Archive for June, 2012|Monthly archive page
Read 2 Thessalonians 1 here.
It’s good to be back to work after a nice, long 10-day vacation – hope you enjoyed the Pale Blue Dot post I left for you while I was away. Let’s continue our chapter-by-chapter examination of the books of the New Testament, picking up where we left off – Thessalonians.
Most traditional commentators consider 2 Thessalonians to be second oldest, written just a few months after the first letter to the same church, sometime in the early to mid 50s. Many secular scholars disagree; in fact, Bart Ehrman thinks it was written at least a generation later, long after Paul the Apostle had already died, due to its focus on persecutions that wouldn’t have yet occurred. However, as I’ve said before, for the purposes of this blog, it doesn’t matter exactly when it was written or who wrote it – what matters to me is how modern Christians interpret the scriptures today, and how some of those interpretations weaken our democracy. So, while I’ll point out the parts that give scholars reason to doubt, we’ll stick with the conservative dating.
Paul begins with a warm greeting. It appears that he is still in the company of Silas and Timothy, as they are part of the greeting as well. He then praises the Thessalonians for their perseverance in the face of persecution – and it’s this verse and others like it that cause some scholars to doubt that it was written while Paul still lived.
The idea that most of us have in our heads of Christians being fed to lions or dying at the hands of gladiators in coliseums comes from events that occurred in the 3rd century AD – not the 1st. Government sponsored persecution of Christians, especially rank and file laity, was sporadic and local until around 250, when Decius and later Valerian began to heat things up. In fact, before Nero blamed the Christians for setting fire to Rome in 64 AD, the only documented accounts of persecution we have are of Jews persecuting Christians in areas of the Empire where Judaism was the majority religion, in Judea.
So the argument goes something like this – if Paul really did author this letter between 51 and 56 AD, what persecutions is he talking about? Thessaloniki is Greek, not Judean. If a group of Christians outside Judea were being persecuted in earnest at the time the letter was written, then the letter must have been written near the end of the 1st century, during Domitian’s reign (when the Revelation was probably written), or very early in the 2nd century, during Trajan’s. This would have been decades after Paul’s death in 67 AD.
But why were Christians persecuted, and what is persecution anyway? At first, Christianity was considered to be just another heretical sect of Judaism, and was prosecuted by the Jewish authorities with ostracism, imprisonment, or death by stoning. While I can never think of this without remembering of Monty Python’s take on it, in reality there are horrific videos available on YouTube illustrating that this is one of the worst deaths imaginable.
As Christianity spread throughout the empire, Christians living in pagan societies often found themselves in the situation of being required to sacrifice to local gods or to the emperor during public festivals, something they felt uncomfortable doing. Jews were allowed to refuse, due to the antiquity of their religion, but it was felt that Christians were trying to have things both ways. They insisted that they were not Jews, but even though they were a new religion, they wanted to be exempt from sacrifices. This often cast them in a suspicious light with local authorities and the public in general, so when anything went wrong, they were a pretty easy target to blame. From 64 to 250 AD there are scattered accounts of persecution, but nothing systematic or widespread. You might say being a Christian was no more dangerous than being some other sort of minority in the empire – remember that the ancient world was not the warm fuzzy world Americans and Europeans enjoy today.
When Roman persecution of Christianity did occur, it was brutal, usually deadly. It annoys me today to hear Christians saying that they are persecuted because they can’t put a cross up in front of the courthouse, or can’t publicly command everyone to pray in a school. This is not persecution – to say so is to belittle the real tribulations that have been faced by believers in the past, and that some still endure in countries like Afghanistan and North Korea. If you want to take your tax-free dollars and build something in a space that needs to serve every member of the community, and has been paid for by every member in the community, and I say I don’t think that’s legal – that’s not persecution. If you say something that you can’t prove, and I call you out on it, that’s not persecution, that’s called rational discourse – something we are certainly short of these days.
But, good news – if you’re the vengeful type. When Jesus comes back, it will be ‘in blazing fire with his powerful angels’. He will punish all those who didn’t believe his gospel with ‘everlasting destruction’ – which is, I suppose, even worse than plain old destruction. (Now I’m thinking of Blackadder, ‘a fate even worse than a fate worse than death’ – haha.) So I guess it doesn’t matter whether you actually participated in persecuting Christians or not; fail to believe in God and the love-your-neighbor guy morphs into the Old Testament fire-and-brimstone, kill everyone God. By this logic, if Jesus returned today, approximately 5 billion people who have never heard of Jesus or who have some other system of belief would be immediately vaporized, their souls destined for eternal damnation. The billion or so left – most of whom conveniently live in some of the richest, most comfortable countries in the world – are the only ones who stand even half a chance. Move over Mussolini, I think we’ve met your match.
