What makes people so obsessed about the end of the world? Today, Barry Cooper considers what Christians should know about the “last days” and how we ought to live in light of the promise of Christ’s soon return.
Why are people so obsessed with the end of the world? I suppose, for one thing, it might be less anxiety-inducing if we knew ahead of time exactly what was going to happen. Perhaps we could be better prepared for it. Or avoid it somehow.
The end of the world is—you don’t need me to tell you—a theme much beloved by artists, environmentalists, writers, and filmmakers. Whether it’s the earth being pelted with meteors, cooked or frozen to death by climate change, taken over by mutinous robots, or being scheduled for demolition by a race of bureaucratic aliens intent on building a hyperspace bypass, nothing focuses the mind—or makes bank—quite so reliably as portraying the end of the world.
Apparently, in the U.K. in 2015, 23 percent of the general public believed the end was likely to come in their lifetime, the most likely cause being nuclear war. Only 3 percent of Britons thought the world would be brought to an end by the second coming of Christ, compared to 16 percent of Americans.
All of which brings me to eschatology. The word eschatology comes from the two Greek words eschatos and logos, meaning “last” and “word.” So eschatology is a word about last things—or, to put it another way, the study of things that will happen at the end.
So, we’re doing eschatology when we talk about death and what comes after it, the second coming of Christ, the resurrection of the dead, the final judgment, the passing away of this present world, and the establishment of the new heaven and new earth. You may also hear theologians talking about “the eschaton,” which is a way of describing the time when these things will happen.
Jesus tells us that there are some aspects of eschatology that God has quite deliberately chosen not to disclose. When the disciples ask Him when He plans to restore the kingdom to His people, Jesus replies, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority.” And when Jesus talks to them about His second coming, He makes this remarkable statement: “Concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.”
We know that the day is coming, but we don’t know exactly when. So if someone claims they do know exactly when Jesus will return—as many have over the years—they are lying and claiming to know more than Jesus Himself.
That said, we are told a great deal about these last things, even if Christians historically have debated some of the finer details—especially since the late nineteenth century, when dispensationalism began to arise. Check out the episodes on the millennium and the rapture for more on that.
Although Jesus warns us against being too prescriptive about the exact details, Scripture does tell us a great deal in the realm of eschatology.
In fact, when we talk about the last days, we’re not merely restricting ourselves to the study of things yet to happen. According to the Apostles, the last days began when Christ first entered the world.
For example, Hebrews chapter 1 says that “in these last days, [God] has spoken to us by his Son.” The assumption is clear: we’re living in the last days right now and have been since the New Testament was written. That doesn’t mean that the Lord will return today, or in our lifetime, although He might. But it does mean that we are consciously to live our lives in the knowledge that the Lord’s return is not far off.
For those who ignore God or who presume on God’s forgiveness while living lives of impurity, that is a warning much more fearful than nuclear war or catastrophic climate change.
But for faithful believers, especially believers who are suffering or under persecution, it is a precious thought to know that these days are the last days and that the Lord will return soon to gather His people into His arms.