5th August, 2010
NILS VON KALM
Over the history of the Christian church there has been much fascination with the Second Coming of Jesus and with when and how it will happen. The fact that it will happen is not disputed by the vast majority of believers, but when and how it will happen has been the subject of much conjecture and debate by many different strands of Christendom.
Why is this so? Why the almost fanatical obsession by some Christians over ‘end times’ issues and Biblical prophecy? I think it comes down to human nature and our God-given intuition that we are made for something more, something better than the blood, sweat and tears that this life brings for every single one of its inhabitants.
END OF THE WORLD? What happens when Jesus returns has been the subject of much speculation ever since Christ's ascension. PICTURES: Marcin Rybarczyk (www.sxc.hu)
"Over the last 2,000 years many Christians have given their views of when and how the world will end, based on their interpretation of certain Biblical passages. Richard Erdoes, in his book, AD 1000: Living on the Brink of the Apocalypse, writes that 'on the last day of the year 999...the old Basilica of St. Peter's at Rome was thronged with a mass of weeping and trembling worshippers awaiting the end of the world'."
When I was a young Christian, I was convinced that I was living in the end times, mainly because certain people told me I was. I was therefore convinced that I was never going to die because Jesus was going to come back in my lifetime. All the signs were pointing to it. Wars were increasing, and there seemed to be more earthquakes and other natural disasters occurring. From what I learned about the Bible and from what I saw on the nightly news, I really believed that everything was going to get worse. I even heard a preacher get up once and give some statistics showing that the number of earthquakes in the 20th century had increased dramatically. This was another clear sign that Jesus was coming back soon.
Much of the Christian music I listened to as a young believer echoed these sentiments. Songs like Larry Norman’s I Wish We’d All Been Ready spoke of the passage in Matthew 24: 40-41 when Jesus talks about one being taken and the other left behind. In fact one cannot even mention the words ‘left behind’ anymore without thinking of the best-selling series by Tim LaHaye that brings to life the Biblical prophecies that apparently clearly describe how the world will end.
Over the last 2,000 years many Christians have given their views of when and how the world will end, based on their interpretation of certain Biblical passages. Richard Erdoes, in his book, AD 1000: Living on the Brink of the Apocalypse, writes that “on the last day of the year 999...the old Basilica of St. Peter's at Rome was thronged with a mass of weeping and trembling worshippers awaiting the end of the world.” On the eve of the current millennium preparations were also made by many believers who were once again to be disappointed by the non-appearance of the Jesus who said that even he did not know the day or the hour.
Today, 20-odd years later, I am now more convinced that my belief that I would be one of those fortunate ones who would never have to go through death was not much more than the idealism of youth – that time when you think you’re immortal and invincible.
So what do we do with this vexed issue? How do we interpret those passages that seem to clearly peak of the Second Coming? Firstly I believe that the Bible clearly tells us that Jesus will return. Throughout the New Testament there are passages that do indeed speak clearly about the fact that Jesus will consummate the kingdom He came to inaugurate in His life on earth 2,000 years ago. In Revelation 21: 5 we are given the wonderful promise that Jesus will finally make all things new as heaven and earth are joined together and the new creation is birthed. This will be the time of the glorious freedom of the children of God and the whole creation’s final liberation from the bondage of decay (Romans 8: 21).
Having said that however, I do not believe that the Bible gives much detail at all about how all this will come to pass. Some readers may stop reading right now, thinking that this is heresy and that I don’t know what I am talking about. And let me say upfront that I do not come at this topic as a trained theologian; however I do come at it as someone who has read very widely and has had a range of opinions on this topic. All I can do is give my informed opinion and point to other more informed biblical scholars who I believe are well worth reading in this area.
"I also believe that the issue of whether or not the Bible tells us how the world will end is quite low on the ladder of important issues that Christians should be concerned about. The problem with much of the theology that has informed such stories as the Left Behind series is that it provides Christians with a reason for disengagement with the problems of the world as they are right now. Such disengagement is simply unBiblical."
