The End of the World as We Know It?

In Eschatology, Featured by eric holmberg0 Comments

(Though September 23 has passed. The day and our reaction were a fascinating lesson in eschatology)

As I write this, Jerusalem—the city that many Jews, Christians and even some Muslims consider the navel of this world—quietly slips into the early hours of September 23. While most of its citizens sleep and dream, thousands of Christians around the world hold their breath in anticipation, hope and, for some, even fear. A little more than a month after a rare solar eclipse traversed America, a supposed greater sign has now appeared in the heavens: the constellation Virgo (the virgin) finds herself situated with the sun and moon near her feet; Jupiter (the king of the gods; representing for Christians the true God revealed in Jesus the Messiah) shining in her midsection (womb); while nine stars and three naked-eye planets (Mercury, Venus and Mars) crown her head. And so, we are told, for the first time since well before the Apostle John penned the words of Revelation, the heavens align in perfect fulfillment of a key aspect in his divinely inspired vision of the Apocalypse:

And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pains and the agony of giving birth. Revelation 12: 1-2

And if that weren’t enough, other supposed prophetic teachers and seers have noted the wars raging around the Middle East as well as in other parts of the world; the severe earthquake that struck Mexico three says ago; the unprecedented fires burning across America; the incredible devastation hurricanes Harvey and Irma brought to the Caribbean and the United States; and the current nuclear smack-down between Trump and Kim Jong-un and have interpreted them all as fulfilling—or at least pointing to—the dire warnings Christ gave about what many interpret to be the end of the world:

“There will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and pestilences… And there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves, people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world. For the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Luke 21: 11, 25-28

But wait, that isn’t all. For even as the great alignment in the heavens takes shape, two more hurricanes dance their way across the Atlantic: Jose and Maria, Spanish permutations of the name Mary, the virgin mother of God, and her human husband, Joseph. (Note that the storms never touch one another, echoing the great truth that Joseph played no part in Jesus’ conception.)

Add it all up and it’s little wonder so many believers who hold to a particular brand of eschatology (the study of last things) are thinking something momentous is about to unfold.

The return of Christ, the rapture and the beginning of the end it all triggers, perhaps? More than a few think so and are shouting it from the proverbial housetops of Twitter, Facebook  and YouTube. The final countdown to Jacob’s Trouble and the Great Tribulation? “Amen!” say others. Some more cautiously speculate that the signs are to be understood as but a major birth pang in redemptive history (Roman 8:22); perhaps a trumpet blast calling the recently eclipsed America to repent: that her lampstand is about to be removed—something, by the way, Kim Jong-un would only be too happy to help with. Others are more focused on the canary in the coal mine of nations, Israel.  After all, some say this great heavenly sign will be most prominently manifest in the sky above the “Holy Land.”  And not only that, Rosh Hashannah will have begun, leading up to the highest of the High Holidays in the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement).

Are you ready for Armageddon?

More than a few people, impressed by the data points noted above, have asked me what I think about all of this. All of them are friends and solid Christians, people not known for chasing myths and endless genealogies (1 Tim. 1:4), much less believing in a domed flat earth or the planet Nibiru. (Did I mention that a number of apocalypticists read Planet X—Nibiru for those in the know—into Revelation 12 and September 23rd as well? After being a no-show on several previously predicted, world-ending collisions, this ghost planet has been guaranteed by some to finally get the job done tomorrow.)

And so, for what it’s worth…

I think all of this is precisely what Paul warned Timothy about in the verse (1 Tim. 1:4) just mentioned: a myth. Worse, it’s just another of the seemingly endless speculations/genealogies that pattern-seeking humans of the Christian variety—many of them sincere and well-meaning—have gotten wrong as they have offered them up to a watching world for nearly two millennia.

And sadly, tragically, the end result has been in the end to bring ridicule on both the Name of Christ, His Bride and His Kingdom message. After all, if we can’t get the end part of redemptive history right, who’s to say we don’t have the beginning and the middle all muddled up as well?

