By Samuel M. Frost, Th. M.
“Those who ascribe to a future fulfillment in Christ claim they have a “hope” to “look forward to” but that isn’t true when they speak of a future full of destruction and tribulation… that produces fear, not hope.”
“I agree, the futurist idea of an end of the world is very much a faith killer. I see friends and family who are followers of Christ through and through… but are basically impotent in expressing that to others because they are so focused on identifying the next “sign of the end.” To me that is a life of fear, not hope.”
“Because it was a tribulation that put an end to the Old Covenant and brought in the fulness of the New Covenant and what it meant for the world as the nations were grafted in. Continuing the elements of the Old Covenant and the First Adam negates the redemptive nature of Jesus’ work. It’s no wonder the church is in a stupor with so many waiting for cataclysms, antichrists, and more slaughter. Jesus said, “It is finished.” It’s long past time that we believe Him” (Gary DeMar).
The first two of these three quotes is from an online Full Preterist. Gary DeMar, who is not a Full Preterist, yet shows close affinity to this sentiment, this idea that “future” catastrophes are bad, underscores the idea that is pervasive in popular Christian expressions. It strikes me as odd. As a student of history, I occasionally come across books written on specific periods of time that are so unfathomably hard to digest because of the subject matter. The Black Death, by Philip Ziegler (Alan Sutton Publishing, 1996) shows us firsthand accounts of Europe’s years in the fourteenth century. Most think of the Great Plague, or Black Death as centering in Europe. However, it came from the East where it ravaged through China. Massive earthquakes, floods, hordes of locust, drought followed by famine – a series of sudden disasters from 1333 to 1345 claimed, by some accounts, near five million lives in China. But, as Ziegler notes, that was China. To Europeans, it was “so far away” that it “could have any possible relevance” to them (p. 3). In an interesting description, Ziegler quotes from an “anonymous Flemish cleric” reporting to the papal curia in France (he sources from the Recueil des Chroniques de Flanders Volume 3). There were three days, according to this firsthand account, of “horror and unheard of tempests” (p. 3) ranging from plagues of frogs, scorpions and other venomous beasts on the first day. This was followed by massive thunder claps and sheets of rain and hailstones. The third day was followed by fire from heaven.
The reports of the plague in the East continued through India, Mesopotamia and Syria, but not once did the people of Christianized Europe think it would strike them. It did (1347-1351). The numbers are staggering. Some estimate that nearly 60% of Europe was wiped out, as high as 200 million. We, of course, have “conquered” such pandemics today.
The term “epidemic” actually came from this event, and “pandemic” as a now common title. There were other plagues of this sort. The London Plague (1665), and in India from 1892 to 1896 some 6 million were claimed. John M. Barry in, The Great Influenza (Penguin, 2004), covers in this remarkable book the gripping story of medicine and the pioneers of what is now the stable field of “germ theory.” Influenza caused the death of 100 million in one year: 1918.
One could also read In the Shadow of the Epidemic: Being HIV-Negative in the Age of AIDS, (Duke University Press, 1995) by Walt Odets. AIDS has caused the deaths of over 32 million, ranging from 1981 to the present. An estimated 37 million were living with AIDS in 2018. That’s an epidemic.
Pushing aside medical concerns, one could cite The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power and Genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, 1975-1978 (Yale University Press, 2002) by Ben Kiernan. 1.7 million were starved to death. Of course, there was World War 2, World War 1, and Stalin’s estimated 20 million deaths of peasants at his hand. Staggering numbers. Numbers that do not affect the person sitting with their coffee while typing on Facebook how wonderful a world it is.
