Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Apocalypse Now

Once more, Nicholas Kristof sallies forth on his pogo-stick in another death-defying jousting match with the evangelical world. The latest excursion is his article on "Apocalypse (Almost) Now."

I must begin by saluting Mr. Kristof's indomitable courage. He never balks at a chance to make a public fool of himself. But after drawing the short straw so many times, you'd think he might become a tad suspicious of the odds. Is there somebody who pushes him on stage? "Atta boy, Nicky! Go get 'em!" Why, he is the very model of a modern Major-General!

It takes a long time to fish out all the red herrings from his customary drag-net. Basically, the piece seems to be a hoary old exercise in innuendo and guilt-by-association. Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye are hypocrites. Their eschatological timetable has often been of the mark. Ergo: there is no hell.

It should be needless to say that the conclusion doesn't strictly follow from the premise. But, evidently, Kristof’s intellectual pretensions do not commit him to the laws of logic.

He appears to level a twofold charge of hypocrisy against the authors. First, he insinuates that their portfolio is inconsistent with their belief in the imminent return of Christ. This may be a legitimate charge.

He also insinuates that their lavish income is a mark of worldliness, contrary to the otherworldly ethic of Scripture. This, too, may be a valid accusation.

Incidentally, for him to suggest, even tongue-in-cheek, that alms-giving would increase their chances of getting into heaven, betrays an utter and lamentable ignorance of fundamentalism. In fundamentalism, as in evangelicalism generally, salvation is a result of divine charity rather than human charity.

But neither allegation, whether considered in separation or taken together, has the slightest bearing on whether hell is real or not.

Incidentally, why do liberals like Kristof get so indignant about hypocrisy? Do they believe in moral absolutes?

Finally, he seems to suggest that the poor track-record of premillennial date-setting falsifies belief in the Day of Judgment. But to make that stick he would need to do a lot more than cite the sorry record of Hal Lindsey, Seventh-Day Adventism and the like.

The Bible itself discourages date-setting (Mt 24:35; Acts 1:7). Hence, the failure of those who ignore Biblical admonitions to the contrary is a confirmation rather than disconfirmation of Scripture.

I would hasten to add that the authors' pretrib version of the end-times has only been around since the Victorian era. It hardly represents the consensus of the historic Christian church. Indeed, Hal Lindsey and Tim LaHaye scarcely represent the best that Dispensationalism has to offer.

By contrast, the doctrine of hell does represent the consensus of the historical Christian church--at least in the Western Hemisphere.

But Kristof has several more misguided arrows in his quiver. There is, for instance, this odd exchange,

"Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, the co-authors of the series,
have both emailed me (after I wrote about the ‘Left
Behind’ series in July) to protest that their books do not
'celebrate' the slaughter of non-Christians but simply
present the painful reality of Scripture.

‘We can't read it some other way just because it sounds
exclusivistic and not currently politically correct,’ Mr.
Jenkins said in an email. ‘That's our crucible, an
offensive and divisive message in an age of plurality and

Silly me. I'd forgotten the passage in the Bible about how
Jesus intends to roast everyone from the good Samaritan to
Gandhi in everlasting fire, simply because they weren't
born-again Christians."

What makes this odd is the insinuation that the authors are damning folks whom Jesus would never think to damn. How is this illustrative of Kristof’s own position? Bertrand Russell, for one, had no difficulty quoting Christ on the subject of hell. In this regard, Lord Russell reads the Bible the same way as Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins.

Would Kristof subject Bertrand Russell to the same scorn and ridicule? Of course, Russell didn’t believe the Bible, but neither does Kristof.

What is even odder is that in the very next paragraph, Kristof says the following:

"I accept that Mr. Jenkins and Mr. LaHaye are sincere. (They
base their conclusions on John 3.)"

Okay, the reference to Jn 3 is an allusion to the new birth as a prerequisite for salvation. And this comes direct from the lips of Christ. If Kristof knows that much, then why does he pretend that the position of the authors runs counter to Christ?

Once again, Kristof illustrates his intellectual superiority by a display of intellectual confusion. Then he’s baffled by why Christians don’t find his position the paragon of reason.

Kristof, presuming to speak for the reader, says that "If Saudi Arabians wrote an Islamic version of this series, we would furiously demand that sensible Muslims repudiate such hate-mongering. We should hold ourselves to the same standard."

We would? Speak for yourself, Mr. Kristof. There are many things amiss in this statement. Let’s look at a few.

i) I wouldn’t make any such demand on the Muslim world for the obvious reason that such a demand would be ineffectual. But, of course, liberals like Kristof are devoted to empty gestures--nonbinding UN resolutions and toothless treaties, so I realize that my distinction would elude him.

ii) Mr. Kristof tries to force a practical parallel between the Jihadi and the Left Behind series, but other issues aside, the difference could hardly be plainer: it is Islam, and not Christianity, which is the hotbed of global terrorism.

iii) And there’s simple reason for this: the final judgment is an act of God, not an act of man. There is nothing in the doctrine of damnation which incites the Christian world to wage war on unbelievers. The final judgment is all about divine vengeance.

iv) Instead of attacking what Muslims believe, I would ask them why they believe it. That’s the real issue--not the symptom of belief, but the source of belief.

