At the job I had before my present one, although I was definitely one of many Christians, I was one of the few liberal minded Christians there (and more than likely the only bisexual and polyamorous one). Most of the Christians I knew there were of the decidedly conservative nature. And though I would engage in conversations with them discussing the value of the teachings of Jesus that forgiveness, compassion and love and goodwill to one another was the best way, that faith works miracles, and that one reaps what one sows. Even those who chose to eschew any type of theological debates or conversation would often agree with me that they too believed God was a reality as opposed to a human invention intended to comfort humanity through the long hours of the dark night of the soul, even though they and I may have seen God from a different perspective, through different eyes, and had a different understanding of what the term “Christian” meant.
But from time to time, the subject of the “End Times” would rear its ugly head, especially the talk of “the Signs,” “the Rapture,” and “Judgment Day.” It was at a seeming fever pitch as the year 2000 approached. I had left that job prior to the horrific events of September 11, 2001. I would imagine that those who spoke so constantly of the battle for Armageddon and attempting to find a correlation in every newscast to support their terror (and the way they spoke of it, it was not joy but fear) of the ‘”Coming Of The Lord” were at a new apex of proselytizing in the days after the Twin Towers tragedy.
A few years prior, I had had a conversation with a Christian friend who was, like me, concerned about the crime, anger, hate, violence and apathy for the downtrodden in society. I made a comment that if more people would just turn to love, to an ethic of what Jesus really taught, to love one another, and that things could get better. His sighing comment was: “Yeah, that would be awesome. But the Bible says it just ain’t gonna happen. The End is coming, before you know it, and all our efforts will be a waste of time.”
I thought to myself, what a tragic way to live; to have a belief not in the healing power of Christ’s love and teachings, but rather a forecast of inevitable doom, battle, and desperation, thinking that no matter what part he tried to play in making the world a better place, it was ultimately going to be futile, and therefore a waste of time to him.
And it seems that lately, with the current crises in the world, End Times thinking is the latest rage among many Christians. Some have theories that the leaders of the powers contemplating war are the “antichrist.” Others attempt to deem Jesus as being the appointed leader of their political affiliation or party, and the people at odds are both a form of religious fundamentalist, one side Islamic Fundamentalist and the other Christian Fundamentalist, claiming “God is on their side.” Personally, “Armageddon” pretty tired of all the talk that these are signs of the “End Times.” I pray constantly that the Spirit of Love, and Peace may visit those who feel that war is the only answer and that it is inevitable.
I have never understood this mentality completely, why there seems to be such a prevalence of Christians who seem so consumed over picking apart current events to extrapolate some sort of “evidence” of their assertion that the book of Revelation is to be interpreted as being literally true. Instead of taking steps to create the Kingdom, it sometimes seems to me as if they choose to just let things happen as they may “until Jesus comes back and makes it all right.”
Instead of taking steps to create heaven on Earth, they wait for God to intervene, creating unnecessary and divisive terror, fear and panic in everyone. Someone will figure out what they think to be the exact day and time as indicated by their understanding of Biblical inerrancy and then when it does not happen, will shrug their shoulders and go back (a shade disappointed or relieved) to quoting that, “No one can know the exact day or time or hour” until they develop a new theory or some dramatic event happens with which they can attribute to carefully chosen Scriptures. I think to myself at times, what if He already came back, and they were too busy scurrying about in a self-inflicted cauldron (or “hell,” pun intended) of our own worries about when He was returning to realize it? Sometimes I have responded to the admonition “Jesus is coming back and He will judge you harshly” from a judgmental Christian, I have responded, “I don’t think He ever left, I think many people just turned away from the Spirit of Love He taught and forgot about Him.” Jesus and the Second Coming
Another thought that comes to mind, while we are on the topic of the “Second Coming” — the Jesus whom I see portrayed in the Gospels, and the image of Jesus spoken of by those who seem obsessed with End Times theology, seem to create a conflict. The Jesus I read about and that comes to life in the Gospels seems nothing like the Jesus being spoken of by some of the biggest proponents of Revelation as literal. I feel as if the real Jesus were to return to earth and be revealed as being not only tolerant but accepting of all of the diversity in humanity. I see him as being compassionate and forgiving, as being in favor of peace over war, unity over division. Then some of the most vocal of the conservative Christians who speak boldly about how they are the “True Christians” would immediately deem Him a “bleeding heart, dumbed-down liberal” and arrange to have Him crucified all over again as the “anti-Christ.” Forgive me if any of that sounds blasphemous or ludicrous, but I hear so many people who call themselves Christians these days full of so much un-Christlike hate, anger, and intolerance. The Jesus they seem to imagine is one of vengeance and anger, bringing fire and brimstone instead of love and peace.
