Sci-Fi Theology: Just Passin’ Through

One of the earliest and fondest memories of my childhood involves getting up at four in the morning on Saturdays to watch black and white science fiction movies with my father. Inevitably the movie was terrible but I continued to sacrifice sleeping in every week because the fun was not in the quality of the movie but in the experience. There was something exciting about getting up early and laughing at cardboard aliens and monsters whose strings were showing.

Not all science fiction is ridiculous; in fact some of it is very entertaining and even inspiring. With that in mind I understand why so many Christians have chosen to read the Bible, especially the parts believed to discuss the end of the world, as if it were a work of science fiction.

While most scholars properly interpret these passages in their proper contexts many Christians have been enchanted by popular authors who teach that one day Jesus will come back to beam us up to heaven Star Trek style to rescue us from a world-wide conspiracy involving microchips, oppressive government, and rivers of blood. Compared to the tedious work of interpreting the Bible properly sci-fi theology is quite exciting.

For example, Harold Camping spent millions of dollars advertising May 21, 2011 as the day God would judge the world and rapture the church. When the world didn’t end, he claimed that God really did judge the world, but that it was a secret. For the past five months God has judged the world by preventing anyone from becoming a Christian. A week ago today, on October 21, 2011 was the predicted day God would rapture the church to heaven and send everyone else to hell. It is easy to laugh at people who predict the end of the world; especially the ones who keep making predictions even after they proven wrong multiple times.

The ironic thing is that a good number of the Christians who laughed at Mr. Camping are adherents of sci-fi theology (better known as dispensationalism) themselves. Many Christians have the impression that its perfectly rational to hold to an eschatology where Jesus takes the Church to heaven and sends a series of judgments on the earth that includes insects from hell. However, to believe these things while setting a date for their occurrence? Well that’s just crazy. That doesn’t seem very rational to me.

This kind of silliness needs to be addressed by the whole Church. What one believes about the end of the world is never abstract, but governs the way one views the world and the way Christians are supposed to respond to social, economic, and environmental problems.

How many of you have ever sung the hymn that says “This world is not my home, I’m just a-passin’ through. If Heaven’s not my home, then Lord what will I do?” This reflects a very common attitude among evangelicals that the earth is just the hotel room of our lives, that we are only here temporarily and should put no more effort into taking care of this earth than we would our room at the Holiday Inn. Why bother fighting global warming and keeping water and air clean if we’re just here temporally? Another way of putting this is that our spiritual home, heaven is good, while this world of matter is corrupted by sin, is not good, and will be destroyed one day. This is a very ancient belief called Gnosticism, which was the first heresy the early Church had to combat.

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The Biblical alternative is to say that the current creation is groaning as in labor, eagerly awaiting the day when it will give birth to the new. The Resurrection of Christ is a foreshadowing of future events, the old corruptible will finally become incorruptible, the old will be transformed into the new. The new creation will not be totally new, but like the risen body of Christ, will be fashioned out of the old.

Dispensationalism is not just bad for the environment. Many adherents are actively engaged in preventing Palestinian statehood because they believe the modern state of Israel has prophetic significance. This has led them to oppose peace in the Middle East, and has cost the lives of thousands of Palestinian and Israeli children. If you don’t believe me, just think about how world leaders who try to make peace in the region are accused of being the anti-Christ by members of the religious right. This theology extends beyond the holy land, as many Christians support the American presence in Iraq because they believe it is setting the stage of ancient Babylon’s revival. “Blessed are the peacemakers” has been replaced by “blessed are the warmongers” because they believe Middle Eastern wars will hasten the return of Christ.

Many of us have been living as if we were in a hotel room. Our bags are packed, and we are waiting eagerly to check out and go home. I hope that we will pick up the Gideon Bible on the shelf and read Genesis One, whose Priestly author called the earth good. Its time to unpack our bags and get down to business, we won’t be checking out anytime soon.

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Joe Perdue is a Master of Divinity student at Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. He blogs regularly at The Mainline Evangelical.

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  • Loyd Harp

    Although I welcome Perdue’s critique, I’m not sure we need to throw the baby out with the bathwater.  Rejecting any form of sincere eschatology because of excess is also excessive, is it not?  Just as it’s easy and entertaining to believe sci-fi theology, it seems equally simple to critique it.  How can we both critique problematic eschatologies–and perhaps more importantly, their excessive consequences–and yet build a new way forward eschatologically speaking?  After all, apocalypse was/is the mother of the Christian church.  If teaching on the end times has been so historically significant to the Christian faith (in the New Testament, early church, and throughout church history), don’t we need to formulate an eschatology that is simultaneously ethical, biblical, and historically and theologically responsible?  I understand that is outside the scope of this article, but I don’t think it points us in the right directioin either.

    • http://morganguyton.wordpress.com/ Morgan Guyton

      Eschatology is not the same thing as the seven bowls of wrath. Isaiah 2 offers a very different vision for eschatology for example (of course, you have to read the whole chapter to get the balance between the utopian mountain of the Lord and the dystopian day of the Lord). I think NT Wright’s Surprised by Hope presents the recovery of a Biblical eschatology from a non-Biblical “dispensationalism” which has a different underlying agenda.

  • LT

    “Home is where the heart is.”  Enjoy the song…

    http://youtu.be/fYUt1Vr136k

  • Peter Garcia

    I certainly agree with you on your critique of dispensationalism and the danger it presents to embodied existence via dualism. However, I’m not entirely convinced that what you offer (which does happen to be the eschatology I am most inclined towards myself) is much better as far as inspiring an ethic of care for the earth and justice for the oppressed. 

    There still exists in it a passive waiting for the arrival of Christ to make everything right and new…seemingly because we are incapable of doing it. Sure, it lacks the sci-fi edge to it and is a much better reading of the Bible, but there is nothing in it that drives us as individuals and the church towards reconciliation; we still defer that task to Jesus. I’m not sure I can think of an eschatology that would speak to the dominant strand of Christianity in the West that would truly push the church towards embracing embodiment.

  • Benmanben

    I don’t believe in global warming, and I don’t think the Bible says I have to.
    Even if I do have to take care of the earth, I don’t have to agree with every idea someone comes up with about it.

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