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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