Just how nigh is the end?

At the approach to Christmas no shopping centre is complete without someone with a microphone announcing that the end is nigh and we all need to repent before meeting our maker. Gone are the sandwich boards but sidekicks still hand out leaflets.

Many Christians today are not sure whether they are still supposed to believe the end is nigh, after all these years. Is God going to intervene to bring life on earth to a sudden end – next week? Within our lifetimes? This afternoon, before we have fetched our washing in? (And will Jesus see our underwear hanging on the line?)

It seems unlikely; after all the end has been announced so many times and hasn’t come yet. Most of us would rather assume that life is going to carry on so that we can get on with our lives. If we thought the end was coming soon we wouldn’t plan for the future. We wouldn’t have children. Those of us in a certain state of health would stop taking our tablets.

This is a brief description of where the idea comes from and suggest how we might respond. It is not about whether human action will bring about the end of human life, either through nuclear war or through destroying the environment. Those are important matters but this is about the belief that God is going to intervene and bring life as we know it to an end.

The New Testament contains many texts claiming that the End was nigh then – in the first century AD. Where do the ideas come from? In order to clarify the issues I shall keep the descriptions as simple as possible, leaving out nuances and uncertainties.

Centuries earlier, the Jews had been governed by the Persian Empire. The Persians were Zoroastrians. According to Zoroaster the world was made by two gods. The good things in the world were created by the good god and the evil things by the evil god. The Persians believed that one day the good god would defeat the evil god in a war. There would then be a new age, without any evil in it. They looked forward to the new age, but expected the changeover to be accompanied by wars.

The classic Jewish belief, as expressed in the Old Testament (the Jewish scriptures) was very different: there is only one God, and God is good. God gives freedom to humans, and the evil in the world is caused by humans putting our own interests above the common good. From the point of view of this classic Jewish belief, there would be no point in looking forward to a new age if the new age had humans in it; we’d still be faced with the same problems.

In practice, of course, different people believed different things. In particular, many Jews were attracted to the Zoroastrian picture. It became especially attractive while they were governed by the Romans. Under Roman rule the conditions of life became a lot worse. Jews rebelled a number of times. The rebellions meant wars. Many made the connection: wars are going to characterise the end of the age and the beginning of a new and better age. At last: God is about to intervene and put things right. They got excited.

But the new age didn’t come. Instead, the Romans crushed every rebellion mercilessly.

New Testament scholars have spent immeasurable time debating whether Jesus believed the end of the age was about to come. For much of the twentieth century most scholars thought he did, and since it didn’t come Jesus was just plain wrong. More recently the pendulum has been swinging the other way. More scholars now associate Jesus with the wisdom tradition, which was more to do with long-term reflections on morality and how to live a good life.

Since then there have been many Christian movements proclaiming that the end of the age was about to come. Most of these movements were provoked by widespread intense oppression. Just like the Jews at the time of Jesus, communities in desperate situations often think ‘Surely God won’t allow this situation to carry on. God must intervene to put things right.’ The last major English movement of this type was during the Civil War. More recently there has been a different motivation, based on new theories about how to interpret the Bible. Groups of Christians have proclaimed that the end was nigh, not because they were poor or oppressed, but because that was how they interpreted the Bible. The idea was popular in this country in the nineteenth century and remains popular today in some parts of the USA. There, books about the end of the age and the Second Coming of Christ sell in their millions. They are best known for their descriptions of the Rapture. The Rapture is the moment when they expect Christ to summon all true Christians to heaven. They will rise from the earth, float into the sky, and proceed from there to spend eternity in heaven with God. This theory gives plenty of scope to the imagination. A typical situation is where a couple of people are in a car, driving along a busy road, and suddenly the Rapture happens. The person driving the car, being a saved Christian, floats upwards, through the roof of the car, into heaven. Meanwhile the passenger, who wasn’t a Christian, stays in the car, which inevitably crashes. And yes, in the USA there are many people who really think the Second Coming of Christ is going to be like this. Personally I would hope Jesus could be a little more careful about how to arrange things.

Is this still credible today? You are free to believe what you like, but here is my own reponse. The idea of a sudden change from one age to another, with wars at the end of this age, made good sense in its original Zoroastrian setting. Zoroaster taught that the world was governed by two gods, a good one and an evil one opposed to each other, so that evil could only be overcome by means of conflict. For people who believed that, it made sense to look forward to the conflict at the end of the age when the powers of evil would be destroyed.

When this teaching got borrowed by Jews the logic never quite worked. The traditional Jewish belief was that there is only one god, who is in complete control, and evil comes from the free will God has given to humans. What is wrong with this age is not evil gods but simply that people behave badly. So if God did intervene, bring history to an end and start again with us and people like us, the new age would be no different from the present age. There is no need for a new age, or for those wars. The life we have now is the one God has given us, and what we should concentrate on is whether we live this life well or badly.

No doubt life on earth will end some time, but we don’t know when, and just because some New Testament texts mistakenly expected the end to come 1900 years ago, that does not seem a good reason for us to expect it now.

The difference matters. If you expect God to bring about the end of this age very soon, you will expect to just wait for God to make it happen. You may get excited, but there won’t be anything for you to do. There will be no point in trying to make things better now, in this age, because you will think this age is passing away.

On the other hand, if you believe that life on earth is going to carry on, and if you believe that God has given each of us power to play our part in improving the quality of life, then we shall not be passive. It is not a matter of us waiting for God; God is waiting for us.

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