What more is there for their Expected One to do when he comes? To call the heathen? But they are called already. To put an end to prophet and king and vision? But this too has already happened. To expose the God-denyingness of idols? It is already exposed and condemned. Or to destroy death? It is already destroyed. What then has not come to pass that the Christ must do?
Athanasius, On the Incarnation
As a typical secular teenager, Christianity introduced me to a God who’d interacted with humanity to offer a life greater than myself. This made a lot of sense to seventeen-year-old me. It still does. Christianity in America comes with a lot of baggage, though. Along with the powerful message of the gospel were a lot of strange ideas about the creation and destruction of the world. Depictions of a violent and terrifying end are often portrayed both in Hollywood fiction and from the pulpits of American churches. Christianity seems to, at some point, have conflated faith with magic. Interpretations of end times prophecy became increasingly more embellished over time, incorporating themes from current events into a sort of theological composite that could explain present-day unrest. This ultimately divorced the pattern of a historical Jesus who advocated non-violence with one now seemingly the perpetrator of pointless violence, judgment, and terrifying death.
The concept of a violent and militant Jesus probably had its origins in the medieval period, a thousand years after Christ and hundreds of years after most early church writings to the contrary. Such a notion was first codified at the Council of Nablus in 1120, where Canon 20 permitted a clergyman to take up arms in self-defense without bearing any guilt; this was during turbulent times when Christian pilgrims were often massacred by the hundreds along their journey, leaving their rotting corpses along the roads from Jaffa into the Holy Land. This one concession, intended to be a temporary measure, seeded and ultimately fueled militant movements in Christianity starting with the Papal legitimization of the Templars movement (“God’s Holy Knights”), extremist groups such as Alfonso I’s Brotherhood of Belchite, and eventually spanned a thousand years into modern militant Christian ideals today.
The end times scenarios that play out in many modern churches today attract fringe groups with similar mindsets, and conspiracy groups like QAnon for similar reasons. By providing a foundation for oracle-sourced conspiracy theories that lead to violent, anti-establishment outcomes, today’s end-times theology follows the concept of a violent and militant second coming, abandoning the teachings of Christ and hundreds of years of church fathers about martyrdom, pacifism, and government non-involvement. The obvious contradiction of a Christianity asserting a struggle that is “not against flesh and blood” somehow ending up with a literal war against flesh and blood is the result of a historical evolution that biased how the church interprets scripture and forms doctrine even today. Yet to not have faith in a brutal and imminent end times means, in many churches, that you don’t have a Christian faith at all. This left many Christians of my generation to either go along with the weirdness and ignore the obvious oddities of Christian doctrine, or – worse, to fully embrace them and make one’s Christian identity based on the willingness to blindly accept such dramatic interpretations as fact. The latter was often socially rewarded as “faith”. This was a package deal, though, for many young Christians – who are now adults with a literal end times engrained in them.
Many Christians are still stuck here, as a violent and imminent end of the world is still the only thing many American churches teach today, and in increasingly bizarre and political ways. End-times theories evolve periodically within evangelical churches to reinterpret components of new and significant current events. They are woven together as signs of the times, into the bigger narrative to “decipher” the book of Revelation which, to the average evangelical is a key to understanding God’s future plans. In recent times, theories about masks, vaccines, the World Health Organization, and a new president are constant topics of end-times discussion within churches. Yet a vast majority of church going Christians lack any academic training in interpretation of scripture, nor want it. The idea that anyone can speculate on end-times prophecies has attracted groups like QAnon, which now consumes up to 25% of white American evangelicals. Denominationalism, while having some benefits, has also become a significant enabler of confirmation bias in the church, allowing for tribal systems of beliefs to flourish and go unquestioned, whether it’s a movement within the church or a radical idea taught by a church leader. Beliefs have become more extreme as a result of the social dysfunction created by COVID and the social unrest caused by deep divisions in politics. Ideas about masks, vaccines, W.H.O., and other current topics are now loosely joined to end-times themes of one world government, the mark of the beast, eternal punishment, or any number of other themes in Revelation. Conspiracy theories within the church’s walls have had very real consequences. Extremist groups spent several months planning – on public message boards – to assassinate the incoming president to usher in a new heaven and earth, based on many of these same beliefs about Revelation. While the most extreme of these ideals may belong in small fringe churches, common end-times theories about masks, vaccines, and the Antichrist run deep throughout mainstream evangelical Christianity. As one evangelical pastor put it, “Right now QAnon is still on the fringes of evangelicalism… but we have a pretty big fringe.”
