Monday, March 14, 2011

Is It the End of the World?

My daughter has been on Facebook and she has said to me that due to the events in the world and in particular the earthquakes, 'everyone thinks it's the end of the world!' The events in the Middle East and the movie 2012 and the idea that there are a number of ancient writings pointing to now being the end of the world has amplified this feeling for this generation. So the question is, is it, from a Christian perspective, the end of the world?

The first thing to say is that this would not be the first generation to think this, with Christians many times believing the end to be nigh! We need to be very very wary of such a thought, Jesus himself did not know the day or the hour. In 2 Thess 2:1 Paul refers to people at his time who are thinking the end has come even. So we should be very cautious assuming the climax of world history is drawing near. There are texts in Thessalonians and the Gospels where it is said the return of Christ will come like a thief in the night, that means it might come at any point.

In the Bible the key passages for the end of the world are what's called the 'Olivet Discourse' or the 'Little Apocalypse,' Mark 13 and the parallel passages in Matt 24 and Luke 21. Of course Revelation is also seen by many as important in terms of the Second Coming, and it may well be, but it is full of symbolism and possible interpretations, so I tend to prefer to focus on Jesus' teaching in the Olivet Discourse when thinking about this question.

In this passage in Mark 13:5-7 (Matt 24:4-7; Luke 21:8-11) Jesus warns of wars, famines, pestilence, and earthquakes. He explicitly says that these are the beginning of birth pains and that they will precede the final events before his return. There are varying interpretations of this passage. Some like Wright and Goheen believing that this refers exclusively to the forthcoming Fall of Jerusalem which occurred in AD 66-70. They do not see it as a set of signs relating to the return of Christ. Personally, I don't quite buy this myself, as Matthew uses Mark 13 in putting together his gospel, and makes clear that it refers to more than the Fall of Jerusalem. This is especially so in Matt 24:3 where Matthew records it thus: 'when will this (the fall of Jerusalem) happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age.' Much as I respect Wright and Goheen, I think Matthew's perspective is to be preferred. As such, I think the passage points both in the direction of the Fall of Jerusalem and the return. I think the end of the age may indeed be patterned on the fall of Jerusalem, this being a double-layered prophecy. Having said that, such great scholars may be right, and if so, we should not be looking so much for Christ's return as a cataclysmic event with a whole lot of preceding signs, but Jesus will come like a thief in the night and suddenly, and we should live full-on for him and stop being worried about it. That is a viable Christian position. So again, we need to be careful not to over-react.

Having said that I disagree with their interpretation, how do I see things? I fall in the camp then of those who think that there will be disasters preceding the climax of the world including famines, wars, earthquakes, pestilence etc. This means there will be a whole range of natural disasters across the world which will have a dramatic effect and cause great alarm. I am not sure whether there will be an increase in them in literal terms i.e. more famines, more earthquakes; or whether there will be more effect from them and that the fear they bring will be increased.

If the bible is pointing to an increase in the regularity and intensity of such disasters, there are several reasons not to be too panicked. First, there have always been such disasters and seismologists tell us that there is no real increase in the number of earthquakes. Secondly, we have to remember that the ancient world knew all about natural events. For example, in Rome, at the time of Paul the River Tiber flooded every year. In the Lycus Valley (modern Turkey; where Laodicea, Colossae, Hierapolis are), there were regular earthquakes. On a visit to Laodicea last year, at the site is a list of earthquakes that hit the region at the time of the NT. There were heaps! Colossae itself was completely destroyed by one just after the writing of the letter of Colossians and never rebuilt. When an earthquake hit in the ancient world, the results were devastating as they had nothing like our building codes. There are also famines mentioned in the NT, with Paul taking up collections twice for Jerusalem (Acts 11; 1 Cor 16:1-4; 1 Cor 16:1-4; 2 Cor 8-9). So natural events are nothing new and whether there is more of them is unclear and unprovable. Thirdly, contemporary globalism and media ensure that we hear about them to a greater degree than in previous times. We can watch them on TV, and their effects are beamed into our lounges. This doesn't mean more are happening, it means we know about them and can in a virtual sense, experience them. This means we think there are more, but it's just that we know about them and experience them. Fourthly, we Westerners tend to read the world through our eyes, we are 'euro-centric.' So, when we see terrible events his us, we think it is the end of the world. Yet, in non-western countries these are common. Similarly, when we see westerners abandoning the gospel we think the whole world is, when in fact the gospel is spreading like wildfire in Africa, Asia and South America. We tend to read the world in very narrow ways from our own perspectives. We need to watch this, as it can cause us to skew our reading of the world. Having said that, if the bible is pointing toward a time when the news and events of such events is on the increase, it is arguable that this is occurring, but it is not certain. I encourage caution.

