying at his gate is the entire Gentile world—the spiritually impoverished, starving Gentile world. Israel had Moses, and the prophets, and the promises made to Abraham, along with the covenant, the Torah and the temple and the messianic hope. Israel was fed in the desert with the manna God sent them daily from heaven, but even more they were fed with words spoken to them by the Living God.

In contrast, the Gentile cultures around them had either no prophets, or lying prophets. They worshiped idols. They slaved away to carry out meaningless ceremonies and sacrifices. They searched for omens and oracles. If they were like Druids, after all the dancing and orgies, the high priest would throttle a goat, cut it open and spill it, and then try to read the future in the bloody muck. Their religions were at the root of their disease. Occasionally the Gentiles got a scrap from the rich man’s table—the prophet Jonah being one example. Occasionally the Jews demonstrated to the nations around them there is a real God who really hears prayer, and the Syrian general Naaman would be one such person who learned about the true God from the Jews.

But for the most part, unbelieving Israel was content to keep her spiritual treasures to herself, and also content to keep the starving Lazarus well away from the Big House. Israel, the favored nation, the Chosen People, never shared more than table scraps from time to time, while she anticipated what she thought was going to be the consummation of her blessedness. When the end came, Israel expected to be at Abraham’s side, in a good place to watch the demise of all the godless nations that had been thorns in their side.

Instead what happened? A total reversal of outcomes, precipitated by Jesus Christ. Unbelieving Israel will not listen to Moses and the prophets. Neither is unbelieving Israel convinced by one rising from the dead. And in the end, Israel goes through a kind of death, in that Titus of Rome destroys their temple, lays siege to their capital city, scatters the people into exile, and puts an end to their national and religious way of life. John the Baptist had foretold it way back in the beginning when he announced on the eve of Messiah’s appearing that the ax was already laid at the root. What he meant was that God was getting ready to chop down the tree He’d planted, which is to say Israel had a limited time to repent.

Israel “died.” Not only that, but their covenant with God came to an end. The promises God made to Israel were transferred. To where? To the very Gentiles who became incorporated into the new Israel because they did believe the same Gospel to which Moses and the prophets had testified.

The Gentiles “died.” Don’t think because it was rough on Israel, the cultural upheaval was easy for them. They died to a lot of their own previous culture, but the difference was they received an incredible blessing, purely by God’s grace as a result. As St. Paul once wrote in Romans, though they were merely wild olive branches, God broke off the natural branches and grafted the wild branches in. When you’re a branch that’s been grafted in, where do your nutrients come from? From the roots. From Abraham’s roots, planted in Jewish soil, watered with Living Water, the Gentiles gained every spiritual blessing.

To put it back in the terms of Jesus’ story, all the rich man could do is look up, see where he was and where Lazarus was, and wonder what happened. And historically, this total reversal really did take place. Unbelieving Israel really is cut off today from the promises once made to Abraham. Many Christians who are ethnically non-Jewish are adamant that the God they know and trust is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. We are therefore misled when we try to grasp what this parable means for any particular individual’s salvation, because the story invites us to think corporately, not individually, and about the history as it has unfolded, not about my own personal history.

So maybe when Jesus told the story it wasn’t a parable after all. I’d be all for characterizing it as a prophecy.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Law and Gospel Confusion

A repost of this, for the listeners today.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Sign Me Up for "The Coming Great Apostasy"

I’ve heard certain conservative Christians talking about this thing called “The Coming Great Apostasy.” So where do I sign up?

Definition: Apostate—One who betrays or abandons his beliefs, principles, or cause.

I include a definition so no one imagines I’m playing shenanigans with what “apostate” means. I know exactly understand what it means, and if they’re right about a Great Apostasy coming, I want to be sure to be included.

Unfortunately, I’m expecting to be disappointed. Despite all the Bible preachers who keep warning their flocks to be on their guard lest they apostate themselves, the Big Event isn’t likely to ever happen. In fact, the whole “Coming Great Apostasy” seems like it’s shaping up to be a big goose egg. Like so many other presuppositions in the background of American Evangelical culture, this is going to be another one that turns out to be entirely vacuous. And I’m sad about it because I’m not really satisfied being personally labeled an apostate; I was sort of hoping there was going to be whole herd of us.

