Some time back we heard and read some intriguing biblical presentations with historical back-up about how much of what the church is still anticipating about “the End” (Jesus’ prophecies at the end of Matthew’s gospel) has already come to pass at 70AD. Can you share your thoughts on this subject?
Yes, within the dominant, popular eschatology of the Christian West, and especially because of the enthusiasm of apocalyptic preachers in Evangelical America, books such as Hal Lindsay’s Late Great Planet Earth and the later, the infamous Left Behind series ad nauseam, pounded the idea of the “End Times.” This version of Christian interpretation (often called Dispensationalism) foretold an imminent ‘rapture’ of the church, followed by a literal seven-year Great Tribulation under the reign of a global tyrant known as the Antichrist, culminating in the last battle called Armageddon, and finally, the Second Coming of Christ. This prevailed in our pulpits and our minds, despite its rather recent arrival on the theological scene in the 19th century.
Here was the basic logic that made this teaching so popular.
- First, it begins with an excessively literal reading of the cosmic, symbolic images of the Bible. For example, if the Bible says, “It’s the END,” then it really must mean “the END” of human history on planet earth. The apocalyptic imagery of Jesus’ “Olivet Discourse” (Matt. 24-25, Mark 13, Luke 21) and the Book of Revelation were read without regard to the genre. They couldn’t imagine these had been fulfilled in the first century because, well, the world didn’t end and Jesus didn’t return in a way that “every eye could see him.”
- Second, the timing of this global upheaval came to be associated with the establishment of the modern state of Israel and the Christian Zionism that spiritualized Israeli politics into the fulfillment of Bible prophecy.
- Third, this involved some basic math problems, with an emphasis on problems. One of these included reading Daniel’s prophecy of 70 weeks of years that predicted the death of Christ … but with a final week of years delayed (the Great Tribulation) until after the indeterminate ‘church age.’ Further, they identified the birth of Israel in 1948 with “the budding of the fig tree” parable in the following passage:
Look at the fig tree and all the trees. When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near. Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that the kingdom of God is near. I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. Heaven and earth
So here’s the math: If the budding of the fig tree (the birth of Israel) was in 1948 and “ALL these things” (the unfulfilled prophecies of Daniel, the Gospels, and Revelation) must be fulfilled within one biblical generation (which Lindsay said was 40 years), then you can roughly expect ‘the rapture of the church’ through the following calculation: 1948 + 40 = 1988 (second coming) … minus 7 years for the Great Tribulation = the rapture by 1981. All of this made perfect sense during the Cold War era, especially with the events of the Yom Kippur War in Israel (1973). But what happens to that theology when the rapture is now officially 40 years late? In my case, I found better and more biblically faithful alternatives.
As for alternatives, the simplest solution is often most likely the truest (and happily, now by far the most reputable among biblical scholars). The idea is that while we continue to confess, “he shall come again with glory” to resolve history and bring about the restoration of all things, nevertheless, we also believe that when Jesus said “this generation,” he actually meant it. That is, within one generation of Jesus’ Passion, his Olivet prophecies would be fulfilled. And indeed they were IF we read the imagery in the context of the generation that lived from Jesus’ death up until the fall of Jerusalem (in AD 70). In other words, it’s the “end of of the world as you know it,” meaning all those catastrophic events from the crucifixion of Christ to the destruction of Jerusalem, its temple, and Jewish sacrificial religion (to this day).
From there, it’s no big leap to see how close these prophecies are to the Book of Revelation, and we recognize ‘the Beast’ whose number is 666 as Nero and the battle of Armageddon with the siege of Jerusalem. If we accept that Revelation is written in parallel to the Olivet discourse (with so many overlapping Scriptures, images, and descriptions) and that ALL these things must happen within that generation, it’s only a matter of working out how the symbols might relate to the events from Golgotha through the great persecution of the church to the razing of Judea by Rome. That’s a huge study in itself but at least founded on Jesus’ own terms.