My students in Exegesis In The Gospels (a second-year Greek course) were delighted to discover that (in the words of one news agency) “Christian conspiracy theorists have gathered clues that suggest the end of the world is nigh.”
Actually, the end is closer than “nigh.” According to David Meade, life as we know it is going to come crashing down all around us on Saturday, September 23, exactly three days before my students’ first big exegetical project is due. So now they are off the hook!
Thinking Christians, like the readers of this blog, scoff at such nonsense. Many of us grieve, as well, because we know that such predictions make a mockery of Christianity in the culture-at-large. Pseudo-eschatology generates another, more serious problem, moreover, one that I find particularly detrimental to the faith of believers in our evangelical churches today:
Have you noticed how seldom we teach on the return of Christ in many of our churches? I think that we avoid it precisely because a previous generation of Christian leaders traded biblical eschatology for the kind of foolish speculation we are hearing about in the news, again, this week.
To be fair, our leaders (for the most part) did not fall into the trap of date-setting. However, their speculation was even more harmful to the body of Christ than the blatant nonsense of the likes of David Meade, precisely because it came from trusted evangelical pastors and leaders, and not from a crackpot outsider. Older Christians likely know what I am referring to here. Younger readers (including current Talbot students and recent grads) will need some background.
I became a Christian in 1975, as a 23-year-old. The mid–1970s felt like exciting times where eschatology was concerned. Israel was back in the land, and Gog and Magog (U.S.S.R.) were rattling their swords from the North. Christian publishers made big money on books about the End-Times. Pastors and conference speakers convinced many of us that current events were lining up directly with the biblical prophecies of Daniel, Ezekiel, and Revelation—in some cases, right down to the very details of the apocalyptic visions. One author wrote:
I have a Christian friend who was a Green Beret in Viet Nam. When he first read Revelation 9:1-12 [the judgment of the locusts] he said, “I know what those are. I’ve seen hundreds of them in Viet Nam. They’re Cobra helicopters!” That may be conjecture, but it does give you something to think about! A Cobra helicopter does fit the sound of “many chariots.” My friend believes that the means of torment will be a kind of nerve gas sprayed from its tail.
Yep. Jesus is right around the corner, folks. We’d better get right with God, ‘cause He’s comin’ on the clouds (a whole lot) sooner, rather than later.
Eschatology was leveraged in the service of evangelism, and news about the Middle East from the Los Angeles Times became as important as the Good News about Jesus from the New Testament epistles. Some people did, in fact, become Christians in response to the pseudo-eschatology of the 1970s. Others were still-born.
Paul, a very bright man in my church, recently told me that he rejects dispensationalism because of the negative effect this pseudo-eschatology had on a good friend of his, back in the early 1970s. Paul’s friend made a profession of faith in Christ in direct response to some inspiring speculation about Middle East events and the Bible. Unfortunately, political history failed to unfold according to the timetable provided by the “expert eschatologists,” and Jesus decided not to return according to their schedule. Paul’s friend felt betrayed and discarded the Christian faith. Paul began to confuse the pseudo-eschatology outlined above with a robust, biblically-based premillennialism (the kind we teach at Talbot), and he soon became amillennial in his eschatology.
We continue today to stumble through the spiritually radioactive fallout of this well-intended but sadly misdirected preoccupation with the End Times. In response to the ensuing failure of the eschatological speculations of the 1970s to “produce,” the evangelical church generally shyed away from teaching much of anything about the return of Jesus — case in point, the seeker sensitive movement of the 1990s, which championed God’s provision for the seeker’s felt needs and virtually ignored God’s future remedy for our broken world.
The New Testament writers, in contrast, leverage the Second Coming of Christ, again and again, as one of the two central moments in salvation history — past and future — that are to encourage us to live for Jesus in the here-and-now. The other, of course, is the atoning death of Christ. Put them together, and we are, Paul writes, to “proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.”
Without both the Cross and the Consummation at the center of our spiritual radar screens, we will be hopelessly (the choice of the adverb is quite intentional) unequipped to navigate the challenges that life brings our way, as we try to walk together in community, aiming to be faithful to our Lord Jesus.
I recently did a search through Paul’s letters and was astounded at how often Paul uses the return of Christ to motivate his readers in those early Christian communities.
The lesson from all this? It’s at least twofold:
- We need to rediscover (a) what the NT teaches about the Second Coming of Christ and (b) how indispensable an eschatological perspective is for faithful Christian living this side of eternity. While perhaps a bit overstated, Jürgen Moltmann’s comments constitute a timely challenge to a generation of evangelicals who no longer have our eyes on the future:
“The eschatological is not one element of Christianity, but it is the medium of Christianity as such, the key in which everything else is set, the glow that suffuses everything here in the dawn of an expected new day.”
“The one who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” (Revelation 22:20).
- We should leave current events out of the picture and say only what the Bible says about the return of Christ. Let’s get about the business of living the Christian life in light of the biblical teaching about the Second Coming. The Scriptures are sufficient. We don’t need Google News to interpret them for us.
The next time someone tries to show you how current events are lining up with biblical prophecies, just smile and say, “Well, we’ll see, won’t we? And let’s not tell anyone else until we actually do see, OK?”
A final note to my students in Exegesis In The Gospels. You’d better get that first exegetical project finished. I’m going to collect them on Tuesday, whether the world ends or not.