“Crystal Ball Polishers” and the Blessed Hope
The grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all, training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly, while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.
David Meade, a “Christian Numerologist,” recently predicted that the “Rapture” was scheduled for Saturday, September 23. Now, the “Rapture” is the belief of some Christians – many of them right here in Texas – that Jesus Christ will secretly remove the church from the world before the Tribulation, the final period of human testing before the Second Coming and Final Judgment, begins. The “Rapture” is not the Second Coming itself, but is rather just a prelude to it. This is a fine point of distinction in the minds of many. Most hear “Rapture,” and think – the Second Coming and the end of the world. Eschatological (the study of last things) details and distinctions blend and blur in the popular imagination. And so, when David Meade said that the “Rapture” was Biblically scheduled for September 23rd, most people heard it as that’s when he thought that the world was going to end. When I heard him talk like this, it felt like déjà vu all over again for me. And then, when it didn’t happen as he said that it would, and Mr. Meade began to make some quick recalculations to account for the delay, I felt like I had seen this movie before.
You see, a number of early Christian teachers believed that Jesus Christ would return in the year 500. Later, the year 1000 captured the end-times imagination of lots and lots of churchmen, just as the year 2000 did in our more recent past. Joachim of Fiore, an Italian Catholic mystic, said that he believed that the world was going to end in 1260. Thomas Müntzer, an Anabaptist Reformation radical, said that he thought that the end-time events were all scheduled to begin in 1525. William Miller, an early Adventist, taught that Christ was coming back in October 1844, and Charles Taze Russell of the Jehovah’s Witnesses said that he believed that it would happen in 1874. The late Harold Camping, a well-known fundamentalist radio Bible teacher, said that he believed that Jesus was coming back in September of 1994. And then, when it didn’t happen, he quickly recalculated and rescheduled the Second Coming for 2011. Meanwhile, Edgar Whisenant, a rival radio Bible teacher, was just as sure that it was all going to happen in 1988.
There has been no shortage of predictions like these in the long history of the church.
When I was in high school, Hal Lindsey’s best-selling book The Late Great Planet Earth was all the rage. If you read the “Left Behind” series then you got in narrative form what Hal Lindsey taught in The Late Great Planet Earth. We carefully went through this book page by page, detail by detail at more than one of the Bible Studies that I attended back in the early 1970’s. I know firsthand the sense of power — and relief — that comes from thinking that you’ve got some inside information about the impending end of the world. But I also discovered pretty quickly in those days just how speculative these timetables of the last day can be, and just how ridiculous the arguments can become between those who hold rival theories about the proper sequence of the events at the end of time, and just how obnoxious some Christians can be about what they think is going to happen next.
The day I get left on a highway shoulder while my friend got a ride from a van full of Jesus People who sorted out the acceptable hitchhikers from the unacceptable ones by conducting a kind of roadside inquisition of the eschatological convictions and conclusions of those requesting a ride from them, was the day that I decided to consciously come at the Bible’s teachings about God’s future promises for the church and the world in a way that was different from all of the calculations, and speculations, and arguments that engaged so many of the Christians that I knew back then.
I certainly wasn’t prepared to jettison my belief in the Second Coming of Jesus Christ itself because of all the petty and pushy ways that I saw other Christians holding this doctrine. The New Testament was just too clear, and too insistent, about Christ coming again for me to be able to dismiss this whole idea as just being crazy, or merely symbolic, or of secondary importance. George Eldon Ladd’s observation that Christ’s saving work will be forever incomplete apart from Christ’s personal, glorious, triumphal return was, and still is, pretty persuasive to me. “At the center of redemption past is Christ on the cross,” he used to say, “and at the center of redemption future is Christ returning in glory.” And so, without letting go of the content of Christianity’s cosmic hope as it finds its standard expression in the church’s historic Creeds – “I believe that He shall come again… with glory… to judge the quick and the dead… Whose kingdom shall have no end” – I did want to get beyond the timetables, charts, and arguments. And it was the great St. Augustine who showed me how to do this.
“He who loves the coming of the Lord is not he who affirms it far off, nor is it he who says that it is near,” St. Augustine carefully explained, “It is he who, whether it be far or near, awaits it with sincere faith, steadfast hope, and fervent love.” This idea was further advanced in me by Dr. William Richardson’s insistence when I was one of his students in Christian College that whenever the New Testament talks about the end times and Christ’s Second Coming, that it’s not to fuel speculation but rather to ground our hope and to promote our Christian living. “New Testament eschatology (the doctrine of the last things) is ethical” I often heard him say, and I think that’s right. This is why every time the New Testament talks about the future tense of our salvation, it is immediately followed by an exhortation to faithfulness.
