A HOPEFUL ESCHATOLOGY
Imparting Faith Not Fear
In this article, we look at why the Gospel of the Kingdom produces a hopeful eschatology, one that imparts faith not fear, stirring catalytic hope not fatalistic despair.
[Summary opens in a pop-up lightbox]
What is Eschatology?
The Kingdom message is good news. Fantastic news.
In Christ, we are reunited with the Father and restored as custodians of this earth. God’s original plan revealed in Genesis 1:26-28 is now made possible through the Gospel.
Our task now as the ekklesia is to faithfully steward the earth and advance the Kingdom of God until Jesus returns.
The question is, does Jesus return to rescue a defeated church barely holding out against the unrestrained flood of evil … or does His return consummate the rising tide of righteousness established through the faithful and fruitful work of a prevailing ekklesia?
This brings up the topic of eschatology.
Eschatology is simply the study of “last things” or “last days.” The word stems from the Greek word eschatos meaning “final.” But yes, there is nothing simple about this area of study.
It ought to be simple. It could be simple.
Jesus taught us to pray,
Our Father … Your Kingdom come … on earth as it is in heaven.”
(Matthew 6:9, 10, italics added)
If we believe Jesus meant these words, if we believe He intended us to pray for God’s Kingdom to manifest on earth as it is in heaven and to then work towards aligning earth with God’s will, eschatology becomes very simple. Inspiring and hopeful.
And importantly, it then remains consistent with the apostles’ teachings, the views of the early church fathers and the perspectives of the great reformers in church history such as Luther, Wesley and the like.
To put it bluntly, Jesus gave us a job. He’s returning when we’ve finished the job.
However, and this may surprise you, the more convoluted view so popular today only emerged in the middle of the nineteenth century from the teachings of a former Anglican preacher, John Nelson Darby (1800-1882), who founded a new denomination called the Exclusive Brethren in England.
Without doubt, Darby’s teachings would have gone largely unnoticed had his escapist eschatology not been published in The Scofield Reference Bible in 1909.
Due to the cleverness and success of Cyrus I. Scofield’s study Bible, some of the significant Bible colleges in America, including the Moody Bible Institute and Dallas Theological Seminary, chose Darby’s dispensational theology at the core of their end-times curriculum. This transpired even though it’s not consistent with the apostles’ teachings and neither the early church fathers nor the reformers taught dispensational concepts.
It’s simply staggering how popular and entrenched this “modern” dispensational viewpoint has become despite its lack of historical credentials.
From the 1970 book The Late, Great Planet Earth by Hal Lindsey, to the 1972 movie A Thief in the Night, and to the more recent Left Behind book series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, which has sold close to 80 million copies and spurned four movies, this fear-based dispensationalist viewpoint captured the culture’s collective appetite for conspiracy theories, drama and histrionics. Against the backdrop of The Cold War and the paranoia around the end of the twentieth century, mainstream Christianity swallowed it hook, line and sinker.
While there are a number of variations within dispensationalism, which generally hinge around when one factors in the “rapture”, they all promote a fatalistic, escapist eschatology. What’s more, the simplicity of the get-the-job-done Kingdom mandate is obscured by these arcane, esoteric theories that require self-proclaimed end-times gurus to expound and explain.
In sharp contrast, the Kingdom message inflames our hearts with hopeful expectancy, inspiring us with the sublime privilege we have in cooperating with an ever-increasing, advancing Kingdom here on this earth.
For unto us a Child is born,
Unto us a Son is given;
And the government will be upon His shoulder.
And His name will be called
Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of His government and peace
There will be no end,
Upon the throne of David and over His kingdom,
To order it and establish it with judgment and justice
From that time forward, even forever.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this.”
(Isaiah 9:6, 7, italics added)
So, let’s look at why eschatology matters.
Why Does it Matter?
While a large portion of Christendom continues to obsess over left-behind eschatology, another significant portion is left benumbed by the cry-wolf mania of the last hundred plus years. For many in this camp, eschatology is best avoided and often dismissed in statements like, “I’m pan millennial. Everything will simply pan out it in the end.”
However, as tempting as it may be to bag the whole concept, eschatology matters, and it matters for at least two reasons.
On the one hand, Biblical hope is tied to the return of Jesus. Yes, we cannot properly understand Biblical hope without a Kingdom eschatology.
Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”
(Hebrews 11:1, italics added)
This is a frequently misquoted verse. It’s often used as a description of the way faith works and it’s frequently used in prosperity theology circles as the “formula” for activating faith to get what you want. This completely misses the point the writer to the Hebrews was making.
Hebrews 11, often called the Hall of Faith, describes those in the Old Testament who lived heroically in hopeful expectancy of the (first) coming of the Messiah.
