Did Jesus (and the early Christians) actually expect him to return soon? [Questioning faith #13]

Ted Grimsrud—December 23, 2022

Many New Testament scholars and others influenced by them assert that Jesus (and, following him, other New Testament writers such as Paul and the writer of Revelation) believed that he would return within a relatively short time after his death. This return would be tied with an end to history and the inauguration of a new heaven and new earth.

The people who advocate this view go on to point out that Jesus (and the others) were obviously wrong. Christianity thus quickly evolved to be a more conservative, more doctrine-oriented—and less radical-ethics-oriented—religion. Christians linked themselves with political structures (e.g., the Roman Empire) that would allow them to sustain their structures so long as Christians would contribute to the wellbeing of the political status quo. Over time, various small renewal movements would arise that would hearken back to the radical message of Jesus (and, in some interpretations, of Paul and Revelation). These movements could be dismissed because they were basing their visions on a message from Jesus that was meant for the short time between his life and his return. That message was not meant for the long haul of coming generations who were tasked with sustaining the faith over a much, much longer period of time than Jesus had anticipated. This work of sustaining the faith, thus, in the real world, required accommodation to the political systems of the world.

But is this true?

I have the impression that many of the people who accept the idea that Jesus (and the others) expected a soon end of history have not scrutinized the evidence very carefully. The first thing that I note is how ambiguous and peripheral most of the references are that seem to voice such an expression. We don’t have a clear, straightforward statement that Jesus will return soon. We do have various statements that seem to allude to something major happening in the near future without explaining what that would be and what would be the consequences. And there are more vague statements of hope about God’s victory to come. How should these be understood?

It could be that they are indeed predicting a soon end to human history and the inauguration of a new age of pure salvation. But such a predication does not have support in the overall message of Jesus and the rest of the New Testament that emphasizes the call to faithful living in a broken world. A key value in the New Testament is perseverance, the sense that followers of Jesus have a long haul ahead of them that will require strength, a commitment to resist the ways of the world, and an acceptance of the likelihood of suffering for the sake of their faith.

Continue reading “Did Jesus (and the early Christians) actually expect him to return soon? [Questioning faith #13]”

Was Jesus raised from the dead in history? [Questioning faith #12]

Ted Grimsrud—December 19, 2022

Of all the questions I have related to Christianity, I suspect that the question of whether Jesus’s resurrection was a historical fact may be the most vexing. To keep it simple, I’ll just say that what I am referring to is the belief that Jesus actually fully died and was buried and then, a couple of days later God raised his body from the dead and for several weeks Jesus walked on earth as a living human being. A related belief, of course, is that 40 days after he was raised, Jesus ascended to the heavens to be with God. I will focus on the resurrection here, though I find the factuality of the ascension to be a vexing question as well.

What is the problem?

On the one hand, the stories in the gospels and in Paul’s writings seem clear in reporting that Jesus was raised—and that this is a key aspect of Christian faith. The beliefs that God is victorious and that salvation is real appear to depend upon Jesus’s resurrection. Over the past 2,000 years, acceptance of Jesus’s bodily resurrection possibly has been the most non-negotiable Christian affirmation.

It is clear that something real appears to have happened. Reading the gospels carefully, we learn that Jesus’s followers were devastated when he was arrested and ultimately executed. They ran away and some even denied that they knew Jesus when they were confronted. These are the kinds of stories that seem unlikely to have been invented by later Christians as they put the disciples in a very unflattering light. Then things dramatically changed. Those people who had scattered in fear regathered and began risking their lives to proclaim that the Jesus who had been crucified was alive. This proclamation was at the core of the movement of Jesus’s followers that grew and spread in the coming years.

The historical reality of the resurrection itself may be unverifiable (no one saw it happen), but the transformation of Jesus’s followers does itself seem to be historically likely. And how could that transformation have happened without the story of Jesus being raised being true? The gospels don’t claim that anyone saw the actual event of Jesus being raised, but they do claim that many of Jesus’s followers did see the raised Jesus. That must have been why they embraced and witnessed to his teachings and way of life even at great risk to their own lives.

