In this episode of The Bible for Normal People Podcast, Pete and Jared talk with Dan Koch about the American Christian perception of the rapture and end times as they explore the following questions:
- What initially caused American Christians to be drawn into beliefs about an impending rapture?
- What is premillennial dispensationalism?
- Where in the Bible do people get their ideas of the rapture from?
- Who popularized the idea of the rapture in evangelical Christianity?
- What is the influence of the Scofield Reference Bible?
- How does the Scofield Reference Bible connect to the Left Behind Series?
- Why was apocalypticism attractive to people?
- What is a prophesy map?
- How does rapture theology have psychological power?
- How does the Bible deal with a delayed rapture?
- Do all church denominations speculate about the end times?
- What are some explanations for the cultural fascination with the end times?
Pithy, shareable, less-than-280-character statements from Dan Koch you can share.
- “A lot of it is just like, well, what do the people around me say they believe, and until I have the time to really think about it, which I may never have the time to think about 80% of these opinions I hold, when am I going to do that? So, I’ll just say the things that seem plausible based on the people around me.” @DanKoch
- “Maybe we can draw a line between the individual psychology and the group psychology or, you know the group theology.” @DanKoch
- “People just believe all kinds of weird stuff and their lives are not always impacted by it.” @DanKoch
- “I think we would do well to remind ourselves that things that we assent to, it’s kind of not that big of a part of our lives and we don’t really think about them all that much.” @DanKoch
- “If I really believe that God loves people, then I’m going to need to check my own sort of cultural elitism at when I want to look down my nose.” @DanKoch
- “Most of us, we just kind of go through our lives and we have these in groups and out groups and most of its unthinking… and occasionally something will happen to us, some great loss or some great love that will cause us to pull our head up from sleep for a minute and recognize these patterns, but you know, those are gifts when they happen.” @DanKoch
Mentioned in This Episode
- Book: Scofield Reference Bible
- Book: Left Behind
- Book: Late Great Planet Earth
- Podcast: You Have Permission
- Website: So, You’re Deconstructing…
- Website: Dan Koch
- Patreon: The Bible for Normal People
Powered by RedCircleRead the transcript
Pete: You’re listening to The Bible for Normal People. The only God-ordained podcast on the internet. I’m Pete Enns.
Jared: And I’m Jared Byas.
[Jaunty intro music]
Jared: Today we’re talking about the end times and American Christian culture. You know, it’s a new spin on a classic tale, but we’re talking with Dan Koch, host of the You Have Permission podcast and a doctoral student in Counseling Psychology, and the reason we’re talking with Dan is he did some research on this in American Christian culture and thought it would be a good time, it is still 2020 after all, to talk about the end times. So, we hope that you enjoy this episode, but before we jump in, I did want to mention we have something new on our Patreon page, https://www.patreon.com/thebiblefornormalpeople, where after each episode of the podcast with a guest, Pete and I are actually doing an afterword. It’s about an 8 – 10 minute commentary on the episode where we dive into some of the things that we hadn’t been able to dive into in the episode. So, go ahead and check it out: https://www.patreon.com/thebiblefornormalpeople. Enjoy!
Dan: People who believe, literally, that their neighbors and co-workers will burn in hell do not make life decisions that reflect that belief, except for handful of people outside the baseball game, who, by the way, most of us would assume have a psychiatric condition. Things that we assent to, it’s kind of not that big a part of our lives and we don’t really think about them all that much.
Pete: So, yeah, I mean, just looking at the title, you know, “The End Times and the Bible and American Christian Culture,” so, you gave a few passages and it’s something that’s pretty relevant. So, do you want to trace that historically, is that right? From like the hippies,
Pete: The Jesus movement? Yeah.
Dan: Well, so the way that I have framed it is, first I did a four-part series on sort of younger people, like roughly my age, and End Times and mental health, so, anxiety, depression, scrupulosity, stuff like that –
Dan: And then as I was making that series, I was like, wait a minute. Why the hell was this popular to begin with? Like…
Dan: If I kick it back a step, like why was Left Behind massively successful, right? And so, that led to this two-part follow-up, which part one aired on Monday, the next part two airs on this coming Monday, which is my answer to that question.
Pete: Mm hmm.
Dan: Which is basically, yeah, it’s tracing it to the Jesus Movement and a little before that, you know, John Darby in the Scofield Reference Bible.
Dan: So, looking at the 70’s and why it was so plausible to Baby Boomers, basically, and then if you get to the 90’s and it’s Left Behind, the people who were, who basically came to Christ or whose faith was reinvigorated around the Jesus Movement are the people who hold all the cultural power in evangelicalism in the 90’s. So, when Left Behind comes out and it’s starting to sell pretty well, it’s like everybody and their mother gets on board because this is how they fell in love with Jesus, was through, around stuff like this. Never mind that, of course, you know, how Lindsey was wrong about everything he predicted –
Dan: And you know, but it was like nostalgic –
Dan: And it felt, it was like their, I don’t know, it was their forte.
Jared: It seems like it was their culture milieu –
Jared: In which they came to faith in Christ, and then now this is popular again. It’s almost, it reminds me, when you say that, of me with my kids when a Nirvana song comes on –
Jared: I’m like, I want you to experience this in the same way that I experienced it in the 90’s.
