In case you missed it, the world ended today. At least, according to the prediction of some church leader in America it was due to end today. Mistaken though he might have been, I think it is a topic worth looking at closer.
Jesus has quite a lot to say about the end of the world, in Matthew 24. He says it will involve the desecration of the temple in Jerusalem, and the throwing-down of every stone of the temple, and weeping, and that it will take place within the lifetime of many of his listeners. All this came to pass in July AD70, when the Romans lost patience with Jewish rebellion, Jerusalem fell to her army, the temple was literally torn down stone by stone, and a great many rebels were executed in front of their families.
In the light of this, Jesus’ words concerning the sign of the Son of Man being glorified in the sky and his own being gathered to him ought to be understood to speak not of his future return but of his crucifixion (compare Matthew 24:30-31 with what he says about that event in John 12:23-33). Do I believe in the future bodily return of Jesus to the earth? Yes: he said he would return, and at his ascension an angel appeared, saying he would return in the same way he had departed. Do I believe it will look like biblical apocalyptic depictions? No: apocalyptic writing, like poetry, conveys a truth that cannot adequately be conveyed by the literal (think of the woman in Song of Songs poetically described as having a neck like a tower and teeth like a flock of sheep); as such, to interpret it in a literal sense does not affirm its truth but precisely denies the truth it conveys.
The world Jesus and his listeners knew came to an end in AD70. Jesus had foreseen with prophetic accuracy the inevitability of those events, within a generation, if the people rejected him and his kingdom message and continued to seek political liberation from Rome; but the Father had not revealed to him the precise time his vision would be fulfilled.
In a sense, we have been living post the end of the world ever since.
But in another sense, the world ends on a fairly regular basis. I am not talking about the personal world I inhabit, which might be shaken by the death of a loved one; but the world I live in. Nations, Empires, Eras: such things all rise and fall. My parents’ generation’s world came to an end when John F Kennedy was assassinated; or, for others, when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. The world I live in has come to an end on numerous occasions: at the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the release from prison of Nelson Mandela; the Rwandan genocide, and 9/11.
Jesus says that when your world comes to an end, as it surely will, there are two possible responses: either you will be so shaken that your life will be swept away, like the unrighteous when Noah’s world came to an end; or you will be so secure that your life will continue almost as if nothing had happened. (This, in total contrast to popular American eschatology which depicts a Rapture in which the righteous will be taken and the unrighteous Left Behind.)
And according to Jesus, the way in which we can know such security is by coming to the Father, and the way in which we come to the Father is through the Son.
So, did the world end today. Probably, somewhere.