In the Bible (and I want to propose, for us today) the best reason for talking about the “end of the world” and the “end times” is not to focus on what is going to happen to the world in the future. Rather, to talk about the “end of the world” biblically points us to the purpose of the world. Or, more directly, our purpose for living in the world.
The word “end”, of course, can have two different meanings. (1) “End” means the conclusion, the finish, the last part, the final outcome. In this sense, “the end of the world” is something future and has to do with the world ceasing to exist. (2) “End” also, though, means the purpose, what is desired, the intention. “End of the world,” in this sense, is, we could say, what God intends the world to be for. Why is the world here and why are we here and what are we to be about? In this sense of “end,” the “end times” have to do with why we live in time, here and now.
Problems with focusing on the future
In the years right after I became a Christian as a teenager, I thought of the “end times” strictly in terms of the future and how things will conclude. I looked for the soon return of Christ—and would have been shocked to be still living in the 21st century.
When I was in college in the mid-1970s, I quite seriously contemplated dropping out. Why should I work at preparing for the future when the future wasn’t going to come? In those days, I welcomed the development of nuclear weapons, the conflicts in the Middle East, and the likelihood of war with the Soviet Union and possibly also China. I welcomed wars and rumors of wars. These problems all meant that the second coming was at hand. The “end of the world” was coming soon, and in that I rejoiced.
At some point, though, I realized that what I was welcoming, actually, was incredible human suffering and the destruction of created life, unprecedented death and bloodshed: I welcomed, in a word, extreme evil. And, I understood God to be the agent of this evil. In this view, God’s purposes could only be worked out, I realized, by God killing human beings and other living creatures on an unimaginable level.
I do not fully understand how this view of the “end of the world” as the destruction of the world came to dominate Christian thinking. However, as with many problems in the “Christian” worldview (such as seeing God as punitive, supporting so-called just wars, and viewing human beings as corrupted by original sin), I suspect that the “Doctor of the Church,” Augustine of Hippo, had something to do with it.
Augustine’s great fifth-century book was called The City of God. He links Greek philosophy with biblical theology and comes up with a notion of heaven (the “city of God”) as something outside of time and history, future, otherworldly. This city, “heaven,” is sharply distinguished from the world we live in, from historical life in the here and now (the “city of man”). For Augustine, life in history is characterized by brutality, sinfulness, and the struggle for power.
We have thus a disjunction between heaven and life in the here and now. This split between heaven and history led to a notion of Christian hope that focused, in effect, on the destruction of this world. Genuine salvation requires an escape from this life to heaven and eternity and something totally different and separate.
As Augustine’s follower Thomas Hobbes wrote during the 17th century, life on earth is nasty, brutish, and short. The end of the world is coming (thank God), and the sooner the better. It is tragically ironic that the worldview that looks to the future for salvation and achievement of heaven, in the present tends to justify violence and punishment and domination—and uses the Bible to support all of this. This worldview fosters a self-fulfilling prophecy. Since we believe that life in the here and now is nasty, brutish, violent, and short, we act to make it so—as Augustine and so many other Christians since have in supporting death-dealing violence toward heretics, pagans, and criminals.
Changing our lenses
Well, what if we change our lenses? What if we look at the Bible and at the world differently? What if we could realize that our key question is not about the future destruction of the world but about our purpose in the here and now? What if we look at the Bible with new eyes, looking for what it tells us about the purpose of the world rather than looking for how the world will end at any moment?
Let’s look at some biblical texts that provide a glimpse. Psalm 46 was Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, favorite passage in the Bible. We can see why. God is our strength—and we need not fear even though “the mountains shake in the heart of the sea.” God is present; God’s city is in history. For the people of God, wars cease. God destroys the weapons of war. The “end times” are the times for God’s city, the people of God, to embrace the ways of peace—right now, in this life.
Isaiah 2:2-4 also presents a picture of the purpose (or “end”) of history. God calls together a people to form communities in history, in this world. This people witnesses to all the nations of the world. God’s people must teach genuine peace, genuine justice, genuine mercy. Isaiah’s vision promises that when God’s people truly teach peace to the nations, swords will be transformed into plowshares, nations will learn war no more.
This same vision is repeated in Revelation when John of Patmos sees a vision of heaven and earth transformed (21:22-26). The city of human self-will and domination, called “Babylon,” is transformed. It becomes a new city where God truly is worshiped. And the nations and the kings of the earth join in this worship. Those who had rebelled against God are healed—through the witness of the Lamb and people of faith who follow the Lamb wherever he goes.
These three passages unite in insisting that the “end times” of healing are for now. People of faith are called to make the “end times” present in this world, in this history. People of faith are called to serve the God who makes wars cease and who purposes to heal (not destroy) the rebellious nations.
A strategy for reading Revelation
Looking through lenses that help us see the “end times” of healing being present may especially transform the way we perceive the book of Revelation, which is usually seen as the book of the Bible most concerned with “the end times.”
