The Heresies of American Evangelicalism, Part VI: Eschatology
Part VI: A Gnostic eschatology
This topic hardly needs an introduction. In light of Hal Lindsey, Left Behind, and the whole inward-spiritual-otherworldly nature of traditional evangelicalism, calling evangelical eschatology “Gnostic” is like calling Catholicism “hierarchical.” That said, I would do evangelicalism an injustice were I to leave out the great strides made in recent years toward a theology of creation that takes into account the criticisms of the environmentalism movement and the need for a theology that does justice to the particularity and physicality of God’s creation in the beginning and the new creation proleptically realized in the resurrection of Jesus Christ that will be consummated in the eschaton. We cannot ignore the positive developments of recent years, but we also cannot forget that these are often viewed as steps backward by many who identify themselves as evangelical.
The problem of a “New Gnosticism,” as many have called it, goes far beyond the bounds of evangelical Christianity. Indeed, we see it most prominently in the writings of academics like Elaine Pagels and Bart Ehrman, or in the pop fiction of Dan Brown. In other words, as Bishop Wright pointed out in a recent lecture given at Washington Cathedral, Gnosticism pervades both the far right and the far left—respectively, a Gnosticism that attempts to leave this planet behind for a ‘better world,’ and a Gnosticism that distrusts this world and attempts to offer a secret gnosis that will free us from governments, institutional religion, etc. Either way, the lure of Gnosticism tempts us all.
I first became aware of the problem when reading Mark Noll’s landmark book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. One of the pivotal moments in that book came when he quoted and criticized the lyrics to what I thought was a nearly perfect song in Christian worship, “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus.” Noll showed otherwise when he picked out the important lines:
Turn your eyes upon Jesus,It dawned on me then that I had bought into a totalizing narrative which captures creation in a hierarchical order of being, placing “the things of earth” in a subordinate relation to “the things of God,” as if God’s purposes have nothing to do with the earth. In this false narrative, reality is dichotomized into two categories—on the one side are finite, material substances, and on the other side are eternal, non- or trans-material substances—and those in the former category (bodies, animals, earth) are subordinated to those in the latter (souls, angels, heaven). The world of “mere materiality” possesses lesser value in the eyes of God, because all material substances are circumscribed by this narrative between their origin in the Fall and their annihilation in the eschaton.
Look full in his wonderful face,
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim,
In the light of his glory and grace.
None of what I have said is new to anyone. The neo-Platonism of contemporary evangelicalism has been lambasted by numerous theologians and scholars and I need not harp on its problems here. Before analyzing the available responses and solutions to this problem, however, I think the more interesting question is not the Manichaean narrative itself so much as the ramifications of this narrative in contemporary evangelical culture. How does this pseudo-gospel affect the life of the church in America? I suggest the following two ways, though these are by no means exhaustive:
(1) American materialism. When materiality is merely finite and, thus, eternally insignificant, the door is thrown wide open to mass consumption and hedonistic indulgence. A person is more likely to consume large quantities of low-fat desserts, because there are (at least theoretically) no serious consequences for one’s health and appearance. The same would go for drugs as well, if someone is capable of inventing the equivalent to Aldous Huxley’s “soma.” These are particular, concrete examples within the larger genus of consequence-free hedonism.
Now the average person will immediately object: “Ah, but evangelicals are generally the ones most concerned about piety and right behavior. They declare things like sex outside of marriage, drinking, and sometimes dancing to be at least potentially sinful acts. They preach 2 Cor. 5:10, ‘For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.’ Doesn’t this undercut your entire point?” It would, except that evangelicals see no problem with amassing wealth, spending lots of money on oneself, and indulging one’s gluttonous desire for food. (And many so-called ‘conservative’ Christians are no longer so worried about sexual mores, and the issue with alcohol and dancing is more generational, unless you attend a Southern Baptist church.)
The contradiction in American Christianity seems to be derived not from reflection on the importance of discipleship in all areas of life, but rather from the particular historical-cultural context within North America. The more that this context adapts to present-day morality (or lack of morality), the more Christians in the U.S. feel free to jettison traditional moral boundaries and embrace their materialistic impulses—impulses confirmed or at least described by a Gnostic eschatology, rather than constrained and reordered by the ecclesial practices of radical discipleship. Within the liberating framework of costly discipleship—that is, in the shadow of the cross—we are offered a new economic narrative of giving and receiving, not a human economy of debt and lack established in the context of the market but rather a divine economy of superabundance, plenitude, and self-donation established in the christological context of God’s self-offering in Jesus Christ. God’s alternative narrative for humanity allows us to embrace materiality as a gift of God to be cherished and nurtured in our ‘life together’ (to use Bonhoeffer’s term), not consumed, mass-produced, exploited, and hoarded for individual gain.
