Ever since the time of Jesus, Christians (not to mention various other groups) have been predicting the end of the world.
The Essenes believed that the Jewish revolt against the Romans in 66–70 AD was the end-time battle. And as this list shows, there have been end-of-the-world predictions in almost every century since then.
In recent centuries, these end-time predictions have been coming thick and fast. And these days, there is always someone shouting that the end of the world is nigh!
It should come as no surprise, then, that the recent surprise election of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States has caused conspiracy theorists to suddenly “discover” that over 400 years ago, Nostradamus predicted Trump’s rise to power and the resulting end of the world.
Then again, as Alyssa Wilkinson points out in her article, “It’s the end of the world as we know it, again,” apocalyptic predictions about what will happen if the opposing candidate is elected are nothing new in American politics. The same was said about Barack Obama, Barry Goldwater, and many other presidential candidates. Some of them went on to get elected—and then abysmally failed to bring about the promised apocalypse.
So it’s easy for thinking, rational people to laugh off all the latest prophecies and prognostications made by evangelical Christians that this time the sky really is going to come crashing down!
And yet, the Evangelicals are right. Their world is coming to an end.
The end of the age, not the end of the world
My article, “Is the World Coming to an End? What about the Second Coming?” points out that the book of Revelation, from which many of the end-time predictions come, describes events that John saw in the spiritual world. Fundamentalists and Evangelicals are making a leap of logic when they say that those events are going to take place in the material world. The book of Revelation says no such thing.
In addition to this non-Biblical materialism on the part of fundamentalist and Evangelical preachers, there is another reason it has become ingrained in the minds of so many conservative Christians that the Bible predicts the end of the world. Take a look at these four verses from the Gospel of Matthew, as they appear in the traditional King James Version (KJV) of the Bible (italics are added):
The enemy that sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the world; and the reapers are the angels. (Matthew 13:39)
So shall it be at the end of the world: the angels shall come forth, and sever the wicked from among the just. (Matthew 13:49)
And as he sat upon the mount of Olives, the disciples came unto him privately, saying, Tell us, when shall these things be? and what shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world? (Matthew 24:3)
Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen. (Matthew 28:20)
See?!? It’s right there in the Bible! The world is going to end!
But let’s look at the same verses in the New Revised Standard Version, which is a revision of the KJV into more contemporary English (italics are added):
And the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. (Matthew 13:39)
So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous. (Matthew 13:49)
When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” (Matthew 24:3)
And teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age. (Matthew 28:20)
You see, the primary meaning of the Greek word αἰών is “an age, a human lifetime.” The KJV uses the term “world” in the sense of “human society in its current form.” This meaning is somewhat archaic these days, but it still survives in expressions such as “withdrawing from the world,” meaning getting away from the world of human society.
Contemporary Bible translations use more contemporary language to express what the original Greek is really talking about: the end of the current age, or era, of human society. This—not the end of the physical earth and sky—is what Jesus is talking about in these verses from the Gospel of Matthew.
Jesus on the end of the age
That’s why in the course of the so-called “little Apocalypse,” in which Jesus talks about the end times, he could say:
As it turns out, the physical earth and sky did not come to an end before that generation had died off. And ever since, Christians have been trying to explain how Jesus could make a prediction that was so obviously wrong. Over sixty generations later, Christians are still waiting for “all these things to take place.”
But Jesus’ prediction was not wrong. The end of the age did come before that generation had died out.
In fact, the Essenes weren’t so far off in saying that the Jewish revolt of 66–70 AD was the end-time battle. That revolt led to the siege of Jerusalem by the Roman army in 70 AD, during the reign of the Roman emperor Vespasian, led by his future successor Titus. This siege ended in the destruction of most of the city of Jerusalem, including the Jewish Temple. As many as one million Jews died in the revolt, and many others were sold into slavery. After the uprising was crushed and Jerusalem was razed, all of the remaining Jewish leaders and educated elites were exiled from Palestine.
This catastrophic event spelled the end of Judaism as it had been practiced up to that time. Since there was no longer a Temple in which to perform their religious rites and sacrifices, and the remaining Jewish leadership and community was now dispersed throughout the surrounding lands, with no country of its own, Judaism had to reinvent itself. This reinvention sowed the seeds for Rabbinic Judaism, which became the dominant, mainstream form of Judaism as it still exists today.
- This new form of Judaism was no longer a nation over which the Jews had political sovereignty. Instead, it became a religion practiced in communities widely dispersed around the world.