And yet, on the other hand, many of us find it difficult to believe that Jesus could literally have been killed and then days later restored to life.

Continue reading “Was Jesus raised from the dead in history? [Questioning faith #12]”

More thoughts about Ukraine and the American Empire [Pacifism Today #8]

Ted Grimsrud—June 23, 2022

[In early March, as the conflict in Ukraine gained the world’s attention, I began to write about that conflict, especially in relation to the American Empire. I posted a blog entry, “Thinking as an American pacifist about the Russian invasion” on March 3. On April 10, I posted “Reflecting morally on the conflict in Ukraine,” a collection of four shorter Facebook posts from the previous month. This current post also collects Facebook posts and leaves them essentially unchanged.]

So, what’s going on with Russia/Ukraine? [5.10.22]

I have struggled with how best to understand the current conflict in Ukraine and, especially, the American role in it—especially in light of Jesus and his biases toward peace and against the power elite. These are some brief points about which I have developed some clear impressions (subject to revision):

1. The US has been seeking a unipolar world at least since 1945 (for example, note the size of the American military budget in relation to the rest of the world and its extensive set of military bases around the world). This quest for global dominance has led to the US relationship with the Soviet Union/Russia to be very adversarial. Russia has a long history of facing aggression from the West going back to Napoleon.

2. Ukraine was the site of armed conflict before the Russian invasion in early February 2022, with thousands dying since 2014. What happened in February was an acceleration of the conflict, not an initiating of it.

3. There are great profits for arms dealers (war profiteers) in the deepening of this conflict. These profits come on top of the great profits throughout the Cold War era and the resistance to a post-Cold War “peace dividend.” These profits have been a key factor driving American policies.

4. Our mainstream (corporate) media are mainly repeating what they are being fed by government. Note the lack of dissenting voices in relation to the militarized American response in the core national media (e.g., Times, Post, NPR, CNN, MSNBC, New Yorker, Atlantic).

Continue reading “More thoughts about Ukraine and the American Empire [Pacifism Today #8]”

New Book—To Follow the Lamb: A Peaceable Reading of the Book of Revelation

I am happy to announce the publication of my most recent book: To Follow the Lamb: A Peaceable Reading of the Book of Revelation (Cascade Books, 2022), ix + 278pp.

To Follow the Lamb is a commentary of the entire book of Revelation that places a special emphasis on the peace message of Revelation. Revelation is not a book that portrays a violent, vengeful God but rather than shows God to be most profoundly revealed in the gracious Lamb. The key to reading Revelation is to take seriously the opening words of the Book that tell us it is a”revelation of Jesus Christ.”

Revelation is an exhortation to discipleship—follow the Lamb wherever he goes! It offers a sharp critique of the world’s empires and a sharp critique of how people of faith all too easily find ways to be comfortable within the empires. Revelation portrays God as merciful and peaceable—but engaged in a battle against the spiritual powers of evil that energize the nations’ domination systems.This battle, though, is fought with the weapons of love, not worldly violent weapons.

Available online from:

Amazon (the Kindle version is only $9.99)

Wipf and Stock Publishers

Both sites have previews that show the first part of the book.

Also available at: Bookshop.org

Endorsements:

“Ted Grimsrud is a worthy and capable guide through the often misread and confusing images laid out by John of Patmos to the churches of Roman Asia. Anyone who has ever wondered how to make sense of this powerful narrative will find a great companion in To Follow the Lamb. Go form a study group and dig in!”—WES HOWARD-BROOK, Seattle University, author of Unveiling Empire: Reading Revelation Then and Now

“In this important book, Ted Grimsrud clears away decades of misunderstanding and misuse to reveal the beauty and power of the Apocalypse. Writing with deep insight and lucid prose, Grimsrud forcefully challenges violent interpretations of Revelation and fixes our gaze on the nonviolent Jesus. A treasure trove for peacemakers and justice seekers, To Follow the Lamb is accessible, relevant, and sorely needed. Guaranteed to deepen your appreciation of Revelation—I highly recommend it!”—ERIC SEIBERT, Messiah University, author of Disarming the Church: Why Christians Must Forsake Violence to Follow Jesus and Change the World

