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057  How the Church is Fixing Olam Ha-zeh

When last I published one of these newsletters, I wrote about the Jewish concept of the world to come, "olam ha-bah." I wrote that rather than a disembodied existence in the presence of God, which is a Greek and sort of Gnostic point of view, what the Jews of Jesus' day would have predicted would have been a renewed earth wherein the righteous lived freely and at peace, people lived to ripe, old ages, no wars occurred, wicked people and fools were nowhere to be found, and God walked openly with His people. And I wrote that God had given us tools with which to make an impact on our current world, "olam ha-zeh," and predicted that I would write next about that. So here I go...

There are three parables in the middle of Matthew’s thirteenth chapter, coming right after the Parable of the Sower, that all said the kingdom of heaven would begin as something insignificant but would gradually grow to dominate its environment. The first is the Parable of the Tares (Matthew 13:24-30); the second is the Parable of the Mustard Seed (Matthew 13:31-32); and the third is the Parable of Leaven (Matthew 13:33). In all three the kingdom gets planted in the presence of other things that are not of the same nature as itself. In all three, the growth of the kingdom takes place gradually, out of sight and over time, but at the end the kingdom has come to dominate its surroundings.

We can take these parables to be Jesus’ warning that though the kingdom would appear suddenly and full-blown with fanfare at the end of the age, it was also going to appear immediately as something small that would gradually take over. Both were true. After all, Jesus preached "The kingdom of heaven is at hand," meaning that it was standing right at the doorway about to enter. It appeared with noise and force just forty days later, as recorded in Acts 2. 

We don’t realize how uniform and impoverished the ancient world was. Prior to the coming of the Messiah, most of world history consisted of a few, powerful warlords marshaling their strength to dominate the multitude of weaker persons in order to enslave them, and then to employ them in building monuments to their greatness. The economies of these ancient empires were remarkably unproductive and based on slave labor, and the vast majority of people lived just barely above subsistence level.

Thanks to the impact of the Church (both Eastern and Western), the world we live in today features:

  • recognition of the innate value of every human life;
  • recognition that it is nobler to suffer than to inflict suffering;
  • common morality that includes things like "the morality of a people can be seen in how they treat the weakest among them";
  • ample food, warm houses, inexpensive machine-made clothing, aspirin tablets, public sanitation, medical science, and the technology to feed an order of magnitude more people than could have been fed when Jesus lived;
  • respect for women, children, and foreigners;
  • widespread literacy;
  • widespread political suffrage;
  • international law and rules governing warfare;
  • improved transportation and communication;

and so on, ad infinitum. 

Do we think that those things just happened? That such progress was inevitable? Or might this be a manifestation of the new earth that God's prophets foretold (see Isaiah 65:17) and that Jesus initiated?

During the Enlightenment (17th and 18th centuries AD) there were thinkers and writers who based their thoughts on the truths of the Christian faith--men like Blackstone, Burke, Locke, and Jefferson--but there were others, like Voltaire and Gibbons, who made no bones about their hatred for Christianity. It was the thoughts of the Church-haters that filled the books from which most of us learned history. As a result, we have grown up with the notion that the modern world was inevitable because of the foundations built by the Greeks and the Romans, and that if the Church had anything to do with the modern world it was to dig in its heels and do everything in its power to prevent it from happening.

It's taken me nearly forty years of investigating and relearning the history of the West, but I've come to see that that view is nearly the polar opposite of what really happened. What happened, instead, was that the Church irrevocably changed the world for the better.

A secular historian named Tom Holland experienced a similar awakening and has written about it. A historian of late antiquity (the Greeks, the Romans, and later), he was reading Cicero's description of Julius Caesar killing a million Gauls and enslaving another million merely to advance his political career, and he realized just how alien the ancient world was to the modern point of view. Then he wrote a book about the rise of Islam and saw the same thing--the ancient world embraced a level of cruelty that we moderns can't fathom. And then he realized that our modern ways of thinking don't appear in the writings of the Greeks, the Romans, or the early Muslims, but in Paul's letters in the New Testament.

Here's a link to a brief article Holland wrote about this awakening. Or, you can invest just five minutes and view this segment of an interview Holland did for a British Christian radio show called "Unbelievable" in which he summarized neatly the enormous impact Christianity has had on the modern world. He describes Paul as a depth charge that explodes beneath the ancient world where it can't be seen, but that sends out ripples that effect everything--and it's still sending out ripples of impact two thousand years later.

The point is that God has not abandoned us here and said "Just wait 'till I come back," He planted the Church with the explicit purpose of changing the world for the better--and the Church has done just that. 

I could go a lot further explaining how the Church fostered the creation of the modern sciences and modern medicine, but perhaps I should recommend some books instead:

How the West Won, by Rodney Stark
The Triumph of Reason, by Rodney Stark
The Soul of Science, by Nancy Pearcey and Charles Thaxton
How Should We Then Live, by Francis Schaeffer and Lane Dennis

The Church doesn't usually teach this--I've never heard this in a sermon--but in fact, GOD brought us from the ancient world to the modern world. He did it by way of His Messiah and through the Church that the Messiah planted. He did it because He loves us, and He did it for our benefit. Don't ever let anybody tell you that God does not care about our comfort. He does. (It's just, He cares about a great deal more than that, so He may allow us to be uncomfortable while He adjusts our character.)

Next time, I will address some of the biblical reasons why we think that Jesus was preparing us for a disembodied heaven and not for another, physical world. There's actually some Bible information about olam ha-bah. We'll take a look at it.

 

Phil Weingart

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