The Way of the Church

Part 3:

 The Apocalyptic Background, II

 by Hugh Nibley, Ph.D.

Improvement Era 58 (Dec. 1955), 902-3, 968

Bultmann begins with the premise that the entire New Testament eschatology is pure mythology and nothing else. There is nothing revolutionary about that: it is what the scholars have been saying for many years, only, unlike Bultmann, they have steadfastly refused to draw the logical conclusion from that conviction or face its inevitable consequences. "The picture of the world we find in the New Testament is a mythological one," we are now told; it served well enough in its time, but it is no good any more. "When the New Testament . . . describes the saving action of God in Jesus Christ . . . it describes this action in terms of the contemporary mythological conception of the world. . . . It was natural for the gospel to be stated in these terms, for that was the outlook of the age."[1]  But such terms are decidedly not natural for our age, Bultmann insists: "It is impossible for the man of today to accept the mythology of the New Testament. . . . As long as this is taken at its face value as literally true, Christianity remains meaningless to modern man."[2]  It is not therefore a matter of toning down or softening or adaption of the old eschatology, but of its complete rejection: "He contends that to ask the man of today to accept the picture of the world that is found in the New Testament would be at once pointless and to ask the impossible. . . . It is, for instance, impossible for the man of today to interpret a case of epilepsy or schizophrenia as demoniac possession," or, in Bultmann's own words, "It is impossible to make use of electric light and radio, and, in case of illness, to claim the help of modern medical and clinical methods and at the same time believe in the New Testament's spirits and miracles."[3]  Is this a shocking statement? There is nothing the least bit new or radical about it. Over a hundred years ago Charles Dickens denounced the Mormons as hopelessly deluded and mentally incompetent because they were actually guilty of "seeing visions in an age of railways!"[4]  Since it is agreed that railroads and visions cannot possibly go together, why has Bultmann so upset the clergy by saying only what they themselves have believed all along?

It is because he will not let them keep their Christianity and deny it at the same time. "The great difference between Bultmann's teachings and the liberalism of the 1900's," writes Henderson, is that "it eliminates the mythological, instead of interpreting it."[5]  If it is a myth, Bultmann argues, why not treat it as such? It is his conclusion, not his premise, that shocks. Yet with the premise all the damage is done. Over fifty years ago a professor of Old Testament could write without shocking a single scholar: "It is impossible from the modern point of view to regard Abraham and Moses as historical characters"—they are simply myths. "All the accounts from Saul to Solomon are mythological-astrological [6]presentations . . . all details concerning the persons and their deeds have been borrowed from a mythological system.

For over half a century a great band of Christian scholars have flatly denied that Jesus ever lived, but they have gone on talking and writing about him just the same. [7] Scholars became proud and boastful of their "brazen scepticism," entirely forgetting, Eisler points out, to be sceptical of their own highly subjective conclusions. Their "unhistorical Jesus" was, he says, "the stillborn creature of the age of Liberalism" . . . with a capital "L."[8] Albert Schweitzer attributed to a sound instinct for self-preservation the rejection of the historical Jesus by the Christian churches—for certainly the historical Jesus contradicts their teachings on many points.[9]  In the end, the only Jesus for which Christianity had any use was an unhistorical Jesus, a "de-mythologized" Jesus, to use Bultmann's expression.

Speaking of revelation, Bultmann writes: "The existence of such a voice that speaks when God, not as the idea of God . . . but as my God, who here and now speaks to me through the mouths of men, that is the 'demythologized' sense of 'the Word became flesh,' the Church's doctrine of the incarnation."[10]  It is with the history of the church as with its doctrine, according to Bultmann: you only accept of that history what you personally feel is useful to you; Christianity, he says, is the "eschatological phenomenon that brings the world to an end; it is not a historical phenomenon of the past, but is the word of that Grace which destroys and in destroying makes alive."[11]  The declaration that one should take and believe from the scriptures only what one wants to has led to loud protests from the churchmen.

