Our Strange Preoccupation with the End of the World
Once again “the end of the world” is taking center stage. It seems that a segment of the population believes that the world will end on December 21, 2012. The focal point of this latest round of doomsday talk is the remnant of an ancient Mayan calendar. Though this remnant of a calendar makes no specific reference to “the end of the world,” apparently it does not continue beyond that date.
We cannot really be sure what the Mayans were thinking, but we can say that if they were concerned about “the end” they have had a lot of company down through the years. In the last couple of years, several dates upon which the world would end have come and gone—just like December 21 will.
The “end of the world” has been in the back of people’s minds for thousands of years. From time to time, doomsday thinking comes out of the shadows into the open, becoming a dominant feature of the time. In turn certain events, dates, and astronomical occurrences have fomented talk of doomsday. The fall of Rome–the eternal city–to barbarians in the year 1000 A.D., the plague, the Spanish Armada, 1844, the Civil War, World War II, and the Cuban Missile Crisis all loomed large as portents of the end, only to disappear into the past. Lately something seems to have changed. Doomsday omens used to appear over long spans of time, sometimes hundreds of years apart. In the twentieth century they seemed to recur with each decade, and since the year 2000 (remember Y2K?), it seems that every couple of months a portent of doom rears its ugly head. What’s going on?
The main reason doomsday is on the minds of so many is religion. Religious beliefs have convinced billions of people worldwide that we are living in “the last days.” This conviction is widespread in both Christianity and Islam. This means that a majority of the human race is conditioned to constantly look for signs and omens of the end of the world. Every natural disaster, war, national calamity, or economic distress becomes a sign of the end in the minds of the faithful. Modern media and telecommunications feed us a steady stream of these omens. Even our leisure time is consumed by movies, TV programs, and various games with end-time themes. All these come together synergistically to compound and exacerbate our feelings of dread. Though most of us realize the doomsayers have always been wrong before, our gut tells us it is different this time. Everything seems to be spinning out of control. However, if we are indeed wrong once again, there must be a reason we never get it right.
There is a fundamental principle that is essential to sound human reasoning. Sound reasoning springs from a correct premise. A false premise will result in wrong conclusions every time. In the modern vernacular, “Garbage in, garbage out.” What if we have been conditioned to look for the wrong signs and omens in order to substantiate a wrong conclusion based on a false premise?
For both Christians and Muslims, the words of Christ carry tremendous weight. To both religions Christ is considered a prophet, and to Christians He is also the Messiah. Let’s go back to the words of Christ and see if somewhere we got on the wrong track in our thinking.
The Disciples Ask the Big Question
Christians turn to Matthew chapter 24 as a key set of Scriptures regarding “the end of the world.” Let’s start reading in verses 1 and 2: “Then Jesus went out and departed from the temple, and His disciples came up to show Him the buildings of the temple. And Jesus said to them, ‘Do you not see all these things? Assuredly, I say to you, not one stone shall be left here upon another, that shall not be thrown down.’” Knowing how important the buildings were, the disciples were very intrigued and confused by Christ’s words. Verse 3 records two very important questions they asked Christ: “Now as He sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to Him privately, saying, ‘Tell us, when will these things be? And what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?’” (“End of the age” is translated “end of the world” in the King James Version and Catholic Bibles.)
The two questions are:
- When will the temple be thrown down?
- What will be the sign of Your coming and the end of the age?
Christ’s answer to the first question is given in Matthew 24 verses 15 and 16: “Therefore when you see the ‘abomination of desolation,’ spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place (whoever reads, let him understand), then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains.” Luke 21:20-21 speaks of that time in this way: “But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation is near. Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains…” Notice that Christ told the disciples that they would personally see these things, and when they did, they were to flee Jerusalem. This all occurred when the armies of Rome surrounded Jerusalem in 67 A.D. and destroyed the temple in 70 A.D. The Romans also abominated the temple with a statue of a false god, fulfilling Christ’s words. This ferocious battle marked the end of the Old Testament age. This was a very important prophetic sign for the Jewish people of the time, but only the disciples and Christians understood its full import. They lived to see Christ’s answer to their first question fulfilled. The answer to their second question would take approximately 2000 more years to fulfill.
Christ’s answer to the disciples’ second question bears directly on us today. Remember the second question was, “What will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?” I want to address three aspects of this question in order to establish the false premise that has dogged Christianity for so long.
First let’s note that the New King James Version refers to the end of the age, so why do so many people say, “end of the world?” The phrase “end of the world” is how this verse is rendered in some very widely used translations that precede the updated and revised New King James. The most widely used translation in the English-speaking world is the King James, sometimes called the Authorized Version. It has been in constant use since its release in 1611 A.D. In this version Matthew 24:3 is quoted “…end of the world.” Possibly the second most printed Bible is the Catholic Douay Version, first published in its entirety in Douay, France in 1609 and 1610. According to the World Book Encyclopedia Edition 1983, this Bible also renders Matthew 24:3 “…the end of the world.” Therefore multiple millions of people have mistaken “end of the age” as “end of the world.” But that is exactly what happened.
All one needs to do to verify what I am saying is to look into the definition of the word in the original Greek and verify its meaning. In the original Greek, the word used was aion (Strong’s #165), which means properly an age, specifically to Jews a Messianic period (present or future). Armed with the actual definition, we can see Christ was answering their question by speaking of the end of two separate epochs of time. He clearly showed that one Messianic epoch, which we refer to as the Old Testament epoch, would end with the destruction of the temple. Another epoch of time, the New Testament epoch, would end with Christ’s second coming. Can we be certain that Christ in no way meant “the end of the world?” Yes, we can, because the word “world” appears a second time in Matthew 24:14. Christ gives a sign of His return to watch for by saying, “And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come.” Here the word “world” comes from the Greek word oikoumene, which means land or the terrene part of the globe (Strong’s #3625). Christ definitely knew how to differentiate between an epoch of time and the planet we call Earth.
We have now established the false premise that got Christians to take a wrong turn doctrinally. But Christ cautions us in two more very explicit ways in the next few verses of Matthew 24. His first warning came in verses 4-5: “And Jesus answered and said to them: ‘Take heed that no one deceives you. For many will come in My name, saying, “I am the Christ,” and will deceive many.’” Christ warns that many would come representing Him, preaching about Him, and would deceive many, clearly indicating a large number of Christians would be deceived. Looking back on history, we now can determine that it would turn out to be the vast majority of Christians! How can I say that, you might ask. Because of Christ’s very next words in Matthew 24:6, in which Christ emphatically states the deceptions that would be voiced, “in His name”: “And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not troubled; for all these things must come to pass, but the end [of the age] is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. And there will be famines, pestilences, and earthquakes in various places.” Now you know why we keep getting it all wrong! For the past 2000 years, people have been pointing out all the “wrong” signs to accompany Christ’s return. The concept of the “end of the world” has predisposed us to look for disaster and calamity and follow preachers of doom, rather than listen to the real good news of the gospel of the kingdom. The accompanying article will examine some of the signs of which Christ really wants us to take note.