After first raising the topic of the return of Jesus (10:35-39), the writer to the Hebrews recounts example after example of those who courageously lived by a faith anchored in hope of the coming Messiah (11:1-39). In this sense, Biblical hope is not “wishful thinking” but an earnest expectancy in an indubitable, forthcoming reality. The writer then calls us to run our race fuelled by the unequivocal hope of Jesus’ return (12:1, 2).
The entire point of the chapter is to motivate us to now live heroically in this age fuelled with the hopeful expectancy of Jesus’ return.
Biblical hope is tied to the return of Christ. We live in hope because He will return. Thus, eschatology anchored in hope—not fear—is a critical component of the Kingdom message.
On the other hand, eschatology matters because it informs how we approach and apply the Message of Jesus to the times in which we live.
I once read that Sam Harris, infamously considered America’s leading atheist, said:
“We have a society in which 44% of the people claim to be either certain or confident that Jesus is going to come back out of the clouds and judge the living and the dead sometime in the next 50 years. It just seems transparently obvious that this is a belief that will do nothing to create a durable civilisation. And I think it’s time someone spoke about it.”
(Interview with Steve Paulson, The Disbeliever, 7 July 2006)
Of course, I first got defensive. Then, after the blood rush to the head subsided, I found myself challenged by his comments. Worse was to follow. I had to agree, he had a valid point.
If we believe everything is going to get worse and worse; if everything’s going to come apart at the seams, why bother doing anything at all? Why not just wait-it-out, survive it, escape it? Actually, if this is our end-times worldview, wouldn’t it be more logical to hasten the end by allowing (or even helping) things to get worse? While that would be ridiculous, it would be consistent with a fatalistic perspective…
…but totally contrary to the Message of Jesus.
Our eschatology affects and informs how we approach the Kingdom mandate.
The early believers certainly lived in hopeful expectancy of Jesus’ imminent return—even a casual reader of the New Testament would come to this conclusion. Of course, He didn’t come that soon … over 2,000 years later and we’re still here. Were they deceived?
The apostolic writers exhorted the early church to live large for God anticipating His second coming. Were they also deceived … or worse, were they being manipulative? Did they use this teaching to compel the early believers to a certain way of life even though they knew it wasn’t going to happen?
No, they were neither deceived nor deceptive.
They understood something we by and large don’t.
It was Peter, who said it best,
Therefore, since all these things will be dissolved, what manner of persons ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness, looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God.”
(2 Peter 3:11, 12, italics added)
He urged us to not merely “look for” but to actually “hasten” the coming of Christ—to intentionally live in such a way as to usher in God’s expressed will on earth as it is in heaven. For the early believers, anticipating Christ’s return was a gripping attitude of expectancy.
Filled with this hopeful eschatological attitude, the early church lived with a mesmerising sense of destiny and a riveting sense of responsibility. They lived believing that they could be, not necessarily would be, the generation for which Jesus returned.
Read that last sentence again because it explains why the early believers were not deceived and why the apostles were not deceptive.
Jesus gave them a job. They gave themselves to completing the job knowing Jesus would return at the culmination of it. If their generation wasn’t able to finish the job, they hoped to serve as the foundation upon which the next generation would get closer to mission accomplished. This is one of the core applications of the Hebrew value of fathers and sons (a gender-neutral phrase) which animates both Old and New Testaments. It’s captured so well in Paul’s instruction to Timothy:
And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others.”
(2 Timothy 2:2 NIV)
That’s four (spiritual) generations: Paul → Timothy → Reliable People → Others
And thus, line by line, generation to generation, they transformed the all-powerful Roman Empire from the bottom up with compassion and grace, heroically opposing social injustice and oppression—and wicked social ills such as infanticide—sacrificially healing and selflessly feeding the poor, marginalised and needy. In doing so, they turned the Empire on its head. Today, we call our sons Peter, James and John. And we call our dogs, Caesar, Brutus and Nero.
Digging in for the long haul, they embraced their Kingdom mandate as custodians of the planet and built a beachhead upon which, if Jesus tarried, the next generation could achieve more.
Nurturing this hopeful eschatology, the early believers avoided the fatalistic ideology that Harris correctly, in my opinion, chides our generation for.
They transformed their world, creating a “durable civilisation”—to use Harris’s words—and so much so that their heroic example inspired much of what is good and sustainable about our civilisation 2,000 years later.
In contrast, gripped by fear and fatalism, we’ve turned this raw and robust attitude of expectancy into a convoluted timeline of end-times events.
We anticipate everything getting progressively worse until things are so bleak, the return of Christ amounts to a rescue job, evacuating a browbeaten church from this God-forsaken planet, whipping us off to heavenly bliss, leaving the unbelieving on earth to be nuked along with the planet’s destruction. (Or something to this effect, various timing of the rapture notwithstanding).
