Could Christ return at any moment?
My guess is that most evangelicals today would respond, “Of course!” In fact, I suspect a “No” answer would seem close to heresy. Indeed, the idea that Christ could return at any moment has become part of fundamental orthodoxy for many believers in the last 200 years. So it may surprise you to hear me suggest that not only does this teaching have little or no biblical evidence, but also the Bible actually teaches the opposite.
Don’t misunderstand—I do believe in the imminence of Christ’s return, as I’ll explain below. But first, I want to offer evidence for why an imminent return isn’t the same as an any-moment return.
Reasons for Delay
The idea of an any-moment return stands in tension with the idea that certain events must precede Christ’s return. And contrary to the notion of an any-moment return, the New Testament predicts that many events must occur before his return. These events require a necessary delay, which Jesus teaches us to expect (Matt. 24:45–51; 25:5, 19; Luke 18:7; 19:11–27). Let me give you five of these “delaying” events:
- Carrying out the Great Commission demanded some delay (Matt. 24:14; 28:18–20; Acts 1:8; 22:21; 23:11; 27:24).
- The death of Peter in old age required many years of delay (John 21:18–19; 2 Pet. 1:14).
- The destruction of Jerusalem and the carrying of the Jews captive into all the nations until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled must occur first (Luke 21:23–38). Since most of the New Testament was written before that destruction, at least those parts of the New Testament can’t encourage believers to expect an any-moment return.
- The commission of Paul to take the gospel far away to the Gentiles, and the prediction that he would bear witness at Rome, entailed some delay in the second coming (Acts 9:15; 22:21; 23:11).
- Perhaps most clearly of all, 2 Thessalonians 2:1–12 contains Paul’s explicit teaching that the signs of the apostasy and the man of lawlessness must occur “first,” and it connects these events with a period just prior to Christ’s second coming. Such teaching is inconsistent with any-moment expectation of Christ’s return.
Just a couple of remarks. First, some of these things have clearly occurred and thus no longer stand between us and Christ’s return. But all of them show that any-moment-ness isn’t an intrinsic part of imminence.
Second, Christians who hold to any-moment-return teaching often seek to account for these passages by distinguishing two stages of Christ’s return: a secret, pre-tribulation rapture that could occur at any moment; and a public, post-tribulation appearing that will have signs preceding it. This is a valiant effort, but as we will see, it runs afoul of the New Testament data.
Having said all this, let me hasten to say again that I do believe in the imminence of Christ’s return. But the question is how the term imminence should be defined. The English words imminence and imminent are seldom used in our translations of the Bible. A quick search shows only one use in the NASB (with reference to Peter’s death, 2 Pet. 1:14) and none in the ESV. So if we choose to use this word to describe the impending character of Christ’s second coming, we don’t have a ready-made biblical definition. We must define it as the Bible’s eschatology requires.
So how does the Bible describe the impending character of Christ’s second coming? It’s defined in terms of nearness. The New Testament teaches that Christ’s return has drawn near (Heb. 10:25), is near (Rev. 22:10), and is nearer now than when we believed (Rom. 13:11).
An imminent return isn’t the same as an any-moment return.
But both common sense and biblical usage tell us that for something to be near, and for it to be possible to happen at any moment, are two different things. For example, Jewish feasts are often spoken of in Scripture as being near. Such feasts—far from occurring at any moment—fell on set days during the year (John 2:13; 6:4; 7:2; 11:55). Nearness language is also applied to the seasons of the year (Matt. 21:34; 24:32; Mark 12:38; Luke 21:30), which occur at regular intervals. Finally, this terminology is used of an obviously post-tribulational return of Christ in Luke 21:28 and 1 Peter 4:7, which all would agree must be preceded by signs rather than occurring at any moment.
What About Expectancy and Alertness?
Many suggest the biblical ideas of expectancy or alertness imply the any-moment-ness of Christ’s return. But this isn’t necessarily so.
