Sunday, May 22, 2011

Why Judgment Day Didn't Happen Yesterday: Prayer and Sermon


Gracious God,

We are grateful for the reality of your unconditional love for all people, even though we don’t come close to understanding it. And we are grateful for the fact that you neither threaten nor taunt the human members in your created order.

You are not an ancient sultan who becomes angry with us when we fall short individually and collectively, holding on to your anger until it explodes in some sort of catastrophic event that damages, maims, terrifies, and often kills human beings whose greatest fault, if it is a fault, is lack of understanding. In fact, we can only find any anger in you at all when project our ways onto to you and do our level best to make you one of us. Your mystery, your intangibility irritate us so we allow ourselves to conceive of you, your traits, and your actions as decidedly human. Since we become angry enough to destroy, we contentedly surmise that you also must have such anger, and since you are God, your anger is the anger beyond all angers. When you express it, in this way of erroneous god-building we do, someone has to die; most often large groups of people die because the death of an individual here and an individual there makes too little impact.

Today, we put aside all our past and present leanings to create you in our own image: god with a temper, god who destroys even what has been divinely crafted and presumably loved. We reaffirm that you are THE God who is unconditional love. No exceptions.

We embrace you, as a result, as a God who is neither in the judgment business nor the business of damnation. Hell is another human-made “creation” that we constructed in our imaginations because we didn’t and don’t know what to do with the overpowering evil in the world. How can mass murderers and war criminals get by with what they did to others? The worst of punishments in this world didn’t seem suitable enough to our way of thinking so we created a hell in which we could picture those who embodied evil as suffering for eternity, far beyond the worst pain that could be inflicted in this world in a prison cell or an execution chamber.

Today, we, some of us, join with our sisters and brothers, many of them much more theologically conservative than most of us, who have had the courage to stand up and say, “A God of love could not, would not create a hell.” There is no hell, and such a mental creation must never be used again to try to coerce those struggling with their faith issues and possibilities that they’d better speak of you and to you in “approved ways” or singe and smolder in hellfire for eternity. Further, without a hell, we are convinced that there is no Judgment Day.

Gracious God, we thank you today that you’re not a god who plays games with us about what we must rationally grasp and affirm in order to stay in your good graces. We thank you for the reality that we need not fear a sudden reappearing of Jesus on Plant Earth that while ostensibly saving some will destroy and damn others. We understand the deeper truth--that you have given us this world and all the families in it to nurture in an abundance of ways, most significantly by sharing the good news of your boundless love in whatever we say or do.




Well, here we are! Either Judgement Day didn’t happen yesterday; OR it did happen, and we are among the vast majority “left behind” to catch hell, as it were. As you can guess, I’m opting for the former option. There was no Judgement Day yesterday, and, as a matter of fact, there never has been and never will be a Judgement Day. Biblical teachings about some futuristic run-in with an angry, punitive god are either dated very early in the development of monotheism, OR they are symbolic.

If the way I state my view on this issue or my confidence in my perspective seem arrogant to you, let me assure you that I don’t feel that way and don’t want to communicate that. I am not happy, however, with those who get on the predictive bandwagon and lead gullible, trusting people astray. Some of these false prophets don’t know any better and are doing what they’re doing because someone whom they trusted led them in this direction. Many or most of the false prophets, however, know better and are intentionally manipulating uninformed folk because they, the false prophets, enjoy the power of moving the masses and/or the tremendous financial benefit that typically comes to those who use fear and pseudo-biblical “interpretation” consistently to scare people to death.

Pam Cummings gave me a wonderful sign several months ago, and it’s now affixed to my office door. Instead of a sign that says, “Pastor’s Study,” there is Pam’s sign that reads, “Non-Judgment Day is Coming.”

Eschatology, possible damnation, and potential consignment to hell all go hand in hand, and as long as there has been a doctrine of hell, which isn’t very long historically speaking, there have been those, clergy and laypeople alike, who just love it. For these lovers of the idea of hell, thinking about one person at a time getting dropkicked into a fiery hell for eternity, time without end, is somewhat exciting and entertaining, but the image of innumerable souls sent en masse to hell on Judgement Day makes these people utterly ecstatic. That is unspeakably sad. But here’s the bottom line: if there’s no hell, there’s no Judgment Day.

