The future. Do we plan for it? Do we “take no care for tomorrow, for it has enough trouble of it’s own?” Do we watch the news for clues of whether we are approaching the End Times? Are we close?
As one speaker I once heard put it, many Christians today say, “We’re gonna fly, they’re gonna fry, so let’s just watch the news and root for the Anti-Christ!”
As many of us know, End Times madness ends up being just that. For decades, Evangelicals have pronounced with glee that the End is almost here because Israel became a nation in 1948, and “this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.”
In the 70’s that was exciting, because 30 or 40 years still sounds like a generation. Seventy years does not. So evangelicals today are looking alot like those Mormons or Adventists or whoever they were that sat around on a mountain waiting for Christ’s return back in the 1800’s.
So how do we figure this out?
How do I make sense of it all? In the only way I can make sense of anything anymore—by finding out what the Fathers of the historic Christian church have always taught.
Much of the madness is taken from Jesus’s famous sermon in Matthew chapter 24 where he discusses with his disciples the destruction of the Jewish temple and what sounds like the end of the world. There’s also the Book of Revelation. Although it’s an absolutely fascinating depiction of Christ’s work, past and future, the symbolism makes it difficult for clues on how to live today. Matthew 24 is more straightforward. Read it here.
Before we get to how the Church Fathers interpreted this passage, Jesus himself says some things in Matthew 24 that answer a few of our questions straightaway. Firstly, he says that “he who perseveres until the end shall be saved.” You get the sense that believers will not “fly away” (get raptured) out of the tribulation described in the chapter. So put on your big boy pants and prepare for a challenging future. Escapism is not an option.
Secondly, Jesus hints that this “tribulation,” much discussed by end times experts, isn’t even about the end times. “For in those days there will be great distress (translated “tribulation” in some versions), unequaled from the beginning of time until now—and never to be equaled again.” So, Jesus seems to indicate there’s more history to unfold after this tribulation he discusses.
This is confirmed by generally all the key Fathers of the early church. The tribulation is primarily fulfilled in the terrible events that took place in A.D. 66-70 when the armies of Rome surrounded Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple. Josephus, a scholarly contemporary Jewish historian, recounts evils and atrocities during this time that make credible the claim it was the most evil epoch, ever.
St. Maximos the Confessor (580-662), major theologian of the Church, says these events of Mathew 24 were fulfilled in AD 70. “That these things have already taken place in history, no one, I think, who has read Josephus will doubt.”
According to St. John Chrysostom, a giant among Church Fathers, “And the end shall come” is referring to the destruction of Jerusalem. He directs Christians to study “the famines, the pestilences, the earthquakes, the other calamities … composed by Josephus.”
The Nerdy End Times Expert
My Dad went to Dallas Theological Seminary with Hal Lindsey, whose mega-bestseller The Late Great Planet Earth launched end times madness into mainstream culture in the 1970s. Lindsey, of course, said Israel becoming a nation in 1948 was the key sign. He also pointed to Jesus saying “the Gospel will be preached to the whole world” as a sign we are close, seeing that the Scriptures are now almost translated into every language and tongue. And let’s not forget the most recent earthquake, epidemic, or astronomical weirdness, such as Hal’s—I mean Haley’s—comet.
My mother was not a big fan. Lindsey lived nearby, the nerdy single guy who came by for dinner. If she made a batch of cookies, Hal seemed to eat them all. He dressed shabbily, had crooked teeth and unkempt hair, and he talked a lot about his weird end times papers.
But then Hal met a gal, got married, and she fixed him up. Braces, combed hair and dressing for success made him a new man. She pushed him to show his crazy papers to publishers. The next thing you know, Hal was a household name, rich and famous. About as soon as that happened, he dumped the gal.
My Dad didn’t swallow all Hal’s ideas—he never bought into the idea of Christians escaping tough times in the future but felt the rapture occurs at the same time as Christ’s return. But Dallas Seminary rubbed off on our family. I wrote a paper for my 12th grade teacher outlining Lindsey’s signs that we are close to the end. I was quite proud to get one of the highest marks ever—this guy was tough. When he plopped it on my desk he said, “Excellent paper … but I don’t believe a word of it.”
For years I just figured he was a doubter and a hater. Now I’m not so sure.