But, maybe it’s not all bad news. I could take from my library The Rise and Fall of American Growth (Princeton, 2016) by Robert J. Gordon (a massive tome that equals Adams’ Wealth of the Nations); or The Paradox of Progress by Martin Hershock, or the sometimes downright comical work of Yuval Noah Harari entitled, Homo Sapiens: A Brief History of Tomorrow. Harari was hailed by Bill Gates, Barak Obama and Sebastian Younger for his earlier work, Sapiens. In Homo Sapiens, he argues that man may actually achieve immortality through science. The world is getting better. Man is conquering his greatest enemies. He laments the ‘apocalyptic scenarios’ of the Christians. Shreds any notion (much like Sam Harris) that the ancient belief in “god(s)” is relevant to our sophisticated societies today. Science is what triumphs, not theologians sitting in some seminary debating when the end will arrive. It’s not going to arrive. We can stop it. Take SARS for example (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), what started with “fears of a new Black Death…ended with the death of less than 1,000 people worldwide” (Harari, p. 11, Harper Collins, 2017). One could note today’s Coronavirus in China. Harari takes constant and consistent attacks on notions of God or religion playing any role for progress. Of course, acclaimed historian Tom Holland would disagree. Christians these days have become apologists for how Christianity has caused the great innovations of science and progress, and without it – and Christians – the world would collapse. Now, this is the irony. How can Christians be the cause of greatness and progress, and yet be ridiculed as a doomsday cult hastening the coming end times destruction with glee and morbid hope for catastrophic death never before seen? Or, are the opening comments of the quotes above simply touting a common line that is really rooted in a stigma.
Now, to be sure, one can enter any Christian bookstore and find all kinds of works on how the world is supposed to end – even in this lifetime if you follow the more popular ones. Iran is going to align with Russia and Syria. Jordan and Libya will attack Israel and the Antichrist will arise and sign a temporary peace accord while sitting in the yet-to-be rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem. The Official United Nations Government of the Red Star Federation (to borrow from the late Neil Peart of Rush, 2112) will stamp everyone with 666. Then, literally, all hell will break loose that will make the previous centuries combined look like Maria Von Trapp belting out a tune by Richard Rodgers. Make America Great Again, or something like that.
The combined irony in all of this is that the Bible is increasingly becoming recognized by the fact that “it” and “its many interpretations offered by those who read It” are two different things. The Bible cannot be interpreted in a vacuum. No matter how hard we try, we cannot escape the preconditioning of our time. We read the Bible with an already built in audience of interpreters before us. No one alive today was there and witnessed Jesus. No one today can claim to be an “original hearer” of Paul. We have to ‘reconstruct’ the times of Second Temple Judaism(s), and this road is fraught with difficulties – there appears to be no consensus.
However, history as such can be a guide. Jesus and Paul did speak, and Paul wrote letters. The Gospel writers, whether they be known or unknown redactors that piled on layers of interpretative voices much later on to the real, ‘historical’ Jesus, also bequeathed to us the Gospels. And then there is the Apocalypse of John. There appears to be no consensus. When one reads the early Christians of the several first centuries, they appear to have their own ideas as well. Perhaps if we “return” to them, we might find a clue. However, here we are still in the 21st century. What did Jesus say? What did he mean? Did he predict the future at all? Did he give us a detailed road map that brought us the Ottoman Empire and the rise of Islam?
There is a view within Christendom that states that all the bad stuff supposedly inferred to happen in the future is behind us. That is, everything Jesus had to say about terrible afflictions, plagues and earthquakes was fulfilled when the Romans, tired of the outbreaks of civil strife among the Jews, took it upon themselves to squash it. In the years of 66-70, 115, and 132-135 CE they did. Jerusalem has never been the same since. And, of course, one can read the eyewitness account of Josephus, the Pharisee turned lover of Rome historian. He records what he saw as the worst event in human history that ever was, or ever will be in the 70 CE sack of Jerusalem. The “great tribulation” was over! Revelation was fulfilled! We don’t have to suffer anymore! History will now end in bliss, if only these Christians who believe in the end of the world (eventually) would cease their efforts on promulgating this doom and gloom scenario. Perhaps Christian apocalypticism is the fault of the Black Plague, or the Viet-Nam War. After all, this is their “hope”, right?
