Sunday, July 7, 2013

Surely I Am Coming Late

My friend the ambivalent Obama supporter sent me a link to a Facebook note by someone I take to be an evangelical Christian, arguing that when Jesus taught the nearness of the End (the final judgment, the Kingdom of Heaven, his own coming on clouds seated at the right hand of Power), he meant "near" to his own day, not two thousand years later.  He then faces the implication that Jesus and the early Christians were mistaken about an important teaching.  (You have to be logged in to Facebook to read the post, but come to think of it, most people nowadays seem to be on Facebook, so here's the link if you want to read it.)  I haven't yet followed the link to his next post on the subject, but my friend wanted my reaction to this one, so I stopped there for now.

My reaction, of course, was that the writer is correct: the New Testament writers were addressing their contemporaries, not people in the distant future. They believed that they were living in the last days, and that God, with Jesus at his right hand, would sweep away the world as they knew it and replace it with his kingdom on earth, as it had always been in the heavens. They believed that some of that first generation of believers, perhaps they themselves, would live to see it happen. Whether they accurately reflect Jesus' teachings, no one can say.  But the idea that Jesus and the New Testament writers mistakenly believed that the End would happen in their lifetimes is not this writer's discovery: all professional New Testament scholars are well acquainted with it, thanks to Albert Schweitzer's classic work The Quest for the Historical Jesus, first published in German in 1906, in English in 1910.  Schweitzer did a major revision, published in 1913, but that version wasn't available in English until 2001.  Much New Testament scholarship after Schweitzer's work was published was concerned with getting around its implications, by explaining it away or by offering an alternative theory, like C. H. Dodd's realized eschatology

(The most valuable thing about Schweitzer's work for me had little to do with its account of Jesus as an end-times preacher.  The bulk of the book is a critical survey of life-of-Jesus research from the late 1700s to the end of the 1800s, as shown by its original title, From Reimarus to Wrede.  Anyone who's interested in theories about the historical Jesus ought to read that part of Schweitzer's book, because most contemporary theories from The Passover Plot to The Da Vinci Code basically recycle ideas that Schweitzer described and refuted a hundred years ago.)

The writer whose post my friend referred me to never mentions Schweitzer or acknowledges that the problem he's confronting is well-known among scholars, probably because he wants to rely solely on the New Testament material he quotes, and not on scholarly interpretation.  That's reasonable, but it is worth asking why laypeople who study the Bible never seem to notice this material themselves.  It isn't because they don't rely on professional guidance: study Bibles with annotation and commentary sell well, and church-sponsored Bible study will provide you with professional guidance too.  Such commentaries will reassure the student that while there are troubling, difficult passages in Scripture, they're nothing to lose sleep over.  Churches want to build up their members' faith, not undermine it.  That tendency isn't limited to religion: most adults want schools to teach national history that will build up patriotic fervor, not undermine it, for example, nor are science courses supposed to dwell overmuch on problems with existing theories.  I've argued before that most people seem to stay in relationships much longer than they should, after it's clear that it is time to bail.  There are plenty of reasons why people behave this way; I'm interested here in a recent case.

I've often wondered how people can go on believing in prophets whose predictions have proven to be false.  The Hebrew Bible, after all, prescribes the death penalty for such a person, in Deuteronomy 18:20.  On the other hand, prophets are allowed to cover their asses. Ezekiel reported that Yahweh promised to hand the city of Tyre to the heathen King of Babylon Nebuchadrezzar (chapter 26). Later, Yahweh issued a correction: despite the hard labor of Nebuchadrezzar and his army, Tyre didn't fall, so Yahweh gave Egypt to Nebuchadrezzar instead (chapter 29). This isn't a well-known passage; I learned about it from James Barr's Beyond Fundamentalism (Westminster Press, 1984, 26-27). But Jesus' imminent return on clouds of glory is much proclaimed.

What would happen if someone's prophecies were falsified today?  We all heard about Harold Camping's humiliation by Jesus' failure to keep his rendezvous with destiny two years ago.  Camping fell down partly because he set a precise date, which the mainstream media obligingly publicized.  But let me tell you about a book called Saved by the Light: The True Story of a Man Who Died Twice and the Profound Revelations He Received, by one Dannion Brinkley with Paul Perry, published by Villard Books in 1994, with an introduction by Raymond Moody M.D.  (Remember the publication date: it's important.)  I heard about this book because Anne Rice was touting it, and had based parts of one of her novels on the author's experience, even citing him by name in The Vampire Armand as one of "the new spiritual explorers".  She continued to be a booster of Brinkley for years afterward.

In 1975, Brinkley says, he was struck by lightning and died, but later revived.  While he was dead he had what is now called a Near Death Experience, in which he was taken to a crystal city, where he was instructed by angelic teachers about the future.  The instruction included a detailed future history through the year 2000.  "Of the 117 revelations that he recalls," according to the book's dust jacket, "95 have come to pass."  "Revelation" is the meaning of the word "apocalypse"; Saved by the Light is an apocalypse like the one written by John of Patmos in the New Testament, or the book of Daniel in the Hebrew Bible, or the many non-biblical books of Revelation produced at around the beginning of the Christian era.

