Viral Posts and Viral Theology

Just because something is popular, does not mean it is right, so consider this before you hit share.

Rev. Jonathan David Faulkner

So, you’re scrolling through Facebook and you come across a post that sounds a lot like this: “I have read the Bible, and it is clear”. Sounds good, right ? You read on. Usually, it has something to do with the end times. It lays out for the reader some kind of disaster scenario like a “cashless society” or labeling the Mark of the Beast as a “microchip” or something sinister, and then it gives you some kind of confession that Jesus is Lord and then has you do something like “type amen if you agree.” On the surface, this all seems great. “Yes, I want to say I believe in Jesus, yeah, amen.” Many of us probably know what type of posts I am referring to, or a specific post that makes claims and requires the kinds of actions listed above. Some of us may have shared them to make a point. The problem is, these types of posts often demonstrate a few concerning realities in the heart of the sharer,

  • They have not actually read their bible or if they have, they have not read it carefully enough.
  • They are easily manipulated with fear to believe or do something.
  • They are invoking the name of a deity, something Jesus warns us against.

Before you fill up my inbox with messages about how I am being unfair and harsh, consider that most of us either were raised in or have come out of an evangelical culture where Biblical literacy stands at around 35% of U.S Adults when you average all four adult generations (elders to millenials), and that is only when you consider those who read their Bible at least once a week. Further research from Lifeway and Barna has found that only 7% of American church- goers have a view of the world that is shaped by the Bible and not by some outside source. Skye Jethani has said that most Christians have two Bibles, their real Bibles containing the Old and New Testament and their functional Bibles which consists of the parts they like to read. This may include the Gospel stories we hear on repeat, Paul’s Epistles, Revelation, Genesis 1-3 and assorted Psalms and maybe Proverbs (31). To make a statement like: “I have read the Bible” means you have read the entire Bible and have sought to understand the entire Bible, not just one book or one section. The data also does not back up the assertion that the people sharing these viral posts have read the entirety of scripture and sought to understand it.

My father-in-law has said that: “The scripture cannot say, what it cannot mean.” The reality is, most of these viral posts do not actually say what the Bible says and impose a nineteenth century apocalyptic interpretation (that most serious students of scripture reject) onto the text, that is, to make it say what it does not say. In fact, a lot of what is imposed onto scripture has either nullified or directly contradicted the word of Jesus, or ignores the historical context, literary structure of the text.

Let us use Revelation and End Times thought in general. Most scholars break Revelation down in to 7 parts with 3 distinct sections. The first section of each part deals with the history of events as they are viewed from the heavenly realm. The second section deals with the present day, what John’s audience is experiencing, and then the last section deals wit the future reality. Thus in the Mark of the Beast passage you have the pregnant woman and the dragon (history) the Beast breathing blaspheme and murdering Christians and given them the Mark of the Beast (John’s audience and our present day) and the future overthrow of the beast and destruction of its worshipers as the Saints are restored and blessed (future). However, since the nineteenth century, the popular way of interpreting revelation has been to interpret all the events as entirely future. Thus the “Mark of the Beast” is something that is to be looked out for, not something that empires grant to people who worship the empire. John was dealing with an actual, real-world scenario where if believers did not bow to Domitian, they were excluded from the Roman market place. If they did not receive a stamp, or with one later emperor, an actual piece of paper, they could not participate in the Roman Economy. The Mark then was something one had to willingly go and get as one who bowed down and burned incense to the Emperor. It was not a microchip one could get back accident, it required a deliberate choice on the part of the person to worship the emperor. I hate this expression, but that is even clear by a “plain reading” of Revelation. This passage also does not point to a “cashless society” but to a situation where if you had not worshiped the empire, you could not participate in it. The solution the early Christians came up with was to simply create their own marketplace, grow their own food, create alternate options and still pay their taxes on it.

But before we go on, let’s evaluate these three problems of these viral posts.

1). They have not actually read their Bibles, or if they have, they have not read them carefully. We need to train our churches in the art of Biblical Theology, as the paragraph above demonstrates, there is a way the Bible wants to be interpreted, and it is not through the popular whims of whatever the fear-mongers are saying. Jesus, in Matthew, warns us against assuming we know what the end will be like. In the Matthew 23 and 24 discourse tells us of all these signs and interpretations that will look like the end, but then says in 24:6, “The end is not yet.” He then talks about the Desolation that brings Sacrilege and the worsening of the days before the Son of Man comes. The Desolation of Sacrilege is likely a reference to the emperor Titus entering the temple and defiling it before he destroyed it in 70 AD. This marks the beginning of what Dr. John Jefferson Davis calls: “Inaugurated Eschatology” meaning that, like Malachi predicts in 3:17-4:1, the distinction between the evil and the good grows,and with the evil persecuting the good, and then Jesus returns to establish the Earthly Kingdom. This leaves no room for the Rapture theology these viral posts claim, a theology that hems on one passage, (1 Thse 4:1-16) in which Paul describes the return of the Son of Man and says we will “Meet him in the air” in a similar manner to how a dignitary would have been received into a city he was visiting. We meet him in the air and he comes back with us to establish his Earthly Kingdom.

The problem here, again, is how we have been discipled. Too many Christians have been told to be suspicious of scholars and biblical scholarship. Christian Intellectuals have longed been treated with contempt by those who occupy pulpits and pews alike. However, what I did above was use the considerable tools of the scholars to show the reader the deeper truth of scripture. The other issue here is that the tools have become so good in a lot of cases that there is little excuse for the person in the pew, and especially not for the pastor seminary trained or not, to patriciate in this kind of destructive Exegesis. Repeatedly, Scholarship has proven what it often set out to disprove, that the Word of God is 100% true and should be considered authoritative for the life of the Christian. But it has to be taken at its full council, not dumbing down, no cutting and pasting.

