3. We’re Still Here
(Please read part one and two of this series before proceeding).
The most unintuitive, but provocative reason Christianity is in its current state is because we are still here. This is a multifaceted idea that I need to develop:
The Problem of Scale
Christianity does not scale well. No, I haven’t gone completely mad. I know how widespread Christianity is throughout the world. I know exactly how long it has been around. Yet, I fearlessly make the unintuitive claim that Christianity does not, nor has it ever scaled very well. While I’m at it, let me just pound the final nail into the coffin of my sanity. I posit that Christianity, that is to say, the religion of Jesus and his early followers no longer exists, if it ever did.
Today’s Christianity is a religion that is vaguely about the biblical, rather than historical Jesus. I think it fails, even at that. The biblical Jesus would hardly be welcome in today’s church, anymore than he was welcome in the religious institutions of his day. Were he to reincarnate before our very eyes, he would be too far out of time and place for any of us to recognize or relate to him. In order to embrace him, we would have to radically reinterpret him, which is what we do, today.
But a reincarnated Jesus is not a reinterpreted Jesus. If he were to change so radically as to fit into this place and time that we would recognize and welcome him, then he would no longer be the Jesus of the bible. If he remained the Jesus of the bible, we would crucify him all over again. Our churches pay little homage to the Jesus of scripture. Instead, they stand as monuments of institutionalized religion, exactly the opposite of what Jesus stood for.
In less than fifty, bible years, the church went from sacrificial, free-will offerings for serving the poor, to an institutional tax that ultimately became the means for servicing the administration. Preachers went from wearing robes of poverty as a badge of honor, to becoming the largest budget item, and wealthiest members of the church. Speaking of church administration, it went from being all but non-existent, relying on spirit-filled members to do their part, to an ecclesiastical hierarchy that is bewildering to even modern students of religion. The church went from meeting in houses over informal meals, to meeting in expensive campuses over pious ritual. I can go on this way for some time, (and you know I can), but the point is made. The religion of Jesus and his immediate followers, sometimes called, “the way”, died before the gospels were ever penned. By that time, all that was left was the religion of Paul, and that was something very different. As we will see in a few moments, even the religion of Paul neither scaled well, nor survived beyond his lifetime.
The Problem of Eschatology.
Here’s another equation: How well a religion scales is directly inverse to the vagueness of its eschatological predictions. If a new religion springs up tomorrow predicting that some unknown tribe will rule the world for a thousand years starting tomorrow, that religion has zero chances of scaling over time and population. First, the only people who would be drawn to such a religion are those few members of the named tribe. Even if the prediction held true, you already have a problem with scale. Second, the prediction would not hold true. It would immediately prove false. By the following day, the faith statements of that religion would have to be radically revised, or the religion would simply die an ignominious death.
This is the history of the religions (plural) of the bible starting with the first page. Adam and Eve were promised paradise or death. There was no alternate plan. The promised death was to come the day of transgression. They would not have understood that any other way than immediate termination. That doesn’t sound like much of an eschatology, but there were at least two, both broken. First, Paradise didn’t turn out to be so perfect. Even though they were doing what was right, they ran into an evil serpent in the garden. They never had a chance with a life of bliss. Second, when they sinned, that should have been the end of the story.
There was no contingency plan for living sever hundred more years. In fact, there seemed to be a council of the gods near the end of the chapter as they/he decides what to do with the humans. That was already supposed to be decided. Again, the eschatological prediction did not come true. There is no redemption story for the garden of Eden. Chapter three should have concluded with the words, “The End”. The only way for the story to continue, is for the story to change, which it did. There was never a paradise, and the humans didn’t die. None of the predictions came true. The religion of Eden didn’t scale very well.
To be clear, neither did the religion of Abraham. It was a tribal religion with tribal reach. It was not particularly evangelical. There were a couple of eschatological promises. One was that Abraham would be the father of a great nation, making his reach purely genetic. That is the only way for that to be understood. If it was merely symbolic, then Abraham didn’t need to have a son at all. The prediction of greatness was also supposed to last forever. There was also a land grant that was supposed to be everlasting. How did those predictions work out? Abraham’s tribe is not a great nation, and does not occupy the promised land. More revisions are necessary.
The religion of Moses had some eschatological predictions. The tribes were to be a protected nation of priests who would prosper for all time. All they had to do was obey the law handed down by god which was to be in effect for all time. How did that work out? The nation was never particularly priestly, no matter how you describe it. Their prosperity was short lived. And the law is no longer in effect. Oh, lest I forget, there was a system of redemption built into this one. That didn’t last, either.
Fast-forward to the time of Jesus. All of the eschatological promises to Moses had to be completely redefined by Jesus for his time. Obeying god would not bring prosperity, but a sword of persecution. There would never be a holy land as the kingdom was not of this world. Keeping the law was a series of compromises as there was no real priesthood, the temple was a joke, and the land was ruled by conquerors. Naturally, revisions had to be made.