My co-host, Matthew Pancake, talked with me about this subject recently on our Easter edition of Radical Grace, but let me recap a little for any who may have missed it. I’ve been trying to figure out why so many folks steeped in this culture are petrified of anything suggesting God isn’t all that interested in their works of piety. I’ve also been asking myself why so many self-appointed teachers want to discredit teachers who emphasize how Christian living is first, last and always a matter of
faith. It drives Evangelicals crazy if talk of faith never gets around to adding mention about the importance of obedience, and they never fail to warn people about not letting a “grace message” become an excuse for laxness.

Why is this? Why do so many sincere believers cast sidewise glances at us, even though we back up what we teach with very clear passages from Scripture? And why do they rail on and on about how so many sitting in churches today are Christian in name only? Why are litmus tests put in front of professing believers, and why do folks in Evangelical churches think it’s important to keep track of who passes these tests and who doesn’t?

There’s no one, simple answer, but a factor in their paranoia has to be this conviction that there’s going to be a time right before the Lord’s second advent when most churches and the majority of people who call themselves Christian are actually going to be apostate. People who believe they are part of the small, but faithful, remnant, are quick to look critically at anyone who accuses them of being nuts, and when you’re sure there’s a Great Apostasy coming, it’s very tempting to suppose anyone opposed to you must be part of it. And it’s also a handy doctrine for keeping the members of your own group in line. You not only can have them keeping an eye on each other for signs of compromise, you can train people to keep themselves in line with the accepted doctrines and practices by constantly reminding them how easy it’s going to be for some to be deceived and fall away. The implicit warning is: “Don’t let this happen to you!”

As a matter of fact, though, I think the whole thing is bogus and unscriptural. I don’t see Jesus or the Apostles teaching anywhere that someday apostasy among Christians will become widespread. Let’s just look at the principle passages that get cited to prove the Great Apostasy is going to happen.

First, there’s Matthew 24:3-14. I suppose it’s sort of the grand-daddy of all the Coming Great Apostasy passages, so let’s look at what it actually says:

As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately. "Tell us," they said, "when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?" Jesus answered: "Watch out that no one deceives you. For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am the Christ,’ and will deceive many. You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains. "Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me. At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved. (NIV)

For context I’ve included more than what’s necessary, but the pertinent sentence is: “At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people.” To “turn away from the faith” must imply those turning away had earlier been included among the faithful. This means a good number of Christian folks will become apostate, right? A transition from Christian faith to unbelief and betrayal fits the definition I included earlier, yes?

Oh, I suppose. I’d hardly want to be in the position of arguing with Jesus. But notice, please, how the wording about those who “turn away from the faith.,” raises the question of what “faith” Jesus meant, and then secondly, it projects this condition into the future when it happens “at that time.” At
what time? Evidently when Jesus’ followers are being persecuted and put to death as they find themselves hated by all nations because of being identified with Jesus.

Their discussion takes place in the Jerusalem temple complex, right after his disciples comment about the impressive buildings around them. Jesus responds by assuring them it will all get torn down; not even a stone is going to be left standing on another. And because it’s not going to last, Jesus prods his faithful Jewish disciples to see they’ll have to start thinking differently about the basis of their relationship with their God. Their faith can’t hinge on a temple or the goings on in it if the temple itself won’t last. If Jesus is right—and by this point the disciples are pretty confident he’s
always right!—the reign of God they go around announcing has everything to do with living as one of the captives Jesus sets free and one of the brokenhearted he binds up, and nothing to do with continuing in the religious culture they’ve always taken for granted. The “faith,” then, is not only about getting reoriented to God’s reign as Jesus has revealed it to them, it’s also about seeing a break with the past is inevitable. So there’s also a choice implied for that generation: Choose between allegiance to the temple and everything it represents, or allegiance to Jesus and his very different approach to being part of God’s kingdom.

