I think we, as a society, have an unhealthy obsession with the end of the world. We love to talk in apocalyptic terms about our world whether that’s in relation to the economy, the environment or global politics. Our films and TV mirror this too, in a variety of flavours. Think environmental disaster (The Day after Tomorrow, Interstellar), animal or alien threat (Independence Day, Rise of the Planet of the Apes), nuclear war (pre: Dr Strangelove, Post: Mad Max), and pandemic infection (any number of zombie films). Even the comedy genre are cashing in on such a fascination (This is the End, Seeking a friend for the end of the world).
The church isn’t innocent of this unhealthy obsession either. For a large part many Christians’ view of Jesus’ return and the end of the world has been more influenced by fiction and imagination than the Bible. It is arguable that the popular ‘Left Behind’ book series and its dispensationalist, pre-tribulation, premillennial viewpoint (don’t worry if you don’t understand those big words!) has shaped the evangelical church, particularly in America, more than any other. However the Biblical books that these ideas are drawn from (Ezekiel, Revelation & Daniel) are not exactly easy things to interpret!
Many have taken it upon themselves to predict and claim to know when the end of the world is coming. A guy called William Miller famously claimed the date of the end of the world in the 19th Century, Harold Camping predicted Jesus’ return in 1994, 1995 and twice in 2011, in May and October (if at first you don’t succeed, try again!). Others have made much of the year 2000 with the Y2K conspiracy, 2012 based on the end of the Mayan Calendar and most recently the blood moon phenomena!
The problem with all of this is that we don’t know all the details of what the end will entail. Jesus said “about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the son, but only the Father” (Matthew 24:36). It would be easier to leave the topic alone, but ignoring it will mean the only people speaking about it are the crackpot loonies!
There are a few broad generalisations about what theologians think about the end of the world and they all centre on the 1,000 year reign of Christ in Revelation 20:
- Pre-millennialism: In this view Jesus will come again in order to usher in this literal 1,000 year reign (before the millennium). This may come before or after a literal seven year period of tribulation and traditionally involves a belief in ‘the rapture’ based upon 1 Thessalonians 4:17 where Christians will be taken up into heaven to avoid the years of tribulation.
- Post-millennialism: In this view Jesus will come again after the 1,000 years and this period of a thousand years will be ushered in by the Church. Emphasising Jesus’ commission to his disciples and the Church, most taking this view believe the Church will increase its influence through evangelistic success, revival and prosperity, peace and righteousness will increase in the world before Jesus’ return for final judgement.
- Amillennialism: This view rejects a literal 1,000 years, believing that this reign was begun with Christ’s life, death and resurrection and will end when Jesus returns in final judgement and in establishing the new heavens and new earth. The undefined time period is the age of the church but rather than believing in increasing righteousness and success, amillennialism believes deterioration and rebellion will continue to be humanity’s pattern.
There are all sorts of differences of details but these are the broad theories. So which one is right?
I’m not going to answer that exactly because the reality is that you won’t find the words amillennialism, pretribulation, or rapture in the Bible. In fact interpreting these bits of the Bible that tell us what we need to know about Jesus’ return is difficult as they are written in metaphor, poetry and parable.
So for now, here’s what you need to know:
The bits of the Bible we often interpret to be about the end of the world, more often than not have a more immediate context. Tom Wright points out that rather than meaning ‘the end of the space-time universe’, the authors of the Bible used metaphor to give theological significance to key historical events.* Rather than trying to imagine the imagery of beasts we see in books like Revelation and Daniel as the Communist Soviet Union or the Catholic Church(!!), the answers are often found in history e.g. Babylon & Rome.
2. There is an end and there is an eternity
If you want to know how a story ends, what any sensible person would do is turn to the last page. If we turn to the end of Revelation we get John’s vision of a new heaven and a new earth “for the first heaven and first earth had passed away” (Revelation 21:1). This indicates a very definite end to the earth we now know, but with this end is a new beginning and that leaves us looking out to the infinite horizon of eternity.
3. Be alert
Most discussion about Jesus’ return is accompanied by a warning that it may happen at any time and so we must be ready. It is debatable whether these warnings to keep watch and be ready (Matthew 24:44; 25:13) are speaking specifically about Jesus’ second coming or whether he is speaking about the destruction of the temple in AD 70, but nevertheless the sense of urgency is helpful. To take seriously the claims of Jesus, his bringing the Kingdom of God and his saving purposes is to act quickly upon it. Jesus said at the beginning of his ministry “The Time has come…the Kingdom of God is near, repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15). Not knowing when Jesus will return should help us to focus our priorities to getting right with God and leading others to Him.
4. Judgement is a thing
Whilst we may be tempted to view God’s judgement as an out of date superstition, for God to judge us is completely consistent with the whole Bible through the Old and New Testaments. Judgement was proclaimed and performed through much of the Old Testament and Jesus reflected this too as he spoke prophetically against Israel and the religious institutions of his day. It’s not accurate to simplify our picture of Jesus as one who showed love; he did show love to outcasts and sinners and for us in his death for us but he also pronounced judgement and talked about separating people like sheep from goats (Matthew 25:31-46). This separation and judgement is picked up again in Revelation 20:12-12.
5. View experience in perspective
In the beliefs about Jesus’ return discussed above a large influence comes from whether one is more optimistic or pessimistic about the state of the world at present. These varying attitudes impact our politics and our theology; however we must remember to keep our experience and perception in biblical perspective. We all have the tendency to swing one way or the other, towards believing every event that we see on the news is a sign of further disastrous decline, or taking a more hopeful view that the potential for good will win the day. The early church in the book of Acts records both successes and failures, advancement of the gospel and dreadful persecution, healings and miracles and also storms and shipwrecks. We must be careful to discern what God is doing, not ignoring both the good and the bad that shape our lives.
6. What we do matters
Finally, if Jesus is coming again and there’ll be a new heaven and new earth, what does that mean for how we live now? A well-known pastor in America once quipped “I know who made the environment, he’s coming back and going to burn it all up…so yes I drive an SUV”. This pastor’s view of how the end was going to work out shaped his perspective on how he lives his life. But the God of creation isn’t merely about getting souls into heaven. Restoration and healing characterise the message of the prophets as much as judgement and destruction. Our future physical resurrection and new earth suggest that the material does matter, the future is not just about ‘the spiritual’ and therefore how we live matters.
In recent years debate in the church has not so much focused on the end of the world and Jesus’ return so much as issues like poverty, gender equality and sexuality. So it seems any unhealthy obsession about the end is closer to a healthy balance, discussing important issues about the world we live in here and now. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk about the end, because ignoring it will mean the only people talking about it will be the crackpot loonies!
*The New Testament and the People of God (1992), pg. 333.