Well, no. Not all of us. It appears within some circles that you either subscribe to the jubilant cry that the Great Tribulation is behind us, or (and only “or”) you must ascribe to a view of the end of the world in some sort of hell-on-earth, three and a half year unprecedented universal horror of all horrors. That you hope for such an end. That you are looking for “signs of the end” in every newspaper headline about Hamas or Jihad or Russian military maneuvers on the border of the Crimean that cause your hair to stand on end. Are these the only two alternatives? Really? Does history have anything to say?
Now, granted, Gary DeMar is a Postmillennialist. Since the catastrophes of the Great Tribulation are behind him (whew!), we have an open view of the Future that only gleams with progress and unfettered prosperity; provided that we rid the world of Dispensationalists, or any view that smacks of negating the progress of culture building through the Gospel enterprise. The only issue there is noted in Harari’s work noted above. Harari is not using the Bible as his guide. God is irrelevant to technology. Progress is great. One day it may even reach to the heavens itself and make its home there. As Harari exclaims, our problems “have been transformed from incomprehensible and uncontrollable forces of nature into manageable challenges. We don’t need to pray to any god or saint to rescue us from them. We know quite well what needs to be done in order to prevent famine, plague and war – and we usually succeed in doing it” (p.2, opus cited). “Peace, Peace!”. Harari is entirely indifferent to whether or not God will bring the great tribulation or whether He already did way back yonder. The fact is, the dead have not been raised, and Jesus has not returned according to incurable optimists like DeMar – who still maintains that Jesus will return – and this means one thing: the world will, in fact, end. Until it does, death is still with us, and all that it means. Perhaps jumping on the bandwagon of Environmentalism may help pave the way for a better world of tomorrow until Jesus comes, like the book Care for Creation: A Franciscan Spirituality of the Earth advocates (Delio, Warner, and Wood, Franciscan Media, 2008). Such a view of the end with the dead arising is pessimistic for folks like Harari. Conquering death by means of God ‘doing’ some sort of miracle act slams the door shut for progress. It says that life in the here and now, although good, ain’t good enough for God until he radically alters it. If he has to do this, then something is wrong with the now. And he’s right.
Increasingly, however, these two alternatives of either Doom or Bliss are not the only ones. Jesus does not predict a three and half year cataclysm. There is no limited in duration span of a few years called, “the great tribulation” on his lips. Rather, all that he really said was that, cumulatively, the time between “creation” and his own day (say, 32 CE) was ‘great tribulation’ when it all added up. Coupled with this, ‘great tribulation’ would continue on until the last day in a greater accumulation when all is added up. Those days – the days to follow after he ascended right on up to the end, which no one knows, will have great tribulation as well. But, in a parable he gave, there would be an “admixture of good seed and bad seed” in the world. Good seed means good fruit in the world, so not all will be catastrophically horrible. Some of it will be quite good. In fact, “people will be eating, drinking, marrying and given in marriage” right on up to the end. This description does not seem to be indicating a world filled with incomprehensible violence on every street corner and square acre of the globe. Peppered throughout history will be occasional wars and catastrophes of a grand and measurable magnitude; like the Black Plague, or World War 2. Maybe several other shockers are to come, who knows? Jesus did not give us “signs” to make “predictions”. He gives us faith to endure the times and seasons of the future which the Father has set (Acts 1.7), and which only the Father knows. And, he gave us a wonderful mind by which to microscopically see these things called, ‘germs’ that we can – and have – exercised dominion over. There is another plague, however. The plague of unbelief and God is irrelevant is a plague of the mind. That one is growing. Give the wicked good times and he will not credit God for it. He will credit himself and build a tower to the heavens to make his own name great. Fact of the matter is, we do know that the dead will be raised. We do know that the last day will come. The heavens and the earth shall pass away – make no mistake about it. It will be transformed, and this on the scale of a universal magnitude that would involve the reconfiguration of what we now see and in which we now live. Does this mean that just before that happens, the world will be emblazoned in a violent, Antichrist, Islamic world war of terror that sends a militant government to round up all the Christians into concentration camps? Nope. You might be walking in a park with your kids enjoying an ice cream cone on a sunny day. A true biblical view is not so naïve to think that our history is filled with warm fuzzies; or that the world as it now is is a wonderful, homey place to live. It’s not. Human trafficking, drugs, sexual diseases, abortion, rampant and disgusting “free” pornography, drug cartels, lone dictators with nuclear dreams, ISIS, Jihad – the list appears endless, still abound. However, equally so, the Gospel explosion in China and Africa and among Muslim countries, the strides in medicine, the curtailing of contaminated water supplies, life expectancy, quality of life improvements for a greater majority than 100 years ago are all positives. Does the Bible predict an end to sin before the arrival of Messiah? Nope. Does it predict a world in which the “good seed” have been planted to be a place of sheer hell before he returns? Nope. Does it predict an eventual end of the world? Yup.
