Soon after New Year’s Day, 2000, a group of us, all clergy, spent a few minutes talking about the apocalypse that failed to materialize on that fateful day of the beginning of the new millennium. For the entire year preceding people talked about the end of history, the end of the world, and the second coming of Christ. It seemed for many this was the logical time for the fulfillment of Scripture and for evil’s final punishment. It was the beginning of the second thousand years since Christ’s birth and certainly by now the Biblical prophesies would finally come to pass. The conclusion of our discussion was that possibly we should revisit the doctrine of the second coming. That conclusion, said mostly in jest, is worth considering.
Jesus promised to return in glory, the Apostle Paul pins his entire ministry in the hope of the return of Jesus, and the Book of the Revelation to John is about the new heaven and new earth that emerges with the return of Christ.
We have all been warned that the Mayan calendar comes to an end on December 21, 2012. By the way, in the liturgical calendar of the Church December 21 is Saint Thomas Day—Thomas was the one who doubted so we too can say to those reporting the end of the world is coming on December 21, “I doubt it.” Further, what we were not told when all of that hype was out there was that the calendar goes back to the beginning and starts all over again. Then for Christians the basic problem was and continues to be that the computations establishing the Christian calendar were all wrong. First, the computation on the birth of Jesus is probably four years off. The actual millennial date should have been in 1996. Secondly, the actually beginning of the new millennium was the year 2001. You see, there was no year zero in the first century Anno Domini; that is A.D. The end of the first century after Christ is the year 100 A. D. Thus, a new century always begins on the first year as we begin to count to 100. Thus the second century began in on January 1, 101 A.D. additionally, did you know there was the same concern at the end of the first millennium. People expected judgment day was going to be the first day of the year 1000. Many made plans to meet Jesus in the sky and sought high places from which to greet the new heaven and the new earth.
Nonetheless, the doctrine of the second coming is a central part of the Christian statement of faith, the Nicene Creed. We say in the Creed, “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.” Thus, when a religious leader tells us that the second coming of Christ is imminent, we are bound to listen. Nevertheless, there are some concerns about such statements.
As followers of Jesus what should we focus on? The reappearance of Jesus, the end of the age, or the end of the world is only a concern if we are afraid. Jesus repeatedly told his followers “Do not be afraid.”
There are all sorts of signs that may indicate a coming calamity. Hurricanes devastate our coasts, earthquakes in Missouri, tornadoes destroy entire communities all seem to be signs of the end. Jesus, however, has told us to look beyond all that and pay attention to more important matters.
Maybe the computations of times and signs are not the issue. Possibly, we tend to read the Scriptures the wrong way. For example, the Book of Daniel is an interesting text. It was written simultaneously in two languages—Hebrew and Aramaic. Then, the date of origin or when written and the reason someone decided to pull together the tales of Daniel may have been political propaganda purposes.
The Book of Daniel is a story about a heroic figure in Jewish history and a book of prophecy. Jesus points to the Book of Daniel specifically when he discusses what he calls the sacrilege in the temple on Mount Zion. The story of Daniel and its dire prophecies was circulated at the time of the Maccabean rebellion around 164 B.C. The stories take place during the Babylonian exile, a period of seventy years, about four centuries before Christ. It was a common practice, during times of turmoil in Israel to disseminate apocalyptic writings foretelling the end of evil. Using such a style of writing and placing the story in a different time protected the writer, the writing, and made publication possible. Therefore, the Book of Daniel, likely written in the second century before Christ but placed into the time of the Babylonian Exile or Captivity in the sixth century before Christ, is a reminder of the power of Israel’s faith in God and the destruction awaiting the heathen Hellenists ruling Israel at that time.
The Book of Daniel is used by many Christian groups as a source of End Times prophecy. In the Christian Bible the book is placed among the prophetic books such as Isaiah and Jeremiah. However, in the Hebrew Bible the book is placed the section known as “The Writings,” which include the Book of Ruth and the Psalms.
The issues I am addressing with this information is, first, we need to know how the books of the Bible were developed, who wrote them, and for whom they were written. That is, we must keep the Scripture in context and find in its ancient words meaning for our lives today. Second, Christians cannot let the Scriptures be misused to suit the narrow interests of an individual or group wanting to use the Bible as a weapon to scare us into faith.
Jesus spoke in apocalyptic terms in his teachings. This is true in the Synoptic Gospels. His description of the stones coming down in Jerusalem, specifically the temple, does come to pass thirty-five years later. Jerusalem is destroyed by the Romans in the year 70 A.D. Jesus sees rebellion and political power will not save Israel. He points to all the calamities to come—wars, earthquakes, and famines—telling his followers they are not the signs of the end times. In fact, Jesus tells his followers that God’s final judgments will come unexpectedly—as a thief in the night.
What, then, is the meaning of the biblical revelations about the end times, Armageddon, the Judgment Day? I certainly do not want to minimize these teachings. Nevertheless, they must be kept in perspective. Jesus’ warnings are for the people of the time. As in those days, there are many things to worry about in our times. And, yes, we can hope and expect the powerful will be brought down, and know the kingdom of God is a reality. However, those who are faithful, who believe that the kingdom of God is near, have no need to worry or to live in fear. The promise to the faithful is life eternal in the presence of God.
The point is that there will always be calamities, catastrophic events, and war is an ever present reality but the followers of Jesus have a task to live above and beyond all that. If the kingdom of God is near, then we, who believe that Jesus is Lord, have only one concern: continue the ministry of Jesus as his Church. That ministry is one of healing, feeding, and caring for the wounded of the world’s catastrophes and wars. The ministry of Jesus is to work for justice for all of God’s people, be stewards of creation, and work for peace at all levels of human activity, which includes personal inner peace.
We will always live in end times. Each of us faces an end at some point in our personal histories. All of us have dealt with changes in life that we thought were the end of all we knew. Whenever something comes to an end we look forward to what is next. We live daily with endings and beginnings. Jesus tells us to always be ready for the beginnings. Walls will fall, lives will be changed, and there is always the possibility of sad events, but when faithful to God, following Jesus, and being true to our callings as Christians there is always a new opportunity, a new start, and new life in Christ.