That is the faith many will turn away from. In other words, Jesus is aware he has some followers trying to maintain both allegiances, and in the long run it’s not going to work. Some are interested in what he’s about, but only so long as it doesn’t put them in open conflict with their heritage. It can be put them on outs with the Pharisees, or even with the Priests. They’re willing to rally around him like they used to rally around John the Baptist, even though it drives the authorities crazy. But eventually these followers will desert him when identifying with Jesus means having to completely rethink their cherished identity as God’s Chosen People and their assumptions about where this whole “kingdom of God” thing was going. Or at least that will be one group of deserters. The other group will consist of those who don’t think following Jesus is worth enduring the endless threats and constant harassment.

That this turning away will occur during a season of intense persecution seems pretty clear. Of course
when the persecution will take place isn’t so clear. It was evidently future with respect to Jesus’ Ascension and Pentecost, but there’ve been numerous persecutions during the Church’s history, and each installment brought significant defections. Believers in the Coming Great Apostasy automatically assume it signals an event to take place in the very last days before Christ’s Second Coming, but from the context it seems to fit better with a falling away sometime just before or after the destruction of the temple in AD 70. But maybe it doesn’t have to be nailed down in time to a single fulfillment. Maybe all the persecutions of all the ages are being telescoped into a single vision of violence leading to turning away.

But what happens when followers turn away from faith in Jesus and his good news? What would that defection look like? I think it would look like folks leaving the Church in droves. I think it would look like people changing their opinions about Jesus, saying derogatory things about him, and quitting his kingdom. And especially if signs of persecution were abundant, I think it’d look like people ditching Christianity to save their skins, homes and livelihoods.

Now why have I been circling this subject this way? Just for this reason: The very thing Jesus did not predict is a wholesale deception and defection to take place someday
within his Church, so that most of his followers would be only appear to be believers, but in fact would be despicable hypocrites! The desertion he foresees here might lead to an exodus out of the Church, but it takes a fantastic imagination to conclude he means a rotting out of the core within his Church.

He didn’t predict such a thing! Not anywhere! Certainly not in Matthew 24, for his words only make sense if we take them to mean people turning their backs on the Christian faith. In other words, Christians ceasing to remain Christians, potentially for any number of reasons, but one being to escape getting handed over for execution. The “turn[ing] away from the faith” Jesus evidently has in mind something that could look like what happened after he delivered the Bread of Life discourse in John, chapter 6: “From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.”

The phrase “turned back” in John 6 likely means both that they turned back from where they saw Jesus was leading them, and also that they went back to the presuppositions and beliefs they’d held before—they went “back” to their earlier views. But most of all it means they no longer wanted to be identified with this prophet anymore. It certainly wasn’t like they were going to work through the “hard saying” he’d laid on them, and cook up unorthodox interpretations to make it easier to live with, or devise compromises to make Jesus’ message more palatable for more people. No, they just quit.

The desertion in John 6 wasn’t linked to persecution, but it’s easy to imagine a similar turning away could happen when identifying with Jesus becomes dangerous. Ultimately, it still comes down to no longer wanting to be known as one of his followers. But when we hear warnings about the Coming Great Apostasy, what do the preachers have in mind? People quitting their churches? Or don’t they mean something like this: One day the majority of people in the institutional churches will be Christian in name only, and we who remain faithful will have to be on our guard, lest our also convictions become watered down.

Preachers bring up persecution in passing, as in, “We get ridiculed in the media, and luke-warm apostates hate us for taking a hardline stance, but we know the faithful have to endure persecution if they want to stand firm until the end. So we’ll hold fast to God’s Word by dismissing any criticism of what we believe and ostracizing people who break ranks with our agreed-upon agenda.”

I suppose some teachers who cite the Coming Great Apostasy are sincere about protecting their flocks, but I think the majority feel superior when they look beyond their own walls and see where other Christians are. “Look what they allow! And they still call themselves Christians!” It helps when you can add a knowing nod and say, “Of course we were warned many would fall away in the last days.” The doctrine provides an easy way to gain apparent biblical support for your position over against others. Self-proclaimed believers who think, look, talk or act different may be

At this point many readers no doubt think
I must be apostate for taking this position. After all, there’s got to be more than just one passage proving many or most are going to fall away from the true faith, especially in the very last days. And being a member of the outward, institutional Church not only offers no assurance one is really a believer, but might it not actually get in the way of our being faithful to God’s Word?—or so it is commonly taught.