Kristof tries to draw another parallel between the Jihadi and the Left Behind series:

"But I've sat down in Pakistani and Iraqi mosques with Muslim fundamentalists, and they offered the same defense: they're just applying God's word."

Yes, there are some formal parallels between Islam and Christianity. And that is owing to the fact that Islam is a Judeo-Christian heresy. The Koran is based on Muhammad’s garbled, hearsay knowledge of Judaism and Christianity.

But to imply that this elevates it to a level of moral equivalence or epistemic parity is like placing a third-rate forgery is on the same plane as the masterpiece it plagiarizes.

So what is the point of Kristof’s hit-piece? Hard to say, but in sorting out all the non-sequiturs, the following statement seems to cut to the heart of the matter, at least as he sees it:

"Now, I've often written that blue staters should be less
snooty toward fundamentalist Christians, and I realize that
this column will seem pretty snooty. But if I praise the
good work of evangelicals - like their superb relief
efforts in Darfur - I'll also condemn what I perceive as
bigotry. A dialogue about faith must move past taboos and
discuss differences bluntly. That's what blue staters and
red staters need to do about religion and the "Left Behind"

He begins by paying a part of the Christian community a throwaway compliment. He thinks that by patting us on the head for our social work, we should be so grateful that this gives him the right to accuse us of bigotry.

Nice try, Nick, but tossing a few doggy biscuits our way won’t make us wag our tail when we see you coming down the street in your Animal Control truck.

But what about those juicy adjectives like "bigotry" and "hate-mongering?" As with so many other left-wing pundits, Mr. Kristof labors under the lazy illusion that adjectives can do the work of arguments. He supposes that by shouting a few smear words into his megaphone, we’ll take fright and then take flight. But this is just a lot of rhetorical bluff and bluster, unredeemed by any supporting arguments.

And what, exactly, is the basis for the defamatory language? Presumably this all goes back to the venerable doctrine of hell. But how is belief in hell hate-mongering or bigotry? He doesn’t say.

One can hardly call it reason, for he doesn’t give a reason. But does he feel that hell is too horrible to be true? Yet horrible things happen everyday. Kristof appears to cling to the childish belief that whatever he likes is what the world is like.

There are only three basic positions on the afterlife: (i) everyone is saved; (ii) no one is saved; (iii) some are saved and others are damned.

i) Many men find (i) the most appealing position. Like Kristof, they like to nominate their favorite humanitarians to bolster the claim.

But there is a downside to this charming picture. If everyone is saved, then the misanthrope is saved alongside the philanthropist. Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Attila, Tamerlane, Genghis Khan, and other such splendid specimens of humanity live happily ever after with all their unnumbered victims. And I daresay that for many of the victims, that would take the sheen off the prospect of universalism.

Of course, the Christian doctrine of the afterlife doesn’t divide neatly into heavenbound victims and hellbound victimizers. But when Kristof strives to foist so much odium on the Christian doctrine, is his alternative any less odious?

Another tension in universalism is that it amounts to a very exclusive inclusivism inasmuch as it must claim more for many secular and religious traditions than they are prepared to claim for themselves. Universalism can only be universally true if every opposing position is universally erroneous. So its apparent modesty and magnanimity are a false modesty and mock magnanimity.

ii) Speaking of which--secularism is generally committed to (ii). Man is just a meat machine. Consciousness cannot survive brain-death. This delightful position includes secular Jews. Likewise, the classic Hindu/Buddhist doctrine of Nirvana asserts the extinction of personal consciousness. Softheaded Unitarians affirm (i), while hardheaded Unitarians affirm (ii).

Since an unbeliever denies the very existence of heaven, why is he so offended when Christian theology denies his admission into heaven? Seems like a mutually agreeable arrangement to me!

In the words of Bertrand Russell, this is the eschatology of secular humanism:

"That man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction...that the whole temple of man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins...

United with his fellow men by the strongest of all ties, the tie of a common doom...The life of man is a long march through the night...One-by-one, as they march, our comrades vanish from our sight, seized by the silent orders of omnipotent death."

That's the faux-Miltonian version. In the colloquial version, "First you die, then you rot!"

Russell tries to perk this up a bit by some sanctimonious palaver about "the true baptism into the glorious company of heroes," but such pale allusions to the Christian hope--to the seed of the martyrs and the communion of the saints--merely serves to magnify hollow sound of his infinitely bleak and pitiless creed.

Would Kristof call Russell hate-monger and a bigot for damning everyone to a common oblivion?

By process of elimination, this leaves some version of (iii). Damnation is predicated on the principle of retributive justice--taking sinners as its object. Given the extent of injustice in life here-below, does Kristof deem it morally preferable that the scales of justice never be righted in the life to come?

It should be unnecessary to point out that a number of supporting arguments have been deployed in support of the Christian doctrine. As usual, Kristof displays his intellectual superiority by ducking every one of the supporting arguments. Stupid is as stupid does.

As to Catholicism, much could be said, but let us never forget those dire Tridentine anathemas.

Whatever position Kristof himself stakes out will be intolerant and exclusive of the other two alternatives. So that must make Kristof a hate-monger and a bigot as well. And I guess that makes us a big tent party after all. Join the club, Nick!


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