Take the idea of expectancy. Common sense reveals that we often wait expectantly for things we know can’t come at any moment, such as the arrival of spring. Further, each Greek word conveying expectancy is used of eschatological events that everyone admits can’t occur at any moment:
- “the appearing of the glory of our great God” (Titus 2:13)
- “the revealing of the sons of God” (Rom. 8:19)
- “the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 1:7)
- “the coming of the day of God, on account of which the heavens will be destroyed by burning, and the elements will melt with intense heat” (2 Pet. 3:12)
- the arrival of a “new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells” (2 Pet. 3:13)
Even Christians who affirm the any-moment return of Christ agree that these events occur after the final tribulation. And yet the terminology of expectancy is used of all of them.
The same is true with alertness (i.e., remaining awake and sober). The terminology of alertness occurs frequently, for instance, in the Olivet Discourse of a coming “after the tribulation of those days” (Matt. 24:29, 42–44; cf. 1 Pet. 1:13; 4:7). In short, even from a pretribulational, any-moment perspective, these events are post-tribulational, and therefore can’t occur at any moment. And yet the terminology of alertness is still applied to them.
It’s impossible to deduce any-moment-ness from the terminology of expectancy or alertness.
Thus, it’s impossible to deduce any-moment-ness from the terminology of expectancy or alertness. Biblically speaking, you can be expectant and alert for Christ’s return without believing that he could return at any moment with no predicted signs preceding it.
What Difference Does It Make?
This whole discussion may seem like quibbling over fine points, and I don’t wish to overstate its importance. Still, unbiblical teaching can never be totally without cost. So let’s consider briefly why it matters.
Perhaps the chief practical problem is this: Any-moment imminence approaches the error of the Thessalonian believers who thought that the day of the Lord had come (2 Thess. 2:1–2). This mistaken belief seems to have led to a loss of composure and long-term vision, with the Thessalonians quitting their jobs and so on (2 Thess. 3:6–15).
You can be expectant and alert for Christ’s return without believing that he could return at any moment with no predicted signs preceding it.
Significantly, Paul’s response to the Thessalonian error is to assure them that that day won’t come until certain events happen first (2 Thess. 2:3–12). We may debate over who “the restrainer” is or whether we’ll be able to recognize the man of lawlessness when he appears. But it’s not up for debate that in Thessalonica any-moment imminence bore ill fruit, and Paul responded by flatly denying it and assuring them that certain signs would precede Christ’s coming.
I’m not claiming that all (or even most) of those who hold any-moment imminence fall into this error. But I am saying there is a great resemblance between it and the Thessalonian error, and it has often been connected with Christian withdrawal from cultural efforts and institutions. I’m suggesting we ought to imitate Paul rather than the Thessalonians, lest we partake of their errors.
Samuel Zwemer was challenged to give his life in service to Christ and the nations while a student at Hope College in his hometown of Holland, Michigan. And Zwemer set his compass for one of the hardest, most neglected places on the planet: Arabia, the epicenter of Islam, a hostile place both physically and spiritually.
After language study in Beirut, Zwemer reached the Arabian Peninsula in 1890. Maps and demographic information were sketchy, but Zwemer was aided by the help of Major General F. T. Haig, whose expeditions into the interior and love for missions gave him special insight into the situation on the ground.
In 1896 Zwemer married the equally intrepid Amy Elizabeth Wilkes, an English nurse serving in Baghdad. The two made Bahrain, an island on the eastern shores of Arabia, their mission base and home. Together they were a gospel force: speaking of Christ at every opportunity, distributing Bibles, starting the first school for girls, providing orphan care, and, with a growing team, opening the island’s first hospital. They also co-authored a book written especially for children; it’s an extensive pictorial introduction to Arabia’s geography, culture, and gospel needs. It was remarkable for the times and, I believe, a reflection of their partnership in the work that their names are side by side on the cover of Topsy-Turvy World: Arabia Pictured for Children.
But Bahrain was also where Samuel and Amy suffered the deepest loss of their lives. In July 1904, dysentery swept through the community. In the space of a week, they buried their firstborn, a 7-year-old daughter named Amy, and their youngest daughter, 3-year-old Ruth. Years later Zwemer pulled back the curtain on their grief, and in doing so, showed the depths of their sorrow and their worship as they buried their precious ones. Zwemer said his wife wrote their daughters’ epitaph, which said simply: “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive riches.”
A few years ago I was traveling in the Middle East, bound for Jerusalem. Along the way I made a brief stop in Bahrain to find the graves of the little Zwemer girls. I wanted to see the place where the claims of the cross and the hope of the resurrection met for Samuel and Amy Zwemer.
