A friend and I were having a conversation about McLaren’s now-old book The Secret Message of Jesus. Here is something I wrote to him about chapter 19, which talks about the apocalyptic literature in the New Testament. I’m including it here for posterity, and in case anyone wants to disagree.
McLaren says that the book of Revelation in the New Testament is part of Jewish apocalyptic literature, a subset of something called “the literature of the oppressed”. He states that this literature is intended to be difficult to understand in an attempt to perhaps throw the the authorities off the track.
McLaren then extends this argument to the sayings of Jesus. He is telling us that Jesus is shrouding his predictions/promises/warnings in the same way as other literature of the oppressed, presumably so that Jesus himself wouldn’t be accused of subversion. Unfortunately for Jesus, then, it didn’t work, as he was executed for precisely this crime — treason.
Jesus appears to be recalling some Old Testament prophets (namely Daniel) in some of his statements; I don’t know if McLaren is lumping those OT passages in with Jewish apocalyptic literature. Are all apocalyptic messages a part of the literature of the oppressed and therefore intentionally obscure? Again, is Jesus really trying to hide his message from the authorities in order to escape detection? Jesus never seemed to be the kind of guy to run from a fight.
I want to take one example from the chapter. McLaren criticizes those who take “the moon will be turned to blood” literally. He says, “Jesus and his contemporaries should not be presumed to believe that the moon would literally be turned into a mixture of white blood cells, red blood cells, and plasma”. This strikes me as a classic strawman fallacy, where he sets up an easily refuted argument, and claims that this argument is what other people are thinking. Is there anyone who REALLY thinks the moon will become a giant drop of blood? Would it not be more accurate to say that some people will think the moon will appear as red as blood at some point?
I find the bloody moon imagery originally in Joel. It was referenced both by Peter on the day of Pentecost, and by John in Revelation 6. I’m no scholar, but I wonder if it’s an exaggeration to say that all apocalyptic literature is in this nudge-nudge-wink-wink secret code. Perhaps McLaren is saying that Peter and John adopted Joel’s non-oppressed apocalyptic imagery to make their own oppressed apocalyptic imagery. John might be trying to play coy with the authorities, but Peter didn’t seem to be trying to hide from anyone on that day. Or maybe Peter was unfamiliar with the notion of the literature of the oppressed and used the passage out of context?
McLaren seems to really be saying this: some people mistakenly think that the book of Revelation and the apocalyptic statements of Jesus are a secret code that can be unlocked to give us a timeline of specific endtime events. They’re wrong, according to McLaren. These passages are really a secret code, intending to inspire us to remain faithful in difficulty.
I have a problem with this. McLaren is simply substituting one code for another. The moon turning to blood doesn’t mean that it will turn red; it means that devastating political changes will occur. The stars falling from the sky doesn’t mean that actual stars will land on the earth (does ANYONE really believe that? another strawman); it means the temple will be destroyed. We can see that McLaren’s code is at least as cryptic as the code used by folks in the Left Behind camp, which is the body he seems to be arguing against. McLaren’s code is superior, he apparently says, precisely because of its greater mystery.
This being said, let me make it clear that I am NOT a Left Behind adherent. However, I do believe that there is some sort of timeline; that is, the world as we know it will end at some point, and Jesus the Judge will return. McLaren must shroud this imagery in code also if he is to be consistent. Perhaps he does.