Well, it took longer than I thought, but it has finally happened. Given the extended closures due to the pandemic, the delayed gathering for churches, bans against singing in some of those churches, ever increasing violence in our large cities, vitriol on social media, and fear being stoked like the only wood furnace at the North Pole by the media, I am surprised it has taken this long.
However, over the past few weeks, I have received an uncharacteristic number of questions regarding the “Second Coming” or, to quote R.E.M., “the end of the world as we know it…” While I am excited to see people looking forward to Jesus’ return, I would rather they be motivated by triumphant expectation instead of paralyzing fear. We should be enlivened for what we will gain, instead of desperately terrified for what we might lose. In fact, I have never quite understood why folks across the world and throughout the generations have been so worried about the “End of Days.” It seems that throughout history, every generation believed that they had reached the tipping point when conditions on the earth could not spin further out of control. Then, the crisis passes, normalcy returns, and the doomsday calendars are reset.
I am not suggesting that we should avoid looking to the horizon and wondering if “today is the day.” It is a very relevant question. After all, today is unique. As you read these words, you are living through a historic moment. This singular point in time is the latest moment in the history of the world. This moment is the closest anyone has been to the return of Jesus and the end of the world… as we know it. Therefore, questions about Judgement Day, the Second Coming, the End of Days or the Big End become more relevant with each passing minute. And that has been true since Jesus left the planet with a return ticket in hand.
So, if we are facing “the end of the world as we know it”… why are so many not “feeling fine?” I was under the impression that Jesus’ return was an event that we should be anticipating with excitement. If we look throughout biblical history, the only folks who were worried about Judgement Day (except for Sarah Connor), are those who worried about facing God’s justice and receiving their comeuppance. At some level, they knew that whatever they were doing was wrong and they didn’t want to pay the band when the song ended. Perhaps they were hoping they could kick the apocalyptic can down the road. Maybe they were planning on waiting until the very last moment before offering God a tear-filled apology so they could attempt to cheat the system. Whatever their reason to be afraid, we can say that if they are worried, then they believe that Judgement Day is real and it’s coming. Their only question, unfortunately, is “when.”
While asking “when” is focusing on the wrong question, it is the one that is being asked. So let’s start there. Is Judgement Day, the End of Days, really upon us? Is the day actually here when no amount of stockpiled toilet paper can save us?
If you happen to run across someone who claims to have the theological expertise to line up current events with hidden biblical codes to accurately calculate the exact date and time of “The End,” I would highly recommended taking a step back before quitting your job or running up your credit cards. By the way, if you think I am exaggerating here, Christians in the early first century believed that Jesus was coming back very soon, so they stopped working and just waited. But, Paul, a highly respected leader in the earliest church, told them that Jesus might be awhile. He reminded them that Jesus’ return would come unexpectedly, like a “thief in the night,” so it would be best if they got back to work, lived with hope and set a good example for their community. (1 Thessalonians 5:1-6 and 2 Thessalonians 3:10-12)
In the shadow of the unexpected, we find our first solid truth about the End of Days. Before we look at the writings in Revelation, Daniel, or any other selection of apocalyptic literature in the Bible, we should recognize that Jesus Himself, the Son of God, does not know the day of His return.
“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” (Matthew 24:36)
The angels don’t know. Jesus doesn’t know. That means no one knows. So, when someone tells you that they have figured out the date and time of Earth’s Grand Finale, they are claiming to know something that Jesus doesn’t know. I think that should raise a few warning flags.
If you continue reading in Matthew 24, you will see that Jesus also tells us that the Big End will come unexpectedly. When Noah was building a massive ship without a large body of water in sight, folks in town were getting married, harvesting their crops, and celebrating birthdays. One day as the ark was nearing completion, clouds started to form and rain began to fall. At first, I am sure that many thought it was just a good soaking that was great for the crops. But it kept raining. The fields began flooding and water poured into their homes. At what point do you think they started to realize that something was terribly wrong? When did concern turn into worry, and worry into terror? Jesus said that the Big End will be… like that.
The second truth that I can confidently state about the Big End is that even though we don’t know the actual end date, I can tell you, with conviction, that the end of the world will occur in the next 80 to 90 years or so. I know what I just wrote, so let me be more specific. The end of your world will occur within the next 80 to 90 years or so. Let’s be honest. Isn’t your end just the Big End… for you? After you end, will you really care about the Big End? So, instead of worrying about when Judgement Day will come, maybe we would be better served focusing on our end, which we know for certain is coming, like a T-1000 after Sarah Connor.
This brings me to the third truth that we need to hear before we continue our exploration of apocalyptic literature. If the writings in the Bible were not meaningful to the people who first read them, then why would they bother passing them along to us. Their lives, the suffering they faced, the hardships that they endured, the tragedies they prayed through were all meaningful. Their lives were not simply a backdrop to our story. They were more than examples meant to inform future generations. Their lives, their families, their children were no less significant and relevant than ours. Therefore, we must first explore what the words they recorded in the Bible meant to them. Their words were meaningful to those who first wrote them, heard them and decided to pass them along to us. Since these records of God’s work in the world were helpful to them as they faced their end, they wanted to share them with us as we face ours, whenever that may be.
The apocalyptic writings, such as those found in Daniel and Revelation, are much more than collections of ambiguous codes that were copied and passed along until they could be properly interpreted several millennia later. Instead, we find in them the voices of faithful disciples who traveled with God along the long and perilous roads of suffering and uncertainty. They remind us that we are a people defined by hope, a people who see in every end a new beginning, permeated by opportunity. And that hope needs to breed a functional courage that the world desperately needs now more than ever.
To be continued….