“In the midst of the sometimes violent rhetoric of Revelation, Grimsrud makes abundantly clear that Revelation features the nonviolent victory by the slain and resurrected Lamb, who reveals a nonviolent God, over the powers of evil, represented by the Roman empire. One of the most valuable contributions of this comprehensive theological analysis of Revelation is how it applies the book’s nonviolent resistance to empire to our call to challenge the American empire.”—J. DENNY WEAVER, Bluffton University, author of God Without Violence

More posts on Peaceable Revelation

The prophet’s vindication [Jesus story #14]

Ted Grimsrud—May 20, 2021

I was a teenager when I became a Christian. As western Oregon was pretty unchurched, I didn’t grow up with any peer pressure to be religious. So, in many ways I was a blank slate as far as faith goes when I first walked into Elkton Bible Baptist Church with my friend David. It’s interesting to me as I look back because the driving force for me was a desire to understand, to get help with my questions, to move towards discerning truth. And I happened into a church which had this basic stance: “The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it!” We’ll answer your questions, but just one time. Though treated with kindness, I was certainly not encouraged to keep asking questions.

I was taught a bunch of things as true without really being given too many reasons why. So, as a result, when I went to college and by my junior year started getting pretty serious about the whys and wherefores of my faith, a whole bunch of beliefs quickly dropped by the wayside: No more rapture and Great Tribulation doctrine, no more creationism, no more inerrant Bible, no more substitutionary atonement. But for some reason, one of the really big beliefs, the bodily resurrection of Jesus, remained pretty much unscathed for quite some time. Like so many other beliefs, it was simply presented to me as factual, not open for negotiation, absolutely necessary. Don’t ask why; don’t ask what it’s based on, that is; don’t question it.

Questioning Jesus’s bodily resurrection?

Unlike the rapture, creation/evolution, and the perfection of the Bible, I didn’t mind not questioning the resurrection. But it seems to me that theological beliefs are kind of like a slot machine—different ones come up at different times. And, for various reasons, about 20 years ago or so, the resurrection came up for me. So, I started really thinking about it, and realized that, indeed, there are lots of questions.

Continue reading “The prophet’s vindication [Jesus story #14]”

How Revelation’s non-predictive prophecy speaks to our pandemic (Peaceable Revelation #7)

Ted Grimsrud—January 29, 2021

I am sure that it is no coincidence that the emergence of mass crises in the 20th and 21st centuries (world wars, pandemics, famines, environmental devastations, et al) has corresponded with increased interest in the book of Revelation and other materials in the Bible that are said to have prophetic importance. Sadly, the assumption that “biblical prophecy” has mainly to do with predicting the future has blinded many Christians to the wisdom that prophecy understood in a non-predictive sense has to offer for our difficult times.

One way to get insights into the wisdom of Revelation is to try to apply it to our present pandemic—but not in the sense that Revelation directly predicted what is happening now nor even in the sense of thinking of our current events as in some sense related to the End Times. Instead, I will reflect a bit on how Revelation’s insights into the world of the first century might be helpful for us in the same ways that the stories of the gospels or the theological analyses of Paul’s letter might be helpful.

Revelation as non-predictive prophecy

I begin with an assumption that we should read Revelation in the same way as we read other books in the New Testament. We understand it to be written by a person of the first century addressing readers in the first century about issues that mattered in the first century. It is indeed prophetic writing—in the same sense that Paul’s writings were prophetic writing. These writings follow the Old Testament prophets in speaking on behalf of God to people of their own time, offering challenges and exhortations that their readers live faithfully in light of the message of Torah and (in Paul’s context) the message of Jesus.

So, I do not read Revelation to be offering predictions about the long-distant future. It is “non-predictive prophecy.” As a “revelation of Jesus Christ,” it is basing its critique and exhortation on the message of Jesus. Too often, interpreters of Revelation have (and still do) miss the ways that the book is oriented around Jesus—missing, that is, the relevance of its first verse that gives a self-identification as the revelation of Jesus Christ.