Let’s take another passage and see if we can use it to support the doctrine of the Coming Great Apostasy. Many teachers who call themselves dispensationalists are sure they can point to Revelation 17:1-9 to bolster their teaching that a great, worldwide apostasy is going to take place
within the Church:

1One of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and said to me, "Come, I will show you the punishment of the great prostitute, who sits on many waters. 2With her the kings of the earth committed adultery and the inhabitants of the earth were intoxicated with the wine of her adulteries."
3Then the angel carried me away in the Spirit into a desert. There I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was covered with blasphemous names and had seven heads and ten horns.4The woman was dressed in purple and scarlet, and was glittering with gold, precious stones and pearls. She held a golden cup in her hand, filled with abominable things and the filth of her adulteries. 5This title was written on her forehead:
6I saw that the woman was drunk with the blood of the saints, the blood of those who bore testimony to Jesus.
When I saw her, I was greatly astonished. 7Then the angel said to me: "Why are you astonished? I will explain to you the mystery of the woman and of the beast she rides, which has the seven heads and ten horns. 8The beast, which you saw, once was, now is not, and will come up out of the Abyss and go to his destruction. The inhabitants of the earth whose names have not been written in the book of life from the creation of the world will be astonished when they see the beast, because he once was, now is not, and yet will come.
9"This calls for a mind with wisdom. The seven heads are seven hills on which the woman sits. (NIV)

A complete analysis of this passage is not only unnecessary, it would morph into a study of the entire book and it’s proper interpretation. For those wanting just such an in-depth commentary and analysis, I can’t do better than recommend Dr. Louis Brighton’s work in the Concordia Commentary series. (Concordia Publishing House, 1998.) But for our purposes, it’s enough to look at how this gets used in popular teaching.
Basically, the prostitute riding the scarlet beast with seven heads is said to be the institutional church in general, some future day right before Christ’s Second Coming, and specifically it used to be identified in Protestant circles with the Roman Catholic Church. Hence the reference to the kings of the earth getting caught up in adulteries with her, and the explanation that the seven heads represent seven hills. Rome is supposed to be founded on seven hills. World governmental leaders have not infrequently had to make concessions to the Roman Pontiff they’d never make to any other religious leader.

At this point there’s confusion among Evangelical interpreters. Does this passage cryptically refer to the Roman Catholic Church, or does it portend a general kind of
outwardly Christian future church that one day subverts the true message? In other words, should we identify Whore Babylon with a particular church in existence today, or see her as a symbol of evil influences coming to corrupt the institutional Church in general? This would seem to be an important question to get settled, but I’ve got a better question: How do we know this passage refers to any kind of church anywhere? Is there any indication in the text the institution symbolized here, if it is supposed to be an institution, is even any kind of religious organization at all? If it is, why couldn’t it be Judaism? If it’s not, why couldn’t it prophetically symbolize Marxism?

Or fascism? Or militant vegetarianism?

I’m not trying to identify Whore Babylon, much less explain the text’s meaning. Instead, it’s enough to point out the passage only refers to the institutional Church when you bring the idea with you to your study. And you only bring this ready-made identification to your study when you already suspect the institutional Church is up to no good.

So it’s not surprising if four centuries ago Reformation Christians brought this suspicion with them to the text and saw in Whore Babylon a representation of Rome. A hundred years later, Pilgrims on Plymouth Rock might have imagined it referring to the Church of England, in light of how they’d suffered at the hands of the established church in their old homeland. Any Christian minority group who felt oppressed could easily cast the oppressing majority into the role of Whore Babylon, especially if their oppressors had any kind of cosmopolitan air about them. After all, “with her the kings of the earth committed adultery.” If that doesn’t evoke images of a backroom hook-up between religious and secular powers, what does? People oppressed by an institutional Church could understandably bring that suspicion with them to the text.