This end-times posture can be walked back to theological origins of the mid-1800s. The interpretive biases that make this theology work have altered Christianity in many significant ways. Yet visions of four horsemen riding across the world, a sudden secret rapture, and seven years of hell on Earth rest upon theological pillars of highly questionable origin, which this post will explore. Such end-times concepts have no support in historic Christianity, and could be dissociated from Christianity altogether; many evangelical Christians, however, don’t realize there are earlier and more supported forms of interpretation. By failing to challenge the incorrect assumptions this belief system relies on, many Christians will deny vaccines and literally die on the basis of the theological system under which they were taught, firmly believing that they are honoring God in doing so. It is a flawed and unfalsifiable system of theology – not Christianity itself – that is to blame. This post will attempt to tease those two concepts apart.
“If the feeble mind of man did not presume to resist the clear evidence of truth, but yielded its infirmity to wholesome doctrines, as to a health-giving medicine, until it obtained from God, by its faith and piety, the grace needed to heal it, they who have just ideas, and express them in suitable language, would need to use no long discourse to refute the errors of empty conjecture.”
The City of God, Book 2
Not realizing it at the time, what I was taught as a young Christian was theology based on dispensational hermeneutics. This is more or less a framework for interpreting scripture, and is what Christian fundamentalism is based on. Specifically, dispensational premillennialism had been the popular theology of the day, even in the little Baptist church I had first found myself in. This framework is a form of interpreting Biblical scripture based on two key rules (or pillars): 1. Prophetic scripture is to be interpreted literally and 2. There is a distinction between Israel and the church. Literal interpretation dramatically rewrote large portions of scripture, giving birth to many of the contemporary ideas around the creation and destruction of the world. The second rule, an Israel-church distinction, then moved the timeline of many fulfilled prophecies into the future in order to fix the numerous problems introduced by the first rule.
Taking a literal read had been considered by a few early writers, such as Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, however there are some significant differences in what is done today. For one, the term literal historically has had no clear prior definition, and often times simply meant “obvious” or “evident from the text”; it was also frequently used to contrast an accompanied “spiritual” interpretation. To many early Christian writers, the fact that a problem existed in a literal text was an indication that it necessitated a figurative interpretation. This suggests the same writers were also honest enough to admit there were problems with literal interpretation. Athanasius, in his Defense of the Nicene Definition against the Arianformulæ, argued “we ought to look at the sense more than the wording.” Tertullian, who was very adamant about many of the key literal arguments supporting the virgin birth and the resurrection of Christ, specifically recognized prophecy as “generally expressed in figure and allegory, though not always” (On the Resurrection of the Flesh, ch 19). Second, many writings, such as Eustathius’ De Engastrimytho contra Origenem, viewed Christ –as– the eschatology, rather than a prelude to it, and used such interpretations to explore what the universe meant in light of Christ, instead of predicting the future. The mere fact that many writers declined to make predictions about the future suggests their interpretation of scripture didn’t support such an effort.
In addition to clear historical dissent from literal interpretation, the notion of an Israel-church distinction was nonexistent. The early church consisted primarily of the Jewish community. The “qahal”, referring to Jewish gatherings in the Hebrew, was translated in the Septuagint as ekklesia (the same word used for church); early Christians would have used the Septuagint as their bible, making the association clear. Jewish sects, such as the Essenes, believed they were a remnant of Israel and many from this community adopted, and even influenced, Christianity as a natural continuation of their faith. Writings that referenced end times prophecy often framed the context and symbolism of the imminent tribulation of Israel, and viewed Revelation as a prediction of the fall of Jerusalem and the Roman Empire, which was happening out their windows. Tertullian believed the millennial reign of Christ was already happening in a heavenly realm, and that the spiritual city of Jerusalem had been appearing at times over Judea. But most early church writers mentioned little at all about any kind of future millennium or rapture; even what Tertullian wrote didn’t come close to resembling the end times ideals that modern Christianity holds today; his writings were rather void of details at all. As L. Crutchfield, author and professor of early Christian history admits, “If anyone searches the fathers for a fully detailed, systematic presentation about the doctrine of last things, he searches in vain”. This is where fundamentalism greatly overreached.
