Recent news stories about how some evangelical Christians have embraced Donald Trump note that this acceptance is not just the latest example of politics making for strange bedfellows. There is, apparently, a strong sense that The Donald holds the keys to the Apocalypse and that he is or will become a key player in a looming battle for the survival of Christianity. The Washington Post reports,
…the religious right — a core Trump constituency — is revealing something interesting about the bond that these millions of Americans have formed with Trump. His religious-right defenders see themselves as warriors in an epic battle for Christian America…
The Religious Right has been feeding on the idea of an ultimate cosmic smack-down between their particular brand of Christianity and the rest of the world for some time. Any time a community begins to feel, or is manipulated into feeling that they are in existential danger you will see radicalization. Decades of demonization by cynical politicos in clerical collars and cooption by conservative political candidates have driven large fractions of evangelicalism and fundamentalist Christians further from engagement with the modern world, and closer to a grim reckoning of another sort.
Reading the views of those aching for apocalypse is both perplexing and chilling, if only because of the history behind the enduring appeal of the end of the world.
A Rogue’s Gallery of Messiahs
Some years ago I was discussing ancient messianic movements with a Rabbi of my acquaintance. The one comment I remember from that conversation was when he remarked with a visible shudder, “When people start talking seriously about the Messiah, it means a lot of people are about to die.” The period in between the forming of the Torah and the end of the first century CE is known to scholars as the Intertestamental Period. The most active part began around 200 BCE. During this three hundred-year period, Palestinian Jewry saw the Maccabean Revolt, a couple of civil wars, the Roman seizure and occupation of Judea, and a couple of utterly disastrous revolts by the Jews against Rome that left Palestine desolate and it’s surviving Jewish population scattered.
What is not well-known is that during this time, you couldn’t swing a dead goat and not hit someone who knew of, or was claiming to be a messiah or a forerunner of same. The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus records several of these uprisings, most of which were led by men of dubious character, who took up arms against Rome, and got themselves and thousands of their followers slaughtered without mercy for their trouble.
The End is Near…
The ultimate expression of this apocalyptic folly was, of course, the Jewish War that began around 68 CE and ended with the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple in 70. It was a catastrophe of unimaginable proportions; hundreds of thousands died. The slave markets of Rome were so flooded with Jewish captives that the price of a slave fell below the price of a donkey. But what is not usually appreciated is how Judaism reached that point.
The Intertestamental Period was a time of harsh rulership and rampant abuses by the rich and powerful against the vulnerable. Hans Küng aptly summarized the essence of that period thus, “The world must be changed, positively and radically changed!” Out of this discontent emerged an entire corpus of religious literature, much of it preaching eventual divine intervention. Persian influences picked up while the Jews were in exile in Babylon contributed the idea of a final cosmic battle, and a relatively benign concept of an “anointed one” merged with other Persian ideas to form the concept of a Messiah that was prevalent in the decades before the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. This “apocalyptic” literature taught that God would destroy the oppressors, with help from his willing followers. It was, in essence, a call to holy war. The War Scroll from the Dead Sea Scrolls is an excellent example of this kind of literature.
It did not turn out well. Some of the apocalyptic texts such as sections in the Book of Ezekiel and the Book of Revelation made their way into the present Judeo-Christian canon. But most of it was discarded by Rabbinic teachers after the disaster of the Jewish War and the last gasp of Jewish apocalyptic nationalism during the Bar Kochba Revolt (132-135 CE). The Rabbis wisely realized that the ideas in these texts were toxic and Judaism was better rid of them. This is a very important point. Judaism, as a religious community, rejected these ideas outright. There were a few more false alarms, such as the movement led by Shabbatai Zevi and his followers in the 16th century, but on the whole Judaism is not in the habit of trying to hasten the coming of the Messiah.
Unfortunately, many Christians saw in these texts a guide to the Last Days and the Parousia and scooped them up. While 4 Ezra and the Sibylline Oracles did not become part of the canon proper, some of them were included in the Apocrypha. Even those that were not regarded as officially authoritative continued to exert a great deal of influence in the development of Christian theology.
This brings us back to the present. Here is a religious community that has been marinating in end-time theology, even creating theological concepts such as “the Rapture” that appear nowhere in Christian theology prior to the late 19th century. The rage for apocalypse finds expression in such books as the “Left Behind” series that has spawned its own media empire. Fear of modernism, or fear simply for the sake of political expedience has cooked down into a noxious but heady brew.
Küng’s summary of the apocalyptic spirit during the Intertestamental Period is a good one; there was a crying need for change. That need gave resonance to the message of Jesus and the early Christian community. Today, many of the same ravages have a grip on our lives; neglect of the sick, abuse of the poor, bigotry, oppression of the weak by the powerful. The world indeed must be changed. But the apocalyptic vision of Trump’s Christian warriors is the polar opposite of that vision; they want retribution, not healing. They are proof that when a community becomes radicalized in order to defend itself, the ideas at the root of that community become distorted, sometimes even turned inside out. There is also the lesson of the Jews who so fervently hoped for their end-times. The Qumran Community, who gave us the War Scroll, believed that they would fight alongside angels and participate in the building of a new Jerusalem. Instead, they were destroyed by the Xth Roman Legion, on its way to the siege of Jerusalem.
Be careful what you pray for.