I also wanted to see glimpses of gospel work there today.
Bahrain, March 9, 2015
As the sun sinks into the western wastelands of Arabia, the silhouetted cityscape could pass for a sci-fi movie set—the rocketship-shaped skyscraper across from my hotel looks ready to launch, and nearby glass-and-steel high-rises designed like sailboats lean into the sea breeze as night falls over Bahrain.
Bahrain, like a docking station on the Death Star, is tethered on the west to Saudi Arabia by a 16-mile-long causeway. Across the gulf to the east is Iran. So Bahrain is positioned between the two heavyweights of Islam: the Saudis and the Iranians—Sunni and Shia. Geography is destiny. The majority of Bahraini Muslims are Shia, but they are ruled by Sunni Arabs. Being a long-time seafaring trading stop on the Persian Gulf and one of the oil-rich city-states along eastern Arabia, Bahrain is a destination for workers and students from the region and from across south Asia. This diverse society is packed on a cluster of desert islands collectively the size of Austin’s city limits.
Today Bahrain is positioned between the two heavyweights of Islam: the Saudis and the Iranians—Sunni and Shia.
Through a friend of a friend, I met with Bill and Jeana, veteran missionaries who have spent nearly 30 years serving in Bahrain. They gave good insight to help me understand the situation on the ground. All of Arabia is hard. Some places are violently hostile to the gospel, but among the nations of the peninsula, Bahrain is one of the freest. The ethnic diversity and religious divide between Shia and Sunni have forced a bit more tolerance, which has opened the door a bit wider for Christians. Plus, there’s a still recognition of the role that Christians had in providing the first schools and hospitals more than a century ago. In fact, Bill and his wife came to Bahrain to serve in connection with the American Mission Hospital, which is the hospital started by Samuel and Amy Zwemer.
I was delighted that Bill and Jeana could show me around the hospital. Of course, a lot has changed since 1903. The one photograph I’ve seen of the original structure shows a simple, serviceable two-story hospital building, complete with a camel in the barren background. Today, the hospital is a modern, multistory facility that straddles a busy highway choked with cars instead of camels. A sky bridge connects the two sides of the hospital. Bill showed me the chapel, and a display that highlights the hospital’s history and Zwemer’s work. To me, the most striking feature was a window formed in the shape of a cross, which is clearly seen by all on the outside—and light-giving to all on the inside.
Afterward, with Bill’s help, we found the keeper of the key to the Old Christian Cemetery. The dusty half-acre is enclosed with a high wall, although several years ago a fanatic got in and smashed crosses and headstones. The damage was patched, and the place is well kept. In fact, after opening the gate, the caretaker went over the sandy ground with a broom, sweeping fallen palm fronds and seagull droppings off the graves. Crosses stood stark against the brown, barren ground. Buried here are sailors, soldiers, diplomats—mostly British—who died in service here. But there are also many small graves of children, who were most vulnerable to the epidemics that swept through the island with fearful unpredictability.
Their sorrow upon sorrow was also hope upon hope, for in Christ there is grace upon grace.
Some of the gospel pioneers are buried here, too, including Dr. Marion Thoms, the first female medical doctor in Bahrain; she died while saving others. Near her grave, I found the graves of Amy and Ruth Zwemer, who died within days of each other and were buried together. It’s a lonely spot. Zwemer wrote little about this suffering in his memoirs beyond recording the words of worship his wife wrote for their daughters’ epitaph, as they entrusted their little lambs into the strong, scarred hands of the worthy Lamb. When Zwemer was in his 80s, the old veteran returned here for the last time. In looking at his daughter’s graves he said, “If we should hold our peace, these very stones would cry out for the evangelization of Arabia.”
Because of the cross and empty tomb, their sorrow upon sorrow was also hope upon hope, for in Christ there is grace upon grace. Like the hospital window I saw today, the cross-shaped gospel brought light to their darkest days—and it brings life to all who put their trust in the Lamb.
Editors’ note: This excerpt is adapted from A Company of Heroes: Portraits from the Gospel’s Global Advance (Crossway, 2019).
