Lent Reflection – Am I drawn to apocalyptic end-time teaching?

8 min. to read.

Today is the 42nd day of Lent, and Holy Tuesday. This year I’m reading Brian Zahnd’s Lent devotional, The Unvarnished Jesus. I journal on the scripture he’s selected and his reflection, then I post daily (or near-daily) meditation.

Luke 21:5-33 is the scripture today, where Jesus predicts the destruction of the temple in apocalyptic terms..

When Jesus entered Jerusalem, he went to the temple. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus overhears comments about the temple’s beauty which offered an opportunity to comment on its future. The passage that unfolds in Luke’s gospel is one of the most dissected, discussed, and debated in all the gospels. Here Jesus talks about the future and the destruction of the temple in apocalyptic terms.

I grew up in a denomination with tunnel vision regarding texts with any possible end-time application. Studying the details of when and where, timelines, anti-Christs, and end-time persecution was essential for our spiritual preparation. It remains so for many today.

I understand the attraction of pulling back the curtain on the future in a world filled with uncertainty. If we could know how events are going to unfold, wouldn’t we be better prepared? Wouldn’t we be more able to serve God’s purposes in the world? Wouldn’t we feel secure? Bible students have been dredging scripture for details that line up with the news for centuries. We want the Bible to be an oracle.

Today, many Christians who follow one date-setter or another do not know that their particular date-setter is just one in a long, long line. One very early example is Hillary of Poitiers, a French Bishop, who argued that scripture declared the end of the world would happen in 365 AD. Another French pastor, Martin of Tours, predicted the final battle would occur before 400 AD. He wrote the following: “There is no doubt that the anti-Christ has already been born. Firmly established already in his early years, he will, after reaching maturity, achieve supreme power.” In 469 AD, Hydatius, a church leader in Portugal, began preaching that society was so corrupt that he was undoubtedly living in the end times and would see Jesus’ return in his lifetime.

Other scholars with different combinations of scripture, interpretation, and world events predicted the end would happen sometime in 500 AD, or on the 6th of April, 793 AD, or in 800 AD, or then in 847 AD. 992AD was sure to be the year because that was the year that Good Friday coincided with the Feast of the Annunciation!

The year 1000, the turn of the first Millennium, only saw this fever increase. When nothing happened, some scholars updated the theory suggesting that Jesus’ return was meant to occur a thousand years after his death, rather than his birth. 1033 passed without apocalyptic incident. Other scholars proposed Jesus’ arrival between 1200 – 1260 AD. Pope Innocent III argued that Armageddon would occur 666 years after the founding of Islam, but nothing happened in 1284. The Black Plague was so terrible that many people thought it might be one of the signs of the end. Various French theologians predicted dates, based on their readings of the books of Daniel and Revelation, of 1368, 1370, and 1378.

The famous Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli predicted that the Devil would be loosed on the world, and the Millennium begin, in 1504. Thomas Muntzer, an important early Anabaptist preacher, argued that Christ would return near 1525. When that didn’t happen, Hans Hut updated Muntzer’s calculations to May 27th, 1528. Michael Stifel, a mathematician, worked through the various numbers and dates in scripture and declared that Judgement day would take place on October 19, 1533, at 8 AM. Famous reformation theologian Michael Servetus argued that the Devil’s reign had begun in 325 due to the council of Nicaea but would end in 1585, ushering the reign of Christ. Even Martin Luther and Jonathan Edwards set dates for the end of the world! Luther said it would happen surely before the end of 1600. Edwards said it would happen in 2000.

Date setting continued through the centuries. Most of the date-setters are names you wouldn’t recognize, but not a century passed without a double fistful of such predictions. Some of these date-setters were fringe figures, but not all can be dismissed as “crazies.” Cotton Mather, the well-known puritan preacher, argued for Jesus’ return in 1697. He ended up revising that date multiple times when he was proved wrong. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, preached that the Millennium began in 1836, and Christ’s return should happen soon after. The church I grew up in emerged during this time following the Bible study and date setting of William Miller, who expected Jesus’ return April 28th, 1843, and then March 21, 1844, and then (for sure, this time) October 22, 1844.

Despite the failure of these calculations, the motivation to set dates is strong. Every time the calendar reaches a momentous date (like 2000!), or geopolitical tension rises to new heights (the war in Iraq!), or someone rises to power that the date-setters are sure will oppose Christianity (Obama!), the charts and scripture searches get pulled out, and we get the name of a new Anti-Christ and a date for Armageddon. Prominent Evangelicals like Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, Tim LaHaye, Jerry Jenkins, and Ed Dobson, have built an industry on this cycle. (If you’re interested in a pretty good source for the history of date-setting, this Wikipedia page has an excellent collection with off-site links to original sources.)

The problem, of course, is that these time-line readings of scripture have never once proven accurate. Each time someone lays out their argument, they are confident they’ve interpreted the passages correctly. You’ll often hear them talk about how they’ve received a “new light,” or revelation, that corrected some previous attempt at naming names and setting dates. With each new prediction, the outcome is the same. Well-meaning, good-hearted Christians fall into fear or frenzy as they prepare, once again, for the end of the world.

So, in this passage in Luke’s gospel, is Jesus just falling into the same trap? And if date-setting and end-time prognostication are as useless as history indicates, is there nothing beneficial in this passage? I suspect, along with Zahnd, that this passage is difficult because we ignore something plain Jesus said. Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, this generation will not pass away until these things take place.” Jesus expected his prediction to happen within the lifetime of the people hearing him speak.

Turns out, he was right. In AD 70, the Roman Legions destroyed Jerusalem and leveled the temple. Jesus wasn’t predicting the “end of the world.” He was warning about the end of the system he was a part of, including the temple’s destruction. Every attempt to strip-mine this passage for clues about current events must fail because the events Jesus referred to have already happened.

If all of this is true, then what can we glean from this passage, as we read in the spirit of Lent? Lent is a season of introspection, an opportunity to let go of those things that inhibit an encounter with Jesus. How can apocalyptic passages like these serve our spiritual growth?

This passage, in particular, reminds us that God is not invested in specific physical temples, geographic locations, and systems of ritual. For Christians, Jesus is now the temple, accessible through the Spirit in all places and at all times.

This passage also warns us not to lose ourselves in the pursuit of messiahs who claim special spiritual revelation. Jesus is our only Savior, the one who shows us God’s character. There is no need for us to run off in pursuit of other teachers. Jesus says, (v8) “Do not follow them.”

This passage confronts us over our tendency to fall into fear when circumstances are unpredictable and terrifying. There will be wars, famines, earthquakes, plagues, even persecution. Jesus says (v9) they “must happen,” but they are not “the end.” These things are the natural result of living in a broken, power-mad world where people (and the systems they build) are caught up in a never-ending quest for self-justification and protection. Events like these will always happen so long as we fail to love our neighbors as ourselves.

There are deep disagreements over how to understand apocalyptic texts in scripture. Whole libraries are dedicated to this argument. Some Christians believe Jesus will return in physical form, on a visible day of judgment, in a cataclysmic event that will end this age. Other Christians, equally committed to scripture and Jesus, believe these scriptures are all symbolic and that every human will see Jesus in judgment on the day of their death. I expect nothing will resolve these arguments other than seeing for ourselves. Fortunately, nothing in scripture or the teachings of Jesus makes it sin or heresy to hold one view or another on this subject.

Lent invites us to set aside end-time fear in exchange for daily faithfulness. This way is life.

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