Illusions of the Times

“The end is near! Jesus will be back any day now!”

As Christians, not only do we hear this a lot, but very many of us say it a lot as well. If you look on Facebook or Twitter, or if you go to Bible studies or listen to people’s prayer requests, you find a common sentiment that finally, in the 21st century, we are living in the last days and Jesus will return probably in our lifetimes.

This sentiment is nothing new, of course. It has been around since Jesus ascended. But that’s exactly why we should be skeptical of it today. If 2000 years ago everyone thought Jesus would BRB, but He didn’t, I don’t know why we would think that our day has a significantly different chance than they did.

But many people think they have proof. After all, didn’t Jesus say that the end would come with signs of war, famine, earthquakes, and violence? Today is more violent, war-torn, and full of natural disasters than ever before, right? So Jesus has to be coming back especially soon.

There are two problems with this. Firstly, Jesus never said any of those things were signs that the end was about to come. Instead, He specifically said they are not signs of the end. Here is the relevant passage in Matthew:

Then Jesus replied to them: “Watch out that no one deceives you. For many will come in My name, saying, ‘I am the Messiah,’ and they will deceive many. You are going to hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, because these things must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise up against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these events are the beginning of birth pains.

“Then they will hand you over for persecution, and they will kill you. You will be hated by all nations because of My name. Then many will take offense, betray one another and hate one another. Many false prophets will rise up and deceive many. Because lawlessness will multiply, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be delivered. This good news of the kingdom will be proclaimed in all the world as a testimony to all nations. And then the end will come.

Matthew 24:4-14

Pay close attention. Jesus specifically lists all of these problems with the notice, “the end is not yet.” These wars, earthquakes, famines, persecutions, and lawlessness are all part of the beginning of the birth pains, not the end. These evils began even before the end of the first century. They began in full force ages ago. Jesus warned the disciples not to freak out or be confused by these signs. He told them, “All of this stuff will look frightening, but they don’t mean the end is here!” So the way people use these events today is in fact the opposite of how Jesus spoke of them.

The other problem with this line of thought is that it misreads the present. Even if these things were signs of the end, then we shouldn’t expect Jesus to come back now, because we have less of this stuff today than at almost any other time in history. These days out of the hundreds of countries in the world, only a couple of them, mostly in the Middle East, are at war. This is different from most of history. There is less war today than ever before. The same goes for famine. With modern technology, there is more food in the world than ever before, and even when prices have gone up a bit there has been no shortage of food in Western countries since the Great Depression (and even then, there have been many worse periods in history). Developing countries are actually developing and suffer less famine than they ever did in previous centuries (except Yemen, which is being systematically starved by the Saudi war and our abominable US support). Natural disasters don’t appear to have changed much.

Even violence hasn’t really changed. We think these mass shootings and terrorist acts are bad and new, but in fact they are tame compared to history. The Holocaust is in the past now. But even before that, constant tribal warfare, torture, brutal methods of execution, vigilante justice, and barbarian pillaging were all widespread for most the past. The idea of a landmass and population as large as the United States, for example, not being filled with wars and political murders and lynchings and human sacrifice is a novelty. Abortion, infanticide, and the rampant sexual immorality which have only in the past several decades infiltrated Western countries were already the norm in the Roman Empire in Jesus’ day. Overall, not much seems any worse than it ever has.

Thus, what many people see as signs of the times just really aren’t. They’re illusions. This doesn’t mean Jesus isn’t coming back soon. I think He may come back at any time, though to be honest I expect the Gospel to reach a lot more of the unreached world first, per the last verse in the text I quoted. But the point is we have no idea when He will come, there is no specific reason to think we are especially close right now, and we can only hope, pray, and evangelize if we do want it to be soon (which we should).

The truth is, as long as the Church is around, we will be waiting with the feeling that Jesus’ coming is right around the corner, and that’s honestly because He is. While the years may extend, Jesus is never far away. Heaven and earth are but separated by a thin curtain, a curtain Jesus has already opened, and in His Church Jesus constantly blurs the lines between this age and the age to come. So we will always feel the pressure of Christ’s coming on our time, and we will always long for His final day of salvation. But whenever that day will come, well, we can just have no idea.

Illusions of the Times

My Stance on the Rapture

I just realized that I haven’t actually written about the Rapture on this blog at all since I began it. Yet the Rapture is a fun and popular debate, and it’s one of the few issues on which Christians can disagree without very many people getting angry or declaring you a heretic (though some still do).

So what do I believe about the Rapture? Before I answer, I’ll quickly survey the popular options. Here they are:

  • Pre-tribulation Rapture: The most common and popular view, mostly popular because of the writers like Tim LeHaye and the Left Behind movies (not counting the Nick Cage one). In this view, immediately before the 7-year tribulation period, Jesus will make something of a partial coming in which He will instantly gather all of His people from around the globe to Himself and take them back to heaven. After this the world will experience severe judgments from God for 7 years until Jesus returns and sets up His millennial kingdom.
  • Post-tribulation Rapture: Probably the second most common view, in post-tribulationalism the Church will have to live through the 7 years of judgment, though protected by God along the way, and after that Jesus will return, take His saints up to heaven, and institute His millennial reign.
  • Mid-tribulation Rapture: In this view (also called pre-wrath), the Rapture takes place halfway through the tribulation, prior to God’s pouring out of His wrath on the world. Mid-trib makes a distinction between the persecutions and sufferings of the first half of the tribulation and the eschatological outpouring of God’s wrath of the second half.