Continue reading “How Revelation’s non-predictive prophecy speaks to our pandemic (Peaceable Revelation #7)”

Satan in the book of Revelation—and today [Peaceable Revelation #6]

Ted Grimsrud—January 20, 2021

As we struggle to comprehend the various large-scale social problems that we face today, we might do well to do some thinking about the book of Revelation. Although the word “evil” is not used in Revelation, the concept of evil is quite present. I find myself thinking that reflection on evil is part of what we need to do as we seek social healing.

Revelation features the spiritual forces of evil quite prominently. And it presents us with the character of the Dragon as the mastermind behind those forces—this Dragon “who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world” (Revelation 12:9). Now, the character of Satan is a deeply problematic figure in our culture’s history. Without engaging the bigger issues about why Satan is so problematic, in this post I want to focus on the use of “Dragon,” “Satan,” and “the devil” in Revelation and how those images might actually be helpful for us today, though in somewhat complicated ways.

What do we learn about Satan in Revelation?

Though the Dragon character is not explicitly introduced in Revelation until chapter 12, it does cast a shadow back over the earlier part of the book and remains central for what follows in chapters 13 and following. I think that because the Dragon will be closely linked with the Beast, who in turn has a close connection with the Roman Empire, all the allusions from the beginning of the book to the Empire and to the kings of the earth and to the conflicts that John’s readers have with their wider world point to the importance of the Dragon. Revelation presents the environment its readers lived in (and, by implication, the environment that we live in) as plague filled: wars and rumors of wars, environmental devastation, economic injustices, and on and on. In my interpretation, the Dragon will prove to be the immediate force behind the plagues. So, the entire agenda of Revelation has to do with living faithfully in a Dragon-infused world.

At the same time, it is crucial that we recognize that Revelation does not have the agenda of presenting an open-ended war between near equally powerful protagonists. The Lamb is victorious over the Dragon from the very beginning of the book. The struggle lies in the embodiment of that victory. Satan in Revelation is actually quite similar to Satan in the gospels. There is a sense in both places that the battle is Jesus vs. Satan. The words from the letter to the Ephesians describe the situation: “Our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic power of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph 6:12). Or, in the words in Revelation: the struggle is about “destroying the destroyers of the earth” (11:18). Let’s equate “Satan” with the “spiritual forces of evil” and the “destroyers of the earth.” The struggle against the “spiritual forces of evil” is what the “war of the Lamb” in Revelation is about.

Continue reading “Satan in the book of Revelation—and today [Peaceable Revelation #6]”

Living in a broken world: Power, love and the plagues in Revelation [Peaceable Revelation #5]

Ted Grimsrud—January 15, 2021

I believe that the book of Revelation offers people in the contemporary world some helpful guidance—though not in the ways popular Christianity would have us think. Revelation is not a source of insights for fortune telling helping us to know the future before it happens. Rather, Revelation is, I believe, a meditation on the centrality of love as we seek to navigate a world in crisis. So, the argument I offer here goes against both those who think predictive prophecy is how Revelation is relevant and those who think the Bible as a whole—and certainly the Bible’s last book—is simply an ancient work with little to say that is relevant in any way today.

Two big problems

Let’s start with two general problems. The first is the problem of living humanely in our contemporary world. Such humane living seems to require that we seek to overcome, say, the brokenness of ever-present warism with its weapons of mass destruction, the all too present trauma of our nation’s legacy of white supremacy, the overwhelming impact of predatory capitalism and always worsening economic inequality, our emerging climate catastrophe and other ecological crises, and the curse of mass incarceration and its companion police brutality. How do we move ahead in such a world?

The second problem is more esoteric, but I believe significant, nonetheless. This is the problem of the visions in Revelation that portray a world undergoing several series of escalating catastrophes (or plagues). These visions seem to tell us that God initiates these plagues, and the standard interpretations across the theological spectrum generally understand these God-initiated plagues as acts of God’s punitive judgment. This very problematic view of God leads some to dismiss God and the Bible altogether and others to affirm a morally corrupt view of God. To believe that God brings punitive judgment often leads Christians themselves to become agents of the forces of destruction that exacerbate the crises mentioned above.