Too frequently, Western believers in the twenty-first century default on their Kingdom mandate, banking instead on escape. Well, why bother if we blow this joint in the nick of time and we’re absolved from any responsibility for the planet? Isn’t ol’ terra firma headed for the incinerator anyway?
By turning eschatology into a date we speculate about or a prescribed order of events to debate over, we gravitate to fatalism, marked by resignation, cynicism and despair. We become defeatist and prone to conspiracy theories. We fail as witnesses of the Message of Jesus, neglect our responsibilities as custodians of this planet and botch our Kingdom mandate.
However, gripped with an eschatological expectancy, we become catalytic.
A hopeful eschatology acknowledges that while evil people will continue to get worse and worse (2 Timothy 3:13), in a redemptive backlash of abounding grace (Romans 5:20), Jesus envisioned a prevailing ekklesia against which the kingdoms of this world fail (Matthew 16:18).
This Kingdom-advancing juggernaut of compassion, humility and service cooperates with God’s express intention to bring heaven to earth, manifesting His will on this planet (Matthew 6:9, 10; 16:19).
Jesus is coming back for His Bride, a glorious bride in her prime: “without spot or wrinkle” (Ephesians 5:27). His return consummates the increasingly fruitful work achieved by the ekklesia. Jesus comes back for a generation who has finished the job.
And in returning, King Jesus establishes His Kingdom in fullness on planet earth.
We’re not escaping, we’re taking responsibility. We’re not evacuating; we’re fulfilling our God-given destiny to steward the earth.
Why does this matter?
Our eschatology affects and informs how we approach the Kingdom mandate. With a fearful eschatology, we shirk our responsibility and shrink from opportunity.
With a hopeful eschatology, we seize the day and steward the planet.
“Hang on a minute Craig, explain yourself!”
Okay, let’s do that, one question at a time.
- What’s the Parousia of Christ?
- What Does the “Last Days” Mean?
- What Signs Point to the End?
- Who’s Left Behind?
- What Happens to Planet Earth?
- What is a Biblical Response?
What’s the Parousia of Christ?
The New Testament does not actually use the phrase, “the return of Christ”. Rather, it refers to His “coming,” a Greek word (parousia) used to describe the official coming or arrival of an emperor or a king. In the ancient world, according to Light from the Ancient East by Adolf Deissmann, the arrival of royalty was accompanied with a celebration of his sovereign rule and often, new eras were started from the date of the parousia.
The Parousia of Christ then refers to the arrival of the King whose return is celebrated and whose coming consummates the present age, ushering in the “age to come”—the age inaugurated in Christ’s Parousia.
The implication is that King Jesus is returning to celebrate the fulfilment of our mandate, and in so doing, to establish His Kingdom in fullness on earth.
Hence, we’re to prepare for the King’s return not our own escape. In gripping expectancy, we’re to plan for occupation not bank on evacuation.
What Does the “Last Days” Mean?
The Bible does not use the phrase, “the end times”—the closest is Paul’s statement: “upon whom the ends of the ages have come” (1 Corinthians 10:11).
Instead, the Bible uses the phrase, “the last days”.
The first time it’s used in the New Testament is when Peter quotes the prophet Joel:
And it shall come to pass in the last days, says God, that I will pour out of My Spirit on all flesh.”
Then several other phrases also refer to the urgency required ahead of the coming of Christ.
- Paul spoke of “the last days” (2 Timothy 3:1) and “in latter times” (1 Timothy 4:1).
- Peter also used the phrase, “the last days” (2 Peter 3:3).
- John referred to “the last hour” (2 John 2:18).
- The writer to the Hebrews said, “God … has in these last days spoken to us by His Son” (Hebrews 1:1, 2).
- Jude refers to the teaching of apostles concerning “in the last time” showing that an essential part of the apostles’ teaching concerned eschatological passion (Jude 17, 18).
So, what time period does “the last days” then refer to?
The phrase “the last days” refers to the church age; the time period between the first and second coming of Christ. In other words, we are in the last days today just as Paul and the gang were in the last days in the first century.
Some use the phrase, “the last of the last days” implying that we are living at the edge of time; that is, the return of Christ is imminently imminent. While this is not necessarily wrong—“But of that day and hour no one knows,” explained Jesus (Matthew 24:36)—it’s important to note that the phrase, “the last of the last days” is a modern, speculative phrase.
To live as truly eschatological people means that we’re animated with a hopeful expectancy whether we feel we’re in the last of the last days, or perhaps just at some point in the last days’ unfolding.
In fact, living as an eschatological people means we don’t concern ourselves with a fatalistic linear timeline of events; rather, we live as Kingdom stewards knowing we’ll give an account to the King upon His return.
We both “look for and hasten the coming of the day of God” (2 Peter 3:11, 12).