- This new form of Judaism was no longer centered on Temple worship. Instead, it centered on a life lived in observance of the Torah, or Jewish Law, and of the traditions both oral and written that grew up around it.
- This new form of Judaism was not led by anointed priests, but by Rabbis, or “masters,” in the sense of skilled teachers of the Torah. In Rabbinic Judaism, the ancient priesthood drawn from the tribe of Levi and the lineage of Aaron, which had been central to ancient Judaism, has a very limited function.
All of this represents a massive change in Judaism—a change that must have felt cataclysmic to the first century Jews who lived through it.
Even though the Jewish people regained sovereignty over much of Palestine nineteen centuries later, in 1948, they still could not resume their old worship practices even if they wanted to. That’s because the site of the ancient Jewish Temple is now occupied by one of the most sacred structures in Islam: the Dome of the Rock. There will be no return to the sacrificial Temple- and priest-centered religion of ancient Israel any time soon—and probably not ever.
In short, for the people of Jesus’ day and nation, “the end of the world” came in the year 70 AD—within the lifetime of the generation that Jesus said would not pass away “until all these things have taken place.” From that time onward, both Jews and Christians alike were living in a new world. The world that existed before that time is gone forever.
Our very calendar recognizes that there was a decisive change in human history at that time. Christians think of it as “AD,” short for the Latin anno domini, meaning “in the year of the Lord.” More recently, the term CE, short for “Common Era” or “Current Era” has come into use as a more secular and inclusive way to refer to the new era of humanity that started two thousand years ago.
Jesus, who was the master of speaking in parables, spoke metaphorically and symbolically of the monumental social, ecclesiastical, and spiritual changes that were taking place in the world of those times, whose final days would be seen by the generation of people who heard his words from his own mouth.
The former Christian world has now come to an end
In the centuries that followed, the successors to Jesus’ small band of followers built up a new Christian religion that replaced ancient Judaism as the leading spiritual and intellectual force in the world that it spread to, encompassing most of Europe and parts of western Asia and northern Africa.
And yet, as the centuries went by, Christianity increasingly veered away from the teachings of the Gospels, and focused more and more on gaining worldly wealth and power.
Ancient Judaism came to its final days when it completely lost its focus on living by the Law of God, and focused instead on fighting a doomed battle for worldly power and political sovereignty against the overwhelming power of the Roman Empire.
Over the centuries Christianity, too, lost its focus on living by the teachings of Jesus Christ, and instead sought to impose its will and its dogmas on everyone under its control, while building up its own worldly wealth and power.
History teaches us that worldly empires rise, reach their peak, and then inevitably fall and are replaced by others. Once Christianity became a worldly empire, its fate was sealed. It was only a matter of time before it faced its own end times, just as ancient Judaism had before it.
Jesus taught that the most important commandments in the Scriptures are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves (see Matthew 22:34–40; Mark 12:28–34; Luke 10:25–28). Once any religion loses its focus on these two Great Commandments, its time has come to an end.
That is precisely what happened to the Christian church.
And that’s why the Evangelicals are right—though not in the way they think. The Christian world in which the people of Europe and various surrounding areas lived for many centuries has come to an end.
Gone are the days when Christianity ruled the Western world spiritually, intellectually, and politically.
As early as the seventh century, Islam arose and began to wrest from Christianity large swaths of the former Roman Empire in North Africa, the Middle East, and even in southwestern Europe that had previously been mostly under Christian control.
But it was the arrival of the Age of Enlightenment in the seventeenth or eighteenth century that finally broke the power of the Christian church over the minds and bodies of the people of Europe. At that time a new era of reason and science began spreading from Europe to the surrounding areas, and to the New World of North and South America—which was being colonized by various European powers. Governments, universities, and the other institutions of Western society increasingly freed themselves from the yoke of institutional Christianity, and began to chart their own course.
In short, the world of the existing Christian church was coming to an end.
Yes, as explained earlier, Jesus’ words about the end of the age were fulfilled within a generation by the cataclysmic political and social events culminating in the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 AD. But his words also predict a future time when there would be cataclysmic changes in the Christian world. And like the changes that took place in the ancient Jewish world of Jesus’ day, the changes that Jesus predicted for the future Christian world would be largely social, ecclesiastical, and spiritual, not physical.
