Can This World Be Saved?

[For the background to this post, see my discussion here. This is a first (rejected) draft for a piece that will appear at On Scripture in a couple of weeks.]

At any given moment, much of the world is dominated by violence, poverty and injustice. The Middle East in particular has been gripped by war for most of our lifetimes. Whenever a President unveils a new plan for "Middle East Peace," those efforts are greeted with skepticism and despair. How can there be peace in a region that has been at war for as long as anyone can remember? Is there truly a possibility of reconciliation among bitter enemies? How can Western nations like the US claim to be neutral arbiters when they have been primary participants in the conflict?

This pessimism about the possibility of world peace was shared by Jews and Christians under Greek and later Roman imperial domination, roughly the period between 200 BCE and 100 CE that produced the "apocalyptic" books of Daniel and Revelation. In apocalyptic thinking, the world is trapped in a cosmic conflict between Good and Evil. Those who suffer in this world are not merely the victims of human violence, but are the casualties of a spiritual warfare in which human actors are agents of angelic and demonic forces. When Apocalyptic Jews and Christians envisioned the future, they could not imagine an improved or reformed world. Rather, this world and the evil forces that control it must be defeated and destroyed, replaced by a new creation that will be inhabited by those who have remained faithful during this time of persecution.

The theological term used to describe expectations about the "end" of the world is eschatology. Specifically, the "end-times" theology of Daniel and Revelation (along with Jesus and Paul) is called apocalyptic eschatology, and it has had a tremendous influence on modern Christianity. When Christians think about the "end of the world," they often employ the imagery of war and destruction found in biblical apocalyptic texts.

This bit of historical and theological background explains the reaction of some Christians to escalating war in the Middle East. When war breaks out anew in the region, some interpret these events to be harbingers of the end-times. In this way, the response to the potential bombing of Syria, for example, is greeted with anticipation rather than horror, which reveals a disturbingly violent streak in Christian imagination, and a poor understanding of the prophetic texts being interpreted in this way.

Which brings us to the Hebrew Bible passage for this first week of Advent, Isaiah 2:1–5. There is actually a range of perspectives about the "end time" in the biblical tradition. Compare the apocalyptic vision of war and violence with Isaiah's beautiful vision of peace, reconciliation, and justice. Isaiah's prophetic eschatology reflects a very different view of the future, one that is optimistic and hopeful rather than bleakly pessimistic. When Isaiah looks beyond the horizon of his violent world, he sees a community that has been redeemed. The nations that are presently at war will be united in their commitment to peace and justice, and universal in their regard for God's Torah.

The apocalyptic writers and Isaiah both end up with a vision of peaceful, joyous community (compare the last two chapters of Revelation). The difference is that Isaiah's vision of the future is continuous with the present rather than the result of a major break, i.e., the destruction and recreation of the world. His Jerusalem (the "mountain of the LORD's house") is the historical city, populated by God's people, and visited by "all the nations," including presumably Assyria and Egypt, Judah's historical enemies (see also Isaiah 27:12–13 and Isaiah 19:23–25). In the face of oppression and military invasion, Isaiah expresses a profound hope that God will work through and beyond these terrible events to bring about a blessed future for the whole world.

In addition to being optimistic and emphasizing continuity, the eschatology of Isaiah is inclusive. The visitors to Jerusalem come from all the nations and all the peoples of the world. In contrast, the apocalyptic vision is exclusive in the sense that only a small minority of people survive (or are resurrected into) the blessed new creation. In his own context, Isaiah's message of hope and inclusion would have been "unrealistic" and most likely divisive in its universal regard for all the nations of the earth.

The challenge to modern readers of biblical eschatology is to decide whether they will be motivated more by the optimistic inclusivity of Isaiah or the dark and violent imagination of the apocalypticists. To put it bluntly: can this world be saved? The prophet encourages us to dare to say yes, to rely on God's faithfulness and compassion for all of God's creation. Once we dare to dream about the future that Isaiah describes, we realize that violence and war are the problems to be solved, not part of God's plan for defeating the forces of evil. We realize that weapons are to be turned into implements of food and wellbeing, not used to wage a holy war.

Throughout the world there are communities who dare to live in hope for the reconciliation of the world. Hopeful believers turn weapons into farm tools in Philadelphia. They live in intentional communities in Palestine, offering a different model of life together. And in every place, they gather to pray for God's healing for the world, and to be strengthened for the task.