I also get these thoughts from a reflection of what has happened to the people who radiated a Christ-like light and sense of hope and justice in their own lives since His time, such as Gandhi, or Martin Luther King Jr., and others seen as being “too radical.” Some seem so enraptured by the idea of a vengeful and angry Second Coming that they fail to notice the Christ Spirit in people who come along and try to make a difference. In extreme cases, those who come along with a revolutionary ethic of love and good will are exiled and even executed, some by those who oppose the idea that all humanity should be equally deserving of love, compassion and justice as opposed to an elite, elect few. Jesus Himself died to give humanity the Message that Love is God’s Way over Legalism.
It is tragic to me that there are many who call themselves followers of Jesus who are so entangled in the insistence that the Bible spells out a certain plan for a new world instead of reviving, renewing and improving the one we already have. They do not want to hear of the idea of Jesus returning in a metaphorical sense through a return to love, compassion and caring for one another. They seem to prefer a Christ who returns drastically on a chariot of flames, than one who awakens in the hearts of believers and becomes evident and embodied through a return to an ethic of love.
I guess one of the most difficult things about the type of Christianity that seems to be very focused on “signs of the End Times” or the book of Revelation — which barely made it though canonization — is that it seems to me to be what many non-believers accuse faith of being: escapist. As I have alluded to before, I feel the reason so many Christians seem caught up in legalistic theology and insisting on the literalization of the laws in Deuteronomy and Leviticus and adhering to a literalist interpretation of Scripture by rote is that the One Commandment offered by Jesus is although so very simple, as human beings it can be even more challenging to follow due to the fact it requires a great deal of personal sacrifice on a very basic human level. It requires a human being to cast aside their pride and at times what may seem to be a sense of self preservation in favor of giving of themselves to another of God’s children. I propose that perhaps the reason many become caught up in Revelation may have to do with the uncomfortable fact that while dreaming of a cataclysmic intervention in order to do away with the trials of life and create an idealistic version Heaven on Earth takes minimal effort. However, actually working to build the Kingdom Jesus alluded to is a task of, well, Biblical proportions. But it starts one tiny step at a time, and it takes more than one person. More on that later.
Forsaking now for the sake of tomorrow
When one believes that injustices can slide or be met with anger rather than loving action, because “Jesus will make them pay when He returns,” little is done to truly make an effort at taking the initiative to fight injustice. When one believes that the earth as we know it will be destroyed, then one’s sense of personal responsibility regarding caring for natural resources and the environment becomes less pertinent. If one believes that AIDS is “God’s wrath” and part of the signs of the End, less effort is made to seek out a cure and judgment is meted out instead. When one believes that until the days of reckoning that evil will run rampant until God sweeps the “truly faithful” off the planet in the “Rapture,” less energy is expended on confronting evil actions of others with the power of love on an individual level — which is often, in my experience the only effective way to end the cycle of pain and suffering.
I really do not feel that when Jesus was speaking of the book that would later be written by a persecuted people desperately seeking hope when he talked of the Kingdom of Heaven at all. He seemed to already see it as a reality, already — right there in front of those who sought it so desperately. Those who would not listen to His words about it as missing the glory that lay directly in front of their eyes, in their own existence at that present time, as their reality, if only they were open to it and had the faith and belief of a child.