Several weeks back, when these Judgement Day billboards started showing up all over the place, a writer from the Community Newspapers, Antonio Prado, called me and several clergypersons all around town, folks all over the theological spectrum, to get a read on what the religious community was thinking about this ultra-specific end of time prediction. As you can surmise, the views of Wilmington’s ministers were all over the place. After a thirty minute telephone interview, I got two sentences of my beautifully conceived and stated theological perspectives reported in Tony’s final product. Tony has reported on several Silverside projects through the years; he’s a good guy. I harbor no ill will that he only used two of my sentences! For whatever reason, he focused on my statement that every prediction of the end of time throughout history has been wrong. That, in a sense for me, is all that needs to be said about all of this; however, I have a seminary degree or two, and I can’t keep myself from saying more!

Harold Camping who made this prediction, his second try--the first being September 1994, is radio talk show host on the west coast. Mr. Camping is an 89 year old civil engineer turned radio broadcaster who is the current president of Family Radio. He has no formal theological training, which may not mean a lot as it’s possible to do a great deal of theological and biblical self-education because of the availability of vast collections of materials. (Don’t spread that around because seminary enrollments are finally starting to increase again after some years of rather heavy decline.)

Mr. Camping is an entirely sane and sincere person as far as I know. He is a biblical literalist, and he made his predictions, both of them, based on dates and numbers given in both Hebrew and Christian scripture regarding how many generations there were between this person and that one and, naturally, taking all biblical materials to be entirely accurate historically and intended as literal, even the numbers the writer of the book of Revelation tells his hearers are SYMBOLS. Symbols by their very nature can convey profound truths, but are not to be taken literally.

Mr. Camping has every right to interpret scripture as he sees fit, and he has every right to exercise his freedom of speech. I also have every right to take issue with him, and, in case you’ve missed my subtlety, I do.

What is really interesting in the matter of interpretation is that in order to have made his prediction, he has to have taken something attributed to Jesus as non-literal while I take that part of what has been attributed to Jesus literally. What a heck of a flip flop! I’m not absolutely certain of this, but I think that in order to retain membership in the biblical literalists’ club, a member has to interpret everything, every single thing, in Hebrew and Christian scripture literally. I don’t know why someone didn’t pass along this rule to Mr. Camping.

I don’t want to give him a hard time; I’m sure he must be feeling kind of embarrassed and miserable today, and at 89 how many more shots does he have at predicting Judgement Day? In any case, this is the vitally important verse in question. As I said, these are words attributed to Jesus, and the writer of Matthew’s Gospel reports them in this way: “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Matt 24:36 NRSV).

It’s sort of a strange verse anyway. I mean, Jesus is still living when he presumably speaks these words. He hasn’t yet died and left this realm of living. Logic, I think, tells us that someone has to leave before she or he can return or reappear, and the ever popular question also arises here: if Jesus were talking about himself as the one who’d return or reappear, why didn’t he simply use the first person singular pronoun, “I”? That’s for another discussion, but for our purposes today, let’s say the traditionalists are correct in their view that Jesus was doing the speaking here, that Jesus was referring to himself as the Son of Humanity who would return or reappear even though he hadn’t left, and that Jesus, though the very one who’d be returning or reappearing, had no idea when that would be.

For some real fun, one could bring up trinitarianism here. If Jesus and God are one and the same, then how could God know the time of Jesus’ return or reappearance, but Jesus, being God, not know? Again, that’s for another discussion.

More words attributed to Jesus in the same context:

...if anyone says to you, “Look! Here is the Messiah!” or “There he is!” —do not believe it. For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and produce great signs and omens, to lead astray, if possible, even the elect. Take note, I have told you beforehand. So, if they say to you, “Look! He is in the wilderness,” do not go out. If they say, “Look! He is in the inner rooms,” do not believe it (Matt 24:23-26 NRSV).

In fairness, we must acknowledge that Jesus himself and certainly the Apostle Paul believed in some dramatic ending to this chapter in human history. For Jesus, while no one may know the day or the hour except God, something highly unsettling is coming, and it can be compared to how shocking the tragic, massive flood was in the days of Noah. Only Noah and his family knew a killer flood was coming, but even they didn’t know when precisely. Other humans in that strongly pessimistic piece of mythology didn’t know a thing at all. They just started having a few days of rain the way we have lately, but the rain didn’t stop. It continued in intensity, and while Noah and clan were safely in the ark, the others had no where to go so they all drowned as an act of judgment from God on them for their disobedience. Jesus said that whenever the end comes and the time of judgment is ushered in, most if not all people will be just that unprepared and just that shocked, just that out of luck.

