There’s an old Jewish saying: if you have two rabbis in a room, you’re likely to have three opinions. The same, of course, can be said of theologians and Bible scholars. There seems to be no agreement on the interpretation of Scripture, and no end of divisions among followers of Jesus as a result.
Clearly something is wrong.
This sad state of affairs becomes painfully obvious when we get into eschatology, which is the fancy term of choice for end-time prophecy. Some are making charts and predictions, and watching the Middle East with hopes of seeing Armageddon break out.
Others are working diligently for worldwide evangelism so that the spread of the good news of Jesus might speed his return.
Still others are working to instill Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) law as the civil code of a world government that will become, or bring about, the millennial reign of Christ.
Some Jewish and Christian communities are even strangely united in the quest to restore Israel’s temple in Jerusalem.
Most avoid the subject of “the end” at all costs, claiming ignorance or even a kind of “end-times agnosticism.” Between apocalyptic enthusiasm and aversion, many people are content to describe their entire eschatological view as: “Jesus is coming – get ready.”
Despite ongoing regional conflicts, the countdown to a supposed biblical Armageddon continually disappoints, whether the target year was 1844, 1914, 1988, or 2011. While statistics show 73 percent of the planet evangelized (that is, accepting an iteration of the Christian “good news” message) by 2000, the same World Christian Encyclopedia statistics show the rate of increase of Christian believers at a nominal 1 percent per decade. At this rate, it would take 270 years without attrition of the existing “base” to gain that stubborn 27% who remain.
And of course, in recent years we’ve seen a mass-defection from organized religion of all stripes, and a rise of the spiritual-but-not-religious and The Nones. Whether Christianity as we’ve known it or any other competing ideology – global acceptance of any message, no matter how appealing, is unlikely.
A return to Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) law and theocracy does not seem a likely scenario, no matter how hopeful its advocates might be. The Israeli occupation of the West Bank has generated nothing but bloodshed, and many Palestinians – many Christian Palestinians – have lived in refugee camps for a half-century, oppressed by a public policy endorsed by many American Christians. Our confusion and our schizophrenia on the subject of the end time has caused us to be ridiculed by the media, dismissed by academics, and despised by popular culture.
Clearly something is wrong.
How do we get out of this mess? What is the answer? Every end-time view seems fraught with inconsistencies. A clear path to a coherent view doesn’t seem obvious.
Or, perhaps, it is so obvious that we simply have dismissed it as impossible.
Jesus said to his followers,
Assuredly, I say to you, there are some standing here who shall not taste death till they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom. (Matthew 16:28)
On many occasions Jesus indicated that his generation – the people living at that time – would see the fulfillment of the promise to Israel and the coming of the kingdom of God. Similar statements abound in the New Testament. You cannot open a book of the New Testament – perhaps not even a chapter – without finding some reference to “the end of the ages” or the coming of the kingdom or the fulfillment of prophecy.
These statements are rarely taken seriously. The idea that fulfillment could have happened in Jesus’ generation is so unthinkable that we are willing to ignore these statements or reinterpret them. Or we engage in philosophical discussions about the nature of time. Or we construct elaborate fulfillment schemes that apply Jesus’ words to some other generation yet to come. Or we conclude that Jesus was, in the words of one Jesus scholar, “mistaken, but not wrong.”
Clearly, something is wrong. And it’s not Jesus.
What is the answer? We can’t translate Left Behind into the first-century and find it in the historical record. There are no reports of a Rapture, leaving crumpled togas in the Senate or unmanned chariots on the Appian Way. What we do have is Jesus making a clear connection of his return to the destruction of Jerusalem. We do have the historical record that Jerusalem was, in fact, destroyed forty years after Jesus’ prophecy – a generation in biblical terms. We also have Jesus’ descriptive language regarding his coming that appears at first glance more cosmic than the fall of Jerusalem. We’ll examine this use of language in an upcoming post.
Right now, let us propose a very simple interpretive scheme in the form of a mathematical equation. We have the timeframe of Jesus’ prophecy: the destruction of Jerusalem. Let’s call that t. We have Jesus’ description of his coming – we’ll call that d. That’s one side of our equation. On the other side we have the same timeframe, t, because we know that Jerusalem was destroyed. We also have, for lack of a better way to describe it, what really happened (or didn’t happen, we might add, but cautiously), that we’ll call w. So our “equation” looks like this:
In algebra, anything on both sides of the equation drops out. In our case, t drops out, leaving us with:
Or in plain English, whatever happened when Jerusalem was destroyed was exactly what Jesus was talking about. If not, then his detractors have every reason to question his claims to legitimacy.
This is a very simple hypothesis, but we must understand that almost no prophecy is self-evident in terms of fulfillment. The exact nature of a prophecy’s fulfillment is not known until that fulfillment has come to pass.
Jesus was not the Messiah that the Jewish people of his day expected. This caused them to doubt his claims to be the Messiah. But early Christians added up the signs: he was born of a virgin, of the tribe of Judah and the line of David, in David’s city. He came with signs and wonders. Either he is the real Messiah, or biblical prophecy is a little confused.
In Luke 4 Jesus reads the scroll of Isaiah and then says, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” The reaction of the crowd indicated that this was not what they were expecting. Nevertheless, once Jesus said that, the exact nature of the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy was made clear.
In Acts 2, referring to the events at Pentecost, Peter says to the crowd, “This is that which was prophesied by the prophet Joel.” Reading Joel’s prophecy prior to Pentecost, one would not necessarily conjure up the scene in Acts 2. Yet, as soon as Peter, under the power of the Holy Spirit, said, “this is that,” the exact nature of the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy was made clear. To use a common refrain, this is not rocket science.
On the other hand we don’t have any post-70 scriptures to tell us “this is that” with regard to the coming of Jesus Christ. We do have Jesus’ own words that his coming would be concurrent with the destruction of Jerusalem. If our hypothesis holds, the nature of his coming should now be made clear. “The testimony of Jesus,” John tells us in Revelation 19:10, “is the spirit of prophecy.”
As we recently announced, join us each Monday as we blog through The Spirit of Prophecy. (And if you get impatient, of course, you can always get the book inspiring these posts here.) Stay tuned next week as we take a deeper look into the nature of prophetic language.
For right now, what do you think? Have popular Christian understandings of the “end-times” served humanity? Have they served us? The Comments section is open!