Why don’t we talk about the end of the world more?

My latest Grove Booklet is now available and it offers an overview of eschatology—beliefs about the end things—starting with background ideas in the Old Testament and looking at the key issues in the Gospels, Paul and Revelation. My introduction explains why this is such an important issue.

Eschatology, meaning ‘understanding of last things,’ is of central importance for us as we read the New Testament. G E Ladd went so far as to claim that eschatology ‘is the unifying centre of New Testament theology.’ The idea of the ‘kingdom of God,’ central to Jesus’ teaching and a key part of NT eschatology, is key to understanding Christian discipleship and ethics. Pentecostal scholarship has pointed to the importance of the Spirit, the ‘end times’ gift for the people of God, within the theology of Paul. And interest in Jesus’ second coming, in scholarship and in the popular imagination, continues unabated.

But many people find the subject of eschatology either baffling or exotic—a subject to avoid because of the dangers of wild speculation. But if we ignore it, we run into trouble in at least three areas. First, we will miss or misunderstand a fundamental theme of Scripture. Secondly, we will not have the confidence to correct the wild speculation that will continue to come our way every time there is a ‘blood moon’ or an election result that feels rather apocalyptic to us. Thirdly, we will lack understanding that can help in key pastoral issues we and our loved ones will encounter. Why was my friend not healed after prayer—and does that mean we should give up praying for people? What is the relationship between the church and the world—should we be happy to adopt secular agendas or be critical of them? Where can we find God when faced with serious disappointment? And how can we make sense of all the suffering in the world—not least on the part of God’s people? All these questions are linked to eschatology, and we cannot answer them convincingly without understanding the eschatology of the New Testament.

This booklet follows the progressive development of eschatology in the Bible. Chapter two looks at the Old Testament background to the theme of God as king and the hope of his intervention in the world. Chapter three turns to the gospels and Jesus’ teaching; even though the gospels were written later than Paul’s letters, his theology was shaped by Jesus’ perspective. Chapter four looks at the distinctive expression Paul gave to eschatology in his missionary activity and teaching of the early Jewish-Gentile Christian communities, as well as noting some issues in the Book of Revelation. The nal chapter explores the implications of eschatology for pastoral practice.

One of the things that has struck me very forcibly in writing this piece is the consistency amongst different NT writers in their understanding of eschatology—but it is a consistency which poor exegesis has very often obscured. I was fascinated by one of the words that Paul uses in his description of the end in 1 Cor 15, his long discourse about the importance of resurrection, both Jesus’ in the past and ours in the future, and the relationship between the two.

In 1 Cor 15.51–52, Paul describes what will happen at the end, using the distinction also found in 1 Thess 4 between those who have already died (‘those who sleep’) and those who are alive when Jesus returns.

Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.

(Just to file under Bad Jokes, this includes the verse put over all church nurseries: ‘We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed’.)

I was struck by the word for ‘flash’ or ‘instant’, which is atomos; it is related to the word ‘to cut’, and means ‘indivisible’. It is where we get our word ‘atom’ from—thought at one time to be the smallest indivisible unit of matter. Paul is clear that Jesus’ return and all that comes with it will happen in an instant, not as a staged process that we can anticipate.

This ties in which the language that Paul (1 Thess 5.2), Peter (2 Peter 3.10), and Revelation (Rev 3.3, 16.15) use, as well as Jesus in the gospels (Matt 24.43) when they talk of his return as coming ‘like a thief in the night’ (though Paul notes that for us, he comes as a friend in the day if we are always ready to welcome him, 1 Thess 5.4). The emphasis here is on suddenness and unexpectedness; the break-in of the thief does not come at the end of an extended process which we could watch and anticipate, but completely unexpectedly, which is why we must be alert.

Matthew goes on to recount one parable of Jesus (the ‘ten virgins’, Matt 25.1–13) whose focus is entirely on this theme of the sudden and unexpected return of the bridegroom, and another (the parable of the ‘talents’, Matt 25.14–30) which is interpreted by Mark, in his shortened version (Mark 13.33–37) to be making exactly the same point.