Very few people who are connected to or have ever been connected to the Jesus Movement are comfortable thinking, much less saying, that Jesus was wrong about anything; yet, being just as human as you or me, he did make a few errors in action and understanding. For example, early in his ministry, Jesus was pro-Israel to a fault; he thought Jews really were God’s favored people and that non-Jews were lesser humans than the Jews. That wasn’t true. Another example of something about which Jesus was wrong is this cataclysmic end of time thing; he anticipated it. Some would even say he openly predicted it, but it never came; and as an act of divine punishment on humanity it will never come.


The oldest written materials we have in Christian scripture are from the pen of the Apostle Paul--well, more often from the pen of Paul’s secretary. He was visually handicapped and couldn’t see well enough to do more than sign his name to the occasional document written out by his secretary. Anyway, all of Paul’s letters were written and circulated before any of the Gospels were completed and circulated. Yes, the Gospels dealt with the life of Jesus, which had been concluded before Paul embraced the faith and began writing, but as finished literary documents they follow Paul’s writings.

So, in the oldest materials we have in Christian scripture, Paul’s correspondence to the Thessalonian Christians, what we now call 1 and 2 Thessalonians, we have a zealous, Christian Paul--formerly, zealous Jewish Saul--preaching that the world is going to end any second. Therefore, don’t bother with any of life’s typical responsibilities; there was no need to, because Jesus would return or reappear any second and bring the world as it had been known to a close.

By the time Paul finished all his letters and found himself awaiting death at the hands of Rome, the world had not come to an end. There had been no Judgment Day, no second coming or reappearing of Jesus on Earth. Paul’s later writings, then, change to reflect his realization that we can’t ignore life on Earth because its ending is coming some day, as he saw it. His later writings are filled with advice on how to cope with the day to day demands in this world as it is.

We have seen that both Jesus and Paul were wrong about Judgment Day and the end of time, and many devout and sincere spiritual descendants of theirs have found themselves in the same boat--most recently, Mr. Harold Camping. There’s no reason to pick on Mr. Camping, however, since he’s in the company of many like-minded end of time predictors.

The last big hoopla I remember about the immanent end of time was when the so called new millennium was about to dawn, as 1999 went bye bye, and Y2K was born. The world didn’t end though many were out on hillsides in preparation to be taken up into God’s realm leaving this old world behind. Didn’t happen, not in any of the time zones.

There were arguments, as I’m sure many of you know, about which time zone would be first to experience the new millennium when Jesus came back. Would it be in the first time zone where each new day begins on Planet Earth, or would it be when the clock stuck midnight right here in the eastern part of the United States? What was Jesus’ preference for the US east coast or anywhere in the US, for that matter, all about? Why not in London, where it could be tomorrow a few hours before it’s today here? It’s really silly argumentation, isn’t it?

During the First World War, in 1917, a publication titled the “Weekly Evangel,” boldly reported, “The war preliminary to Armageddon, it seems, has commenced.” The battle of Armageddon is taken by literalist readers of the book of Revelation to be the last war in human history, the war that ushers in the end of this world and with it Judgement Day.

Similarly, in 1919, a popular speaker on biblical prophesy by the name of S. D. Gordon, announced with absolute certainty that the end of the world would occur in his generation. In one address or article, he explained “...that the man [or woman] of average age now living, and all younger, barring the usual accidents of sickness and death, [will] witness the tremendous climax and transition.”

These erroneous predictions were clearly not exclusive to the early twentieth century. In 1970, half way through my high school years, Hal Lindsey, who wrote and talked end time stuff constantly, began to suggest that the rapture would take place in 1981, seven years before Israel’s fortieth birthday. Explaining why he’d say such a thing, Lindsey wrote in his big time best seller, The Late Great Planet Earth:

A generation in the Bible is something like forty years. If this is a correct deduction, then within forty years or so of 1948, all [biblical indicators of the coming of Judgment Day] could take place. Many scholars who have studied Bible prophecy all their lives believe that this is so….The most important sign in Matthew has to be the restoration of the Jews to the land in the rebirth of Israel. Even the figure of speech “fig tree” has been a historic symbol of national Israel. When the Jewish people, after nearly 2,000 years of exile, under relentless persecution, became a nation again on 14 May 1948 the “fig tree” put forth its first leaves. Jesus said that this would indicate that He was “at the door,” ready to return. Then He said, “Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.” What generation? Obviously, in context, the generation that would see the signs--chief among them the rebirth of Israel.