We shall then be changed in a moment into the substance of angels, even by the investiture of an incorruptible nature, and so be removed to that kingdom in heaven…
Tertullian, Against Marcion, Book III
By reinterpreting all prophecy as literal, and creating the decisive theological bias to distinguish Israel from the church, dispensationalism created Christianity’s greatest anachronism. It recast entire collections of prophecies as unfulfilled that would have otherwise been fulfilled in Christ’s timeline through the fourth century, some even reinterpreting Old Testament texts to “pull forward” and replay events fulfilled before Christ. The net effect of this was that many prophecies fulfilled by Jesus, the destruction of the temple, the subsequent destruction of the Roman Empire, the imperial cult, god and goddess worship, and themes of patterns and forces that have operated throughout history (such as the symbolism of the four horsemen) – were transformed into what modern Christians see as veiled prophecies about a terrifying and imminent end of the world playing out now – regardless of whether you lived in the 1920s or the 2020s.
How did the terrifying events of history end up reinterpreted into a modern narrative? Dispensationalism adopted what’s called progressive revelation – but applied it backwards. Progressive revelation is the idea that God reveals his plans in fuller depth in newer writings (i.e. progressively). Traditionally, this means that newer texts are used to explain how the older texts were fulfilled. Dispensationalism, on the other hand, does the very opposite – futurism. Futurism is a misapplication of progressive revelation, where instead of using the New Testament to explain the Old, scripture was turned forward facing, read as breadcrumbs about the future explained in a context far beyond their boundaries. For example, instead of using Revelation to interpret Daniel, dispensationalists use Daniel to “decode” Revelation similar to a gnostic text about the future. This is where creative license took over; after all, if prophecy is more progressive over time, there are no constraints in applying the texts to an even grander revelation of the future. Yet even the book of Revelation itself even discourages such an interpretation, asserting “the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophesy” (Rev 19:10), insisting that prophecy is to be interpreted as all pointing to Jesus Christ and the gospel message.
Interpretation by this means created numerous problems in the structure of the canon. This required added layers of explanation by introducing new and unsupported concepts to cover over the problems it created. As one example, Revelation references the second temple (which was destroyed in AD70) and so dispensationalism rebuilt a third temple into the theology, even in the overwhelming absence of scriptural evidence. The “man of lawlessness” (who exalts himself over everything that is worshipped and sets himself up in God’s temple, 2 Thes 2:4) was no longer attributed to Titus (who did just this in AD 70, Josephus, Wars of the Jews, book VI, ch 6), but was reassigned as part of a future narrative to support this new theology. And so, instead of the book of Revelation being interpreted as a mostly historical detail of the fall of Jerusalem, it has become an oracle about the future among evangelicals and a source of Christian speculation in many churches. In spite of its significant problems, dispensationalism gained popularity in American churches and became part of modern Christian belief. It’s easy to see how wide-eyed such views can get when seen through the lens of a terrifying world that exists when symbolism is interpreted literally. This is to be expected when you take books such as Ezekiel, which are influenced by strong Mesopotamian symbolism, pull them out of their ancient contexts, and apply a literal translation influenced by modern American dystopian culture. It has defined a Christian’s entire world view for much of the past hundred years, defined our politics, society, relationships, and today even our public health.
There are four things to be considered… the height of spiritual doctrine; the dignity of those who teach it; the condition of the listeners; and the order of communicating..
Thomas Aquinas, On the Commendation of Sacred Scripture
A Theology in its Infancy
Note that I said about a hundred years of influence. To convey such stark concepts in Christianity, one might have expected this form of hermeneutics had been the authoritative viewpoint for a very long time. Yet dispensational hermeneutics has only been in existence since the mid-1800s, and only became widely accepted in the 1900s. By any standard, it is an incredibly young line of thinking. Concepts such as an Israel-church distinction and a two stage coming of Christ (e.g. a rapture) were ideas originally conceived by a Bible teacher named John Darby. This was around the same time that Charles Darwin published Origin of Species, which helped create a dichotomy where new scientific ideas and new theological ideas were at odds with each other. Because Darby’s literal theology didn’t work in light of basic science (such as a literal seven-day creation), science once again became the enemy and Darby’s literal theology translated into “faith” in Christianity. By this time, his followers had long forgotten that his ideas diverged from historical concepts of Christianity. Darby’s beliefs were considered heretical by some, and largely unrefined as Darby hadn’t formally studied any theology. Nevertheless, his ideas gained acceptance among some American evangelicals who felt that Darwin’s ideas threatened Christianity itself. This positioned dispensationalism as the savior against a science that, at the time, was married to a strong bias of atheism.