Is it possible that if we biblically interested Christians could resolve the problem of the plague visions that we would be better able to respond to the brokenness problem? I believe we are challenged to hold together our affirmations that (1) God is love, (2) Revelation is truthful, and (3) brokenness in our world is real. However, if the “truth” of Revelation is that God is the author of the plagues then we will have trouble being agents of healing.

Continue reading “Living in a broken world: Power, love and the plagues in Revelation [Peaceable Revelation #5]”

Hope and the embrace of our imperfect present [Theological memoir #8]

Ted Grimsrud—January 9, 2021

At some point when I was a child, perhaps seven or eight years old, I learned about the difference between a person called an “optimist” and one called a “pessimist.” Whoever explained this to me—it was probably one of my older sisters—used my mother as an example of an optimist. I didn’t really understand what I was being told very well, but from that time on I looked at my mom a bit differently. I hoped I could be like her.

“Optimistic” theology

It may be that my entire theological project—emphasizing peace, arguing for restorative as opposed to retributive justice, understanding salvation in terms of God’s mercy—has followed from the sense that I wanted to be an optimist too. I don’t really have a theory for why some people are optimists and others are not. I probably was inclined to be optimistic about life even before I learned what the word meant, saw it exemplified by my mother, and decided I wanted to affirm that approach. Still, I’d like to believe it is at least partly something we can choose, and that it is more compatible with the gospel to choose to be optimistic about life than not to.

At some point, about the time I finished college, I began to believe strongly in the importance of seeking social change—to oppose war and injustice and to try to move things in a peaceable direction. This belief especially took the shape for me of working in Christian communities and of researching and writing what I came to call “peace theology.” I tend to think that such work probably needs to rest on an optimism about life—we can change things, we can live peaceably, at least somewhat.

Continue reading “Hope and the embrace of our imperfect present [Theological memoir #8]”

Revelation for post-Christians (Peaceable Revelation #1)

Ted Grimsrud—June 27, 2019

Let’s imagine a bright, compassionate, spiritual-not-religious churchgoer—I’ll call him “Justin.” “Justin” is a person who grew up in a fairly traditional Christian home. He experienced church as a relatively benign part of his life, though he never took the belief system very seriously. He got married fairly young to someone with a similar background, became a schoolteacher, and had a couple of kids. He’s politically progressive and likes hanging around with like-minded people.

“Justin” would not necessarily call himself a Christian—he’s repulsed by the current expression of popular conservative Christianity with its support for Trump. But he also wouldn’t call himself an atheist and he is comfortable being active in his local congregation. We could say he’s a “post-Christian” (in distinction from anti-Christian atheist, secular humanist, or even unaffiliated agnostic). What would you expect that “Justin’s” attitude about the book of Revelation would be?

If he has given it any thought, I would assume that “Justin” would think Revelation is pretty bad. He wouldn’t feel any obligation to give it the benefit of the doubt because he has no loyalty to each book in the Bible as inherently authoritative and normative. He may know about how Revelation is used as predictive prophecy by conservative Christians to, for example, justify blind support for Israel’s vicious policies toward Palestinians. He also may know that Revelation is often cited as a basis for belief in a near future terrible “Tribulation” that will lead to great punitive judgment for most of the world—and the miraculous rescue in the Rapture of conservative Christians. All this seems quite repulsive to “Justin,” and he has no reason to doubt that these views are an accurate interpretation of Revelation itself.

I would like to invite “Justin” to give Revelation a chance. I think there are good reasons for post-Christians (as well as pre-Christians and current Christians!) to look to Revelation for hopeful and inspiring guidance. I will sketch a few of those in this post, recognizing that a positive appreciation of Revelation is a learned disposition—and one that requires some nuanced reading. I can only be suggestive in the short space I have allotted myself here, and point to further explanations I have given elsewhere. Continue reading “Revelation for post-Christians (Peaceable Revelation #1)”