Can thoughts of the end times influence our lives in the present?
In 1970 religious author Hal Lindsey published a book titled The Late Great Planet Earth. In it, Lindsey compared prophecies from the Bible to current events in the world to argue that humanity was living in the end times. The book included descriptions of wars in the Middle East, the emergence of the Antichrist, and fulfillments of predictions contained in the biblical books of Daniel and Ezekiel. One would think that few people, aside from the most radical Christians, would be interested. But The Late Great Planet Earth went on to become the best-selling nonfiction book of the entire decade.1
Twenty-five years later Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins authored a work of fiction called Left Behind: A Novel of the Earth’s Last Days. The book kept many of Lindsey’s core ideas about the end times but portrayed them through a cast of characters who were left behind when the Rapture took place and the tribulations of the last days began. Fifteen more novels followed in the Left Behind series—along with three movies, forty short novels for teens, video games, and music. Published from 1995 to 2006, the sixteen novels alone have sold more than 63 million copies.2
Why are so many of us interested in the end times—so interested in “the end of the world as we know it”?3
There’s an inherent curiosity in people about what will happen to us after death. But what if we take that one step further? What happens if the whole world—not just an individual life—truly ends? What if all that we know and love was suddenly gone?
Perhaps we are intrigued by all the verses in the Bible about the end times. Prophecies about the future, descriptions of eternal judgment, and promises about Jesus’ final return fill the books of the Bible.
What’s more, we receive so many confusing messages from others about the end times. Hal Lindsey asserted that the world would end in 1988.4Jehovah’s Witnesses predicted Armageddon would occur in 1914, 1925, and 1975 before beginning to teach “that the time of the kingdom cannot be predicted by any human measure” in 1995.5
Harold Camping suggested the end would come in the 1990s.6 He revised his prediction several times until definitively declaring that the end would come on May 21, 2011. It did not. He changed the date to October 21, 2011. The day came and went. At which point Camping finally threw up his hands and said: “We’re living in a day when one problem follows another. And when it comes to trying to recognize the truth of prophecy, we’re finding that it is very, very difficult. Why didn’t Christ return on Oct. 21? It seems embarrassing for [us]. . . . We are simply learning. And sometimes it’s painful to learn.”7
It’s easy for us to write off so many doomsday scenarios—though they make it no less confusing if we are genuinely interested in the topic of the end times. But does it really matter? Should we really bother to spend much time thinking about the last days?
Do Not Waste Your Time
There are several reasons why the end times should not concern us too much. First and foremost, we will never be able to know or predict when the end of the world will come. Chances are that it will take place quickly and unexpectedly. Whether life on earth is destroyed by a pandemic, ecological disaster, or nuclear war, few—if any—will be adequately prepared for such a devastating event. And no one will be able to predict it with any level of certainty or precision.
If you are a religious person, you may think that the end of the world is part of God’s plan for human history. There are many passages in the Bible from writers like the Apostle Paul that relate how Jesus will one day return to judge the world and make all things right again.8 Yet Jesus said: “About that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”9
If Jesus himself does not know when he is coming back, isn’t it a bit arrogant for Christians to suggest they do?
Second, people in every generation have thought they were living in the end times—but they have all been wrong. Our contemporaries are not the first to predict that Jesus’ return is imminent.
One example is William Miller, who proclaimed that Jesus would return in 1843. His followers grew by the thousands in the years leading up to the predicted event. When it did not happen, the date was delayed multiple times to October 21, 1844. When that day came and went, it became known as the Great Disappointment—and the Millerite movement lost most of its credibility.10
And finally, perhaps people of faith should be less focused on escaping this troubled world to go to heaven and more focused on bringing heaven to this troubled world. In the Bible, the Apostle Peter warned other Christians about the end times: “The day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare.”11
He then quickly shifted to the present implications: “Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming.”12
The point is clear: If you think this world is troubled and that one day God will have to set everything right, be part of that project now. Lead “holy and godly lives” now. Reflect the kind of world God intends it be. Don’t fret about dates and destruction. What matters most is how you live now.
On the Other Hand
However, as important as these considerations are, we should not neglect the topic altogether. There’s no doubt among historians that Jesus truly was a historical figure. And for Christians who believe he was the Son of God, the Bible is explicit that he will return to earth someday.
Jesus told story after story about “a master” who leaves his servants with important responsibilities and then returns when they least expect it.13 The most important part of each story was whether or not the servants had made the most of their time while the master was gone.
Those who believed and expected the master to return were most faithful with the responsibilities he had given them. Those who neglected to think about the master’s return were careless and ashamed when the master actually did show up. They had nothing to show for the tasks he had entrusted to them. Jesus’ stories indicate that reflecting on his future return one day should motivate Christians to make the most of today.
Finally, what the Bible says about the end times should give us hope and perseverance in the midst of current difficult times. The book of Revelation is notoriously difficult to interpret. But if anything is clear from its message, it’s this: Jesus will eventually be victorious over all evil. God will ultimately make all things new. Our faithfulness to him truly does matter.14