Back around the age of television programs like Laugh-In I remember watching a skit premised on how a weather report from Egypt at the time of the pharaohs and the Exodus might have sounded. The announcer hammed it up plenty as he announced darkness sweeping over the land from the north; then huge hailstones from the south, and then “get this,” he announced with wide-eyed incredulity, “from the west, frogs!”
I am not sure how such a show would work today. It might be a little too real for comfort. And the misapplied qualifier that some super-storm or flood is “of biblical proportions” is not uncommon. The other day a White House spokesman noted that while they are always monitoring several hot spots at once, “lately the whole board seems to be lighting up.” Earthquakes, floods, drought, war, starvation, and pestilence are endemic to the news cycle. While Christians might point to these things as end-time markers, few seem to have noticed the full context of Jesus’ answer to His disciples asking about the end of the world and of His return.
In the book of Mathew in the New Testament you can read the sequence of events. Crowds had gathered in Jerusalem to hear Jesus speak. From other Bible accounts we know that the crowd honored Jesus as their king. It must have been a highly charged atmosphere. Surging enthusiastic crowds, watched by Roman authorities ready to call out the riot squad—and watched by the religious leaders who feared that this man was taking away their power. Their fears were realized as Jesus then launched into an extended sermon of woes or condemnations of the misguided religious practices of the day and the corrupt church leaders who were encouraging the state of affairs. He ended by saying, “Your house is left unto you desolate” (Matthew 23:38).
Then His disciples came to Him to show Him the buildings of the great Temple built by Herod. They were shocked when Jesus predicted that it would be destroyed so utterly that not one stone would be left standing. This was the sequence of events that led to the disciples coming yet again to Jesus as He sat on the Mount of Olives nearby. Their question: “When shall these things be? and what shall be the signs of thy coming, and of the end of the world?” (Matthew 24:3).
They were really asking two questions and Jesus essentially confined Himself to the second, which embraced the first. Perhaps He thought it better not to specify the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. In A.D. 70—in their lifetimes, as Jesus indicated later—they saw this cataclysm. Only the foundation of the western wall of the Temple is left standing today.
So far as the end of the world, and His coming, Jesus gave an array of signs. In some ways they describe our age.
He spoke of “wars and rumours of wars.” But “the end is not yet” (verse 6). He spoke of famines and pestilences and many earthquakes. “All these,” Jesus said, “are the beginning of sorrows.” (verse 8).
We seem to be well into the age of sorrows. Famine in the Sahel, civil war in Darfur, earthquakes in China and Haiti, spring turned to winter in Arab countries, Ebola spreading panic and death, megastorms on the East Coast. And overall the growing reality of global warming that promises rising seas, more turbulent weather, more severe drought, unleashed natural pests like locusts, and intensified military conflict over shifting water supplies and arable land.
How unfortunate that in the midst of this we should be fighting over religious solutions to very complex social and geographic problems.
I saw on a recent cover of the Washington Post a rather Vietnam era-type photo sequence of a bombing of ISIS. The first photo showed a bare hill with an ISIS flag and a nearby fighter. The second photo showed the hill covered in an immense explosion from the bomb attack. The caption said something about ISIS destroyed. It troubled me for several reasons. First: it smacked of Vietnam in the assumption that killing a soldier or two has an effect on the engine driving the war—body counts turned out to be horribly misleading. Second: I looked closely, and there was still a figure standing amid the smoke. Third: who really cares about a bare hill, anyway? ISIS in their advance, as had the Japanese and the Americans in World War II, typically just moved around the opposition and bypassed them as ineffectual. Fourth: the threat of Isis is not that it may take Baghdad, but that it may threaten Washington, Sydney, or Toronto. We are dealing with social dislocation and the idealism of youth harnessed to a radical religious agenda. The solution is less military than a desperate need to redirect religious vision toward uplifting ends.
Actually the outline of the end-times that Jesus gave places a lot of emphasis on the religious conflict just before His appearing. In fact, as He outlines it, it is the religious conflict, turmoil, and persecution that define the end-times. He said that His followers would be hated and persecuted as never before—in fact, the persecution is to be so severe that unless the times are shortened, no one will survive. “And then shall many be offended, and shall betray one another, and shall hate one another. And many false prophets shall rise, and shall deceive many” (verses 10, 11).
For me, this is fulfilled today by unprecedented persecution. Christians are facing a final expulsion from many countries in the Middle East. Many minority sects of Islam are facing genocidal attacks from majority forces. In other countries Hindus attack Buddhists and in others Buddhists attack Muslims. Many are offended at another’s religion or lack of religion and are prepared to harm or kill to advance their view.
How we can dream of the biblical promise that “they shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain”(Isaiah 11:9). That day will of course come. But it lies on the other side of the woes that Jesus spoke of on the Mount of Olives. It lies on the other side of the burning mountain of global warming. It lies on the other side of religious violence. The only way past these woes is a personal commitment to use religion to discover God for ourselves. We must not fall for the claim of the many false prophets in the different radical forms of faith that violence or force is no answer at all. Our communities should teach religious fulfillment and responsibility—not entitlement or a sword to set things straight. Only this way will the recruiting stop and true religious freedom flourish, even in these wicked times.
Author: Lincoln E. Steed
Lincoln E. Steed is the editor of Liberty magazine, a 200,000 circulation religious liberty journal which is distributed to political leaders, judiciary, lawyers and other thought leaders in North America. He is additionally the host of the weekly 3ABN television show "The Liberty Insider," and the radio program "Lifequest Liberty."