Ruether on Religious Apocalyptic

In my reading today of Rosemary Ruether’s Gaia and God, I read Chapter 3, “Religious Narratives of World Destruction.”  In this chapter, Ruether discusses and critiques apocalypticism.

On page 62, Ruether states the following about the Sumerian flood that she believes inspired the biblical Noah’s ark story (since the Sumerian flood story, which dates back to 3000 B.C.E., is the earliest flood story that we have):

“This ancient flood story, the prototype of the Hebrew flood story, has been so domesticated in Christianity as a children’s story that we have become oblivious to the horror that lay behind this remembrance.  The Sumerians recalled five cities that were wiped out by this flood.  Immense destruction of human life must have taken place, together with the wiping out of all the animal and plant life in the great flood plain of the Tigris-Euphrates Valley.  In remembering this story, we should spend less time on the cute animals that went into the boat, two by two, and more time reflecting on the stark meaning of the phrase ‘and all flesh died that moved upon the earth’ (Genesis 7:21).”

Of course, those who were raised in the Armstrongite tradition got more than “cute little animals” when they heard the story of Noah’s Ark, for Basil Wolverton’s Bible Story contained graphic illustrations of people dying in the Flood.  But the people who died in the Flood were bad, we were told, and so they deserved what they got.  To Wolverton’s credit, however, at least he acknowledged that God loved even the people who died in the Flood, for Wolvertson said that God would give them an opportunity to be saved at the resurrection.

Something that stands out to me is that, in this quote, Ruether refers to how nature can be destructive.  I wonder how she meshes that with her romantic portrayal of Gaia in the previous chapter—her idea that the earth is an interdependent organism, in which death gives birth to life, even the humblest creatures play an important role, and the strong are kept in check.  Heck, the existence of nature’s destructive aspects should also challenge believers in Intelligent Design, I would think, for, while the cosmos indeed appears to be reasonable, it also has stuff that is not beneficial—or at least it doesn’t seem beneficial.

On Gaia as an organism in which death gives birth to life, this view actually forms a basis for one of Ruether’s criticisms of apocalypticism: that it seeks to escape from mortality.  She states that, in apocalypticism, “The very nature of the life of the biosphere, rooted through mortality and renewal through disintegration, is denied” (page 83).  She dislikes apocalypticism because it believes that immortality comes through the destruction of the present natural world, with its beautiful cycle of “mortality and renewal through disintegration”.  For Ruether, this shows that apocalypticism embraces a God who  is “unrelated to earth, body, or mortality.”  She may have a point that apocalypticism is anti-earth in its insistence that God will destroy the present world before God recreates a new one, but I personally do not romanticize certain elements of the present world.  Tim Keller one time critiqued the “circle of life” message of The Lion King by saying that the best hope it offers to us is that we will become fertilizer!  I’m all for admiring the order and intricacies of God’s creation, but I want to be more than fertilizer!  I have consciousness and a mind, and I am more than my natural body, which will one day die.  I hope that there is life after death.

Ruether’s comment on the Flood story is actually a preview for her overall critique of apocalypticism: that it divides people into “good” and “evil” camps and rejoices in the destruction of enemies.  In some cases, it has justified human violence, as when the female prophet Mary Cary in the seventeenth century applied prophecies from Daniel and Revelation to the Puritans’ overthrow of Charles I in England, forecasting that the saints would soon “establish their rule over the whole earth” and “execute divine vengeance on the heathen (both ‘pagans’ and Christian ‘apostates’) and destroy them” (pages 75-76).  But, even when apocalypticism sits back and waits for God to work things out, it exults in the destruction of certain people.  Ruether can understand why apocalypticism appeals to the powerless, but she does not find it to be helpful to the world.  She notes that the “apocalypticist may even oppose efforts to ameliorate poverty, prevent war, or clean up ecological damage, for this is to oppose God’s will and retard the final deliverance” (page 84).

Although Ruether takes a swipe at Ronald Reagan’s belief in Bible prophecy, she also criticizes “militant environmentalists” who expect “Mother Earth” to rise up “like a chthonic Jehovah to topple the human empires and return the earth to precivilized simplicity when humans, in small hunter-gatherer tribes, lived lightly off the land”, apparently unconcerned that “most human beings would die in the process” (page 84).  A few posts ago, I quoted Ruether’s statement that the “powerful of the earth” should be called to account for the destruction they have wrought against their fellow human beings, but Ruether probably does not support divine vengeance against the powerful: rather, she seems to want them to repent.  (That’s my impression.)

I enjoyed Ruether’s description of Persian Zoroastrianism, which she says influenced the development of Jewish apocalyptic thought, which “began to be written in the second century B.C.E.” (page 67).  According to Ruether, “The Zoroastrian picture of world history was based on a cosmic conflict between the good God, Ahura Mazda, and the spirit of evil, Angra-Mainyu” (page 67).

There are four periods, according to Zoroastrian thought, each lasting three thousand years.  In the first period, “these two powers remain apart, producing their own creatures” (page 67).  In the second period, “the material creation occurs and the two spirits war over its possession” (page 68).  In period three, “the evil power establishes his ascendancy over the earth” (page 68).  In the fourth period, Zoroaster is born, and, as the true religion spreads, “there is to be a progressive triumph of good over evil” (page 68).  Three saviors reign for three thousand years, and moral, social, and natural evils are “gradually defeated” (page 68).  Then a final savior appears, inaugurates the “last things,” and resurrects the dead, “beginning with Gayomard (the first man or Persian Adam)” (page 68).  All people are judged according to their deeds, and “the sinners are punished for three days in hell and weep for their sins, while the righteous in heaven weep for the sins and sufferings of the wicked” (page 68).  After this time of purgation, the mountains are melted into a river, in which all humans will pass and become purified of the “impulse to evil” (page 68).  The Savior kills a “cosmic beast” and humans become immortal when they eat from it.  Ahura Mazda then destroys the evil spirit, purifies hell, and uses it to enlarge the world, which becomes eternal.

There is a lot of overlap between Zoroastrianism and Jewish and Christian apocalyptic, except that (according to Ruether) Hebrew apocalyptic rejoices in the future suffering of the sinners and holds that they will be “destroyed forever, rather than restored through purgation” (page 69).  And Christian eschatology rejected Origen’s suggestion that the entire cosmos would be converted and restored to God, embracing instead a belief in eternal punishment in hell for unrepentant sinners.  Ruether may not like Persian apocalyptic’s notion that the world will be destroyed and recreated, for she may feel that this sort of scenario devalues the present world.  But she probably admires its sentiment that the righteous will mourn over the sin and temporary suffering of the sinners.  And I admire that view, too.  But I can understand why Jews and Christians who suffered at the hands of their enemies said “I don’t think so” (my words) to that kind of notion!  I’d like to think that God is loving, though, even towards the wicked.  In my opinion, three days is not a sufficient amount of punishment for some people, but I wouldn’t want them to be tortured without end.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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