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The End of the World is Coming. It Is Coming Soon! Not!
Don't Confuse Paranoid Fantasy with Biblical Fact

What do AIDS, SARS, Terrorist Attacks, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and an earthquake in Japan 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 millions upon millions of dollars to be made by enterprising preachers, writers and prophets of doom.

But is the possibility of another natural calamity or earth threatening disaster in the coming weeks or months actually forecast in the Bible? Let's take a long view of the entire topic of biblical prophecy.

Some 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 best-selling"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, dramatic picture of it all, including, of course, the Left Behind novels.

While President Obama and other world leaders attempt to promote 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 a couple of years 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, 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 circumstances 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 Ebola virus.

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 don’t 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.

So there you have it. And global pandemics are just the beginning. Soon God's judgment 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 in the passage referenced by Hitchcock in his SARS editorial. In the 21st chapter of Luke, Jesus is 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 plagues."

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."

If 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 judgment for those who oppress the poor and pervert the faith. But of those who may suggest when, or in what form such judgment may occur, his words are clear: "Do not go after them."

Tall tales Vs Biblical Teaching

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. 

People 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.

More on this theme: Left Behind: Bad Fiction, Bad Faith

 

Charles Henderson

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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and Executive Director of
  CrossCurrents.
He is the author of God and Science (John Knox Press, 1986).  
A revised and expanded version of the book is appearing here.
God and Science (Hypertext Edition, 2005).
He is also editor of a new book, featuring articles by world class scientists and theologians, and illustrating the leading views on the relationship between science and religion:
Faith, Science and the Future (CrossCurrents Press, 2007).

Charles also tracks the boundry between the virtual and the real at his blog: Next World Design, focusing on the mediation of art, science and spirituality in the metaverse.  

For more information about Charles Henderson.