Some of the most intense moments during both my time in college and in seminary involved classes in eschatology. Attending college at a Southern Baptist-related school in the latter half of the 70’s made the subject interesting and controversial, and the class discussions were quite lively. Most of the students came from churches that were caught up in a futurist perspective when it came to interpreting the end times, what they considered to be a literal rendering of the scripture as it pertained to the beginning of the end. But the professors at college were decidedly preterist, with a historical view of the book of Revelation tied to the first century Christian church to which the book was written.
A decade later, by the time I arrived at seminary, the 70’s generation of prophets had fallen on hard times as the decade of the 80’s was nearing an end, with the setting from the previous apocalyptic view decidedly changed, due to the political situation in Eastern Europe and Russia changing so drastically. The prophets and pundits had no where to go, and hadn’t turned to the threat of the Islamic world as the next viable candidate for anti-Christ. Now Armageddon will come because the Islamic Arabs control a big chunk of the world’s oil supply, and that’s the focus of the eschatology of the new generation of prophets of the apocalypse. Some of the new generation look like the same prophets who missed their guess on the previous Armageddon calendars (see Deuteronomy 18:22, Pat Robertson, Hal Lindsey, John Hagee, et al).
So have you noticed how the apocalyptic talk begins to heat up when things don’t go exactly the way a lot of conservative Christians think they should be going, especially from a political and social perspective? You’d think that they believe the world is going to end as punishment for America failing to elect the right politicians to office….
Prophetic predictions about the world coming to an end, Armageddon, the apocalypse right around the corner are, well, actually, as old as the Christian church itself. It was not even a hundred years after Jesus was crucified and rose from the dead that the end times prophets were at work, and it was quite a miraculous intervention of the Holy Spirit that some of the writing left behind by these pseudo-prophets did not find its way into the New Testament canon. It was probably not for lack of trying. Some of the scenarios posed by the would-be prophets like the Montanists, for example, sound pretty far fetched and creative, but if you put the same scenes into modern language, and change the setting to the church in American in the 21st century, that is exactly what you do have. The Christian church, over the years, has had some less than levelheaded moments over eschatology and prophecy regarding the end times.
The Old Testament prophets were pretty straightforward. They bear little resemblance to the religious side shows that pass for prophetic ministries today. They didn’t mince words, and they didn’t offer a long time for the words to sink in, have an effect, and generate corrective action. Most of what they warned about occurred within a generation of the time they spoke and were recorded in the books of history. And I think the context of Jesus’ statement in Matthew 5:17, about being the fulfillment of the law and the prophets, means that there’s nothing left over, and God meant what he said. Somehow, a large segment of the church missed all of this.
Likewise, I think the book of Revelation, and the prophetic words in the gospels that came from Jesus, are pretty straightforward, they have a context and a meaning that is directed at the people to whom they were written and spoken. The things of which they speak came to pass as they were stated, and history provides the record of their perfect fulfillment. Now, they point to the faithfulness of God to his people, and underline the truth of the gospel message. It is a plan that is not swayed by human emotion or reaction to circumstances which happen down here on our level. I just don’t think that there’s an accurate way to read “the signs of the times,” or take a passage of scripture where the context is “no one knows the day or the hour, not even the son of Man,” and attempt to connect it to current events, compare some similarities, and declare that the second coming of Christ or the end of the world is imminent.
It’s not going to look like we think it will. And we need to get over that.