The world that Christians lived in for so many centuries as supreme rulers of their own domain no longer exists. The end-time battle to hold onto that world was already fought and lost several centuries ago. It was not a literal battle fought with swords or guns. It was an intellectual, ideological, and spiritual battle. In that battle, the institutions of Christianity were thrown down from their former position of ruling the western world. They were replaced by the victorious institutions of science and reason—and increasingly by a new, more flexible, more humane, and more spiritual form of ethics and morality.
Yes, there are still vestiges of the old world. And no, we have not yet fully achieved justice and peace in our world. But we are well on our way.
In fact, we are already living in the third century of this new world. Even secular historians tell us that humanity is living in a new era that started in the 1700s during the Age of Enlightenment.
The Evangelicals’ world is coming to an end
However, traditional Christians have not gotten the message. They do see the vast, rapidly accelerating changes in human society. But they believe that these changes are signs of an end-times cataclysm that is still to come—and soon!
And so their predictions of the imminent end of the world fly thicker and faster.
But the reality is that for Evangelicals, fundamentalists, and many other traditional Christians, the end has already come. Their world is already slipping into the past. They are steadily losing their own fruitless end-times battle to hold onto the last vestiges of that rapidly fading world.
In one country and region after another, conservative Christians are losing the conflict over their hot-button issues of evolution, premarital sex, same-sex marriage, and so on. They are fighting a rearguard battle against the overwhelming tide of humanity that is pressing forward into the future, not looking back toward the past. The intellectual and spiritual freedom of this new era is relentlessly smashing the old literalistic, irrational, and non-Biblical doctrines that have posed as “Christianity” for so many centuries.
The leaders of the conservative wing of Christianity see it happening. They are fighting valiantly against societal and spiritual changes that they do not understand—that make them feel that the world is spinning out of control. They therefore preach to their flocks a fervent hope and expectation of a literal, physical end of the world and a literal, physical return of Christ that will finally “stop the world” and restore it to “how it’s meant to be,” as you can hear wistfully expressed in this 1984 evangelical Christian rock song by Randy Stonehill:
Perhaps this, too, is part of God’s providence. Perhaps the hope and expectation of an imminent end of the world is what the people in those preachers’ flocks need to hear in order to reassure themselves and keep themselves on the strait and narrow path. Perhaps, for those who listen to these literalistic messages about the impending Apocalypse, it gives them the motivation to straighten out and fly right—to stay on course one day at a time. God can use even false beliefs to bring about positive changes in people’s lives.
But the literal Apocalypse and Second Coming that the Evangelicals and fundamentalists preach is never going to happen.
No matter how many times they predict its demise, the earth just keeps on turning. Mainstream society just keeps on ignoring their end-time preaching. The broader culture just keeps on passing them by. It keeps right on pressing into the new world of a revitalized human society based on higher ideals of spirituality and justice in a diverse and fully integrated worldwide community.
Yes, those conservative Christian preachers are right—but not in the way they think.
Their world is coming to an end. In fact, it came to an end several centuries ago. And its remains are being swept away right before their eyes. Just as the first century Jews had to live through the destruction of their centuries-old way of life, Christians today must live through the destruction of their centuries-old way of life.
It is a painful, even cataclysmic experience for those who still cling to the old world and its beliefs and practices.
But God’s plan for humanity keeps moving forward nevertheless—just as it kept moving forward two thousand years ago, shattering the old world that had reached its end, and ushering in a new one.
A new heaven and a new earth
Yes, a new “heaven and earth,” meaning a new spiritual and social era, is rapidly replacing the old “heaven and earth” of traditional Christianity—which had long since abandoned the plain and simple teachings that Jesus Christ gave us in the Gospels and replaced them with complicated and confusing doctrines invented by human councils and theologians. That old “Christianity” brought about its own demise.
But God’s plan for humanity is now moving forward even more rapidly now that the old and corrupt “Christian” world has finally come to its end. In this new and more enlightened era we are finally facing and overcoming many of the old evils of human injustice, corruption, and brutality that have bedeviled us for thousands of years.
It will be a long, drawn-out, and hard-fought battle. There will be many setbacks along the way. But we can already see the shining gates of the new Jerusalem beckoning to us in the distance. And we will not cease our battle against those ancient human evils and injustices until all the nations of the earth are living within those gates.
Yes, these beautiful words in the book of Revelation are now being fulfilled in our world:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.”
And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” . . .
And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. (Revelation 21:1–5, 23–25)
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