Working out what the Bible says about the end of days is difficult. But that doesn’t mean we should be complacent or disengage from the issue, says Chris Follett. Jesus is the hope of the world, and the world needs him now more than ever
A recent headline in The Guardian newspaper stated simply: “No way back?”; thereby encapsulating the frightening UN conclusion that there is “no credible way” to achieve the 1.5C climate target set at the 2015 Paris climate accord.
In fact, the world is tracking towards 2.5C warming which, according to the UN, will result in “catastrophic climate breakdown”. Other headlines have noted the frightening rates of extinction of animal species (69 per cent have been lost since 1970 according to the WWF) and the increasing pace of global deforestation.
Along with this, the world is also living once again with the spectre of nuclear war, with Poland distributing iodine tablets in the face of President Putin’s increasing belligerent rhetoric over Ukraine. There are growing tensions between China and the US over Taiwan and, if this situation were to escalate into an actual conflict, it would dwarf the current Ukraine crisis in its global impact.
The gospel of Jesus Christ is and always will be God’s plan A, and it is sufficient for the rescue of humanity
We might add to these existential threats the detrimental effects of the widespread pollution of the world’s rivers and oceans, as well as the possibility of more deadly global pandemics and also the phenomenon of antibiotic drug resistance, which threatens to undermine many of the medical advances of the 20th century. While the devastating earthquakes that have affected Turkey and Syria have served only to heighten the sense of apocalyptic foreboding for many.
In the face of such a bleak outlook for the world and humanity, should Christians adopt an end of days mindset and, if so, what might this look like?
Past, present and future
A detailed account of what the end of days will entail is given by Jesus himself in Matthew 24 and 25, where Jesus begins by prophesying the destruction of the Jewish temple (which occurred in 70AD, when the Romans laid siege to Jerusalem). This highlights a particular difficulty in interpreting scriptural references to the end times. They may be considered simultaneously applicable to events in the period in which they are spoken, the near future (of those listeners) as well as the final end times.
Apocalyptic writers of Jewish and Christian tradition were focussed on motivating believers in their present day (hence the sense of urgency in the letters to the churches in Revelation 1-3), rather than thinking that they were providing a road map for future generations who would live in the actual end times.
That said, there can be no doubt that Jesus’ account, as recorded in Matthew, and the book of Revelation have direct application to the final end times, since they address the events of Christ’s triumphant return, the final destruction of Satan and the end times judgement of humanity. However, the literary style of the apocalyptic prophecies (with their extensive use of imagery and symbolism) leaves much open to interpretation, more so when one tries to map what is described on to real world geopolitical structures and events.
A further layer of complexity when seeking to interpret these passages is found in the lack of any clear chronological placing of key events nor the real-world time span over which they will take place. Various timespans are given as ‘so many days’ in Revelation, so it is unclear whether these should be taken as literal or are merely representative of some other period of time. As a consequence, over the centuries, commentators have established differing viewpoints and interpretations of both the precise nature and the timescale of events detailed in Revelation and other apocalyptic passages of the Bible.
We might be tempted to simply park any thoughts about the end times, and just focus on the here and now. Indeed, some would go further and discount these writings as having any real relevance today, arguing that their significance was primarily to the persecuted believers of past eras.
Another perspective of the end times is that the role of the contemporary Church is to redeem society. The Church will, so the argument proceeds, eventually succeed in its transformative mission, such that Christ will return to an all-but redeemed world. Thus, the devastating plagues and judgements of Revelation are rendered largely irrelevant and, rather than dwell upon such a gloomy outlook, we can simply focus our energy on making the world a better place.
While focusing on the positive things that the Church can still achieve in our world today (rather than adopt the bunker mentality that is often associated with those having a more pessimistic outlook) has much to commend it, it has two evident flaws. The first is simply that such an optimistic understanding is completely at odds with the account of the end times given by Christ in Matthew’s Gospel. He does not describe returning triumphantly to a world all but restored to righteousness by a highly influential Church. Secondly, it flies in the face of humanity’s current reality, not least the accelerating pace of destructive ‘apocalyptic events’ that are increasingly dominating world headlines.
Of course it must be recognised that the world and humanity have faced many devastating and traumatic global events in the past. The impact of Covid-19 has been severe, but this is eclipsed by the impact of the Black Death in the 14th century, which is estimated to have killed between 175 and 200 million people. Sincere believers experiencing those traumatic events must have given more than a passing thought as to whether they were the end times people of God. The sobering reality is that events of apocalyptic proportions impact every age and generation.
Christians should have an end of days mindset, because this is the reality of most believers for most of the time, in whatever age they live. Such a perspective gives sense to Peter’s declaration that “the end of all things is at hand” (1 Peter 4:7). But was he mistaken in this assertion, or should it be taken as a relativistic statement, intended to convey the sense that we all exist in the shadow of apocalyptic events and should live and act accordingly?
If we consider the broad sweep of scripture, and particularly the teaching of Christ, the theme of being actively prepared is a recurring one. Notably, at the end of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus talks about the one whose life is founded on the rock of his word being able to withstand the violent flood when it comes. Jesus revisits this theme in the parable of the talents and the parable of the ten virgins (Matthew 25). The message is one that his followers should be alert, active and ready for the unexpected arrival of the bridegroom.
Early Christians may have assumed that Christ’s second coming would follow in their lifetimes, especially when his prophecy about the siege of Jerusalem was played out. But Jesus made clear that no-one can tell when that day will be. The only certainty we have is that one day he will return, and that it will catch many unawares (see Matthew 24:36-39).
Over the centuries, commentators have established differing interpretations of the nature and timescale of events detailed in apocalyptic Bible passages
The ‘apocalyptic event’ that threatens in our lifetime may be some personal crisis, or it may be a shared experience - such as that being endured by the population of Ukraine at this time. And aside from the scourge of war, we should not forget the many believers living under persecution in what to them must feel like apocalyptic times.
A different hope
Climate activists often declare “there is no planet B” but, as Christians, we have a different perspective.
Our hope for the future ultimately transcends whatever crises this planet faces. The gospel of Jesus Christ is and always will be God’s plan A, and it is sufficient for the rescue of humanity. However, scripture makes it clear that it will not save the earth in its present form and there will, in the fullness of time, be a new heaven and a new earth. This is not to say that we should have no regard for the condition of the current earth, for we are called to steward what God has given us well.
Placing the parable of the talents in its apocalyptic context, we understand that adopting an end of days mindset should actually stir us to renewed engagement with the world, rather than lead us to pursue greater personal security. In this parable, Jesus makes clear it that when we eventually stand before him, we will be questioned on how productively we used the resources he has given us.
This includes our time, relationships, gifts, abilities, possessions and wealth. The parable of the ten virgins adds a further cautionary tale, reminding us that we must guard our hearts against complacency and indifference, especially over the long-haul.
Peter reminds believers that they should always be ready to “give an account of the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15). Ultimately, the hope that Jesus that will prevail over despair is the hope of the world.
To have an end of days mindset is to recognise the fragility of this earthly existence and the increasingly precarious position of humanity. But it should also spur us on to renew our engagement with society and the wider world. Above all, it should embolden us in communicating the overriding imperative of accepting Jesus Christ as Lord and saviour in these increasingly uncertain times.