Dispensationalism gained more traction in the decades to follow, popularized by a lawyer-turned-theologian named Cyrus Scofield. Scofield’s character was questionable; he was accused of accepting bribes, committing financial fraud, and later on in life giving himself a fake Doctor of Divinity title. A biography by James Canfield refers to him as an abject liar and opportunist promoter of baseless theology. It is unsurprising that someone with a lawyer’s background, who also had never formally studied theology, would resonate with the interpretation of scripture through a literal and litigious interpretation, even if it did not align with 1800 years of theology to the contrary. Such left field ideas, had they been introduced today, never would have been taken seriously in academic circles, especially by two individuals with no formal theological background.
The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers
William Shakespeare, Henry VI, Part 2, Act IV, Scene 2
In spite of its questionable origins, its lack of vetting, and its infancy, dispensationalism (and therefore fundamentalism) took hold in the early 1900s through the Niagara Bible Conference and the publication of the Scofield Bible, both of which Scofield had direct involvement in. This set the stage for dispensationalism to gain wider acceptance as society became more pessimistic through the Great Depression, World War I, and other events. Reinterpreting an end times set in the 1900s had obvious appeal: it offered comfort that the suffering of the world would soon be avenged, and provided fodder for a number of parallels to the current events of such a troubling time. No one could blame society in the 1900s for being tempted to parallel the Antichrist to Hitler, or the sufferings of the Great Tribulation to the horrible sufferings of the Holocaust, especially with a relatively new form of theology circulating that fit with current events. The 1918 Influenza breakout had killed millions and birthed a spiritual madness for seances and Ouija boards. The more pessimistic society got, the more it was open to accepting a fiery, terrifying end of world theology. Common recurring themes in the world such as inflation, war, disease and genocide are seen by dispensational Christians as a concise sign of the end of the world, even though these concepts play out over and over again throughout history.
The church hasn’t always interpreted scripture this way, though. Dispensational hermeneutics is fundamentally at odds with an older and more accepted form of interpretation referred to as historic protestant hermeneutics, which has been the dominant approach to interpretation since the early church. The pillars surrounding this more established approach to interpretation are: 1. The New Testament should explain the Old Testament (not the other way around), 2. Old Testament concepts are reinterpreted in the New Testament, and 3. Scripture (and especially prophecy) is interpreted analogia fidei, interpreting the complicated and ambiguous biblical passages in the context of the more concise passages and patterns about the topic. Tertullian argued that “uncertain statements should be determined by certain ones, and obscure ones by such as are clear and plain” (On the Resurrection of the Flesh, ch 21). This requires that scripture be interpreted without the prerequisite that all passages must be taken literally; some may be taken figuratively or allegorical (as appropriate for the text), and should be supported and clarified in the context of more concise verses in prior works. This is not unlike how problems were worked out in patristic literature; writers often evaluated problem passages on the basis of other scriptures and their understanding of God.
This form of hermeneutics – going back to the earliest of Christian history – paints an entirely different picture of Christianity. For one, this interpretation gives license to be a Christian without having to accept a literal seven day creation, or believing Adam and Eve had perfect, immortal bodies1. If you really want to blow the mind of literal creationists, read Augustine’s wild interpretation of Genesis. It especially gives you license to be a Christian without the notion of a violent, bloody destruction of civilization. The end of the world ideas of classical eschatology look incredibly different from dispensational premillennialism, and don’t include many of the themes of literal eschatology; attributing much of it to the timeline between the siege of Jerusalem and the fall of the Roman Empire.
This is not to suggest that miracles don’t exist in the Bible – they absolutely do; this hermeneutic model supports events such as the resurrection of Christ and the virgin birth as clearly documented historical claims, as opposed to the more figurative areas of end times prophecy. The historic protestant framework allows us to better suss out what is literal and what is figurative or allegorical, more importantly what prophecies have already been fulfilled by history and what, if anything, scripture has left in it to tell us about the future. Concepts such as a secret rapture, the Great Tribulation (seven years of suffering), rebuilding the temple, and a future Antichrist evaporate under historic Protestant interpretations. Why? Because these were literary devices created to fix the problems introduced by dispensational theology, taking creative license in scripture as if it is some fortune cookie about the future. Take things literally and, before you know it, you have to start explaining one wild literal prediction with another, even wilder one. This is the same corner that QAnon has painted themselves into.
