The End of The World: New Testament vs. Popular Culture
If we stopped a hundred people on the street and asked them what comes to mind when they hear the phrase “end of the world,” we might get a hundred different answers. Most of those answers though, would center around destruction of the material world and, especially, of human life. Earthquakes and asteroids, plagues and pestilence, famines and drought, World War and nuclear annihilation might all be part of what a person envisions when confronted with this term. Many no doubt would also think of a New World Order under the Devil’s apostle, Antichrist. Such scenarios have haunted people at various times in Christian history, and especially in the last century. But modern day anxiety over, and obsession with, end times largely result from major misconceptions over the purpose and meaning of prophetic bible passages. End-time fears were one motivation for my own conversion to Christianity, but with maturity and greater familiarity with the Bible, I learned that scripture teaches something different from what modern authorities say it does.
The most recent era of intense focus on end-times bible prophecy has roots in the nineteenth century. In that era numerous End Times driven denominations arose, both in Europe and America. The most influential among them are the Plymouth Brethren, one of whose founder’s, John Nelson Darby, was the first to teach about a secret “Rapture,” in which Christ would rescue His Church from imminent disaster before destroying the earthly kingdom of the Beast. His teachings were then popularized in the Schofield Reference Bible, produced by Cyrus Schofield, an American Dispensationalist. Until this time, American Christians had favored a view that God had prevailed in history through Christ, and things would progressively improve as His kingdom advanced in the world. The disaster of the Civil War, followed by the yet worse carnage of World War I, shook this confidence and left fertile soil for the pessimism of End Times speculators.
Doubtless the teachings of Premillennialism result from the conclusion that, since Christ hasn’t physically returned to earth, raised the dead, and established a visible, earthly kingdom, the prophetic passages of the New Testament are unfulfilled. I affirm that the Bible does communicate truth about God and His Kingdom, but the reader must be aware that it communicates in symbolism and idioms that require appropriate interpretation. When Christ tells the High Priest “Hereafter shall ye see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven”, one needs to know that “coming in the clouds” is not a description of how he travels, but is code for divine punishment. ( King James Version, Matt. 26:64 )
More importantly, the Bible reader must understand that prophecy is not offered in scripture to satisfy curiosity or even to prepare us for coming calamities, but to call people to faithfulness to their moral responsibility as believers. In the context of Jewish and Christian religion, a prophet is not someone who predicts future events, but one who acts as a mouthpiece for God, to warn His people to return to full obedience. This is the chief purpose of Old Testament prophecy, pronouncing God’s judgment on Israel for disobedience and apostasy. New Testament prophecy is in fact no different, decreeing the fate of Israel for the ultimate apostasy of executing as a criminal their Messiah, Jesus. This is where “end of the World” gets garbled in interpretation from the context of the Bible narrative to the common parlance of our day. The Synoptic gospels contain the account of the Olivet discourse, which begins with Christ shocking His disciples by predicting the razing of the Temple. The astounded apostles then ask him, “…and what shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world?” ( Matt. 24:3 ) Greek manuscripts of the New Testament show that the word rendered in English as “world” is eon, in our day more accurately translated as “age“. The apostles were concerned about the end of the Era of Jewish Temple worship, not the dissolution of the created order. For them the Old Covenant paradigm was the world, their chief point of religious and national identity, and it’s destruction marked a shattering change for them.
Finally, I am convinced that the fearful events predicted in various Bible passages were fulfilled in the past, from both the immediate time-frame references in the texts themselves, and other internal textual evidence. The example of time frames are in Revelation, “to shew unto his servants things which must shortly come to pass,” and one verse later, “Blessed is he that readeth, …and keep those things which are written therein: for the time is at hand.” ( Rev. 1:1, 1:3)
And that Revelation is about events that were concurrent with the Jewish War of 67-70 AD, can be shown in the following cross-reference. Luke’s Gospel records Christ admonishing the women that lament His execution saying, “Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bare, and the paps which never gave suck. Then shall they begin to say to the mountains, Fall on us; and to the hills, Cover us.” ( Luke 23:29 & 30 ) This dire remark is echoed in Revelation as the vision to John is begun in earnest, “ …said to the mountains and rocks, Fall on us, and hide us from the face of him that sitteth on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb…” ( Rev. 6:16 )
From this we can conclude that what Christ warned the lamenting women would befall them, and in fact did in the 70 AD destruction of Jerusalem, is what was foretold in Revelation would shortly take place.
What Christians have to look forward to from God is not destruction and wrath, but the fruition of a victory already won by the cross and empty tomb, the end of sin and the evils of the world that sin has brought about. While until then, some suffering may come our way, God will finally renew us, and all creation, in Christ.