We live every day in light of that Day.
What Signs Point to the End?
In Matthew 24, one of the questions Jesus answered concerned the end of the age. Jesus said,
You will hear wars and rumours of wars … nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. And there will be famines, pestilences, and earthquakes in various places.”
(Matthew 24:6, 7)
It is these “signs of the times” that usually get so much airtime. I have personally sat in seminars that have detailed to the nth degree myriad affairs on the world stage; events in the Middle East; changing weather patterns; world-wide disasters; global economics and politics, blah, blah, blah … as definitive indications that the end is upon us. Because of this, many believers find it almost ingrained in their psyche to view headline events on the global stage as decisive pointers to the end of the age.
However, Jesus’ words sandwiched in the middle of these verses listing headline events are emphatic.
See that you are not troubled; for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet.”
(Matthew 24:6, italics added)
Don’t gloss over these words.
Jesus told us not to be troubled by these things. He implied that nations in conflict and natural disasters are very much part and parcel of this present age (v. 8). And He made it clear, despite the proliferation of these headline-grabbing issues, the end is not yet.
Yes, the end of this age does not hinge on these alleged “signs of the times”.
And it’s worth pointing out that Jesus kicked off this discussion by saying,
Take heed that no one deceives you.”
The Greek word “deceive” (planao) doesn’t refer to blatant deception but speaks of deception by degree. It’s a passive word meaning to wander off-course. For example, imagine a sea captain who, in taking an initial reading of his destination, mistakes his aim by one degree. He’ll end up missing his mark by hundreds of kilometres.
Focusing primarily on global events is not merely a distraction to avoid, it quickly becomes a fixation that misleads us entirely from what ought to occupy our attention. In so doing, we become anxious, fretful and shrink back from our day of opportunity.
If the usual “signs of the times” aren’t the focal point, what should occupy our attention?
We need not scratch our heads on the matter. Again, Jesus answered it emphatically. He revealed the single factor upon which the end of this age hinges:
And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come.”
(Matthew 24:14, italics added)
Did you see that? And then the end will come.
When the Gospel of the Kingdom is preached as a witness to all the nations, then the end will come.
Importantly, notice that Jesus was not merely referring to the proclamation of the Gospel. As we unpacked in A Magnanimous Orthodoxy, A Witness to All Nations, He referred to the demonstration of the Gospel.
Jesus didn’t just say the Gospel will be proclaimed as a word (or a message or a tract or a podcast); He declared the Gospel will be proclaimed as a “witness to all nations”. (Of course, messages, tracts and podcasts are helpful tools but they’re not the endgame.)
In other words, the focus is the job Jesus gave to us: embodying His Message with authenticity of character and good works that glorify the Father.
With single-mindedness, our attention ought to centre on the Kingdom mandate, as we remain vigilantly undistracted by events upon the world stage. Of course, this isn’t an excuse for being ignorant of what’s happening. It never did help the ostrich to bury its head in the sand when the lion charged.
It goes without saying that to offer solutions to the problems vexing the world requires keeping up to date with the facts. Without being properly informed, we cannot hope to provide Kingdom answers to things like hunger and malnutrition, water and sanitation, lack of education and communicable diseases, climate change and environmental abuse, population and migration, economic dysfunctions and disparities, racism and prejudice, abusive governance and corruption, and war and conflict. (This is certainly not an exhaustive list. I’ve simply collated it from the Copenhagen Consensus and the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals.)
Seeking solutions with up-to-date information is very much part of the job Jesus gave to us as custodians of this earth. We ought to be informed, even alert, but not alarmed.
In contrast, an obsession with global affairs and an alleged end-times order of events has led to crippling conjecture, chronic speculation and debilitating paranoia, distracting the church from her mandate and deceiving many from playing their part in contending for a better future now.
Who’s Left Behind?
As you’re no doubt aware, a popular version of the end times includes the moment when believers are raptured from the earth while unbelievers are left behind on earth amid the tumult and chaos of the antichrist.
So, in using the hackneyed phrase “left behind” and answering the question, Who’s Left Behind?, I’m not merely poking a gaping hole in this end-times theory. The purpose is to show how easy it is to jump to wrong conclusions and to encourage a valid questioning of preconceived assumptions.
Okay, explanation aside, let’s look at who’s left behind…
Continuing His discourse in Matthew 24, Jesus likened His coming to “the days of Noah” (v. 37). Remember Genesis, Chapters 6 and 7? God flooded the world to remove the ungodly in judgement.
Jesus taught that just as,
…the flood came and took them all away…”
(Matthew 24:39, italics added)
…at His coming,
…two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left.”
(Matthew 24:40, italics added)
So, who is taken away?
The unrepentant, the ungodly.
And who is left behind?