The “Last Days” were actually 2,000 years ago
A couple years after my Presbyterian college education, a friend of mine steeped in the Church of God noticed the tall, solid stone church on Lookout Mountain. “Those guys really build for the future,” he remarked. It got me to thinking as well. Do we build stone churches or metal warehouses?
Next up on my eschatological journey was stumbling across a fantastically clear and entertaining writer named David Chilton. I read his very thick commentary on Revelation twelve times. Twelve. He spends 100 pages in the Introduction explaining that 666 is the number for Nero Caesar who was killing Christians in the decade leading up to the destruction of the temple in AD 70. Apparently,
Hebrew letters are also numbers. Add up Nero’s name and you get 666. He also has all sorts of reasons for dating Revelation around 67 AD. He says the book is not primarily about the end times (maybe the last chapter or so) but actually is a magnificent, symbolic description of what Jesus Christ did in the First Century, culminating in the destruction of Jerusalem. (Read the book free online.)
Chilton’s position is known as the preterist view (technically semi-preterist, as full preterists, a bunch of which exist, are heretics who believe the Second coming has already happened.) Chilton and the preterists make some great arguments to show Matthew 24 is almost entirely about AD 70, not the Second Coming.
For example, when Jesus says, “This gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come,” he’s not talking about the Second Coming. He’s talking about the end of Jerusalem. How could that be? “The whole world” apparently means the whole civilized world. The same greek phrase is used in Luke 1:1 when Augustus Caesar’s edict for a census of “all the world” put Jesus and Mary on a donkey toward Bethlehem. In Romans 10:18, Paul says the Gospel had been preached “to the ends of the world.”
According to preterists, even the following apocalyptic language in Matthew 24:29 does not describe the End Times but rather AD 70: “the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give it’s light. The stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.” Throughout the Old Testament, poetic language dealing with sun, moon and stars points symbolically to the ruling powers of the world, religious and political. When Joseph dreamed that the sun, moon, and stars would bow down to him, his parents and brothers understood the meaning—that they would bow down to Joseph as their ruler.
Peter himself interprets such prophetic language this way on the of Day of Pentecost, which he calls, interestingly, the “last days”:
“No, this is what what was spoken by the Prophet Joel,” says Peter. “In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people … I will show wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below, blood and fire and billows of smoke. The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the great and glorious day of the Lord.” (Acts 2:15-20)
For Chilton and the Preterists, the apocalyptic language of Matthew 24 is fulfilled in the work of Christ, Pentecost and the Temple’s destruction in the First Century. The “last days” are the end of Israel, the end of the Old Covenant age and its spiritual rule over the planet.
Is He really “coming soon”?
There are some great bonuses for this position. First, it certainly explains what Jesus meant when he said “this generation” would not pass away until they saw all the apocalyptic events described in Matthew 24. He meant that generation.
Secondly, it helps explain the rather troubling statement in the very first verse of Revelation of things “that must soon take place.” It’s been 2000 years! Chilton explains that when it says Jesus is “coming in the Clouds,” six verses later, this is a poetic phrase, prophetic language used throughout the Old Testament describing God coming in Judgment. If Revelation was written in AD 67, then he did come soon, about three years later.
For me, another great bonus of the partial preterist position was the ability to enjoy prophetic scripture, especially the Book of Revelation, as wonderful and deep revelations of Jesus Christ, not just as, or even primarily as, symbolic code for future events.
Chilton often quotes James Jordan, prolific author and speaker, who holds a similar position and unveils the myriad of metaphors and symbols in Scripture, culminating in Revelation. I’ve listened to his 200+ podcast on Revelation three times. I haven’t learned one thing about the future. I have learned, however, that the seven stars in Christ’s right hand at the beginning of the book refer to the seven stars in the constellation of Taurus. This bull appears throughout scripture, holding up the laver in the tabernacle and temple, and as one of the four faces for the Cherubim.
The twelve stones on Christ’s breastplate in Revelation can also be found on the High Priest in Leviticus. They appear scattered about the ground in Eden. They appear at the end of Scripture as the twelve stones around the City of God. The depths are rather unfathomable. At first we tend to think a non futuristic Revelation is anti-climactic. But the Epistles are written to First Century Christians and we find all sorts of treasures there. Revelation does the same. I can’t recommend James Jordan’s insights enough. (Listen to his Revelation podcasts. You can subscribe for $15/month.)
