Thursday, November 19, 2009

Beware of the False Prophets of End-Time Delusions

I thought Hal Lindsey was dead, but I discovered he is quite alive when I ran into him on TV the other night. But not only is he very much alive, the end-times prophecy that forms the basis of his theological and political perspective on the world is also very much alive.

While Lindsey is a senior figure of this movement, perhaps the most prolific prophet of end-time theology is John Hagee. Hagee is a master at using charts and graphs to offer exactly how things are going to happen in the end.

But by reaching many more people than what Lindsey and Hagee could ever reach, the Left Behind Series has done more to popularize end-time theology. This series of books has contributed greatly to the growing fascination that many Christians have with the end-times.

The basic teaching of end-time theology has several key points that are important to understand. First, those who preach this message believe that a person known as the anti-Christ will rise up and rule the world. The problem is that for decades now, many have pointed to various historical figures as the anti-Christ.

Second, there is the idea of a rapture, which will take place at a point in time in which Christians will somehow disappear from earth, apparently teleporting to heaven much like a scene out of Star Trek. The idea is that Christians will be taken from earth before things get really bad.

Third, Israel plays a significant role in Christian end-time theology. Indeed, these prophets equate ancient Israel directly with the State of Israel. They preach that America must support Israel’s desire to hold on to confiscated land in order to be on God’s side, despite the atrocities the Israeli government may carry out against the Palestinians.

But the most egregious theological error these prophets preach is that the world will end in an apocalyptic battle in the Middle East, when Muslim nations will attack Israel and the world will erupt in a cataclysmic war to end all wars. Indeed, many of them express joy as they salivate over the prospects of an end-time war.

What are we to make of these teachings that are not just harmless ramblings from crazy street preachers? How are we to understand their messages, and better yet, critique them in light of the gospel of peace that Jesus proclaimed?

A starting point for us might be to look at what Jesus says in Mark 13, where we hear him speak about one of the most catastrophic events to take place in Jerusalem during the first century; the destruction of the temple.

As Mark 13 begins, we find Jesus and his disciples coming out of the temple. As they come out, one of the disciples points to the temple saying, "Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!"

Did Jesus not know that the temple was large and magnificent? Had this fact escaped him? No, Jesus knew very well how large and magnificent the temple was; everyone did. Thus, a reasonable explanation as to why the disciple draws Jesus’ attention to the magnitude of the building is to remind Jesus of the significance of the temple for the faithful in and around Jerusalem.

Indeed, for the Jews, and for Jewish followers of Jesus who continued to frequent the temple, the temple was a constant reminder of God’s presence among them despite the oppression of Roman rule. The temple was the one sure foundation in the religious life of the people. This is perhaps why the disciple points out the large stones to Jesus. But this is also why Jesus takes this moment to talk about the temple’s destruction.

But the response of the four disciples to Jesus’ words about the temple is very revealing. “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?"

Notice the emphasis of their query. When will this happen? What will be the sign that this is about to happen? These followers of Jesus sound much like Hal Lindsey, John Hagee, and the rest of the false prophets of end-time doom. Focused on the signs of the end, they try to see these signs in significant historical events. But Jesus uses this as a teaching moment to warn them, and to warn them particularly against false prophets who come in his name.

In his warning about the false prophets, Jesus says to these sign-seeking disciples that the events we interpret as signs of the end are always happening and will continue to happen. They are not signs that the end is here, and if some are preaching this, they are false prophets who will lead us astray.

The message that these false prophets have is that the world is ending, so let’s not only look for the signs, let’s also hurry things along. Let’s forget about seeking good in the world, making peace in the world, and improving our world. Let’s instead focus our attention on how quickly we can get to the end.

Jesus is not unaware that catastrophic events like natural disasters, famines, and wars cause us to think things are getting worse in the world. But he is not calling us to see them as signs that the end is near. Jesus is telling us that these events should call us to action as his followers; they should move us to live the gospel more faithfully until the end.