I think about it and I don’t think I have ever felt a need for God to come and “clean house,” destroy this earth and life as we know it, and make a better one. For all of the trials and tribulations that accompany life sometimes, I’m just fine with the one that we have. How, you ask, can I say that? When the world lay at the brink of wars based on religious fervor and rooted in a sense of supremacy and superiority and fundamentalism, when thousands still die from AIDS each year, when LGBT people are still overall not accepted by much of mainstream society and cast out, when thousands go hungry every day? Because love, some little indication of God’s Love, always manages to get me through it, and I can see the Christ in others and the heaven within myself. God at work in us
A third problem with End Times theology that perplexes me is how it seems that every time there is tragedy in life, horrific events such as September 11, and reaching back into history further to tragedies such as the Holocaust and yet further to the time when the earliest Christians were persecuted, there is a huge jump in theories that it is a “sign of the end.” It seems that there is an inner human drive to call out for God to come back and get rid of the bad guys, and make everything better. Start all over again, this time better, a new Heaven, a new Earth. That impulse and line of thought is understandable to me to some extent, on a base level; a feeling that things are hopeless, and “only God can make it better.”
But what if God were “making it better” working through us, by inspiring people to take action and help people make the world a better place through gifts of wisdom, knowledge, invention? I believe this is the case. But even knowing that God is working through us, there is still another issue: If God is all-powerful, which I believe God is, why the suffering in the first place? Why the tribulations? Why the pain for many, during the process of the world being made a better place? Such are the great questions of life that we have no answer for but have spawned countless scores of philosophers and theologians.
I choose not to take that route of constantly trying to figure out the “whys”; I choose to savor the moment and seek to find the good in every chapter of life, both the good and the bad and I am thankful merely “to be.” In the moments that it is joyful, I rejoice in that feeling; when it is tragic I take comfort in the ability to feel, be that feeling a happy or sorrowful one. Yes, life is full of events and experiences that inspire joy and beauty but there are events that also inspire great sadness and sorrow. There are moments that make us rejoice in the inner knowledge of the great wisdom, creativity, and multitudes of diversity of God’s Creation, and there are moments of despair that may cause our very faith to tremble on its foundations. Yet, I think that Jesus pointed to a key to getting through that when He said He would be with us always. And the knowledge that the Kingdom was not in some far away place nor in a time to come in the near or distant future, but accessible within ourselves, within us; and by that I feel He meant, the sense of direct Oneness we can feel with God, simply by believing.
I think that even in the worst of times, God DOES “make it better,” though perhaps not in the dramatic way many Biblical literalists would expect upon reading Scripture literally. But I think it’s still pretty dramatic, all the same. During times of crisis, and oppression, I have had people who loved me as I am and cared about me there to lean on. No, sometimes nothing that they could possibly say could make it any better. But just knowing someone cared, that God cared enough to bring me among people who cared, who were there to support me through tragedy with love, meant the world to me.
During those times, and at others when people talk about ‘”Jesus coming back,” it makes so little sense to me, because in my heart, I don’t think He ever really left. I feel His Spirit transcended death and lives on in the hearts of those who believe and follow His teachings about God, Love and compassion and take them to heart in their own lives. Jesus is a very real presence in my personal life. Not in the sense of a literal Spirit so much as the Spirit of what He was all about. I feel he was telling us that the best way to demonstrate our love and gratitude for God was through letting God’s Love pass through us to others.
Jesus also opens up for me a personal relationship with God. God “talks” to me all the time, though perhaps not in voices or burning bushes, but rather through life itself — through the loving actions of others. Through the little things that mean a lot. Through the support of others who have reached out to me, and the knowledge that my sexuality, my sexual orientation as a bisexual man, and the unique but committed relationships I share with both a woman and a man, though many may not understand these things, are not unnatural, abnormal, nor abominations and have instead been a gift to me rather than a self perceived sickness to feel shame about. The hope I hear in someone’s voice when I share with them that I feel peace with God and that I know that God does not hate me, does not want to change me, does not want me to be anyone other than who I was made to be and the happiness they feel in me giving them support and encouragement, returning the love that was given to me, by God, through others. The ways I have been blessed with to live the truth of who I am with love and respect for all others to the best of my ability, and the learning and growth that ensues that when I, being human, fail to do so at times.