Jared: Like, this is kind of, you know – this is real life, this is real living, this is how I kind of grew up – and it sounds like this was kind of a similar experience, you’re saying, with these people who came to faith in the 70’s then this Left Behind, end of the world, rapture-filled way of looking at faith, it felt like home and they wanted to introduce their family to it. Is that a good way of saying it?
Dan: Yes. I think that’s a good way of saying it. Yup.
Pete: I had that. I mean, I remember having a conversion experience in high school and it was that. And I remember, like, sitting around expecting the rapture to happen in May of that year. You know? That was just –
Jared: The urgency of that.
Pete: Yeah, that was just the moment, and that’s just equated with Christian faith in a lot of circles. So, but it’s a fascinating question, because I mean, I have to be honest with you Dan, I never, I don’t think I ever thought about why it started, you know?
Pete: That’s a really, really good question to ask because I think having a why and understanding of the why can help clarify a lot of things and maybe give us knowledge to maybe think differently about some of this.
Jared: So, can we go, let’s go back here and rewind to, you mentioned Darby, Scofield Reference Bible, some of that, which is sort of the beginnings of this. I mean, what are we talking about? How would you articulate, I keep wanting to say Left Behind theology, but how would you articulate it, and could you give us a little more background on the roots that you found for this kind of thinking?
Dan: Yeah, so the technical term for it is premillennial dispensationalism. So, dispensationalism –
Dan: Yeah, right. Dispensationalism is the idea that basically, the history of mankind on the earth is split into, usually, seven periods, dispensations. And I’m not an expert on this, but it’s like you know, creation, perfection, then there’s the Fall, and then towards the end you have the Church Age, which is like when Christianity is doing its thing and then you’ve got the Millennium, and there’s a few other ones in the middle, different covenants and stuff like that. Premillennial dispensationalism is the idea that the Rapture and the Tribulation and all this like, the Tribulation that’s in basically the book of Daniel, this is how people read it anyway, happens before the Millennium, premillennial dispensationalism. And this belief, this way of reading the Bible, specifically this way of reading Daniel and Revelation and some bits of Ezekiel and whatnot comes through John Nelson Darby, he’s a British theologian in the 19th century and he basically, he started it. He was quite influential, and his work ends up being basically the liner notes of the Scofield Reference Bible, which some people will have heard of, which became the massively popular after it was published in 1909. It was like huge in the United States. I interviewed, in some of these Baby Boomer interviews I did for these recent episodes, one of the guys, Danny, said the first book I ever bought at a Christian bookstore was a Scofield Reference Bible.
Jared: I still had one, it was required reading at Liberty when I was there.
Jared: That was the Bible we had to use.
Dan: That’s insane, but I believe it. Yeah, exactly.
Jared: By the way, I went to college in 1912, I just wanted to make that clear.
Dan: You are older than you sound. Yeah, so basically, it’s this one guy. I mean, really, he kind of invents it and it becomes very popular. Now, the reason he is popular is because he makes one really big prediction that comes true. In 1829, he predicted that Israel would reform as a nation. Now, I guess that technically the Scofield Bible became popular before that ever happened, but the reason it ends up popular, like, in the 60’s, 70’s, and onward is that Israel becomes a nation. So, he got that one right, and if you’re in this world, that’s the thing you point to and you go, “oh, so this is a correct way of viewing the world through this prophesy lens.”
Pete: And is it like forty years after Israel becomes a nation Jesus comes back, or something like that?
Pete: I vaguely remember that.
Dan: Yes. So, this is in The Late Great Planet Earth, Hal Lindsey’s 1970/71 book.
Pete: Oh, the 70’s.
Dan: Which was among the top ten selling books, non-fiction books of the 1970’s. So, it was massively, in the States, massively popular book.
Pete: You know, I try so hard to write good books –
Dan: I know.
Pete: And I should write a crap book.
Dan: I know. I can tell you’re really trying.
Pete: Actually, a lot of people think that my books are crap anyways. So, okay. Anyway, go ahead. Yeah, but every time I heard Hal Lindsey, I just sort of, my skin crawls. Like, I just, how could you? But anyway, go ahead.
Dan: Don’t you, okay, but Pete, a little bit of a sidebar. I mean, I’m increasingly thinking, not that this should be an excuse for bad writing or anything, but anything that becomes a certain amount of popular, like past a certain threshold, that makes me think it’s more likely to be wrong than right.
Pete: Hmmm… like the Bible.
Dan: No. Not the Bible.
Jared: I think you guys, what I hear is you guys are just, I hear some jealousy going on here. That’s what I hear.
Dan: Yeah. It’s true. It’s true. All I can do is make a few podcast episodes slamming these, you know Left Behind…
Jared: Yeah, exactly!
Pete: And we’re better than that.
Jared: Yeah, Aesop has a fable about some sour grapes and a fox. I think you guys should read it.
Pete: So, this is like a therapy session now, isn’t it?
Jared: Alright, let’s get back, let’s get back to something.
Pete: Yeah. Where were we? Hal Lindsey, yes, early 70’s and the forty years.
Jared: That’s fascinating though that what I’m hearing you say is…
Pete: But he’s talking about the forty years, I want to hear that.
Jared: No, he was pandering to you because you brought it up.
Pete: No, I want to know, why forty years?
Dan: It is important. So, it is important to understanding this. So, there’s a certain passage where, you know, where Jesus says, “there are some of you standing here today who will not taste death before you see the Kingdom.”
