A big topic in the news today is that a group has come out and said that we can know when the infamous Judgment Day will be. They say that we have 4 months and 18 days left. The big day, they say, is May 21, 2011. In an article on MSNBC today, Allison Warden, who is helping organize a campaign for We Can Know has bought in to Harold Camping’s “calculations” of when the end will be (even though he has made predictions before and been wrong). In her interview Warden says,
If May 21 passes and I’m still here, that means I wasn’t saved. Does that mean God’s word is inaccurate or untrue? Not at all.
I hope that she will agree to an interview with MSNBC on May 22 to talk about how she is not saved since she is still here. Likely, though, she’ll either crawl away to some hole or she’ll offer excuses as to why the end did not come when she said it would.
This publicity obviously prompts a lot of question about the “end times,” so I thought I would use this post to dispel some of the many misunderstandings.
For starters, people have been predicting the end of the world for thousands of years and they are all yet to get it right. So, why would I trust someone’s prediction now? Further, I don’t believe that their will be some great cataclysmic end of the world. That view is solidly part of an apocalyptic worldview that I do not subscribe to. Jesus, Paul, and many others were apocalyptics, but that does not mean that I have to be one as well.
Jesus is probably the most famous to make an incorrect prediction. Jesus in Matthew 24:30-34:
Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see ‘the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven’ with power and great glory. And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other. From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.
Obviously, the end of the world did not happen during that generation. This has lead many to reinterpret this passage.
This Generation will Not Pass: So what did Jesus mean when He referred to “this generation”? He could not have meant that current generation of His day. They died without seeing all the events leading to His return. The obvious meaning, then, is that He could only have meant the generation of the last days.
Paul too had to deal with mistakenly saying the end would come before his hearers died. 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17:
But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever.
Paul had previously told the church in Thessalonica that they would not taste death before the return of Jesus. Obviously, when people started dying they began to ask questions, and rightfully so.
The apocalypticism of Jesus and Paul was predictable. It meshed with the larger genre of apocalyptic literature and contained certain elements, most notably, a dissatisfaction with a present negative situation and an assertion that the “end” would come soon and it would be a time of divine intervention where the righteous are blessed and the wicked punished. I know this to be true because I can see it in Ezekiel, Daniel, Jesus, Paul, and the countless other examples of apocalypticism from that time period.
Further, apocalypticism was not written to be taken literally. It was riddled with symbolism so that the apocalypticist could speak openly about his current situation and not get in trouble with the powers that be. So, when we encounter Daniels visions in chapters 7 and 8 it is perfectly clear that he is referencing the reign of Antiochus IV Epiphanes and the persecution of the Jews that he led. The same is true when we read Revelation in the New Testament. It is symbolic and is not meant to be read literally. Christians were being persecuted and could not openly criticize their situation so they did so through symbols and the genre of apocalypticism.
So, are we living in the end times? In a word, no. It was a literary device employed by Ancient Near Eastern apocalypticists to speak of their dissatisfaction with their present situation and their hope that the future would be better. It was a way to maintain belief in justice, asserting that even if justice was not present on earth, the divine realm was just. Thus, the righteous (defined according to the author) are rewarded and the wicked (again, defined according to the author) are punished.