Gone but Not Forgotten

It’s time for a rant.

I’m getting really tired of having all Christians lumped in together with the literalists, the fundamentalists and the creationists. Too many people who embrace secularism don’t see the distinctions within a faith.

The recent remarks by Julie Payette, our Governor General, underline this. I would have less trouble if she had been more respectful in her choice of words, and I certainly don’t wish to tell someone that they don’t have a right to express their opinions. But lumping all people of faith together into an ignorant group that deserves scorn displays an indifference, or even an ignorance concerning the subtleties of the many people of Canada who have faithful or spiritual beliefs. Her later comments supporting religious diversity are good, but what she said at first exposes an all too common position in a society that considers itself post-religion.

The Reformed branch of the church has always considered itself to be rationally-oriented. And we who are members of that branch have to bear some of the blame for this. We have allowed the literalists of Christianity to define their agenda in the media as the voice of all Christianity. This is particularly true in the United States, where people are trying to get Creationism taught as a “science” in schools, sometimes successfully. We cannot pretend that we don’t get splashed with the same tar here in Canada, and it wouldn’t hurt us to make a point of letting people know where we stand, instead of letting them make uninformed assumptions about us.

We get to say that we believe in God, and not in Creationism. We know that climate change is real. We take the Bible seriously, not literally.

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 gives us an opportunity to break some stereotypes. This is the passage of the Bible that people use to justify the doctrine of the rapture: that idea that at the second coming of Christ faithful people will be lifted off the earth to meet Jesus in the air, and be taken off to heaven.

People have had a lot of fun with this idea. I can remember back in the 1970’s some church youth groups joked about wearing “Rapture Helmets” indoors in case there was a roof over your head when Jesus returned. My dad had a bumper sticker which he glued on the dashboard for his passengers to see:

Caution: Jesus is returning at any time. Driver will disappear.

I’m still not sure if he was joking or sending a message, but it upset a few people.

Paul’s message in this scripture passage is part of the tradition of the Day of the Lord, which goes back into the prophetic writings, like Amos 5:18-24 . It is a promise that God will intervene in the world to set things right someday.

Like the passage from Amos, these were often warnings. Here Amos is clearly saying that the people who think they’re in good with God had better see if they are actually doing what God wants. Amos says what God wants: for justice to flow like a fountain.

People can’t get away with simply following rituals and pretending to be good. We are called to make it real, so if God did enter the world suddenly it would only be a good day for us. According to Amos and other prophets, this would be if we were already trying to establish God’s balanced life for the people, so that there wasn’t a huge gap between the rich and the poor, and no one could use the law to to cheat others and get away with it.

Amos, and other prophets were warning against smug self-satisfaction and a sense of self-righteousness. They left a sense that the Day of the Lord was a scary thing to anticipate.

Paul sets a really different tone. He presents the Day of the Lord as Jesus returning to earth to rule in justice and righteousness. He presents it as a happy day, without the threatening tones of Amos. Paul was clear that one of the jobs of the church was to make sure that justice did flow down. He taught the messages of love, mutual support and a community that overcomes social boundaries; that embraces even the outcasts. In this way, Paul saw God’s justice being lived out so the Day of the Lord wasn’t something to be feared: it was a joyful occasion.

Paul pictures the faithful people, dead and living, welcoming Jesus in the air as he comes to earth like a crowd going out into the roadways to celebrate the arrival of the conquering hero as he comes into town. They’re not going to be taken away into heaven! The idea is that they’re going to be around for this reign of Christ. They’re going to come back to earth with him, which is the opposite of what modern “Rapture” theology says.

Really, this is all totally missing the point of the passage. Paul wasn’t really trying to write eschatology (the study of the end times), he was answering a specific concern about people who had died.

Very early in the days of Christianity, everyone expected the risen Christ back literally any day. Understandably, some of the converts to Christianity got upset when their loved ones died before Jesus returned. What did this mean? Was their faith in vain?

They weren’t looking for salvation in heaven. They were anticipating God’s kingdom on earth. But they’d just buried dear aunt Mabel, and what would happen to her? Would she miss out on the Day of the Lord? Where was the justice in that?

Paul was telling the people that dear aunt Mabel and the others who had died might be gone, but they were not forgotten. More than that, on this Day of the Lord that people had been talking about for centuries the “dead in Christ” would have the bonus of being raised up and meeting Christ even before the faithful people still living.

This whole passage is about God’s faithfulness and care for those who have left this life. It’s not about some abstract theology about the end of the world. And yet all you hear about is the end of the world stuff, which is a total twisting of the passage in the first place.

We don’t hear about the reassurance: that people who love God are not abandoned or forgotten by God; the reassurance that death in this world is not the end of our existence.

That reassurance is what Paul was trying to get across, and that’s the part everyone misses.

Of course, for people who are determined to be secular, the idea of life after this one is one they tend to reject. That’s sort of inevitable if you decide that Science is the measure of everything. Science deliberately limits itself to this physical universe and things that can be directly observed.

To imagine a God who could be the first mover, the primary cause, requires us to think outside the box of the observable universe. So does the idea of a spiritual continuity for life beyond physical death.

Life after death can’t be proven. They’ve tried. I remember hearing about experiments where people were weighed continually before, during and after the time of death. The people running the study came up with an unexplained weight loss. They reported that it was the weight of the soul.

Unfortunately for the experimenters, no one else could get the experiment to work. It was what you call an irreproducable result: not scientifically trustworthy.

I have no problem with that. I’m with Hamlet when he says “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

The learning we gain through science is vital. We need it to advance. Critical thinking is at the core of our ability to grow in understanding in any field: it was an important part of my training in seminary. But however much we learn, we must never think we have all the answers. We cannot assume that our view of the world is complete. And become arrogant when we feel we get to heap scorn on people who disagree with us.

We who are people of faith have a responsibility to be engaged with people who just don’t get it. We should take up these issues with people who are concerned with them and let them know where we stand, what we believe. We used to call this “apologetics,” and it has nothing to so with saying “sorry.”

We have let things slide. We have let others define our position for us, and now we are bearing the consequences: we are dismissed as irrational fools.

In fact our faith gives us room to struggle with important questions. It gives us the room to see possibilities and hopes that are not limited by what can be measured in this world.

Our faith tells us that there is more to life than what we can see, and that the source of all life will not forget us.

That’s worth defending

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