Pete: Oh, right.
Dan: Now there are various ways of interpreting that. Pete, you probably know this better than the rest of us. You know, some of them are Jesus of Nazareth held a false belief about this, which is maybe fine still being divine. Other views are like, he’s talking allegorically, it’s like mankind you know, or whatever. Another view is that it’s that the final generation, so that verse, on this way of thinking, is not spoken to the disciples, to the literal people standing in front of Jesus, it is spoken to the final generation.
Dan: I don’t know how they get that, but that’s how, what they get. So, that then leads people to saying okay, it has to happen by 1988, which is why you had that very popular pamphlet that sold some millions of copies, 88 Reasons why Christ will Return in 1988, or whatever it was called. So, that is the reasoning behind that particular view. And then of course, now that that hasn’t happened, there are people who will say, “well, maybe a generation is 80 years or 100 years,” there’s ways to wiggle out of it, of course, because enough of it is, you know, flexible enough.
Jared: But what I was getting to, before Pete rudely interrupted me, was –
Yes, Jared, what do you want to talk about? Go ahead.
Jared: The focal point is this 1948 date, because he got that one right.
Dan: He got that one right, yeah.
Jared: And so that becomes kind of the epicenter. Now we can go forward and say, okay, the first one was let’s interpret this verse to say forty years so that would put us at ’88, but then if that’s wrong, that’s okay we can go back to ’48 and we can project another thing and we can kind of keep, it seems like it’s sort of circling around Israel becoming a state and how that was a true prediction based on these certain interpretations.
Dan: Yeah, now, one thing that’s interesting to consider, and a lot of historians have done good work around this is, is Israel becoming a nation-state a prophesy fulfilled by God that Darby foresaw in the text or is it a self-fulfilled prophesy? Right, there’s evidence that British scientists like Darby sort of gave some of the ideas to the larger Zionist movement. And if you think about how big the Scofield Bible is in the early 20th century, that’s when you start to have these American groups really pushing for this kind of a thing. So, it has some causal effect on the formation of the nation of Israel in ’48.
Pete: Mm hmm.
Jared: So, you mean, basically, they could’ve been picking up on all these people saying this is a prophesy and they say, “oh, hmm, that’s a good idea. Maybe we should gather ourselves together and head back to Israel.”
Dan: Yeah, I mean, I would say there’s a, hmm, slightly more cynical take, which would be something like the way that some Jewish groups today view Zionist, you know, Christian Zionists, is like these guys are crazy, but we’ll take their money and political power for the things that we happen to agree on.
Dan: You know, so they don’t, they’re not so concerned with the mosque on the Temple Mount or whatever, you know. I mean, I don’t know. I’m not going to speak for Zionist Jewish organizations, but they certainly don’t agree on everything. They don’t believe there’s going to be, they don’t buy into the whole anti-Christ Tribulation stuff, right? But they’ll take the money and they’ll take the lobbying that these groups do toward, you know, American elected officials.
Jared: So, okay, so let’s fast forward then. That kind of gets us to that ’88, that fails, but then there’s this renewed interest in the 90’s through these Left Behind books. Is there a through line there of just picking that up and it’s this nostalgia or is there more to it? Are there other facets that you kind of learned in these interviews?
Dan: Yeah, so I was mostly focusing on the sort of the 70’s themselves, right? I wanted to understand why this was so plausible to them at the time, right? And we can come back to that if you want, but it remains plausible. Right, so this generation, for whatever reason, in a large chunk anyway of them, they don’t ever really abandon this belief. There are ways of sort of massaging it, “oh, so maybe a generation is not forty years,” or, you know, “maybe that’s metaphorical,” or whatever, but they just sort of keep this basic attitude of Christ is coming soon. And by the time the Left Behind books come out, well now you’ve got a purported prophesy expert in Tim LaHaye, who is, I believe, quite established at this point. My research on the Left Behind stuff is less than on Late Great Planet Earth and Darby, but now you’ve got this popular culture item that’s blowing up and it is nostalgic, but it also hasn’t really left. And the other key bit here is who is holding sort of the cultural power in the mid-90’s? It’s the Boomers! Right? It’s the time when some of the people who were twenty-five when they became a Christian in the Jesus Movement, well, now they’re fifty, right? So, they’re seminary professors, they’re on the board of seminaries, they’re on the board of denominations of the Southern Baptist Convention, you know, they’re running their own Calvary Chapel. They’re the head pastor now. They are now a manager at a Christian publishing company as opposed to they just got their first job at the Christian publishing company. Right? You see what I’m saying? So, they’re just the right age for this kind of more robust career space.
Dan: And further, Baby Boomers were really good all along at using media. And so, they are not only the people who have the power in the, you know, evangelical subculture come 90’s, they’ve also been training themselves to use mass media for twenty-five years. And this started even with Hal Lindsey and some of those early folks. And so basically, it’s just kind of a perfect storm. This thing that comes through that was a part of the very reason they got saved, you know, Pete, I’ve been talking a lot, but let me make this one last connection. Pete said that his conversion in high school included, just of course, the rapture is coming soon. And all four of the people I interviewed, all four Boomers said everybody just agreed. It just was like, it was just taken for granted that Christ was coming back soon. It was so in the water of that subculture that now in the 90’s, Left Behind comes out, this is like the bride of our youth to misquote scripture, right? It just felt like, it’s that good old-time religion. This is the good stuff, Jared, your Nirvana thing is perfect. Like, you know, or it’s like the Beastie Boys documentary comes out on Netflix –
Jared: Mm hmm.