Knowing what the Bible says and knowing the bible are two different things. I can read a passage in English, even memorize it, but if I have not mined all the treasures of scripture, if I have no real knowledge of scripture, just a superficial one, mining it requires us to rely on the collective wisdom of the Saints from the Apostles to our modern pastors, teachers, and scholars. The word is meant to ground us in truth, to form a safeguard to keep us from getting blown about by the ways and whims of this world (Eph 4), but for that to happen, we must read it and study it thoroughly.

2). They are easily manipulated by fear to believe or do something: This is the most heartbreaking of the three, because while Scripture itself can correct our bad eschatology, fear is something we have been willfully discipled into, as I argued last week. If I get you to be afraid of something, then I can convince you to believe or do anything. Much of our issues in society today revolve around being told we are supposed to fear something or someone. If I can convince you to fear someone or something, I can control how you react to that someone or something. This is the logic behind the anti-vaxx movement. There is no scientific link between vaccines and autism and yet, the anti-vaxx movement continues to push this myth to create fear so that you will not vaccinate your kids. The literature is fear based. When you add Christian apocalypticism to the anti-vaxx movement you end up with crazy conspiracy theories about 5G and tracking microchips sponsored by Bill Gates and Dolly Parton and how you are going to be forced to receive the mark of the Beast (you cannot, see above) through a microchip given through a vaccine. this plays on your emotions. It tells you that you should be afraid, be very, very afraid.

Again, this ignores the words of Jesus directly, Jesus tells us not to be afraid of the world even when it persecutes us. He tells us to be bold, to speak the truth and when the truth of Christ is not heeded, to shake the dust off in that village and move on. Why? Because judgement of this world is something God will do and so we have no reason to fear whatever happens to us. This is the whole point of the Matthew 24 discourse, that Christians have nothing to fear because these things must come to pass, and the outcome is assured by Christ himself. Christians do not have to fear liberal politics, politicians, extremists’ groups, evil men and women, self-decided boogeymen like socialism and vaccines precisely because these things are things of these world that will pass away and give way when the Kingdom comes in force at the return of Jesus. To tell people they must fear these things is to keep them chained and enslaved to the fear of the world, it is denying them the freedom that the truth brings, the freedom that Christ brings (John 13-17). Knowing Jesus and knowing the words of Jesus sets us free from the fear of this world. His faithfulness means we can trust Him no matter what may come to be. Christianity survived Nero, Joseph Stalin, Pol Pot, Adolf Hitler and a whole host of others. There is nothing at all to be afraid of in this world. Yes, we might lose our cultural influence and position of power and become marginalized, but that just means we join our siblings around the world in cultural exile. As I have stated before, this exile is the reason Christianity is spreading so rapidly outside the west, it has not been hindered by murderous regimes like ISIS. Christians have nothing to fear, and yet, here we are afraid.

3). They are invoking the name of a deity, something Jesus warns us against: When Jesus teaches his Disciples to pray in Matthew 6 he warns them against: “Making vain repetitions like the pagans.” The idea that is addressed here is that the pagans invoke the name of their deities over and over, doing dances and chanting the name to get the deity to act. Sometimes cutting and other forms of blood letting were involved to make the deity fill the request of the people. 2nd Kings 18:20-40 gives us a glimpse of what this would look like as the Prophets of Baal danced and cut themselves and called on Baal repeatedly to get him to burn up their offering. Elijah turned and prayed to God once and fire came down from heaven and consumed the sacrifice and the entire alter. Jesus point, and the point of the Elijah narrative, is that God does not need us to invoke His name, just to silently trust Him and obey what HE has commanded us.

So, how is posting a Facebook post invoking the name if Jesus is talking about prayer? The effect is the same, by invoking the name in this manner, to act on our behalf or as a form of virtue signaling, we are essentially doing what the pagans did, invoking God’s name for protection and prosperity and putting God to the test. We are saying, your word is not enough for me to feel safe so I have to invoke your name, come and do what you say you are say you are going to do, there are multiple injunctions against testing God in both the Old and New Testaments. In fact, during the temptation of Jesus, The Lord specifically invokes Deuteronomy 6:16 which says: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test” as a rebuke of Satan. Satan wants us to test God because it puts us at odds with him.

There are ways to invoke the name of God, or to respond to His own name, we do this when we pray and invocation prayer. We are allowed to “Call on the name of the Lord” but we are not put him and his name to the test. The other issue with these posts is that, like the pagan rituals, they are often merely performative, again, a virtue signal meant to give you that like and comment dopamine hit that social media is designed to give you. It signals to your tribe that, even if I am not living this way in real life and you cannot tell that I am with you, I am. This is not the way to life. Performative faith leads to death, just as the Pharisees, those whitewashed tombs did not enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:20, 15). Yet we think sharing this Facebook post will be enough to get us in? Jesus demands absolute loyalty to His way and through His means. He is also the only one who has the right to make such a demand on our lives based on what He has done, and if our righteousness is not greater than that of the scribes and Pharisees, we do not get to enter the Kingdom. That only happens when we put off the old self and put on Christ and His sacrifice and submit to becoming like Him through sanctification.

So, next time you see that Facebook post, just skip it, do not share it. Instead, get off Facebook, open your bibles and get to the process and work of the Holy Spirit in and through you. Let us focus on the things Christ has given us to do and be salt and light, denying the power of fear and the desire to look holy or have our deity protect us. Let us just stand firm on the promises of Christ, and remember that whatever happens, eternity is secured for all who are found in Him.

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