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Thursday, July 21, 2011

Did Jesus Predict the Rapture within 40 Years of his Death? Part 3

The Problem of “γενε ατη” (“this generation”) and
πάντα τατα” (“these things”) in Matthew 24
Part 3 – Examination of πάντα τατα

For this third installment of the series, I would like to give some brief interpretive comments about Matthew 24 and some of the relevant parallel passages. While a complete commentary of the entire Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24-25; Mark 13; Luke 21) is far beyond the scope of this series, I think that we have reached a point that we can now examine the critical verses that are contained within and look at their theological, historical, and grammatical contexts to determine the best interpretation of Jesus’ comments.

As we discussed above there are several different interpretive possibilities of Matthew 24:34 and what is meant by Jesus’ statement “Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.” We noted that the first class of interpretations hinges on the clause γενε ατη” (“this generation”) and attempts to make it mean something other than the lifetime of those present with Jesus. I gave several different interpretations that expositors have used to formulate this view and also various reasons as to why I think that these main formulations fail to be convincing.

The second class of interpretations see “γενε ατη” (“this generation”) as referring to the lifetime of those present with Jesus but interpret “πάντα τατα” (“these things”) as pointing to something other than the last day of the earth at Jesus’ second coming. In the second part of this article I gave a brief summary of various hermeneutical themes such as sensus plenior that I think will be helpful for a full and adequate understanding of this passage. However it will not be until our concluding discussion in Part 4 that I will bring the interpretation of the passage in this section and the hermeneutics of Part 2 to a proper marriage. Here I will be giving a brief sketch of the interpretation of various relevant passages that I find most convincing and the various reasons for that conclusion. It is to that position that I will now turn my attention.

The follow comments will be listed under themes found in the Olivet Discourse and will be more staccato than continuous. The follow metaphors or themes that are expressed in the Olivet Discourse often have deep roots into the Old Testament that will be helpful in understanding how Jesus uses them in this famous sermon.

1.      Hyperbole is a kind a literary exaggeration used to illustrate severity or extreme degrees. It is used intentionally as a literary device. What we find in a vast majority of ancient, Biblical, and even modern texts, is a wide usages of hyperbole for rhetorical effect. Here we will show that not only was hyperbole common in the Old Testament, but it was also very frequent surrounding the theme of divine judgment. Here are a handful of examples that can be drawn primarily from the Old Testament, but also in some cases eluded  to elsewhere in the New Testament:

a.       Great Tribulation
                                                              i.      Exodus 11:6 – “There will be loud wailing throughout Egypt—worse than there has ever been or ever will be again.”
                                                            ii.      Daniel 9:12 – “You have fulfilled the words spoken against us and against our rulers by bringing on us great disaster. Under the whole heaven nothing has ever been done like what has been done to Jerusalem.”
                                                          iii.      Daniel 12:1 – “At that time Michael, the great prince who protects your people, will arise. There will be a time of distress such as has not happened from the beginning of nations until then. But at that time your people—everyone whose name is found written in the book—will be delivered.”
                                                          iv.      Joel 2:2 – “a day of darkness and gloom,
   a day of clouds and blackness.
Like dawn spreading across the mountains
   a large and mighty army comes,
such as never was in ancient times
   nor ever will be in ages to come.”
                                                            v.      Ezekiel 5:9 – “Because of all your detestable idols, I will do to you what I have never done before and will never do again.”
a)      In this verse we have almost a direct corollary between Ezekiel’s pronouncement of  judgment on Jerusalem by Babylon in 586 BCE and Jesus’ pronouncement of judgment on Jerusalem in the Olivet Discourse.