I’ve been working for some time on a series of responses to the New Atheists, a movement—make no mistake—that is having a profound impact on the Western world. Having read a number of their books and listened to dozens of lectures, I can tell you that one of the top five sticking points with Hitchens, Dennett, Dawkins and particularly Harris, is that Christianity appears to be a clown car of apocalypse-chasers who are constantly getting their predictions wrong. Worse, it seems to them that we could care less about making the world a sustainably better place.

But there is a sense in which I truly do hope, yearn and pray that September 23rd and the days that immediately follow do spell the “end of the world as we know it.”

1. First, that it signals the end of professing Christians making like holy scripture-breathing prophets and taking it on themselves to use whatever pulpit they can find to share their personal interpretation of scripture and the signs they see in the times to say anything about the specifics of God’s prophetic timetable.

I mean, how many times do the great commissioned have to get the terminus of their commission wrong before we finally shut up?

Five? Ten? Fifty?

The fact is, the true number swells into the hundreds.

A generation from the first one AD has not gone by without some useful idiot (I say that as someone who struggles—as all of us do—with bouts of idiocy) declaring “The end is near!” Shoot, in just the short, vaporous passing of my 63 years—punctuated by the admittedly interesting and likely significant recreation of the land of Israel after almost 2,000 years—I’ve seen millions of Christians chasing the apocalypse. And I’ve lost count of how many drop-dead dates have been set…and then passed by without so much as a howdy-do.

 As I write this I’ve been listening to 1000—A Mass for the End of Time for inspiration. The album is a collection of songs taken from the Ascension mass and apocalyptic texts that were everywhere as great swaths of Christians anticipated the end of the world as the first millennium AD wound down…only to then give birth to the second.

And now were into the third.

Ezekiel’s fourth (Eze.47:3-6) anybody?

I hope, I pray, our descendants are up for it.

2. Second, that we finally see the end of professing Christians tolerating even a whiff of Gnosticism: the satanic, Hellenistic-based idea the early church faced off against on the left even as they had to contend with the Judaizers on the right. Boiling it all down, Gnosticism is salvation/transcendence through knowledge; glomming onto the hidden keys of truth that have been lost or obscured from the common man. Discover this hidden knowledge—and, just by the way, whozzit can help you along if you will just buy his or her book or DVD—and you will become one of the chosen, the truly enlightened.

Now hold on there, you may say. What prophecy experts are making such claims? With some fringe exceptions, these are all good Christian leaders who believe in salvation by grace through faith and not through some hidden, obscured knowledge.

Well, I have no doubt that this is their heart and intention. And I’m also not in any way questioning their inclusion in the elect of God.

But you know what they say about good intentions.

The fact is I have not found a single end-time prophet, teacher or fiction writer who has not declared, or at least implied, that unless a person gets it right as to the specifics of their particular take on eschatological matters, it will not go well with them.

Some will say it straight up. In researching this, I’ve processed numerous articles and YouTube videos where the authors declare that the skepticism about their position I voice in this article means I am yet in darkness; that I’m bound by carnal thinking rather than embracing the enlightened insights they have received and are now sharing with the world.

The best case scenario then for me? I will be left behind and have to endure the horrors of the Great Tribulation.

The worst? Despite my sincere belief and embrace of the Gospel of the Kingdom, my bedrock confidence that Jesus was bodily raised from the dead and is now the LORD of heaven and earth, I remain a deceived, unregenerate spawn of Satan and on my way to hell.

And all because I haven’t grasped the hidden wisdom they’ve received concerning the trajectory of redemptive history and the last days.

Don’t believe me? Think I’m being harsh and unfair?

I’ve visited with Tim LaHaye on one occasion I remember.  More his wife, Beverly, and the wonderful organization she and Tim helped found, Concerned Women for America, where I have spoken at two national conventions as well as being interviewed on their national radio program. I consider them both to be wonderful, anointed Christians who very likely will have a place of honor on the New Earth that eclipses mine.

