Eight (8) Myths of Popular Piety in Good Omens

Last night I finished watching through the Amazon Prime show, Good Omens. I was already familiar with the story, having read the Pratchett/Gaiman book several years ago. The show itself was reasonably entertaining, theologically absurd, sometimes hilarious, often dumb, but through it all David Tennant and Michael Sheen really shone as a pair of 6000-year-long friends haplessly trying to prevent the end of the world.

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Good Omens isn’t really about Christianity. What it’s about is, well, itself, and part of that self is to parody the 1976 film The Omen, in which the antichrist is born, placed in the care of an American diplomat, and through those channels brings about the imminent end of the world. Good Omens is that story, but gone screwy, partly because of the actions of Aziraphale, a compassionate but somewhat dimwitted angel, and Crowley, a clever but only accidental demon, who together happen to have struck up an unlikely friendship over the past millennia. Things go wrong, some things go right, some things are silly, and if you like those sorts of things, then Good Omens is definitely worth a few nights of your life. But if your knickers get into a twist over any irreverence associated with Christianity, then this show ain’t for you.

In fact, criticizing Good Omens (as some have been doing), is a pretty clear Proverbs 26:4 moment—that in answering the fool according to his folly, we become fools like him. The show is absurdism, and critiquing it makes the self-styled critic absurd. Much like getting upset about satire, raging about Good Omens proves that the joke’s on you.

In the next paragraphs I’m about to offer a critique of eight religious myths present, and prominent, in Good Omens. But let’s be clear that I’m not really talking about Good Omens. I’m talking about these myths of popular piety that are so common, and so prevalent, that they become part of the fabric of Good Omens without our batting an eye. Let’s dig in.

Adam and Eve with Apple

  1. There’s no mention of an apple in the Adam and Eve story.

I think this is still a surprise to many people. The Genesis text mentions two trees—the tree of life, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The serpent tempts Eve to take fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, but we’re never told what the fruit is. It could have been an apple, yes, but it also could have been a pear, peach, plum, or pomegranate. Come to think of it, since none of us has ever seen a tree of the knowledge of good and evil, we’ve no idea what its fruit looks like anyway. All we know is that it looked good to eat.

  1. Few people in the early history of Judaism/Christianity thought the world was 6000 years old.

The earliest authoritative interpreters we have for the Genesis text (Origen and Augustine) explicitly urge caution in reading the Genesis 1-2 story literally. Much of church history followed their lead, and yet the passion for maths + scripture (which always = confusion) was irresistible for some. It appears that many of the more modern numbers (i.e., 4004BC as creation date) are, in fact, more modern, stemming from new understandings of dating and the sciences. Many early Christians, following Augustine, believed the earth was created instantly, out of nothing, at an unspecified time. All that to say, there is both no consensus in the Church about the age of the earth, and most people in history haven’t lost any sleep over it. I suggest we join them in that practice.

lucifer-luc-viatour-cc-by-sa-3-0

  1. Satan is, in fact, just another angel.

In popular piety, Satan is considered a superbeing, coequal with Christ and God’s chief opponent—as the embodiment of evil—in the universe. But the truth of the matter is that Satan (we believe) is nothing more than a fallen angel. He’s more like Crowley and Aziraphale than like Christ. In fact, some have speculated, his chief opponent in heaven is Michael the Archangel, rather than anyone else. What is more, as many angels appear to have specific functions (see the Angel of Death in the Exodus narrative), Satan also seems to have a specific function—he is the accuser (that’s what ha satan means in Hebrew). He shows up in Job and, well, accuses. He shows up in the Garden and, well, accuses (that God is deceptive). That’s his function. Furthermore, as a (former) angel he has no corporality. That’s what it means to be an angelic being. He also doesn’t have the power to create anything, so the idea that Satan is going to cause a child to be born—his own son—after the pattern of God and Christ is, again, absurd. He doesn’t have that power. He can’t create. He’s just a spirit.