To jump right to it, none of these appeal to me. I don’t think any of them have sufficient Biblical grounding, and I think they all miss the important point of what the Rapture is. That said, I think pre-trib is the least likely of these, and in fact, I would go so far as to say that it has no Biblical evidence whatsoever and is every bit as much a sketchy extra-Biblical tradition as any Catholic innovation (no offense to my papist friends, of course).

So what do I believe about the Rapture? First off, I doubt that Revelation even teaches a distinct 7-year tribulation period. I agree with those who argue that the years, times, and seasons in Revelation are symbolic, and that the sequences of 7 (bowls, wrath, trumpets) are actually different visions which go back and refer to the same thing, much as Pharaoh had two dreams in one night with the same meaning.

This, of course, makes any of the popular views on the Rapture’s timing moot. The terms pre, post, and mid-trib don’t make sense without a specific 7 year tribulation. What does this do to the Rapture itself? In the eschatological timeline I find most convincing, the millennium is a reality for those who have died in Christ now, and it will end when Christ returns. When He returns, He will, as Scripture says, call His people together to meet Him in the air. Exactly what this will look like I do not know (is “in the air” a literal description, even?), but what comes next is the most serious departure from the other Rapture views.

I do not believe that we will be Raptured to heaven. That is where Christ is coming from, and in fact He is bringing heaven with Him to earth. Rather, our Rapture will be the time in which we are transformed by the sight of Him to be like Him, and then we will escort Him to earth. At this time all the dead are raised, the world is judged, and the entire creation will be recreated around Jesus Christ. Then heaven and earth will be one, with Christ ruling at the center.

So, specifically, I take the Rapture to be when we meet Christ in the air to be glorified and raised to resurrection life before escorting Him to His take rule over the kingdom, which now extends over the whole earth. 

Where do I get such an idea? The term parousia, used in the New Testament to refer to Christ’s return, means “appearing” or “presence.” In particular, it was used in the Roman Empire (under which, of course, Israel was ruled and against which Christ was proclaimed as Lord) to refer to the “appearing” of the emperor to a city or colony. When news of his coming came, the citizens of Rome would exit the city to gather around him and give him a royal escort into their city. It is not only possible but quite likely that Paul saw very much the same kind of thing going on when Christ returns for us.

N. T. Wright is the most well-known proponent of this view, so if you want to learn more about it I would recommend that you check out this brief essay he wrote on the topic, and perhaps also check out his excellent book, Surprised by Hope, which covers this and other issues related to heaven, the resurrection, and the new creation.

My Stance on the Rapture

The Homecoming of Jesus Christ

As Christians, we believe that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is both fully human and fully divine. This one person possesses in Himself two natures, the nature of God and the nature of man. Unfortunately, this is hard for us to understand. We cannot get how someone can exist in this way, so we naturally tend to lean towards error. Too easily we begin to lose sight either of either Jesus’ deity or, in my experience, more often His humanity.

Losing sight of Jesus’ humanity is, to be an honest, a pretty easy thing to do. We forget things like that Jesus grew up as a boy. He had a home, a house where he lived with His mother and His adoptive father. Nazareth was His hometown, and He certainly had favorite places to go and sights to see throughout His childhood and onward. He was, and remains, a human being with a human history and a human home. Indeed, Jesus grew up in our own world, shared in our experience of this world, and enjoyed its mountains, waters, and produce.

With this in mind, I would like to point out that Jesus is currently, in a way, away from home. While He reigns from heaven, which is truly the proper home for Him according to His divinity, He is not locally present at His human home. Jesus hasn’t walked the streets of Nazareth in two thousand years, or felt the warmth of our sun, the cool of an autumn breeze, the refreshment of flowing water. He is physically away from His earthly home, from the planet and country and town in which He lived out His childhood with Mary and Joseph.

This is, of course, far from an ideal situation. Home is a powerful part of human existence. We do not easily move past the sentiments and memories of our formative years. To say that any of this does not apply to Jesus would seem to imply that His humanity is not quite fully human, that His human life has some kind of more exalted dimension that’s just a little less earthy and personal than ours. Such an implication would be a heretical one. Can we really suspect that Jesus will be content to never return home?

Yet we know from Scripture that Jesus is not away forever. He has promised to return, and this will not be exclusively for our benefit, but for His joy as well. One day Jesus will come back to His own land and live once again among us in full physical, human life on the same earth where He played and laughed as a boy. He will be able to visit old sites, the locations of precious memories, with Mary and Joseph if He pleases. When this happens, all of creation will sing for joy and find itself radically transformed to reflect His glory. Jesus is coming home, and His homecoming will give the world, including His many brothers and sisters in the Spirit, a share in His resurrection life that will never die or fade. This is our hope. Our Elder Brother is away, and in the meantime the house is chaotic and messy. But He will return, and when He does the reunion will be everything. Lord Jesus, come. Come home.

[As a side note, I recognize that some of you will be thinking, “This can’t be quite right because this earth will be completely destroyed when Jesus returns.” With this line of thinking I do not agree at all. For the sake of space, I will simply say that I believe the destiny of creation is the same as Christ’s fate: death and resurrection. I’ve written and preached on this previously, and so I refer you to such posts.]

The Homecoming of Jesus Christ