That preposterous reading of Matthew misses the blatant point Jesus was trying to make. He was telling the people who heard him in his time that THEIR generation wouldn’t pass away until the end of time had come. If that is what Jesus meant, then on that point he was mistaken.

There was no 1981 Hal-Lindsay-predicted end of time. Another book. 88 Reasons Why the Rapture will be in 1988. In this book, the author, Edger Whisenant, put his reputation as a prophecy specialist on the line. He wrote, “Only if the Bible is in error am I wrong, and I say unequivocally that there is no way Biblically that I can be wrong; and I say that to every preacher in town.” Well, by his own standard, the Bible was in error.

When I was in college, the most famous “scholar” of prophecy, I suppose, was the President of Dallas Theological Seminary. For some reason, our progressive Religion Department at Carson-Newman invited this scholar, Dr. John Walvoord, to speak to Religion majors and all other interested students and staff. I’m guessing that there were about 75 of us who wanted to hear what he had to say. The basis of his message, and he was sharing with us what he was sharing all around the country, was that in the last quarter of the twentieth century the world would end, and all who inhabited or ever had inhabited Planet Earth would face Judgment Day. He, from all indications, believed this right up until the twentieth century came to a close; then he had a disappointing two years in the new millennium before he died.

The late Jerry Falwell was preaching on his “Old Time Gospel Hour,” at the end of 1992 when he confessed, “I don’t believe there will be another millennium. I don’t believe there will be another century.” What he meant, of course, was that the end of time would come about before another hundred years passed.

One commentator on contemporary religious patterns said aloud what many of the end of time predictors don’t want to hear. As in all generations before us, so also in the twentieth century and what has transpired of the twenty-first century, there have been loads of failed predictions of Judgment Day. Loads!

Why, then, do they continue? Well, the same commentator, J. D. King, explained that.

Whenever predictions don't come true, many prophecy teachers just make readjustments to account for new historical developments. Ongoing catastrophes and civil unrest are “exploited” to distract from errors in calculations. Just as soon as one date goes by, then another becomes important.

I think he’s right on target, and, thus, new predictions of the end of time and Judgement Day will be forthcoming. Camping will be patted on the back and thanked for his efforts, and the next self-proclaimed and self-appointed prophets will correct his good faith estimate and come out with the corrected date, even though Jesus, now living in God’s realm, still has no idea of when it will be. Part of the reason for this, and I say it again, is that there will never be a God-ordained, cataclysmic end to this world accompanied by a Judgment Day on which every person who has ever lived on Planet Earth will have her or his eternal fate pronounced and sealed.


Sadly for those who keep trying to find ways to use and make literal sense of a Bible containing many unhelpful parts, there is a body of biblical writing called "eschatology," the study of "last things. There are eschatological writings in both Hebrew and Christian scriptures. I daresay, and I do so with a heavy heart, that threats and resultant fears of eternal damnation have motivated more people to embrace the Christian religion than has the true core of the faith, which is the good news of God’s unconditional love for all people.

In the late 1990’s, the most prominent African American pentecostal preacher in the United States began having concerns that one of the key beliefs he’d been taught in his denomination and as a student at Oral Roberts University, a belief he had publicly pounded into the heads of his huge following, was, in a word, wrong. That doctrine was built on the belief that people who didn’t have the “correct” perspectives on God and Jesus would go to hell when they died and suffer eternal punishment there; they would be damned, in other words, and “they,” it turns out would be most of humanity. The Reverend Carlton Pearson who, then, was pastor of the Higher Dimensions Family Church of Tulsa (as in Oklahoma), was serving 5,000 congregants who loved him and supported his church financially to the tune of $50,000 per Sunday.

He may have first come out as an inclusionist in an interview with the Dallas Morning News in Y2K. He said to the reporter that he had to come clean, that he no longer believed in the “holiness or hell” creed. And great was his fall. The congregants who had adored him as long as he held them and their enemies over hell week by week turned on him. Fairly quickly, Pastor Pearson lost 90 per cent of his members, and I don’t have to tell you what happened to the offerings. Rich pastor/poor pastor. Someone should write a novel, or a biography!

Seeing clearly where things were going, Pearson would not stop preaching his gospel of inclusion, and to make certain everyone knew exactly where he stood, Pearson said that if the devil himself apologized to God for leading so many people astray, he would be admitted permanently into heaven. Mercy! Mercy! Can you see the faces of fundamentalists while the preacher preached that sermon? Michael Moore, where were you?!?

