Lesson 46: “A Kingdom, Which Shall Never Be Destroyed”

Reading: Daniel 2

In the interest of full disclosure, I should say right up front that my approach to this lesson is fundamentally at odds with the manual. That’s because I think that nothing good ever came of apocalyptic scriptural interpretation. On the tamer end of the spectrum are episodes like the Millerite “Great Disappointment” of 1844, when whatever math someone did with the book of Daniel or the book of Revelation turned out to be wrong, but it basically just resulted in people feeling kind of bummed on the day after Jesus was supposed to come. More dangerous are episodes like the Fifth Monarchist rebellion of 1662, which culminated in its leader, Thomas Venner, being hanged, drawn, and quartered, after he’d already been shot 19 times by Royalist forces in the climactic battle. “No King but King Jesus” was their cry; King Charles II was not impressed. If Daniel 2 does predict the downfall of political/religious movements, they ironically tend to be political/religious movements with particular investments in interpreting Daniel 2. Ok, so it was Daniel 8 for the Millerites, but still…

The Book of Daniel itself has its historical origins in a time when people thought that scriptural math had present consequences. Notwithstanding its ostensible setting in the 6th century BCE, Daniel is a product of the Maccabean period in the 2nd century. Daniel 9 (see verses 2 and 24) reinterprets the 70 years of Babylonian captivity predicted in Jeremiah 29:10 as 70 weeks of years (i.e., 490 years), which enabled supporters of the Maccabean revolt to speculate about whether the time of divine deliverance from the Seleucids (who are not exactly the Babylonians, but apocalyptic language is fuzzy and allegorical for a reason) was upon them. This revolt was successful, but not in the grand way that Daniel 11:40-45 predicted. Far from ushering in the hoped-for period of divine redemption, Hasmonean rule ended up being just another political dynasty, giving way to other dynasties in due course. And these in turn led to people doing more math with the book of Daniel, until the brutal Roman crushing of Jewish revolts in 66-73 and 132-36 CE quieted apocalyptic fervor with the realization that it had this nasty way of proving suicidal.

For Mormons, D&C 65 identifies Daniel’s rolling stone with the gospel spreading over all the earth, which seems fairly benign. The question, though, is what liabilities attend the apocalyptic language and worldview in which the idea is couched, and in keeping with that I propose using this lesson as an occasion to reflect on our apocalyptic investments as a people. I see three major issues to discuss here: exceptionalism, theodicy, and time. These converge on the matter of how we ought to live, now (and what we mean by “now”).

Bob Dylan basically sums up the problem with apocalyptic exceptionalism in his song “With God on Our Side”: seeing ourselves as the righteous purveyors of whatever sets us up to demonize others in ways that can turn violent, even if only indirectly, while also inviting noxious habits of self-congratulation that amount, Rameumptom-like, to saying “Thank God we aren’t part of The World™.” Here the issue is that life is messy, and apocalypse offers us the comfort of nice, clean lines and the hope that God will come in and muck out the stables of all those ten-horned beasts and such. Not only does apocalypse make us privy to secret knowledge (the word just means “hidden away”), but we get the pleasure of being “in the know.” Spreading the gospel over all the world is well and good, but putting that spread in an apocalyptic framework can make us think that we have the market cornered on human goodness and spiritual wisdom. Yes, we’re Mormon, but as far as being human goes we’re in the same boat as everybody else, struggling to find our way through the complications of life. The Gospel is certainly a blessing, but it doesn’t negate the valuable things that other people have learned, or mean that it wouldn’t be a good idea for us to learn from them. Non-Mormons aren’t “Babylon.”

The notion of a God who might swoop down and sort out the mess of human life lands us squarely in the problem of theodicy, which ties into the problem of time. Do we have to believe in a God who makes a difference in human affairs? That’s a hard question, because the answer, I think, has to lie somewhere between absolutized versions of either yes or no. But it’s a question with serious practical ramifications. The God of apocalypse operates in three temporal phases: waiting, decisive action, and final peace. During the period of waiting, all kinds of weird beasts get to run amok, causing havoc and destruction. During the period of decisive action, God defeats the beasts, amidst more havoc and destruction. Then, peace at last. This framework prompts the questions of why God has to wait so long (because this waiting period has outlasted multiple proclamations of the “last days” or the “time of the end”; e.g., Daniel 11:40) and why some future people (the “rising generation”) will get to be so lucky while we have to be miserable now. Theodicy, in other words.