You can tell roughly when an apocalypse was written by noticing when its predictions stop being accurate.  Daniel, for example, purports to be the story of a Jewish youth carried away to Babylon during the exile of 586 BCE.  Like Dannion Brinkley, Daniel was given heavenly instruction about events to come, which paralleled actual history until the middle of the second century BCE.  His angelic teacher told him to seal up the book until the right time.  Most scholars today believe that the book was written around 165 BCE, and its predictions were backdated.  The same thing happens in the New Testament: in chapter 13 of the gospel of Mark, for instance, Jesus predicts what will happen after his death and resurrection, culminating in the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple and his return on clouds of glory.  Here too, the predictions stop being accurate after the destruction of the Temple, so it's most likely that Mark was written after that happened.  The gospel of Mark shows Jesus telling his disciples to keep his teachings secret, though there's a lot of disagreement about the significance of this.  In any case, we can again date Mark by the point at which his predictions fail.  The revelation of John is odd man out here: it takes place in the writer's present, and he's told not to seal the book, for Jesus will be returning very soon.  But that prediction, too, is false.

Dannion Brinkley didn't publish his revelation for almost twenty years.  During that time he got involved with Raymond Moody's research on Near Death Experiences.  Gradually, he says, he noticed that things he'd seen in his 1975 visions had come true: the nuclear power plant disaster at Chernobyl, for example (36), the collapse of the Soviet Union (37-38), growing conflict in the Middle East, increasing debt in the United States (40), the first Gulf War of 1991 (40-41), and more.  These predictions all refer to events that happened before the publication of Saved by the Light in 1994, or were vague enough not to require a lot of predictive power.  Once he turns his gaze to events after 1994, however, he's in trouble.
A second nuclear accident appeared in the box, this in a northern sea so badly polluted that no ships could travel there.  The water was a pale red and was covered with dead or dying fish.  Around the water were peaks and valleys that made me think I was seeing a fjord like those in Norway.  I couldn't tell where this was, but I knew that the world was frightened at what had happened, because radiation from this accident could spread everywhere and affect all of humankind.  The date on the picture was 1995 [36-7].
Oops.  No such nuclear accident happened.   The "bankruptcy of America by the year 2000" (40) didn't happen either.  Nor did "two horrendous earthquakes" that happened "sometime before the end of the century, but I couldn't tell where they took place ... The cost of rebuilding these destroyed cities would be the final straw for our government, now so financially broken that it would hardly be able to keep itself alive", leading to "the end of America as a world power" (40).  Nor was there "a submarine loaded with nuclear missiles" in 1993, when both "Iran and Iraq [were] in possession of nuclear and chemical weapons" (41).
I saw this submarine powering through the waters of the Middle East, piloted by people I knew to be Iranians.  I could tell that their purpose was to stop the shipping of oil from the Middle East.  They were so praiseful of God in their speech that I had the sense that this was some kind of religious mission...

Chemical warfare played a role in a horrible vision of terrorism that takes place in France before 2000.  It begins when the French [all of them? the government?] publish a book that infuriates the Arab world.  I don't know the title of this book, but the result of its publication is a chemical attack by Arabs on a city in France.  A chemical is put into the water supply, and thousands drink it and die before it can be eliminated.

In one brief vision I saw Egyptians rioting in the streets while a voice told me that by 1997, Egypt would collapse as a democracy and be taken over by religious fanatics [41].
That last one is particularly funny, because Egypt wasn't a democracy before 1997, having been a dictatorship under Hosni Mubarak -- you've heard of him, I'm sure -- since 1981.

Oh, there's more, but this is probably enough.  I don't know where the "95 out of 117 revelations" figure came from, but I'm skeptical about it.  But to repeat: like his predecessors, Brinkley begins to fail as a prophet in the early 1990s, when his book was being written and published.  It's probable, then, that the "predictions" for the years before 1994 were concocted after they'd already come true.

I looked at customer reviews of Brinkley's book on Amazon, and noticed that those who rated it positively ignored the predictions and concentrated on his account of his Near Death Experience.  That's probably why many Christians are able to ignore the New Testament's failed predictions: there's a lot more to the New Testament, and even just the gospels, than end-times predictions, so believers concentrate on what they find useful and edifying, and ignore the rest.

I also noticed that there's a new edition of Saved by the Light, published in 2008.  I can't tell from the Amazon description what, if anything, has changed from the original, and I'm not going to spend money to find out.  The customer reviews are instructive, though.  Some date from well before 2008 and so must refer to the first edition; the most recent, again, concentrate on Brinkley's Near Death Experience or on the depth of his conversion from an "S.O.B." to a New Creation in Christ.  There are some by conservative Christians who noticed Brinkley's false prophecies and are indignant that people are taking him seriously.  Only the Bible tells truth! they huff.  But the Bible also contains false prophecies, and that evidently doesn't bother them.

Evidently many people read Saved from the Light after the year 2000 without ever noticing that Brinkley's predictions hadn't panned out.  The fact that Brinkley is still out there, publishing books and conducting seminars, despite his failed predictions, is telling.  Christian apologists have often claimed that the New Testament writers must have been telling the truth, because there were plenty of hostile critics around who could have exposed them if they didn't get things right.  That's giving people too much credit, don't you think? -- especially in religious matters.  If someone exposes your falsehoods, you just accuse them of trying to undermine the faith of simple believers, you point out that Jesus was persecuted by the ungodly too, and otherwise change the subject.  People who want to believe will believe.