- Jesus’ Olivet Discourse on last things in Matthew chapter 24 gets followed by the three parables of Matthew chapter 25: The parable of the ten wise virgins whose oil lamps were trimmed and ready for the bridegroom’s sudden arrival, and the ten whose lamps were not; the parable of the talents; and the parable of the sheep and the goats where we who are Christians are told to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, tend the sick, shelter the homeless, and visit the imprisoned. These are all “call to action” parables.
- After his detailed discussion in I Thessalonians chapter 4 about what will happen when Christ comes back, in I Thessalonians chapter 5 Paul told the Thessalonian Christians to therefore keep awake and to be sober (v. 6), to consistently live and love as children of the light and not of the darkness.
- And writing about the most end-times oriented book of them all in the New Testament, and perhaps in the entire Bible, Darrell Johnson explains – “No other book, in all of human literature, crystallizes what it means to belong to and follow Jesus in this world… Revelation is not a crystal ball revealing esoteric secrets that enable us to escape the harsh realities of life on earth, but a down-to-earth manual on how to be a disciple of Christ facing the harsh realities of life on earth; in particular, how to do this the way Jesus did and does.”
For this reason, in the past 40 years, whenever somebody like a David Meade has come along overconfidently announcing some newfangled speculative theory about how and when the end times are going to unfold, as if it were a self-evident truth and a well-established fact, my mind instantly goes back to the wisdom that Stephen Travis shared in his very fine little book – The Jesus Hope (IVP – 1974) –
Whenever the Bible speaks about the Second Coming its purpose is to challenge us to action. When the Biblical writers refer to it, their purpose is not to give us a detailed explanation of the doctrine, but rather to relate it to some practical needs… (92)
Respect for the natural world, love, community, justice – these are some of the values which the Christian vision of the future puts before us to aim at in human society…. The church is to be a sign of God’s kingdom, pioneering things which are God’s future intention for all people. This is what the church at its best has always been. Who pioneered mass education? Who pioneered hospitals? Who pioneered the abolition of slavery? In each case Christians played a leading role in causing progressive change… As a pioneer of progress towards the will of God, the church is a sign of the coming reality of God’s kingdom. (125)
The saddest feature of so many books about Christian hope is their failure to show how the hope of Christ’s return is supposed to affect lives right now. Books that were written to comfort God’s people (Daniel and Revelation) in the face of vicious persecution, have become a happy hunting ground for religious extremists. Instead of being sources of hope and encouragement, they have become objects of idle speculation… (80)
We want to know the date of Christ’s return. We want God to give us some infallible sign that his coming is just around the corner. We want God to deal with our unanswered questions about the future. (106)
But Christian hope is not this kind of escapism. On the contrary, hope is a powerful motive for positive Christian living and for social change. Christian hope is not for tickling our minds but for changing our lives and for influencing society. (7)
It is hope that drives Christians into situations of conflict and squalor, of injustice and inhumanity… It is hope that drives Christians to mission, to service and sacrificial love. (126)
I’m not particularly interested in anybody’s pet theory about how and when Christ will return. In a startling confession of his own ignorance, Jesus told His disciples – “…of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone” (Matthew 24:36). It’s my hunch that if by accident some wild-eyed enthusiast just happened to get the date of the Second Coming right and then started widely publicizing it, that God would immediately change the date just to show us who’s really in charge and calling the shots! No, what the New Testament tells us about God’s future for us, and for all of creation, is not so that we can form discussion groups where we can sit around all day arguing over our favorite speculative theories about the times and seasons that are fixed by God’s authority alone. I think that the New Testament has a very different purpose in telling us about God’s future salvation.
It is reported that the Protestant Reformer Martin Luther said that if he knew that the world was going to end tomorrow, that his duty today would still be to plant his garden and to collect the rent! The way we show our confidence in the promises that God makes in His Word about what’s coming for us and for all of creation tomorrow, is to start leaning by faith in the direction of the vision of that future with which we have been provided, and to start embodying its values right here and right now in this world where we live today. We don’t need sensational announcements of impending doom. What we need are hope-filled Christians making hope-shaped differences in the world informed by their hope-informed values and their hope-full vision of the future. DBS +