Today we are going to talk about the end-times. Does that sound strange to you? Does talking about the end of the world make you feel uncomfortable? Are you afraid that we might be some kind of a cult?
The truth is that we all believe in the end of the world. Think in terms of movies and television shows. One of the most popular genres is that of the post-apocalyptic world. But it goes beyond entertainment.
Long before I knew what the Bible said about the end, I feared the end of the world. Growing up during the cold war, I feared a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union. Although that fear has subsided, there still are fears. Perhaps the end will be due to a plague developed by those working in the area of bio-chemical warfare. Perhaps the end will because of poor use of our resources and not enough control over pollution. Perhaps our planet will be hit by a meteor or a comet, as such things fly through our solar system on a regular basis.
No scientist would ever suggest that life as we know it will go on forever. Even if we could stop the aging process and cure every disease, eventually our sun will explode. The end will come one way or another.
Are you depressed yet?
I share all this to say that talking about the end of the world is not strange. It will happen. And into this conversation, the Bible has much to say. This may be a difficult topic, because like the creation-evolution debate, many people have strong opinions. Some of the things that we believe are true have very little biblical evidence.
Danger of Focusing on the End
One of the reasons that people are uncomfortable talking about the end is that such ideas have been abused. Some people, usually religious of some kind, have misled people, either because they themselves were confused or they purposely try to deceive people. This latter purpose has been the strategy of some televangelists, but I think they are a minority.
Growing up in church, the end-times were never spoken of. I had no idea that there was anything in the Bible about Jesus returning. If I thought about it at all, I thought they were the beliefs of some fringe group.
After a period of my life as an atheist, I ended up believing in God but had not embraced any particular religion. I was working for some born again Christians who had a vibrant and detailed idea of what the end would be like. They believe that Jesus was returning, perhaps in a matter of days, if not hours, and that I needed to become a Christian right away. There was something called a rapture coming and if I missed that, my only chance would be to become a Christian and be executed by the antichrist. But no pressure.
One of the dangers of focusing on the end-times is the temptation to try and predict dates and other details. There are many people today who read the news and believe it is obvious that the end was near. I have done some research and have discovered that almost every generation has had the same confidence.
Just since the beginning of this millennium, we have had many predictions of the end. Authors have sold books on the topic, people have given up their jobs, lives have been turned upside down. Each time the day and hour passes and the prediction is proved false. The damage done is that it makes people believe that the end will never come and in some cases, that the Christian faith is just as fake.
One of the dangers that I see is the compilation of detailed descriptions of the end-times. These include timelines, spelling out when each event will take place and how long it will take. Although they will list Bible passages, the actual description of the events is never found like that in the Bible.
What the Bible Teaches
I think that the best thing to do is focus on the big picture of what the Bible clearly teaches. You can pick and choose from obscure verses to make whatever you want. However, there are certain themes that appear over and over. we need to stick with them.
First, we need to be clear that Jesus will return. This is not some isolated verse hidden some where. It is found numerous times throughout the Gospels and Paul’s letters, as well as Revelation. Jesus repeatedly spoke of his return. When will this happen? Some of his followers asked Jesus that very question and he told them that he did not know. Even the angels don’t know. Only God the Father knows.
The return of Jesus is what Paul is describing in 1 Thessalonians. Paul also describes something else happening at the same time. When Jesus returns, his followers will be resurrected. This includes those that are dead and those that are living at the time. The living will be transformed to receive upgraded bodies built for eternity.
This passage in 1 Thessalonians is where people get the idea of the rapture. I don’t like the image of the rapture. The way people use the rapture is that the world is going to hell and Jesus makes an appearance to rescue his people from this evil world.
The resurrection has another meaning. What will happen is that we will meet Jesus, be transformed and return with him, having been made the way were always meant to be. The imagery Paul uses is of the return of a beloved king. The city sends out people to greet him and together they return to the city for him to once again take up his throne.
Many Christians believe that the afterlife is about being freed from physical bodies and becoming spirits floating in heaven. That is only partial truth. Yes, our spirits go to heaven at death. But that is a waiting room until the resurrection. Our ultimate goal is to receive resurrection bodies and to live on earth. The Bible even speaks of the planet being remade, even resurrected. Revelation tells us that God will descend out of heaven and dwell on earth with his people. That is the big picture and I think we are better off with these clear teachings than we are with speculation.
What This Means
Some people are interested in talking about the end-times just for its own sake. Theology is interesting and is worth discussing. But what does this mean for everyone else?
One of the consistent themes is that of being ready. Since we do not know when Jesus is returning, we should life with a ready and faithful attitude. We can’t just live the way we want. I’m not suggesting we live in fear. But we should ask if Jesus would be pleased finding us doing what we are doing when he returns.
This is the flip side of that idea. We need to plan for the long term. Live as if Jesus is coming back today and plan as if he is not coming back for another century. We need to plan for our families, including retirement. But even more important we need to plan for effective ministry for the long term. The people who built this church could have chosen not to because Jesus could have returned in their life time. But because they did build this building, we have the resources for effective ministry.
The final aspect of this is that the return of Jesus gives us hope. There is so much evil, hate and violence in our world. Our increased technology has not made our world more peaceful, it is has just made it more efficient to humiliate and harm one another. It can be depressing.
The return of Jesus is a promise. It is a promise that God will not leave things the way they are. Jesus will come back and reveal to the world who we are, through the resurrection. He will also deal with the evil in the world. This is what we call Judgment Day. We have the benefit of being able to flip to the last page and find out how the story ends. This gives us hope.
There is so much that I don’t know. I don’t know when Jesus is returning. I don’t know who or what the antichrist is. I don’t know what it will look like when Jesus returns. I don’t know what the resurrection will look like for those whose bodies have turned to dust.
But there is some that I do know. Jesus Christ will return. I know that his return will accompanied by the resurrection. Whether we are alive or dead at the time, we will be raised. Our bodies will be transformed and we will live forever. Finally, I know there is a reason to hope. Jesus won the victory on the cross and the empty tomb and that victory will be ours when he returns.