Of course it’s a long stretch from this scenario to the preaching going on in American pulpits today, and an even longer stretch to make the people listening fit that same scenario. Just try imagining Southern Baptists as an oppressed minority. Go ahead, try.

And of course it’s not just one church body. There are dozens of church bodies holding to some form of the doctrine of the Coming Great Apostasy, as well as powerful parachurch organizations, such as Campus Crusade for Christ and James Dobson’s Focus On the Family. All of which are highly institutionalized, by the way. Nevertheless, to be a Fundamentalist or an Evangelical today means you take for granted the institutional Church is at most a generation away from prostituting itself to a point where people will be led away from the truth with adulterous intoxications. (Anything that cuts regular people a break is an adulterous intoxication.)
But is it true? As common as this view has become, do we have any
Scriptural reason to believe the Church is going to rot out from the inside? Will she prostitute herself? Another way of asking the question is, are we really justified in bringing this kind of suspicion to the text?

Let’s point out that Revelation chapter 17 follows chapters 1 and 2. In those chapters Christ is presented as standing in the midst of his Church as one standing in the midst of lamps and lampstands. To each of the seven churches of Asia he dictates a message, praising all except the Laodiceans for some aspect of their faithfulness, and chastising all except the Church at Smyrna and the Philadelphians for faults he counts against them. When he dictates a warning, he makes it clear he will come among them and
take action himself if they refuse to address the issue. In some cases he says he will judge the individuals in the church who have given the offense (Thyatira and Pergamum) and in other cases (Ephesus) he apparently warns the whole church he is prepared to bring it to an end (remove their “lampstand,” as he puts it).

Does this sound like a Christ who stands idly by while his Church turns itself into a Harlot riding a Beast? Isn’t he revealed to be very much in touch with what’s happening in the churches over which he is Lord? How can we suppose he would let the visible Church continue in an apostate condition? If one or more of the churches went bad, isn’t the real Scriptural warning that Christ will remove the lampstand that’s causing offense? He was ready to vomit out the Laodicean congregation for being lukewarm, which was a real congregation having real problems. Jesus doesn’t sound tolerant toward them in Revelation, chapter 3. Why should we expect he’d be tolerant of either luke-warmness or outright heresy taking root in his Church today?

Moreover, without very specific Scriptural support, it’s hard to fathom how people would stay in congregations and continue to call themselves Christ’s followers, and yet actually have turned away from him. It’s not that it’s impossible for lots of folks to falsely claim to still believe in him, it’s that without a good Scriptural reason, you have to ask
why you’d expect it to happen.

Why do people expect a Great Apostasy within the Church has to happen? Especially since during previous persecutions, even when many fell away from the faith, it never looked like the
majority of people gave up their faith? And when they did give up their faith, they didn’t choose to pretend to be Christians so they could stay in their congregations and propagate some kind of false Jesus-religion that only appeared to honor Christ while actually ignoring him. In fact, the Coming Great Apostasy sounds less and less credible the more you think about it.

But wait! The truly fearful….er….I mean, faithful, can still cite other passages. Consider Paul’s first letter to Timothy. In chapter 4 the apostle writes:

1The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons. 2Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron. (NIV)

Now we’re getting somewhere! What better proof text for an impending apostasy could one ask for? Paul not only predicts people will abandon the faith, he makes it clear they will be lured away by “deceiving spirits.” And the doctrines that will be taught? They will be straight out of the pit of hell! The human perpetrators of this destructive, false teaching will all be hypocritical liars, while the inspiration for their lies will be demonic. Here, finally, we have strong support for The Coming Great Apostasy.

Oh, wait. The thought in the passage gets continued in the next verse: “3They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth.”

Huh. The “Spirit clearly says” that the hypocritical liars being discussed in this passage are teachers who forbid people to marry and demand abstinence from certain foods. But this doesn’t sound like the apostasy we keep hearing about. In fact, based on this verse, the Reformers sound like they might have been onto something; isn’t it the Roman Catholic Church that forbids priests from marrying? And don’t they have special rules about which days people can eat meat? Perhaps it’s the Roman Church after all that’s being foretold.