I also believe that the issue of whether or not the Bible tells us how the world will end is quite low on the ladder of important issues that Christians should be concerned about. The problem with much of the theology that has informed such stories as the Left Behind series is that it provides Christians with a reason for disengagement with the problems of the world as they are right now. Such disengagement is simply unBiblical. Jesus came that we might have life and have it to the full (John 10: 10). That meant here and now. God also loved the world so much that He sent His Son (John 3: 16). God loves this world and wants to rescue it. Jesus said the greatest commandment is to love God and love our neighbour, and that everything hangs off this (Matthew 22: 37-40). It is not for us to try to find out when and how all things will come to an end.
So where did the idea come from that the Bible tells us how the world will end? Some people will be surprised to find out that, in the context of Christian history, it is only a recent belief. Most of Christendom has not believed that the Bible gives detail on how the end will play out.
It is generally believed that the idea that the Bible tells us how the world will come to an end originated with the teachings of John Nelson Darby, considered to be the father of what is known as Dispensationalism. This is an evangelical tradition which sees a series of chronologically successive "dispensations" or periods in history in which God relates to human beings in different ways under different Biblical covenants. (1) This theology also adheres to a strong eschatological ‘end times’ perspective and believes that Christians should support Israel at all costs, as God has yet to fulfill His promises to national Israel, which include a future millennial kingdom where Jesus, upon His return, will rule the world from Jerusalem (2) for a thousand years.
People who hold to dispensationalism believe that the book of Revelation is a book that predicts future events, particularly about how the end will happen. One of these beliefs involves an anti-Christ who will be known by his mark of the number of the beast, which is known to be 666 (Revelation 13: 18). This number has been used to calculate the identity of a whole number of people throughout history, ranging from Adolf Hitler to Saddam Hussein, Prince Charles and especially a number of Roman Catholic Popes. The number is also referred to in terms of identification markers that people will be forced to have implanted on them in the last days. These days of rapid technological advancement of course only exacerbate the rumours that the end is not far away at all. The number has also been used to apparently show that the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 were a clear sign that Jesus’ return was imminent.
However, there is a problem with all of this. The problem is that older manuscripts of the Bible have the number of the beast not as 666, but as 616. Early this century at Oxford, the earliest known manuscript of Revelation 13 was found and it clearly shows that the number of the beast is 616 and not 666 (3). Now that will take a lot of people back to the drawing board!
Another belief of end times proponents is that of a rapture of the church in which believers will be ‘caught up’ to be with Jesus and that others will be left behind on earth. This is the basis of Tim LaHaye’s successful story and it comes from a few verses in 1 Thessalonians 4: 15-17. I have explained my position on this in a previous article on the rapture; but to summarise it, rather than believers being taken up in the sky to be with Jesus, this passage is a metaphor for believers going out to meet the Lord to escort Him back to earth to consummate His kingdom, just as also happened before Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem (Luke 19: 28-41).
"Biblical scholars say that prophecy in the Bible is generally prescriptive rather than predictive. That is, the Biblical prophecies are most often injunctions to live a godly lifestyle and not predictions about the future."
So if the Bible does not say much, if anything, about how the world will end, what do the passages that end times proponents use to justify their interpretations actually mean? Let’s start with that most difficult of books to interpret, Revelation.
Firstly, Biblical scholars say that prophecy in the Bible is generally prescriptive rather than predictive. That is, the Biblical prophecies are most often injunctions to live a godly lifestyle and not predictions about the future. Much of Isaiah is a great example of this, however the chapter in that vast book that is most frequently quoted by Christians is chapter 53 which talks about the Suffering Servant – a passage which is predictive of Jesus as God coming to earth. But if you look at the rest of Isaiah, you will see his deep concern about injustice and oppression. Take a look at Isaiah 58 as an example.
Secondly, Revelation is more about the fact that Jesus is Lord rather than a book containing predictions about the future. It is mainly an encouragement by John to seven churches which were being persecuted by the Romans. It gave the persecuted Christians the unwavering assurance that Jesus is Lord of all and that Caesar is not, and that God will prevail in the end and that evil will be defeated. This echoes Paul’s encouragement to the Romans in his letter to them (8: 18).
The synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) also discuss what for many is Jesus’ clear admonition that we need to be awake and aware of his return. One important factor when looking at interpretation of Scripture is that context is everything. New Testament scholar Ben Witherington says that a text taken out of context is a pretext. What he means is that when we don’t take into consideration the context in which the Scriptures were written, we can make them say anything we want them to.
If we look at Mark’s Gospel as an example, many Christians find on the surface that Jesus’ statements in chapter 13 leave no doubt that He was talking about his return at the end of the age. In this passage He talks about the destruction of the temple, the ‘abomination that causes desolation’, and the distress that those days will bring. These passages have been used to convey the warning that we must be ready before Jesus returns a second time. However, as another very prominent New Testament scholar, N.T. Wright, says, the main subject in the early verses of Mark 13 is the fate of the temple and its destruction by the Romans in 70AD, and have nothing to do with the Second Coming. Wright goes on to describe that the historian Josephus tells us how bad the fall of Jerusalem was, that it really was like the end of the world to those who experienced it.
In verse 21 and onwards in Mark 13, Jesus talks about false Messiahs, but again, Josephus tells us that false Messiahs were a dime-a-dozen during the Roman-Jewish war of 66-70AD. Wright adds the pertinent question which comes out of verse 14 that if this whole passage was a warning about the end of the world, what would be the point of Jesus advising people to run away?
Verse 26 of Mark 13 then talks about the coming of the Son of Man. This is a clear reference to Daniel 7 where ‘one like a son of man’ comes on the clouds of heaven. Again this is not a warning about the end of the world. This passage does not describe the return of the Son of Man, but his coming to God after suffering. Reading Daniel in context and studying it will provide these insights.
"Interpretations of the Bible, and in particular the passages mentioned above, will continue to be put forward until the time when Jesus actually does return. What we can take out of these passages is that we do need to be ready and make sure that we are living in accordance with what God would have us do with our lives."
Finally, verse 30 of Mark 13 has Jesus advising his disciples that this generation will not pass away until all these things have happened. It makes a whole lot more sense to me to see this verse as applying to the destruction of the temple just 40 years (about a generation) later than it does to apply it to the end of the world. Different types of interpretations have been used for this verse, including that it actually means the Jewish race will not pass away, but the Greek text does not support this interpretation. It is passages like this that bring all sorts of interpretive difficulties when you try to understand them as being about the end of the world. You have to perform all sorts of interpretive gymnastics to get around the difficulties if you want them to speak about the end of all things.
Interpretations of the Bible, and in particular the passages mentioned above, will continue to be put forward until the time when Jesus actually does return. What we can take out of these passages is that we do need to be ready and make sure that we are living in accordance with what God would have us do with our lives. However, endless speculation about when and how the end will take place was not a concern for Jesus and therefore need not be a concern for his followers.
This essay has merely touched on a myriad of issues that can be explored in much more detail than is available here. I would encourage readers to read scholars like Ben Witherington and N.T. Wright. A good starting place is Wright’s recent Surprised by Hope in which he convincingly puts forward the Christian hope from a biblical point of view.
Jesus said the greatest commandment is to love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength, and to love our neighbour as ourselves. There is a place for warning against the consequences of injustice, oppression and other evils, but I know for me that my biggest concern is to be that I am following Jesus in all I do and say all the days of my life. That is where life is found, and that is my privilege and responsibility as I work to play my part in preparing for the kingdom come and wait for that great and glorious day when the whole of creation will be liberated from its bondage to decay, and all things will be made new in the new heavens and the new earth for which we so eagerly wait.
DeWitt, Dale Sumner (2002). Dispensational Theology in America During the Twentieth Century: Theological Development and Cultural Context. Grace Bible College, p. 1 & 16
Ryrie, Charles Caldwell (1986). Basic Theology. Wheaton, Ill: Victor Books, pp. 508-509
Strobel, Lee., The Case for the Real Jesus, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 2007, p. 90.
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