Yet what else have they been doing with the Bible all these years? "We are thankful," wrote Schweitzer years ago, "that we have handed down to us only gospels, not biographies, of Jesus."[12]  The scholars have shown by word and deed that they do not want to know any more about Christ than they do; instead of joyfully embracing the priceless discoveries which from the Didache to the Dead Sea Scrolls have brought us step by step nearer to a knowledge of the true Church of Jesus Christ as it existed anciently, they have fought those documents at every step.[13]  If the resurrected Jesus were to walk among them they would waste no time beseeching him "to depart from their coasts"—they have the only Jesus they want, and they will thank you not to complicate things by introducing new evidence. In the same spirit a great German classical scholar once expressed to the author his disapproval of studying Oriental sources. They disturb the neatness, compactness, symmetry, simplicity, and permanence of our mental picture of the Greeks, he explained.

It is accepted practice to rewrite the Gospels at will, provided one employs the proper jargon. But in frankly admitting that he is out to reshape Christianity to something nearer to the heart's desire, Bultmann has gone too far. "I do not want my eschatology de-eschatologized," cries the eminent scholar Millar Burrows.[14]  "It is one thing," he says, "for a theologian to say that demonology is for him a mythological experience of the reality of suffering and evil in the world; it is something else for an exegete to say that Jesus himself did not believe in demons. You cannot have accurate, realistic exegesis if you are not prepared and willing to find ideas that you cannot accept."[15]  You cannot de-mythologize the history in the New Testament no matter how badly you want to, Oscar Cullmann protests, because after all it never was mythology or allegory and never was meant to be—it was real history.[16]  What Bultmann fondly thinks is a clear, detached, objective view of things, his vaunted Vorverstandnis is nothing but the scientific tradition he has inherited, says von Dobschutz, a thing that conditions the thinking of every scholar whether he admits it or not. And as to this business of picking out of the scripture as the substance of your faith whatever suits your fancy and rejecting what does not, what does that lead to? "Bultmann floats in Bible and theology from one concept to another," von Dobschutz writes, "but everything remains idea without substance. One forgets entirely that Primitive Christianity was actually a very concrete phenomenon."[17]

It is high time these things were being said, but without Bultmann it is hard to imagine their ever being said by modern pastors and priests, for the charges against that alarming man are precisely those to which they are most susceptible themselves. For Bultmann by calling a spade a spade is smoking out the temporizers and spiritualizers by forcing them to take a stand. Many years ago Bultmann himself jarred a cornerstone of "liberal" religion with the announcement that "a revealed religion must insist that it is the only true religion, nothing less than the Truth,"[18]  thereby declaring that the true church must be a "narrow," not a "liberal" one.

We believe that Bultmann is quite wrong in choosing to throw away the old Christian eschatology in that the ministry has no chance but to oppose him; but he is quite right in insisting on the terrible truth that if you don't throw it away you have to believe it! There he has the ministry checkmated, or rather they have checkmated themselves, for it is they who for over a century and a quarter have with a single voice hurled against the Mormons the awful charge of actually believing in visions, miracles, and the visitation of angels! And now Bultmann tells them they must believe in those things, too, or else forget about them.

But what now complicates the game, to the embarrassment of both players, is the increasingly frequent and maddeningly unpredictable introduction of new pieces onto the board. New discoveries of documents are "compromising" modern Christianity more deeply all the time, making it harder and harder for anyone who would call himself a Christian to brush the old eschatological teachings aside. At the same time the realities of the hydrogen bomb and the very real possibility of world destruction have occasioned a world-wide resurgence of eschatological thinking.

Forty-seven years ago Father Lagrange could dismiss the apocalyptic presentation of the old eschatology with contempt: true, he admitted, it was strictly orthodox doctrine and the early Christians were all for it, but it was a mistake just the same, "a false literary genre, whose overheated imaginings leave hardheaded people (les gens de sangfroid) unimpressed." For Lagrange it was all "a huge exertion in which a few flashes of bon sens illuminated a brain-sick nightmare."[19]

That is how it all looked to the safe and solid world of 1909. But what do we read today in a leading Catholic journal? "We know that thou hast been with us daily until now, and that thou shalt be with us forever," writes the editor in Church Latin, making a necessary concession to the official viewpoint, which definitely frowns upon teachings of the Second Coming.[20]

Thou dwellest among us, near us, in the land which is thine and ours. . . . But now has come a time in which thou must appear to us again, and give to this generation a sign that thou canst not put off nor deny. . . . For thou seest, Christ, our need, thou knowest how great is our necessity, our helplessness, our poverty, our desperation; thou knowest how badly we need thy coming, how necessary is thy return. Come, Christ, even as lightning, and as lightning depart; only appear to us, hear our prayer: come and go and speak but one word, one coming and one departing. . . .

