Message Supplement for 6 November 2022: “The End is Dear”

Bible verses for today’s message: 2 Thessalonians 2: 1-5, Luke 20: 27-38, Luke 21: 5-19, & Matthew 24: 1-35

Today’s topic is Jesus’ return at the end of history, also known as his second coming, which is supposed to occur before, during, or even after history’s final conflict, referred to as the apocalypse.

Lingering questions about the apocalypse, when or even if it will happen, centers on what Jesus, known as the Messiah and the Son of God, may have communicated about his return to his followers almost two-thousand years ago. Jesus discussed a chronology of wars, persecutions, natural disasters, arrests, trials, and betrayals that would accompany the apocalypse.

Researching the end times reveals assumptions about how to interpret the Bible. Many people believe that the Bible verses are literally true while others argue for a more symbolic meaning. Today we will consider how both approaches are used to interpret Jesus’ words about the apocalyptic end times, heralding the final, fiery and cataclysmic struggle between good & evil.

Prophecy includes Bible verses written about future events.  People who prefer literal interpretations of scripture argue that a reader can plainly discern what the Bible says about the future by simply reading the tense of verbs as a person would do with any other type of literature. Other folks offer a different view, namely that Bible focuses more on moral truth in the context of stories and literary narratives that do not require a strictly literal interpretation.

Examination of the apocalypse provokes strong emotions, especially from people who feel their convictions challenged when confronted with contrary evidence. An example of this process is the literal view of Jesus’ return—ushered by horrendous death and apocalyptic destruction—followed by the final judgment of each person, the righteous destined for heavenly bliss and the evil condemned to eternal hell.

Consider words ascribed to Jesus as he talked about when the end would occur: “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place” (Matthew 24:34). There is a persistent problem here for folks who want to force a literal interpretation. In the passage, Jesus declared that those listening to his words in first-century Israel—“this generation”—would not die before his return. But the uncomfortable historical truth is that Jesus never returned in the first-century CE. You might think Jesus’ failure to return would have marked the end of apocalyptic prophecy but that’s strangely not the case. Apocalypse hawkers continue to conjure elaborate schedules about Jesus’ return. Many have suggested a specific date, and all of them contribute to a prophecy feeding frenzy among the gullible.

People who push full literalism in interpreting Bible verses claim that they value the word of God so much that they take every word as literally true. While this declaration sounds noble in its earnestness, such an opinion is inconsistent with history and forces literalists to cleverly shift their interpretive technique when the facts demand it.

If the “this generation” spoken by Jesus is interpreted metaphorically then there may be less of a problem with Jesus’ failure to return in the first-century. If the generation referred to by Jesus is taken by readers to refer to a vague, distant future then that might explain his failed return. However, in ignoring what Jesus actually said, a new problem arises in that such an inconsistency in interpretation means that people can take verses to mean anything—a common problem.

Since it is unpleasant to consider that Jesus failed to return when he said he would—the literal words seem wrong—apocalypse defenders pivot their interpretation to a non-literal approach, signaling a desperate attempt to preserve their theological assumptions. Those who claim to honor scripture by a literal interpretation can’t squirm out of the problem of inconsistency, of stealthily switching between either a literal or figurative perspective, whichever best defends their dogma and doctrine.

“What now?” you may ask. “Jesus didn’t return as the Bible declares and history didn’t end. Are the Bible and Christian faith therefore both fatally flawed?” The short answer is “no”, and the only fatal flaws are in the minds of people who either deny history or who embrace wrongheaded views. The issue here may be as basic as this: either Jesus never said anything so specific about his return —the Bible writers messed up—or he did say literally what the Bible verses declare but Jesus changed the schedule and didn’t return when he originally promised.

Can Paul the apostle fix the problem with the timing of Jesus’ return? Paul acknowledged the delay in Jesus return but he also took a different approach by encouraging the faithful to not give-up (2 Thessalonians 2:1-5). Paul wrote to the church in Thessalonica, Greece that the day of the Lord (i.e., the end-time) had not come, but that they shouldn’t be alarmed. Instead, Paul advised that they go about their lives. Paul knew that Jesus’ return was embarrassingly overdue, yet he encouraged his readers “not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as though from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord is already here” (2 Thessalonians 2:2).

