What does the Bible really say about End Times?
During the summer bushfires, a popular metaphor emerged when journalists, commentators, and those personally affected talked about what was happening. With fires burning in many parts of the country, bushfire smoke affected air quality, and a blood-red sun visible overhead, many Australians described what they saw as “apocalyptic”.
During disasters like bushfires, and with threats such as that posed by climate change, people often turn to this language of the world ending. From comedies such as Last Man on Earth to grim fare like The Walking Dead, popular culture has recently seen growing interest in post-apocalyptic stories.
Many of the images and ideas that inform apocalyptic language and entertainment have a biblical basis. Most of them, however, are deeply misunderstood.
One famous biblical example of apocalyptic is the book
of Daniel. In this narrative, the Jewish prophet Daniel provides King
Nebuchadnezzar with an ominous warning that his reign is nearing its end. The
warning uses dramatic imagery that, as the prophet goes on to explain, conveys
One of the Bible’s other famous, yet least understood, books. Revelation (no s) is a letter full of violent descriptions of stars falling, animals, beasts, culminating in the promise of a new heaven and a new earth. While Christians have long sought to apply John of Patmos’ dream to current events (and to discern when the end times seemingly promoted by the text will take place) these predictions have constantly updated as things change. Moreover, there is no consensus on how to interpret Revelation.
In an interview with Bible Odyssey, Distinguished Professor at the University of North Carolina, Bart D. Ehrman explains why the Bible’s apocalyptic texts are so badly misunderstood.
“When people today read these apocalypses, they often misread them as if these apocalypses are predicting things in our own future,” Professor Ehrman said.
“But, ancient apocalypses weren’t meant to be talking about what’s going to be happening in 2000 years hence. They’re meant to be talking to people of their own day.”
“The Book of Daniel and the Book of
Revelation may seem strange to us but it’s because they’re the only two
apocalypses we’re familiar with. Ancient
people would have read lots of apocalypses and would have understood how these
apocalypses were functioning; they’re functioning to provide hope because
they’re all about how there are wicked forces in charge of this world that God
is going to overcome if you just hold on, if you just keep the faith.”
“And so, the point of these books is for people to keep the faith for a little while so that God can destroy the forces of evil and bring in a good kingdom on Earth. They’re not predicting what is going to happen in our own future.”
This argument adopts what is sometimes called a ‘realised eschatology’, whereby the events described in John’s vision in Revelation are not actual future events at all, but rather a metaphorised way of describing what Jesus has already done in human history.
Of course, it could easily be said that interpreting these apocalyptic texts, the task of eschatology is a niche concern, an academic task best left to professional theologians and ministers whose job is to grapple with biblical texts. In a dissertation by James Green at the University of Bristol, journalists and members of the broader public tend to be dismissive of the subject matter’s importance, as “the issue is largely disregarded in the secular sphere as a solely spiritual matter.”
This, however, is to ignore the very real and significant consequences that theology has. In the case of eschatology, the theology of ‘end times’ has big implications for government policies, especially regarding climate change and foreign policy.
During the 1980s, the Reagan administration advocated
a foreign policy that hoped to establish borders for Israel that matched up
with those of biblical prophecy. During this period, premillennial
dispensationalism was a popular understanding of scripture. As Green
This branch of eschatology dictates that in the end times the world will become increasingly and irreversibly corrupt, and its vision of the end includes such events as the formation of a one-world religion under Antichrist, the ‘rapture’ of born-again Christians, and the seven-year ‘tribulation’.
More recently, the Trump administration’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel met with suggestions that the president was making this move to impress a conservative evangelical constituency who would welcome the shift.
In other words, the eschatology that senior US political figures subscribe to have very real impact on the Middle East.
More recently, some close observers of Australian politics have expressed concern that Australia’s climate change policy may be influenced by Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s understanding of scripture.
As a Pentecostal, Mr Morrison likely subscribes to a literalist view of end-times prophecies, an eschatology that the Prime Minister’s critics allege makes him unlikely to support more ambitious policies to mitigate climate change.
As University of Tasmania researcher James Boyce puts it in an opinion piece for The Monthly:
Certainty about the return of Christ explains why Pentecostals can accept the science of climate change – few are outright deniers – but also be reconciled with its implications. The fate of human beings and the future of creation will not be determined by the burning of fossil fuels but by Christ when he remakes heaven and Earth.
The reality of global heating means that Pentecostal theology about the forthcoming return of Christ to gather his people, judge others and set up his reign on Earth is no longer an interesting eccentricity but a dangerous heresy. It is the responsibility of mainstream church leaders and theologians to challenge this understanding of the End Times and provide much-needed support to the brave Pentecostals who are questioning it from within.
Whether this understanding of the End Times applies to Morrison is the matter of conjecture, as the Prime Minister remains somewhat quiet about it. In the face of the climate change crisis, he suggests that Australia is “carrying its load” and must adapt, which some critics have taken as a fait accompli.
The Prime Minister has also argued that his faith is a personal and private matter. And yet, he invited cameras to film him worshipping at church. In his 2008 maiden speech to Parliament, he described himself as standing for “the immutable truths and principles of the Christian faith”.
Theology, then, is part of the Prime Minister’s public speech, and a facet of Australia’s political discourse.
Understanding the apocalyptic genre and its place in scripture is therefore important and potentially has big implications outside of our church buildings and lecture halls.