Living the gospel faithfully expresses a lasting hope that does not need to look for signs of what is to come. The events that unfold in our world that cause those false prophets to preach their doomsday gospel about the end, are really the events that ought to continually shake us into action as Christ’s ambassadors who are called to live and proclaim the good news, not the bad news.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Transformative Power of Forgiveness

Each Sunday Christians across the world recite in communal worship the words of the Lord’s Prayer. Yet, like many of the recitations we memorize and repeat, especially those that proclaim what we believe, reciting the Lord’s Prayer can become a somewhat inattentive practice. This does not mean that we should end this important part of worship. Rather, it means that we must become more conscious of what we are praying when we pray the prayer Jesus gave his followers to pray.

But being conscious of what we are praying when we recite the model prayer means that we realize we are not simply casting a wish list before God as if something magical will happen. Instead, praying the Lord’s Prayer is an act through which we are confessing what we believe about the gospel and how we are committing ourselves to living that gospel.

There are several lines within the prayer that deserve our attention, but perhaps the one that is most troubling for many of us is the portion in which we not only ask God to forgive us, but more seriously, we commit ourselves to forgiving others. It is comforting to believe that God forgives us, and many of us would have wanted Jesus to leave it at that. But to confess that we must also forgive others is uncomfortable, especially when we think about what that really means.

The key to understanding Matthew’s version of the prayer is found in his use of the term debts. Matthew’s “debts” might be viewed as a stronger term than Luke’s “sins”, although they are essentially making the same basic point. Yet, in Matthew’s account, the statement expresses the idea that our sins against God are debts that we owe to God; debts that have become so large that we can never repay them. Thus, with the weight of such debt, we find ourselves hopeless to find any relief, and we have no choice but to turn to God and ask for forgiveness.

Yet, we must be careful when praying this portion of the prayer, for to pray for God’s forgiveness of our debts is inextricably linked to our forgiving others of their debts. In fact, the wording of Jesus’ prayer may imply that we must first forgive others of the debts they owe to us before, or at least simultaneous to our seeking God’s forgiveness.

The serious question for us, then, is what does it mean to forgive our debtors, those who sin against us? It means that we must not only forgive those who sin against us in minor ways, but perhaps more importantly, we must also forgive those who commit the most horrendous acts against us. In forgiving others who sin against us we express the character of God, who extends forgiveness to all. If God’s forgiveness has no limits, then the forgiveness we must offer to others should have no boundaries.

Why does this part of Jesus’ prayer seem so difficult for us? The simple answer is that when we are wronged it is our human nature to seek punishment and even revenge. We rightly desire justice, but we wrongly assume that justice is better served through vengeance and punishment. From our perspectives, we view justice as making someone pay for what they have done.

But such a view misses the transformative power of forgiveness. By commanding us to forgive, Jesus was calling us to wield the power of forgiveness to transform enemies into friends. Moreover, Jesus understood that to forgive someone, especially to forgive them of a heinous action, is to free one’s self from the debilitating power of hatred and revenge.

This kind of forgiveness seeks the justice that is centered in the gospel of grace. It is not justice that seeks to make the other pay for their sins. Rather, it is justice that forgives them of their sins, thereby offering freedom to both the perpetrator and the victim. It is restorative justice.

Many of us are aware of what took place in the African country of Rwanda in 1994. Tribal clashes between Hutus and Tutsis led to the genocidal killings of almost one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus within 100 days. Armed mostly with machetes, the killers ravaged villages, killing any Tutsis or moderate Hutu without regard to age or gender. In fact, many of those who killed took the lives of those who were once their neighbors and their friends.

In the aftermath of this tragedy, the perpetrators were imprisoned for their crimes. Yet, due to the overwhelming backlog of court cases, in 2003 the government of Rwanda began releasing those prisoners who confessed their crimes. Instead of seeking justice through punitive actions, Rwanda set itself on a path of reconciliation and restoration, with the liberating power of forgiveness as the force behind restorative justice.

On Wednesday, November 18 at 7:00 p.m., the Center for International Programs at Henderson State University, over which I am the director, will be screening the documentary, “As We Forgive,” in the Lecture Hall of the Garrison Center. This film tells the story of Rwanda’s tragic past, but more importantly shows the power of forgiveness and reconciliation that is currently restoring and strengthening this country.