This kind of gleeful anticipation of mass destruction bears all the marks of the lowest kind of thinking; it therefore must follow that it could not truly represent the ideas of the supreme being of the universe. It must be a man-made idea. If there is a God, he could not do things that Hitler dare not dream of. If he is willing to take out more than 80 percent of his human creation at the bat of a divine eye – he’s not really our creator.
He is certainly not in any position to ‘bring to fruition your every desire for goodness’ if his plan for our future is to make death by stoning look like a game of tiddly-winks.
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I’m on vacation this week – somewhere off the coast of Florida on a cruise ship, maybe in Nassau, maybe in Orlando when you read this. But I didn’t want to let you down, so I wrote this a few days earlier, and instructed WordPress to publish it in my absence.
Here’s a photograph taken by one of our astronauts – I’m not sure exactly who – but it was taken with a hand held camera, for God’s sake! This version has been digitally restored – the original is faded and scratched. It’s absolutely beautiful.
I was just a kid living in Dayton, Ohio when the Apollo space missions were taking place – so I think I’m in this photograph. Ohio would be under that cloud that appears to have formed over the Great Lakes, top and center of the picture. Dayton would represent an area about as big as the period at the end of this sentence. The greater Dayton area comprising around a quarter of a million people at that time – well, I’d be the equivalent to a proton or electron in this picture.
Viking 2 was circling the planet of Mars in 1975. It turned back to take a picture of Earth – mind you Mars is the closest planet to Earth, yet far enough away that travelling there is still the stuff of science fiction. Here’s the photo that NASA released, the first to be taken from a position further than our moon.
I can’t find a photo of the Earth from the vantage point of Jupiter, but here’s a great computer generated photo from NASA of what Jupiter and the Earth might look like side by side. Again, awe-inspiring.
In 1990, Voyager 1, which had been launched in 1977, reached the edge of our solar system – our solar system, mind you, not our galaxy, not our quadrant. At the request of Carl Sagan, NASA ordered Voyager to turn around and take a photograph of the planets of our solar system. Here’s the amazing photo of Earth it took, from the vantage point of just beyond Pluto. Now notice, for one thing, how I have to provide a much larger photo this time to see anything at all.
Focus on the brownish band on the right third of the photo, half way down – you’ll see a pale blue dot. That’s us. If you’re measuring in pixels, NASA says it’s 1/12th of a pixel. Maybe you have a fairly nice, flat-screen TV, with 1080 HD capability. Magnify your screen by about 11 times, and the Earth would occupy just one pixel on your now gigantic TV screen.
Here’s what Carl Sagan had to say about this photo:
Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
The earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and in triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity – in all this vastness – there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. It is up to us. It’s been said that astronomy is a humbling, and I might add, a character-building experience. To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.
When I was a believer, I thought that heaven was at the center of the universe, perhaps a planet or star around which everything else in the universe revolved. If Earth is a speck of dust on a grainy photo from the perspective of Pluto, what would be its significance from the center of the universe? My brother has often postulated that, if God exists, might Earth be the ant farm he made for his 4th grade science project, now forgotten and abandoned in the back of his closet?
Compare this to the Aristotelian conception of the universe, which would have been the model accepted by the writers of the New Testament.
Notice that Earth is not a speck at all; instead, it is the largest object in the picture, situated at the center, dominating every other celestial body.
Is it any wonder that, the more we are able to see and perceive, the less sure we are of God’s existence? When we find out that the church was wrong about the simple, physical facts of the universe, the less trusting we are that it has a fix on the much more complex spiritual and metaphysical answers as well.
Finally, if you really want to get some perspective, look at some photos of how Earth measures up in galactic terms here. Please don’t tell me you see the majesty of God in these photographs; if anything, these pictures reveal how ridiculous our religious ideas are – not only are we not the hot topic of the universe, our cumulative human experience doesn’t account for a single tick on the celestial time clock of the universe.