(2) American imperialism. Materialism is a relatively obvious consequence, but imperialism much less so. Here, however, I take my bearings from the stimulating thought of William Cavanaugh, particularly in his writings on torture and the nation-state. One of the insights he gained from studying the Catholic church in Chile was the realization that Christians there had bought into the false narrative that viewed faith as a purely internal, non-bodily relation to God. Consequently, Chilean Christians gave their hearts to God and their bodies to the state. We see the same situation in America today, as evangelicalism makes faith into a spiritual-intellectual decision (e.g., the Four Spiritual Laws). Worship concerns the heart, belief concerns the mind, heaven concerns the soul, but sin concerns the body. The ramification for life in the United States is precisely the same as it was for people in Chile: Americans give their hearts and minds to whatever god or ideology they worship, but they give their bodies over to the state (and, usually, also over into purposeless pleasures). The nation-state constructs an imaginative framework (of borders and ideas) that demands bodies for defense, and when bodies are viewed as finite objects, bodies are willingly handed over for finite uses.
I will address the issue of imperialism in my final entry in this series, but I believe the root of the problem lies in a false eschatological narrative that may cry, “Jesus is Lord,” but fails to consider the extent or nature of his Lordship, opting instead to domesticate Christ’s claim on our lives according to the cultural norms of our western society. In a culture that worships many gods, and often primarily the god of America, the Lordship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit must be relegated to a spiritual realm of inner dispositions rather than threaten our dearly held traditions of patriotism, materialism, consumerism, militarism, and individualism.
Solution: Any number of suggestions could be put forward for how to rectify the situation, but I will put forward the following four as starting-points. These suggestions follow the pattern of Karl Barth’s “threefold Word of God”—Jesus Christ, Holy Scripture, and preaching—to which I have added a fourth, the praxis of the church community in contemporary society.
1. Proclaim the gospel that Jesus Christ, as the worldly, fleshly, human God, has reconciled all things in himself. If, in our faith, we think out of a center in the incarnate Logos, the Son of God, Jesus the Christ, then our faith cannot fall into the trap of Gnostic dualisms and spiritualisms. The Son is the one through whom the cosmos was created; the Son is the one in whom God assumed human nature to its very depths; the Son is the one in whom God became incarnate and walked among us. As the writer of Colossians confesses, “in him all things hold together … and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of the cross” (1:17, 20). Jesus Christ is thus the center that holds together all things, both on earth and in heaven, both created and uncreated. The aporia in all Gnostic eschatologies begins with the fact that they cannot sustain faith in the God who became incarnate in Jesus. Furthermore, if we take Jesus seriously, we must also confess that in him we see what it means to be eschatologically, or truly, human. Our true humanity is displayed in the person of Jesus, one who was completely in the flesh and yet also entirely in communion with the invisible God.