The term “cultural Marxism” has recently entered the mainstream vocabulary of orthodox Christianity. A staple of the media of Twitter and blogs, it seems to have gone the way of all sophisticated ideas when reduced to a few hundred characters and placed in the hands of those with too much time to troll yet not apparently enough to think. It has become a verbal bullet, designed to kill any opponent on the left, much as “white privilege” has come to be used to hit those on the right.
Yet the emergence of the term, and even its deployment in inconsequential Twitter exchanges, points to an interesting and perhaps disturbing pathology of our times. Indeed, it witnesses to the fact that, while Karl Marx and his progeny may have lost the economic battle, a good case can be made for saying they’re winning the cultural struggle.
In this sense, we all live in Marx’s world now.
When Everything Becomes Political
To explain what I mean, it’s helpful to sketch some history. It was the 19th-century philosopher G. W. F. Hegel who forcefully argued that human selves do not exist in isolation as self-conscious beings, but only have self-consciousness as they relate to others. Here is how he expresses it in his Phenomenology of Spirit: “Self-consciousness exists in and for itself when, and by the fact that, it so exists for another; that is, it exists only in being acknowledged” (111).
To cut through the jargon and to put this simply, Hegel is saying that we know who we are by the relationship we have to others—our parents, our siblings, our spouses, our children, our colleagues, and so on. To be Carl Trueman is to exist in a network of specific relationships with other specific people, such that if I try to imagine what it would be like to be me but to have different parents, different friends, and so on, my head starts to spin. That person, whoever he might be, would not be me.
Bandying terms like ‘cultural Marxist’ and ‘racist’ around simply as a way of avoiding real argument is shameful and should have no place in Christian discourse.
So what has this to do with cultural Marxism?
Karl Marx—Hegel’s most famous one-time disciple—turned Hegel on his head (and thereby, he argued, put him the right way up). And that move had profound consequences. Like Hegel, Marx believed that human identity is constituted by social relationships; but—and here is the crucial move—those social relationship are not, as with Hegel, determined by thought, by ideas. They are, at root, material—specifically, they depend on the nature of one’s place in the economy.
This might sound like a fairly abstract point, but it is in fact a matter of great practical importance. If I’m constituted by my social relations, and all social relations are at root economic, then all social relations are also political. That means that everything that makes me into me is political as well. The notion that some social organisms—say, the family, or the church, or the Boy Scout troop—are pre-political, that they fulfill an important function not directly related to politics and stand outside the scope of political struggle, is thereby ruled out of bounds from the start. Culture—and everything in it—is a matter of politics, of the overall shape of society, of who oppresses and who is oppressed.
In light of this history, it can be argued that, culturally speaking, Marx did win—because his vision of a society where everything’s political is our world. From cake-baking to what consenting adults do in the privacy of their own bedrooms, from the gendered membership of school sports teams to the ordination requirements of a church to the casting of an actor in a movie, everything has taken on universal political significance. This is now part of the intuitive way in which we all think about society—whether we’re on the right or the left. Once one side decides, for example, that the Boy Scouts needs to admit girls in order to break down gender inequalities, then those who oppose this change aren’t acting in a politically neutral way. They too are taking a political stand.
The Christian Twitterverse is often embarrassing on this score, betraying both shallowness of thought and also cavalier contempt for the reputations of others.
This is why there is so much pressure for churches to speak to whatever is the political issue of the day. We live in Marx’s world—a world where the cultural imagination is gripped by the idea that everything is political. Silence in today’s climate on any issue by anybody in any institution is unacceptable, for to take no political stand on anything in our world is in fact to take a political stand—a stand for the status quo.
Resorting to arguments about the church being otherworldly and focused on heaven sound in the modern ear like a vote of support for the perceived injustices—sexual, economic, psychological—of the world as it currently exists. Historically, of course, this has often proved a false dichotomy. It is no zero-sum game: from the Genevan Company of Pastors to the Clapham Sect to the 19th-century Free Church of Scotland, sound heavenly mindedness did not preclude care for the poor, the weak, and the vulnerable. Yet in today’s secular, politicized culture—focused as it is on this world—it is easy for Christians to mistakenly think that a heavenly focus is merely a way of rationalizing a callous disregard for others.
