End Of The World Is Coming, It Is Coming Soon! Not!
do AIDS, SARS, and Terrorist Attacks, the death of Arafat, the war in Iraq, Katrina,
Rita, and a possible bird flu pandemic have in common? A surprisingly large number
of Christians in the United States see in these things a sign that the end of
the world is coming ... soon. And not only that, the events you are reading about
in your newspapers and watching on television today were forecast precisely in
the pages of the New Testament some two thousand years ago. Today there are more
books sold, more movies produced, more television shows broadcast, and more radio
talk shows devoted to various scenarios predicting the end of the world than at
any time in history. Biblical Prophecy. The Rapture. The Second Coming. Armageddon.
These are the themes of a rapidly growing media industry with million upon millions
of dollars to be made by enterprising preachers, writers and prophets of doom.
But is the possibility of a bird flu pandemic this winter. or any other
calamity that might possibly strike in the coming weeks or months, forecast in
the Bible? Let's take a long view of the entire topic of biblical prophecy.
fear that the end is near; others are banking on it
Perhaps the most widely
know and certainly the most widely read promoters of "the end is near"
theology are Tim La Haye and Jerry Jenkins, authors of the bestselling "Left
Behind" series of novels. In these books, there is a direct correlation between
current events and specific biblical passages, but the over arching theme is that
the world situation is bad and getting worse day by day. Soon people around the
world will face a time of "tribulation" and suffering more severe than
anything humanity has ever faced. But not to worry. For born again Christians,
help is at hand in the form of Jesus Christ who will return to rescue true
believers in a last minute, dramatic exit known as the Rapture. Those fortunate
enough to be carried off in a cloud to heaven may be few in number, but their
salvation is assured ... so one better be reading one's Bible right away, or if
not the Bible, then certainly those books that paint such a clear, dramactic picture
of it all, including, of course, the Left Behind novels.
Bush and other world leaders attempt to promote a "roadmap" to peace
in the Middle East, fundamentalist, prophecy minded Christians are following a
roadmap to heaven, even as the world is assigned, quite literally to hell. There
is, of course, a website where you can read all about it, LeftBehind.com,
and a newsletter where you can read regular editorials by Mark Hitchcock, one
of the leading promoters of "end is near" thinking. Hitchcock opened
an editorial not long ago with this question: "Is SARS a fulfillment of Jesus'
prophecy about plagues in the End Times?" For readers who were not aware
that nearly two thousand years ago, Jesus was predicting events like the outbreak
of SARS that would unfold in our time and place, Hitchcock writes: "Two
days before He died on the cross, in His great prophetic sermon from the Mount
of Olives, Jesus said that one of the signs of His coming is "in various
places plagues" (Luke 21:11). Of course, you could strike SARS from Hitchcock's
statement, and substitute AIDS or bovine flu or bird flu, and little would change.
For all the attention to detail in such thinking, the thoughts remain the same.
Although it is quite clear from the context that Jesus was referring not
to events that might take place in the 21st century, but to cirucmstances in his
own time and place, Hitchcock lifts these words of Jesus completely out of their
setting in a particular time and place and uses them as a conversation starter
about SARS and other recently minted infectious diseases, including AIDS and the
Are these recent outbreaks a fulfillment
of Jesus' prophecy of endtime plagues? Some prophecy teachers believe they are.
While this is possible, I prefer to see SARS, AIDS, Ebola, and other modern epidemics
as foreshadows of even worse things to come. They dont fulfill Jesus' words,
but they do point toward their fulfillment. People had been led to believe that
terrible plagues were a thing of the past. But all that has changed now. Fear
of deadly epidemics is alive and well. And when the coming seven year tribulation
arrives, one of the terrible judgments of God on an unbelieving, Christ-rejecting
world will be the unleashing of terrible plagues that will kill millions, even
billions. ... The epidemics we see today are just a small
foretaste and faint glimpse of what is coming upon the whole world.
there you have it. And global pandemics are just the beginning. Soon God's judgement
against a sin filled world will descend upon us in the form additional calamities,
both natural and man-made, through which God puts to death "millions, even billions"
of human beings.
Did Jesus actually predict anything like this?
Let's take a closer look at the context in which Jesus was speaking.
He was standing in the temple courtyard in the ancient city of Jerusalem. And
he had just observed, with approval, a poor widow who had placed two small copper
coins in the temple treasury. Contrasting her generosity with the relatively stingy
behavior of the rich people who were also coming forward with their own gifts,
he said: "Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them,
for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty
has put in all she had to live on."
When he noticed that people seemed
to be more impressed by the luxurious surroundings of the temple architecture
and appointments made possible by gifts from the wealthy, Jesus replied. "As
for these things that you see, the days are coming when not one stone will be
left standing upon another; all will be thrown down." It's in this
specific context that Jesus mentions the possibility of a future calamity in which
the city and its impressive temple might be destroyed. Included among the portents
of such a time Jesus lists warfare, earthquakes, "and in various places famines
And to be sure it was only seventy years later that the
Romans invaded Jerusalem, sacked the city, and the great temple of King Solomon
came tumbling down. All that remains of the temple and its impressive surroundings
that had so mesmerized Christ's listeners is the wailing wall which today is one
of the flash points for the continuing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.
There is another sentence worth mentioning in this passage from Luke. When
pressed to say more about his comments on the coming destruction of the temple,
Jesus snaps: "Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my
name and say, ... 'The time is near!' Do not go after them."
there is anything clear in this passage, it's Christ's admiration for the generosity
of the poor woman, which he finds more impressive than any of the outward signs
of wealth and power in such extravagant display all around him. And to be sure,
his love for that woman is combined with some rather dramatic words of warning
addressed to those "who devour widows' houses and for the sake of appearances
say long prayers" Yes, he does suggest that there will be a time
of reckoning and judgement for those who oppress the poor and pervert the faith.
But of those who may suggest when, or in what form such judgement may occur, his
words are clear: "Do not go after them."
Tall tales vs Biblical
Judging by the sales of the prophecy books of authors like Jenkins
and La Haye, or the popularity of websites like LeftBehind.com, there are plenty
of people two thousands of years later who are still quite willing to "go
after them." And so it is that when news of a bird flu pandemic began
to spread, there were preachers and prophets soon to follow, trumpeting once
again that "the end is near." And somehow the readers of such books
and the believers in such "prophecy" theology failed to notice
that the very same writers and preachers were making the same predictions and
drawing the same conclusions about the end of the world upon the breaking
of other bad news in prior years. The war with Iraq, the terrorist attacks
of September 2001, the AIDS epidemic, and remember this one: The Y2K computer
virus? Few will remember that in 1998 and 1999, none other than Jenkins and
La Haye were suggesting that the outbreak of that long forgotten bug in the coding
of the Windows operating system would lead to a world wide economic meltdown that
would, once again, signal the end of the world as we know it.
have been making such predictions and promoting such prophecies year after year,
decade after decade, century after century. One thing all such prognostications
have in common. They are wrong. Not only are they factually flawed, but they represent
a gross distortion of the clear meaning of the biblical text, such that a narrative
that focuses on the generosity of a first century widow can be transformed into
a dramatic prediction of the suffering and death of "billions" of the
world's people at the hands of an angry God. The fiction sells a great many novels,
movies and television shows to be sure, but runs far, far away from the simple
truths as told by the carpenter from Nazareth more than two thousands years ago.
While many are mesmerized by tall tales about the end of the world,
I prefer the teaching of the one who came that the world might be saved.
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Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister Publisher of CrossCurrents
Author of God and Science