Dan: And if you have a thirteen-year-old kid, you’re like, let’s watch the Beastie Boys documentary together because that is the real stuff, right? It’s just, you know, it’s forgivable in that sense. It’s normal and human.
Pete: I guess the question that I’m still coming back to is, I mean, you said it was just in the water, you know, to think that way, and I’m wondering like, why is that in the water to begin with? And I know we went back to the 19th century to Darby, but to me that still begs the question of what would make, in technical terms, what would make such an apocalyptic interpretation of the Christian faith so attractive and have such staying power and, you know, just even when it’s clearly not true. You know what I mean?
Dan: Ah, yes.
Pete: It’s just like, the 40’s came and went. So, why –
Dan: Thank you for saying it that way.
Pete: Well, you know, I don’t mind saying that because –
Dan: I know. I know. Yeah.
Pete: This is, you know, an apocalypticism and, I guess, there are all sorts of reasons that would be attractive to people. But have you given any, found anything out on that or given any thought to like, why this would even be popular to begin with? Like, why did Darby do what he did? You know, that kind of stuff.
Dan: Yeah, so um, I don’t know about Darby. I mean, I think Darby is just –
Pete: Yeah, forget him. Let’s go closer in time.
Dan: Yeah, let’s talk about the 70’s. Technically, Darby could’ve been, you know a hundred people like Darby, one of them gets it right with Israel. You know, whatever. Like, somebody gets it right. But in the 70’s, so, when your generation, my parents’ generation really latched onto this stuff, I’ll give two reasons. One is that it seemed plausible in the 1970’s that things were pretty much coming to an end. You’ve got the Cold War. You’ve got the Space Race. You’ve got the Vietnam War is still going on and no end in sight.
Pete: Oh, terrorism.
Dan: Right? The 70’s ends with the Iran-Contra Affair. You’ve got, you know, nuclear arsenals are built up between, you know, basically warring superpowers. There’s just a lot of stuff going on. You have a big recession in the states in the mid-70’s, civil unrest, right? So, it’s just a, it’s a rough time socio-politically, culturally, etc. And then the other bit that I was very surprised and interested to find is that two things are very tied together: reading these prophesies the way that these people are reading them and reading the text overall a certain way. And here’s the best way to say it, if you’re doing a prophesy map, which is what a lot of these things were called, you’re doing math. Right, you’re saying it’s this many days, it’s this many years, once this thing happened it kicks in this timeline and this clock starts going. Now, could you, here’s the hypothetical question for my Bible scholars here, could you have the type of math that is sufficiently accurate to make a prophesy map and have some loosey goosey inspiration model like Pete has about the Bible? Would that work?
Dan: It would not work. You need something closer to dictation. Right?
Dan: So, you basically need something like the Quran or the Book of Mormon where it is like exact words that God gives to people. Otherwise the math, you know, the quadratic formula doesn’t work if it’s like x2-ish, right?
Dan: It’s got to be exact. So, basically, my thesis is that people really like reading the text that way and that way of reading the text is, it is immediately applicable, it eschews scholarly work and the need to get a big degree which makes it very popular in low-church settings, which a lot of these, you know, the more prophesy-heavy groups are mostly low-church – they’re Baptist, they’re Independent Baptist, they’re, you know, they’re not Methodist and Episcopal.
Pete: Yeah, not a lot of Episcopalians running around talking about the End Times.
Dan: Exactly. So, it just kind of fits in with that way of reading the Bible and, I think, this is maybe a little harder argument to make because I don’t know as much of the research, but my take from just these four interviews with these Boomers is there was a real fervor. It was a moment kind of like our own in the sense of, there a was kind of a cultural Christianity that a young generation saw and thought this is kind of silly and bankrupt and a lot of arbitrary rules here about dancing and playing cards and wearing a suit. What is all of this?
Pete: Mm hmm.
Dan: And then the hippie Jesus comes along and it’s like, oh, this is so much more real. And in fact, they were right about that. I mean that’s true; that is more real.
Pete: It is apocalyptic in that sense that you know, in the 60’s they’re looking to dismantle this age and create a new one.
Pete: Right? I mean that, I don’t mean that pejoratively. I mean that’s one way of interpreting it. So, maybe an apocalyptic notion, and again, you know, for our listeners, we’ve had some discussions about this, right Jared, in recent months.
Jared: Mm hmm.
Pete: Apocalyptic doesn’t mean, you know, the world is ending; it’s more a new age is starting. One age is passing away, another age is taking over –
Pete: And –
Jared: And that could just mean politically –
Pete: Yes. Exactly.
Jared: Or empire. It doesn’t necessarily mean cosmically.
Pete: Yeah, it’s not even about destruction necessarily, but is about a shift in how the world works and how, especially how, I think politics is very much the heart of apocalyptic, but. So yeah, I think that what you’re saying makes a lot of sense when you have, that’s very much the 60’s, the countercultural movement and the church, this would not be the first time the church follows cultural currents.
Dan: I would like to add a third explanatory thread here.
Pete: Mm hmm.