Chilton points out that the Anglican book of prayer has an appendix citing six thousand years of the future church calendar! A preterist interpretation of Matthew 24 and Revelation will indeed get Christians to think long term, and churches and cathedrals get built in brick and stone.
My thinking, too, was influenced by this school of thought. I settled in for the next three thousand or thirty thousand years, whatever it may be. I decided I won’t be raptured out of a tribulation and I am probably not part of the last generation. Time to dig in and make a difference.
The Church Fathers interrupt my logical arguments
But, over time, some things began to trouble me. First, there is Jesus’s own words: “But of that day or hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” Well, if Jesus himself is not clued in (somehow, mysteriously in his humanity, I suppose), then who am I to say he won’t be returning tomorrow?
Secondly, I became a member of the Orthodox Church, and my views today are not my own: I must submit to the historic teaching of the Church. And the Church Fathers don’t make it as easy as the preterists make it out to be.
Regarding the dating of Revelation, St. Iraneus, who was a disciple of Polycarp, discpled by the Apostle John himself, tells us the book was written in AD 95. Chilton, Jordan, and other excellent thinkers simply say Iraneus is wrong. But he is seconded by Chrysostom and many others. Like many areas of theology, the historic teaching of the Church Fathers trumps my own seemingly logical interpretation of various verses.
And while we saw earlier that Chrysostom and other Church Fathers apply Jesus’s words in Matthew 24 to the events of AD 70, they don’t stop there. The Church Fathers say the passage also applies to the very end times, the second coming of Christ. It’s not one or the other. It’s both.
Jesus assures us that his coming is not just like the fulfillments of Old Testament prophecies where he “comes in the clouds.” It won’t be hard to figure out: “For as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so it will be with the coming of the Son of Man,” Jesus tells us in Matthew 24 verse 27.
At this verse in the passage, Chyrysostom tells us Jesus, “having finished what concerned Jerusalem, he passes on to his own coming.”
“The Fathers of the early church were neither strict ‘futurists’ nor strict ‘preterists,’” writes T. L Frazier in his very excellent and balanced book on an Orthodox view of the end times, A Second Look at the Second Coming. The church fathers, he says, allowed for “secondary fulfillment” in Matthew 24. “The destruction of Jerusalem in such an interpretation became a prototype of a greater cosmic judgment, where there would be unprecedented natural calamities.”
Various holy elders currently in the Orthodox Church or in its recent history seem to agree. In the 1930’s Archbishop Theophan of Poltava summed up prophecies which he had received from such elders: “You ask me about the near future and about the last times. I do not speak on my own, but give the revelation of the Elders: The coming of Antichrist draws nigh and is very near. The time separating us from him should be counted a matter of years and at most a matter of some decades. But before the coming of Antichrist Russia must yet be restored—to be sure, for a short time.”
It’s not the End Times. Maybe. I think.
In conclusion, the teachings of the historic church and the Fathers leaves us in a tension. We have reason to dig in and build for the future, just as generations before have done for 2000 years. We can point to the destruction of Jerusalem as the primary fulfillment of Jesus’s words in Matthew 24. Yet the passage, according to the Fathers, also has a mystical secondary fulfillment, another version of the events of Matthew 24 that will take place at the culmination of history. Since Jesus himself does not know the day or the hour, then in fact the time may be near. And so, every follower of Christ needs to be vigilant and watchful.
My own personal opinion—which apparently doesn’t matter much since even Jesus himself said he did not know the day or the hour—is still a sense that we have three thousand to thirty more thousand years left. A lot of people on the earth still need to be conquered by the Gospel, and much work needs to be done before Christ “fills all the earth” and becomes “all in all.”
Current events do tend to point to the possibility of a Great Reckoning in our times, with financial and nuclear meltdown seemingly imminent. But that doesn’t have to be the end of all things, just the end of civilization as we currently know it. God seems to move in history regularly as judge. The final return, to me, seems a while off. Or maybe not. The Church Fathers warn us to keep our eyes constantly toward heaven.