During Advent, we hear passages of Scripture that are infused with the language of darkness, tribulation, and apocalypse. Matthew, Mark, and Luke each have one fully apocalyptic chapter. In Mark 13, Jesus says, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom” (Mark 13:8). The passage only gets darker as it goes. “In those days after that tribulation,” he continues, “‘the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken’” (Mark 13:24–25).
Why is Jesus talking like this about death and destruction instead of talking about sheep, shepherds, and heavenly hosts?
For a couple of centuries, academic biblical scholars thought that Jesus couldn’t possibly have talked in these terms. The gospels’ apocalyptic chapters were dismissed as inauthentic additions and at best were ignored as “fake news,” if you will. However, in the mid-20th century—around the time that I was in seminary in the early 1970s—a striking shift was taking place in biblical scholarship. Theological and biblical studies began to change because of three key developments.
First, the two World Wars introduced into human history a phenomenon that required a new word, one that describes the deliberate destruction of whole people-groups. The word was “genocide.” It was first applied to the killing of the Armenians and then to the destruction of the Jews during the Holocaust.
The second shift that occurred is linked to the first. These early 20th-century wars and genocides—along with the development of nuclear weapons—made the end of the world seem like a real possibility. These historical events caused writers, historians, and other thinkers to realize that the apocalyptic language of Scripture is not so far-fetched after all. In response, scholars started taking another look at these biblical passages, with more respect this time.
The third shift grew out of the second. Scholars started to pay more attention to the fact that, in the two centuries just before Jesus’ time, the biblical literature began to incorporate a new cosmology. This cosmology spoke of events that were set in motion from a sphere outside of human history but taking place within human history, impinging upon it and upending it from the perspective of the future—not the human future according to human potential but the human future reoriented to the purposes of God.
This idea, although abstract, is easily illustrated by the memoirs of Andrew Carnegie, the famous Scottish-born tycoon who made his fortune in America. Although he was raised as a Presbyterian, as an adult he became suspicious of religion. When he read Darwin’s theory of evolution (during the so-called Gilded Age, before the World Wars), the great philanthropist received what he thought was a revelation. He wrote in his memoir,
I remember that light came as in a flood and all was clear. Not only had I got rid of theology and the supernatural, but I had found the truth. …“All is well since all grows better,” became my motto, my true source of comfort. Man … has risen to the higher forms [and there can be no] conceivable end to [man’s] march to perfection.
I don’t believe anyone can read that with a straight face today. As it happens, those were not the final words from Carnegie. The last paragraph of his autobiography was written as World War I broke out. He revisited what he had written earlier and responded to it by saying something dramatically different:
As I read this [what I had previously written] today, what a change! The world convulsed by war as never before! Men slaying each other like wild beasts! I dare not relinquish all hope.
Carnegie’s shift of perspective helps to illustrate the turn in biblical interpretation that I’m describing. The horrors of the two World Wars caused a widespread change in the way that serious people understood history. For biblical interpreters, these events radically altered how they read apocalyptic passages in the Bible.
When we study Scripture, we find that apocalyptic writing comes out of catastrophe. The Israelites were a favored people; God had promised them a future of safety and prosperity. But then they were conquered and forced into exile in the distant, pagan, Babylonian empire. Humanly speaking, there was no hope for them. It appeared they had been entirely abandoned by the God who brought them out of Egypt into the Promised Land. Indeed, their God did not seem powerful after all compared to the mighty gods of the Mesopotamians, whose gigantic statues loomed over Babylon. Perhaps, in fact, the God they worshiped didn’t even exist.
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Source: Christianity Today