Dan: So, I mentioned the 70’s are crazy, it’s tied to a way of reading the text that people like and that was sort of already established. Another one is that, and this is more pulling on the original, the four-part series from earlier this year about younger people, more people my age, and sort of the mental health symptoms they had around End Times teaching. I discovered a, I did about twenty of those interviews, a lot more than the Boomers, and I found in something like eight or ten of these interviews, so a big chunk of them, I was trying to figure out the relationship in the way people were raised between Jesus coming soon and like the broader message of their church, or like the salvation narrative, just sort of the Gospel that their church preached. And so much of the time what I found was this, a pretty standard sort of binary, you’re in or you’re out, sheep and goats, you know, “where would you go if you died tonight” kind of evangelical approach to salvation or damnation. So, real hell, real heaven, but you get these teenagers, right? And they’re in the youth group and they’re in the service, and they’re not going to die any time soon, for the most part, and they know they’re not going to die any time soon. But what if I told you there was a way to get them to think as if they might die sometime soon and not live until their 70’s or 80’s?
Dan: So, if Christ is coming back any day now, well now you have the same urgency that you would be preaching at a seventy-year-old, you can preach that urgency at a seventeen-year-old and all the worries about people’s teenagers and what are they going to get into and are they going to get pregnant and are they going to go off to war? You know, all that stuff that parents naturally feel, and pastors naturally feel towards young people in their church, well here’s a simple solution. And lo and behold, everybody you went to seminary with also agrees with you on this. So, it’s the kind of thing that, once it lays hold, it has so much psychological power, it preaches so well, as you might say, at least in the short term, and I think there are a lot of long-term consequences for this, but there’s a lot of reason to keep doing that, to hold that part of your theology in place because it’s so damn effective.
Jared: Stay tuned for more Bible for Normal People
[Producer’s group endorsement]
Pete: Yeah, and just briefly to interject, another reason for that is you know, we can kid about hyper-literalistic interpretation of the Bible and things like that, but the Bible is sort of open in many places to an apocalyptic interpretation. I mean, in fact, we just had a guest on recently, should be aired in a while, but the New Testament is an apocalyptic text. And I guess that’s sort of the struggle of what do you do with the text that’s fundamentally apocalyptic?
Jared: Whenever you said earlier, like you know, when you’re taught Jesus could come back any day, my first thought was, well that sounds biblical.
Pete: I know, exactly, yeah. That’s just it, you see. But then you have an apocalyptic text, but now for the most part, we don’t have that same apocalyptic context that we live in today. And so, it’s a question of how do you bring that ancient apocalyptic text into a non-apocalyptic context? Well, you create an apocalyptic context. Right?
Jared: Right, yup.
Pete: Well, you know, the world, you have black and white, either/or, and there’s the sheep and the goat like you said, and that sort of, they all feed into each other to make this reading of scripture highly plausible.
Dan: That’s really interesting. I hadn’t thought of it, like you actually make the world more apocalyptic. But you do see some of that in like, I mean you see that very explicitly in certain sort of Christian Zionist groups advocating specifically for the type of things that will make it such that Jesus can return, right?
Pete: Yes, yes.
Dan: Now of course, some of those things are not necessarily like violent or anything. It’s like, well, “the Gospel has to be preached everywhere,” or something like that. So, it’s not all, but then I think that some of them get really involved in that, you know, most messy of geopolitical climates in the Middle East and get their fingers in there in, I’m sure, in an ill-advised kind of a way.
Jared: Well, and it’s also a little bit of an interesting double-bind within that theology where, you know, I’m just thinking of some family and friends that I would have who would still hold to this, where it allows for this kind of win-win dynamic. So, when my political person is in charge, I’m able to say, “Yay! We’re going to get back to God’s way of doing things.” And when the other political party is in charge, I can say, “Oh, well, it’s bad now but that means Jesus is coming back soon.” It’s just this interesting way to read the tea leaves of any cultural moment through this lens. It’s actually pretty sophisticated where you can, it allows for almost any outcome to fit the system and come to like, a self-referential, reinforcing conclusion.
Dan: Totally! But I think that that is just the way that humans are. I just watched this documentary the other night about the people who followed Herold Camping when he predicted that the world would end in 2011, and like, if even people who have been given a date walked around with placards on their back, handing out literature, the day comes and goes. If they can, after that, on camera say something like, “well, I guess it’s happening in October and this was a spiritual rapture.”
Pete: Mm hmm. Right.
Dan: You know, like, if even that can happen, then any time you zoom out and it’s less concrete than “this day it will all end,” which the Bible of course does not ever do anything that concrete, right? So, I just think our psychology is pretty fungible with stuff like this.
Jared: Yeah, and even to go back to what Pete was saying, like even that, I would say there is some evidence that like Paul was looking to that. Like, the earlier followers of Jesus were expecting, maybe not a 2011, but a definite, in our generation, sometime in the next few months, maybe in the next few years, and that time. I mean, in some ways the history of Christian theology is a making sense of that delayed Parousia or that delayed second coming.
Dan: Right, and I’m not a New Testament scholar, but isn’t there some of that in Paul, right? If you follow rough dating, the later Paul letters. He’s kind of like, okay, well if this isn’t happening right now, let’s, maybe we’ll come up with some rules for how this could work and how that could work and maybe it’s more of a spiritualized thing. Am I right about that?
