Signs of the end?
Earthquakes in Pakistan, hurricanes in the USA, tsunamis in Asia and severe droughts in Africa – the list of natural disasters bursting upon us seems almost endless.
One report reaches us after another, each offering mortality statistics – or projections -- more devastating than the last.
For some people of the Christian faith, the increase in these kinds of reports brings to mind the words of Christ, when he shared his vision of the end of the age. Recorded for us in Matthew’s gospel, chapter 24, Jesus’ words resonate with modern events:
‘You will soon hear about wars and threats of wars, but don’t be afraid. These things will have to happen first, but that isn’t the end.’
‘Nations and kingdoms will go to war against each other. People will starve to death, and in some places there will be earthquakes. But this is the just the beginning of troubles…’
This passage of Jesus’ teaching has been the subject of much debate among preachers, scholars and Bible-readers generally. Does it refer to a time close to Christ’s own lifetime, or to a vision of the distant future?
Is Jesus talking about events to occur soon after his death, or to events many years, perhaps centuries away?
Some scholars suggest Jesus points to both. Perhaps, as with much of the prophetic utterance in the Bible, his predictive words have an immediate application and another which is more long-term and afar-off.
Whatever the case, many Christians cannot help but bring this passage and others like it to mind when they read almost weekly reports of awe-inspiring natural disasters.
It’s important, then, to put such things into perspective.
It seems to me that, as you read the Bible’s eschatology – its teaching on events at the end of time – you see a clear motive emerging.
The writers of the Bible are not trying to encourage an escapist attitude in their readers. They don’t want us saying to ourselves, ‘Well, the sky is definitely falling. It’s time to stock up on baked beans and kerosene lamps and head for the hills.’
Some Christians seem intent on finding any excuse to opt out of responsibility for acting and planning for maximum influence in the world of now. Much easier, they think, to batten down the hatches and wait for the trumpet call.
But the eschatology of the Bible is given to make us more, not less, conscious of our daily lives in the here-and-now, to help us engage more fully in the real world.
The Bible’s descriptions of the end of the age are surrounded with references to how we should be living now. Descriptions of future events are surrounded with words encouraging us, urging us, to lead holy lives worthy of our calling.
The point is this: if we know the end is coming and our actions and motives will be held up to divine scrutiny, that knowledge should inspire in us a healthy respect for God.
That knowledge should drive us to doing as much as we can to promote Christ’s kingdom before his return.
The Bible’s eschatology and that of Christ in particular, is not given to turn us into escapists, but to encourage engagement; to get us to live more accountably in the present age. It carries with it a clear call to take responsibility for our lives and for the needs of others.
As one writer put it, we should all plan ahead as if Jesus’ were not returning for a hundred years, while living as if he might return tonight!
In a sense, a knowledge of end-time teaching is a good servant but a poor master.
In terms of end-time events, the key thing is not the signs themselves and whether or not what we’re seeing fits the bill or not.
The key thing for us is another line from Jesus’ teaching: ‘When the Son of Man returns, will he find faith in the earth?’
That should be our primary concern.
Keywords: social comment | earthquakes | tsunamis | droughts | end-times | eschatology | Jesus | Christ | end of the age | Mal Fletcher
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