So, why do so many incorrectly conclude that the believer is taken away (in the rapture) while the unbeliever is left behind on earth? (We know the reason: a clever-sounding but wrong theory caught the escapist imagination of twentieth-century Christianity.)
It’s clear that Jesus implied the exact opposite in this passage.
Just as the flood came and took the ungodly away in Noah’s time, the ungodly will be taken away at His coming. And taken away metaphorically refers to God’s righteous judgement that the unrepentant face.
In Jesus’ explanation of the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares, He again made it clear that the tares, “the sons of the wicked one”, are the ones taken away—this time using phrases like “gathered” and “gathered out”.
He who sows the good seed is the Son of Man. The field is the world, the good seeds are the sons of the kingdom, but the tares are the sons of the wicked one. The enemy who sowed them is the devil, the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are the angels. Therefore as the tares are gathered and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of this age.
The Son of Man will send out His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all things that offend, and those who practice lawlessness, and will cast them into the furnace of fire. There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears to hear, let him hear!”
(Matthew 13:24-30; 36-43, italics added)
It’s unwise to draw dogmatic conclusions from a parable, especially one loaded with so much metaphoric language. For instance, a “furnace of fire” and “wailing and gnashing of teeth” does not denote torture or punishment, as some suppose. Rather, the former speaks of purification and implies remedial chastisement, and the latter refers to feelings of anguish and bitter regret. (See John’s Lake of Fire in our article What Does Gehenna Mean?)
That said, this parable certainly affirms that, if anyone is left behind, it’s not the ungodly. In fact, the imagery of the righteous shining forth “as the sun in the kingdom of their Father” speaks powerfully of God’s Kingdom establish on earth consummated through the Parousia of Christ.
It’s amazing how the plain reading of these passages perplex so many people who just assumed the left-behind drama was a Biblical doctrine.
Do yourself a favour and read Matthew 24:36-42 for yourself:
But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, but My Father only. But as the days of Noah were, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be. For as in the days before the flood, they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark, and did not know until the flood came and took them all away, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be. Then two men will be in the field: one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding at the mill: one will be taken and the other left. Watch therefore, for you do not know what hour your Lord is coming.”
Don’t like my translation? Use this tool to read the passage in multiple translations: Bible Hub.
It’s staggering how many believe a “left behind” dispensational theory of the rapture based on a book or a movie when Jesus’ words were clear on the issue all this time. Of course, this has ramifications for how one views the coming of Christ and the rapture. The bumper sticker warning, “In case of rapture, this car will be unmanned” now looks as silly as it is cheesy.
I wonder if the Left Behind authors offer refunds given the entire premise of their series of 16 books (and four movies) is built on an entirely incorrect reading of this passage?
All joking aside, remember that Jesus began this discourse saying,
Take heed that no deceives you.”
Few ideas are more deceiving than the notion that the ungodly are left behind when the redeemed are evacuated from a God-forsaken earth. It’s at complete odds with the Kingdom message, as it foments a fearful and defeatist escapism.
So, who’s left behind (to use this trite phrase)?
The redeemed are left behind, as they celebrate the coming of their King and the age inaugurated by His return.
What Happens to Planet Earth?
Due to entrenched dispensationalism, when asking believers what happens at the coming of Christ, the answers tend to include the destruction of the earth. For some, Jesus takes the redeemed to heaven forever and the earth is incinerated. Others mention that, after nuking the earth, God creates a brand new one. Either way, many believers anticipate the wholesale destruction of planet earth.
Both Peter and John refer to the glorious promise of a new heaven and new earth (2 Peter 3:13; Revelation 21:1). So, the question is, what happens to the old earth?
First, let’s remind ourselves that
The earth is the Lord’s, and all its fullness,
The world and those who dwell therein.”
The earth is the Lord’s, and when He made it, He declared it was good (Genesis 1).
Any teaching that claims God intends to destroy the earth must first run headlong into this truth.
The clearest indication of what might be in the mind of God comes from the word “new” in “new earth” and the phrase “had passed away” in “the first earth had passed away” (Revelation 21:1).
The word “new” (Greek: kainos) is the same word used to describe who we are now in Christ: “a new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17). And the phrase “had passed away” is the exact same description of our old life before Christ: “old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.”
Compare them side by side:
Now I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away…”
(Revelation 21:1, italics added)
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.”
(2 Corinthians 5:17, italics added)
The Greek word used for “new” in both these verses refers to a new form or quality, not to a new time or season (as the Greek word neos does). In other words, it’s not referring to something that is brand-new, never-before seen in existence; rather, it refers to something reformed and restored to its original purpose.
