The end times is a mysterious, frightening, and controversial subject to the masses. Many have attempted to answer questions about the timing of Christ's return, the rapture, the Great Tribulation, and other biblical prophecies, and countless groups and apocalyptic prophets have spawned since Jesus's resurrection.
We've seen its ugliest expressions in groups such as David Koresh and the Branch Davidians or Jim Jones and the Jonestown Massacre, and we've seen more popular evangelical perspectives like the "Left Behind" series from Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins and similar books from well-known pastors such as John Hagee and Dr. David Jeremiah.
Indeed, Christians have been wrestling with eschatology, particularly the book of Revelation, for centuries. In "Revelation & the End of All Things," author Craig Koester points out that the church fathers were divided on how to interpret the book either as future predictions or timeless spiritual truths. Justin Martyr (ca. 100-165), Irenaeus (ca. 130-200), Victorinus (died 304), and Jerome (ca. 342-420) all shared a futurist view -- each with their own nuances -- of Revelation, believing that John's visions pointed to a future cataclysm and redemption that would take place on the earth.
On the other side, Origen (ca. 185-254), Dionysius (died ca. 264), and Augustine (354-430) interpreted Revelation more as a book pointing to present spiritual realities rather than future physical events.
After inheriting centuries of diverse spiritual, historical, political, and polemical interpretations of Revelation, the fiery reformer Martin Luther (1483-1546) came to a different conclusion. Early on in his ministry, he believed that the book was "neither apostolic nor prophetic," confessing that he could "in no way detect the Holy Spirit produced it" and that "Christ is neither taught nor known in it."
Luther eventually changed his mind about the book and taught that Revelation outlines a series of events between Christ's resurrection and return and that the harlot and the beast represent past popes and the papacy itself. He later shifted his focus by teaching the book's message of faith and hope in God's promises.
Leaving Behind Eschatology
Like the young Luther, I was disillusioned by the end times, and it was something I avoided for years. My eschatological journey looks something like this: frightened during childhood, confused during college, and disinterested after graduation.
I grew up reading the "Left Behind" books as a kid, and I was terrified by the rapture. If I called for my mom when I was at home and didn't hear a response, the thought that she may have been raptured and I was left behind plagued my mind.
Toward the end of college, I developed a strong interest in theology, so I decided to take a class on the book of Revelation. While I found it intriguing, I was ultimately left dissatisfied. I saw so many conflicting theories on how Jesus would return, numerous doomsday cults and bizarre end times fringe groups that have spawned over the centuries, and the obsessive, belligerent type of Christian who always had predictions about who the antichrist was or which country was going to initiate nuclear holocaust.
After that class, I concluded that I should stay away from all the controversies surrounding the end times and just focus on loving Jesus and living for Him in my day-to-day life. I often thought, "With so many different theories and interpretations, how can we know what's true? And why should we even bother studying such a confusing and frightening subject that breeds conflict and division? Jesus is going to return anyways, so why bother trying to figure out all the details?"
The Purpose of Eschatology
But I began to realize something. Loving Jesus and longing for His return are inseparable. The gospel message encompasses more than just the atonement, eternal life, and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Jesus's mission was to proclaim the gospel of the kingdom (Mark 1:14-15; Luke 4:43), announcing the fulfillment of God's promises to Israel -- the promised seed, the promised land, and the promised kingdom. The gospel is inherently eschatological, pointing to the return of King Jesus, the establishment of God's eternal kingdom of righteousness, the deliverance from this present evil age, and the restoration of all things.
The biblical word that embodies this gospel message is "maranatha." Marantha is an Aramaic term meaning "the Lord has come," "the Lord is coming," or "Come, Lord!" depending on the word's pronunciation. This longing for the Lord to return and fulfill His promises begins in Genesis 3:15 when God prophesied of the snake-crushing seed of the woman and ends in Revelation 22 with the Spirit and the Bride collectively saying, "Come Lord Jesus!"
Dalton Thomas, founder and president of the missions organization Frontier Alliance International (FAI), describes the maranatha message as follows: 1) that the body of Christ would grow into the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ in perfect unity and knowledge of the Son of God (Ephesians 4:11-16); 2) that the gospel of the kingdom would reach all the nations (Matthew 24:14); and 3) that Christ would return to establish His kingdom in Jerusalem and exalt Israel to its promised preeminence as God's chosen people (2 Samuel 7:12-16; Matthew 25:31; Luke 1:32-33; Romans 11:25-32).
Jesus compared the signs of the end of the age to birth pains (Matthew 24:8). We will know Jesus is coming soon when we start seeing these "contractions," and he commands us to watch and be ready as he returns like a thief in the night (Matthew 24:36-44). But don't get obsessed with the birth pains and miss the central purpose of it all -- new life. As the pain and pressure of birth culminates in a beautiful child, the apocalyptic pain and pressure at the end of the age reveals the resurrected, glorified Son of God reigning in righteousness, reconciling all things to Himself, and presenting the church to Himself as His bride in spotless splendor.
The heart of the maranatha message is an intense yearning and desire for Jesus Christ -- to see His unfiltered glory annihilating the curse of sin and death brought upon all creation by Satan and his cosmic forces of darkness. And that is why every Christian should study the end times -- to know and love Christ as He truly is.
My eschatological journey is far from over, but here's how I would summarize what I've gathered along the way:
- The gospel is undeniably eschatological.
- Do not be afraid of eschatology. Embrace it.
- You can understand eschatology. Just follow where Jesus pointed us to -- the Old Testament prophets (see Matthew 24:15).
- Don't miss the forest for the trees. The primary goal of studying eschatology is cultivating a deeper love and desire for the return of our Lord and Savior.