Therefore, it matters not whether one is comforted by acknowledging that the ‘great tribulation’ is past already, as if the 30 million infected with AIDS could care less. What would one say to a survivor of the Shoah in Nazi Germany? “Well, at least this ain’t the great tribulation!” Such a view can lead to an indifference to suffering on the earth. Taken into its cumulative toll, how many combined are suffering unspeakable things right now as we speak? Is it good news of comfort to say, “well, at least it ain’t the great tribulation! God has something better for you!” Does it matter when helping such a victim in need what one believes about the future – which only God knows? Does DeMar and others believe that since some hold to the idea that the great tribulation is future, that means they run around saying, “well, you got what you deserve, cause the great tribulation is coming!” No. Such polarizing among Christians is uncalled for. Fact of the matter is that God knows the future and is perfectly capable of bringing evil, or peace – as He sees fit, and there is not one thing you, or I, can do about it. God punishes. God is not mocked. God takes vengeance. “God vindicates the righteous; God pronounces doom each day” (Psalm 7.12). He didn’t stop pouring out his wrath in 70 AD any more than he stopped pouring out his Spirit. However, we are told that wrath shall be no more, and until that time we get both. “Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that good and evil come?” (Lamentations 3.38). Wrath comes in many ways, as do blessings. To pretend that God only showers blessings is not a picture of God in the Bible. What, did the Black Plague catch him by surprise? Oops? Sorry ‘bout that. I had no idea. Is that God? If we take the Preterist prophecy pundits, then God predicted and caused the slaughter of Jews in 70 AD. What, he all of the sudden stopped this? All other slaughters of history, be they natural or by the hands of tyrants, are what, just-so-happens-to-be-by-chance slaughters? God picks and chooses his slaughtering? He runs part of the universe, but not all of it? Come on. Jesus did predict the passing of heavens and the earth, and the letter of 2 Peter chapter 3 confirms it. How that comes about is a mystery. When that comes about Peter wonderfully omitted. However, the wicked will still be here when it does and so will on that account God’s wrath. 2000 years of history must inform us as to what Jesus meant when he uttered his Olivet Discourse. Earthquakes, famines, tribulations, wars, pestilences and all other “wrath of God” stuff did not end in 70 AD. One could argue that they increased on massive scales that pales in comparison to the Jewish War. And then there was Noah’s Flood. What could top that? It may make one feel warm inside to know that ‘THE great tribulation of all tribulations” was “for them and then back yonder”. Okay. So, what about them and us here today? Is suffering to blame for simply having a futurist view that the world ends one day? Hardly. If history – God’s History – be our guide, we simply do not know what’s coming down the pike other than, one day, he is going to wrap all of this up. Of course, one could peddle nonsense that history is infinite, but that’s sheer absurdity. Until then, “be alert” against those heralding “the end is near”. Be on guard against those using his name for false profits. Be aware of false pretenders, war mongers, and seducers. Endure throughout your life all trials and tribulations that will come your way. Endure to the end of your life, throughout your life, while setting your sights above, where he is at the right hand of the Father.