Is the end here?

Christians through the ages have predicted when Christ will return

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Since prehistoric times, humans have speculated about the end of world. In the early years of this century, the attention of many people around the globe focused on a prediction based on the ancient “long count” calendar of the Mayan people group. That calendar would run out of numbers on Dec. 21, 2012, and many predicted that the world as we know it would end that day.

My wife and I spent part of that day in the air, returning from Thailand where we had visited our daughter’s family. The flight was quite normal, but as we crossed the Pacific Ocean, we also crossed the dateline. So, it was still Dec. 20 when we landed in San Francisco. We were surprised at the level of concern of those in the airport about whether the world would end the next day. We assured them that Dec. 21 had already begun quite normally for us!

Other predictions regarding the end of the world have been based on the expansion of scientific knowledge and observations. Astronomers have extended their ability to observe much deeper into the universe with space-based telescopes and deep-space spacecraft. Concerns about the earth being struck by a large asteroid have led to various “end of the world” predictions. The limited lifespan of our sun is declared a scientific certainty. And in recent decades, concerns about spreading pollution and climate change have led many to doubt the long-term survival of the human race. In the nuclear age, much has been said about a coming doomsday that will bring about the end of the world through unrestrained nuclear warfare.

How do we respond?

How do we as Christians respond to end of the world predictions? What has God revealed through his prophets and through his Son about the future of the human race? Are we exempt from the observations of science or the threats of nuclear war?

Both the Old and New Testaments affirm that the world as we know it now will indeed come to an end. In Mark 13, Jesus outlines some of what will occur prior to the end, such as wars, earthquakes and famines. Jesus also seems to concur with the observation of the Old Testament prophets and of current science that our sun is running out of fuel: “At that time after the anguish of those days, the sun will be darkened, the moon will give no light, the stars will fall from the sky, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken” (Mark 13:24-25).

So, for Christians there is widespread agreement that the end of the world is indeed coming. And for most of us, the end is marked by the return of Jesus, the second coming. However, there is much less agreement on just when and exactly how the end will occur.

For most of us, the end is marked by the return of Jesus, the second coming. However, there is much less agreement on just when and exactly how the end will occur.

I vividly remember the revival/prophecy conferences in my childhood Krimmer Mennonite Brethren church in central California. The back wall of the platform was covered with complex and well-illustrated charts of just how the events of the “end times” would take place. But the messages were not limited to only those future days. They also divided all human history into “dispensations,” including one for the days in which we were living. According to this approach to human history, the teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount do not directly apply to our dispensation.

In the mid-1970s, I attended MB Biblical Seminary in preparation for going as a missionary to Panama. I took a New Testament course from David Ewert that opened my eyes to another way of understanding Scripture’s depiction of the end times. When the Bible speaks of the “last days,” it describes the era in which we live. This era begins with Christ’s first coming and the birth of the church at the coming of the Holy Spirit. The church is the new expression of the “people of God” and includes both Jews and Gentiles.

Ewert explained that in these “last days,” there is not a Jewish people of God and a Gentile people of God; we are one in Christ. The second coming of Christ will mark the end of these last days in which we now live. Living with this hope of Christ’s return and our transformation to eternal life with him should impel us to faithful discipleship, Ewert said. Our lives are to live out Jesus’ teachings, including those in the Sermon on the Mount as found in Matthew 5-7.

When will Christ return?

But this still leaves unanswered the question of the timing of Christ’s return. Even while Jesus is still on earth, his disciples are asking this question. When Jesus answers, he says, “Heaven and earth will disappear, but my words will never disappear. However, no one knows the day or the hour when these things will happen, not even the angels in heaven or the Son himself. Only the Father knows. And since you don’t know when that time will come, be on guard! Stay alert!” (Mark 13: 31-33, NLT).

Jesus’ response to his disciples has not stopped Christians through the years from predicting the day of his return. During World War II, there were those who declared it was indeed the time for Jesus to return. When the United Nations formed the secular state of Israel in 1948, it became the basis for some scholars to set a date for the second coming. Today some carefully follow the news reports of famines, earthquakes and more wars, and they use them to predict the end of the age. Others base their predictions of Jesus’ return on the success of the secular state of Israel in its efforts to return to its former size and glory.

My perspective on how we should live in these last days has been profoundly influenced by my over 35 years of involvement with global mission. My first exposure was in Colombia where MB mission to South America began in 1945. There I saw the living hope that comes to people when their lives are transformed by God’s Spirit. Then came four years in DR Congo and four more back in California before my wife, Helen, and I fully recognized God’s call on us to live on mission our whole lives. With this decision to surrender to his call came eight years as missionaries to Panama followed by 19 years in mission administration.

During this last assignment, I was privileged to attend the Global Consultation on World Evangelization 95 (GCOWE 95) in Seoul, South Korea, sponsored by the AD 2000 and Beyond Movement. The movement was born out of consideration of Jesus’ words in Matthew 24:14: “And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.”  GCOWE 95 brought together nearly 3,400 mission leaders from some 186 nations. The stated vision was to motivate these leaders toward the goal of a church for every people group and the gospel for every person by the year 2000.

While significant progress has been made toward this end, some 24 years later the challenge remains before us.  As we eagerly await the second coming of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, may we not forget his call to take the good news to all people. The end is coming.

1 COMMENT

  1. I believe the two views covered here are historicist and futurist, but there is, and has always been, a large contingent of Christians who consider the “last days” prophecies to be specific to the original audience. Certainly that audience thought of them that way. Jesus touched on this when he said some who were hearing him would not die before his words were fulfilled. In that framework, the fall of Jerusalem in 70AD can plausibly be seen as the final fulfillment of all the end-times writings. Assuming the prophecies are for us in the 21st century is not the only approach. If we let the first century Christians “have” those prophecies, we set aside our concerns about looking for the End Times, we lose those fears, save all the resources we spend on the speculations, and have only to do what Jesus asked us to do regarding the poor and the oppressed.

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