When we become a new creation by His grace, we aren’t re-created completely from scratch; instead, we’re redeemed and restored. Surely, in the same way that we become a new creation through the redemptive act of God, the earth will become a new earth through God’s redeeming power? He will judge the systems (kingdoms) of this world (Revelation 11:15) and remove the curse of sin from the earth.
In response to this Revelation, John declared in wide-eyed wonder:
And there shall be no more curse.”
What’s more, John’s Revelation concludes with heaven and earth becoming one (Revelation 21:1-27); that is, the separation between God’s abode and fallen earth is removed, and the harmony of Eden’s garden is reimagined (Revelation 22:1-4). Of course, care must be taken to avoid jumping to literal conclusions of John’s graphic symbolism (as with Peter’s metaphoric language in 2 Peter 3:10-13). However, the overwhelming sense of restoration is tangible.
Think about all the words in the Bible that begin with the prefix “re-,” meaning, “to go back.” Revive, restore, redeem, repent, regenerate, renew, refresh, refine, reconcile, rebuild, repair and resurrect are a heap that come to mind. They all refer to God taking us and His creation back to something original. God’s not going to nuke the earth; He’s set on restoring it.
The “earth is the Lord’s” after all (Psalm 24:1). And He’s going to ask us to give account for our stewardship of His earth, entrusted to us from the beginning (Genesis 1:26-28).
The real question is, to what degree does He expect us to participate now, in this present age, with His restoration plan for the earth?
What’s a Biblical Response?
While it’s tempting to offer a few valid alternate ways to view the end times unfolding, doing so in this article will only serve to muddy the waters and detract from our goal of keeping our focus on the Message of Jesus.
The question of what our Biblical response to all this end-times chatter looks like is critical.
If a hopeful eschatology isn’t about a convoluted timeline of end-times events but an attitude of expectation, what is an appropriate response? What is our responsibility?
Jesus answered this question in an intimate discussion with His disciples in Matthew 24:36-51, and He offered two points that are important to hold in tension with one another. Let’s look at each in turn. The first point is found in this passage:
But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, but My Father only. But as the days of Noah were, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be. For as in the days before the flood, they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark, and did not know until the flood came and took them all away, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be. Then two men will be in the field: one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding at the mill: one will be taken and the other left. Watch therefore, for you do not know what hour your Lord is coming. But know this, that if the master of the house had known what hour the thief would come, he would have watched and not allowed his house to be broken into. Therefore you also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.”
(Matthew 24:36-44, italics added)
Jesus stated emphatically, “no one knows” the day and hour of His return, “but My Father only”. It seems silly that He then repeated it twice more but even that was not enough. Too many doomsday soothsayers suggest they know better. Who can forget the best-selling book entitled, 88 Reasons why the Rapture will be in 1988?
When the year 1988 passed, there was no retraction and the author made no apology for crying wolf. But there was another book. The Final Shout: Rapture Report 1989. Fortunately, there was no sequel in 1990. (There was again sadly no apology either).
Jesus was crystal clear: “you also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect”.
Thus, the first crucial point is this:
#1 We are to live faithful lives expecting Him to come at any moment.
How would you live if you knew Jesus was returning today? What wrongs would you right? What grievances would you settle? Who would you forgive? Who would you seek forgiveness from?
Then do it! Do it today.
We are to live this day and every day in anticipation of that Day.
The second point is found in the subsequent passage:
Who then is a faithful and wise servant, whom his master made ruler over his household, to give them food in due season? Blessed is that servant whom his master, when he comes, will find so doing. Assuredly, I say to you that he will make him ruler over all his goods.”
(Matthew 24:45-47, italics added)
Jesus then defined His followers as stewards of His household, who faithfully and wisely use the time they have before His return. He said, “Blessed is that servant whom his master, when he comes, will find so doing”.
Thus, the second crucial point is this:
#2 We are to live faith-filled lives realising that He may not come in our lifetime.
How would you live if you knew Jesus was returning in your children’s children’s generation? What would you build to ensure your progeny inherited a better world? What would you study to ensure you’re most equipped to make the best of your time on earth for humanity’s sake? What injustices would you challenge or problems would you solve to make a better future now? What part can you play to align this world a little more closely to God’s Kingdom?
Then get started. Today!
We are to selflessly serve our generation so that we leave a legacy for the next generation to go further in fulfilling our Kingdom mandate should He tarry. Jesus gave us a job and every generation has a role to play in getting that job done.
Our Twofold Response
Therefore, what we essentially learn from Jesus’ instructions about our response to a hopeful eschatology are these two simple but profound lessons:
- We are to live faithful and humble lives expecting Him to come at any moment.
- We are to live faith-filled and fruitful lives should He not come in our lifetime.
These are salient issues. While balancing the tension between these two statements is often a challenge, amid so much end-times mania, we must not forget these two crucial bottom-line truths that Jesus taught us. More than anything else, whatever version of the end-times we hold to, it ought to lead us to this two-pronged conclusion.
