Speculation about the end time has always captured the imagination of people, especially at the end of a century and even more so at the approach of a new millennium. It is not surprising, therefore, that throughout history many predictions have been made about the end of this present dispensation. This was especially so during the decade preceding the year 1000. Historians tell us that on the eve of the year 1000, many people in Europe were stricken with panic. The end of the millennium had long been anticipated by prophets, prelates, mathematicians, soothsayers and astrologers, none of whom had anything good to say about Anno Domini 1000. The world was coming to an end in a great catastrophe, they predicted. Throughout the tenth century, men nervously wrote pious prologues into their last testaments, acknowledging not only the brevity of their own lives, but also the vanity and transitoriness of the present world that was about to end. Knights and ladies, we are told, donated their lands to the Church, gave their belongings to beggars and headed for Jerusalem. Merchants left off trading in the ephemeral goods of this dying world and entered monasteries. Peasants abandoned their livestock and crops to make pilgrimages to the nearest sacred relic. At home, wives forgave their adulterous husbands and husbands their unfaithful wives. Children were sent home from school by their teachers who saw no point in burdening their charges with reading, writing and arithmetic if the world was going to end anyway. New YearÕs Eve, December 31, 999, found Christians everywhere in churches and chapels, awaiting with great anxiety what the stroke of midnight would bring them. When nothing remarkable happened and the world quietly slid into the year 1000, Pope Sylvester II, at his special midnight mass in Rome, turned to the astonished congregation who lifted up their voices to the Lord in the Te Deum and hallelujah choruses while church bells chimed in the second Christian millennium. People everywhere heaved deep sighs of relief and returned to work with fresh hope and renewed zest for living.
Although some recent historians have raised serious doubts whether this end-of-the-world fear was as widespread and intense as suggested above, given the fact that Medieval folks at that time were steeped in superstition and ignorance, some degree of mass hysteria did probably take place.
Today many of us seem to be gripped by fears not unlike those of our tenth century ancestors. As the Third millennium approaches, there is much speculation again about what will happen at the end of this decade. Especially from the camp of fundamentalist-dispensationalist Protestants, as well as many cults and sects, prophecies and predictions about the end-time abound. Popular authors such as Hal Lindsay predict with great confidence that World War III will soon be upon us. Armageddon will start when Russia and an alliance of Arab states invade Israel. As the worst holocaust this world has ever seen, reaches its awful climax, Lindsay writes, and it appears that all life will be destroyed on earth, Jesus Christ will return and save man from self-extinction. Christ will bind Satan and usher in His glorious thousand year reign with headquarters in Jerusalem. (The Late Great Planet Earth)
While fundamentalists expect a literal millennium, cults such as the New Age Movement, look for a more high-tech intervention with spaceships coming down to rescue the chosen few before the final cataclysm. Even the secular world is expecting some kind of catastrophic denouement of the present order before long. Opinions vary, however, as to the exact means whereby the world will come to an end. Will it be by nuclear accident or the green house effect? Could it come by chemical warfare or as a result of a gigantic uncontrollable tear in the ozone layer? Or will the end be precipitated by some biotechnologically manipulated gene gone mad?
Not all secular predictions are that dire, however. There are those who are much more hopeful about what the future may bring. For instance, John Naisbitt and Patricia Aburdene, in their book Megatrends 2000, paint this optimistic picture:
According to this humanistic scenario the year 2000 may well pass just as quietly and uneventful as did the year 1000. I believe this is entirely possible, not, of course, because Naisbitt and others say so, but because it is impossible to predict the time of our LordÕs return. September 1994 also came and went, leaving brother Harold Camping and those who believed his calculations rather puzzled and in some cases bewildered.
There is nothing magic about the number 2000. Those who think so because it marks the second millennium since ChristÕs birth are quite mistaken, because most Bible scholars are agreed that the actual year of our SaviourÕs birth was 4 or 5 B.C., which means that not the year of 2000 but the year 1996 or Õ95 is the important date.
While the Bible does not give us the date of ChristÕs second Advent, it does, however, provide us with certain signs of the times by which we may discern approximately how far along we are on GodÕs timetable. Notice what I say: approximately. We cannot by studying these signs pinpoint the time of the end. Nor should this be a problem. If the Lord had wanted us to know this He would have told us. Instead, He cautions us to be watchful and be ready for His coming which may be at any time. It could be this year or the next, but it may well be much later.
We do not know what the Lord has on His program. Take the sign of the preaching of the Gospel for instance. Jesus Himself says that all nations are to hear the Gospel through the instrumentality of His servants and then the end will come (Matt. 29:19,20; 24:14). This has by no means been accomplished yet. Even considering that this does not mean that every individual must hear the Gospel, much less be saved, it does mean that the nations as a whole will be given opportunity to turn to Christ. This takes time, much time, even with out modern means of communication. Great strides have already been made, certainly, but much remains to be done. There are still many tribes which have never heard the Gospel. Vast countries such as China, India, the entire Arab world and parts of the former Soviet Union live in almost total ignorance of GodÕs Word due to false religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam. It may be that the Lord has many elect living in those areas whom He will bring to Himself. Our God is a God of surprises. Who would have thought only a few years ago that the Soviet empire would collapse so suddenly? Maybe China will be the next nation whose totalitarian government will fall, thus opening the door to unrestricted preaching of the Gospel.
One thing is certain, the Day of the Lord, when it will finally come, will come as a surprise. As W.J. Grier says in his book The Momentous Event,
Grier then quotes St. Augustine as saying:
And, we might add, being actively involved in the work of the Lord. One of the worst aspects of apocalyptic thinking is that it tends toward passivity. Both Scripture and history show that whenever Christians are too busy calculating the time of ChristÕs second advent they neglect their calling in the world. Sure, these people are generally active in soul-winning which is very commendable. In fairness to Mr. Camping it must be said that his motive in writing his book 1994? was to warn sinners to flee from the wrath to come and to turn to Christ before it is too late.
Apocalyptic Christians, however, usually are not too interested in the world. They are not very concerned about improving conditions, working for social justice, eliminating poverty, protecting the environment, etc., etc. Their philosophy is: why polish the brass on a sinking ship? They set their sights on the future, spend much of their time thinking about it and preparing for it by withdrawing from society and its concerns.
This kind of thinking which we find in many North American dispensational and fundimentalistic circles, stands in sharp contrast to the teaching of the Reformers and Puritans. Men like Luther and Calvin not only taught people how to get right with God, namely by faith in Christ apart from human works, but they also showed the importance of being properly related to the created order. The Reformation transformed not only the spiritual and religious landscape of Europe and the world, but also its economic, political and cultural life. When Luther was asked how he would react if the Lord were coming tomorrow, he replied, ÒI would go out and plant a tree.Ó What he meant was, I will not do some super-spiritual thing but go on with ordinary, creaturely tasks and do things which take many years to come to fruition. True Christian living means maintaining the tension between expecting Christ to come tomorrow, yet planning as if He were to tarry for a long time.
Being an ÒadventÓ Christian, therefore, does not mean withdrawing from the world. Certainly, we must withdraw from its sinful attitudes, fashions and practices, but not from our calling in the world. While we recognize that there is much sin and evil everywhere, we need to understand also that Christ is Lord of history. This guarantees that while He tarries, this earth will be a habitable place for us, but it also implies that He wants to use us to keep it that way as His stewards. ÒOccupy till I come,Ó the Saviour has said (Luke 19:13). May we do this also in the year of our Lord 1995.