Harrowing of Hell_Fra-Angelico-c.-1440-Museo-di-San-Marco-Florence

  1. Hell belongs to Jesus.

I grimace a little whenever I hear people claim they want to go to hell because that’s where all the party people are. The thing they don’t realize is that Jesus descended into hell, released from there its captives, took Satan himself captive, and now reigns as lord of Heaven, Earth, and Hell itself. Hell isn’t the domain of evil, it’s the place of the dead. The domain of the evil is, for the moment, the earth. At the end, Satan and all his followers will be cast into hell, but they aren’t there yet. When they do go there, they’ll be under the command of Jesus. (That’s right, in Christian theology there’s nowhere to go from Jesus at the end.)

  1. The “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” serve Jesus.

No image of the apocalypse has been more evocative than the four horsemen—war, famine, plague, and death, who come to the earth bringing stages of destruction. In Good Omens, the four horsemen are the friends of the antichrist, his servants to bring about the end of the world. But the truth of the matter is that these four horsemen are agents of God. He summons them, they do His bidding, and they serve a function—that is, to remove our capacity to trust in politics (war), wealth (famine), health (plague), and life itself (death). Later in John’s Revelation, another horseman shows up—this time on a white horse, with the words, “King of Kings and Lord of Lords” written on his clothes. I wonder, who could this white horseman be?

angel-of-death-3If you really want to get your brain in a pickle, there’s a good chance all the horsemen are angelic powers as well. Death looks a lot like, well, the Angel of Death. War looks a lot like, well, the Angel of War—Michael the Archangel. Plague and Famine are less easy to place, but the plot remains suspiciously similar: functionaries, they serve the functions of the Almighty.

  1. Antichrist is a way of being, not an individual.

Popular piety seems to love the idea of antichrist being a specific person, a kind of anti-Jesus who is the incarnated son of the devil—someone we can look for, and check our news sources to find. But (per myth 3), if we remember that Satan is merely another angel with no creative power, then we’re already in trouble. If we also remember that Satan isn’t even remotely God’s equal, things get more troubling still. And even more worrying is the warning in 1 John 2:18, “Children, it is the last hour; and just as you heard that antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have appeared; from this we know that it is the last hour.” Wait, what? Many antichrists? And they’ve already appeared? What’s going on?

The solution to the puzzle is to realize that antichrist is a way of being, not a specific person. If we can discern what it is to be in the way of Christ, then we can work out by deduction what it means to live anti that way. What is the way of Christ? Self-sacrifice, power surrendered in service, kingship by means of a cross. When Satan tempts Jesus in Matthew’s gospel, he offers him all the kingdoms of the world in exchange for worship. Jesus refuses, and while the temptation may seem bald and obvious (why worship Satan?) the real sting of it was in the opportunity to skip the cross. Come along, Satan may have whispered, you can have all that is yours without the costly suffering and shame. Just bend a knee! To be in the way of Christ is to embrace a difficult suffering after the pattern of Christ. It follows, by deduction, that to be in the way of anti-Christ is to reject self-sacrifice, to cling to power in the service of what we think is right, and to take kingship without a cross. This is how there can be, and have been, and are at this very moment, many antichrists.

New Jerusalem

If you really need evidence for why we’ve got to be informed readers, and competent interpreters of difficult imagery, just look at the stuff created by people reading John’s Revelation too literally.

  1. The world doesn’t end in the Bible, it’s made new.

The whole idea of the world ending is a little odd, especially since our religious text makes it more than explicit that no such thing happens. Revelation 21:1-2 is quite clear, “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth passed away, and there is no longer any sea. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband.” The end of the world is, well, a new world. It isn’t the end, it’s a renewal. And not only is it a renewal, if you look closely you’ll realize that nobody goes to heaven at the end of the story. Instead, heaven comes down. That, in point of fact, is what the book of John’s Revelation is all about—not the end of the world, but the arrival of heaven.