Life, at least the life we know as human beings in a physical body on Earth, is not always a city of gold in the clouds, or without tears, or suffering, or heartache, or sorrow. But when I embrace the fullness of life, the feeling of God and God’s Love I see as the thread ultimately holding the very fabric of life and existence together, sometimes it can seem that life, for all its tragedies, is not separate from “Heaven.” To me it is truly living each moment as a second of eternity, having some inner feeling that in the Presence of God and Love that time in and of itself somehow is irrelevant, and realizing that nothing can ever separate me from the reality that I feel is God within my soul.
Keeping watch in the present
Many have asked me, if I do not have a literal take on the Bible, what then, do I now make of verses such as Matthew 24, that tell us to keep watch, as we never know when to expect the Lord? There are several ways I interpret these teachings.
The first way I can think of to illustrate that is thinking about what I feel the difference between “faith” and “hope” is. Hope, to me is wishful thinking for a desired outcome, whereas faith is an expectant knowing of a positive outcome.
A situation happened to me once that I feel gives an example of this. I was out of work, in debt, having difficulties making ends meet, and in a desperate situation. I consistently hoped I would find help, hoped I would find a job. Sure, I made efforts and prayed constantly for God to help me find work. During this time, I sat by the phone and waited for an opportunity to be brought to me. And during the wait, I began to become discouraged and eventually became more despaired. Soon, I decided that this “must not be God’s will” or “this is not meant to happen,” and resigned myself to remaining in my current situation. I was very depressed, and started to turn off the phone, go out and spend the day feeling miserable about my current situation. No employers were calling me, and I was getting tired of waiting around. That very day, an old friend called to tell me of an opportunity that was perfect for me. Here I was, off guard, letting myself nearly slip into a coma of self-pity rather than stay awake and aware and believe that something good was on the way.
Here’s something I learned from that: you really never know when or how God is going to bless you in your life. And I learned that you never know when things are going to turn out, when you have faith, and when you pray expect a miracle, many times when you least expect one. Much of it to me has to do with staying in and making the best of, or as I sometimes call it, “finding the God in” the present moment and not worrying about the future; doing everything I can but not trying to rush a miracle. Waiting patiently, while staying in the moment, but never giving up on my faith, even when, especially when it is difficult to hold on to it.
Another thought regarding staying aware and in the present moment came as I read of another tragedy in the news over the last few days regarding a tragic nightclub fire that claimed the lives of nearly a hundred people at last count. I am certain that not a one of the ones who died in the blaze had any reckoning that they were going to pass from life as we know it, life in a physical form, when they planned for an evening out. Yet, in a space of hours it had happened. And what bothered me the most about it, was that there was no forewarning, no way they could have known, no way to make the call to an old friend they had not spoken to in years to say “I was thinking about you,” or “I’m sorry.” I thought, had they told the people closest to their hearts that day, “I love you,” or taken a moment to let someone know how much they cared about them? I wondered for a while about their lives, had they taken joy and peace in each moment and lived it to the fullest? I hoped so. I prayed so.
Death and tragedy often reminds me of how precious life really is and how difficult it is to really contemplate that fact; it is easy to take for granted the little things sometimes. I do fully believe that the end of the physical body is not the end, but exactly what the nature of what comes next, I do not know, and have no way of knowing; the idea rarely concerns me about that which I cannot ascertain for sure. I do know in my heart and my faith that God is the same God of Love on both “sides” and therefore do not fear death or fear that there is any way I will ever lose touch with God. But one of the great mysteries of life is that although we can take precautions and live as thoughtfully and as carefully as we can, with purpose, we never know for certain when we will cross into what awaits beyond this life. What we can know, is in this very moment we are in life as we know it, and we never know at what moment we will pass on; I see Jesus saying in His teachings, to value and cherish each moment of this part of our existence, as well.