Pete: Yeah, I mean, Paul is like saying you know in one letter, don’t get married, it’s going to happen any second. Then in another letter, well, in a letter Paul probably didn’t write, 1 Timothy, he’s setting up bishops and elders because we’re going to be here for a while, right? So, I mean, that’s exactly the dynamic. And, in a way of speaking, I think it’s a failure to appreciate that tension within the New Testament itself.
Pete: It’s privileging one aspect of that because it’s hard to read, I mean this is my opinion, it’s hard to read the New Testament in general, and whenever someone talks about the apocalypse and not conclude that they mean really, really, really soon. Don’t be one of those virgins that doesn’t bring enough oil, right? In the parable in Matthew because this could happen any second –
Dan: We’ve all been there, haven’t we? Am I right?
Very relatable content.
Pete: I always carry enough oil wherever I go.
Dan: I never kept enough oil on me when I was still a virgin.
Pete: That’s the problem. See? You know, but that’s that tension in the New Testament, which is really fueled by, even for them, the unexpected delay. And you know, it’s sort of like, that’s, this sounds too harsh, because I think Jared’s right, this is still a rather sophisticated reading of the Bible, but it’s an intricate, I don’t know if I would say sophisticated. It’s an intricate, it takes many moving parts of the Bible and puts it together in a coherent sort of structure, but it still has to ignore a good bit of the Bible that maybe is also struggling with the length of time, like the end of John’s Gospel and you know, Doubting Thomas and you know, I’m not going to believe unless I see. And so Jesus is there, says you can touch my side and He says, “you believe because you’ve seen, blessed are those who have not seen and still believe.” That’s a message to a church that has been hanging around for at least a couple generations waiting for things to happen and nothing is going on.
Dan: Right. Exactly.
Pete: So, you have that tension there and we’re, that’s lost, I think, in this apocalypticism of our current time. And you know, it’s easy to sort of translate that apocalyptic stuff into your own moment if you don’t take all of the Bible (ironically) seriously, and struggle with it.
Jared: Well, like you said, Dan, about, you said a literal sort of a tying of the literal, but I think to maybe how Pete talks about it often is there’s also an ambiguity you can’t have in the text if this is a predictive text that gives you clear answers about the future. It can’t be ambiguous and so what do you do with the ambiguous parts of the Bible? You just ignore them.
Dan: Yeah, so, there’s a lot of ways we could go with that.
Dan: I’d like to say, I’d like to soften the edges a little bit by saying personally, I am currently very interested in people taking the apocalypticism seriously, you know. These interviews are part of early work towards my own dissertation, so this is a thing that I am interested in, but there are also like massive church traditions over the last two-thousand years that found a way to not do this, right? That leaned more heavily into Jesus saying. “no one knows the day or the hour.” I mean, just off the top of my head: Catholics, Episcopal, Anglicans, and Orthodox –
Pete: Yeah, pretty much everybody.
Dan: Which together comprise 70-ish percent of the world’s Christians, don’t do any of this End Times speculation stuff. So, it’s not as if, it is in the text, you’re right. And especially if you are low-church, I know I always, I’m total coastal-elite. I should just own it, and I tend to be disparaging towards low-church traditions, I understand that people find enormous freedom in them.
Pete: Mm hmm.
Dan: But, you know, especially if you’re in that kind of situation and you’ve been taught it’s just you and the text, well this author thinks it’s coming soon, I guess I should think it’s coming soon. Obviously, the big ellipses there is, this was obviously written two-thousand years ago, you’d want a little kind of a wink and nod, some kind of asterisk there, but you may not always get it for people when the text is so alive to them in this moment in their life. And that’s because the Bible is powerful, it’s kind of a, it’s a double-edged sword.
Pete: Yeah, and it’s the, and again, I don’t, I actually don’t blame anybody for not doing what I’m about to say they should be doing because it’s complicated and it’s got a lot of moving parts. But to simply take, you know, this moment and leapfrog over those two-thousand years of church history to a very different time, a very different place, we’re actually ignoring how, like you said, a vast majority of Christians who have ever lived have worked this out differently and there’s something to be gained by a respect for history of Christian thought, which is a big topic by the way. That’s two thousand years of all sorts of stuff, right? But, you know, I tell my students that all the time, to know there’s something about how Christians have thought through this passage and the other thing is very, very valuable. You know? But apocalypticism doesn’t think that way. There’s always the urgency and then you go back to the text that is a roadmap that apparently other people have misread.
Dan: Can I throw a little psychological lens on this and see what you guys think?
Pete: Yes, please.
Dan: So, I’m not a psychologist, to be clear. I have finished one year of a doctorate in psychology.
Dan: I am 1/5th of a doctor and then with no, at that point, having had no real experience. So, take it with a grain of salt, but here’s where my mind went as you said that. Basically, if I am afraid, right, we know this in the moment, just a momentary sort of biological psychology, when I am afraid and my amygdala is acting and I am in my fight, flight, freeze mode, that is not a time when I am capable of using my prefrontal cortex and doing my logical thinking and comparing A and B and projecting into the future in a rational way. I can’t do that. Like, the amygdala, it fires, and it gets in the way of the other parts of my brain acting. And anybody who has ever been afraid, had a panic attack, felt really anxious, you know this feeling, right?
