Letter 8: Like a Thief in the Night: Some Thoughts on the End Times

Last night, the subject of the End Times came up in the small group that I lead with my wife. Several people vigorously affirmed that we were indeed in the End Times. That all signs point to this, said they, and we should prepare for a dystopian world worthy of any science fiction tale or zombie story. Listening to their excited talk brought back memories of my childhood and the day my mother discovered Hal Lindsey.
She had only recently come to Christ, and a good friend handed her a book she just had to read. The Late, Great Planet Earth, dates from 1969, and lays out the basic framework of Lindsey’s thinking. Biblical prophecies point to current events that will usher in the Apocalypse. From his reading of Scripture, he deduced that particular countries or regions were spelled out as playing parts in this drama. All of these regions would be arrayed against the nation of Israel. Lindsey’s particular focus was on Western Europe, where the growing Common Market, as the EU was then known, was becoming a new Roman Empire. Of special significance were its number of members, 10 at the time he wrote the book, and 12 at the time my mother encountered him, a very biblical number.
He followed that book up with The 1980’s: Countdown to Armageddon, which my mother also read. He now thought that the end was very nigh, with the decline of American culture and power. This was crucial, because America defends Israel, and thus delays the Apocalypse. On monthly audio tapes which were eagerly passed from hand to hand, he grew more specific. 1984 was the year.
I was fascinated, though then still outside the faith. There was this secret drama of cosmic importance, with vast and dark powers, evil to defeat, and the shining hope that out of this disaster Paradise would return to Earth. And only “we” knew it.
That, of course, was the real pull, the secret knowledge of how the world really works.
But 1984 passed, and we were all still here. And the more I thought about it, the more outlandish Lindsey’s claims appeared. The Common Market could not be Rome, in part because it included nations never under Rome’s dominion (Ireland, Denmark, Norway, and Iceland), and did not include nations that were a part of the empire (Switzerland, the Balkans, Syria, Egypt, and all of North Africa). I spent more time reading the Book of Revelation, and found myself mostly confused.
The church we were attending at the time, was a firm believer in Dispensationalism, the belief that the seven churches of Revelation symbolize seven periods, or dispensations of God that culminate in the End Times. I remember well the wall charts, linking human history to various Bible passages, and warning of evil times to come. The Scripture verses held the keys to understanding the times. We just had to pay attention and get ready.
I was reminded of the wall charts when I first really read Marx in college. I have no idea if the founder of Communism ever encountered John Nelson Darby who first popularized Dispensationalism in the 1830’s, but the Marxist vision of history bears a more than passing resemblance to those wall charts. Even the images are similar: a great tribulation, and the culmination in a new Paradise, only this time without God.
And Marx fell prey to the same issue that bedevils Dispensationalists like Lindsey: What happens when your reading of events turns out to be wrong? In the case of Marx, Lenin just added another period. In Lindsey’s case, he just subdivided the dispensations further, and generally declined to say anything further about the unfulfilled predictions. He is still out there, on TV and the Internet, and still writing books, having missed the Apocalypse several times now.
In case you haven’t figured it out yet, I am not a dispensationalist. Indeed, when it comes to things End Times, I am agnostic. When asked when these thing will be, Jesus stated that no one knows, not even him. Only the Father knows. That settles it for me. If Jesus Himself did not know these things and would venture no opinion on them, who am I to attempt it?
Reading Revelation these days, there are still many passages that puzzle me. Portions of it clearly describe Christ’s first coming, some clearly speak of a time in the future. In between, it would appear that the Earth gets destroyed several times over. I have read some of the differing explanations offered by the Church throughout its history, and I content myself with the knowledge that in the end, it all turns out okay. Hardly a deep theological statement, I fear.
What is the benefit is of our fascination with eschatology? Does it help me become a better Christian? Do I take on more of the character of Christ for knowing where the Antichrist will come from? In dividing the sheep from the goats on the great and terrible Day of the Lord, Jesus was more concerned with our efforts to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and generally befriend the friendless, not that we can identify the Mark of the Beast. In the end, it strikes me more as a wonderful diversion from the business of the Kingdom, to clothe us with the similitude of wisdom and holiness, as befits the Lightbearer.
So the world may end tomorrow, or it may not. However it comes, at the end of my life’s journey, I hope to hear the words, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant, enter into your Master’s happiness,” and make safe landfall at last. Until then, my pilgrimage continues.DIVINECAL11X17

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