You can lay aside your Mayan calendar and quit gazing into the sky searching for the “four blood moons.” There are fresh signs that the end times are near . . . and coming soon to a theater near you.
The new Nicolas Cage movie “Left Behind,” based on the book series that has sold 60 million copies, opens this weekend, and it promises to spark discussion once again about the end of the world. The film dramatizes the Rapture (the sudden disappearance of all Christians from earth), which will plunge the world into seven years of chaos, culminating in the second coming of Jesus Christ.
Before you label such a belief system as “kooky talk” (as Kramer from “Seinfeld” would say), consider that, according to Pew Research, 47 percent of American Christians believe that the end of the world as described in the Bible will occur within the next 40 years. Add to that many more Christians who believe that the apocalyptic prophecies of the Bible will be fulfilled at some unspecified time, and you have tens of millions of Americans who believe the end of the world could be around the corner.
For purpose of full disclosure, I am one of those who believe in the biblical account of the end of the world, though I have no idea when it will happen.
I have written several books on the topic; I teach a doctoral-level class on end-times theology at one of the most respected seminaries in the world; and I also appear in a new documentary about the Rapture by the producers of the new “Left Behind” movie. However, as a “Bible prophecy insider,” I’m in a unique position to warn against three extremes when it comes to any discussion of the end times:
Fanaticism. Since the beginning of the world, people have been predicting the date it will end. Christopher Columbus thought the world would end in 1656. Martin Luther was confident the world could not last more than 300 years after his death. (He died in 1546.) The late radio preacher Harold Camping famously prophesied that the end would come in 2011 (after four previous failed predictions).
Jesus clearly warned about the futility of date-setting. In discussing His return, Jesus said, “Of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone (Matthew 24:36).” If God has not revealed to His own Son the date for the end, I’m not surprised He didn’t tell Harold Camping.
Fatalism. Frankly, this is a more prevalent and dangerous reaction from Christians anticipating the end of the world. Some people wonder, “If the world is going to hell in a handbasket anyway, why try to improve the world in which we live?” Why try to stop the aggression of ISIS or the outbreak of Ebola if these threats to the globe are simply catalysts for Armageddon and the return of Jesus Christ?
Just because something is inevitable doesn’t mean it is immediate. For example, I know that I’m going to die one day and that something better awaits me. But the knowledge of my ultimate demise doesn’t prevent me from exercising and going to the doctor. I want to prolong my life – not because I fear death, but because I want to fulfill God’s purpose for my life.
Similarly, Christians should be at the forefront of pushing back against evil, injustice and sickness in order to prevent the premature implosion of our world, because once the world does end, there will be no more opportunity to share the message of Christ with anyone. Knowing that the end is certain should spur Christians to action, not inaction. C.S. Lewis claimed that “if you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next.”
Cynicism. This is the most dangerous reaction to any discussion of the end times. Before you allow the fanaticism and fatalism of others to cause you to dismiss the biblical teachings about the end of the world, consider Jesus’ own words. While sitting on the Mount of Olives with His disciples (Matthew 24-25), Jesus gave a detailed outline of the end times and His return: “For just as the lightning comes from the east, and flashes even to the West, so shall the coming of the Son of Man be” (Matthew 24:27).
Unless you believe that Jesus was just off His meds that day, you have to give serious consideration to His predictions. It is intellectually dishonest to embrace Jesus’ teachings from the Sermon on the Mount but dismiss His words about the end times on the Mount of Olives.
Jesus repeatedly taught that He is returning one day to judge the unrighteous, reward the righteous and gather His children to Himself. Whether He comes to us first, or we go to Him in death, the wisest thing we can do is to make sure we are prepared to meet God so that we’re not “left behind.”