  1. John’s Revelation is not about the future, but the present.

The most pervasive and unfortunate myth of popular piety is that John’s Revelation is about the future. It isn’t. Or, at least, most of it isn’t. Most of it is about the present. There’s a bit of confusion about the language of “end times.” They aren’t coming in the future, they’ve been going on since Christ rose from the dead. The end times are now, and have been now for the past 2000 years. Take the four horsemen again. They systematically strip away all human hopes for change—through power, wealth, health, or the imagination of immortality. When have war, famine, plague, and death not been part of our human story? The horsemen aren’t coming in the future, they’re here now—and they are challenging you to place your hope in something else. Something more powerful, lasting, and eternal. The four horsemen disrupt our false confidences so that we can place our confidence in a more lasting place—on the fifth horseman.

I’m certain that these myths aren’t going away. They’re too deeply entrenched in our religious and cultural subconscious. They also make for such entertaining stories! Of these, Good Omens is good fun, but that’s all it is. If you don’t go to it for your eschatology, you’ll be fine. But you shouldn’t have been doing that anyway.

Matthew 24, Genesis 1, and the Eternal Reign of King Jesus

In Matthew 24 Jesus gives an extensive sermon on the end of the world, teaching his disciples what to look for in the near future. He describes wars and rumors of wars, false christs, earthquakes, and other terrible events. At the end, Jesus says that the following will happen:

29 “Immediately after the distress of those days

             “‘the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light;
the stars will fall from the sky,
and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’ 

 30 “At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and all the nations of the earth will mourn. They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory. 31 And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other.

 32 “Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. 33 Even so, when you see all these things, you know that itis near, right at the door. 34 I tell you the truth, this generationwill certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. 35 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away. [Matthew 24:29-35, NIV]

There are three (relatively) clear events that Jesus identifies here: first, the darkening of the heavenly bodies (quoting Isaiah); second, the visible arrival of Christ, the Son of Man (esp. v.30); and third, that these things will happen within the lifetime of the present generation (v.34).

End times speculation, despite Jesus’ specific warning (that nobody knows the day or hour of his return—v.36) and exhortation (to live faithful lives as if the return could be any moment—v.42-44), has flourished, and this passage has been a frequent victim of misguided exegesis. A part of the confusion stems from the nature of end-times speculation, but another part from the reality that this is a highly layered and textured passage. I cannot treat the whole in depth at this time, but for today’s purposes I want to focus our attention on Jesus’ quotation from Isaiah and what that means for the end times in light of Biblical Theology.

An evocative and powerful image...

Regarding Matthew 24:29—the darkening of the sun and moon with the falling of the stars—I have understood there to be two broad interpretations. The one I grew up with was a literal darkening; that the cosmic order would itself collapse with the return of Jesus and that the demise of sun, moon, and stars would be a herald of the parousia. The popularity of this interpretation is no doubt linked to its powerful imagery; we can easily picture this happening. Consequently, it shows up in our interpretations of the event—even good interpretations such as C.S. Lewis’s The Last Battle (which had a profound and lasting effect on my young eschatology).

The other interpretation, which I encountered as I grew in awareness of critical scholarship (‘critical’ here meaning thorough, not skeptical), is that the darkening of the heavens is a prophetic image which identifies the symbolic, and not literal, end of the cosmic order.

Let’s consider the two places in Isaiah where this message of cosmic disordering occurs, and from which Jesus has likely drawn his source. Isaiah 13:9-13 is a passage of cosmic judgment—the sun, moon, and stars are darkened as a preamble for the revelation of God’s judgment against mankind when God will “destroy sinners” and “make the land desolate.” Isaiah 34:1-17 is the same message, although judgment is preached against “the nations” and the dissolution of the cosmos is combined with the image of the fig tree dropping its fruit (v.4—which echoes Jesus fig tree reference in Matt 24:32). Clearly, the context Jesus wishes to evoke by quoting this passage is that the final judgment of all the people who oppose God’s ways (both sinners and the nations) is at hand.

Other Old Testament passages that speak of the sun, moon, and stars cast even more light on Jesus’ meaning in Matthew 24. Genesis 37:9ff documents Joseph’s prophetic dream wherein he saw his father, mother, and brothers as the sun, moon, and stars bowing down to him. He foresaw a reordering of his family, where a younger son was given the authority over all his family (in some violation of the present cultural order). Deuteronomy 4:19 admonishes Israel against worshipping the heavenly bodies as the other nations do. Psalm 148:8 describes these heavenly bodies worshipping God themselves. And Jeremiah 8:2 predicts judgment against the people who have worshipped these heavenly bodies, rather than God—they will get what they have worshipped (that is, nothing at all).

