The End of the World: Part One

(This is the first in a multi-part series on our fascination with the culmination and ultimate conclusion of history)

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about the end of the world. No, it’s not because there seem to be massive earthquakes happening everywhere in the world this year (though there have been a lot); and it’s not because I saw 2012 a few weeks ago (a wonderfully absurd film). Neither is it because of some convoluted reading of Luke 10:18 that claims the Bible names “Baraq O Bam-Maw” as the antichrist.

Mainly, it’s because I’m currently taking an eschatology class at Talbot School of Theology.

The class is called Theology IV: Church and Last Things, and it’s been quite the headtrip so far.

But the end of the world has also come up in a surprising amount of other places in my life recently. This weekend alone, I heard an extended academic conversation about how God might have orchestrated the invention of the Internet so that his Gospel could be spread rapidly to every corner of the globe immediately prior to his return, completing the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19) and preparing the world for Christ’s second coming, ala Matthew 24:14 and Mark 13:10.

I also had a conversation on Friday with MC Hammer–yes, THE MC HAMMER–about how the explosive growth of Christianity in Asia might be a sign of the end times. (But more about this in Part Two… including quotes from my interview with Hammer).

Eschatology–the study of the end of the world–sometimes seems silly to me. So many weird people are obsessed with it, creating elaborate theories, timelines, and bestselling book series (I’m talking to you Tim Lahaye!) based on end times melodrama. Between the pre-mill dispensationalists, preterists, a-mill or post-mill non-dispensationalists, there are so many divergent theories on how the whole thing will play out that it makes your head spin. Why should Christians even bother trying to make guesses about things that no consensus has been formed about in 2,000 years?

I grew up hearing sermons about how Christ’s return was probably imminent. My parents and grandparents probably did too. In fact, every generation since Christ has thought their generation would be the last. But history presses on.

Why are we all so eager for the end? Why are we so obsessed by eschatology? Why did Left Behind sell so many copies?

I think there are many reasons, but here are two big ones: 1) We love a good story, and 2) We are hungry for justice and renewal.

When I say “we love a good story” I don’t mean to suggest that Revelation is a book of fiction or that the end times prophecies are just good adventure stories. I mean that God’s work in the world really IS a fantastic (and true!) story, which began in Genesis 1:1 and is yet to be completed. The narrative includes the fall of man, God’s answer for sin (Jesus), and will conclude with the as-yet-documented return of Christ and his triumphant rule and reign, with his church, over a new heaven and new earth. The story will have a pretty spectacular ending, and so naturally people get excited just thinking about it. Could we be the generation that sees all this stuff go down? What will our part in God’s historical purposes be?

I also think Christians have a deep hunger for justice–to see their beliefs validated and the sin in the world judged. They know their ultimate destiny as the church is to run the universe, so of course they’d like to get on that as soon as possible! But they also groan, along with everyone else, for the renewal of creation–to see Christ finally put to death “the former things” like evil, death, decay, sadness, etc. They are keenly aware of the duality of holiness and evil, and long for the winning side to prevail. They want to see the world finally become exactly what God created it to be. They want to see the Holy City, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband (Revelation 21:2).

More end-times thoughts coming in Part Two: MC Hammer Weighs In

6 responses to “The End of the World: Part One

  1. Nice . . . I was just thinking about this today, from a completely different angle. I read a series of pieces about the ends of online worlds: MMORPGs that shut down, and what it was like to be there at the end. This was what started me off:

  2. Technically, preterism isn’t a view of the End of the World, but of the ‘End Times,’ which largely occurred in the 1st century. Most preterists hold that there either will be no end of the world, or that thinking about it is foolish and only constitutes such a small portion of End Times prophecy that such prophecy is really more reassurance about God triumphing than it is what to look for or whatever.

    This book is fantastic.

  3. Probably the first time I’ve read about Hammer and eschatology in the same article, safe to say I’m looking forward to Part II! It seems like the church as a whole has a bit of a love/hate relationship with the end of the world. On the one hand are the believers who obsess over it and unceasingly apply prophetic passages to the latest and greatest current event. And on the other hand are believers who are tired of hearing projections about the end of the world being ushered in by the Cold War, umm…I mean Y2K, umm…I mean terrorists or global warming or America’s dependence on foreign oil or [fill in current world problem]. As a result, they sort of just ignore the whole “eschatology scene”.

    Seems like a polarizing subject, so I’m looking forward to reading your follow-up thoughts (and maybe about your Hammer interview).

  4. I was just having this conversation with myself today! Why get caught up worrying about the way it will all go down. That’s not really for us to know. Let tomorrow worry about itself. What we DO know is what we should be doing now.
    Now, if I could only do what I know I should do….Paul was SO right….

  5. I too look forward to your other installments on eschatology.

    I thought of a third reason that Christians throughout the generations have expected an immanent end (though I must admit that I’m most often skeptical about those who proclaim “the end is nigh”): our communities are shaped by a text rife with imminent eschatology.

    The urgency of Paul’s proclamation results at least partly from his conviction that time is short. In 1 Thess 4:13-18, for example, he expects he will be a part of the “we who are alive” at the parousia.

    One way of faithfully submitting to the New Testament as normative for our communities may be adopting a stance of expectation of an imminent end.

    How that stance shapes our actions and relationship with the world becomes the pressing question. The temptation is separation, but the call is for engagement (see Matt 25, though I might have to explain how I think this addresses the question!).

    Thank you for your consistently thought-provoking writing!

  6. I expect about 37 complicated terms with definitions and some interesting charts to be included in this series.
    Not really, but I am interested to see where you take this. I like your two reasons for the eschatology frenzy, though I think the first in sort of enveloped in the second.

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