Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Children died, the days grew cold ...

Afficionados of Larry Norman will know that the line from I wish we’d all been ready continues, “A piece of bread would buy a bag of gold.” The reference is to the days after the supposed ‘Rapture’: “The Son has come, and you’ve been left behind,” is the ‘punch-line’ to the song. The idea is that in the days before the Tribulation (with a capital ‘T’) the condition of the world would become worse and worse, until the Christians were finally removed, leaving the planet to its own, or rather Satan’s, devices.
This is a concept with which I have very little theological sympathy. I think that the notion of the Rapture is based on a misreading of a Scriptural image (specifically, 1 Thess 3:17). In that sense, I am a classic amillennialist. But, perhaps controversially, I am not one of those who believes that Christ could return ‘at any moment’. It seems to me that the argument of 2 Thess 2:1-11 (“that day will not come until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed”, v3) depends on their being certain discernible events taking place before the Second Coming of our Lord.
Less controversially (maybe), it also seems clear to me in the Scripture that Christians will not be preserved from the world’s sufferings before the End. The bad news, from that point of view, is that we will have to stick around.
Back in the realms of controversy, however, I am entirely unconvinced by the Post-millennial scenario expressed in one of my favourite Christmas songs, “It can upon a midnight clear,” with its reference to the “age of gold” which will come round “with the ever circling years.” It is a wonderful idea with a long pedigree, that the Church will prove triumphant and, through the gospel, bring an age of peace and prosperity, but again I do not believe it fits the Scriptural evidence. Rather, the evidence points (I am persuaded) to increasing difficulties and a final outbreak of rebellious evil.
At the same time, I am aware that previous generations which thought they were living in the end ‘end times’ have all been wrong, whether they were the pessimists of medieval millenarianism or the optimists of the nineteenth century Student Volunteer Movement with its slogan of “the evangelization of the world in this generation.” History teaches us caution. Yet I cannot help feeling a certain resonance between Norman’s angst and what appears to be coming towards us just over the horizon.
The immediate cause of these musings is an article I came across by a gold analyst (here as a pdf), warning of the potential danger of hyperinflation. I am not an economist, and am therefore not in a position to judge his prescience, but I know a Christian who is, and he is making exactly the same prediction for similar reasons, namely that far from being almost out of the recession caused by the credit crunch we are about to have our ‘swine ’flu’ moment as a second wave of problems hits us in the form of runaway inflation.
The heart of it is that the First and Second worlds have accumulated debts which make Third world debt a thing of, if not indifference, certainly insignificance in terms of the global economy. The Christian’s view is that the measures taken by Western governments have done the trick and saved the economy from simply going ‘pop’. However, they have done it because governments have an advantage with regard to debt which is not possessed by the ordinary citizen and it is called ‘the printing press’. That is to say, governments can create money. The posh name for this, as most people know, is quantitative easing. The Analyst and the Christian both agree that the way governments have been buying their own bonds has averted the immediate disaster. But they both also agree that this still has to be ‘paid’ for.
Who, then, will pay? The answer (because there is no-one else) is that we will. In the immediate short-term it may be by the traditional method of taxation, for the other thing governments can do which ordinary citizens cannot is to raise revenue from ordinary citizens. In the long term, however, we will pay by massive (perhaps hyper) inflation. If multiple trillions of dollars (that is $N,000,000,000,000) are ‘owed’ —and they are —then somehow the debt has to be reduced. The good news is that you can do this by printing money. The bad news is that printing money is inflationary. The very bad news is that an awful lot of money is going to have to be printed. The good news —maybe, if I’ve understood this correctly —is that when the £20 note in your pocket is actually a £20,000 note, that debt mountain has just had a useful number of zeros knocked off its effective ‘value’.
All this, however, brings me to two questions —or rather one question with two aspects, and it is this: are we, the Christian church, ready? Readers will not be surprised to hear that I think we are not. On the one hand, we seem to be saying nothing, and to have nothing to say, about the current economic situation, beyond an easy criticism of ‘the greed of the bankers’. Yet we could just as easily criticize ‘the greed of the man in the street’, for all that debt, whether amassed by governments or corporations, is allowing us all to live beyond our means, right down to the level of ‘schools and hospitals’ so beloved by our political leaders.
As the Analyst points out, we have already had one scary foretaste of what the future will hold with the spike in basic food prices, especially rice, that occurred in 2008. The difference next time is that whereas previously the impact of such ‘spikes’ was absorbed by people in the Far East doing without, next time they will have the economic clout to compete, and the pinch will be felt here. The indebtedness of our societies puts us in an increasingly poor position (in every sense) as global economic competitors, and the balance of economic power is undoubtedly shifting to China and India.
The Western church, at least, seems to have nothing to say, just when a ‘prophetic’ voice might actually come in handy. We could, for example, be denouncing First and Second world debt, or warning about the credit-card culture, but we are not. Instead, we are paralysed by the headlights.
But the Church also seems unready for the spiritual challenges this implies and entails, for (as history again shows) economic hard times bring with them spiritual risk. This may not be the time before the End Times, but it certainly provides the opportunity for spiritual forces which have been at work throughout history to manifest themselves in ways which will be simultaneously both deeply attractive to the mass of humanity and deeply inimical to God’s people.
I am constantly reminded of the verses from Revelation 13 which express, I believe, not so much a prediction as a recurring theme of history: “He [that is the second beast who is the ‘false prophet’, 19:20] also forced everyone, small and great, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on his right hand or on his forehead, so that no one could buy or sell unless he had the mark, which is the name of the beast or the number of his name.”
Who, in 2009, could imagine the free countries of the West succumbing to a system of economic dictatorship? Yet who in 1950s England could imagine a London bus ticket costing over a pound? And who, in early Weimar Germany, would have imagined Christians would be unsure how to respond to a man who offered them economic security and a glorious future at the price of complete obedience?
Revd John P Richardson
6 October 2009
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  1. Larry Norman, 1970s, The Late Great Planet Earth, inflation? Or Ella Fitzgerald, 1920s, The Great Gatsby, inflation? I can remember the 1970s!!

