The End is Already Here!

There is a popular view among some Christians that the COVID-19 pandemic is some kind of apocalyptic plague. Now the world is seeing some unprecedented things because of the virus. However, if it really is an apocalyptic judgment then God must be losing his touch because there have been far worse disease outbreaks in human history. There are other significant problems with this view but the reflex to read major contemporary global events as signs of the apocalypse is not new among Christians. In fact, this kind of apocalypticism has made its way into pop culture, especially in film and television over the last decade. While I do recognize the biblical premises that have inspired such views, it actually reveals a fundamental failure in how the church has taught eschatology, that is, what the end of the world will be like.

Because of their highly symbolic language, apocalyptic texts tend to be quite difficult to interpret. This is what makes them such excellent fodder for rampant speculation. Those who go down the apocalyptic rabbit hole end up missing the forest for the trees. In my experience, Christians who get swept up in uncritical apocalyptic speculation tend to get bogged down with the details of apocalyptic visions in the Bible and tying them to world events and current affairs. They therefore miss the big picture of what the New Testament says about the end. Of course, the exact meaning of apocalyptic passages in the Bible matters but they exist in the larger context of the Bible’s general vision of the end. According to the New Testament, the end is not primarily marked by global disasters, mass deception and sinister conspiracies. In fact, we are already in the end times and have been for two thousand years.

In the ancient Jewish worldview, human history is divided into eras, the present age and the age to come. In the present world sin and death rule but in the world to come, there will be resurrection and everlasting life. They believed that in the end, God will transform the present world into the world to come and he will raise the righteous to participate in the renewed world he has made (Ezekiel 37:12-14, Daniel 12:1-3.) They saw resurrection as the beginning of God’s new creation in the age to come (Isaiah 65:17.) So according to their view, the beginning of the new world and therefore the end of the present one will be marked by the mass resurrection of all the righteous dead to eternal life. Since what became known as Christianity started as a late second Temple Jewish sect, they naturally shared this view with one huge modification: God had already raised one man far ahead of time, that is, Jesus the Messiah.

If resurrection life is what is supposed to characterize the world to come, the resurrection of one righteous man, never to die again, means the world to come has unexpectedly begun in him. The following exchange wonderfully captures the Christian modification of Jewish eschatology:

Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?”

John 11:23-26 ESV

Jesus’ resurrection is concrete proof the end times are already here since it is the beginning of the new age. The risen Christ is exalted to the right hand of God as Lord which means he has all authority “not only in this age but also in the one to come” (Ephesians 1:19-21.) So the writer of Hebrews says “in these last days [God] has spoken to us by his Son” who “after making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” which is a reference to Christ’s death and resurrection (Hebrews 1:1-4.) It goes on to say in 2:5-9 God has “subjected the world to come” to Jesus. Also Peter in Acts 2:17 famously says “in the last days… I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh.” The outpouring of the Spirit on Pentecost for all people was the first public sign from God to the world that we are in the last days. Since God’s Spirit is poured out by the risen and ascended Jesus (Acts 2:32-33) it is also public testimony that Jesus’ has full divine authority, which means a new age under the risen Christ’s rule has begun.

Those passages and others are a clear indication that according to the New Testament the resurrection and exaltation of Jesus are the beginning of the new age, which means the end times are here. This is what biblical theologians describe as an “inaugurated eschatology.” It means the end times have begun but they are yet to fully come to an end. So the end of the present age overlaps with the start of the age to come. As I earlier said, the resurrection of Jesus happened way before the great resurrection of the last day, which means God’s end time timetable has been radically brought forward.  As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10:11 “the end of the ages has come” on us.

Since we are already in the last days, what we are looking forward to is “the last day” or “the day of the Lord” when Christ will come back from heaven, popularly known as the second coming (Acts 1:11, 1 Thessalonians 4:15, Hebrews 9:28.) Now Jesus was the first to be raised from the dead, so those who are his when he returns will also be raised with him (1 Corinthians 15:22-23, 1 Thessalonians 4:14.) So his coming will result in the resurrection of the last day which will bring the present age finally to a close.

The Lord’s return is described as a sudden future event (1 Thessalonians 5:2, 2 Peter 3:10.) It will happen “in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye” (1 Corinthians 15:51-52.) This explains why in the New Testament they are not preoccupied with precisely predicting it. In fact, there are admonitions against trying to forecast his return (Matthew 24:42, Acts 1:7.) The failure to realise we are already in the last days and to understand the Lord’s return will be unprecedented explains why church history in recent centuries is littered with so many unfounded speculations and ultimately failed end time predictions.

The New Testament is rather preoccupied with admonishing believers to be patient and faithfully endure. This is because the last days are a difficult time for those who obey the Lord Jesus since they are marked by all sorts of resistance and hostility to Christ’s reign (Acts 4:24-30, 2 Timothy 3:1, 12-13.) Most Christians today thankfully do not face serious persecution but for many of our brothers and sisters throughout the world this is unfortunately not the case. The Lord’s return gives them, as it did our forebears, hope to endure their trials knowing that he will reward them with eternal life (Romans 1:6-7, 1 Peter 1:6-7.) If we are fortunate enough not to be facing persecution, we should remember the patient endurance of the saints, past and present, resisting the temptation to be unfaithful as we await the Lord with them.

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