Bad theology kills.
What you think about God and your work changes your life.
Good morning. This is working theology.
The hit Netflix show Tiger King is one of the craziest stories I’ve ever seen, but what struck me most was when Joe Exotic came face-to-face with bad theology, and how that ended up destroying his life.
In one of the earliest episodes, Joe explains a moment he had with his father that profoundly affected him. Here’s a summary from The Daily Beast:
Joe spent three years beginning in 1983 as a cop for real, patrolling in nearby Eastvale, a languid, quarter-mile-long Dallas suburb. That year [sibling] Yarri outed Joe as gay to his father, who made Joe shake his hand, and promise not to attend his funeral. Soon after, a devastated Joe drove his squad car off a bridge in an apparent suicide attempt.
Joe’s family, you see, was Catholic, which meant that to Joe’s father homosexuality was a sin. Yet instead of acknowledging his own sin and loving his son because God loves him (despite his sin), showing him a more hopeful future, Joe’s father spurned and turned away from Joe, nearly killing his own son.
This is what bad theology does. It exchanges hope for hopelessness, beauty for bitterness, and love for fear.
Perhaps you’ve had an experience like that too. Or maybe you knew someone who was a leader in the church who gave you a destructive example of spirituality and theology. Instead of showing you the beauties of redemption and glory as the world progresses toward the kingdom of heaven on earth, they showed you nothing but ruin.
I’ve been that person. I’ve used theology as a weapon of criticism and smugness, for which I carry with me the sting of regret. But God loves me and changed me, and he loves you and can change you too.
In academic theology, there are three major views on the future of the world, which we call eschatology from the Greek word eschaton, or “last things.” These are premillennialism, amillennialism, and postmillennialism. The details are unimportant (you can read Wikipedia),† but note that the “millennial” part refers to the thousand-year reign of Christ over the kingdom of earth depicted in Revelation. These terms help theologians unpack what the future could be.
The premillennial view suggests that the earth is becoming worse and worse until Jesus returns in clouds of fire to rapture his people and begin the tribulation, last judgment, and the thousand-year reign. Hence, premillennial—Jesus returns before the thousand years. This is a predominant view in American evangelicalism, about which you’ve heard through popular books and movies like The Left Behind.
Of course, it’s not that premillennialism is bad theology per se—many fine theologians interpret scripture this way—but it’s what humans do with this interpretation that makes their theology bad. A view like this ingrains itself in our culture to the point that it can often breed hopelessness or apathy. No doubt you’ve heard Christians say something like, “Well, what’s the point in taking care of the planet if it’s just going to burn up when Jesus comes back?” You get the point.
The other views flip the script. Instead of deterioration and destruction, amillennial and postmillennial theology suggests that the world is getting better because we’re living in the thousand-year reign now, in arguably a symbolic interpretation of “a thousand years.” Jesus’ reign started when he ascended to the throne of heaven after his resurrection.
This means we ought to be taking better care of ourselves, our neighbors, our government, and our planet because Jesus will return to bring the kingdom of heaven to earth. It means our mission—the purpose for which we work—is to restore the promise of Eden and prepare the earth for the coming king and his eternal city.
You can see how one view is a negative, often hopeless depiction of the future while the other is positive and hopeful.
Without hope, we will literally die due to stress and despair.
Essentially, without meaningful work and expectant hope, we humans literally, physically die. Joe Exotic, for example, felt hopeless and tried to commit suicide. Then, without the ability to imagine a positive future, he destroyed his body and mind with drugs. Later in life he was consumed with bitterness and hatred toward Carole Baskin, from which he wound up in prison for probably the rest of his life.
I also heard a story this week about a prominent doctor in New York killing herself after experiencing tremendous grief and trauma, watching so many people die in her care because of the virus.
The term “deaths of despair” mentioned above is used a lot around economic mobility, income inequality, and meaningful work. Economists who study this phenomenon use Appalachia as an example: When factory jobs and coal mines left the area during the ’90s and 2000s, workers felt hopeless, and many turned to drugs and suicide, ultimately becoming the hot bed of the opioid epidemic. JD Vance explores this story thoroughly in his book Hillbilly Elegy, which I wrote about last week.
Bad theology kills because it leaves us without hope. Yes, hopelessness obviously results from a mixture of things, not just bad theology—changing technology and demographics, temperament, pandemics, wars, and so on—but hope can see us through these tribulations.
The Christian church, and indeed the Christian life, is not without destruction and decay. Every apostle in the New Testament was murdered and tortured for their faith, and many important theologians throughout history have struggled deeply with depression, like Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and Spurgeon. Every person experiences loss, depression, anxiety, fear, and greed. We all do, without exception.
Things are hard now. There’s no question. Over thirty million people have filed for unemployment in just a few weeks—that’s almost 20% of the workforce. Many are barely getting by.
However, a hopeful theology can help wake you up the next day to continue loving your neighbor and fighting for life, even in some small way. It is for this kind of future that we must strive in our daily work.
Thanks for reading.
† If you’re interested in more about these eschatologies, there’s a great debate about the different views from very astute theologians—all the goodness and complexity of each interpretation—called “An Evening of Eschatology” on Desiring God.