It’s telling that Jesus followed up these two-fold instructions with two parables that press home their urgency. Firstly, he told the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins (Matthew 25:1-13), urging Response #1:
Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour in which the Son of Man is coming.”
Secondly, he told the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30), urging Response #2:
Well done, good and faithful servant; you were faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things. Enter into the joy of your lord.”
Biblical, hope-filled teaching on the return of Jesus enables us to live with expectancy as we balance these two core convictions, empowering us to cooperate with God’s unfolding Kingdom plan in this present age, “then the end will come” (Matthew 14:14).
Whether we find ourselves in the last of the last days or simply somewhere in the last days’ unfolding, we have a job to do. It’s as simple and elementary as that.
Faithful to God and fruitful with all He has entrusted to us, we’re inspired and enlarged by a hopeful eschatology.
What About the Rapture?
Up to this point, I’ve tried to stay true to the primary message concerning the coming of Jesus. Now, let’s look at a secondary, more speculative implication of His teaching—especially after debunking the left behind fallacy.
Firstly, a warning. In this section, my goal is to stir thought; not so that I twist your arm to agree with me, but in the hopes that you’ll be more open-minded about alternate interpretations. The more gracious we become in non-essential issues, the more aligned we become on essential ones.
And this is a non-essential matter. (Yes, it’s important because it affects how we think and live but it’s not essential to our common faith. That is, we’re free to have different opinions over the matter.)
There are several ways to view the rapture, but they fall into two main categories depending on whether you read Jesus’ and Paul’s words literally or figuratively.
Okay, let’s look at the word itself.
The word “rapture” does not actually appear in the Bible; rather, it comes from the Latin translation, simul rapiemur cum illis, of the Greek form of harpazo. The word in Greek means, “to seize” or “to take by force” and it’s interestingly used in two other places: of Philip’s sudden disappearance from the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26-40) and of Paul’s transcendent experience of the third heaven or Paradise (2 Corinthians 12:2, 4).
On the basis of these passages, the word was used to describe the supernatural transposing of a person from one plane to another, a spacetime shift in reality as we know it.
Thus, the “rapture” may either refer to a space-in-time relocation or a space-and-time transformation. Both are possibilities. And while I’m not going to arm wrestle you over it, the beyond-comprehension transformation of our current earth into a new earth and our current bodies into resurrected bodies means I lean towards the latter.
As mentioned, Paul used Greek phrases derived from the same word (harpazo), translated “caught up”, in 1 Thessalonians 4:17 and 2 Corinthians 12:2, 4. Compare them together:
Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.”
(1 Thessalonians 4:17, italics added)
“…such a one [speaking of himself] was caught up to the third heaven … he was caught up into Paradise.”
(2 Corinthians 12:2, 4, emphasis added)
It seems obvious to me that just as Paul wasn’t airlifted, as some see the rapture, from the ground to the upper thermals of the earth’s atmosphere in his experience of the third heaven (Paradise), the rapture speaks of a dynamic, supernatural transformation or transition as God consummates His Kingdom on a restored new earth.
According to Jesus…
Let’s now look at the language Jesus used of His Parousia.
Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And He will send His angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.”
(Matthew 24:29-31, italics added)
With a backdrop of darkened heavenly bodies, falling stars and shaking heavens, Jesus described His coming on the clouds of heaven, an event witnessed by all the people on the earth at the same moment (c. Revelation 1:7)—followed by an angelic trumpet blast to gather His elect from the four winds.
It goes without saying that the conclusions you reach will be shaped by whether you read this literally or figuratively.
As the literal interpretation is more popular (specifically that Jesus will ride in on clouds), allow me to explain the figurative interpretation. In fact, let me start with a few questions.
With time zone differences, when and where does Jesus show up in the world? If he picks 9:00 PM New York time, He’ll catch the Londoners fast asleep given it’ll be 2:00 AM in London.
Will Jesus get help from the media to broadcast His arrival, as some quite absurdly suggest? Will He need to hang out on late-night television in the USA waiting for those in Europe to wake up and turn on CNN.
Yes, I’m being silly but a literal reading is hard to square in the face of a few practical questions.
The references to cosmic turmoil—“the sun will be darkened … the moon will not give its light … stars will fall … heavens will be shaken”—is surely a metaphoric way of alluding to something gloriously mind-boggling, something that almost defies imagination. Of course, we immediately recognise the phrase “from the four winds” as figuratively referring to every direction. Yet we struggle to apply the same logic to say, “the clouds of heaven with power and great glory”.
Is the reference to the clouds literally swirls of water-vapour? Or is it a powerful metaphor for the glory of God, as it’s consistently used throughout the New Testament?