As matter of fact, neither Paul nor the Spirit is likely to mean any such thing. The best explanation for this peculiar mix of false teachings is probably to be found by studying Paul’s letter to the Colossians and taking note of the errors he tries to correct there. The Colossian heresy is much discussed among New Testament scholars because it seems to have been unique. It had elements of the Judaizing heresy, combined with something like a proto-Gnosticism. For instance, Paul addresses circumcision, unhealthy interests in angels, handling criticism about eating, drinking and festival observances, and regulations about harsh treatment of the body, as well as including a special section on how husbands and wives should treat each other, which could indicate errors being held by the Colossians about marriage. The Judaizing dimension of this heresy certainly had to extend to abstaining from unclean foods, while the proto-Gnosticism could have made people believe it was holier to forego marriage due to its physicality that Gnosticism saw as inherently evil.

Or that identification could be wrong. But the point is, no sensible interpretation of 1 Timothy 4 would look forward to a future fulfillment where the majority of Christians get deluded by demons. Bible prophecies about people falling away have been fulfilled over and over again, but The Coming Great Apostasy, as it’s commonly taught, looks like something made up to scare Christians.

So now we’ve looked at three critical passages frequently used to support this doctrine, and none of them teach a Great Apostasy is going to lead most believers astray, unless you bring that idea to each text. Even taking them all together, it’s a piece of fiction.

So where did this expectation come from? Have Christians always lived in anxiety about a large-scale apostasy brewing in the Church?

For the real explanation of where this fear-mongering doctrine came from when it exploded on the American scene, we have to bring up two names: John Nelson Darby (1800-1882), and Charles Taze Russell (1852-1916).

Although the churches resulting from these two have nothing to do with each other, both men were intent on restoring the True Church to a pristine condition by breaking from all institutional churches. Both felt they were leading a movement to gather and organize a faithful remnant in the Last Days before the Second Coming. And both believed it was impossible for anyone to remain part of the established, institutional Church without being apostate.

Darby started what would become known as the Plymouth Brethren, and more importantly, his influence led directly to the creation of the Scofield Reference Bible and the pop-theology of Hal Lindsey’s
The Late Great Planet Earth. Russel’s legacy was the formation of a group called Zion’s Watchtower and Tract Society, which continues today under the name Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Watchtower Tract Society. Between these two men, millions have become convinced the visible, institutional Church, either Protestant or Catholic, is headed toward a falling away. It is at the feet of these two men, and especially Darby, that we should lay the responsibility for this common belief, so that now any time conventional Evangelical teaching or piety is questioned folks get paranoid. If the challenge comes from outside Christian circles, it’s another instance of the righteous being persecuted by the world, but when the questions come from folks on the inside, such breaking-of-ranks gets quashed by saying it portends a falling away.

Therefore, this teaching’s main effect is to be a tool for controlling believers. When most Evangelicals are sure a Great Apostasy is coming, it prevents them from asking critical questions about what they’re hearing from their pulpits. Or what their church it telling them they should do. Or what it says they
can’t do. When they fear doctrines of demons are going to lure believers away from truth and personal holiness, it becomes part of that climate of fear that sees in groups who deviate from accepted practice a sign of the encroaching danger.

This is no exaggeration. The specter of apostasy gets raised regularly whenever leaders grow anxious their traditional teachings and practices are threatened. It doesn’t even have to touch on anything religious. I’ve heard concerns about global warming characterized as merely a New-Age deception for Christians to be on guard against. Body piercing in anything but ladies’ earlobes raises alarms, and is taken as a sign of worldly compromise. Practicing Yoga, according to some, will lead the faithful into apostasy. And don’t even raise the possibility that one day we’ll discover intelligent life on another planet! Just considering it opens the door to being lead away from the truth!