Jesus, or his followers, defined him as a new kind of messiah with a new kind of law and a new kind of kingdom. This new kingdom was not of this world, and could only be accessed through death. Martyrdom and resurrection would be the keys to entering this kingdom. History was going to end very soon. Jesus had proved himself master over nature, disease, and death. The great resurrection had already begun. Pack your bags, folks. This time, the story is really about to end. No more revisions required.
The Last Days
It is important that we understand what the bible meant when referring to the last days. It did not mean the last months, years, centuries, or eons. The people would not have understood it in that context, and they didn’t. No! The last days literally referred to the last DAYS. The end would come anywhere from today, to maybe a week or two at the most. That is precisely what there was no contemporary writings about the affairs of Jesus and his followers until much later in history. Imagine you are a historian, and you have 100% proof that the world will be coming to a catastrophic end within the next week or so at the most. Even more likely, it would just be a matter of days. Do you spend your time cataloging the events of the last days, or do you spend those last days with friends and family, getting your affairs in order?
In this scenario, all writing is done. Burn all the paper and books for keeping warm. In a day or two, there will be no one left to read them. I assure you, I will not knowingly spend my last days blogging. I have better things to do. Writing is the sort of thing you do, only if you are reasonably sure there will be someone in the world to read it. Why would Peter or any of the apostles write a contemporary account of events, even if they could write, which they couldn’t? They were too busy jockeying for positions of power in the upcoming kingdom. This was supposed to happen within their lifetimes, even within Jesus’ lifetime, from their perspective. When the guards came for Jesus, Peter had a sword and was not afraid to use it. He thought the kingdom was coming at that moment. He was just one battle away from sitting on one of the twelve thrones. There was no need for a chronicler.
Unfortunately, Jesus’ promise to be right back with his kingdom in hand never came true. The disciples realized there would need to be a brief time when they would have to do some evangelism and preparation for the imminent kingdom. For them, the bad news just kept getting worse. They started dying out, and none of them were being raised, thus, conquering death. It seems with all their best efforts, the kingdom had not yet come with power. They found themselves still waiting while being hunted down like beasts. At the very least, they expected a quick resurrection, that has yet, never come.
Whatever else he was, he was a firm believer in the imminent, bodily resurrection of the saints. He expected he was living in the last days. All of his writings about the subject have him declaring his belief that he would be around at that the time of the great reckoning. All of the people of that timeframe believed the same thing. That is what they were taught by Jesus and his immediate apostles. Just look at the behavior of the early Christians. They were baptized to make themselves ready for the coming kingdom. They sold all of their possessions, especially land, and gave the money to the poor, as Jesus had enjoined them to do on a number of occasions. It is not just piety that would cause a person to behave thus. It is the understanding that earthly possessions are about to become obsolete.
Consider Paul’s teaching to the Corinthian church in his first letter. Despite marriage being something of a human and societal necessity, he recommended that people who were not already married should avoid it altogether. He also commanded slaves to stay slaves, and not try to change their status: an easy thing to say if you were not a slave. But for Paul, a change of status, whether to marriage or freedom, was an utter waste of time, as the end of all things was practically upon them.
His, no doubt, legitimate first letter the the Thessalonians stands as a testament to his belief that the end was just around the corner.
Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.
Look at the number of times Paul counted himself among those who would still be alive during the resurrection of the saints. He wanted to make sure the Thessalonians thought about themselves in the same way. Paul was not envisioning a particularly long life for himself. He thoughts the early deaths were nothing more than an anomaly that should be ignored, not grieved. The balance of them should still be around for the final curtain call. He went as far as to tell them to encourage one another with these words.
Consider those words. They were to understand that the dead in Christ would rise up and be caught up in the air with Jesus before those of them who were still living. This was not a general order of resurrection, rather, this was how they were to specifically understand resurrection for their particular situation. They would be around to see the dead rise. Only then, would they join them in the air. This is why Paul could be so callous about grief. All those who had died would be rising before their eyes any day now. This was not going to be a spiritual resurrection. They would not be with Jesus as a result of some transformation in the grave. They we be with Jesus only after a physical, visible, and imminent resurrection that would occur in plain sight of everyone.
Then something bad happens: nothing. That is to say, nothing happens. That is the one thing that was not supposed to happen. People just kept right on dying, and no resurrections were forthcoming. Absolutely nothing happened. The eschatological prediction failed again. Time for yet another re-write.
Enter 2 Thessalonians, almost certainly not written by Paul.