To best summarize the difference between the two hermeneutics is this: dispensationalist interpretation uses books like Daniel and Ezekiel to interpret Revelation as a prediction of the future, but historic Protestant interpretation uses Revelation to interpret Daniel and Ezekiel, to reveal God’s redemptive work throughout history, especially how it points to the conclusion of prophecy in Christ.
Who, then, is He Who has done these things and has united in peace those who hated each other, save the beloved Son of the Father, the common Savior of all, Jesus Christ, Who by His own love underwent all things for our salvation? Even from the beginning, moreover, this peace that He was to administer was foretold, for Scripture says, “They shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into sickles, and nation shall not take sword against nation, neither shall they learn any more to wage war.”
Athanasius, On the Incarnation
Speculation Run Amok
Many scholars who defend dispensationalism have argued that departing from a literal interpretation of scripture lends itself to speculation, but just look at what literal interpretation has done for speculators in the past hundred years. People thought Hitler was the Antichrist, and after the Third Reich failed to establish a thousand year reign on the Earth, the Vatican in 1944 issued a statement that millennialism cannot be safely taught. The Jesus Movement of the 1960s and 70s taught that the end of the world could happen at any minute, popularized by Hal Lindsey’s “The Late Great Planet Earth”, which connected dispensationalism with pop culture in an attempt to marry current events of that time period with eschatology. This led to asceticism, an unhealthy focus on supernaturalism, and the mindset of seeing the world as one imminent apocalypse – themes still present in many churches today. Many from this movement, now fundamentalist denominational leaders, later speculated the Y2K bug would usher in the apocalypse, leading many Christians to build underground bunkers and stock up on weapons in 1999. When that passed, Christians then adopted a widespread belief in 2008 that Obama was the Antichrist based on an off-the-cuff remark about the working class “clinging to their guns and religion”, leading to numerous assassination plots. Earlier this year, fringe conspiracy groups planned to assassinate President-Elect Biden to usher in a new heaven and earth, some believing the book of Revelation’s ten days of darkness began with Trump’s Twitter suspension. Today, otherwise intelligent Christians are refusing to take a COVID vaccine because of the strong anti-government sentiments modern evangelicalism teaches, or believe it is somehow related to any number of end times concepts that may cost them enslavement or eternal damnation. Both sadly and ironically, many have needlessly have suffered and died because of these very beliefs. If historic protestantism is guilty of speculation, dispensationalism has been sensationally guilty of it. Dispensationalism gave Christians a square peg they are constantly trying to fit into something in the present, rather than looking at how it fit into God’s redemptive work in the past. This has kept the church needlessly preoccupied for a hundred years.
At the very least, one might think that because dispensationalism is bound to a literal reading, it would offer some guard rails to prevent speculation from running wild. Over time, however, many Christians (particularly those lacking any academic training in theology) have found themselves unaware of the two mutually exclusive schools of thought, and have layered symbolism on top of a literal ideology that relies on the absence of symbolism for its mere existence in the first place. Consider, as but one example, that literal interpretation dismisses symbolic ideas such as a vaccine, a tracking chip, or cashless payments as a mark of the beast. If you held to strict dispensationalism, you’d believe such a mark would be a visible marking directly tied to worship (of Antichrist). Some scholars believe this was a reference to goddess cults, whose members (and temple prostitutes) were known to seal themselves by branding with hot needles (Peristeph 10), and may have required such an identifying mark to buy or sell sex work, which was consecrated to their goddesses. It is also a parody to the sealing of the Christians referenced in Revelation, which a literal interpretation would require a visible mark on the foreheads of Christians preceding the “mark of the beast”. A literal chronology of Revelation would also require the trumpet plagues of the Earth to have already come (fires burn a third of the Earth, meteor destroys a third of fish, a third water poisoned, darkness over a third of day and night, and months of smoke and locust torture), and yet all of this happening while the temple (which was destroyed in AD 70) is still standing, so that it could be measured in Rev 11 – if you held to the literal ideals dispensational premillennialism offers. Obviously none of this fits. It’s fraught with problems, especially considering the context in which it was written during second temple Judaism, possibly even before AD70.
