I find that the passing of time does not push me farther from my past, thereby giving me less ability to engage with it. It is more like a climb up a mountain. The more time passes, the higher I get, and the greater perspective I have to understand, categorize and analyze my past. In a sense, the past comes into clearer focus and greater context the higher I get up the mountain. If this is true on an individual level in the context of one human life, can it not be true corporately as we look back on our collective human history? With that thought, I’d like to address the question, “Is the world getting better or worse?”
I grew up in a tradition that generally believed that the world was getting worse. The idea was in the atmosphere. It was also explicitly taught as coming from the Bible. There would be teaching series from the pulpit on Bible prophecy and what to expect for the future. It was always pretty negative. And depending on whether you believed in a pre-tribulation, mid-tribulation or post-tribulation rapture, you would have varying levels of anxiety regarding your future. But rarely ever hope. And everything in the world-news section of the paper (yes, we still had newspapers back then) was suspect. Globalization was suspect. The U.N. was suspect. The EU was really suspect. Everything seemed to be lining up nicely (or very badly) for Late Great Planet Earth end-times theology. Shoot, in my college we even had (albeit tongue-in-cheek) a group called BTR—Bachelors To the Rapture. The only requirement for membership was to not be in a romantic relationship, which was easy for us engineer nerds at a technology school.
But then I graduated. And I moved overseas. And I learned that not all Christians thought the same way about end-times. (Actually, I knew there were other perspectives, but had learned them as the wrong ones. But it’s hard to discount them as easily when you are in relationship with real, flesh and blood people with different ideas.) And then I discovered that most christians in history believed that Matthew 24 and other famous end-times passages referred to the destruction of Jerusalem and of the Old Covenant system in 70 A.D. (For a more detailed, historical and Biblical support of this view, I would point you to Harold Eberle’s “Victorious Eschatology,” or Dr. Jonathan Welton’s “Raptureless.”)
I have now come to believe that this topic is vitally important to how we understand Scripture, our history and our trajectory, because we will inevitably go in the direction of our faith and expectation. I’d like to reference one of those end-times passages and then provide a quick summary of the convincing points that dismantle the “Left Behind” theology I grew up with.
In the book of Daniel, the king has a dream of a statue that gets smashed by a rock that grows to fill the whole earth. Daniel interprets his dream and says of that rock, “the God of Heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people. It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever” (Dan. 2:44 NIV). I would like to suggest that Jesus fulfilled that prophecy. He was the rock that was hewn from the mountain and sets an upward trajectory for his kingdom expansion, which will grow to fill the whole earth. There is good evidence historically, too, that things are getting better for most of the world’s poor by many statistical metrics. Read these articles for more support of the idea that, regardless of the atmosphere of fear and alarmism that surrounds us, things are actually getting better.
If this evidence is suspect and you still have a lot of ‘yeah, but’s lighting up parts of your database of biblical teaching, consider this very brief list of some of the dominoes that led to the collapse of my pessimistic eschatology:
- The entire New Testament was written pre-70 A.D., and all of the mentions of wrath, judgement, vials, bowls, etc. in Revelation are referring to and fulfilled in the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. (There are two books that convincingly make this argument: “Before Jerusalem Fell,” by Kenneth Gentry and “Redating the New Testament,” by John A.T. Robinson.)
- All mentions of “coming age” or “age to come” in the New Testament are referring to the inauguration of the Kingdom of God and a post-Old-Covenant-era world (“end of the age” refers to the end of the Old Covenant system, not the end of the world). These references are looking prophetically past the time when the Old Covenant will no longer be.
- The New Testament is a chronicle of the newly born Jesus-movement in the context of cultural, religious and political persecution. Cultural, because a Jewish thing has now opened up to all nations. Religious, because the established Old Covenant system is dying and losing control. And Political, because Love has empowered the people against the fear and threat of the power of empire.
- Jesus’ prophecy in Matthew 24 was fulfilled as he said before “this generation passes away” (Mt. 24:34). The context of his prophecy was the destruction of Jerusalem. He says in the beginning of Matthew 24, “Do you see all these [buildings of the temple]?…I tell you the truth, not one stone will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.” The disciples ask, “When will this happen?” and “What will be the signs leading up to it?” Jesus answers by giving them several pre-cursors (wars, earthquakes, persecution, false prophets, the preaching of the kingdom), and a clear sign that ought to trigger all believers to flee Jerusalem and go to the mountains (which is the Roman army surrounding the city) and a charge to be watchful and responsible.
- 2 Peter 3 is a clear encouragement to believers to hang on for the day of the Lord (i.e. The destruction of Jerusalem) is coming soon. People were saying, “where is this ‘coming’ he promised?” (2 Pt. 3:4). Peter responds by saying, “The Lord is not slow.” He reminds them of what Jesus said, “the day of the Lord will come like a thief,” and then describes the destruction: “The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare.” He says again, “That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat.” If you are like me, you were taught that that referred to the end of the world in some global nuclear disaster or Star-Wars-esque planetary explosion. But Peter is speaking in terms that people of that time understood—“heavens” referred to the temple and “elements” referred to temple furniture (also the bronze laver represented the “sea” and the courts the “earth.”) When Peter, closes his letter with, “Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation,” he is being very literal: more time equals more Jews more opportunity to believe and heed the prophetic warning of Jesus to flee the city. So, from the time of Jesus speaking this prophecy (30 A.D.) to the time of the destruction of Jerusalem (70 A.D.), God waited as long as he could in the span of one generation (40 years). 2 Peter 3:15 “Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation.”
There is certainly lots more hanging chads to explore, but I’ll leave that to your personal study. If you have any questions, please feel free to leave a comment.
If you’re still not convinced, consider author and pastor Kris Valloton’s end-times core values below. I encourage you to weigh each of these and see how they measure up with the hope, faith and love we are clearly called to carry for our world, for his kingdom and for our grandchildren’s sakes.
- I will not embrace an end-time worldview that re-empowers a disempowered devil.
- I will not accept an eschatology that takes away my children’s future and creates mindsets that undermine the mentality of leaving a legacy.
- I will not tolerate any theology that sabotages the clear command of Jesus to make disciples of all nations and the Lord’s Prayer that earth would be like heaven.
- I will not allow any interpretation of the Scriptures that destroys hope for the nations and undermines our command to restore ruined cities.
- I will not embrace an eschatology that changes the nature of a good God.
- I refuse to embrace any mindset that celebrates bad news as a sign of the times and a necessary requirement for the return of Jesus.
- I am opposed to any doctrinal position that pushes the promises of God into a time zone that can’t be obtained in my generation and therefore takes away any responsibility I have to believe God for them in my lifetime.
- I don’t believe that the last days are a time of judgment, nor do I believe God gave the church the right to call for wrath for sinful cities. There is a day of judgment in which GOD will judge man, not us.
Despite an overwhelmingly positive, hope-filled and optimistic view of the future, there is, of course, still much ground to be gained now. There are still many things needing correcting and critiquing. But if you critique, do so with a conviction of love—that change is as much for their benefit as it is for yours. If you prophesy, do it with hope. Though you see the injustices and the problems and can articulate them clearly, make sure your eyes let in the light as well…otherwise how dark is that darkness. Something true still echoes in the ancient words from the prophet Isaiah, “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon you. See darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the Lord rises upon you and his glory appears over you. Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn” (Is. 60:1,2 NIV). The coming of the son of God in Jesus was the ultimate dawn on the pages of human history, “The true light that shines on all people was coming into the world” (Jn. 1:9). And his spirit inside you still longs to believe and express these three: faith, hope and love. Lean into those and you will not go wrong.