Donald Andrew Henson II

Posts Tagged ‘Second Epistle to the Thessalonians’

2 Thessalonians 2-3

In Blogging the Bible, Blogging the New Testament, Religion and Society on August 14, 2012 at 2:58 am

Apocalypse (Photo credit: Rich Man)

Read 2 Thessalonians 2-3 here.

Let’s finish up this letter today and move on to a new topic later this week. In the last post, we looked at Paul’s view (or whoever wrote 2 Thessalonians) that the Antichrist would have to appear before Jesus could return. For a brief but very informative description of where the idea of this evil figure originated, have a look at the PBS / Frontline website and its discussion of the apocalypse – some very interesting information about the historical context in which the idea of an Antichrist arose, and how the original ideas were re-interpreted during Medieval times into the narrative we have today.

Basically, the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem was an unimaginable terror to the Jewish people, including those who had adopted Christianity. The reaction in this country to the events of 9/11 might be a kind of parallel – the fear, the disbelief, the insecurity. Many first century Christians and Jews were sure that the end must be near, and drew upon the apocalyptic literature from earlier chaotic times – the writings of Daniel and 1 Enoch during the Greek occupation, for example – to explain the events occurring at the time.  In fact, apocalyptic writings were widespread throughout the Mediterranean for 2-3 centuries leading up to the time of Christ. Our fascination with ‘end of the world’ stories continues today in the form of novels and Hollywood movies.

Paul closes out the 2nd chapter of this letter by admonishing his followers to ‘hold fast’ to the teachings he has given them, either by letter or in person. He also uses a new term that is fairly important in many Christian circles – sanctification. Paul’s letters to the Corinthians and the Romans will explain this idea more fully – which could be evidence that this letter was really written later – so a short explanation will suffice here.

Justification is what happens at the moment of salvation. The sinner realizes he is guilty before God, and takes the grace offered him by the atoning death of Jesus. At that moment, God accepts Christ’s righteousness in his stead, and the sinner enjoys divine communion with God. However, the old sins and customs the sinner has practiced for years may still have a strong influence on his life, and the new saint needs to conform his life to that of Christ. This is the process of sanctification. You’ve accepted the gospel of Christ, but it may take some working of the Holy Spirit in your life before you completely escape your old habits and desires. The more fervently you believe in the truths of the gospel, the more complete this process becomes.

I often come across good Christian people who can’t stop beating themselves up over this process. The problem is, so much of what the New Testament says is contrary to what one finds to be true in daily experience. The struggle to believe something that is often of so little help in real life leaves people discouraged and confused. Jesus healed the deaf and blind in the Bible, but he won’t take my friend’s cancer away. Paul says I should stay single, but I’m really lonely and would be happier if I had a husband / wife.

I read a recent blog by rabidmongoose in which he details the struggles he’s going through because he doesn’t really believe in the resurrection of Christ. Instead of just admitting what his natural, rational intelligence informs him of – that it most likely didn’t happen – he continues to beat himself up because he feels his faith is not strong enough. Sad. The only way to really believe all this stuff is to ignore everything else, hang out only with others who believe, and spend most of your social time talking about your faith. Sanctification, in essence, is a kind of social engineering designed to make your life conform to the teachings of the church.

The final chapter is just a few verses long, mostly blessings, prayers, asking for prayers and the like. But one short passage really stands out, and forms one of the major tenets of American life, both religious and secular. Apparently, some of the Thessalonians had decided that Jesus was coming back so soon, that there was no reason to do more than just get by until he returned. So they stopped working, and began to look for handouts from others to support themselves. Paul disapproves of this and advises everyone to avoid idleness, with the famous phrase, “if any would not work, neither should he eat”. This King James rendering is the way I always heard it as I was growing up, but I think I prefer the NIV rendering, “the one who is unwilling to work shall not eat”, because it seems to insinuate that the willing but unable must still be fed.

Nobody likes a freeloader, not today, not two centuries ago. This lies at the heart of the debate over entitlements in the US today. We don’t like to see welfare recipients become generational – that is, those who are on welfare today producing children and grandchildren who remain on welfare in the future. It lies at the heart of the Protestant work ethic that the lazy and shiftless are not chosen of God, and they have no earthly inheritance.

I can’t say that I disagree – I am an American, after all. But I need reward for my work other than the heavenly. I do think we need to have a discussion about what constitutes ‘work’. For a few decades now, we’ve admired Wall Street robber barons whose sole purpose seems to be taking money away from the financially unsophisticated – you and me – and enriching themselves at our expense. A spate of articles in the news recently describe how the 401k system, which was meant to replace the old company-sponsored retirement benefits with shiny new self-managed accounts, have mostly failed – except in their ability to enrich the companies that manage them. Much of what financial institutions proudly describe as their ‘work’ is high tech highway robbery.

So, in short, 2 Thessalonians contains a couple of ideas that are quite powerful in American thought – God rewards those who follow him, often financially, and has unimaginable punishment awaiting those who do not. The spirit of the Antichrist is already among us, and the political and economic systems we love and cherish are going to go through some pretty scary transformations before Jesus comes back to make everything right.

In the meantime, keep your nose to the grindstone.

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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