A number of Christians believe other signs will mark the culmination of this age including widespread persecution, wars with a climactic war over Israel, antichrists, world-wide economic systems, and a general rise in evil. As with natural disasters these are equally hard to gauge. Concerning a rise in evil, on the one hand one can argue it is happening with ecological issues, corruption, war etc. Yet last century there were two world wars and things were way worse. There were two nuclear bomb threats and near nuclear war in the 1960s. There were also a number of despots like Pol Pot, Mao, Stahlin, Hitler etc. These guys were bad. Looking further back, there were such leaders all over the world. It can be argued things are more peaceful now. Interpretation of this then is very subjective and we should be careful not to assume as much. Sure, there are always bad things in the news, yet we are not in the midst of a world war. The potential for evil grows with new technologies, but there is a lot of good in the world and evil could not be said to be dominant in that gross absolute sense. Where Israel is concerned, the place has been a hotspot for the last 160 years and more, so it could all come to a head anytime, but there is nothing to suggest it is happening now. Yet, it could happen at any moment. The world remains very divided economically although Europe has formed an economic collective. One can argue that the conditions are coming into place, but we cannot be sure.

The clearest sign as I see it is Jesus' prediction that the gospel will be preached to all nations before the end comes (Mark 13:10; Matt 14:14). This is subjective as it is hard to be sure of what this means. Some Christians reject that this is a sign at all in qualitative terms arguing that it is a mistake to read it literally; rather, Jesus is saying that the gospel will be preached throughout the world. If we take it as a sign, it is equally hard to be sure when this is complete. Did Jesus mean that every person has heard the gospel personally? If so, he will never return. Is it that the gospel is translated into every language and every people group has heard it clearly and churches dot every one of them? It is not clear. One way to look at it I suggest in my book What's God Up To on Planet Earth is that Jesus preached the gospel throughout his nation Israel and established a community of faith. Then he effectively said do the same in all other nations (Matt 28:18-20). Assuming a nation is a group of people with a common language, then the work of preaching the gospel is incomplete. The Joshua project ( tracks the spread of the gospel and believes we are yet to get there. One can argue though, with globalisation and the power of e-media, it could happen very quickly. But we are not there yet. Again caution is required, it may be close, or it may be a long way away.

So, I don't think it is the end yet, but it could be approaching rather quickly and we may be there soon – of course assuming my thinking is correct, and I am very tentative in assuming I am right on this stuff. I think the gospel has to penetrate further into those unreached people groups. Considering too with globalisation, that one can see an increasing potential for ecological and other human-caused disaster, the potential for a global economic-religious system, the heat in the Middle East around Israel, the speed the gospel can now spread etc, one can argue that the conditions for the climax of this age may be coming into place.

Yet, as Christians we should not be perturbed about this and continue to live the same anyway. We should live full-on for Jesus. When we meet people who are afraid, we encourage them to look to Jesus, because the gospel says he will return into the chaos and save. If their lives are in Jesus, they have nothing to fear, and we can model that and invite them to experience it. I would get them to buy my book actually, but that sounds like an unashamed ad.

A final thought. The idea of the 'end of the world' assumes a certain view of the climax of history. That is, that Jesus will return, pluck his people out, and the world will come to a terrible end, with God and his people safely whisked away to live forever in heaven. There is another way of reading the Scriptures (again N.T. Wright here) which suggests Jesus will return, will intervene to end the chaos, and the world will be rebuilt and peace ensure. All enemies of God will be subdued and the world will be as it always should be. Perhaps there will be a millennium of some sort, whether a literal 1000 years or a long period of time, in which Jesus and his people will restore the world. Or perhaps we are in the millennium now, and this will come. Rom 8:19-23 speaks of the liberation of the world not its destruction. Rev 21-22 speaks of a restored world, with God dwelling with humanity, in total peace and absence of evil. This is not then talking of the 'end of the world' but the restoration of the world.

So, I suggest that the presence of these disasters does not prove it is the end of the world. These have happened for centuries, and will continue to do so. But it could be that conditions in the world are moving toward this, but I am not going to give any dates or predictions. I also don't think the world will end anyway, but that Jesus will return and restore it. The date and time of his coming is unknown and it may be in 1 year, 10 years, a century, or even in 2000 more years. In the meantime we should life full on for him and spread his message of faith, hope and love. We should not live in fear, but hope and love. The key thing to ask is, are we ready? We can ask them are they ready. How to be ready? Put our confidence and trust in Jesus.


Steve Finnell said...

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zaid said...

Thank you Mark! So well said! Finally some common sense and not over reacting like so many of my christian friends...

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