How This Plays out on Both Sides
This then brings me to accusations that Christians who are interested in social issues are cultural Marxists. Both sides need to be careful in this matter.
First, the ninth commandment is arguably the greatest moral casualty of the world of Twitter, where half-baked slanderous insults can be fired at strangers with no risk of any personal comeback on the tweeter. The Christian Twitterverse is often embarrassing on this score, betraying both shallowness of thought and also cavalier contempt for the reputations of others. People using the “cultural Marxist” label for those they criticize—as people who casually throw around accusations of racism and the like—should make sure the claim is part of a sustained argument justified by appropriate evidence. This is what Melvin Tinker does when he uses the term in his recent excellent book, That Hideous Strength: How the West Was Lost. Bandying terms like “cultural Marxist” and “racist” around simply as a way of avoiding real argument is shameful and should have no place in Christian discourse.
On the other side, however, Christians enamored with social transformation and who bristle at any notion that the gospel is more to do with things above than things below, would do well to ask whether they’re allowing the tastes of this culture-is-always-political world to intrude inappropriately on their own theology. To deny the pre-political, to focus on institutions, to condemn anyone whose church isn’t constantly addressing the latest fad of the 24-hour news cycle as somehow sinning—that is to mimic the world’s values, the world’s practices, and the world’s cheap outrage. In fact, calling that kind of behavior cultural Marxism is to flatter it far too highly, implying a sophistication that half-baked cheap shots simply do not possess.
Insufficiency of Twitterverse Polemics
The relationship between church and society has been perennially vexed and frequently a point of dispute between those who were otherwise united. The culture of today, with its politicization of everything and its tendency to reduce all thought to the level of a banal tweet, is particularly ill-suited for dispassionate reflection on the Bible’s teaching on these themes. That is a shame.
Perhaps serious Christians might spend less time hammering each other on Twitter and more time working hard in the local church, talking to the people they can actually influence—those with whom we have real relationships and a common church community. This has to be better than posturing on social media in a way that may well feed our sense of self-worth but really only clouds the major issues of our time and influences nobody except those who already agree with us anyway. And perhaps those on Twitter who are so full of social justice, pro and con, might devote the time they spend fruitlessly firing off insults to instead visiting the shut-ins in their churches or opening their homes, helping their local communities, and doing something that makes a real difference to real people.
Just as brain surgery cannot be done with a sledge hammer and a chainsaw, so careful theology on contentious issues cannot be done constructively in 280 characters.
Marx, of course, famously prioritized action over theory. Maybe that is one bit of Marxism from which we might all learn—prioritizing actual action in our local churches and neighborhoods over hours spent on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, where we can parade our love for all in general but in reality love no one in particular but ourselves.
Just as brain surgery cannot be done with a sledge hammer and a chainsaw, so careful theology on contentious issues cannot be done constructively in 280 characters.
Right Reading Expectations
I love it when people are telling me they are reading through the Song of Songs for the very first time, but I’m also a little worried because it’s a challenging book. For one thing, it’s all in poetry. In fact, 40% of the Bible is in poetry. Most people think of themselves as pretty much knowing how to read a story or a history, but they get a little bit deer-in-the-headlights when it comes to poetry.
One thing I like to remind people is that you actually experience a lot of poetry every day, and it’s exactly the kind of poetry we have in the Song of Songs: popular music, which is mainly love songs. I like to encourage people to enjoy the poetry, and it helps to know what kind of literature any book in the Bible is. In this case, it’s a collection of love songs, and people have certain expectations that go with that. They don’t exactly expect a history with a lot of names and dates. There are some pop songs where you know the name of one of the people—Lou Ann or Louie Louie. Or you may not know exactly who songs are about, but you can still enter into the story because it’s a love song. Whoever it is about, there are lots of popular songs talking about love. When we come to the Song of Songs with some of those kinds of expectations, it really helps.
Some Practical Tips
It’s not a long book, so I encourage people to read Song of Songs through pretty rapidly and then go back and read it again. Maybe read it rapidly a couple times, and then go back and try to study it more closely. It’s a short enough book that you can definitely read it, read it again, and then read it another time.
I also encourage people not to treat this exactly like a play where you have to know exactly who’s speaking at every moment. Be a little flexible with it. A love song is like that. You don’t necessarily always know who’s speaking to whom and you can go with the flow a little bit. And I think this book is like that.
