Donald Andrew Henson II

Posts Tagged ‘Second Coming of Christ’

Thessalonians Revisited

In Blogging the Bible, Blogging the New Testament, Religion and Society on February 5, 2014 at 11:58 am

My main goal this year is to blog the entire New Testament. At 260 chapters, that’s less than a chapter a day. (By the way, did you know that the entire Bible can be read aloud in about 70 hours? Yet so many Christians have never bothered to read or listen to most of it. How many have watched every episode of Friends – a feat that would require roughly 90 hours?) A chapter a day is still a pretty tall order, since I am often distracted by other readings – today I bought a copy of Deer Hunting with Jesus and I can hardly put it down. (No joking, I’ll be posting on it soon.) Nevertheless, let’s aim for a year, and be happy if it takes no more than two.

We were last looking at Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians. Pretty much everyone agrees that Paul wrote the first one in the 50s AD, but opinion is split on whether he wrote the second one shortly thereafter or if someone using his name wrote it around 40 years later. For our purposes, it really doesn’t matter – what is most important is to look at how Americans read it today, and how it influences our society and the political debate. Let’s look at the positive first.

Thessaloniki

My favorite verse in the letter in 1 Thessalonians 5:15, “…always strive to do what is good for each other and for everyone else.” I can’t think of another Bible verse that would do more good for American society if it were whole-heartedly followed – nor of one that is so blatantly anti-capitalist. Paul is basically saying to consider others when you decide to do something, and make sure whatever you are doing is good for everyone else. Imagine how much better our society would be if we constrained our actions in this way. No one would cut you off in traffic. Your neighbor wouldn’t walk his dog in your front yard. A stock price wouldn’t rise when a company sacked a few thousand workers, because this wouldn’t be good for society as a whole.

Adam Smith assures us that the beauty of capitalism is that everyone can work towards their own self-interest, without giving too much thought to what effect it might have on everyone else. The invisible hand will somehow make this work out for society in general.

In my personal economic experience, it has been more of an invisible backhand, Stanley Kowalski in a wife beater undershirt. Perhaps for the 1%, this hand is more satisfying, more like an invisible hand job from an expensive escort. In any event, someone is wrong, as there is an obvious contradiction here. Either the Apostle Paul got this one wrong, or Mr. Smith did.

Is it possible that you can’t believe in capitalism and the writings of the apostles at the same time? It’s no problem if you’re intellectually lazy – you’ve never read the tenets of either. But if you sincerely want the government to run according to Biblical principles, you might have to say goodbye to Wall Street. We’ll find this sort of anti-capitalist sentiment even more prevalent when we start looking at the words of Jesus himself.

Paul also encourages all Christians to live moral lives – nothing wrong here, except that in modern American society, this is obviously more easily said than done. It seems every few years an influential pastor or preacher gets caught with his pants down. It shouldn’t be funny, but getting caught with the organist is always going to get a few laughs.

If I think of his admonishment in only general terms, this would definitely be positive. Who wouldn’t agree that we should all do our best to be moral? However, in real terms, which is to say political / legislative ones, this is something that is really tearing America apart. Who gets to decide what constitutes morality? The Catholics? The Mormons? Me? You? And – a question nearly as old as the Constitution itself – can morality even be legislated? While that question might appear to be rhetorical, the obvious answer is – no, it can’t. Ken Cuccinelli would disagree, but I think this is mostly because he’s pissed off about having a last name that sounds a lot like Italian for vagina.

Other problematic ideas in Thessalonians that we’ve already discussed include:

In short, there are many ideas in Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians that could hurt us as a nation, and only one (largely ignored ) that would make America better. In my opinion, the worst thing Thessalonians does is lay the groundwork for a Christian ideology that isn’t interested in improving American society. If Jesus is coming back in my lifetime – what me worry?

Some Christians would say that these ideas are off the mark – that few Christians espouse these them. I disagree. It is the fact that these ideas have basis in the scripture that make them so dangerous. It’s not like the so-called fringe are pulling these ideas out of thin air – they can point to chapter and verse.

As long as a huge group of Americans think they’ll be meeting a magic man in the sky before their grandchildren graduate high school, it will be very difficult to make some of the tough decisions that our country needs to make – the outcomes of which will decide if we prosper or decline in the coming years.

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2 Thessalonians 2

In Blogging the Bible, Blogging the New Testament, Religion and Society on August 12, 2012 at 11:52 pm

Read 2 Thessalonians 2 here.

Sorry for the long delay between posts; I should be back on track for a couple of posts per week. I’ve been reading some very exciting things that I want to blog about, but first —

We were talking about Paul’s vision of the Second Coming of Christ. It seemed to me – though one comment disagreed – that Paul was saying to those who suffered persecution, “it may be tough now, but God’s going to pay everyone back in spades one day”. Paul promises that Jesus will return and destroy everyone who doesn’t believe or follow the gospels. According to the Pew Forum, around 2 billion of the nearly 7 billion people on Earth profess some sort of Christianity. That means, God will destroy 5 billion people if Jesus comes back in the next couple of years. Staggering.

