Q & R: 2nd Coming, God’s violence, selectivity …

This email has several questions which I’ll address one by one … Here’s the Q:

Thanks so much for the continued effort you put into all of your books. I finished chapter 18 of your new one yesterday. Dr. King’s quote at the end really moved me–what a wonderful world it would be if we lived out those words!! There was one other thing with that chapter that really struck me–I thought that you might actually touch on it in the chapter. You discussed in depth the meaning of the second coming and how it could be viewed as already occurred with the destruction of the Temple in 70AD. This view that you present creates a stark irony regarding christians following a dispensationalist paradigm who sometimes persecute Jews for not realizing that Jesus is the messiah. Just as the Jews are waiting for a messiah that has already arrived, so are dispensationalist christians waiting for a second coming that has already occurred.

Thanks for the encouragement. One slight tweak – in Chapter 18, I talk about the meaning of the word “parousia.” I explain that the term “second coming” isn’t found in the biblical text. It’s a term like “the Fall” – developed in extra-biblical theological literature, and then read back into the text (and sometimes put there by “translators” who are actually interpreters). That doesn’t mean it’s wrong – just that the term itself is subject to questioning. When Jesus speaks of coming back or again, sometimes he’s referring to the resurrection … sometimes he may be referring to his coming to be with us via the Holy Spirit at Pentecost … and sometimes he may be referring to the coming of a new era and “the end of the (current) age” centered in holy city, temple, priesthood, and sacrifice. He may also be referring to some ultimate judgment day … but the more I read the New Testament, the fewer of those references I think there are. More and more, it seems, Jesus was referring to things that were very close at hand, and so in that way, it turns out both Jesus and Paul were right: the cataclysm they predicted would happen “before this generation passes.”
Q (cont’d):

Your chapter on whether God is violent or not was helpful. However, this is something that I really continue to struggle with.

Our church is reading through the Bible together in one year. Frankly, I have not done any serious study of the Bible in quite sometime and at first complained about reading through it again–I read the entire thing years ago and treated it as something to mark off my list of things to do in life. However, I am getting so much out of it this time and at least of late am completely engrossed with it. That said, the biggest issues I have are how violent and at times selective God seems to be. We are currently in I Samuel. What a story this is! I am loving this book, yet at the same time I am really struggling with essentially two things. First, why does God put evil spirits on people and harden people’s hearts (Pharoah)? I have never really heard anybody defend Saul. I really feel like he gets a bum rap so to speak. He starts off wanting to serve the Lord and then begins to put himself before God. Often in I Sam. it states that God puts an evil spirit on Sual. We also see this pattern in Exodus where the text does not say that Pharoah hardened his own heart, but rather God is the one doing the hardening. If God is about redemption why would he ever choose to harden someone’s heart?

R: First, it’s so good you’re reading through the whole Bible. It’s dangerous, I think, when we only hear the Bible in little tiny chunks that fit into sermons. We miss so much of the big sweep … and we miss many of the big tensions as well, as you’re seeing now.
On God putting an evil spirit on Saul, or hardening Pharoah’s heart, etc., theologians deal with this in a number of ways. What has been most helpful to me is to realize that in the ancient world, there is little consciousness of intermediate causality. If lightning strikes, God (or the gods) did it – because there’s little understanding of intermediate causes like atmospheric convection, heat transfer, cold fronts, static electricity, and the like. I suppose calling natural disasters “acts of God” continues this tradition.
If people in the Bible see things in a certain way – no intermediate causality – does that obligate us to reject any other explanation? I’d say no. Just as we no longer feel obligated to say the sun circles the earth – even though this is clearly the language of the Bible, reflecting the “world view” of the time – I don’t feel obligated to ignore intermediate causality when I interpret Biblical language and thought forms and seek to be guided by them in today’s world. I might also add that sometimes, the biblical storytellers seem to be trying to “save” God … If Pharoah hardens his own heart, it sounds like God isn’t omnipotent. So they say that God hardens Pharoahs heart, thus solving that problem, but creating another. (In their day, the danger of giving Pharoah too much credit may have been worth the risk … but today, making God responsible for evil seems like the greater risk.)
We – all of us – do the same sort of thing today, again and again – trying to solve one problem and unintentionally creating other ones. That’s one reason I recommend reading the Bible as a library, and not giving any single text the final word … as if it were an article in a constitution.
On Saul getting a bad rap, yes, I agree. The Bible presents human beings with much more maturity and nuance than we often do … We (especially we Americans) love to paint the world into simple good guys and bad guys, forgetting that the bad guys have a lot of good, and the good guys a lot of bad. If some Biblical passages seem “primitive” to us in terms of intermediate causality, they’re often far more mature and nuanced in terms of human nature than many of our modern preachers are.
Q (cont’d)

Second, why does God appear to be selective? I Sam. states that God is going to chose someone after his own heart to supplant Saul as king. From this point on it appears really apparent that God is for David and against Saul. More than once we see language that God puts an evil spirit on Saul making it sound as if it is God’s fault for the evil things that Saul is doing. We both know the second chances that David will later get after committing adultery as well murder, yet God always offers David a second chance. I feel like this reinforces God’s selective tendencies when we think about Saul–where were Saul’s second chances?

Again, if we let the Bible be a library, then we can let various authors/storytellers have their perspectives and vested interests. Part of our job as wise readers is to discern those vested interests, and take account of them in our interpretation. There are clearly “pro-David” writers in the Bible. But there’s also a real anti-David thread … for example, when you get to that strange section where David is so old and cold that he needs a young woman to sleep with him to keep him warm. That’s a not very subtle way of describing David as an old, impotent has-been. The virile David has become a wrinkled old weakling.
This issue of vested interests is most clearly seen, for me, in relation to a simple question: What is the Bible’s attitude toward the monarchy?
Some writers portray it as a terrible tragedy, people rejecting God as king and choosing a human king. Other writers, though, see it as a great gift. (The end of Judges, for example … or many of the Psalms … and even the prophets foretelling a descendent of David returning to the throne). In general, the prophetic tradition is nervous about the monarchy – but the priestly tradition likes it; each reflects their vested interests, and each sees some of the truth from their limited but yet real perspective.
So – reading the Bible as a library, we can say, “Some writers are pro-monarchy, and others are anti-monarchy. What can we learn from that divided opinion?” (This means that simply quoting a verse guarantees that we’re siding with one side of vested interests and ignoring the other side … which shows that we have our vested interests as interpreters as well!)
This sensitivity to vested interests in the Bible helps us, I think, when looking at political issues today. There are upsides and downsides to this or that immigration bill, tax bill, energy bill, whatever. People usually simply take sides – fer it or agin it. But the Biblical library teaches us that there’s a higher perspective, where we can learn to see both the upsides and downsides of all sides … That way, even if we are for something, we won’t be naive about its downsides, and vice versa.
Q (cont’d)

I am really grappling with these issues! You seem to have a much better grasp on this than I, but perhaps you continue to struggle with them as well. If you had any words of wisdom to share on this that would be awesome, if not I would hope that my sharing would stir up the pot of questions a little more for you.

Whatever grasp I have I wouldn’t have except for the fact that I’ve done exactly what you’re doing: actually grappled with the text, and had the courage to ask tough questions of people who might add new perspectives to my search. To me, it’s so thrilling to read the Bible in a “safe space” where we can ask these kinds of questions, hear a variety of responses, and think issues through – individually and together. So thanks for raising these questions … I’m sure a lot of folks have struggled with them too and will be grateful for you bringing them up. (And I’m equally sure some folks will have answers they much prefer to the ones I’ve offered!)