Have you heard that the world will end on May 21st? That’s this Saturday people! Quit your jobs, rob a bank, go to Cedar Point, eat 20 candy bars…whatever you want to do, because according to one group after Saturday at 6:00pm it ain’t gonna matter! A Christian radio network, Family Radio, has been preaching this message for quite some time. It has gained some followers, who have helped to plaster messages about our impending doom all over the country. I sincerely hope that those outside the Christian faith can appeal to reason that this group does not represent the faith as a whole. But as a Christian, this provides a good opportunity to engage in discussion about end times theology and how we look at Scripture for guidance and truth.
CHRIST COMING BACK
There is no denying that littered throughout Scripture is the ardent belief that one day the world as we know it will end, ushering in a “new earth” that will reflect all the goodness of God. Author N.T. Wright describes it as “putting the world back to rights again.” Christians recognize this as both beautiful and terrible in the same breath, much in the same way a forest fire cultivates new foliage or a hurricane keeps the world’s climate in balance. There is a great deal of mystery in Jesus’ words on this “event.” The focus of Christ’s messages was the kingdom of God, not only as it will be after the end of days, but the kingdom of God here and now. Yet the kingdom “here and now” is a mere window into the kingdom in it’s fullness after Armageddon. In describing this final event, Jesus says in Matthew 24:40-41, “Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left.” This apparent description (among other verses) has led biblical literalists to believe in a so-called “rapture,” where people will be snatched to heaven in a moments notice.
A LOOK AT MATTHEW 24
I want to address this text in particular to point out the folly in our fairly well intended dooms-dayers, but also want to get to what I believe is a major part of the problem: biblical literalism and how to read the Bible. Now, it’s hard to ignore the consistent belief among Christians from the time of Christ onward that he will indeed return again some day to “put the world back to rights” again. Yet when and how cannot and should not so easily be determined. Let’s take our “rapture” verse in Matthew 24. Amidst Family Radio’s mathematical concoction of the May 21st deadline (something that I don’t even want to dignify with a response), Matthew says, “Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.” The “therefore” is the key here. Jesus is making the point to his rhetoric: be ready, cause you don’t know when it will be. The field workers and the grain mill ladies in the earlier verses serve as examples of a literary device that Jesus uses quite often called prophetic hyperbole. Simply put, it’s language to make a point…much like an exaggeration or superfluous phrases. And the main point of Jesus message has gotten completely lost on our dooms-dayers, something I find very strange from people who take the Bible literally. We’re not meant to know the time…point taken…thank you Jesus.
“THE BIBLE TELLS ME SO…”
But like I said, there’s a larger issue to address: how to read Scripture. First, I believe that the living core of the Christian faith was revealed in Scripture as the inspirational word of God. Not too long ago I had serious questions with Scripture as the inspirational word of God, but I came to learn that I simply didn’t understand the word “inspiration.” Scripture is the story of how God intervened in the lives of human beings in order that they (and we) might know more of God’s character. In this light, it means nothing that there are grammatical or typographical errors in Hebrew texts. Nor does it bother me that history or geography may be lined up incorrectly. God did not write the Bible. Rather, God inspired and moved through the hearts of authors in order that they may write down what God was revealing to them in their context of life. Through the testimony of Scripture I am able to learn how God interacts with humankind, thus revealing God’s character and concern. In that light, it’s safe to say that Jesus’ message about the end times was to simply challenge us to be watchful and ready…not bad advice no matter when the end of days will actually happen.