Cutting Edges: A Theology of Empty Shirts or Justice?

Barry_BryantBy Dr. Barry Bryant, Associate Professor of United Methodist and Wesleyan Studies at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary.

Where were you at 6:00 p.m. on May 21, 2011? What were you thinking? That was the hour that Harold Camping, a radio preacher in California, predicted the rapture as a prelude to the return of Jesus, the battle of Armageddon, and the end of the world. While it provided many with a bonanza of easy material used in derision of Christianity, other Christians tried to distance themselves from an absurd theological caricature of what we regularly affirm through the Apostles’ Creed, “...and he will come again to judge the living and the dead.” Harold Camping reminds us that without serious and constant theological reflection we can lose sight of creedal significance, relevance, and meaning.

While we may rightfully disparage outlandish and misguided predictions, they come from the theology of Dispensationalism, which has been a part of American culture for over 150 years now. Started by the 19th century Irish theologian, John Nelson Darby, it was popularized by the American pastor, C. I. Scofield, through his Scofield Reference Bible and evangelists such D. L. Moody. This view was politicized by the Chicago-based Methodist lay preacher, William E. Blackstone, who authored Jesus is Coming (1908). More recently Hal Lindsey (The Late Great Planet Earth), and Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins (Left Behind series) have made millions by marketing this view of the end times.

Dispensationalism teaches that in the last days all Jews must return to the state of Israel, where they will either be converted to Christianity or killed by the anti-Christ. All of this is a prelude to the battle of Armageddon and Christ’s second coming. If Israel is pushed into conflict withitsArabneighbors,Armageddonwillbeaccelerated, hastening the second coming of Christ. Dispensationalism means that peace postpones Christ’s second coming and peacemakers are seen as anti-Christ.

So, what was I thinking on May 21, at 6:00 p.m.? I was thinking less about the silliness of the rapture and more about the seriousness of how this theology participates in oppression.

Palestinians see dispensationalism as one source of their oppression and a volatile fuel to their conflicts. In 2004, Naim Ateek, Canon of St. George’s Cathedral (Anglican), convened a conference in Jerusalem to investigate the influences of dispensationalism as a source of Palestinian oppression. Rosemary Radford Reuther and I attended. At that time I didn’t know I would one day teach at Garrett-Evangelical and become a part of its long history of engaging dispensationalism.

For example, Harris Franklin Rall, professor of theology, wrote Modern Premillennialism and the Christian Hope (1920) challenging the dispensationalism of fellow Methodist, William E. Blackstone. Or, Georgia Harkness, who wrote, Biblical Backgrounds of the Middle East Conflict, which was published posthumously in 1976 with fellow Garrett seminary colleague, Charles F. Kraft. Then, Rosemary Radford Reuther’s stellar work and support of Palestine resulted in The Wrath of Jonah (2002). It is nothing new for Garrett-Evangelical faculty members to provide critical and creative theological reflection on the serious and most vexing theological issues of the day, including the issue of Palestine.

My wife, Rhonda McCarty, and I have made more than twenty trips to Palestine. We have seen first-hand the violence, the oppression, the erection of the apartheid wall, the demolition of Palestinian homes, the confiscation of Palestinian farmland, the usurpation of Palestinian water rights, the building of Israeli settlements, the destruction of Palestinian olive trees, and the humiliation of Palestinians at checkpoints. In spite of these difficulties, there are groups of Israelis and Palestinians working together in “outrageous hope” toward justice, peace, and reconciliation.

From December 28, 2011, to January 10, 2012, a group of Garrett-Evangelical students will be visiting some of those groups.You are invited to join us. “Outrageous Hope:A Cross-Cultural Immersion in a Study of Justice, Peace, and Reconciliation in Israel and Palestine” will be an opportunity to see first-hand the root causes of the conflict and learn strategies that are being employed by Israelis, Palestinians, and others to bring about peace. For more information, send an email to

Eschatology is not about being snatched shirtless up into heaven. It is about working for justice, peace, and reconciliation until whenever Christ comes. Ours is not a theology of empty shirts, but one of hope and justice.

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