b.      Sun, Moon, and Stars
                                                              i.      Isaiah 13:10 – judgment of Babylon (539 BCE) - The stars of heaven and their constellations will not show their light. The rising sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light.
                                                            ii.      Isaiah 34:4 – judgment of Edom (703 BCE) - All the stars in the sky will be dissolved
   and the heavens rolled up like a scroll; all the starry host will fall like withered leaves from the vine, like shriveled figs from the fig tree.
                                                          iii.      Ezekiel 32:7 – judgment of Egypt (568 BCE)- When I snuff you out, I will cover the heavens and darken their stars; I will cover the sun with a cloud, and the moon will not give its light.
                                                          iv.      Joel 2:10 – judgment of Judah (586 BCE)- Before them the earth shakes,
   the heavens tremble, the sun and moon are darkened, and the stars no longer shine.
                                                            v.      Amos 8:9 – judgment of the northern kingdom (722 BCE)- “In that day,” declares the Sovereign LORD, “I will make the sun go down at noon  and darken the earth in broad daylight.

c.       Sign of the Son
                                                              i.      Daniel 7:13-14 - “In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. 14 He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.
                                                      ii.            Mathew 26:64 - “You have said so,” Jesus replied. “But I say to all of you: From now on you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.”
a)      This one is particularly interesting because at Jesus’ ascension he now tells the apostles that from then on they will see him “coming on the clouds.” This was not to be a one-time future event but rather a perpetual state of authority that Christ would be seen in. What does this mean for our passage when we look back two chapters? We will find out.

d.      Gathering the Elect
                                                              i.      “Angels” can be “messengers”. In fact some have thought that rather than angelic intervention, that preaching may be what is in view.
                                                            ii.      “gather” (συνγω) being used in a non-physical sense can be seen in John 11:51-52 rather than some kind of eschatological end time gathering. It can refer to a spiritual calling and gathering rather than a physical one.

2.      It is also helpful at this point to see v34-35 as a transitional statements: 33”So also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates. 34 Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. 35 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”
a.       V34 is a conclusion statement. If Jesus was not changing subjects, the placement of this verse here would be unintelligible. There would be no reason to add a conclusion and transition statement at this point what Jesus was not changing the subject.
b.      Distinct move from “this generation” to “that day” between the two sections. One referring to events that will take place in the timeframe of an approximate generation, and the other using the standard Hebraic term for the final eschatological period, “that day.”
                                                              i.      Before v34 it speaks of “days” after v34 it speaks of “day” (a common Jesus term meaning the final judgment).
c.       Before v34 there are signs of what Jesus is addressing and it is possible for people to know what is coming (notice the warnings for people to take heed, abandon their possession, take for the hills, etc.) After v35 there are no signs and no one can know. One will be taken and one will be left. They will not know the time or hour. This ability to know is drastically different on either side of this transition statement.
                                                              i.      In addition to this, Jesus claims that he doesn’t know the time of his second coming (v36) but that he does know the time of the destruction of Jerusalem (24:6, 25, 29, 30, 34)
                                                            ii.      In fact, as a historical aside, what is interesting to note is that when the siege of Jerusalem took place, it was actually the Christians who survived largely because they believed it was the fulfillment of this very passage and fled for the hills. What no one seems to ever mention when discussing this passage is that if the early church thought that Jesus’ second coming was going to happen in that generation and that the fall of Jerusalem was the culmination of history, then what would have been the point to abandon their goods and seek refuge in the hills? If they were going to be “raptured” (a somewhat anachronistic usage I know) then what would be the point in warning them to flee the wrath on the city?
d.      Before v34 the time frame is a short 40 years, after v34 there is a long period 24:48, 25:5, 19)
e.       Notice that the summation statement of “these things” expressly EXCLUDES the second coming. When we see “these things” then we will know that Jesus is NEAR. The coming is not included in “these things” and thus when a generation will not pass before all of “these things” takes place, does NOT include the second coming. What follows after v35 then deals with the second coming AFTER the signs and shows that it will be unknown and will be preceded by a LONG period of expectation.
f.       Vv.25:31 begins final judgment descriptions. This is AFTER a period of LONG expectation.