Another thing that we always have to think about with the Song of Songs is the connection with this book to Solomon—because it starts by saying, “The Song of Songs, which is Solomon’s.” Now, what does that mean? Does that mean Solomon wrote this?
It’s possible—he had a brilliant mind, wrote lots of poetry, lots of proverbs, lots of songs. The Bible tells us that. But it’s a little tricky to think about because here’s a book with an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman—and that’s not the way Solomon lived his life. So, maybe he wrote this early on when he was more sensible. Maybe he’s speaking with a voice of wisdom after a lot of sexual escapades that ended in a lot of disappointment and heartbreak and trouble for Solomon’s house and for Israel.
Love of Loves
But, this is kind of in the style of Solomon. Here is a country couple, and one of the ways that they elevate the style of their love relationship is by using courtly language and comparing things to the royal court of Solomon. It’s similar to the way people today are really fascinated with royal weddings in Great Britain, and they may even pattern their relationships after them. They’re not calling themselves the king and the queen of England, or the prince and the princess, but they’re elevating their own relationship to some of the highest ideals of human culture. And I think that may be what’s happening here in the Song of Songs.
Read the book with bifocal vision. On the one hand, this is a human-level relationship with lots of details about their family situation and about the natural beauty around them and a lot of things happen in their relationship. There’s a courtship, there’s a fight, and they get reconciled—all those human-level things.
Guiding readers through the Song of Songs verse by verse, this fresh, practical explanation will reveal important insights into romance, marriage, friendship, and human sexuality that are relevant today.
But this is set as one story in the bigger story of God’s love for his people in Jesus Christ—which, incidentally, from beginning to end the Bible presents as a marriage relationship. That love relationship between Adam and Eve when they become one flesh—that’s the trailer for the romance of redemption. By the time you get to the end of the Bible, you’ve got the wedding reception, the marriage supper of the Lamb.
And somewhere in the middle of that, the Apostle Paul is talking about earthly marriages in Ephesians chapter 5. He says, “Oh, I’m not even really talking about marriage, I’m talking about Christ and the church.” When we talk about the human-level love relationship in its ideal form, we really are talking about the love of all loves.
So, I like to encourage people to find the love of loves—the love of Jesus Christ—in the Song of Songs. These are a few good tips for understanding and putting into practice this great book of the Bible.
Content adapted from The Love of Loves in the Song of Songs by Philip Graham Ryken.
“Theo, woe is me…” On my flight home last night I became engrossed in Dear Theo, the unvarnished letters of Vincent Van Gogh to his attentive younger brother Theo. Penned by a desperate man, writing to a brother whom he deeply loved and implicitly trusted, Van Gogh exposed every tattered thread of his tormented soul. It is many things, but one is a chilling psychological study of the artistic temperament and culture, which compelled Vincent to caution his brother, “you must beware of getting your young family too much into the artistic setting.”
What sobered me the most while reading was the gaping contrast between the desires and aspiration of Van Gogh in his early twenties and what he became at the end of his short life (he died at thirty-seven). Growing up in a Dutch Reformed family in the Netherlands, surrounded by the Bible and the gospel, his father a pastor, Vincent wrote, “…it is a delightful thought that in the future wherever I shall be, I shall preach the Gospel; to do that well, one must have the Gospel in one’s heart; may the Lord give it to me.” His appeared to be a single-minded vision for his life’s work. “Theo, woe is me if I do not preach the Gospel; if I did not aim at that and possess faith and hope in Christ, it would be bad for me indeed.”
By all his earlier accounts of his father and family, the Van Gogh household was no nominal Christian home; there is no sense whatsoever that his father led them in merely perfunctory expressions of religion. While in England, he wrote of his parents, “…so strong is the family feeling and our love for each other that the heart uplifts itself and the eye turns to God and prays: ‘Do not let me stray too far from them, not too far, O Lord.’” What parents would not want their son or daughter to feel this way about the home and family?
Vincent’s passion for his family concurred with his passion for the Bible. “You do not know how I yearn towards the Bible. I read it daily, but I should like to know it by heart, to study thoroughly and lovingly all those old stories, and especially to find out what is known about Christ.” This seemed to be a young man who not only read his Bible, but read it christologically, eagerly searching to find the Lord Jesus in its pages.