Now, given these Old Testament referents (referents which no doubt strongly inform Jesus’ use of this passage), it seems that our interpretation could go both ways. There may, or may not, be a catastrophic cosmic dissolution. The events are clearly symbolic of other realities (judgment and reordering, to name two), but these passages alone do not permit us to determine whether it is a metaphorical or literal occurrence.

But one further passage casts a different light on this whole meta-structure of Biblical thought on the sun, moon, and stars: Genesis 1. Many have observed an implicit oddity about that passage—that light is created on the first day, but that the sun, moon, and stars do not appear until the fourth day. This has troubled many. Knowing, as we do, that light is generated by the sun, for some it testifies to the implicit falsehood of the creation story. Others have sought to reconcile this account with science by appealing to the science of planet creation, observing certain kinds of atmospheric coverage that would block visible light but allow other forms of radiation. But no solution draws near to John Walton’s in simplicity, consistency, and elegance. He observes in The Lost World of Genesis One a parallelism between days one and four, two and five, and three and six. That the first three days mark the creation of cosmic spaces, and the second three days populate those cosmic spaces. Let’s view these in reverse in order to make it clear—day three is the creation of the ground, and day six is the creation of the animals that populate the ground (both beasts and man). Day two is the creation of the sea and sky, and day five is the creation of the fish and the birds. And day one is the creation of time, and day three the beings that govern (or populate) time. This may seem strange at first, but step for a moment into the mind of an ancient person and this will become imminently clear. How do you measure a day? By the light of the sun. How do you measure a month? By the phases of the moon. And how do you measure the seasons? By the light of the constellations in the sky. The sun, moon, and stars are the bodies God has created (they are not deities themselves) and they govern our days, months, and seasons.

With this in mind, let us return at last to Matthew 24, and I think we will perceive Jesus’ words in the fresh light of a biblical cosmology. We should note, first, that immediately after the darkening of the heavenly bodies, in verse 30 Jesus says that “At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and all the nations of the earth will mourn.” And the image is that as the old cosmic order sets, the new cosmic order of Christ rises. That Christ’s coming on the clouds with power and great glory is the dawn of the new cosmic era, the next age of the created order. That no longer will the sun, moon, and stars determine our times—whether as beings under God’s creation or the falsely worshipped deities of other nations—but Christ alone shall be the measure of our time and existence. That Christ will be the supreme measure of all things, for all time (Eph. 1:19-23). That all the nations will mourn because the rise of Christ is the enthronement ceremony of the highest judge, the Day of the Lord, the last, unending, inescapable day of God’s great reign in Christ. That in the city from which God reigns there shall be neither sun nor moon, for “the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp” (Rev. 21:23). The darkening of the heavens means that the old order has passed away, and that the new order has come in Christ.

Funny that the Medieval's got the right idea...

A final word is in order, because Jesus promises in Matthew 24:34-35 that the present generation wouldn’t pass away until “all these things have happened.” And we must recognize that in the resurrection of Christ the new order of things has begun, his reign has started, and that with his Ascension Jesus Christ was raised into the clouds and seated at God’s right hand. We still wait for his final return, but the end times have begun and we are in the midst of them. Our attention must not focus on current events, earthquakes, wars, rumors of wars, or false christs, but at all times on Christ the Risen One, who rises over our universe as its final authority. Jesus’ use, then, of the image of the darkening of the sun, moon, and stars identifies not, primarily, a literal cosmic event, but the literal rise of Christ as the supreme ruler of all. And even as Joseph saw the heavens bowing to him in a dream, Christ will see all bow to him in reality. One day, perhaps, the sun and moon will truly fall from our sky—heaven and earth may pass away—but regardless of those events, for those of us who follow Christ he is even now the sun who gives light and measure to our lives, who governs our times, who is the perfect and merciful judge of all, and to whom we owe our total worship.