We all have some concept of the approaching End Times. Maybe you’re a fan of the Left Behind books. Maybe you’re worried about Global Warming and what we’re doing to the environment. Maybe you are looking forward to the Rapture. Or maybe you just like watching The Walking Dead. No matter who you are, you have some concept of the End, and if you’re a Christian, chances are you’ve got a healthy dose of Biblical theology to go with it. The problem is that some of the messages we are getting as believers about the End are hurting us in the here and now. I’m not talking about stuff like whether the Rapture is pre-Trib, post-Trib, or isn’t really going to take place at all. I don’t care who you think the Two Witnesses are. I’m talking about End Times beliefs that damage the way we relate to people, and even how we relate to God.
1. In the End, It’s Us Versus Them
I remember that time I blew a guy’s head off. I watched with fascination as the blood streamed out in slow motion. I did it without pity. Not because I’m a sociopath, but because I was playing Fallout 3, and this guy was a vicious raider stalking me through the post-apocalyptic wasteland. There was no reasoning with him, no way to befriend him, no negotiating. He was beyond redemption. It was kill or be killed, because my enemy, even though he looked like a person on the outside, was no more human than the mutants, ghouls, and robots that were also trying to hunt me down.
But that was a video game. In real life, no sane person would consider another human being to be nothing more than an irredeemable monster whose sole purpose was to try to destroy them.
Except for many Christians, who have been taught exactly this.
After all, it’s right there in the book of Revelation: “And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name” (Rev. 14:11). The lesson we are often taught with this is that in the future there will be people that are marked by the Enemy and can’t ever be reached by God again.
And if all of Antichrist’s followers are beyond redemption, just soulless servants of Satan that can never be saved, then what is the purpose of the Christian on earth at the end of the age? Because right now, in this age, we are called to be a part of God’s plan to reconcile all things to himself, especially people.
“…that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.” (II Cor. 5:19)
Our purpose is to help reconcile people to God. The message of reconciliation does not work if we believe they are irredeemable enemies, that those people CAN’T be reconciled with. If there is such a thing as a point at which someone goes past redemption, falls beyond the grace of God itself, we can leave that for God to decide. I am aware that there are scary Bible verses about God giving people up to their sins (Rom. 1:24-32), and I don’t mean to diminish that frightful possibility as a reality. If we want to run from God’s grace, he’ll let us. He will give us over to ourselves. But we don’t need to decide for others where the edge of God’s grace lies. I’m sure a lot of people thought Saul of Tarsus was beyond redemption. In fact, he had something to say about being that far gone: “It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all” (I Tim. 1:15). If God can rescue someone as awful as Saul persecutor and turn him into Paul the Jesus Freak, he can reach anyone. Paul would also say, “Love… believes all things, hopes all things…” (I Cor. 13:7). We need to keep believing and hoping for people. That’s what love does. Who are we to give up on anyone, ever?
Remember that time the Left Behind video game gave you only two options for dealing with your enemies? You could CONVERT them or KILL them. I guess that’s a step up from wasting them all like you would in Fallout 3, but it’s still a far cry from the message of Jesus. He’s sent us into the world “as sheep to be slaughtered” (Rom. 8:36). Jesus tells us, “Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matt. 5:39) and “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and harmless as doves” (Matt. 10:16). We’re not called to “convert or kill” our enemies, but rather to “preach or die.”
In this popular End Times kill-or-be-killed way of thinking, it’s about survival. We are trying to save our own lives. But Jesus says, “whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it (Matt. 16:25).
And it’s not just Sunday sermons and Christian video games that are sending us this message. It’s even in our Christian movies. We are bombarded with this message that, in the End, the heroic saved and the wicked damned will battle and good will vanquish evil. My favorite Stephen King novel, The Stand, is all about this. In a post-apocalyptic America there is a border and all the good people stand on one side of it, and all the evil people in the world stand on the other, and only one group can survive. It makes for great fiction, but hurtful theology.
It’s like that scene from the Christian film Apocalypse 2: Revelation. What? No one’s seen that one? Basically it’s like Left Behind, but the Antichrist uses Virtual Reality to do miracles and instead of Buck Williams, we get a blond woman named Helen Hannah. Well, a couple of her friends take the Mark of the Beast in the movie, and it’s like they are instantly dipped in evil. Their personalities are just erased. And when Helen tries to reach out to them, what does her fellow Christian say?
