by Pastor Doug Kings
In my sermon last Sunday I said that I did not believe that Jesus was an apocalyptic preacher. I did acknowledge, however, that many early Christians were (including some New Testament writers), and that apocalyptic expectations have been popular from centuries before Jesus to the present day.
Nonetheless, I was still a bit startled a few hours later by one of the books included in a weekly email list of eBook bargains that I receive each Sunday afternoon. The Book of Signs by one Dr. David Jeremiah (talk about a biblical name) was promoted with this question:
Do you still have questions about what the end times hold? In this illuminating read, a New York Times bestselling author explains Biblical prophecy, including signs of the apocalypse.
I detected a bit of sneer in that question; like, where have you been if you don’t know all about this? But my reaction was: yes, how can there still be questions since fundamentalists have been talking about this for a couple hundred years? Yet on Amazon the book has 4,000 5-star ratings.
My experience with this came in high school when The Late, Great Planet Earth was all the rage (it’s sold tens of millions of copies), soon followed by the (seemingly endless) Left Behind series. I and some of my church friends spent months pouring over these and similar books and the referenced Bible passages. Then we lost interest and our lives moved on.
Even today I wouldn’t be surprised that teenagers as confused and credulous as I was then would be fascinated by such things. That fifty years later adults are still being taken in by this nonsense is somewhat concerning but mostly just sad. Sad because so-called Christian leaders can build churches and grow their flocks by peddling such misleading and irrelevant fantasies. Sad, too, that it is sign of the deteriorated state of the church and how little it believes its own message.
We do live in confusing and anxious times. On the other hand, looking back over history, that has been a common reaction of people to events happening around them. The upheavals of the past two centuries have been unprecedented, however, due to the advent of science and technology. Nearly every step of progress has come with a related threat. Advances in transportation, communication, health care, agriculture, and so on have been accompanied by warfare on an unprecedented scale, dramatic changes in social relationships, an explosion in world population, and still unfolding environmental changes and dangers.
The stated goal of Jeremiah’s book, therefore, is laudable:
An epic and authoritative guide to biblical prophecy, The Book of Signs is a must-have resource for Christians seeking to navigate the uncertainties of the present and embrace God’s promises for the future with a renewed sense of hope and purpose.
The problem is that that “renewed sense of hope and purpose” doesn’t come from faith but from having a supposed road map for the future.
Many Christians struggle to understand the Book of Revelation…. Drawing from decades of study, Dr. Jeremiah explains every key sign of the approaching apocalypse and what it means for you, including international, cultural, heavenly, tribulation, and end signs … [based upon a] clear analysis of how current world events were foretold in the Bible.
The synoptic gospels (i.e. not John) seem to want an apocalypse with a clear timeline. But they are too honest to the tradition to write one. For every statement of Jesus that seems to predict “the end,” there is one like these in Matthew 24 (often side-by-side):
Beware that no one leads you astray.
But the end is not yet.
But about that day and hour no one knows.
But the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.
Fundamentalism has been fighting a long rearguard operation to salvage an “old time religion” from the corrosion of the modern world. Many of its leaders, frankly, have been manipulators and charlatans. Its followers, however, are often genuine victims of modernity’s slash-and-burn tactics to bring us all into a “new and better world.” Capital and technology have joined together to produce a world of wonders but with highly unequal benefits. New ways to abuse workers and pillage the land always race ahead of social efforts to restrain them.
Global wars, economic upheavals, and environmental disasters have left in their wake countless millions of victims. Yet somehow political, business, and scientific leaders continually assure us the world is getting better and better. The situation is not unlike that of the world of the New Testament. In that world the “savior” and “bringer of peace” was not Jesus but Caesar (as the empire’s coinage proclaimed). Despite this upbeat propaganda, most people slipped further into poverty and often fell victim to the empire’s random acts of violence.
The appeal of apocalypse for ancient people, as well as modern ones, is understandable. Yet that isn’t what sustained Jesus’ followers amidst the empire’s oppression and horrors. Rather it was trust in what they called gospel, “good news” (a term previously used to announce Caesar’s military victories). It was the message–incredible for that time–that God loved and cared about all people equally: rich and poor, men and women, slave and free, Jew and gentile, all nations and races.
Christians met the empire’s oppression and degradation with a simple but powerful assertion: “Like Caesar, I, too, am a daughter/son of God.” There is a remarkable passage in Luke 17 where Jesus is asked when the kingdom of God would appear. In response, he says,
“The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.”
A translator’s footnote informs us that “among you” can just as accurately be rendered “within you,” which makes more sense in context (but is harder, perhaps, for orthodox theology to swallow).
The notion that an ancient collection of writings like the Bible contains the secret meaning of 21st century current events is ridiculous. The “secret meaning” it does contain, however, is of our lives: that every one of us is good and important, and that the abuse and exploitation of the planet and of any person on it is an abomination in God’s sight. God’s call will not be for a future “rapture evacuation,” but for us to live each day now with hope, compassion, and justice.
Blessings in your life and ministry.