Some thoughts about the end times

I wanna talk a bit about the end times, since we’re in them.

I want to start off by discussing a bit about what I understand of dispensational theology, since this is by and large the school of thought that Americans, christian and non, associate with the phrase. You may be surprised that I am not even going to mention the term ‘rapture’ at all in this post (save that one). I’ll save that idea for another time, since this discussion will be long enough without it. What I want to address, however, are a couple fundamental problems that I believe this theological school of thought holds in relation to the mission that christians have in the world. To these ends, dispensational theology errs in its (mis)understandings that (a) God initiated two separate covenants with humanity, and (b) that the modern secular state of Israel is to be conflated with the ancient biblical nation (people group) of Israel.

Addressing my first point, the idea that God initiated two separate covenants for humanity–one through Abraham, for the Jewish people, and one through Jesus for all who believe in him–is predicated upon a compartmentalized interpretation of scripture, and it waters down the power of the Gospel of Christ. The Gospel truth is that there is only one covenant, the covenant that was begun with Abraham and renewed through Jesus. True, Jesus said, “this is the cup of the new covenant, sealed in my blood,” but I believe that this “new covenant” is simply a RE-newing, and a broadening and opening up, of the original covenant with Abraham.

If we follow the line of dispensational theology, then there are two separate covenants: one which promises a physical kingdom to the Jewish people, and one which promises a spiritual kingdom to followers of Jesus Christ. Both are interpreted to be eternal, since God’s Word endures forever. That first, physical kingdom was demolished and has not been (fully) restored to its grandest borders, according to dispensationalist thinkers. That second, spiritual Kingdom is, of course, The Kingdom of God, which dispensationalists interpret in the modern context to mean Christendom, or the nominally christian powers of the world.

According to this end-times theology, the modern secular state of Israel, which is the modern iteration of that first kingdom, must first be restored to the boundaries of the ancient kingdom at its height, and then the fullness of the Second Covenant can be enacted, when Jews by and large will convert to Christianity–when, presumably, they’ll finally have a collective “a-ha!” moment and realize that Jesus was and is the long-awaited Savior. Following this, I believe the line of thinking goes that there must be some monumental global upheaval, so that a literal reading of “the tribulation” in the Revelation of John can be satisfied, and then Jesus can come back to lead the climactic battle of Armageddon–finally!–which no doubt will involve this new united covenantal army of christian believers on one side, and some large, demonically-controlled force, (maybe Islam?) on the other. These two will battle it out, the good guys will win, the bad guys who don’t believe in Jesus will be defeated and thrown into hell, and then, as the inspiring music comes in and the credits begin to roll, God’s vision of communion with humanity (or those left of it who believe the right stuff) can, at long last, ensue. Forever.

It’s worth noting that, though I haven’t actually read the best-selling Left Behind religious fiction series, I’m pretty sure that a lot of the general outline for this end times timeline, which is widely accepted among American evangelicals, comes from the pages of the very same.

It’s also worth quoting Jesus right now, to hear his take on the end-times:

“But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man.” (Matthew 24:36-39, TNIV)

Let’s also remember that even Paul, that pre-eminent evangelizing apostle and theologian who had a close personal encounter with the Lord, had the end-times forecast wrong. He thought Jesus would return within his lifetime; it seems that christians ever since have been making the same mistaken conclusion.

Now, in the logical conclusion of the preceding dispensationalist scenario, Jewish people who do not come to believe in Jesus Christ serve no other cosmic or historical purpose than to rebuild an ancient kingdom (so God can’t be called a liar) and then die and burn in hell. This is anti-semitism at its worst, because it even purports to support the Jewish people (through support of the modern secular state of Israel) while still relegating them to hell unless they change who they are.

This gets into my second point. Support for Israel as a proxy for support for Jewish people the world over is a woeful misdirection of intention and energy. Support for Israel doesn’t seek, necessarily, the well-being of Jewish people individually in their particular contexts, but rather, the well-being the secular state that claims to have in mind the best interests of all Jews everywhere. Dispensationalist support for Israel, especially, disregards the hopes and aspirations of many Jews who have legitimate criticisms with what the secular state of Israel does in their names. Dispensationalist support for Israel tries to conform Jews to a particular role within a specific end times scenario, and has no regard for those who don’t eventually fit that mold. It substitutes a governmental institution for millions of actual people, and serves only to pursue the interests of the political group in power in Israel, which happens to be continuing an agenda of illegal land and resource annexation at the expense of many Palestinians, Christian and Muslim alike. This may come as a shock to many American evangelicals and supporters of Israel, but the agenda of this modern state–founded by secularist Jewish nationalists (and socialists at that!)–is not God’s agenda. Dispensationalist theology would have you disagree with that statement. However, if we are open to the idea that God, through Jesus Christ, renews that original covenant with Abraham, rather than setting up a separate covenant, then a very different world is possible.

Interestingly, this was the first google images result for "end times."