As I said before, this doesn’t sound like the supreme being of the universe to me – the most degenerate human would not dream of such a thing. And remember that half of that 2 billion Christian are Catholic, so if you’re a Protestant, you’d probably rule out another billion. And let’s not forget the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, etc. that Protestants say are not really Christians either. Perhaps God might decide that everyone who didn’t buy a Joel Osteen book or send 10 bucks to TBN is S.O.L.

But wait – before God wipes out billions of people at the blink of an eye, something else unthinkable has to happen – the Antichrist has to appear.

English: Satan as Antichrist

Satan as Antichrist

Chapter 2 opens up by encouraging the believers in Thessaloniki that the end times have not already passed. (Maybe encouraging is the wrong word, in light of what is supposed to happen.  I for one would be relieved to learn that I’d somehow missed out on the apocalypse). Apparently, some teachers were saying that Jesus had already returned – I’m not sure why that would make sense to anyone, due to the fact that their lives / religion / political system remained unchanged. But Paul assures them that Jesus had not yet returned, and reminded them that a key development would have to take place before he could.

Enter, the Antichrist. Here’s where some scholars point out similarities to John’s Revelation, written long after Paul’s death, to say that 2 Thessalonians wasn’t written by Paul. I guess believers could say that the similarities are due to the fact that the Holy Spirit is the true writer. In any event, the New Testament maintains that, in the last days on Earth, an extremely talented and gifted man will take over the political system. He is ‘the man of lawlessness’ or, as some manuscripts have it, ‘the man of sin’. He will apparently do miraculous things, just as Jesus did, but his power will come not from God but from Satan. He will “set himself up in God’s temple”, which I assume to mean the temple in Jerusalem.

If this was written by Paul, the temple would have still existed in Jerusalem – so points to those who favor a Pauline authorship. If this was written around 90 AD as some assert, then some retrograde logic or prophesy regarding a re-building of the temple would be required. Jesus speaks of rebuilding the temple himself, but it is generally regarded by Christians that he was talking about himself, not the building erected by Solomon and restored by Ezekiel and later Herod.

Many American Christians believe this temple will have to be rebuilt a third time at some point in the future for Biblical prophecy to come true. The problem is that there is currently a Muslim mosque, the Dome of the Rock, standing on the exact same site – regarded as third only to Mecca and Medina as the holiest places for Muslims. A good way to start World War III would of course be to try to build such a temple. It’s scary that many Americans would support such a move, so that Jesus could eventually return.

Paul’s justification for the destruction of those who follow the Antichrist is pretty interesting. They didn’t believe in Jesus, even though Jesus performed miracles and the Holy Spirit remained to point the way. Granted, they didn’t see these miracles with their own eyes, but they were supposed to believe anyway. Then, someone appears in their own lifetime, performing many of the miracles that Jesus performed, and is also assisted by a spirit, but this one is evil. They believe what they see over what someone wrote about a couple of thousand years ago, and “for this reason God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie and so that all will be condemned who have not believed the truth”. Sounds fair to me.

I won’t get into all the nasty things this guy is supposed to do – I’ll save that for our reading of the Revelation; and besides, you’ve seen so many Antichrist movies already, I’m sure. At first, it will seem like he solves a lot of problems. Then, he’ll become supreme dictator of the world. At some point, he will proclaim himself a God.

English: The Dome of The Rock Mosque, in the t...

The Dome of The Rock Mosque

In reality, this isn’t so much a prophecy as it is a thinly veiled indictment of what the Roman emperor had already done in Jerusalem by the end of the 1st century – and Greeks, Egyptians, Babylonians and Persians had done before. It was a common practice in the ancient and classical worlds to enter the temple of a defeated nation, proclaim yourself or your god as superior to theirs, usually leave an obelisk or graven image of some kind in the temple that had to be worshiped, either along with or instead of any local god. The Romans respected Judaism at first, due to its antiquity, and exempted Jews from some of the practices that were required of other conquered nations.  This all ended in 70 AD. The Romans, having had their fill of rebellions in Judea, destroyed the temple, killed a million Jewish people, and enslaved perhaps a quarter of a million more.

The mainstream of Jewish religion pretty much changed from that time until now, giving up messianic and apocalyptic prophesy in favor of focusing on how to live a better live in the present. Christian teaching moved in the opposite direction, at least in part because they believed the messiah had already come.

But the real takeaway from this chapter is much more frightening than any Hollywood movie or religious nightmare. There are ultra-Orthodox Jews who want to rebuild their temple on the site of a holy Muslim mosque, so that they can make blood sacrifices as described in the Old Testament. (Not all Jews, but a militant minority). There are Christians who believe this is the right thing to do – after all, the end times and Jesus’ return can’t happen unless the temple is rebuilt. So, a very real conflict could occur in the Middle East because of the religious fantasies held by a few.

If there’s anything more frightening than the specter of the Antichrist, it is the chance that a few religious zealots could return us to the Dark Ages.

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2 Thessalonians 1

In Blogging the Bible, Blogging the New Testament on June 24, 2012 at 1:32 pm

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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