During this time, we need a prophetic Progressive Christian voice. With your help, ProgressiveChristianity.org can continue to be a voice that proclaims God’s inclusive love, radical hospitality, and transformative justice. If you are able to donate, even a little, you help to make our Progressive Christian voice resound a little louder. Donate Now so we can to continue the work!

Living Through A Lawless Apocalypse

 

Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come unless the rebellion comes first and the lawless one is revealed, the one destined for destruction. He opposes and exalts himself above every so called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, declaring himself to be God. … The coming of the lawless one is apparent in the working of Satan, who uses all power, signs, lying wonders, and every kind of wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion, leading them to believe what is false, so that all who have not believed the truth but took pleasure in unrighteousness will be condemned.

2 Thessalonians 2:3-4, 9-12

 

My childhood memories of Sunday morning sermons in Southern Baptist churches feature terror over the approaching return of Jesus as universal judge. Part of nearly every sermon tried to motivate sinners to repent by explaining that horrific current events were clearly predicted in the New Testament so that sudden blessing or condemnation could be expected at any moment. After all, it was in the Bible.

In college I discovered that Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, and even some Episcopalians had similar experiences in their Southern congregations. We began to joke about the absurdity of seeing the end of the world in the newspaper or on television nearly every day. Those of us who shared that experience are not laughing now. Apocalyptic messages, like the one in 2 Thessalonians, were not meant for our time, yet they provide haunting imagery that is very near the bullseye in describing the United States in 2020.

Three apocalyptic crises are hitting our country and planet at the same time. Evidence is found in everyday events, not fanciful interpretations of the Bible. First is the rising death toll as a president and numerous governors undermine actions to mitigate spreading disease in a pandemic. Second is the openly lawless fascism of a president brazenly undermining ethical and accountable government. And underlying everything is a mounting environmental catastrophe that has been recognized since the 1970s – a calamity threatening the human species and possibly most life on earth as the year 2050 approaches.

Warnings about “the lawless one” in 2 Thessalonians were meant to prepare Christians for tribulations before the Second Coming of Christ. They were supposed to hearten believers to trust that final salvation was coming no matter how bad the current situation became.

Progressive Christians rely on God’s message of love as our guide through the mounting crises in the United States and the world. It is not a message of waiting and hoping, as in the case of apocalyptic expectations. It is a message calling for action based on dedication to truth and loving consideration for others more than ourselves. Two such actions standout as imperative – wearing masks around others and voting for candidates who choose truth, love, and stewardship of life on earth over lawlessness and hate.

The crisis of “the lawless one” requires action before progress can be made on the two remaining challenges. The writer in 2 Thessalonians was not a prophet seeing into American politics in the 21st century. Rather, he described symbolically political corruption that has appeared in many authoritarian societies and has now occurred in the Anti-president Donald Trump and his political and religious base.

Choosing presidents who are “Washington outsiders” to shake up the system is not unusual in American elections. Explanations for voting for Donald Trump in 2016 as a normal vote for change are all lies – that is a primary truth to be faced by American society. Religious voters chose a man whose words and actions were a daily betrayal of their moral and religious convictions. Traditional Republicans dedicated to national security accepted someone who openly used help from our foremost national enemy and publicly asked for more. Business people voted for someone who notably failed at even running a casino and specialized in using bankruptcy to betray every small business that trusted him.

Normally thoughtful voters betrayed their own advertised values in voting for Trump. Why? For two reasons. He appealed to their fundamental rejection of a multi-racial America and to the election of a strong, well-qualified female president. After 1964, race and gender bias found a home in Goldwater-Nixon-Reagan conservatism, as has been revealed in It Was All A Lie by Stuart Stevens. The Obama presidency demonstrated the future of America as a black president included the whole country and a female emerged as his successor. Trump’s hidden voters went so far as to choose someone everyone knew was a fraud in a desperate effort to undo what America had become – thus they would make America great as it was when segregation was the rule, immigrants came from Europe, and women were only housewives.

The true consequences of voting for Donald Trump are highlighted in the description of the lawless one in 2 Thessalonians. He exalts himself above everything that matters, to the extent of ignoring a viral death toll exceeding 1,000 per day and destroying the Postal Service that was one of the few reliable governmental institutions serving rural and urban, old and young populations without fail. He uses “every kind of wicked deception” and represents a powerful delusion leading his followers to choose falsehoods over truth.

For the first time since Andrew Johnson, the United States has an Anti-president – someone who actively undermines or abdicates the responsibilities of being president. When he should be shouldering leadership, as in the case of NATO or fighting a pandemic, he sits on the sideline criticizing those who are in the arena trying to make up for his absence. Rather than improving on accomplishments of past administrations, his efforts are focused on gleeful destruction. His idea of shaking things up is to delegitimize pillars of constitutional government such as national elections, intelligence agencies, the FBI, the Justice Department, Homeland Security, and even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention during a pandemic.

There have been presidents who made mistakes – Ronald Reagan acknowledged responsibility for Iran Contra, Bill Clinton finally admitted and apologized for his affair, and George W. Bush stopped ignoring a financial crisis as he acted responsibly to face up to it. Presidents usually have strong enough character to recognize when plans and strategies must be changed to acknowledge reality and protect American lives. Donald Trump is incapable of fundamental character expectations, intentionally undermining every expectation we have of presidents while insisting only he knows the truth and must be followed without question.

Trump’s behavior is unusual for a president, but not for the authoritarian figures he admires and holds up as true leaders. Something they all have in common is behaving like the unlawful one in 2 Thessalonians. Sadly, American leadership against a rising tide of fascism has been missing – and in fact undermining international protections – as the destructive forces behind World War II reemerged.

In our absence, allies on the European continent, Japan, and Korea have responded effectively to the pandemic while authoritarian or populist friends of Trump have been almost as ineffective as the United States. Absence of American leadership has been most consequential in dealing with the apocalypse of human-generated climate modification. The pandemic has been a trial run of national abilities to marshal populations to follow emergency procedures to save lives. Many of today’s changes will be temporary – but that will not be the case when planetary suicide reaches a point of no return.

The passage in 2 Thessalonians describes the apocalypse we are now experiencing. We may live through this one, which is a trial run for a greater apocalypse rolling toward us like an avalanche from above us. The prescription for our time is not persistent, patient endurance waiting for deliverance from beyond this world. We must act by voting then holding local, state, and federal leaders accountable for acting swiftly and decisively. We must also follow inconvenient but sensible rules like wearing masks and giving up large gatherings that are so enjoyable. Even more inconvenient measures are coming as planetary deterioration continues. Life on planet earth may well depend on the human willingness to make adjustments that are inconvenient but promote life.

 

Edward G. Simmons is a Vanderbilt Ph.D. who teaches history at Georgia Gwinnett College. He is a Bible scholar, Unitarian Christian, and Sunday School teacher in a Presbyterian Church. He is the author of Talking Back to the Bible and two chapters in The Spiritual Danger of Donald Trump: 30 Christian Evangelicals on Justice, Truth, and Moral Integrity edited by Ronald J. Sider.

_____________________________________________________________________

** ProgressiveChristianity.org Editor’s Note: The views and opinions expressed here do not necessarily represent the official policy of ProgressiveChristianity.org. Any content provided by authors to our website are of their own opinion; we are not becoming a political organization, but we feel unusual times like these times call for a theological response.

Review & Commentary