“Save your breath… their souls are already gone.”
The message these films, games, and sermons are sending is that these people are spiritually dead, and can’t be saved, so there’s no longer any point to loving them. They aren’t people any longer. They are the living dead.
And we know how to treat zombies during the apocalypse.
Anyone who’s seen The Walking Dead knows how this works. They aren’t human beings that can be cured; they’re monsters that need to be put down. In fact, an entire sub-plot of that show is dedicated to a Christian man who thinks that the zombies are people that can be helped, but he gets proven wrong in his thinking by our heroes.
The problem with this is that it trickles down into our day-to-day Christian lives. We see ourselves surrounded by the lost, the spiritually dead, people who have never experienced the New Life in Jesus. And how are we supposed to relate to them? We’ve been pre-programmed to fear them.
We live in a real-life Walking Dead world, where non-Christian lives end up not meaning as much as Christian ones, because they’re not human in the same way as we are. That’s how you can get Christians preaching love for all people, then commenting on Facebook that everyone on the other side of the political aisle (including half their Facebook friends) should be shot. Or how good, totally reasonable Christian guys who are all about love can talk seriously about how maybe we should make stoning gay people legal again—it’s what the Bible says, after all. Some part of them knows this is not what Jesus teaches, but the End Times programming overrides that with fear and distrust. These Christians are not living in the New Testament. They’re living in the End Times, the apocalypse.
Things work differently there.
Which brings me to my second point…
2. The End is Already Upon Us
If you want to get technical, everything after the Resurrection of Jesus can be Biblically considered “End Times,” but that does not mean it’s the End. To some, we’ve been living in the shadow of the apocalypse for two thousand years. To many other believers, especially those living in “First World” countries where believers enjoy relative comfort, every economic recession, every wicked political leader elected, every war, and every unjust law passed are all signs that the end has come.
Let’s look at what Jesus says: “And when you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. This must take place, but the end is not yet” (Mark 13:7).
No, the fact that Christians are being beheaded in the Middle East does not mean that the end is here. Neither does the panic over Ebola (Or is that one over already?), or even the genuine persecution of Christians worldwide indicate the End. This is normal for a fallen world. This is why God wants us here to be his agents of reconciliation, so that every word, every action, every thought of ours lets more of his light into the world and pushes the darkness back a little more. These are the signs that we are engaged in spiritual warfare. And our weapons and armor in this conflict are not worldly (II Cor. 10:4). This is not a fight that can be won with guns and bombs. Our enemies are not the human beings around us, not even the ones that try to kill us, but the spiritual forces influencing them (Eph. 6:12).
And still Jesus says, “the End is not yet.”
This belief hurts your walk by making you jaded and disillusioned. Many Christians are taught while young to expect the Rapture to happen any day now. Then the days pass… then the weeks… then the months… then the years… the decades… and they are left wondering, “Where is the promise of His coming?” (II Peter 3:4) By teaching people to expect the End at any moment, we are trying to make them wary, so the Lord does not catch them unprepared, like that story Jesus told of the foolish virgins (Matt. 25:1-13).
But what it really does is nurture an expectation of Jesus that keeps going unfulfilled. We should be aware that the End is in the future. Someday it won’t be, maybe even someday soon, but today it is. And today, we don’t have to wait for Jesus. He’s already promised his presence in our lives.
And why hasn’t he returned already? He’s actually already told us in his Word: “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (II Peter 3:9). That’s his goal, that no one should perish, but everyone should come to repentance. Now is a time of hope, when everyone has the opportunity to have a relationship with God in Jesus, and every Christian has the opportunity to invite them.
Jesus said, “We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming, when no one can work” (John 9:4).
But it’s not here yet.
Believing it’s here already fills us with distrust and fear. I’ve already talked about the “Us Versus Them” theology, but the distrust goes further than that. Christians see the Mark of the Beast everywhere. Shopping for groceries? You’re taking the mark! Going to church on Sunday? You’re taking the mark! Maybe enjoying an energy drink? You’ve just taken the mark! There’s no hope for you anymore. Satan owns your soul now.