Let me take a very brief (read: long) tangent, in order to come around to the point. I believe that in all Jesus accomplishes throughout scriptural accounts of his life, death, and resurrection, he is reinterpreting mistaken views of the original covenant between God and Abraham. In this way, he is very much like the prophets who came before him. Throughout the centuries before Jesus, Israel strayed again and again from God’s vision for his Covenant people: they worshipped golden images, which was a sin of materialism/idolatry; they built a temple like the other nations, so as to keep the untamable God attached to a particular place, (see 1 Samuel 8 ) and this was a sin of not following one’s own unique vocation, as well as a sin of idolatry, if you think about it; they abused their neighbors and those in society whom they could exert power over instead of acting in charity, which was a sin of fear/greed/inhospitality; as well as many other things. For these reasons, the initial prophets came in the first place, to remind Israel of its original calling to be a peculiar, loving, nomadic people through which God could bless the whole world by their example. I believe Jesus came to do likewise, but he wanted to start from the ground up. He came usher in the full vision of that covenant with Abraham, a vision that he called the Kingdom of God. He came to establish God’s Kingdom on earth NOW (in his time, 2000 years ago) and for evermore. that is to say that God’s ultimate end times plan starts with Jesus 2000 years ago, not with the supposed re-establishment of the historical Kingdom of Israel sometime in the future.

Jesus, I believe, took upon himself the role of Israel as it should have been, and began to bless the whole world, Jews and unclean Gentiles alike. It’s almost as if Jesus, in establishing his “New” covenant, now says, “Since we’re obviously having a hard time keeping this covenant in tact, I’m going to assume the place of Israel, and I’ll make a new covenant with you, all of you: follow me, take my teachings to heart and do like I do, and it will be like you’re keeping to the old covenant (because if you do like I do then you will be).” And of course, Jesus opens this offer up to any and all who might take it (and take it seriously, at that.) Paul, in his letter to the Romans (Chapter 4), rightly interprets the covenant relationship with Abraham and his descendants to be contingent upon their faith relationship with God, not their exact keeping of the letter of the Law, nor by their blood relation with Abraham, and John the Baptizer says as much in pre-Jesus ministry (Matthew 3:9; Luke 3:8). Jesus also made these words manifest throughout his ministry (with Gentiles!) in the region. Furthermore, he did the work, through establishing his (re)new(ed) covenant, of making sure the whole world is blessed and able to participate. We, as his disciples, ought to go and do likewise, “for students are not above their teacher, nor servants above their master” (Matthew 10:24, TNIV). Our goal shouldn’t be to “convert non-believers to christianity” (note that formalized christian religion didn’t exist until some 300 years after Jesus!) but to spread the love, teachings, and example of Jesus with all whom we meet, and in THIS way, to make true followers (disciples) of all people groups (nations), regardless of their given religious labels (christian, muslim, hindu, buddhist, jew). I believe that this is what Jesus really meant in his Great Commission. In this way, we aren’t merely converting their religion (exchanging it like you might exchange currency in a foreign country), but rather TRANSFORMING PEOPLE’S LIVES, as Jesus and his earliest disciples did.

The vision given in John’s revelation is often misunderstood, and still mysterious, even though there is a scholarly consensus that it was a coded message to contemporary christians regarding an end to Roman persecution.

It is not, however, the script for some Left Behind style Armageddon. If it were, then there is still room for both good guys and bad guys; in short, people are allowed to remain enemies. But this is the one thing in the whole world that the Kingdom  of God doesn’t have room for!

God sent Jesus to proclaim that the Kingdom started 2000 years ago, and it’s still here, even today. The Kingdom of God is present wherever you encounter genuine love that crosses socio-economic and cultural divisions. For this reason, the Kingdom is first established in the hearts of those who accept it, and then it becomes manifest in the world through deliberate action on the part of the one who believes in it. “It’s like a tiny bit of leaven that works its way through the entire loaf.” I think a really wise man said that once. But someone has to knead the dough; someone has to get to work to make it happen. 

The Kingdom is here; it’s right inside of you, like a seed waiting for the perfect conditions so it can germinate and grow. Sadly, most folks in the world, including many christians, are either too proud or too afraid to let God establish the Kingdom in their hearts. For this reason, we say that it is here, and yet it is not here. But with enough nutrients, moisture and sunlight, any and every seed is capable of growing into the plant God made it to be. So may we let that Kingdom grow inside, until it bursts forth and we truly do become salt and light for those around us. May we encourage each other, in word and in deed, to build the kingdom, with all due haste and joy (and patience). May the Kingdom be built here, on earth as it is in heaven, brick by loving brick, into its fullness, and may we each be ready to build it with our own hands, because those are the hands with which God has seen fit to have it built.

So what about the end-times, Mitch?

Jesus of the Rohirrim!

Well, we’re in them, and though we may yet be waiting for Christ to return–bodily (I’ll confess that I don’t know if or when!)–the truth is also that Christ is here on earth now, and the church is his body. So if the ministry of Christ is failing, it’s because we are not living into our true collective identity as the Body of Christ. Truth is, I don’t have much of a thought for when the end is coming, nor do I think it is healthy for christians to obsess/worry/ponder this possibility. Rather, I think it is our job to get busy doing the work of Christ: loving everyone, giving direction to the lost, mending what’s broken, freeing captives of all kind, proclaiming and showing hope to the hopeless, making homes for the homeless, and generally building that Kingdom we keep hearing about. Is that a decent answer? I hope so, because I don’t know much else.

Until next time, may the Peace of Christ (and a little discomfort) be with you!

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