Of course the world’s not ending tomorrow, but not so fast…

I'm not laughing about this family's story. (Photo courtesy of the New York Times.)

Like fellow blogger Fred Clark, I find this hysteria among a very small number of American Christians about the end of the world—and the very large media firestorm having fun at their expense—too sad and depressing to laugh about. I like what Fred said:

Fortunately, Camping [the self-styled theologian who is predicting the world’s end tomorrow] is not as widely influential as LaHaye, so we’re talking about only thousands of followers, not millions. But that’s thousands of people, thousands of families experiencing one kind of trauma now and due for another, existential, shaken-to-the-core trauma come Saturday. That some of this trauma is self-inflicted or that, like most victims of con-artists, they are partially complicit in their own undoing doesn’t change the fact that we’re still talking about thousands of people in pain, fear and despair.

These people who are setting themselves up for this kind of existential disappointment are are still my brothers and sisters in Christ. The family profiled in this New York Times article (whose snarky headline doesn’t match the more evenhanded tone of the article) hardly seems like a bunch of lunatics. Nevertheless, I profoundly disagree with their theology and outlook.

Of course the end of the world isn’t happening tomorrow. Or maybe I should qualify it by saying that, even if it were happening tomorrow, it wouldn’t be because some guy has calculated the date from scripture. It can’t be found there. We can know this in part because, among many other warnings in scripture, Jesus teaches us that when the end of this present age comes, it will come unexpectedly (Matthew 24:42-51). Jesus said explicitly that he didn’t know, and he didn’t tell his own apostles. If anyone presumes to know today, therefore, he or she will surely be wrong.

The idea of a “rapture”—of believers being instantly snatched away from this world prior to the general resurrection of the dead at the end of human history—represents an unwelcome innovation in Christian theology, having emerged only in the 19th century among dispensationalist Christians. It has remained a strictly small-minority opinion within the realm of Christian thought. I wish journalists who are so eager to report on this controversy would point that out by—you know—talking to some credentialed theologian at a major divinity school somewhere.

I heard a talk-radio host on Christian radio preface her words by saying, “I may be an old-fashioned dispensationalist, but…” I was thinking, “That’s the problem! If you’re a dispensationalist, you’re not old-fashioned enough!” When it comes to theology, older tends to be better, and certainly more orthodox.

O.K., so the rapture isn’t an historic Christian doctrine. But why? Isn’t it in the Bible? No. The dispensationalist proof-texts for rapture, as best I can tell, are a creative blending of 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 (“we who are alive… will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air”), Matthew 24:40-41Revelation 20, and probably many other scattered verses.

The 1 Thessalonians passage does describe the Second Coming— often called the parousia, literally “presence,” of Christ. And the Second Coming is orthodox Christian doctrine. But the big-C Church has understood this to be the event signifying the end of human history as we know it. It inaugurates the resurrection of the dead, final judgment, and the coming of God’s kingdom in all its fullness. In this present age, we are living in the tension of the “already/not yet” of God’s kingdom. The Second Coming means that this will not always be the case.

As for the Matthew 24 verses, N.T. Wright and others argue persuasively (to me) that this scripture refers to events surrounding the siege and fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple ca. A.D. 70—a cataclysmic event if you were living through it. And the idea of being taken—forcibly by Roman soldiers—is not a good thing. Being “left behind,” in this context, is actually preferable.

The classic Christian interpretation of the millennium described in Revelation 20 is that it is a symbolic number representing completion and perfection: “‘The sacred number seven in combination with the equally sacred number three forms the number of holy perfection ten, and when this ten is cubed into a thousand the seer has said all he could say to convey to our minds the idea of absolute completeness’ (Warfield, Biblical Doctrines: 654).”1  Most of the Church throughout the ages has believed and taught that we who live between Christ’s resurrection/ascension and his Second Coming are in the midst of the millennium, that Christ is currently reigning during this time (which accords well with the New Testament), and that this millennium is not a literal number of years.

There’s much more that could and should be said about these issues, but not by me. I’ll leave you with a few general thoughts on the subject of the end of the world: The Christian interest in the end of the world—otherwise known as eschatology—is not at all silly, even though some Christians make it seem that way. We believe that there is a definite end to history as we know it. Resurrection implies that there must be. Whatever life in the resurrection means, it is continuous with life in this world, but also radically discontinuous. Creation will no longer be subject to death and decay. As Revelation 21 suggests, heaven and earth become one. We can’t get there from here.