Mormons often rhetorically use ideas of the next life or the millennium (itself an apocalyptic concept) in this theodical way. Right now we’re in the period of waiting, and after we die (or when Jesus comes again), we’ll get the period of decisive action, followed by the period of peace that we all want. This usage can land us in our own problems of justice, however. For instance, we often use the idea that God will sort things out in the next life to put off addressing hard situations, like what to do with undesired polygamous sealings that happen when men divorce and then remarry in the temple, and when their appeals to have their first sealings canceled get denied, leaving the women involved as involuntary sister wives. In cases like this, punting to the next life justifies inaction now, and the consequences of that inaction often involve present discomfort or even suffering. Meanwhile, “God will sort it out in the next life” provides just as apt an argument for releasing people from unwanted connections now. Or we punt on environmental stewardship now because Jesus is going to come and melt the whole world into glass anyway, while the consequences of such disregard fall disproportionately on the poor and otherwise disadvantaged, to say nothing of our children and grandchildren, who will reap what we have sown.

On the other hand, some situations are difficult and painful in seemingly intractable ways, and there the hope of some future justice can provide present balm. We as humans can’t fix every problem we face. What’s at stake here, I think, is the question of human action in the present. Patience has its virtues, to be sure, but we should be wary of using patience to valorize suffering whose relief lies in our power—and wary of determining too quickly that it does not. Apocalyptic thinking can leave us thinking that peace will come then, so we shouldn’t work for it now.

As for how to live now, that hinges on the perennial question: What think ye of Christ? Is Jesus a mighty warrior God, come to kick evil’s butt in a decisive throwdown (in hoc signo vinces), or is Jesus the paradoxical exemplar of strength made perfect in weakness? Here I think that the doctrine of the Incarnation proves useful to moral life in a way that apocalyptic thinking doesn’t. Jesus came down to live among us, amid our messiness and not above it. And he came to bring change not by military revolt, but by calling us to love one another, which he described as the mark by which his disciples would be known. Maybe it’s just my inner Franciscan talking here, but I think that the apostolic way is out in the world, working in love for such peace and harmony as we can make right now. Ultimate peace may have to wait, but maybe believing in God doesn’t have to mean that peace is in God’s hands alone.

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  1. Eric Facer says:

    “That’s because I think that nothing good ever came of apocalyptic scriptural interpretation.” Amen. It is also worth remembering that the “chosen people” of the past who felt they were destined to usher in something akin to the millennium (e.g., the Jews, the Nephites) didn’t fair too well.

    In a rare public and candid assessment of the problems of regimentation and over-programming in the church, Elder Packer, in a 1990 talk to Regional Representatives (“Let Them Govern Themselves”), said that the problem had become so acute that he saw striking parallels between our current situation and similar circumstances that existed in the Book of Mormon that caused the church, sometimes fatally, to drift off course. In essence, his message seemed to be that this time will be different only if we collectively make it different. And if we fail, the Lord will try again with somebody else.

  2. I like the Incarnation as a way to answer apocalyptic literature in real time, in human lived time. Thank you. I’ll use it. I do think “time” is an added element. The Incarnation is amid our messiness and in real time, in a frame in which real people are born, and suffer, and die. That’s the frame that matters to most of us when we think about theodicies and salvation, and caring for the poor and needy.

  3. Well said, Chris.

  4. I agree with you, Jason, and you Christian. Apocalyptic intervention is attractive to the devout who long for justice to exalt the righteous and humble the wicked. But, whether we’re talking about Noah’s flood, the rapture, or the drowning of numenor, apocalyptic intervention require separating the righteous from the unrighteous, and the trouble with that sorting is that the line doesn’t run between people so much as it runs through each person. So the answer to that sorting problem is the incarnation: God so loved the world that he sent his son. Sometimes when we long for justice, we hate the world with its unrighteousness and oppression, but we forget that while we were yet in our sins, God loved us. He sent his son not to condemn the world, but to save it. That sorting may yet take place in some future time, but in the meantime, in the here and now, our calling is to follow the example of Christ and love people before they deserve it, not after.

  5. Isn’t the teaching that Christ will come “as a thief in the night”, the counter balance to apocalyptic idolatry? We have balance out the prophesies of the future with “lift where you stand.”

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