Why, then, have we ended up with so many ‘end times’ schemes, with signs that we are supposed to be looking out for? In relation to the New Testament, it is mostly due to poor exegesis of three key passages:

  1. Matt 24.3–35 are often cited as giving us ‘signs of the times’ to look out for. In fact that phrase comes much earlier, in Matt 16.3, and Jesus is using it to talk about the state of the nation, their failure to recognise who he is which he knows will lead to judgement. The word ‘sign’ is used by the disciples in their question (Matt 24.3), and by Jesus in Matt 24.30, and he talks of learning the ‘lesson of the fig tree’. But he immediately goes on to say that ‘all this will take place before this generation passes away’ (Matt 24.34)—all the signs he has mentioned relate to the immediate future for his disciples (as I have previously explored), and not his return! The moment he focuses on the longer term, he starts to emphasise suddenness and unexpectedness.
  2. 1 Thess 4.17 and Paul’s language of ‘meeting the Lord in the air’ has been used as the basis of the doctrine of ‘the rapture’, where Christians are whisked away to be with the Lord prior to an ‘end times’ ‘tribulation’ (period of suffering). But this assumes that the Lord whom we meet will then change gear and go into reverse, back into heaven—whereas Paul’s language about this uses the term parousia, meaning the royal presence with his subjects after he has been away for a long time (making another connection with Jesus’ teaching). Paul nowhere suggests that this is anything other than a single moment, just as he goes on to do in more detail in 1 Cor 15.
  3. The most complex is the sequence of events in Revelation 19–21, which includes in Rev 20 the millennial reign of Christ for 1,000 years. But it is quite characteristic of Revelation to describe a single phenomenon several times from different perspectives. The people of God in Rev 7 are described both as a Jewish, finite, numbered people who are sealed, and as an unnumbered people from ‘every nation, tribe, language and people’. Jesus is depicted in angelic terms, as resembling the Ancient of Days, as both a lion and a lamb, and in any number of other ways. The best way of understanding Rev 19–21 is not as a chronological sequence so much as visions of different aspects of Jesus’ return, with each of the seven visions being introduced by ‘And I saw’ (kai eidon, 19.11; 19.17; 19.19; 20.1; 20.4; 20.11; 21.1).

The best reading of the evidence sees Jesus’ return as a single event, but with multiple significance.

For a helpful review of the booklet, have a look at Richard Peers’ blog. Richard is kind enough to comment:

Ian’s writing style is always concise, and persuasive. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this Grove Book and recommend it wholeheartedly.

To order the booklet for £3.95 and post-free in the UK, go to the Grove website. Note that there are discounts for buying multiple copies!

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12 thoughts on “Why don’t we talk about the end of the world more?”

  1. One more for your bad jokes file. 2 Pet 3 v 3 clearly says that in the end times people will fall away from Weightwatchers and other slimming organisations…

  2. Problem is so much of NT eschatology is embarrassing to read today containing as it does failed predictions of the End of the world.

    Here is another example of Paul’s expectation of the End during his lifetime:

    ‘What I am saying, brothers and sisters, is this: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. 51 Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, 52 in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. 53 For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. 54 When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled..’

    1 Cor 15.

    • Thanks Paul…but I don’t quite understand your point here. Where in this text is Paul saying that the End will definitely come ‘in his lifetime’? By saying that all, whether alive or dead, will share the same transformation, he rather appears to be saying the opposite…

      • Odd because it is clear to me that Paul is saying the End will come in his lifetime.

        Consider: Paul is writing a letter, and tells his readers (or listeners) that “We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.”

        If someone told you that you and they would ‘not all die’ before the End what you would think?

        But of course Paul was in error.

        • ‘The major question raised by [this phrase ‘not all will sleep’] turns on Paul’s view of eschatological imminence: strictly it could mean either (i) none of us shall sleep i.e. the parousia will intervene before any believer dies: or (ii) not all of us shall (as some of us we shall) i.e. the parousia will come in the lifetime of some of us; or (iii) not all of us humans shall sleep i.e. the parousia shall interrupt human history at some point sooner or later (time unspecified).