2. Interpret Holy Scripture as the divine witness to the reality of God. Scripture attends to the concrete particularity of creation. God’s reality is not “spiritual” or “transcendent” over against the “worldly” and “immanent”; God’s eternity encompasses and involves itself in time; God’s omnipresence embraces concrete spatiality; and God’s transcendence embraces the immanent. Scripture is the human witness to the event of divine self-revelation, and this occurs in, with, and through the particular person, Jesus of Nazareth. Materiality is created, sustained, affirmed, and redeemed in the economic activity of the triune God. In stating this, we affirm that Scripture is not concerned about some “heaven” or “other world” as our “true home”; that our “citizenship is in heaven” means that our identity is not confined to the broken reality of our world today but is rather located in the eschatological reality of God’s kingdom—a kingdom which will eventually establish itself here one earth. In light of this, we assert that Scripture attests to an eschatological reality which is created, sustained, and ruled by God. In other words, the reality established by God in Jesus and which awaits consummation in the eschaton is a reality that remains tangible and creaturely. The “new heavens and new earth” are not the annihilation of this creation but rather its total redemption and restoration into fullness of life. We do not await another world, but rather we wait for the reign of God, in which the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit will wipe every tear from our eyes and all creation will be brought into communion with the Creator (Rev. 21). We affirm all of this in the prayer, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
3. Preach to and for the concrete human situation. Church proclamation must attend to the material and social matrix in which our lives are shaped. The preaching of the Word brings the ontological reality attested to in Holy Scripture into our existential situation. Preaching establishes an existential crisis for the hearer by bringing the gospel to bear upon one’s particular context. In that the Word of God encounters us, our context is reoriented, our situation is redefined, our old identity is replaced by a new one. If Scripture is profoundly and consistently rooted in the tangible world of food, fellowship with others, and the beauty of the earth, the proclamation of the gospel orients these tangibles toward the glory of God. The reality of God inaugurated in Jesus Christ which we proclaim in the ‘word of the cross’ is one that submits all things in faithful obedience to the lordship of God and calls us to bring our physical selves into the eternal worship of the triune God. In other words, God lays claim to our physical being, including our sexuality, our wealth, our possessions, our national identity, our race or ethnicity, our class, our friends, our family, ourselves. When we preach the Word of God, we must root the message of the kingdom in this world, not in some “other” world. The gospel is the Word of God for us today; the kingdom is for us, here and now.
4. Practice a this-worldly life. By “this-worldly” I do not mean worldliness in the negative sense as debauchery and self-centered pleasure-seeking. Rather I mean precisely what Scripture attests to on every page from creation to re-creation: the call for us to live fully in this world, to embrace the world around us in its entirety as a divine gift for our enjoyment and responsible care. The divine call to live in this world without reservation is a call given to the church. As the church, we are called to embody in our lives now the eschatological kingdom of God’s eternal reign. That means we must submit all things under the headship of Christ, including our bodies, our political commitments, our patterns of thought, and our interaction with others. Scripture witnesses not only to the this-worldliness of the gospel, but also to the radical scope of God’s reign. However, we do not submit our lives to God in ascetic denial or moralistic legalism, because God does not call us away from the world but into the world as God’s sanctified witnesses. We would do well to remember Bonhoeffer’s words in a letter to Eberhard Bethge:
During the last year or so I’ve come to know and understand more and more the profound this-worldliness of Christianity. … I don’t mean the shallow and banal this-worldliness of the enlightened, the busy, the comfortable, or the lascivious, but the profound this-worldliness, characterized by discipline and the constant knowledge of death and resurrection. … By this-worldliness I mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities. In so doing we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world—watching with Christ in Gethsemane. (Letters and Papers from Prison, 369-70)Bonhoeffer writes much more of great value for our topic, but one insight alone is worth remembering: Christianity is faith in the resurrection of Jesus from the grave. The resurrection is the center and basis of Christian eschatology, as well as the denial of all Gnostic attempts to spiritualize the faith in abstraction from the material reality of the body. Christianity rests upon the resurrection event, not in some abstract “redemption from cares, distress, fears, and longings, from sin and death, in a better world beyond the grave” (Bonhoeffer 336). Christianity rests upon the One who was raised to new life, whose resurrection was the divine victory over sin and death. In the resurrection Jesus was not raised with an other-worldly body; this is not what Paul means by “spiritual body” (1 Cor. 15:44). The resurrected Jesus has flesh like any other human being, but his is transformed in a way that can only be seen by faith. The disciples could not recognize him on the surface, but illumined by faith, they saw him as indeed the resurrected Lord. Christianity is faith in the resurrection.
As resurrection faith, Christianity calls us to this world as the realm of new life. The resurrection calls us to become agents of reconciliation, yet this ministry of reconciliation is not limited to some internal change or spiritual disposition within human individuals; the ministry of reconciliation concerns the restoration of the relation between creation and Creator. The eschatological hope of the new creation declares that God will bring the world into harmony with Godself. We await the day when God will again say, “It is very good.” Until then, however, our role as agents of reconciliation consists in being priests of this world. We are priests of the new creation, and thus caretakers of the world entrusted by God to humanity as it is being transformed into the sphere of God’s eternal reign. In the time being, we ought to seek peace and justice, fight all forms of oppression (whether political, social, economic, or environmental), and, in the midst of the fleetingness of life, enjoy this world. As Joel tells Clementine in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind when asked what to do knowing that the moment would pass, we too must respond, “Enjoy it.”