With that said, however, when you boil down the theology of Dr. LaHaye’s incredibly popular (65 million sold)  Left Behind series—a fictional representation of the dispensational eschatology that informs so much of the September 23rd speculation—one is left with a number of a proverbial flies in the ointment.

For example, Revelation 14:9-11 straightforwardly declares that anyone who receives the “mark of the beast” will face an eternity of hell, where “the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night.”

But what does it mean to take this 666 mark on the hand and/or head? Well, perhaps most broadly: to be a mere man (6 in Biblical numerology) who strives to supplant the Triune God (3); to be self-rather than God-referential in what we ultimately trust and believe (the head) and what we do (the hand).

This is what many Christians, myself among them, have believed for over two millennia.

Or what of the Roman emperor cult the early Christians had to face off against? After all, it was to them John was writing about things which will soon take place (Rev. 1:1).

The Romans had no problem with their subject nations maintaining their distinctive cultures and paying homage to their traditional deities. The rub came when they were required to honor the Caesar as kurios, the Lord, the King of all Kings.

No problem for the majority polytheistic cultures. They and their gods, after all, had been conquered by Rome. Might, in the end, is right.

But for Christians, it was another matter all together. Jesus had been executed via Roman crucifixion, vindicated by the Holy Spirit through a bodily resurrection from the dead, had ascended into heaven where He was enthroned and made LORD (kurios) over everything in heaven and on earth.

This was the bedrock of the Christian faith, the truth that stood above every other pretender to truth and homage. To confess instead that Caesar was LORD was unthinkable. It was to deny both Christ and the very foundation of the Gospel.

But to not honor Caesar as LORD could mean—and at various times over two-and-a-half centuries did mean­—that Christians were severely marginalized (for example, their ability to engage in commerce—to buy and sell—was restricted) and even jailed, tortured and executed.

And to make matters worse, there is the curious fact that the emperor who kicked off the first serious persecution of Christians—a man who eventually degenerated into the most beastly state of mind and behavior—had a title whose letters added up to the very number John used to represent the beast. (Greek, like Hebrew and later Latin, did not have a separate number system but instead pressed their letters into doing double duty. And it was very common for people to add up the number values of the letters in a name or phrase, a practice the Jews called gematriya (gematria).)

After killing himself to avoid assassination, both the empire and emperor cult fell into confusion and looked to be “dead”, on its way to oblivion. But thirteen years after Nero’s passing, Domitian, a man who some Romans believed to be the second coming of Nero, came on the scene and righted the floundering ship of the Roman state. A gifted statesman and strategist, he was also a remarkably cruel and vainglorious man, one the historian Pliny described as a beast from hell who sat in its den, licking blood. Beginning in 89 AD, for seven years the self-titled “God the Lord” unleashed a torrent of persecution against what was commonly seen as a sect of Judaism: the Christians.

The 666 death cult was reborn.

Could what is now past be what John the revelator was primarily pointing to, encouraging his fellow believers to endure with hope in the eventual victory of Christ over the emperor cult? Could we be barking up the wrong tree as we speculate about future fulfillments: for example people being eternally doomed or at least having to go through the Great Tribulation because they’ve accepted a particular credit card, smart card, biochip, vaccine or whatever else becomes the mark de jour?

I’m not saying definitively that we are, though I personally believe it to be the case. God-fearing and learned folks look through the Bible’s admittedly difficult and at times mysterious eschatological lens from different angles and, of course, reach different conclusions about these matters.

But shouldn’t the ancient paths carved out by the many that have gone before us be taken seriously rather than simply ignored? Shouldn’t the indisputable fact that Christians have gotten it so often and so spectacularly wrong before—with no little damage being done to our testimony before men as a result—give us profound pause before chasing after the newest sign in the heavens or earth?

