The morality of the end of the world

In his instruction to his new translation of the New Testament, the Greek Orthodox theologian, David Bentley Hart, says in the course of translating, he was struck forcefully with “a new sense of the utter strangeness of the Christian vision of life in its first dawning, by which I mean its strangeness in respect to the Christianity of later centuries. When one truly ventures into the world of the first Christians, one enters a company of radicals”. As critic, novelist and playwright Terry Eagleton argues in his challenging new book, Radical Sacrifice, quoting the Marxist philosopher, Ernst Bloch, from his great book, The Principle of Hope, “The morality of Jesus is the morality of the end of the world.”

Eagleton expands on this. “Those who live as though the future has already arrived – as did the first Christian generation – pose a threat to the status quo. They are Prophets, and as such figures marked out as objects of political violence; yet they also live like the lilies of the field, and take no heed for tomorrow. In their touch of surrealist madness and casual way with material necessities, they proclaim the imminence of the reign of justice. If one is heedless of a return for one’s gift, it is among other things, because an end time is approaching which will make all such exchange superfluous. Sine history is drawing to close, there is no reason not to give without reserve. Acting and giving must be viewed sus specie aeternitatis, deranging the meticulous balance sheets of the present.”

David Bentley Hart describes these early Christians as “civically reprobate, ideologically unsound, economically destructive, politically irresponsible, socially discreditable” and determinedly otherworldly in their understanding of the gospel. Take wealth and money, for example, their condemnation of wealth is total and uncompromising. Luke 6.24: “Alas for you who are rich, for you have your comfort.” And in the parable of Dives, the rich man and Lazarus, the poor man, who sat, ignored, outside his house (Luke 16:10-31 ). “The rich man died and found himself in Hades in torment. He sees Abraham with Lazarus in heaven, and begs Father Abraham to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue.“ But Abraham said: ”Child remember that you received your good things during your life, and Lazarus in the same way, the bad things, and now he is comforted and you are in torment.” So, Dives said, “send him to my brother’s house to warn them of my fate.” Abraham replies, they have Moses and the prophets. Dives makes a final stab, ”If someone should go to them from the dead, that will change their heart. But Abraham says, ”If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.”

Luke 14:33, is equally uncompromising. ”No one of you who does not bid farewell to all his own possessions can be my disciple.” And Luke 16:13, “You cannot serve both god and mammon” (ie, the things of this world ).

This is a theme that runs through the letters of Paul and, especially James, who writes (5:1-6 ): “Come now, you who are rich, weep, howling out the miseries that are coming for you. Your riches have spoiled and your garments have become motheaten, your gold and your silver have corroded, and their corrosion will serve as testimony against you … The wages of the workers who have reaped your lands, which have been held back by you, clamour aloud.”

While the first letter of Timothy (6:7-19 ) prides a neat summary of their radicalism of the early Christian message: “For we have brought nothing into this world, neither obviously can we carry anything away … for the love of money is the root of call evils ..flee from these, and pursue righteousness, piety, faithfulness, love, endurance, and gentleness … to those who are rich in this present age, command them not to ..vest hope in the hiddenness of riches, but rather in God, who richly provides us all things for enjoyment. To work the good, having their riches in good deeds, readily giving away.”

As Hart concludes: ”Perhaps the most crucial thing to understand about the earliest generations of Christians is that theirs was an association of extremists, radical in its rejection of the values and priorities of society. Their true descendants were those men and women who abandoned conventional society and went into the desert to live out their radicalism. To live as if the day of judgement were at hand, and thus as if the only pressing matters were justice and fellowship, is not an ethics to be scorned.”

Barnaby ffrench

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