Dan: If you are in the midst of that kind of thing, you can’t do the long-term planning and you’re not being rational. Perhaps, if you are in a situation where you think, you’re thinking, you’re feeling apocalyptic, whether that is like the early church, you are literally being persecuted by a powerful empire and you have no idea how you are even going to get through the next few years with this emperor guy breathing down your neck, or if you are a Jesus Movement person in the 70’s, and any day now… You grew up doing bomb drills in elementary school and things are getting worse around the world and Russia could just end this whole thing any second, maybe we can draw a line between the individual psychology and the group psychology or, you know the group theology there, right? Maybe there is a relationship there that to the extent you’re afraid, you’re on edge, to that same extent you’re not doing the careful work of considering two thousand years of church history and how this stuff has been alternatively interpreted over time.
Jared: Yeah, it’s interesting. This may take us a little afield of that, but it did make me think of, I can’t help but draw a line between, I feel like a lot of my friends and colleagues and people who would be maybe more progressive and this trend within evangelicalism towards more social justice oriented understanding of the Christian faith, if that isn’t maybe, I’m going to put a value judgment on this, a healthier translation of this apocalypticism, meaning, yes, things do need to change. Yes, there are empires that need toppled. Yes, we need revolution, but rather than thinking it’s coming from the supernatural, divine encounters with angelic beings that are going to destroy this world physically, it’s up to us to sort of bring about this revelation and revolution and transformation and it seems like we can keep that sense of urgency and apocalypticism, but maybe translate into healthier ways. And I think, culturally, I’m seeing that within evangelicalism as this shift happens.
Dan: I hope you’re right. That’s, I mean, that’s definitely better.
Jared: Yeah. Well, you know, I thought of that because it actually reminded me, I don’t remember who said it, it’s either Derrida or Žižek, but I remember reading something from them about, hey, I understand, they were making a cultural comment on all these end of the world movies because it’s become really popular in the past few decades –
Dan: Right. Yeah.
Jared: It’s probably Žižek, because that’s what he does.
Dan: He’s always talking about movies.
Jared: Yeah, he kind of said, well, I can culturally give an explanation for this in that at some point the despair becomes great, so great, that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than how we can ever make this mess better.
Jared: And I think that’s kind of, at least, a powerful cultural explanation for our fascination with a lot of this end times apocalypse stuff.
Dan: Yeah, and another angle too, for me, is like, people just believe all kinds of weird stuff and it’s, their lives are not always impacted by it. So, if you poll people, you know, it’s like after 9/11, I don’t remember the exact number, but something at one point something like 50% of people answered that it was an inside job, or like, a massive number of people. A very large number of people believe in like, moon crystals and you know, new age stuff even today. People believe all kinds of things if you ask them, but they’re not necessarily drastically modifying their life.
Dan: So, people who believed that 9/11 was an inside job were not taking up arms against their conspiratorial government. And my favorite example within Christendom is people who believe, literally, that their neighbors and coworkers will burn in hell for eternity consciously, do not make decisions that reflect that belief.
Pete: Mm hmm.
Dan: They still have a 401(k), they take their kids to soccer practice, you know, they’re not going around, except for the handful of people outside the baseball game who, by the way, most of would assume have a psychiatric condition. So, it’s like, there’s something there as well that I think we would do well to remind ourselves that like, things that we assent to, it’s kind of not that big of a part of our lives and we don’t really think about them all that much. A lot of it is just like, well, what do the people around me say they believe, and until I have the time to really think about it, which I may never have the time to think about 80% of these opinions I hold, when am I going to do that? So, I’ll just say the things that seem plausible based on the people around me –
Dan: And that would be a good explanation for, in the early 70’s, everybody believing this with like, on pretty scant evidence, right?
Jared: Right, right. And it goes back to, you know, some of the things that we’ve talked about on this podcast before, like, we’ve adopted this more modern way of thinking of beliefs that it’s just this mental game almost. Like a mental checklist of things that we can believe that a large part of those beliefs don’t actually impact, it has a cultural impact on like, frankly we like, make these social lines of who’s in and who’s out based on them, but beyond that, it really doesn’t have an impact on our everyday walking around life.
Pete: Mm hmm.
Dan: Oh, I would say the social lines are the impact. So –
Dan: If you really look at someone’s life who believes that, you know, their coworkers and friends and neighbors are going to hell, including their children, right, it’s like who am I going to let my kids play with? That’s the actual impact. Or, will I spend time with this person? Well, if they come to my church, I will. You know, and I don’t even mean that consciously, I just mean like, the people we end up agreeing with religiously end up being the people that we spend time with and live our lives with, and that’s not all bad, but that is the actual outcome, I mean for me, because I don’t believe that people are actually going to go to hell forever. Of course, if I’m wrong, then that is the real outcome. But assuming that I’m right, the real outcome is the lived experiential difference between you know, who’s in and who’s out. And some people can take that and turn it into a life full of compassion, and those people are heroes. But most of us, we just kind of go through our lives and we have these in groups and out groups and most of its unthinking, most of the time, and occasionally something will happen to us, some great loss or some great love that will cause us to, you know, pull our head up from sleep for a minute and recognize these patterns, but you know, those are gifts when they happen.
