Are “these” days “those” days?

No! Grammar matters!

“Whenever you hear of wars and reports of wars, do not fear. This must be, but it is not yet the end” (Mark 13:7, my trans.)

I hear and read “end times” talk more lately than I have heard it since the late 1960’s and mid-1970’s. In those days of national (think 1968) and international (think 1968 again) turbulence, the MADD doctrine was still the cornerstone of US strategic planning, no one foresaw the possibility that the Iron Curtain would fall, the United States was awkwardly withdrawing from its misadventure in Indo-China, and, at home, the make-love-not-war, bra-burning, draft card-burning, counter-culture was gaining momentum. Many shared the general sense that, with so many areas of imbalance and contention and with such destructive power waiting to be unleashed, catastrophe was only a slight miscalculation away.

In the part of the church where I grew up, that general sense of fear fueled a rampant apocalyptic expectation. Named the “song of the year” at the inaugural GMA Dove Awards in 1969 as recorded by The Oak Ridge Boys, “Jesus is Coming Soon” warned, or celebrated in the opinion of some, that

Jesus is coming soon, morning or night or noon,/many will meet their doom; trumpets will sound./All of the dead shall rise; righteous meet in the skies;/Going where no one dies; heaven-ward bound.

Incidentally, R.E. Winsett wrote this song in 1942, in the midst of WWII, another time characterized by worldwide turmoil and fear. Also incidentally, next year will be the 50th anniversary of that award and Jesus has not come yet.

There can be little wonder that apocalyptic fervor, fanned by radio and TV preachers like Jack van Impe and mega-church pastors like John Hagee, should resurface now. The Arab-Israeli conflict has escaped its bounds. The end of the Cold War has not brought the international stability everyone expected, but given new impetus to nationalism in the regions of the world formerly part of, or under the influence of, the Soviet Union. In many cases, this nationalism and religious fundamentalism have coalesced in reassertions of regional and cultural identity. Instead of stability, the end of the Cold War stalemate has only brought war – civil and regional conflicts fueled by religious, class, and ethnic differences.

Meanwhile, here in the US, we find ourselves engaged in Culture War II.  As was the case with the armistice that ended WWI, the relative cessation of hostilities in the 1980’s and 1990’s did not resolve any of the issues. Now, some see developments like gay marriage rights and the browning of the population as existential threats and feel that the threats must be met with legal (and sometimes actual) force.

Wars and reports of war.

It seems to me that apocalyptic fervor of the pre-millenialist, Darbian, dispensationalist variety contributes to a number of the theological, ethical, and practical errors that I see at work in the part of the American church I know best. Lately, I have heard echoes of this fervor and seen shadows of those errors in other parts of the church, too. Even mainline and “liberal” Protestants sometimes describe the current state of things in “end times” terms.  I plan to devote several entries to discussions of these effects of apocalyptic fervor. First, however, I want to establish what I think is the most fundamental biblical teaching about apocalypticism, namely that Christians should avoid apocalyptic speculation altogether.

My authority for this claim is Jesus, specifically his response to the four leaders among the disciples’ question about the timing of their teacher’s statement concerning the destruction of the Temple. Some information about historical events in Israel just after Jesus will help to set the backgrounds.  Jesus was probably crucified sometime between 29 and 31CE. Already in Jesus’ day, tensions between the Jews in Israel and their Roman occupiers ran very high. By 66 CE, Jews in the province of Judea had broken out in open rebellion against Rome.  The First Jewish-Roman War that ensued (66-72 CE), during which the Romans did, indeed, destroy the Temple in Jerusalem (70 CE), was but the first of three wars fought between Jews and Rome during the century following Jesus’ death. The suicide pact among the leaders of this rebellion occurred in the famed stronghold at Masada. Many Jews, including Jewish Christians, fled Jerusalem at the time. Bar Kochba, the leader of the third of these rebellions (132-135 CE) claimed to be the Messiah, as had many others around the time of Jesus and shortly thereafter. After Rome defeated this third outbreak, it banned Jews from Jerusalem altogether, refounded the city as Aelia Capitolina, a Roman-Hellenistic center, and appropriated the temple site for the worship of Zeus Olympois.

This information already indicates that when Jesus referred to the destruction of the Temple (Mark 13:2), he must have meant the destruction to occur roughly three decades later. Anything Jesus said in the rest of the discourse recorded in what scholars sometimes call the “Markan Apocalypse” in reference to this destruction manifestly does not apply to the apocalypse, therefore, regardless of the nickname scholars give the chapter.

In fact, a careful reader of the Greek text will note quickly that in the discourse Jesus distinguishes between: signs that will presage and accompany “this”/”these” (touto) event(s), for the most part quite carefully (vv 4-23; Jesus uses “those” in vv 17, 19 somewhat imprecisely, it seems, to refer to the “near” event, i.e. the First Jewish War), on the one hand; and characterizations of  “those days, after that tribulation” (v 24, the turning point in the discourse), on the other. In other words, “this” event, the near event that Jesus had in mind was clearly the First Jewish War, when the Romans destroyed the Temple. This war was disastrous, but not the final war to end wars.  Beginning in v 24, Jesus talked about the apocalypse, describing it in terms of cosmic events no one has ever seen.

To summarize, Jesus warned his listeners that their generation (“this generation,” v 30) would live to see the near events – false Messiahs, wars, earthquakes, famines, martyrdoms, betrayals, the desecration of the temple (v 14), false Christs and false prophets – that accompanied the Jewish Wars and preceded the destruction of the Temple. It is important to remember that the question that Jesus answers here has to do with this destruction. As to “that day” and “that hour,” i.e. the apocalyptic end, Jesus asserted, first, that it was not the imminent catastrophe (the Jewish War), and second, that only God the Father knows its date – Jesus did not know, the angels do not know, even Jesus as the apocalyptic Son of Man does not know (v 32). Finally, Jesus insisted, “that day” will dawn without warning – no signs, no indications, no markers.  Thieves in the night seek to surprise; they do not call attention to their approach. Paul, who seems to have known this saying of Jesus, warned, in fact, that, rather than betraying its arrival through signs, the “day of the Lord” will come precisely when least expected, “when they say, ‘peace and security’” (1 Thess 5:3, my trans.).

The signs pointing to the outbreak of the First Jewish War were fulfilled nearly 2,000 years ago. Jesus (and Paul) said that the final day of the Lord will come entirely without warning.

Therefore, my advice to contemporary Christians is the same as Jesus’s to his disciples and Paul’s to the Thessalonians: “Don’t be caught asleep! Get down to the business of living lives of discipleship! Be the church! Harvest because the fields are white!” Take your eyes off the skies and look to the many thirsty who need something to drink! Quit speculating about signs of the end and speak, instead, about the love of God in Jesus Christ that is no speculation.  If Jesus did not know when the end will come, neither do the likes of van Impe and Hagee. (It is good that we no longer stone false prophets, by the way.)