Perhaps Jesus had already clarified what He meant by clouds when He stated in an earlier passage,
For the Son of Man will come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and then He will reward each according to his works.”
(Matthew 16:27, italics added)
Allowing Scripture to interpret Scripture, it’s reasonable to conclude that Jesus had the glory of His Father in mind when He spoke of metaphorical clouds of heaven.
According to Paul…
Let’s now turn to the language Paul used. First, a little context to his first letter to the Thessalonians.
The believers in Thessalonica were confused and concerned about those who had died before Jesus’ coming. They had received the Gospel message from Paul and had caught his eschatological passion. There is no doubt they lived with the divine hope of Christ’s return.
They were dismayed when Jesus appeared to tarry and some of their believing friends died before His return. Perhaps making the mistake of turning an eschatological attitude into a date on the calendar, they were concerned: “What happens to our brothers and sisters? Are they going to miss the return of Jesus?”
In his first letter to the Thessalonians, Paul includes an answer to ease these unnecessary fears and in so doing, highlights some realities of Christ’s return.
But I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep, lest you sorrow as others who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus.
For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who are asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus, we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words.”
(1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, italics added)
Again, our conclusions depend on whether we read these words literally or figuratively.
Paul uses “sleep” as an obvious euphemism for death. We immediately understand that we don’t literally lie comatose between death and the Parousia (even though some do teach the concept of “soul sleep”). Yet it’s harder for many to see the references to trumpets, clouds and air figuratively.
If pressed, I guess most might concede that the “trumpet of God” is symbolic; to Paul’s audience, it spoke of an alert, an alarm, a calling to attention. However, for many, the phrase “in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air” is harder to see metaphorically.
So, let’s first look at the phrases, “descend from heaven” and “rise first”.
These phrases are not necessarily literal statements meaning Jesus is coming-down-from-the-sky versus us going-up-from-the-ground. Biblical phrases like these—and others such as “on high” and “in heaven”—are used to express metaphorically the Majesty and Sovereignty of God. That is, He is “above” and “beyond” the human experience; the Biblical writers used these phrases to stress our dependence on Him.
In another example, Paul explained that believers are “raised” to “walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4). He was clearly talking metaphorically; he didn’t mean we levitate above our natural bodies defying gravity—unless “getting saved” today is different from first-century conversion. The word “raised” is a metaphor; yes, a metaphor loaded with profound and awesome implications about our new life in Christ, but a metaphor, nonetheless. No one reads the phrase literally, yet many struggle to apply the same logic to the phrase “the dead in Christ will rise first”.
Okay, let’s look at the words “cloud” and “air”.
As we asked when looking at Jesus’ use of the word clouds, are these words really referring to the upper thermals of the atmosphere? Are we really going to sit on puffs of concentrated water vapour?
When Jesus was transfigured on the mount (Matthew 17:1ff), a “bright cloud overshadowed them” as God’s glory visibly touched the disciples and transformed Christ (vv. 2, 5). This was surely a reference to the glory of God, not a puffy mass of water vapour that had resisted the sun’s rays that morning.
When Paul described the devil as “the prince of the power of the air” (Ephesians 2:2) was he picturing a horny beast flying through the upper altitudes of the earth’s atmosphere? Or was he using the word “air” as a synonym for the “heavenly places” (Ephesians 1:3, 20; 2:6; 3:10; 6:12), a key revelation in this epistle to the Ephesians?
Do I believe in the rapture? Absolutely!
I just read these verses metaphorically not literally knowing that in the ancient world, not influenced by our modernistic mindset, it was customary to use graphic, figurative imagery to convey ideas, especially ideas that boggled the mind.
In Christ Triumphant, Thomas Allin reminded us,
The whole Bible is Oriental. Every line breathes the spirit of the East, with its hyperboles and metaphors, and what to us seem utter exaggerations. If such language be taken literally, its whole meaning is lost. When the sacred writers want to describe the dusky redness of a lunar eclipse, they say the moon is turned into blood. He who perverts Scripture is not the man who reduces this sacred poetry to its true meaning. Nay, that man perverts the Bible who hardens into dogmas the glowing metaphors of Eastern poetry…”
So, I allow these captivating passages to stir my imagination, to impact my senses, to cause me to wonder and marvel. I imagine something that spacetime can’t contain and that my mind can’t properly fathom.
My heart beats, my mind spins and I find myself whispering praises.
Drawing dogmatic iron-clad conclusions isn’t the goal.
In fact, how it all unfolds exactly is not even the point. It’s largely a mystery, a present we’ll unwrap on that day.
What we do know is that it’s going to be glorious and transcend our natural understanding.
To the Corinthians, Paul explained:
Behold, I tell you a mystery: we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed—in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.”
(1 Corinthians 15:51, 52, italics added)