There are parties in Christendom who are already rejoicing that they will be transfigured and float up to heaven. But that is not the way it is. Now is the time to take upon ourselves a work in which we are the first to be given into judgment, not the first to have a sofa in heaven. For only those who are truly first—first to stand before the Savior in judgment—can become tools to further his work among the rest of humankind. —C. F. Blumhardt
Ever want to get into an argument with a Christian? Then talk about the end times! While I was in seminary, the most heated debates I ever had were over the second coming of Christ. At the time I thought these disputes were stupid. I still do, but for different reasons.
I personally believe that Christ will come back to this earth. Though we do not know when or how, he will redeem what is lost and reconcile what is estranged. I also believe that when this happens, God's people, contrary to popular "end-times" literature, will be left behind. Yes, left behind! With Christ, they will experience the renewal of all things, and will reign with him on this earth (Rev. 5:10).
(Naturally, there are a variety of end-times beliefs among Christians. This article focuses on "dispensational pre-millennialism," the theology behind the popular "Left Behind" novels and the Zionism of many evangelicals.)
According to popular eschatology, the world is bad and getting worse. There is more nudity on TV and more immorality and sin in our society. And this downward social trajectory is inevitable! What should we do? Save others, of course, from this ill fate. And in order to do this, we must warn people of the eventual collapse of the world, and prepare them spiritually to meet their Master. By forming a subculture of "true believers" untainted by the evil order, we will be prepared for the rapture, where believers will meet Jesus in the air—maybe even being lifted out of their clothes. Meanwhile, those left behind will have to undergo the horrific nightmare of God's wrath. (For a taste of what mainstream evangelical America is devouring in terms of popular end-times prophecies, click .)
Though its emphasis upon the spiritual life and its concern for moral values is commendable in many ways, in the end, left behind theology jettisons Christ out of this world.
The interesting thing about this view is that it is virtually impossible to distinguish the lives of those who hold it from the lives of "worldly" non-believers. Divorce statistics among Christians alone bear this out. The only difference is that these believers are more "sanitized." Born-againers may not drink, smoke, swear, or fool around as much as pagans, but most of them leave nationalism, war, materialism, individualism, pollution and the technological assault on the environment unchallenged-and many even justify these things by giving them a Christian spin. They ultimately seem to view faith as little more than a coping mechanism for the soul.
If we viewed our future in terms of doom, what motivation would there be for making fundamental changes or creating communities where new life can be visibly expressed? Social action based on the example and teaching of Christ would be as futile as rearranging the chairs on the deck of the Titanic. Amazingly enough, that's precisely what many end-times evangelicals believe. They see their only hope in Jesus' return, when they will finally be free of the negative influences of MTV, the "liberal elite," Planned Parenthood, and all the other organizations they deem evil.
Despite this supposed total dependence on a returning Messiah to change the world, most end-timers are, oddly enough, Christian nationalists. Despite America's woes, they see the United States, with its Christian basis, as God's instrument in the world. This is because America is not only committed to protecting and preserving Israel—God's special elect and the locus of biblical prophecy—but through its war on terror (against Babylon!) it is helping to hasten the apocalypse itself. When Israel bombed the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak in 1981, most, including many liberal Jews, called the strike an act of inexcusable and shortsighted aggression. Even the normally pro-Israel Reagan administration criticized it. But end-times fundamentalists saw the hand of God and applauded. The State of Israel was being vindicated in anticipation of the final tribulation. Jesus' words about love of enemy and peace on earth get entirely ignored.
The first Christians understood the last days very differently. They forged a radically distinct and full-orbed life together...
In the end, pre-millennial madness, like that of the Left Behind series, fails to make sense of the Jesus of history and the new reality he entrusts to his people. In so doing, Christianity becomes either dreadfully boring and/or bad for the world. Though its emphasis upon the spiritual life and its concern for moral values is commendable in many ways, in the end, left behind theology jettisons Christ out of this world. In so doing it falls prey to the alien spirits of power and violence that grip our nation. It not only makes Christ's ethics "other worldly," but also trades in harmful, violently judgmental stereotypes of the non-Christian world. Worse, it denies the possibility of God's peace and justice here and now, and capitalizes on his wrath to the degree that it all but discounts his mercy and love.
The first Christians understood the last days very differently. They forged a radically distinct and full-orbed life together precisely because they believed Jesus was, at any moment, coming back. This is why they challenged the status quo; and because they put forth a new kind of society they were seen as a socio-political threat. In Hebrews 10:32-39 we read the following:
Remember those earlier days when you stood your ground in a great contest in the face of suffering. Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. You sympathized with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions.
So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded. You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God you will receive what he has promised. For in just a very little while, "He who is coming will come and will not delay. But the righteous will live by faith, and if they shrink back, I will not be pleased with them." We are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who believe and are saved.
I have a friend, Jack, who has worked with Denver's street-people for over twenty-five years. He runs a "coffee house," a kind of neighborhood storefront that looks and feels more like a living room than it does a restaurant. In it are tables and couches where people off the street can come in, get a free cup of coffee, play cards and music, relate to one another and tell their stories. Why does Jack do this? It's "because of the Banquet." Jesus tells us that his coming kingdom is like a feast and so we are to go into the streets and alleys and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame. All are invited (Luke 14:15-24). "When Jesus comes back," Jack says, "I want to be ready! What better way is there than to begin the party now?"
Most end-timers are, oddly enough, Christian nationalists.
Far from trying to flee an awful world or manipulate the powers that be, Jack means to prepare it for God's kingdom, just as Jesus did when he ate and celebrated with "sinners." This is in keeping with the Bible's vision of the future. This vision never serves as an excuse for lack of involvement in the world. But neither does it legitimize the world's way of force. Rather, it offers a picture of the kind of reality we are supposed to live out as resident aliens on earth.
The prophets of old speak of beating our swords into plowshares, of a time where the poor will be cared for and where there will be no more oppression in the pursuit of wealth. Jesus steps into this stream where, through his life, death, resurrection, and Spirit, what is hoped for begins to occur now. "Christ's future is now, or it is not at all," writes the German pastor Christoph Blumhardt (1842-1919). "He is not sitting on some celestial throne, resting somewhere in eternity, waiting for some particular time before he acts or a certain moment when he will suddenly plunge in."
In this world two currents are running alongside each other, but in opposite directions, one against the other. Which current is pulsing through you? The one that points to Christ and to his great day of redemption, or to some other realm in the by-and-by, which has little relation to our lives now? Are you anticipating the peaceable kingdom by the way you live, or are you, inadvertently, serving the spirit of death by turning your back on this suffering earth (or worse, contributing to its destruction)?
When Jesus entered Jerusalem he lamented that his people did not know the ways of peace. He is surely still grieving. Who will wipe his tears away? Will we who call him Lord prepare the way? If the end of the story is redemption, not destruction, we have lots of work to do. Perhaps Blumhardt—a Tübingen-educated theologian who nonetheless grasped the simple essence of the Gospels—can help us by showing us where to begin:
If the end of the story is redemption, not destruction, we have lots of work to do.
I have numerous fat volumes about the second coming of Christ, and many people have told me to study them. But I am so tired of the subect! Half of them I can't even understand-I am much too stupid. As far as I am concerned, they can all sink to the bottom of the Rhine. Let us not talk too much about the second coming of Christ. We do not know how it is all going to happen anyway. All those well-meant interpretations of the Book of Revelation! They spoil everything. When a person finds something of God in the Bible, he would do well to imitate the lowly hamster: carry it quickly into his storeroom, and not show it off to the public...