  2. Great post, thanks for this.

    I have a feeling though that Larry Norman was a believer in the pre-trib rapture - hence the description of how bad things 'are' in the song is about the days just after the rapture, hence wishing we'd all been ready and whisked away with the church.

    Pete Jackson
    Sheffield, UK

    PS. I'm was brought up a pre-trib dispy, and am now a post-mill'er.

  3. Pete Jackson, you're right, of course - not much point in the "left behind" bit otherwise. I've amended the sentence to fit the theology. Put it down to writing the original at 4am!

  4. Very interesting post, John. Thank you.

    One might suggest that Christians should be speaking clearly and loudly about this sort of thing in preference to some of the other issues that we allow to dominate our media image.

    Elwin Cockett
    West Ham

  5. Elwin, thanks for this comment. Of course in the 1970s evangelicals were thinking through issues in just these areas - Third Way and Greenbelt grew out of this, and the topics covered at NEAC '77 bear witness to it.

    The trouble was that in the process they seemed to lose their way as Evangelicals (see Third Way and Greenbelt, and especially the way the latter has moved from being covered by the Church of England Newspaper to being a favourite of the establishment-liberal Church Times). It is interesting to see John Gladwin's contribution to the NEAC papers, for example, and compare this with his later declension from Evangelicalism.

    The reason for this, in my view as one who was part of that whole early generation, is that our theological roots were simply not deep enough to cope with the challenge. Instead of providing a Christian critique of the culture we experienced a cultural takeover of the church.

    The result was a thinning-out of our theology and, ultimately, the removal of evangelism from our priorities (all this, as early as the 1980s).

    Since then, there has been an understandable nervousness amongst some evangelicals to re-engage with these issues, whilst those who do engage tend to suffer the same lack of Evangelical roots and consistency.

    The confusions over human sexuality caused by the revisionists, who have been working on this since at least the 1960s, have further muddied the waters and divided the Church. Whilst requiring a robust response, they have weakened our commitment to the gospel and to one another.

    There is some good work now being done theologically, but nowhere near enough and in an atmosphere often of antagonism (see my post on Helm's critique of Wright). There is still too little charity in our search for understanding.

    There is also some good work being done on issues such as justice. I think Andy Hartropp's What is Economic Justice? is outstanding, but it is unlikely to gather a wide audience, given it is easier to blame 'the bankers' than to engage with the very difficult topics he tackles.

    We lost the plot in the 80s. We are nowhere near recovering it yet.

  6. Thanks for the insights, John, and for introducing me to Hartropp. The question 'What is Economic Justice?' has to be a hugely important one for Christians to address as we approach another General Election. I look forward to reading the book.

    Elwin (West Ham)


    How can the “rapture” be “imminent”? Acts 3:21 says that Jesus “must” stay in heaven (He is now there with the Father) “until the times of restitution of all things” which includes, says Scofield, “the restoration of the theocracy under David’s Son” which obviously can’t begin before or during Antichrist’s reign. Since Jesus must personally participate in the rapture, and since He can’t even leave heaven before the tribulation ends, the rapture therefore cannot take place before the end of the trib! Paul explains the “times and the seasons” (I Thess. 5:1) of the catching up (I Thess. 4:17) as the “day of the Lord” (5:2) (which FOLLOWS the posttrib sun/moon darkening – Matt. 24:29; Acts 2:20) WHEN “sudden destruction” (5:3) of the wicked occurs! (If the wicked are destroyed before or during the trib, who would be left alive to serve the Antichrist?) Paul also ties the change-into-immortality “rapture” (I Cor. 15:52) to the posttrib end of “death” (15:54)! (Will death be ended before or during the trib?) If anyone wonders how long pretrib rapturism has been taught, he or she can Google “Pretrib Rapture Diehards.” Many are unaware that before 1830 all Christians had always viewed I Thess. 4’s “catching up” as an integral part of the final second coming to earth. In 1830 it was stretched forward and turned into a separate coming of Christ. To further strengthen their novel view, which the mass of evangelical scholars rejected throughout the 1800s, pretrib teachers in the early 1900s began to stretch forward the “day of the Lord” (what Darby and Scofield never dared to do) and hook it up with their already-stretched-forward “rapture.” Many leading evangelical scholars still weren’t convinced of pretrib, so pretrib teachers then began teaching that the “falling away” of II Thess. 2:3 is really a pretrib rapture (the same as saying that the “rapture” in 2:3 must happen before the “rapture” ["gathering"] in 2:1 can happen – the height of desperation!). Other Google articles throwing light on long-covered-up facts about the 178-year-old pretrib rapture view include “Famous Rapture Watchers,” “X-Raying Margaret,” “Revisers of Pretrib Rapture History,” “Thomas Ice (Bloopers),” “Wily Jeffrey,” “The Rapture Index (Mad Theology),” “America’s Pretrib Rapture Traffickers,” “Roots of (Warlike) Christian Zionism,” “Scholars Weigh My Research,” “Pretrib Hypocrisy,” “Pretrib Rapture Desperados” and “Deceiving and Being Deceived” – all by the author of the bestselling book “The Rapture Plot” which is available at Armageddon Books online. Just my two cents’ worth.