Then there’s the Antichrist. He’s been the Pope, Ronald Reagan, Clinton, Obama. Harry Potter. Just about every world leader gets accused of being the Antichrist. In America, it’s like a rite of passage you have to go through to be President. The problem with looking for the Antichrist in every shadow is that it’s not casting your anxieties on Jesus, like we’re told to do (Peter 5:7). There have been a lot of anti-Christs (I John 2:18). Real ones. And when the last one finally makes his appearance, it will not even cause God a twinge of worry. “And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will kill with the breath of his mouth and bring to nothing by the appearance of his coming” (II Thess. 2:8). See, Jesus teaches us that “blessed are the peacemakers,” but End Times theology often teaches us to distrust peacemakers. After all, isn’t the Antichrist going to be a great peacemaker? Someone wants to work toward peace in the Middle East, he must be the anti-Christ! A leader tries to avoid conflict with another country because they don’t want a war, look out! He’s probably the Antichrist! We end up actively avoid allying ourselves with leaders that are doing what Jesus taught us to do.
Almost every Christian goes through a phase of her or his life where End Times theology fascinates them. This is not a bad thing. The book of Revelation is the only book in the Bible that God has attached a blessing to, just for reading and hearing the words written in it (Rev. 1:3). But if you’re not careful, the fear and suspicion taught in a lot of End Times theology can consume your life, taking away the joy of the calling you’re meant to fulfill in the present.
3. The Apocalypse is for Heroes
The End Times are not without their romantic appeal. Danger lurks around every corner. The entire world is against you. You might be Rick Grimes leading his people against the hordes of the undead. You may be Stew Redman, standing on the border between the Light and the Darkness, finding love and purpose in a world gone wrong. You could be Rayford Steele, outwitting the anti-Christ himself and finding God and family in a way that you never could while the world was working normally. Back then, people probably made fun of your name for sounding like it belongs to a porn star, but here, at the End, you are a hero.
The message is clear: things work differently now, and only those that have what it takes to be a hero can survive. And as you listen to these stories a single message becomes clear: you have to be strong to survive. You have to be Buck Williams, who is barely fazed as Chicago is nuked. You have to be the one that can shoot a
little girl zombie in the head.
But that’s not the point of the End. It’s not an adventure. And contrary to a popular opinion, country boys can’t survive it. In the popular anime series Neon Genesis Evangelion, humanity reaches a point where they can use angelic technology to stand up to God Himself. And they sort of win. But that’s not the point of the End, either. There’s a word for winning against God. It’s called losing. Living in the End Times is not about being strong or tough or self-sufficient. Those aren’t bad qualities, but they’re not what define the heroes of the End.
This is what being defeated in the End Times looks like: “And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold” (Matt. 24:12).
This is what victory in the End Times looks like: “And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death” (Rev. 12:11).
They are not strong in themselves. They rely on Jesus’ blood for forgiveness, on their confession of his good news…
… and they die. That’s what they do. They don’t love their lives and try to preserve them by giving up their faith. They don’t try to slay the
Evil Dead non-Christians around them to save themselves. They give up their lives for the true Hero of the story.
The apocalypse has only one Hero. He says, “I have trodden the winepress alone, and from the peoples no one was with me; I trod them in my anger and trampled them in my wrath; their lifeblood spattered on my garments, and stained all my apparel” (Isaiah 63:3).
We’re just his audience.
4. God Actually Hates Us
Most End Times teaching doesn’t phrase it that way. They speak of the judgment and wrath of God, and show how the whole world drowns in the awful things he causes to happen, and before you know it a picture is painted of God in our minds, and it’s not one of a loving father, but one that abuses his children when they don’t follow his commands.
Anyone that has read the Bible has encountered the wrath of God before. We know the stories, the things that we barely show in our Christian movies because if we did they’d have to be rated-R. How people were drowned, burned, poisoned by snakes, blinded, struck dead, even swallowed up by the ground… or maybe, if God is feeling particularly creative, turned into salt.