In much the same way, what of the passage in Revelation 12 that has become the focus of this new wave of end-time speculation: the great sign of the woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars?

Many, perhaps even a majority of theologians over the intervening years, have viewed this passage as being fulfilled nearly two millennia ago: imaged first by Mary, the infant Jesus and Herod standing in for the dragon and then more completely as the young church had to endure the persecutions of imperial Rome.

But you would never know about this common interpretation listening to all the fevered speculation concerning September 23rd.

And this brings me to my third and last “please let tomorrow and the days that follow be the end” hope and prayer.

3. That we will finally see the end of the anti-historical, new (or recovered) revelation perspective that has tainted so much of modern, and particularly American, evangelicalism. Millions have been infected with a “vain imagining” that has either taken over their minds and hearts or—and I would take this to be by far the majority report—bubbles quietly beneath the surface of their consciousness, creating confusion where there should be clarity as to the task that is before them. This thought-virus takes many forms but is perhaps best expressed in the idea that the Church has to varying degrees floundered since Constantine; that true New Testament, Spirit-filled Christianity has only recently been recovered (many would date it to the Azusa Street revival); that only now, in our generation’s time has the latter rain truly fallen and a nascent Daniel generation come on the scene that will ultimately usher in the return of the LORD.

In opposition to the Prime Directive given to us by our LORD (Matthew 28:18-20), millions now limp about, tethered to the subtle belief that Satan and his seed are the ones really alive and well right now on planet earth. Ignoring or watering down Jesus’ clear admonition that no one knows the day or hour of the Son of Man’s return (Matt. 24:36)—as well as the two angel’s gentle and rather humorous rebuke of the disciples’ “standing around and looking into the sky” rather than hoofing it back to Jerusalem and engaging with the new commission they had been given (Acts 1:11)—a majority of U.S. Christians believe that Jesus will either “definitely” or “probably” return to earth on or before 2050. (2010 Pew Research Study). Abandoning the long-term strategy and commitment to occupy or do God’s business until He returns (Luke 19:13), millions of Christians’ fascination with supposed end-time’s doom and gloom is becoming—even has become as regards the West—a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Father, forgive us.

May all of this nonsense finally come to an end as we see 2017 come and go without the occurrence of any great apocalyptic event.

 

EPILOGUE

I’m going to informally “predict”—more offer a hunch—that God could very well frustrate the sign-chasers and predictors by making the September 23 and the rest of 2017 an ocean of relative calm. (Note the qualifier “relative.”  Crazy and tragic stuff will continue to occur with some frequency as it necessarily must in a fallen, yet-to-be-fully-redeemed world.) The One who holds together the cosmos by the word of His power (Col. 1:17; Heb. 1:3) might very well grant our planet an extra measure of grace so that the trend we already see emerging in 2017 relative to earthquakes—we’ve actually seen the least in relation to the past decade—will manifest in other areas watched by apocalypticists as well.

Trump and Jong-un will continue to bark at one another, but a nuclear holocaust will be averted. Islamists will carry on with their war against the West and Israel, but nothing unusually horrible will come of it.

And maybe, just maybe, the Church can put away her fascination with myths and endless genealogies and give renewed energy and attention to the Gospel of the Kingdom as December 25th and January 1 roll around.

And that, by the way, includes calling America to repent. We didn’t need our own special eclipse to let us know that America­ is under the judgment of God. It has been for years, with 1973 (Roe v. Wade) and 2015 (Obergefell v. Hodges) serving as true signs of the tragic process of being given over to believe the lie. (2 Thess. 2:11)

Lastly, as long as this article has turned out to be, there’s much I have had to leave out. And that includes an idea—an eschatological riff on Pascal’s famous wager—that may somewhat smooth the ruffled feathers of those I’ve put-off by the perspectives I’ve shared here.

More importantly, it just may show us a better way forward.

I hope to have it out within a few days.

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