I invite those in the Arkadelphia area to attend the viewing of this film that expresses the transformative power of forgiveness. If you are not in the area, I invite you to visit the website for the film at to find out more about how forgiveness and reconciliation are helping to restore a nation once torn by the tragedy of genocide.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

What does it Really Mean to Love Our Enemies?

Perhaps one of the most troubling and ignored commands of Jesus is the order to love our enemies. Spoken in the same context as Jesus’ recognition that we are called to love our neighbors, i.e. those easier to love, Jesus’ command to love our enemies must find equal authority in our lives if we seek to be faithful followers.

Indeed, in the context of Matthew 5:43-44, Jesus reverses an original command, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy,’ to reflect what he believed about the new rule of God, “But I say love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

These words must have been shocking to his original hearers, as they are shocking even to us who hear them today. Perhaps they tried to explain his command away or simply ignored it all together, much like we do in both intellectual and practical ways. After all, it is perhaps the most difficult command to live.

But we must ask the more practical question, “How are we to love our enemies?” In other words, in what realistic ways are we to express the transformative and redemptive love of God to those who have wronged us? If Jesus has commanded his followers to love their enemies, then such love must be authenticated through tangible action. But through what actions do we express this kind of love?

There are many good deeds we could view as actions of love, but there are some foundational actions that are at the core of the gospel message that God loves the world. In fact, while many acts of goodness could be discussed, it seems to me that Jesus modeled for us three primary actions and reactions towards those who were his enemies.

First, we must respond to the harm that is done to us by our enemies with actions that are nonviolent. When Jesus was arrested in the garden, the height of conflict between him and his enemies, he responded with nonviolence and called his disciples to do the same. While those who came to seize him carried swords and clubs, Jesus reacted to their aggression with peacefulness. Thus, a reaction to a wrong done to us by our enemies that is both an authentic and transformative expression of Christ’s love is always nonviolent.

This does not prevent us from seeking justice, but it does call us to seek true justice that breaks a cycle of hatred and violence. Moreover, Jesus’ command for us to turn the other cheek is not a command for us to become weak in the face of evil done against us. Rather, through our turning our cheek, we express a strength that epitomizes the actions of Christ and opens the possibility for authentic love and lasting peace between us and our enemies.

Second, in loving our enemies we must express to them an unconditional forgiveness for the wrongs they have committed against us. God’s forgiveness for us is not based on our own action of confession and repentance. God’s forgiveness is unconditional and extends to those who have committed the most gravest of sins. Thus, if we are to reveal the character of God to others, then we must extend the same kind of forgiveness that God has so graciously extended to us.

Yet, forgiveness is not simply the overlooking of a wrong that has been committed. Those who commit wrongs against others and against society should be brought to justice. There are offenses and crimes that cannot be excused. However, the justice we seek is not a condition for the forgiveness we are called to offer. We are not commanded to forgive when someone serves their penalty for a wrong. We are called to forgive apart from that penalty.

Third, through the strength Christ gives us to love our enemies, we must be moved to the point of welcoming and embracing our enemies. We can look to Jesus’ experience with Judas, the one who would betray him, to see this very action. Jesus remained in table fellowship with Judas to the very end; an act which served as an expression of hospitality and intimacy. Serving as host, Jesus not only shared a meal with Judas, he also washed the feet of his would be enemy.

To be sure, these are challenging steps for us to take. But loving our enemies is part of the gospel of discipleship. If we only voice an insincere and distant love for enemies in an attempt to convince ourselves that we are right with God, then we have failed to love our enemies and we have failed to live the gospel.

Faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ is not a mental assent to a set of propositions about who Jesus was. Authentic faith can only be expressed by taking up the cross and following Jesus. Discipleship is a call to die to ourselves, including our need for vengeance against our enemies. Discipleship is a call to enact God’s redemptive and transformative love for all people through nonviolence, forgiveness, and embrace of those we see as our enemies.