Scientists tell us that the Universe is 14.3 billion years old. Earth started to form 5 billion years ago. Homo spiens, our species appeared 100,000 – 200,000 years ago. Is all this going to disappear? I do not think so, at least not in our life time. The ‘end times’ must therefore mean something else.
The writers of texts about the ‘end times’ were using the apocalyptic literary form. It was common in the years 200 BC – 200 AD. We find it in the Book of Daniel, the Gospels and in Revelation. This is the literature of the oppressed. Some of the features we find in it are:
1. The revelations come in dreams.
2. Much symbolism is used; animals, numbers and things happening to the sun, moon and stars.
3. The prediction is usually fiction.
4. The wise person who tells of these happenings is addressing the situation of his community in the HERE and NOW.
In Mk 13: 24 – 32 we have a wonderful example of apocalyptic writing. The passage opens with these terrifying words.
“24Jesus said to his disciples, “In those days, after that time of distress, the sun will be darkened, the moon will lose its brightness, 25the stars will come falling from heaven and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. 26And they will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds with great power and glory;”
If nothing else will scare the life out of us this certainly will. It gets even worse as we read on.
“30I tell you solemnly, before this generation has passed away all these things will have taken place.”
Take note of the cosmic symbolism that is used. The prediction is also fiction. The writer leaves us in no doubt that he is talking about the here and now. The problem is; what could this possibly mean? How does this relate to me and the circumstances of my life?
This is one of the most re-assuring and hope-filled passages of the gospels. The early Christians would have had no difficulty understanding this. Our problem is that this kind of literature is so foreign to our way of thinking.
The sun moon and stars are not going to come crashing down to earth. Here the sun, moon, stars and powers of heaven refer to the false gods of the time. Jesus is giving us the assurance that the false pagan gods will be defeated. In this battle between good and evil he tells us that GOOD IS GOING TO TRIUMPH.
We often feel over-powered by the false gods of our day; greed, consumerism, racial superiority. There is no need to feel despondent. Jesus has made it quite clear that it is his firm belief that Good will triumph over evil.
“31Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” Of course ‘heaven and earth’ will not vanish. Even should the impossible happen Jesus’ assurance, that Good will triumph, will still hold true for us.
26And they will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds with great power and glory.
One might imagine Jesus arriving on a cloud shaped like a Mercedes. Not at all! The image is far more powerful. In Jesus we have the assurance that Good will triumph over all. In spite of how things look we have to believe the Good will triumph. No way can we be defeated. Jesus believed this. Even as he died on the cross, his life apparently a total failure, he clung to the truth – God / Goodness will triumph. From the cross we hear him call, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me.” Ps 22: 2. Jesus seems to be in the depths of despair. He had every reason to feel that way. However, if we recite the whole psalm we discover that the mood of the psalm changes. “All the ends of the earth will worship and turn to the Lord.” Ps 22: 28. In other words, GOOD WILL TRIUMPH; in my life and yours, in our society and over all the earth for all people.
“But what about the Last Judgment described in Mt 25: 31 – 46” you might ask? This is a parable using apocalyptic language. Parables are fiction. It is placed at the end of Book Five of Matthew’s Gospel. One would naturally expect Matthew to be summing up the teaching of Jesus at this point. As you read it you will find a remarkable repetition.
“35For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, 36naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.”
This appears four times. Clearly, this is a powerful final summation of Jesus teaching.