Many people read Revelation as predicting a bloody future period of Tribulation that could begin at any time. This tribulation is to be welcomed as part of God’s work to bring ultimate salvation (for some) and condemnation (for others). Wars and rumors of wars, the likelihood of a nuclear holocaust, these were all foretold in Revelation; let’s praise God when they happen. This is the message of Hal Lindsey’s The Late, Great Planet Earth (the largest selling of all books published in the US during the 1970s).
Other people also read Revelation as being about violence, catastrophe, and the shattering end of life as we know it—but they are appalled by these visions. Jonathan Kirsch, who is a writer for the Los Angeles Times, wrote a bestselling “exposé” of Revelation recently called, A History of the End of the World. He characterizes the core message of Revelation in this way: “The moral calculus of Revelation—the demonization of one’s enemies, the sanctification of revenge taking, and the notion that history must end in catastrophe—can be detected in some of the worst atrocities and excesses of every age, including our own. For all of these reasons, the rest of us ignore the book Revelation only at our impoverishment and, more to the point, at our own peril.”
Both Lindsey and Kirsch read Revelation looking for it to contain a message of violence, severe judgment, and condemnation for God’s human enemies. I want to suggest a reading of Revelation that follows from looking for something else.
We are well-advised, I think, to read Revelation looking for guidance as we live amidst wars and rumors of war, imperial violence, and threats to creation itself. However, we need to take with utmost seriousness Revelation’s place in the New Testament, and in the Bible as a whole. The message of the Bible finds its sharpest and clearest expression in these brief words of Jesus: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself.”
I believe we best read Revelation looking for confirmation of Jesus’ words. We should look for inspiration to make those words the center of our response to the world around us. We seek a sense of hope that as we follow Jesus’ command and (like he did) face strong resistance from the powers that be in our societies God will not abandon us. When we read Revelation thus, we will be able to make sense, the best sense, of the “words of this prophecy” (Revelation 1:3).
We do need to pay attention to the crazy and at times overwhelming visions in Revelation. But we must not let them distract us from the basic message of the book. And we are given important clues to this message right away in the opening verses. We are told at the get go that this book is “the revelation of Jesus Christ.” So, whatever else we think we see here, it all needs to be oriented back to this original point. How do these visions help reveal Jesus Christ?
What if we look for something that helps us love our neighbor and have confidence that such love goes with the grain of the universe and is worth suffering for? Drop down to verse five of chapter one, our first description of Jesus. This is part of John’s opening confession, “grace and peace” from the One who is, was, and is to come, from the seven spirits, and from Jesus Christ. Notice how Jesus is described: “the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth,” who “freed us by” his self-sacrifice. The term “faithful witness” could also be translated “faithful martyr.” The Greek word is matrys; it has the clear sense of Jesus’ faithful life embodying love of neighbor that led to his execution by the Romans. From the start, we have an image of the suffering servant, the faithful witness to God’s love who came to care for others.
The victory that matters, the one affirmed right at the start and, as it turns out, throughout the book, is won by Jesus’ “blood.” The victory is won by Jesus’ willingness to remain faithful to the ways of love and compassion. He remained faithful even to the point of execution by a state that stood against such love and compassion when it challenged the state’s status quo.
Revelation portrays two distinct kinds of “victory,” or “conquering.” John emphasizes this key theme throughout the book. Jesus “conquers” through self-sacrificial love. The Roman Empire, the powers-that-be of John’s day, conquers through domination. Writers such as Hal Lindsey and Jonathan Kirsch, opposed to one another as they may be in terms of their own politics and religion, stand together in misinterpreting the meaning of the visions of violence and catastrophe in Revelation. Ultimately, these visions expose the evil of the Beast, the Roman Empire, all empires (including the American Empire). The wars and rumors of war reflect the opposite of God’s will.
From start to finish, the “faithful servant” (the Lamb) takes the central role. Through his faithfulness, this “faithful servant” reveals authentic power and thereby is confessed as “ruler of the kings of the earth,” the one who thus reveals God’s will.
Revelation reveals Jesus the suffering servant, not Jesus the conquering avenger. In chapter five, John weeps because he does not believe that anyone will be found who can open the scroll that contains the message of the consummation of history. He is told not to weep, someone has been found. So this is the key moment, really, of the entire book. Who is worthy to open the scroll? John hears, mighty, conquering king. But what does he see (again, the key element of sight, of revelation)? He sees a Lamb, standing (that is, resurrected) as if slaughtered (that is, executed by crucifixion). This Lamb, who conquered through persevering love, can open the scroll and therefore is worthy to be praised by all creation.
A second climactic moment comes in chapter 19. For some time in the book, we read of anticipations of a great final battle, the “battle of Armageddon.” All the armies of the powers-that-be gather for this battle. In the book-of-Revelation-as-violent reading, this is the key moment in the entire book. However, in the Revelation-as-revelation-of-Jesus reading, we see something different when we get to the “battle scene.” The savior rides forth on a white horse, as if to battle. But he is armed only with a sword coming out of his mouth, the word of proclamation of the good news of God’s love. And before he gets to the “battle,” he is clothed in “a robe dipped in blood” (19:13)—that is, his blood has already been shed.