Then Jesus shows up and says he’s going to only do what God the Father does (John 5:19) and he… heals the sick, refuses to stone a woman caught in adultery, hangs out with sinners, and even scolds his disciples for wanting to call down fire on their opponents, saying, “You do not know what kind of spirit you are of; for the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them” (Luke 9:55-56). And we read the rest of the New Testament, and this new way of understanding God is looking pretty amazing…
And then we reach the Revelation, and while we might not put it into words, our souls are going, “What happened to you, Jesus?! Things were going so well, and now you’re opening seals and… and is that a rod of iron in your hands? W-What are you planning to do with that? Also, you seem to have something on your robe, Lord… it’s red and there’s a lot of it… No, no, I’m not accusing you of anything. It’s just… you look different is all.”
The thing is, it’s not like Jesus pulled any punches during his earthly ministry. In the Gospels, he talked quite a lot about God’s judgment and the things that would befall the world at the end of the age. He talked about it while healing the sick. He talked about it while raising the dead and casting out demons. To Jesus, the judgment of God was not something that took away from his loving nature. Rather, his fury against Sin—the force that separates the ones he loves from him—is a part of his love. The Bible says “God is love” (I John 4:8). It also says “God is a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:29). That’s no contradiction. God is furious love, and anything that is not of love will be burned away. That’s what the End is about. It’s not God turning on a world he hates, deciding to do with fire what he did in the days of Noah with water. It’s God’s brightness being revealed from heaven, to a world too dark to stand it. And it’s about the final chance offered to everyone.
It’s good news for zombies.
5. It’s Hopeless
All these beliefs—that it’s Us versus Them, that the End is already here, that only the hardened can survive it, that God hates us—they all lead to one overwhelming conclusion: that the message of the End Times is not one of hope.
This is not true.
Yes, the book of Revelation and some of the other End Times passages of scripture deal with some dark things. But that’s because the Bible does not flinch away from the pain of the world. There are dark times ahead. You don’t have to be a Christian to forecast the end. We see it in fictional worlds like The Walking Dead and every other post-apocalyptic film or video game ever made. We even see it in the grim prophecies of science. Whether you believe the age is going to reach its climax because of the plan of God, or because human beings are now technologically capable of destroying the environment and making the planet uninhabitable…either way, you see an approaching End—in fact, Revelation 11:18 has a rather serious warning about God purposing “to destroy those who destroy the earth,” so even Christians that believe God is going to make it all better in the end have a Scriptural reason to show responsibility to the environment of which God has made us stewards.
Is there any reason to hope, to believe that the dark times actually lead somewhere? That human beings are more than the living dead? That Entropy doesn’t get the final word in the End? Or that God doesn’t hate us at all, that the message of the Gospel is not some fleeting respite from the fury of an endlessly angry being, a mere way-station on the road of his wrath?
Yes. The world is not going to end. The age is going to end, and then a new one will begin. It is the dark times that are temporary, a mere speed bump on the road of eternity. The message of the End is that it’s the end of sorrows. It’s the end of being afraid and lonely. It’s the end of everything that has separated you from what God has for you. Forever. And there is only One worthy to bring about this end. It’s the final act of the story of His great salvation, a story that doesn’t have an end. To preach it in a way that makes us feel hopeless is to miss the point of the End, it is to cringe under the shadow of forces that are already defeated (Col. 2:15), and soon to be vanquished entirely (Rom. 16:20).
When we as Christians speak of the End Times in tones of fear and resignation and see everything that happens around them as pieces of some dark puzzle, we have set our minds on things that are not pure and lovely and commendable (Phil. 4:8). We have been taught to drag all the scary stuff out of the last days and bring them into these days, to haunt us and make us anxious when we should be at our most victorious. Living without dread of the End is not the same as sticking our heads in the sand, or not being wise to the signs of the times. You can live responsibly and wisely and compassionately, making a difference, and still not be full of anxiety. We look to Jesus as our example. The one who preached so much about the coming End also said, “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble” (Matt. 6:34).
The word “apocalypse” actually means unveiling. It’s not a wall we’re crashing into, but a veil that’s being pulled aside so that we can see what lies beyond. And that is joyful. It doesn’t mean that we are to live carelessly and irresponsibly now (when the End is not yet), but that in everything we do we can have confidence that it is leading somewhere wonderful. We can show people the relentless love of God without fear of them. We live not in the shadow of the end, but with the hope of new and endless life. That is what the End is really about: the hope that this present age, with all its darkness, has a boundary, and that none of those things that make us afraid and brokenhearted can cross it. But you, rescued by a recklessly loving Savior, will.