The value of staying present in the moment has a third meaning as well. It means knowing ourselves as we were meant to be and being ourselves, even if that means doing so with fear and trembling at times. To listen to the still small voice within ourselves, to listen to our hearts, where I have found God speaks the loudest and the clearest. To listen to the truth from within about who we are and to be that with faith and courage. I knew what my sexuality was years before I came out as bisexual and polyamorous and lived my life as I was truly meant to. Had I been honest from the get go, I could have saved myself years of pain, repression, internalized guilt and shame, and the terror that God did not love and accept me. People offered to accept me as I was but I chose to ignore all of the offers for love and support I received out of fear and ended up in a nightmare of alcohol abuse to “escape.” Then I fell into repressive fundamentalist Christianity that perpetuated self-hate and abuse. Finally, when I woke up and considered that maybe instead of worrying about trying to be what others thought or said I should be instead of who I truly am, and others who had been through the same cycle I had surrounded me in my life, I took their hand and guidance. I was so wrapped up in “what others would say” or “what others would think” and the future that I had not seen that the answer was right there in front of me. When I finally looked within myself and first became aware that God was with me, and had never left me through all I went through, and made peace with God, it became easy to live in the moment and become more aware of the support, Unconditional Love and guidance God had been extending to me all along.
Revelations about Revelation
Where some may interpret Revelation as a book indicative of exact events in the future, I see one of the greatest and most beautiful allegories about the power of faith in God and Love during times of trial between the lines. In other words, rather than seeing all these mysterious symbols that I try to correlate with current events within the book, I instead find a very clear and direct message that can be summed up in one sentence: During times of trial and suffering, and seemingly insurmountable odds and difficulties, and what seems like “the end of the world,” if we merely allow ourselves to get “caught up in the Spirit” (that is, maintaining trust and faith in God and listening to our heart) then we will have comfort and peace to make it through, and everything will eventually be returned to order, even better than before. And it could be at any time, so keep watch and stay in the moment and do not despair lest we throw up our hands, give up and surrender to the demons of fear that can consume our faith and create the illusion that God has forgotten us.
Many of us as LGBT Christians may have lived, at one time in our lives in absolute terror of Armageddon. I know I can say that for myself. When I was caught up in fundamentalism, and after leaving that brand of Christianity, I still had nightmares about the End Times. It took some time to come to a realization that when I think of God, I no longer think of the idea of the “Second Coming” as being an “Ending” but a chance for new beginnings. A chance for me to suddenly have a new and awakened awareness that God is with me, that the Spirit of Jesus is with me, especially through difficult times. I had the distinct sensation after I had finally made peace with God and understood that God loves and accepts me as I am of being “born again” again. It was as if I had a chance to start all over after the times that seemed like “the end of the world” to me. That was almost like the “new heaven and earth” alluded to in Revelation.
And what exactly, beyond that, does it mean to me as a non-literalist Christian does it mean to “be ready” for the coming of the Lord? It means not caring about whether or not the events of the day’s news are signs of Biblical Prophecy being animated before our eyes, or trying to find some code or connection there, but rather what we can do here and now-to help those in need. To save the earth God made, and do whatever we can as individuals to make it a better place. To stop waiting for justice and equality and taking what steps we can to make it happen. To cease commiserating about how the LGBT community is oppressed by so many in Christianity and continuing to build a thriving, loving Community where LGBT people are welcomed with open arms, and making a difference. To cease becoming fatalistic over AIDS, HIV, and hate crimes do what we can towards efforts to cure the horror of AIDS and HIV to end the tragedy of hate crimes and prejudice.
So the next time you find yourself confronted with those who talk constantly about the times we are living in being the “End Times” I offer a suggestion and a thought. Rather than debate who is right and who is wrong about the nature of what it means to “be ready” when He returns, let go of the semantics of the conversation. They may think that Revelation is literal. Let them think so if that brings them peace. But even so, remind them that the Bible they take as literal and infallible clearly says that no human being can know the time of such an event, and perhaps we as Christians no matter what brand of theology we subscribe to should still practice the efforts to carry on the light of Christ’s Love to one another. One alone cannot “save the world;” together with faith hope and love we can move mountains.
And for those who, like me, have let go of the traditional understanding of Revelation and do not believe in a literal “End Times,” you can still embrace the Good News Jesus shared. His Spirit can come over you, refreshing you anew with the sense that you too are unconditionally loved and blessed by God, at any moment, sometimes when you least expect it. Just know in your heart that you can, and when it happens, your expectations may be great.
John Campbell is a native of Alabama.