In all likelihood, 2 Thessalonians was written by impostors using Paul’s name, many years, if not decades after 1 Thessalonians. The true author of this letter is all but immaterial. The only thing about this book that really matters is why it was written. Some bad history had intervened between the writing of the two letters. The idealism of the first letter had proven false. Perhaps this is why the writers of the second letter were so harsh in the refutation of the first letter. The second chapter begins by telling the people that they had been lied to, possibly by an earlier letter. They were told to disregard all that talk of an imminent resurrection. The eschatological landscape had changed, and many things had to happen first.
Now, dear brothers and sisters,[a] let us clarify some things about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and how we will be gathered to meet him. Don’t be so easily shaken or alarmed by those who say that the day of the Lord has already begun. Don’t believe them, even if they claim to have had a spiritual vision, a revelation, or a letter supposedly from us. Don’t be fooled by what they say. For that day will not come until there is a great rebellion against God and the man of lawlessness[b] is revealed—the one who brings destruction.[c] He will exalt himself and defy everything that people call god and every object of worship. He will even sit in the temple of God, claiming that he himself is God.
It goes on in this manner for some time. It would seem that Paul, the writer of the first letter, knew nothing about this man of lawlessness who first, needed to be overthrown. He knew nothing about the great apostasy which had to take place, first. All in all, he was rather uninformed about a number of important events.
Having said that, however, 2 Thessalonians may offer a new eschatology, but not an infinite one. These events were still supposed to happen sooner, rather than later. Though the lawless one was never named, the chapter clearly suggests that he was already on the scene, if not in power. All scholarly speculation presumes this is referring to a figure that was contemporary to the time, and not some shadowy figure that would come on the scene thousands of years later. This figure was contemporary, his unmasking and dethroning was imminent, and the apostasy, if not already occurring, was just around the corner. The letter makes it clear that only after these events, could one expect the final resurrection. Like a person throwing darts at a moving target, the predictions just keep changing.
Towards the end of the letter, the writer commands the people to go back to work and live their lives. The interesting thing is that the first letter had given them a sense that the end was imminent. They were told that the ones who had died would be rising up again right before their eyes. They would be around to see it. It only makes sense that many quit their jobs in anticipation of the return of Jesus. Who wanted to be caught working when that happened? The writers of 2 Thessalonians had to deal with the same problem that we face today: They were still there. It was essential to alter the story yet again to give it a longer shelf-life. Now, there is a shadowy, lawless figure who must be stopped, and many other things that must happen first. Enough of this waiting around for the return of Jesus. Get back to work. This story should hold you over for a few more years, hopefully, until you die.
The Final Re-Write, Again…
So here we are, right back where we started. We’re still here. That is perhaps the greatest disconfirmation of Christianity we have. History should have ended directly following Genesis 3. It should have ended after the tribes broke their covenant. It should have ended after the profits gave their dire predictions. It should have ended after Jesus didn’t return right away. It should have ended when the apostles were killed off. It should have ended, especially when Paul died. And, it most certainly should have ended no later than within the second century.
Like the people of 2 Thessalonians, we have the problem of still being here. All of the bible stories have been told, the eschatology, disconfirmed. It is time for yet another re-write, and we have had plenty. We have gotten those re-writes from the church fathers who brought us the church of rome. We got more re-writes from the practitioners of Islam. Eventually, the protestants came to save the day.
Of course, while stubbornly remaining here, we have had re-writes from the Mormons and the Jehovah’s Witnesses. We have had other types of reinterpretations by Jim Jones and Applegate. We have no real faith. We have no genuine, life-changing experiences. And, we are still here, growing ever more impatient and skeptical of new re-writes and reinterpretations that try to explain why the eschatological predictions of the bible haven’t come true. With all that working against them, what kind of faith is the average church-goer supposed to have?
Beyond the eschatological predictions, we have ever greater knowledge about a universe that simply does not work the way religion taught us it should. The universe is not 6,000 years old, more like 13.7 billion. There was no 6 day creation. This is not a three-tiered universe. We are not at its center. Sickness is not caused by demons and sin, but germs and other biological realities. That means that prayer and anointing have no power to cure a biological malaise.
We do not believe what we cannot believe. The level of our piety can never exceed our genuine faith. Our faith can never be increased without genuine encounters with the miraculous kind, that just don’t happen. Finally, all of the religions of the bible have failed, with the need to be continually reinterpreted and re-written to maintain any relevance at all. The religion of Jesus and his early followers died long before the first gospel was written. And, against all odds and biblical predictions, we’re still here.
Because of that, we must come up with new stories and experiences in which we can believe, and by which we can live our lives. We look for it in movies, on social networks, in science books, in radical tolerance. And, in anything else that seems true and real. Browbeating the beleaguered believers will not produce pious practitioners of a far gone faith. We must learn to engage this truth-starved generation with experiences that matter, rather than with stories that don’t.