Send us a sign—lightning in the sky or a light by night: let the heavens be opened, let the night be lighted: give us but an hour of thine eternity; in place of thy long silence give us but one word. . . . We do not, we do not ask for a great descent in heavenly glory, nor for the splendor of the Transfiguration. . . . Often after the resurrection didst thou appear to the living, and to those who meant to hate thee . . . didst thou show thy countenance. . . . Thou, who didst so often return for but a few, why dost thou not now return but once for all of us? If they deserved to see thee . . . surely we in our utter desperation deserve to see thee. . . . Never has thy word been so necessary as it is today . . . the rule of Satan has reached its full maturity . . . the only remaining hope is in thy return.

Return, O Christ, return! . . . We expect thee, Christ, at this end-time; we expect thee daily, although we are unworthy and although our desire is an impossible one, still we shall expect thee.[21]

Where now is the clerical sang froid and bon sens? When the world is topsy-turvy and the danger is real, Christians have a way of suddenly remembering how fundamental to the gospel are those eschatological and Messianic concepts of which official Christianity disapproves. The ancient faith was no summertime religion, and its preoccupation with eschatology—the "end of all things"—no "brain-sick nightmare" but a hard-won decision to consider things as they are.

[1] Ian Henderson, Myth in the New Testament (London: SCM Press, 1952), 10-11.

[2] Ibid. 9.

[3] Ibid. 11-12.

[4] See my discussion in The World and the Prophets (Salt Lake City: Deseret, 1954

[5] Henderson, Myth in the New Testament, 13. Italics are Henderson's.

[6] Hugo Winckler, "Geschichte und Geographie," in Eberhard Schrader, Die Keilinschriften und das Alte Testament, 3rd ed. (Berlin: Reuther and Reichard, 1903), 209, 222.


[7] E.g., Bauer, Kalthoff, Hoekstra, Pierson, Naber, E. Johnson, J. M. Robertson, W. B. Smith, P. Jensen, C. P. Fuhrmann, A. Drews, A. Niemojewski, P. L. Couchard, George Brandes. The subject is discussed by Eisler, Iesous Basileus ou Basileusas 1:xiv-xvii.

[8] Ibid. 1:205.

[9] Albert Schweitzer, Geschichte der Leben-Jesu-Forschung (Tubingen: Mohr, 1921) 3:2.

[10] R. Bultmann, "Die Frage der Entmythologisierung," Theologische Zeitschrift 10 (1954): 93: "Dass es ein solches Zusprechen gibt, indem Gott nicht als Gottesidee . . . sondern als mein Gott, der hier und jetzt zu mir spricht, u.z.w. durch den Mund von Menschen, das ist der 'entmythologisierte' Sinn des ho logos sarx egeneto, der kirchlichen Inkarnationslehre." The reader will note that the author's translation, though all but incomprehensible, still lacks something of the density of the German original. The authority of mere jargon in these discussions cannot be overestimated.

[11] Ibid., 94. The remarks on the preceding note apply here.

[12] Schweitzer, Geschichte der Leben-Jesu-Forschung 3:12.

[13] The subject is treated at length by Eisler, Iesous Basileus ou Basileusas 1:179-95.

[14] M. Burrows, "Thy Kingdom Come" Journal of Biblical Literature 74 (1955): 8.

[15] Ibid. 3.

[16] Oscar Cullmann, Urchristentum und Gottesdienst (Zurich: Zwingli, 1950), 57.

[17] Ernst von Dobschutz, "Die Kirche im Urchristentum," Zeitschrift fur die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft 28 (1929): 108. Henderson, Myth in the New Testament, 13-14, makes the same objection: Bultmann "ignores the fact that Christianity is an event."

[18] Bultmann, "Untersuchungen zum Johannes Evangelium," Zeitschrift fur die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft 27 (1928): 118-19.

[19] Lagrange, Le Messianisme chez les Juifs, 135, 39.

[20] For an official statement, see Robert Koch, "Der Gottesgeist und der Messias," Biblica 27 (1946): 260-68.

[21] Riccardo Avallone, "Veni, Christe!" Antiquitas 8 (1953): 17-21. This is a translation from G. Papini, which, however, the editor considers particularly applicable to the present time, 21.