I read on. Long and minutely detailed letters, covering months, several years. And then something began to change. My gut lurched (not simply from the turbulence as we bounced over the Rockies toward Seattle). Whole letters contained an obsessive fixation on his painting and on being successful as an artist. Repeatedly throughout the autobiographical account those letters form, Vincent begins to reveal a systemic shift in his values, his priorities, his passions, his aspirations.
In one sense, Van Gogh’s letters form a chronicle of poverty; he was in perpetual need of fiscal bailouts from his family, and the dependence frustrated him. “I hate not to be quite free.” Meanwhile, his attitudes toward his parents, especially his father, incrementally shifted. “Father is not a man for whom I can feel, for instance, what I feel for you. He cannot sympathize with or understand me.” Vincent felt his father owed him the money he needed to survive as an artist, but he resented his father’s Christian beliefs. “I cannot be reconciled to his system, it oppresses me, it would choke me.”
The most tragic change I observed in the letters, however, was Vincent’s attitude toward the Word of God. “I too read the Bible now and then, but in the Bible I see quite different things from those father sees, and what father draws from it… I cannot find in it at all.” He goes on to explain his new way of reading the Bible. “When I read– and really I do not read so much–only a few [biblical] authors, I do so because they look at things in a broader, milder, and more lovable way than I do, and because they know life better, so that I can learn from them; but all that rubbish about good and evil, morality and immorality, I care so very little for it. For, indeed, it is impossible always to know what is good and what is bad, what is moral and what is immoral.”
What a dramatic shift! From yearning for the Bible, getting its truths down in his heart, knowing Christ revealed in its pages, Vincent was honest enough to admit that he now rarely read the Bible, and only very selectively, dismissing much of it as “rubbish.” In one sense, Van Gogh was a man ahead of his time; his moral relativism was well formed long before post rationalism.
Throughout the rest of the letters, perpetually destitute Van Gogh is obsessed with perfecting his craft, and with making money from his artwork. “I am a devil for work… I consider myself decidedly below the peasants… Very difficult, very difficult.” In an artistic frenzy, Van Gogh created over 900 paintings and 2,000 drawings.
Soberly, I read on. Theo’s heart must have broken as he watched his beloved brother slip further below the line of despair into insanity. Van Gogh described his increasing fits of madness, the “abominable nightmares,” the frequent “terrible fits of depression” that came over him, his regrets, his “self-reproach about things in the past,” his grinding unhappiness, his toying with the idea of giving up painting, “which costs me so much and brings in nothing.” But he is forced to conclude, “at my age it is damnably difficult to begin anything else.”
By this stage in his art, Van Gogh’s subject matter had altogether changed. “Of course, there is no question of doing anything from the Bible.” Though he feared his own derangement would land him in the old cloister in Arles where lunatics were housed, he was, nevertheless, drawn to painting the inmates at the asylum. Plunged more deeply into despair after a violent argument with fellow painter Paul Gauguin (scholars disagree about how it happened), Van Gogh resorted to self-mutilation; he took a straight razor and sliced off his own ear, sending it to a prostitute at the local brothel. Whereupon, he found himself for a time confined in the asylum.
In between bouts of derangement that became more protracted, he wrote, “my life too is threatened at the very root, and my steps too are wavering.” The man who would be heralded as the greatest post-impressionist painter–now impoverished, lonely, his skill as yet undiscovered and unappreciated–two days before he died July 29, 1890, in his last letter to Theo Van Gogh wrote, “What’s the use?”
Van Gogh’s story is shot through with complexity, and I do not intend to over simplify it, but one compelling question must be asked. How did a man who was in his youth so earnest for the Word of God, for the gospel, for Christ, for devoting his life to serving God–how did he come to such a miserable end? Perhaps Van Gogh himself told us: “Theo, woe is me if I do not preach the Gospel; if I did not aim at that and possess faith and hope in Christ, it would be bad for me indeed.”
And so it will be for you. “Little children, keep yourselves from idols” (I John 5:21).
Douglas Bond is author of twenty-eight books, conference speaker, church history tour leader, and Oxford Creative Writing Master Class tutor.