Among other things, this means that we Christians are not optimistic about the future—at least apart from our resurrection hope. In this way, we stand alongside our premillennial dispensationalist brothers and sisters in their pessimism about the world-as-it-is. Apart from God’s intervention at the end of history, humanity is not going to suddenly get its act together and start acting nice. Consequently, we reject modernity’s faith in “progress.” In general, the world isn’t getting better and can’t get better. Sin and evil—whose defeat by Christ is only made manifest at the Second Coming—are too powerful.

That being said, eternal life is not something we have to wait for until after we die. It begins now. In fact, we Christians are empowered to work now for this future world. As Paul makes clear in 1 Corinthians 3, what we do now for God’s kingdom somehow lasts for eternity. N.T. Wright, picking up on this theme, writes, “I don’t know what musical instruments we shall have to play Bach in God’s new world, but I’m sure Bach’s music will be there.”2

This “already” aspect of eternal life is often called realized eschatology. We can begin experiencing now—however imperfectly—a life in God’s kingdom that will find its ultimate fulfillment on the other side of death and resurrection. As Paul writes in Romans 6:4, we are buried with Christ in baptism and raised to “walk in newness of life,” which begins in the here and now. In Ephesians 2:6, Paul writes that God has “raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.”

This emphasis on realized eschatology is why, I think, mainline Protestants like myself don’t spend much time fretting over the end of the world. In a sense, heaven is now. Christ is with us now through the Holy Spirit. We have heavenly work to do now. Moreover, even if we’re not alive at the time of the Second Coming, none of us escapes the end of the world that is our own death. Our days are numbered. Our time is short. Our task is urgent. Let’s not be distracted by idle speculation.

This emphasis becomes a problem for us when we start thinking that we’re responsible for building God’s kingdom on earth, or that heaven is merely the cherry on top of a perfectly good life in a perfectly good world. No, it is because of God’s future world that we can live differently in the present one.


1. Thomas C. Oden, Classic Christianity: A Systematic Theology (New York: HarperOne, 1992), 806.

2. N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope (New York: HarperOne, 2008), 208.

2 thoughts on “Of course the world’s not ending tomorrow, but not so fast…”

  1. Brent, I like your analysis here and mostly agree with it. In younger days I gave some credence to the “Pre-Trib Rapture,” but now can hardly see why I did. For one thing, the idea of all the planes and cars crashing due to lack of occupants seems simply silly. Also, why should the Christians of today be exempt from the type of severe suffering that many of our “forefathers” had to endure? (Of course, as with many other doctrines, there is almost always some verse or another that the proponent can latch onto as support, as the ones you mention here.)

    My own view is that Christ will come in a manner which all can see, followed immediately by the judgment of all, and their eternal disposition in Heaven or Hell. See Matthew 16:27, among a number of other passages. From what you say here, your interpretation seems close to my own.

    If there is any disagreement, I am not sure I agree with the “two, and one taken” applies to the ransacking of Judea in 70 A.D. I think SOME passages in that discourse by Jesus relate to that ransacking, but I think there is also some “switching back and forth” between subjects of immediacy and the ultimate, as seems to be the case with a lot of “prophetic literature.” (Jesus was asked three separate questions by the disciples, though they may have thought all three events would occur simultaneously.) I see the “one taken and one left” to be basically consistent with Jesus’ parables about the end–the “separation” of the sheep and the goats, the good fish from the bad fish, the wheat from the tares, etc.

    I do have a couple of questions of my own, and certainly I don’t necessarily expect you to comment on them. One, is there going to be some type of “Antichrist” at the end of time? I don’t think it is necessary to be a “Pre-Trib’er” to hold to that view. See 2 Thessalonians 2:3-12. Second, should we likewise expect to see a substantial turning to salvation of “hereditary” Israel at the close? See Romans 11:25-32. I agree that “numerology” is a pretty lame and “bound-to-be-unsuccessful” way of predicting the end of time, particularly since Christ said nobody knows the day or the hour, including even himself (at least as he stood in his humanity at the time). Yet he also said, “When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near. . . . Look at the fig tree and all the trees. When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves that summer is near. Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that the kingdom of God is near.” Luke 21 (NIV). From that mindset, in my estimation, given the totality of scriptural references to “end time conditions,” IMO the “end” may be “drawing near”; but that is my opinion merely. Ultimately, though, I certainly agree that it is far more important to live as though the end might immediately occur (as our personal end may well do) than to attempt to figure out when exactly that “end” might be.

    1. The “one taken, one left” is traditionally interpreted as a way of separating who belongs to Christ from who doesn’t, at final judgement, like the Sheep and the Goats. I don’t have a problem with that. But I do find Wright’s case for Jesus’ referring to the siege of Jerusalem very compelling.

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