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The events of Sept.11, war in Afghanistan, Palestinian suicide bombings, Israeli attacks on terrorist bases in Gaza, looming war in Iraq – all have combined to revitalize the apocalyptic fixation of many evangelical Christians. What are we to make of it?
I’m not sure. Maybe these are signs of the second coming. Perhaps they are harbingers of end-time events. But I’m very skeptical.
Let’s get one thing clear from the beginning: I believe that Jesus will come again in visible, bodily form to judge the world in righteousness. It’s just that I am not so confident as some that we are going to read the signs of the end and know when to expect him.
One televangelist has already rushed into print with Attack on America: New York, Jerusalem and the Role of Terrorism in the Last Days. He is stirring the minds of many to see a “great sorrow” inflicted on the world as a sign of the end. Another preacher sees a specific reference to the collapse of the World Trade Center towers at Isaiah 30:25 – “on a day of the great slaughter, when the towers fall.” And several have tied Revelation 18:10 to the same series of events: “Babylon, the mighty city! For in one hour your judgment has come.”
This sort of proof-texting is not uncommon with some believers, but it is not a particularly responsible use of the Word of God. Isaiah prophesied about destruction against Jerusalem eight centuries before Christ, not about New York. Revelation is about the terrible persecution of Christians by the Roman Empire, and 18:10 is a reference in context to the judgment of its capital city (i.e., Rome) under the figure of the ancient and evil city Babylon.
Smack in the middle of one of the most difficult-to-interpret chapters in the Bible is this very clear statement: “But about that day and hour, no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man” (Matthew 24:36-39).
Far more important than trying to read the signs of the end is the matter of constant faith in, obedience to, and readiness for the return of Christ. “Keep awake therefore,” he said, “for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming” (Matthew 24:42).
The prophecy-trackers may be right this time – even though they have a terrible history of missing it. I’m not alarmed. I’m not initiating any special measures. I’m certainly not buying their updated (and revised) textbooks. I’m simply eager to serve God today – and praying “Our Lord, Come!” every day.