Or take my own case, for example. I teach about the total sufficiency of God’s grace, and lay out again and again from Scripture how the new life in Christ is a life of
faith. I speak and write constantly about Jesus Christ, and I do believe a personal relationship with him is essential. I also believe that relationship changes how we live. But I never divide the “real Christians” from the “Christians-in-name-only,” or the “serious disciples” from the great, unwashed herd of “carnal Christians.” I never suggest getting one’s spiritual act together is the way to get more blessings from God. I disregard all the conventional Evangelical nonsense that it’s morally wrong to smoke, or to drink, or go to R-rated movies, or vote anything but straight-ticket Republican. I want believers to wrestle with Scripture and conscience and honest questions raised by science. But most of all, I want believers to stop trying to add anything they’ve done to what Christ has already done for them. I want people to understand that growing in Christ doesn’t happen when they work harder to keep sets of rules, but when they follow the Spirit’s leading to grasp more firmly their Savior’s love and trust recklessly in his control over their lives. Consequently, most of the piety found in conservative American churches seems pointless to me, and a good deal of the Evangelical worldview strikes me as superstitious nonsense.

Teachers who feel threatened by this try to prevent its spread by calling it apostate. So while believing in Christ is good, I can still be apostate for emphasizing grace in a way that’s too radical. I’m onboard with the kingdom Jesus invites us to be part of, but criticized for not being onboard with a lot of what is commonly taught, including the popular End-Times scenarios. And I don’t see any big, burning need to get people more purpose-driven. I believe the kingdom of God is coming along just fine, but not because churches—whether they’re institutional or house churches—are doing such great things. The kingdom of God unfolds and expands because Jesus is Lord and his words and life continue to drive history toward God’s purposes.

The funny thing is, I used to buy into the Coming Great Apostasy. Of course this was before I’d examined it to see if it was true, but from time to time it would worry me. Were my growing convictions about God’s grace a sign I was drifting away? I gave up Evangelical assumptions about what “running the race” was supposed to look like, and found it a much more authentic way to live when personal holiness is a non-issue. Did it mean I was becoming unfaithful? I didn’t want to let the recognized “leaders” do my thinking for me anymore. Should I worry I was being deceived?

I don’t worry these things anymore. And if the only ones who aren’t worried are the apostates, then I guess I joined them, because I turned my back on the “faith” that said I wasn’t allowed to question what various teachers insist the Bible says. Instead, I am challenging conventional Evangelical beliefs. And I want more to join me in challenging, questioning, and wrestling with the issues confronting the entire Church. We need to engage in an honest discussion, and we can’t do that in a climate of fear.

To that end, let’s look at one more oft-quoted passage from 2 Peter 2:

1But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them—bringing swift destruction on themselves. 2Many will follow their shameful ways and will bring the way of truth into disrepute. 3In their greed these teachers will exploit you with stories they have made up. Their condemnation has long been hanging over them, and their destruction has not been sleeping. (NIV)

Peter warns his readers that false teachers will be coming to infiltrate the Church, and these deceivers will introduce destructive heresies, including a denial of the sovereignty of the Lord Jesus Christ. Taken as a general warning, we can figure if Peter foresaw false prophets and teachers stirring up trouble back then, we can expect they’re also among us today doing the same thing. We know from the text the result of their “shameful ways” is to “bring the way of truth into disrepute.”

I suggest there’s so much phoniness and insanity rampant in churches today, that the Way of Truth keeps finding itself in disrepute. The shameful fall of certain celebrity leaders contributed to it, but it’s not limited to that. Christianity itself needs a transformation to take place within it, but I think too many false prophets and teachers are invested in preventing it from happening. Furthermore, I think it denies Christ’s sovereignty to suggest an open discussion about the Gospel can lead the Church into apostasy.

So now you can see why I think there should be an apostasy, and why I want to sign up. Only I’m not talking about some fictional thing folks torture the Scriptures to support. I’m taking about an apostasy that means abandoning our knee-jerk reactions to anything unconventional. I’m taking about an apostasy that says, “We’re going to discover where Jesus is leading us, and leave behind the fears and false piety that once shackled us. We want to be confronted afresh with the Gospel. We choose to turn away from the party platform when that platform keeps us from wrestling with the real issues. We no longer believe everyone who sounds different than us is only a pretend Christian.” If Christianity can be compared to a computer, it’s looking more and more like we have to reboot.

That’s an apostasy I’m offering to head up. Any joiners?