Pete: Yeah, I mean, that’s a really interesting and I think important point that you’re making, Dan. Our beliefs don’t really translate into necessarily a thoroughgoing way of living. Like if you really believed that your neighbor was going to burn in hell, literally any second because he could drop dead cutting the grass or something, you’d be like, pounding on their door all the time. Because it’s like if the house is burning, you’d try and get them out, that’s the analogy that’s used, but that doesn’t always translate. And I think that holds true for many different, for any ideology, for any religion, that’s a common thing. I just think of my own life and sometimes I say I believe this, but why do I keep having these same dumb habits or whatever. And I think, my opinion, and you can disagree, but I think those beliefs at least give us a big picture sense of comfort of like the big story, the big narrative that I’m a part of.
Dan: I agree.
Pete: And that’s sort of good enough. You know? I know how God works, I know what happens when you die, I know what’s right and what’s wrong, and now this scary world makes sense to me. And the filtering down to behaviors, you know, Christians have the same problems as anybody else, so I don’t see the point sometimes. But, yeah.
Dan: Well, I think that, you know, even for people who then leave behind their faith, I mean, it’s not like we don’t see all kinds of religious impulses and replacements in nonreligious spaces. You know it’s not, this stuff seems to be pretty hard-wired and it’s only a small number of people who can actually can live without some kind of basic religious-like community that they’re a part of whether or not it, you know, includes belief in God. Um, I agree with you Pete. I think that there are so many roles that our religious communities play, and I think yeah, being embedded in a larger story is one. I’m mean, I’m thinking about this with like my six-month old son, of like, I want him to know that God loves him and he can’t get that. Right, like he’s not going to, he won’t understand what I really mean by that until he’s like a teenager, but there is a felt sense that he could have that he’s okay –
Pete: Mm hmm.
Dan: That he’s loved, and that is a theological view that I hold about him and about every human being. And so, if I want him to feel that before he has the cognitive ability to understand it the way that I understand it, well then there’s something in the middle, right, between my very well thought out theology and “I was just handed this by my parents.” There’s still something valuable in any of those expressions.
Pete: Mm hmm.
Dan: Right? So, it’s, if I really believe that God loves people, then I’m going to need to check my own sort of cultural elitism at when I want to look down my nose, for instance, at low-church Baptists –
I was going to say! You took the words out of my mouth.
Dan: As I apparently do, I’m aware of it.
Pete: [Continued laughter]
Dan: I don’t want to do it. You know, but like why, oh, but my own son who’s going to be stupider than all the Baptists in the world until he’s at least fifteen or whatever, you know by definition. Like, oh, but I want him to know this God and know this comfort. You know, so I can’t be, you know, I can’t be hypocritical like that and I won’t. I will always defend, you know, a basic like, layman’s person religious impulse.
Pete: Mm hmm.
Dan: I just think it’s totally human and good.
Jared: Well, I think that’s a great note to end on. It’s a hopeful thing that, you know, as we wrestle with all these different cultural moments that we can all find ourselves, I don’t know if we have a choice but to be swept up in, because we are always a product of that, to recognize that kind of grace is bigger than that and we can, you know, we can do the best that we can and express our faith in the way that we can whether we’re in the Jesus Movement in the 70’s or you know, those high church snobs in the Episcopal Church or whatever that is. So, but as we kind of wrap this up Dan, where can people find you online? How can people follow some of these stories that you’ve been telling and these conclusions you’ve been coming to?
Dan: Yeah, so, the main place I do this stuff is the You Have Permission podcast. Those early episodes I mentioned are called “End Times Anxiety,” parts 1-4, and these more recent ones are called “End Times Popularity,” part 1 and 2. I’m also, maybe by the time this airs, it will be out, but I’m, we’re getting close to finishing up a resource my friend Sarey Concepción and I called
https://www.soyouredeconstructing.com/, and it is going to be a kind of a multitopic resource, there are a number of Bible for Normal People episodes on there and a number of Pete’s books. Jared, I haven’t had the chance to look at your book yet, but perhaps it will make its way, as well as resources for therapy and digital and in-person communities, stuff like that, so those are probably the two things. And I’m on Twitter (@DanKoch) and Instagram (@DanCoke), but you don’t really need more of that in your life, so.
Jared: Excellent. Thanks so much, Dan, for coming on. We really appreciate the conversation. I think it’s a lively conversation that, it really struck a chord with me –
Jared: Because you were talking about, you know, my childhood and my parents’ upbringing and really hit home.
Dan: And apparently, Pete’s high school experience.
Pete: Hey, I’m a Boomer, barely, my age of birth. So, you could’ve interviewed me, but you didn’t. That’s okay.
Dan: Conflict of interest.
Pete: I have a, I’m becoming a grumpy Boomer anyway, so. Okay, on that note…
Pete: Yeah, I know. Hey! You sound like my wife. Just kidding…
Pete: Alright Dan.
Jared: Thanks Dan.
Pete: Thank you.
Dan: Yeah guys.
Jared: Thanks, everyone, for joining us for another episode. We hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving. Be sure to check us out on social media at all the places where you can connect with us, we’d love to keep the conversation going. Thanks again, see ya next time.
Narrator: Thanks to our team: Executive Producer, Megan Cammack; Audio Engineer, Dave Gerhart; Creative Director, Tessa Stultz; Marketing Wizard, Reed Lively; transcriber and Community Champion, Stephanie Speight; and Web Developer, Nick Striegel. From Pete, Jared, and the entire Bible for Normal People team – thanks for listening.
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