Paul’s writing suggests that ancient Christians were disturbed by Jesus’ failure to return within the expected time.  Amid such a bitter disappointment, consolation became the best option given Jesus’ silent absence. Paul’s answer to the delay in Jesus’ return was to simply not provide much of a satisfactory explanation. Instead, Paul preached pragmatism, which meant that he wanted people to go about their lives and not to worry about the divine timetable for the apocalypse.

Not long after Paul, Roman persecution against the Jewish nation was so severe that both pious Jews and Jewish Christians thought that the end was near and that God would return to save them. After a brutal siege, the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and God’s magnificent temple in 70 CE, and all seemed lost. Nonetheless, the Romans’ war against Israel and the ensuing carnage were absolutely the best case for Jesus’ return.  But alas, it didn’t happen. The Lord did not return and the world did not end.

Fast-forward almost two-thousand years and meet a new generation, including some apocalypse profiteers who suggest that you should compare your internet newsfeed on one hand and your smartphone Bible app in the other, perceiving Jesus’ return based on a coalescing of natural disasters and social upheavals. The cries of such apocalypse advocates exploit dark curiosity and the life frustrations of their base of supporters.

It is tempting to be stirred by apocalyptic imagery, which many authors have exploited for book sales and B-rated movies. The drama of a fiery earth with epic battles between sci-fi monsters makes for alluring imagery and macabre entertainment but it does nothing to advance compassionate love. The seductive formula of making the apocalypse an enticing entertainment venue is so prevalent as a marketing tactic that the “end is near” mantra transforms itself into “the end is dear,” revealing the lucrative popularity of the end times prophecy industry.

Amid distracting cries of “He’s coming!” remains the real and obvious task of living in the moment. More than the end times, scripture overwhelmingly emphasizes how people of faith face sufficient challenges in managing daily life. You have everything needed for a meaningful life right now and you needn’t wait for Jesus to rescue you from an apocalypse. Consider Jesus’ words: “ So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today” (Matthew 6:34). We may never know why Jesus failed to return as promised. Nonetheless, attitudes of watchfulness and mindfulness promote a healthier spiritual life. God’s encouragement is to stay awake and alert, while avoiding being caught in a prophecy fantasyland.

Apocalypse advocates should understand that it’s not helpful to expect or even indirectly encourage earth’s destruction. So convinced are apocalypse partisans of their ideology that many ignore humanitarian reforms. Their assumption is that if everything will burn in the apocalypse then there’s no use trying to save the earth or exert any effort in making it a better place. After all, they reason, the righteous people will be saved while everyone else will be burnt. This defeatist attitude reveals a callous detachment from the plight of fellow human beings.

It’s terrible when apocalypse defenders yearn for things to get worse as a way of confirming and validating their beliefs. Even when humanity makes progress toward justice and equality, such positive reforms are often ignored or dismissed by religious extremists since such developments contradict the thesis that life should only become more terrible until it all explodes in the apocalypse.

Instead of voyeuristic enthusiasm for universal annihilation, apocalypse advocates should instead seek a better society. Their dark, self-fulfilling prophecy encourages the horrors that a superior faith seeks to relieve. People embracing the apocalypse may be contributing to the very disasters they’ve come to cherish.

The appeal of Christianity transcends apocalyptic theatrics and instead rests upon compassion, which is love in action. Therefore, legitimate Christianity helps alleviate conflict rather than feed it.  Avoid preoccupation with how the world will end and resist fascination with future catastrophes. Live well now and share God’s love with every living creature. By doing this you will better experience Jesus’ gospel message.

God loves you through all of life’s stages, including past, present, and future. Be mindful of the God who seeks you and who wants to enhance your life rather than destroy it. Manage yourself in daily challenges rather than focusing on what gruesome beasts will consume tomorrow. The apocalypse may be dear to some, but better still is your enthusiasm about receiving and sharing God’s compassionate love.

–Reverend Larry Hoxey

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