Dualities of the Absurd: Is Apocalyptic a necessary dualistic regime?

Ellen Charry writes that “New Testament writers anticipated, or perhaps provoked, Christian clashes with the empire.” She suggests that contemporary Christians “struggle,” in the context of liberal democracy and as members in good standing of the sociopolitical power apparatus, “to remain uncomfortable in a comfortable culture, which compels them to conform.”20

For Charry, this is very much a matter of “clarity” in which the church has become such a socially and politically complicit member of the culture that it is perhaps unable to see the curtain, let alone the men standing behind it and wielding power. She believes that biblical eschatological hope prescribes an “apocalyptic clarity [which] pits the pure church against the evil empire” in a relationship between the two entities that is set within a “complex frame.” The church is called to recognize through the course of biblical revelation, the gospel, and the early church that a primary concern for the church is revealing alternatives to the actions of those who claim authority that supposedly surpasses the moral vision of the church. The mission of the church, in light of the exodus and the cross, it to expose the “false gods of Rome” and be “ambassadors for Christ.” The credibility of the gospel “now relies on” the church.21

It is through the church’s identity as the main entity through which God’s truth is revealed, thus “it not only gives hope of God’s power to rescue, it also interprets how things were, are, and ought to be. Its purposes are to inform and influence human life by means of the values and insights expressed within the symbolic and narrative form.”22

However, there is a side of eschatology apart from fiery metaphor that not only makes progressive Christians like Spong more than a little uncomfortable, but there is little doubt that apocalyptic leaves less room for gray area than is appreciated by progressive concerns for universalism and/or overarching truths (even if they are “hidden” from human discernment, progressives seem not to realize that their insistence on universal truths actually work against the fact of diversity in spiritual thought and religious discourse). Apocalyptic literature strives to be clear on a division between what is good and what is evil, and is most often interpreted by communities with an apocalyptic vision as being indicative of their own righteousness in light of vulnerability to attacks from evil. Apocalyptic communities tend to believe that “goodness is readily distinguishable from evil, and that they are on the right side of the cosmic divide. Even if it looks like the forces of evil have the upper hand in the struggle there is no real acceptance of evil’s eventual triumph.” Zealotry, at least apparently, is always a troublesome byproduct of apocalyptic.23

In a setting such as the United States, however, where the church has for so long received favored status in the seats of power, and been a source of strength for the government if not an outright resource for government to utilize in achieving its goals, this clarity can be confusing for many believers. Christians in the United States rarely consider their government or nation as an instrument of blatant sin. In fact, what seems often overlooked or rejected by American Christendom is the manner in which apocalyptic literature denies the place of the nation-state as an arbiter of justice.

More often, such apocalyptic language facilitates confusion and will blur the supposed clarity of revelation for patriotic or nationalistic theologies to a point where biblical apocalyptic assumptions are subverted. Also confusing for many within the context of liberal democracies is how national entities often act in opposition to the gospel, or the revealed will of God, yet just as often in a unsuspecting manner. Empires and governments are often identified in Scripture as the very instruments of wrath through which the divine plan is accomplished. Empire is a constant fact of scriptural context, and it is through empire and human authority that God’s true power is thought to be, or interpreted to be, revealed. Whether in the plagues against Pharaoh or through the destruction of the two kingdoms by Assyria and Babylon, judgment is often carried out through the enterprises of military might, unjust empires, and outright persecution of the righteous. Even in non-apocalyptic literature, judgment of God’s own people comes at the hands of the unjust, the mockers of God, the powers and principalities of this world.

20. Charry, “Sharp Two-Edged Sword.”

21. Charry writes about apocalyptic literature in a rather romantic way, yet it is compelling reading. Concerning clarity, she writes that it “seems to be a constant feature of apocalyptic . . . wherever there is perceived to be a cosmic struggle between goodness and evil . . . wherever there is a longing for a future era of peace and righteousness in which God will wipe away every tear, there peeps the eschaton, the fullness

of time [births] the vindication of the Righteous.” Ibid., 164.

22. Ibid. Charry also identifies another important aspect of eschatological hope and apocalyptic literature. She writes “It is, or can be, an instrument of spiritual nurture.” As we will see below, it is also a component of spiritual authority that can be utilized in calling churches to be stronger in the faith.”

23. Ibid., 165.

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