The act that frees us and wins the battle is Jesus’ faithfulness to the point of execution, vindicated by God’s raising him from the dead. And this has already happened. The “Battle of Armageddon” is simply a matter of the Powers of evil being gathered up and thrown into the lake of fire. And—a reference always missed by the Revelation-as-violent interpreters—the kings of the earth (the paradigmatic enemies of God throughout the book) do not end up in the lake of fire but rather in the New Jerusalem (21:24). Jesus’ victory—won by his love—results not in the punishment of human enemies but in their healing.
The book of Revelation has big hopes. It portrays the fall of Babylon. I understand this dream of Babylon’s fall to be a dream of the end of systems of domination, of nations pouring their wealth (and their children) down the rat hole of militarism, of economics that impoverish the billions and destroy the earth for the sake of further enriching the already rich. In hoping for the fall of Babylon, Revelation also hopes for the healing of Babylon’s human apologists. The generals and capitalists and presidents who do the Beast’s bidding are themselves in bondage to evil Powers. When those Powers are destroyed, their human servants are freed. The kings of the earth find healing. This is what Revelation hopes for.
And Revelation hopes for a transformed earth and a transformed heaven—where, drawing on other biblical imagery, the lamb and lion rest together and where weapons of war are beat into tools for cultivating the earth and where the boots of tramping warriors are burnt.
This message of hope is crucial in understanding the revelation of Jesus Christ that John reports in this book. But what truly matters for us is to recognize how these goals are attained. The means to these goals, the outcomes the book points to and all followers of the Lamb hope for are all achieved through the self-sacrificial love of the Lamb. The “conquering” that achieves authentic victory throughout Revelation happens only through the power of consistent love. Jesus’ faithful witness and God’s nonviolent vindication through resurrection conquer. Throughout the book, John’s readers are exhorted in only one direction. They are not to fight the Beast’s violence with violence of their own. They are not to seek to conquer the Beast using his methods. They have a very simple, but extraordinarily challenging calling: follow the Lamb wherever he goes.
John does not give us predictions about the future that stimulate us to pray for wars and rumors of war. John certainly does not intend to drive us to label our human enemies as subhuman in a way that justifies violence against them. John wants us to realize that we need each other and that we human beings and our communities are the center of the action in the big drama he portrays. God’s answer to the chaos and violence the Powers have unleashed on earth is to form small peaceable communities that know God’s love, experience it in their common life, and share this love throughout the world—with the ultimate outcome of the conversion of the kings of the earth (21:24) and the healing of the nations (22:2).
Our end in light of Jesus
The distinctively Christian element of Christian eschatology is to be seen in it being centered on Jesus’ life and teaching. Eschatology is best understood as the study of deep reality, of the ultimate nature and purpose of things—with the understanding that this includes both where we have come from and where we are going.
Christian eschatology asserts that history is best understood in terms of Jesus’ way of love, compassion, openness, critique of power politics, and obedience to God. This way of Jesus is understood to be the purpose of human life.
For Christians, our understanding of the future is in full continuity with our understanding of the past. That is to say, we understand the meaning of deep reality by considering God’s revelation in Jesus. Christians confess that God is fully revealed in Jesus in that there will be no new revelation that is in tension with God as revealed in Jesus.
Our hope is based ultimately on two points: (1) Do we trust that Jesus is the full revelation of God? (2) Do we trust that in raising Jesus from the dead, God insured that life and love continue victorious over death and evil?
Typically, discussions of eschatology consider issues related to “heaven” and “hell.” “Heaven,” biblically, is best understood as the spiritual element of the world. Heaven is where God is known to be present. It is an element of historical reality, part of this world. Heaven is not atemporal, the realm of eternity in contrast to the finitude of everyday life. As part of this world, heaven, for the time being, does contain evil. This is reflected in various biblical stories that portray Satan in God’s presence (such as Job). Heaven is the spiritual dimension of life—both for good and for evil. Revelation teaches that heaven will be transformed just as the rest of reality will be (“the new heaven and the new earth”). The spiritual forces of evil, who do abide in heaven now, will be destroyed according to Revelation. When they are destroyed (thrown into the Lake of Fire, Revelation 20:10), according to the New Jerusalem vision in Revelation 21–22, the unity of heaven and earth will be fully seen.
“Hell” is to be understood as existence apart from God. Hell is total alienation from the goodness of life. It is emptiness and lifelessness. As in heaven, hell is historical, the experience in life of deadness and separation from God. According to the vision in Revelation, the powers of evil will be “destroyed” with the coming of the New Heaven and New Earth. The newness is portrayed as the full revelation of reality as it is meant to be—without the alienation and brokenness that leads to hell on earth. Revelation 20 envisions a time when death and Hades and the Dragon, the Beast, and the False Prophet will be no more.