One problem for Christians in the West – certainly in Australia – is not that we are too strange, but that we are not strange enough. In fact there is one area of strangeness that Christians should have in common with Islamic State. Let me explain.
In a fascinating article in The Australian today, a Canberra adviser on Islamic radicalisation, Anooshie Mushtaq, observed that in order to counter Islamic State, the government needs to come to terms with their concept of the Apocalypse, because it, above anything else drives them.
Here’s what she said:
Islamic State is committed to restoring 7th century Islamic ways as a precondition to bringing about the Apocalypse. It is my understanding that Islam shares the concept of the Apocalypse with Judaism and Christianity. In Islam the concept revolves around the final judgement in which Allah will punish sinners and bless the faithful. As strange as it sounds to us in Australia, Islamic State’s belief that the Apocalypse is imminent is key to its appeal and the success of its radicalisation messages.
Now, leaving aside the differences – the vast differences – that Christianity has with Islam, most notably that we believe that Jesus is himself the final and true revelation of God through which all must come to God, it struck me that the average Australian doesn’t think Christians are strange enough.
Too moral or too moralist? Yeah they often think that of us.
Grumpy and angry about the changing culture? Tick. Got a heap of us on that.
Don’t always practice what we preach? Us again.
Too conservative on many things? Yep.
But the problem is, those things aren’t strange or wacky to the ears of the culture and our neighbours, they are simply annoying! Now there has been a concerted effort by some in the Christian community to be radical – whether that’s radical on the Left or radical on the Right. But the thing with “radical” is that it’s kinda good to be considered radical, kinda hip, kinda cool, hence, ironically, very, very conservative!
But strange? Who wants to be that. “So how would you describe your uncle? Oh – he’s a radical man.” Sounds a lot better than: “So, how would you describe your uncle? Oh – he’s a strange man.” ‘Nuff said really.
Here’s the rub. All along we have been trying to convince people through an apologetic methodology that demonstrates that we are not that strange at all. Not that different to everyone else. Pretty much after the same thing. Pretty much able to mix it in the academy and the popular institutions. And when that hasn’t worked, we’ve often simply rolled over and obediently played dead in return for the cultural zeitgeist offering us the doggie biscuit of its benevolence.
Yet all the while the one thing that the New Testament hinges our very hope on – the resurrection of the dead on the Last Day that ushers in the new creation and the judgement of sin, death and Satan – just isn’t on the radar when it comes to what Australians think about what Christians think about.
But it should be. We should be considered strange by Australians – strange in the way Islamic State is considered strange. Why? Because central and public to our belief framework, indeed to our gospel announcement, to the way we live our lives on a daily basis, is the declared and settled fact that a day is coming when God will judge the living and the dead through King Jesus (Acts 17:31ff). It was central to Paul’s preaching in Athens and it was considered strange when he preached it.
Now let’s admit the days of charts and time-frames and crazy interpretations of the book of The Revelation are, thankfully, by and large behind us. Though there must be a Christian Museum somewhere that has a signed copy of Hal Lindsay’s The Late Great Planet Earth behind protective glass. You can probably buy those charts at a Christian bookstore somewhere, but let me tell you, they’ll not be up the front with bestsellers such as Your Best Life Now!
No, the pendulum has swung. And not just a little bit. It has swung completely the other way. We are, by and large, not that interested in the Apocalypse at all, because we are far more interested – as a collective – in having our best life now. How good? Well, filled with all sorts of stuff like we already have, but only better stuff. We can and should have our best life now because that’s the western cultural narrative and we don’t want to go upsetting the western cultural narrative now, do we?
Or perhaps stuff isn’t your thing. Perhaps a continuing place at the cultural table is your schtick and you will fight and placard and influence courts to get your best life now. You will push and push when the courts say “no” or the popular culture scorns your moral framework, whilst all along you’re simply playing by its rules.
But strange now? No we don’t want that! Strangeness has fallen off the radar. If the return of Christ was central to our vision, then we would be on a level of strangeness with Islamic State (Now just where did I put that “Last Days Chart? – Fundy Ed).
But here’s where we separate not just from Osteen’s Your Best Life Now, but from Islamic State in our strangeness. The strangest thing about us should be how this strange, strange apocalyptic doctrine affects us, changes our lives, resets our focus, shapes what we do with our money and our lives. Shapes how we love, forgive, have sex, work, spend time.
For Islamic State their idea of the Apocalypse sets them on a murderous campaign to do Allah’s work by proxy – judging and slaying the enemies of Allah – whoever they deem them to be, to create a purified land.
But for the Christian?
Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. Therefore, beloved, since you are waiting for these, be diligent to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace. (2Peter 3:11-14)
Holy, anticipatory, upward looking, pure, peaceful.
Or how about this?
For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come. (1Thessalonians1:9-10)
Refusing the idolatry of the age, serving God and once again, anticipation. The Christian community was marked by deep difference and a hope that went against the grain of everyone else’s hopes.
From the resurrection of Jesus when the disciples realised that The Last Day had begun proleptically, to the return of the king in glorious technicolour in The Revelation, the early disciples were abuzz with Jesus’ return. It shaped their lives and gave them hope. They funnelled everything they thought about what was happening to them, and what would happen to them, through that hope.
And we would do well to do the same. In an age when the culture is moving so hard and so fast against the Christian framework it’s tempting to fight back, get ugly about it, or simply to become grumpy and resentful, this is our hope. We should have none of that false “best life now” hope. We should simply long for that day, work towards it, life in light of it, forgive others before it occurs, shape how we use time and money in the thought of it, and most of all, declare the amnesty of the present age that will end upon it happening.
If we want our best life now, if we think we deserve our best life now, then Christian, we are bound to be disappointed. But if we, like the apostles; like the early disciples; like millions of Christians even today in areas of persecution around the world; know and long for that apocalyptic day, we will be far from disappointed.
For that day that will not simply expose Islamic State’s false hope, it will expose the laissez faire, distracted false hopes of Western culture. Our hope is not in what a court on earth decides or does not decide, simply because the Supreme Court of the US isn’t supreme enough and the High Court of Australia isn’t high enough. They are simply pale, broken reflections of a greater reality that shape our hopes, the court of King Jesus where his people will hear “Well done good and faithful servant.”
And on that day, what is considered strange now, will be seen from that point on into eternity, as perfectly normal.