To resolve such irreconcilable differences with scripture, dispensationalism adopted the notion that this end times scenario actually happens to some future temple, inventing the notion that it will somehow be rebuilt (again) some day. Yet this makes little to no sense for a Jesus who claimed to have replaced the temple with “something better”, and referred to the temple as only a shadow of his kingdom in heaven, which he brought through his coming with a new covenant. It makes no sense to a Jesus who, in a cruel irony, stopped referring to the temple as “my temple”, and called it “your temple”, and cursed the fig tree (metaphorically representing the temple) when he left it. It wouldn’t have made any sense to John either, that God would show him a vision of “some other temple” thousands of years later and not the one he knew to exist (and was possibly still standing). You’d expect he’d have mentioned it as a new or restored temple. It’s very clear that Jesus’ intention was to depose the original temple and replace it with “something better”, creating a new sacrificial system based on his own life rather than animal sacrifice and other temple praxis. So what can we make of all the speculation in the church? Many have conveniently adopted the constructs afforded them by dispensational hermeneutics while simultaneously abandoning the very pillars that it relies on – allowing for wild symbolic conspiracy theories to run rampant in an end-times scenario that otherwise only exists if you take everything literally.
Restoration of God’s People
It’s important to note that what I’m advocating here isn’t replacement theology; even Pope John Paul II acknowledged that God’s original covenant with the Jewish people was never revoked. Justification before God is a question dating back to what is possibly the earliest book of the Old Testament (Job), who asked “how can mere mortals prove their innocence before God?”. Luther describes justification as “before the face of God”; e.g. grace cannot be quantified (especially if it is infinite), which is why establishing forensic justification is a worthy, but also futile effort. Justification isn’t to be taken lightly either; Calvin explains, “For unless you understand first of all what your position is before God, and what the judgment which he passes upon you, you have no foundation on which your salvation can be laid, or on which piety towards God can be reared.” For that matter, God cannot revoke a covenant, else he would be “dashed to pieces”. Theologically, he is incapable of moving the goalposts; God’s own righteousness is intertwined with faithfulness to his own promises.
Attempts to reconcile this have proven underwhelming. Some scholars believe the book of Hebrews positions Jesus’ ministry as an alternative sacrificial system inside Judaism rather than superseding it. The concept of dual-covenant theology has just as many problems as replacement theology, however. There is a hint about what Jesus was doing, and the context of it all, in the parable of the wine skins. While the object lesson is about the incompatibility of the old system with the new, it’s often mistaken that this has anything to do with the Christian church; in fact, is kind of interesting that Jesus cited the old as better. Not enough emphasis is placed on what is actually being rejected as incompatible: the Jewish leadership’s legalism surrounding justification and their established ethnic boundaries were inherently at odds with God’s redemptive plan throughout history for his people, and his plan to merge his qahal, or ekklesia as it was referred to in the Septuagint, to make Jew and Gentile into one. Jesus condemned the Pharisees’ poor stewardship of God’s people, and their system of justification by observing the law, rather than justification by faith in God. Joel B. Green argues, based on his interpretation of Luke 5:39, that from God’s perspective it was the system of false piety that was the incompatible “new wine”; this legalism was the “new garment” tearing away God’s relationship with his people, leaving the old Jewish system in tattered disrepair. This underscores God’s redemptive work as deeply inclusive of the Jewish people, to save them from what was a counterfeit system of works that had never been the intention of the old covenant. This is supported by the New Testament object lesson par excellence in Abraham justified by faith, and not the law (citing Gen 15:6). So the theme, even in the Old Testament blueprint, has always been salvation through grace by faith. What Jesus brought about was a renewal, not replacement, of God’s original redemptive work by deposing the broken Jewish leadership of the time and choosing to personally shepherd his people; e.g. “God with us”, as evident in Ezekiel 34.
1 The word of the Lord came to me: 2 “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? 3 You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. 4 You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally. 5 So they were scattered because there was no shepherd, and when they were scattered they became food for all the wild animals. 6 My sheep wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. They were scattered over the whole earth, and no one searched or looked for them. 7 “‘Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: 8 As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, because my flock lacks a shepherd and so has been plundered and has become food for all the wild animals, and because my shepherds did not search for my flock but cared for themselves rather than for my flock,9 therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: 10 This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I am against the shepherds and will hold them accountable for my flock. I will remove them from tending the flock so that the shepherds can no longer feed themselves. I will rescue my flock from their mouths, and it will no longer be food for them. 11 “‘For this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I myself will search for my sheep and look after them. 12 As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness. 13 I will bring them out from the nations and gather them from the countries, and I will bring them into their own land. I will pasture them on the mountains of Israel, in the ravines and in all the settlements in the land. 14 I will tend them in a good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel will be their grazing land. There they will lie down in good grazing land, and there they will feed in a rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. 15 I myself will tend my sheep and have them lie down, declares the Sovereign Lord. 16 I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy. I will shepherd the flock with justice.