We find a helpful summary statement from D.A. Carson in his commentary on Matthew in the Expositor’s Commentary Series. He states,

“If our interpretation of this chapter is right, all that v34 demands is that the distress of vv.4-28, including Jerusalem’s fall, happen within the life time of the generation then living. This does not mean that the distress must end within that time but only that ‘all these things’ must happen within it. Therefore v34 set a terminus a quo for the Parousia; it cannot happen till the events in vv4-28 take place, all within a generation of A.D. 30. But there is no terminus ad quem to this distress other than the Parousia itself, and ‘only the Father’ knows when it will happen” (p507).  

In our final section of this series we will make some final interpretive conclusions about the passage and address the question once and for all, Did Jesus err when he said “Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place”?

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Is Atheism a Belief?

We have all heard it over and over, “atheism isn’t a belief; it’s a non-belief.” Well besides the obvious blunder in that statement – since atheism, while a lack of a belief in God, is commonly also a belief in a state of affairs in which it is improbable, or even impossible, for God to exist – it also seems strange to even call it atheism, or an adherent and atheist. We more often than not, describe objects, ourselves, or our beliefs, by ontology – what they and we are – not by what is not. I do not call myself an Arussian – I’m an American. I do not call myself an Aliberal – I’m a  conservative. I do not call myself an Ablonde – I’m a brunette. And on and on. While I am not the kind who believes that words intrinsically create reality, I do think that words reveal our real (and often subconscious – something like a Freudian slip, minus the phallic obsession) thoughts about reality - what we label things reveals sometimes as much about us, as the thing we label. In the same way that I believe in universal moral objectivity (and that everyone else does to, regardless of how much they may protest) by the fact that every person uses objective moral language of obligation, I also think the way we label ourselves reveals what and how we think about our own worldviews. Even though “atheism” may technically amount to simply a lack of belief in a deity, the fact that atheists commonly label themselves “atheists”, (and ascribe attributes to such a label, such as rationalism, empirical validity, etc.) reveals that functionally speaking “atheism” may in fact actually be what people say that it isn’t – a belief; a system of thought. And if they treat it as a belief, then so will I. What’s good for the goose…

However, what I find most bewildering about this kind of hermetic statement is the sheer unassailability of it. It is declared in such a way as to isolate the speaker from any scrutiny of their own and actual worldview. While atheism, strictly speaking, is not a worldview, terminologically speaking atheism has come to be nearly synonymous with philosophical naturalism, empiricism, scientism, or materialism (or some abominable Frankenteinean amalgamation of them). But this blending of lexicography is not only found in Christian or theistic literature and thought on the issue. If you were to ask an atheist what their worldview is, they often label themselves as “atheists”, as if the nomenclature of “atheism” defines who they are and what they believe – a role classically and principally held by one’s worldview. They will not say, “I am a philosophical naturalist”; they say “I am an atheist”, unless pressured during a debate to defend their position – however since “atheism” tends to be their instinctive result, it again shows that they themselves think of it, practically speaking, as a belief or a positive position. This linguistic slight of hand however, has the desired effect of deflection away from any real scrutiny of their position, let alone their worldview since supplanting “atheism” for “philosophical naturalism” and then calling “atheism” a non-belief makes it seem as if the atheist has no worldview to assail – that they are the pillars of objectivity with no presuppositions or assumptions to scrutinize. It is reminiscent of the Obi Wan mind trick – “this is not the worldview you are looking for” – even though it undoubtedly is.

