One of the elements of the New Testament that tends to get ignored by most Christians – is the element of prophecy and teaching about the end times of history that is in there. It’s in your face if you actually read the bible; the book of Revelation is not a small part of the New Testament, and large chunks of the Old Testament don’t make sense except as having a future fulfilment. Yet in most churches it’s barely talked about, let alone actually preached.
The opposite mistake is that of those who spend ALL their time focused on it; there is a major industry of writing books about ‘The End Times’, and the recent conversion of Tim Le Haye’s novel into the film ‘Left Behind’ is a pointer to their existence.
As so often in theology we need to find a middle way – reclaiming the priority that the early church clearly put on the matter without becoming fixated. It simply won’t do to claim to be followers of Jesus but to ignore his long discourses on the subject in both the gospels and Revelation. Yes, it does cause us problems; it IS true that the early church had got the idea that the ‘Second Coming’ would be very soon. 2 Peter 3’s warning to scoffers who claim that He hasn’t come back means He won’t, suggests that even in New Testament times there were sceptics. Yet Acts records that Paul at Athens mentions a day of judgement when presenting the gospel to the philosophers – why don’t we?
Part of the answer lies in the abuses that it has suffered. All down history men have foretold a specific date for the return – and ended up looking stupid. It does represent a trap for the obsessive; offering interpretations of the details of prophecy is probably not as worthwhile as active evangelism. Yet it’s an element in the New Testament…
Perhaps the most helpful thing is to list what is certain:
1) Jesus will return, visibly, to impose his rule on the world
2) It will be after a time of particularly severe troubles in the world, the Tribulation
3) These times will include an anti-Christ figure, who will persecute true Christians
The most significant divides in opinion beyond this are the ‘Rapture’ and whether the church will come through visibly triumphant or a battered hulk. Both these are outworking of complex lines of theological arguments, which attempt to construct a systematic theology of everything…
The ‘Rapture’ is the interpretation of the passage in 1 Thess 4 ‘We who are alive… will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air’. Until the 19th century this was universally1 understood to refer to the last event of this era, but then a belief arose that the church would be taken out of the world to escape the Tribulation. This remains a belief in some circles, and is the basis of the ‘Left Behind’ books and film, but doesn’t work for me (if it IS true, I will be pleasantly surprised, if it’s not, I won’t be unprepared for the horrors).
As to the final state of the church, some expect a last days revival, interpreting Jesus’ promise that the gospel will be preached to all nations (Mt 24) to mean that many will be converted. The alternative is see Jesus’ comment ‘when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?’ (Lk 24) to point to a small remnant. Me? I tend to the pessimist view – not least because the clowns who have entertained too many of us in the church over the years with the claim that ‘Revival is just around the corner’ make me dubious. And it’s hard to believe it given the precipitate decline of the church in Europe – although claims of massive growth elsewhere as sometimes reported in the secular media e.g. Brazil’s Evangelicals are playing a major role in this year’s presidential election there perhaps suggest otherwise.
So how should we respond?
Read the book of Revelation for yourself: it’s stunning stuff – and much of it makes little sense to us. But to ignore this chunk of the bible is deeply flawed.
Harass your church leaders to at least preach on it occasionally. Traditionally the season of Advent was the time when it should be there, but these days Advent is just an extension of Christmas.
Be aware of the possibilities – especially that persecution WILL get bad. Actually the almost total of absence of persecution these days is a bad sign. Jesus says in Jn 15: ‘Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.’ whilst 2 Tim 3 tells us ‘Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.’
Don’t get over focused on it; it can distract.
But be encouraged: my favourite verse in the New Testament is in Revelation 21: ‘God himself… will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.’
1 OK – so ONE first millennium writer has been found who supports this view, but his idea didn’t persist.