The End of the World is Coming. It Is Coming Soon! Not!
Don't Confuse Paranoid Fantasy with Biblical Fact
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.
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.
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 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
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
Did Jesus actually predict anything like this?
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."
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.
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
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.
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.
you want to talk with someone in person, please feel free to call: 917-439-2305
The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and author of Faith, Science and the Future, published in 1994 by CrossCurrents Press. He is also the author of God and Science (John Knox / Westminster, 1986) which he is now rewriting to incorporate more recent developments in the conversation taking place between scientists and theologians. He has also written widely for such publications as The New York Times, The Nation, Commonweal, The Christian Century and others.