So what comes of this? Well the atheist gets to treat their atheism as a worldview from which to launch assaults on theism or supernaturalism without fear of reprisal or even the slightest whiff skeptical examination. They get to hold their atheism dogmatically and even possibly “religiously” – having conventions, conferences, publishing journals and periodicals, dedicating books, marketing for the belief in unbelief, forming societies, having weekly/monthly gatherings (worship services?),  all while saying that it is not actually a belief.  (I wonder if Christians could so easily self-insolate their beliefs if we start calling ourselves “A-atheists”, and positing our beliefs as simply negations of other beliefs/non-beliefs. We would then be able to object “A-atheism is not a belief – we simply reject the rejection of God” and declare all objections henceforth hum drum and be on our merry way. I can see the vein on Hitchens’ forehead throbbing already.) There is even the formation of something like a shared language and mythos - Atheistamese – common clichés, verbiage, and talking points started by the canonized Apostles of Ditchkins (Terry Eagleton’s conflation of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens), Harris and Dennett and company, which has trickled down to the teeming masses of sophomoric bloggers and countless skeptical acolytes - we are on the verge of something like confessional atheism replete with orthodoxy, creeds, apostates and inquisitors. Add in a healthy scoop of social liberalism, a lavish portion of assumptive scientism, and a pinch of western, upper to middle class elitism, and we have the tell-tale savory taste of fundamentalist stew.

Many people have pointed out the absurdity of the position that atheism is not a belief. A common statement, I believe first coined by Dinesh D’Souza, is that I don’t believe in unicorns, but I don’t go around writing books like “Unicorns are not Great” or “The Unicorn Delusion.” No, I simply continue on my way as if unicorns do not exist. I can hear the rumblings of the atheists now. “But no one really believes in unicorns! We write and meet because people still actually believe in God!” Even in my weaker moments, where I am tempted to see the logic in this objection, I still have the intellectual honesty to simply say, “Who cares?” I am not a conservative because other people still actually believe in liberalism, I am one because I believe in conservative principles. As noted above, we never identify ourselves or our beliefs by what we don’t believe. Atheists are not philosophical naturalists or empiricists because there are people who believe in theism, but because they have read too much Hume (or maybe not enough), Dawkins, Harris, or, possibly even too much modern, anti-intellectual, Pelagian, fundamentalistic Christian authors -nothing kills belief in Christianity quite like a healthy dose of irrational, self-righteous, legalistic and explicitly anti-scientific Christianity-lite. But the fact still remains, we simply do not identify ourselves by what we don’t believe - I am not sure why this case of atheism should be any different. 

We form social groupings around things that we have in common. It is possible for us to form communities around shared distaste for things – like the Klu Klux Klan’s distaste for other races or the Nazi distaste for Jews – but there is almost always a shared belief – like, again for the Klu Klux Klan and the Nazis, the superiority of the white race. While atheists may say that they gather together for shared unbelief, I suspect that it is actually the sense of shared belief in naturalism that has the strongest pull. Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, Singer, Dennett and others, are widely read because people want to disagree with what they disagree with, but also because there is a community of belief implicit in the writer-reader relationship. It is shared belief, not unbelief, that gets us to pick up a book and nod our head along with the author when they express more eloquently than we ever could, our very own thoughts and presuppositions – when what they say has that good ol’ ring of truth in our ears.

I have seen this with many of my friends on various blog sites – post after post is dedicated to knocking Christians, religion, faith, the Bible, or those who would disagree with him – but rarely (I am tempted to say never since so long as I have been on here I have not witnessed it) do any of them post anything on what they positively believes. We only can infer what they believes based on what he rejects and by gathering fragmented statements throughout the threads – by the philosophical naturalism that oozes between every letter like the grout that holds tiles in place. Maybe this is like the elementary boy likes girl syndrome. Since he doesn’t know how to express his affection for God, he lashes out in fits of rage. The more vitriolic it gets, the more impassioned he actually becomes; the more he wants to sit at her table the more alone he feels and thus the more he lashes out – just a thought. But then again, why would someone actually publish their worldview and leave it open for scrutiny when they can simply attack someone else’s, forever sheltering themselves from any kind of honest reflection or hostile examination. It is the irony of the skeptic that they are skeptical of everything except their own skepticism, that they demand empirical evidence for everything except their own Empiricism. This is just one more example of the Bible’s true insight – the atheists may want to claim that atheism is not a belief, but we really will know them by their fruit.