So to the contrary, what we see here is an extreme opposite of the anti-Semitic replacement viewpoint and instead, God pursuing the Jewish people to rescue them from the leadership that so miserably failed them and restore them to the original blueprint of Genesis. This is consistent with Jesus’ debates with his contemporaries, where he often corrected or reframed the Mosaic Law by citing the original Edenic blueprint as taking higher priority. This was the “something better”. Jesus was intended to be the greatest love note for the Jewish people that had ever been. At it’s core, there has really only ever been one covenant and not two; the basis for salvation has always been the same: love God and love your neighbor. (Hosea 6:6 For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.) This was the mission of Jesus, to renew and expand God’s relationship with humanity – not to bring about or foretell the end of the world, or to give birth to a new breed of fortune tellers; Jesus came to become both high priest and sacrifice to set the world free.
A lot more people would be Christians today if it wasn’t married to the manufactured literalism that came out of dispensationalism. A lot more people would also be Christians today if it didn’t require making identity politics your faith. What you’re seeing coming out of the American evangelical church is very alien to Christianity. It is more the product of a century of quite terrible theology that developed a cult following. Such a radical form of theology this young in its infancy should have never been approached without heavy criticism. It followed us into the movements of the 60’s and beyond, where the church clung to many other forms of cult phenomenon, and the fruits of that are Christians who have conflated their faith with an American ideology. I feel like this is partially responsible for what has bewitched Christians into supporting such anti-Christian ethics as of lately. Conflating these ideas with faith is dangerous, and is just what the QAnon crowd and other conspiracy groups have done in error, but worse, it’s what the evangelical movement in general has adopted in error, and it’s damaged countless Christians. The extreme views of modern Christianity were not part of the narrative of the church until just a hundred or so years ago, and there are reasons for that.
Religious scholar Simon J. Joseph put it well when he made the argument that Jesus did not come with an apocalyptic message, at least in the sense that we perceive today.
The word “eschatology” refers to the “last things,” but it can also refer to the expectation of a divine renewal without envisioning a catastrophic end of the space-time continuum. Similarly, the word “apocalypse” refers to a divine “revelation”, but it does not necessarily envision a catastrophic end of the space-time continuum… the problem is that the Jesus of the Gospels does not predict the annihilation of the nations or announce the in-gathering of the twelve tribes of Israel. Moreover, Jesus does not seem to be interested in delineating the periodization of history, nor does he seem preoccupied by astronomy, the calendar, or “cosmic cartography”. These “apocalyptic” literary motifs are conspicuous in their absence in the career of “the apocalyptic Jesus.”
Simon J. Joseph, Jesus, The Essenes, and Christian Origin
Jesus brought about a divine renewal and dramatically altered our perceptions and communion with God. One can divorce modern end times ideology from one’s faith, and still possess a solid Christian faith in doing so – in fact, possibly even a more focused and accurate faith. Christianity was never meant to be based on speculation about the end of the world. This emerged from a young theology, set in a pessimistic society that chose to reinterpret prophecy contrary to the historical Jesus. In the grand scheme of things, many of the ideas the modern church holds have only lived for a vapor of time.
As I have implied repeatedly in my writings, there are real consequences for allowing popular culture to drive movements in the church, no matter how harmless they may seem at the time. Sound doctrine is vitally important, and the fruits of the church’s tolerance of bad ideas from church leaders – instead of “testing the spirits” – is evident today. There are consequences when Christian leaders, academics, and the congregations that should hold them accountable fail to be adequately protective of scripture, allowing unsound teachings to be entertained in the church. Given its origins, the fundamentalism many churches still teach today is the most literal definition of white, American Christianity as one can get. Be it far from us to presume that a gospel forged well before our country’s existence and in an ancient culture far different from ours, should be interpreted through 20th century American blinders.
1 A misunderstanding of conditional covenants; also consider the word play in the first three chapters of Genesis, where Ha’adam in the Hebrew personifies Adam as a figurative representation of all mankind.