          The first is clearly excluded by Paul’s comments about some of the Corinthian Christians having died already… The second view is usually associated with a theory of radical development in Pauls’ theology from an imminent eschatology in the early letters to a quasi realised eschatology supposedly from 2 Corinthians onwards… It is a pity that it is necessary repeatedly to call attention to J. Lowe’s decisive demolition of the developmental theory of Paul’s eschatology as long ago as 1941….

          The third view reflects Paul’s major concern in versus 51 to 52, in Whiteleys words “it is perfectly clear that here as in 1 Thess, St Paul ascribes to survivors and deceased the same ultimate fate” i.e. all humans, whether alive or dead at the last resurrection, will undergo transformation

          Paul holds a dynamic world view with his eyes upon the end… And this mindset rests not upon a statement about eschatological imminence but upon a presupposition concerning its genuine possibility.’

          (A Thiselton, 1 Corinthians NIGTC, pp 1293–1294)

          So, if I was wanting to make the same point, that all will experience transformation, whether alive or sleeping in death when Jesus returns, I would use the same language—and it implies for neither of us a certainty that Jesus will return in our own lifetime…though he could.

          If I am in a minority in scholarship on this, I don’t mind keeping this kind of company.

  3. ! Thessalonians 4
    17. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be tcaught up together with them uin the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so vwe will always be with the Lord. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words.

    Paul Williams is right. It is also awkward because the cosmos can demonstrably be shown to have existed for billions of years and is quite unlikely to dissolve ‘in a flash,’ you know, entropy and all that.

    • Um, yes, quite unlikely to happen as a natural process…!

      But your use of 1 Thess 4 is quite odd. Imagine, for a moment, that Paul thought Jesus might come back in his lifetime, or might not. What sort of language would you expect him to use? What would you use, in that situation, right now?

      I think you’d say exactly what he did if you were communicating what he want to communicate—that all will be changed, regardless of whether they have died or are alive when Jesus returns. To think this ‘proves’ Paul’s imminent expectation looks a bit lazy…

  4. Here is C.S. Lewis’s explanation of the problem:

    “Say what you like,” we shall be told, “the apocalyptic beliefs of the first Christians have been proved to be false. It is clear from the New Testament that they all expected the Second Coming in their own lifetime. And, worse still, they had a reason, and one which you will find very embarrassing. Their Master had told them so. He shared, and indeed created, their delusion. He said in so many words, ‘this generation shall not pass till all these things be done.’ And he was wrong. He clearly knew no more about the end of the world than anyone else.”

    “It is certainly the most embarrassing verse in the Bible.”

    C.S. Lewis, The World’s Last Night: And Other Essays, p.97

    • It is great to bring that leading NT scholar C S Lewis into the debate!

      The real problem with Lewis approach here (though I love what he writes on discipleship and theology) is two fold.

      First, in Matthew 24 the thing which will happen ‘before this generation passes away’ is not the parousia (which early Jesus says is *not* imminent, Matt 24.26–27) but is the erchomenos of the Son of Man—that is, his coming to the Ancient of Days on the throne as per Daniel 7. This is precisely what Stephen says he sees in Acts 7 at the moment of his martydom—prima facie evidence that the first generation of Jesus followers did indeed think that what Jesus had predicted had indeed come to pass.

      Second, if Lewis is right, and Jesus was deluded, then that would have been evident by the time Matthew wrote in the late 70s at the earliest i.e. nearly 50 years after Jesus’ words were spoken. That generation was indeed passing away, and it would have been evident that Jesus was mistaken, yet Matthew quotes his words without any sense of irony or apology. The only plausible explanation for that is that Matthew thought the words were indeed true, and with the generation passing he must have believed that ‘all these things’ had indeed happened.

      As Thiselton asks in his commentary on 1 Cor (NIGTC), if Jesus was deluded, how come the early Jesus movement didn’t experience the crisis that is universal to groups with such failed hopes?

  5. Thanks Ian – this brings necessary balance to a lot of the apocalyptic hogwash currently sloshing around. I’ve ordered the book!

  6. Thank you for this ian. What about the man of lawlessness in 2 Thessalonians? Is that not a ‘sign of the times’ in preceding Jesus’s return in some way?


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