Carlton Pearson is on a bit of a rebound now, but he will likely never have what he had before; and we have to admire him for being willing to lose all to preach the truth, his truth. Said the good Reverend, “People don’t follow preachers as much as they follow popularity. I always knew that. And as soon as I quit preaching what was popular, the people were gone.”

My dear friends, judgment, damnation, and hell are more popular than divine love in Christianity at large. Here’s a quick trivia question for you: Who introduced Silverside Church to the Reverend Carlton Pearson? The shocking answer is, Dr. Steve Fifield.

I stopped believing in hell years ago, and when I finally dared to articulate my change of heart in a previous congregation, I got great congregational affirmation. The truth, though, about the service where I spoke my convictions about hell is that something went screwy with the public address system right at a critical moment, and when I said, “I no longer believe in hell,” because of the static the congregants thought I said, “I will no longer give you hell.” Many smiled and nodded their heads with approval. I was a little surprised, but very pleased. When the word of what I’d really said spread, I had many detractors, but my list of haters didn’t grow. I was reluctantly given the freedom to continue thinking and speaking my own theological thoughts, which--as I’m sure most of you know--is the only way I can work.

A little less than two months ago, the News Journal ran an Associated Press article about the Reverend Chad Holtz, pastor of a little rural Methodist congregation in North Carolina. I don’t know if the journalist who wrote the article, Tom Green, came up with the great title for it or if that was the creative work of someone at the News Journal. Anyway, it’s a great title for a very sad story: “Hell, no: Pastor ousted for rejecting eternal damnation.”

Let me read the opening sentences of the article to you, and you can then fill in all the gaps--quickly and easily:

When Chad Holtz lost his old belief in hell, he also lost his job. [He] wrote a note on his Facebook page supporting a new book by Rob Bell, a young evangelical pastor and critic of the traditional view of hell as a place of eternal torment for billions of damned souls.

You’d better take care with what you post on Facebook.

I have to tell you, until this week, I had no idea who Rob Bell is. Thanks to Roger Uhler and his ministry of mailing articles of import to friends, I received a clipping from Roger’s and Mimzie’s April 25 edition of Time magazine. Lo and behold, it was about Rob Bell, the pastor who had written the book that influenced Chad Holtz. No doubt, Carlton Pearson laid the groundwork in some kind of way for Rob Bell’s change of heart on the same subject and empowered him, Rob Bell, to press the matter further, which he has done and is doing in his 7,000 member church and in his best selling book, Love Wins. It’s Bell’s own articulation of the same basic idea that cost Pearson 90 percent of his members--not to mention loads of disdain from the Evangelical Community at large.

What these ministers are embracing isn’t a new doctrine at all; it’s old name was “universalism.” Some years ago, both the Unitarians and the Universalists, then separate religious groups, melded and became the religious movement we know today as UU, Unitarian Universalists. What the doctrine of universalism means is that there is no hell for anyone to go to. It means that a loving God could neither conceive of relentless, unending punishment for any human nor oversee it. Universalism or universal salvation means that everyone makes it to God’s realm after life in this realm ends--regardless of what they did or didn’t do, regardless of what they believe or don’t believe or never knew to believe.

The embracing of inclusion, universalism, whatever you want to call it is by far and away the most significant and hopeful sign not only that the Christian religion may live and not die, but also the characteristic that would make Christianity worth hanging onto and being a part of. Many people in the Silverside tradition have believed these or similar ideas for years and years and years, but we don’t make as much of an impact when we say what Rob Bell says because too many people have already written us off as liberals. That’s what they would expect us and “our kind” to embrace. The only thing we can say for ourselves is that we held onto inclusion when almost no one else affirmed it; in ways, ours has been a lonely road.

When preachers who have been preaching hell with fervor and delight suddenly stop and stand before their congregations with an honest confession to offer, they get a hearing, even from those who may despise what they hear their pastor saying. “I have preached judgment and hell with clarity and conviction, and I have been wrong. There is no hell, for a God of unconditional love could not, cannot conceive of it or tolerate it, and as long as I have the breath to keep on preaching I will use all of my preaching energy to rebuke the message I myself have made pivotal. I recant. There is no hell in the next realm, only the fullness of divine love.” That takes guts, but it’s going to give Christianity new life. Rob Bell said, in the article Roger shared with me titled “Is Hell Dead?”, “I have long wondered if there is a massive shift coming in what it means to be a Christian. Something new is in the air.”