For the last century or so, a debate has raged among New Testament scholars as to whether or not the passages in the Gospels that seem to predict the end of the world were really spoken by Jesus or were simply placed in the Gospels by the writers to reflect early Christian beliefs on the subject. Some claim that Jesus never said these words or that at the most he was predicting the destruction of Jerusalem—an event that actually did happen twice, first in the year 70 when the Roman army sacked the city after a long siege, and yet again in 135, when they finished the job, literally "not leaving one stone upon another."
On the other hand, there are those who believe that these passages really do repeat much of what Jesus actually said, and that Jesus foresaw these traumatic events, such as the destruction of Jerusalem, as simply one of the signs that God’s new kingdom was at the point of arriving. Certainly this seems to be the way that the first Christians understood the matter.
But if this is true, and Jesus really did expect history to come to a sudden end this way, then, quite obviously, we have a major problem. In fact, so did the early Christians, especially after a generation or two, when they began to realize that the world really wasn’t about to end as they expected. This problem is especially evident in the last books added to the New Testament, the Second Epistle of Peter and the Book of Revelation.
So what are we to make of all this today? Mainstream Christianity has for a long time straddled the question by claiming that God’s new kingdom or order of things has in fact already arrived—at least in principle—with the resurrection of Christ but is not yet fully accomplished until Christ arrives again at the very end of time "surrounded by angels, and seated on the clouds of heaven." The problem with this view is that it only prolongs the problem faced by the early Christians, not only periodically stirring people up by means of wild-eyed claims that the world is about to end, but even tempting some people to promote its ending by staging a final showdown battle, which the Book of Revelation (16:16) calls "Armageddon".
Perhaps there is another solution. It is to recognize that, humanly speaking, Jesus himself was not certain about the divine timetable (see Mark 13:32 or Matthew 24:36), but that nevertheless, we faithfully follow him in his own conviction that God intends there to be a better future and that it is God's will that it be soon. Not only this, but we must also realize that God has forbidden us not to bring the world’s history to a catastrophic end, either by slowly destroying the earth’s capacity to sustain human life, or suddenly by continuing to play "Russian roulette" with our arsenals of nuclear weapons. Instead, we must realize that God has entrusted us with the task that Jesus himself has given us, which is not so much about selfishly "saving our souls". Not that this isn’t important. But it is something that will take care of itself, yet only on condition that we accomplish what Jesus taught us to pray and work for--that God’s will be done here on earth "as it is in heaven".
R W Kropf 12/3/06