a christian perspective on the world today

Three Times the World Nearly Ended

It’s AD 66. Following a rebellion in Judea, Roman general Vespasian was tasked by Emperor Nero to put down the revolt. What followed, however, was a cascade of political intrigue and death. Following a civil war, Nero committed suicide in AD 68 and Galba, the governor of Spain and leader of the anti-Nero faction, soon claimed the throne. Six months later, Galba was dead and Otho, Galba’s former ally, took his place. Ninety-one days after that, after suffering military defeats, he committed suicide rather than surrender to another leader: this time Vitellius, governor of northern Germany. Eventually Vitellius’ support waned and he also ended up dead, this time at the hands of a Roman mob. Vespasian was declared emperor on December 21, AD 69, ending the so-called “Year of the Four Emperors”.

Though all these wars and rumours of wars would have been devastating for the common folk in the empire, the Jewish Essenes1 didn’t see them as significant; at least, not compared to what Vespasian was doing in their homeland. Allying with insurgent leader Simon bar Giora, the Essenes saw the rebellion as the beginning of the “Day of the Lord”—the end times—and that soon the Messiah would reveal Himself and destroy the Romans. However, this prophecy would never come to pass. Region by region, Vespasian conquered, slaughtering as he went, with the worst being saved for Jerusalem. Jewish historian Josephus claims that more than a million people perished in the siege of Jerusalem, though based on more accurate estimates, modern historians believe that around a third of the Jewish population in Judea were killed during the war.2 What isn’t disputed is that around 100,000 Jews were captured and hauled back to Rome as slaves. Supposedly, Titus (Vespasian’s son) refused to accept a wreath of victory, claiming that he had “merely lent his arms to God, who had so manifested His wrath that it was not himself that had accomplished this exploit, but that he had merely lent his arms to God”. For the Jews living in and around Jerusalem, it was the end of the world, though not the kind they had hoped for.

Fast-forward more than 1000 years and another world religion had overtaken much of the known world: Islam. Spurred on by religious zeal, political scheming and end-time fever, European Christians eagerly embarked upon what would later be collectively referred to as “The Crusades”. Many of these were small affairs, led by kings or other nobles, whereas others were commissioned by the pope himself. Pope Innocent III, for his part, oversaw two bloody crusades. Perhaps because of genuine concern, or because of waning support for costly military expeditions, he appealed to both apocalyptic imagery and xenophobic rhetoric to paint the rise of Islam in alarming detail. “A son of perdition has arisen, the false prophet Muhammed, who has seduced many men from the truth by worldly enticements and the pleasures of the flesh . . . we nevertheless put our trust in the Lord who has already given us a sign that good is to come, that the end of this beast is approaching, whose number, according to the Revelation of Saint John, will end in 666 years, of which already nearly 600 have passed.”3 Innocent III believed that in 1284, exactly 666 years (supposedly) after the rise of Islam, the world would end—unless the Christians retook the Holy Land. In 1291, Acre, the last crusader-controlled fortress, fell to the Muslims. To everyone’s surprise, the world did not end as Innocent III had predicted. Many more crusades ensued in following decades, with much bloodshed and little reward for Muslims or Christians.

More recently (though still a long time ago), this very magazine involved itself in end-times predictions. In 1914, war broke out in Europe that soon embroiled the entire world—even faraway Australia and New Zealand. The Seventh-day Adventist Church in Australia distributed more than 55,000 copies of a pamphlet titled Is it Armageddon?4 The pamphlet claimed, among other things, that though this war was not Armageddon, “we are indeed now living in the time of the end, there is abundant evidence”. Further, LA Smith, the author of the pamphlet, purported that, “The momentous events of this prophecy are now, according to the testimony of Scripture and of history, in the immediate future. The great European war now raging is a prelude to the ‘time of trouble such as never was,’ which is coming upon all countries because of the proximity of the end.” In other words, the Great War (as it would soon be called) was not the end of the world—but a prelude to it. The Australia/New Zealand edition of Signs of the Times ran two separate war issues in 1914 and 1915 respectively, selling more than 100,000 issues combined. The official Church tried to temper believers’ end-times fever, but this didn’t stop many from making bold predictions about the Ottoman Empire and its place in Bible prophecy, drawing especially from the books of Daniel and Revelation. As history unfolded, all these predictions were proven false and in turn, they were forgotten. In case you didn’t know, the Seventh-day Adventist Church is no stranger to end-times predictions. Our cultural ancestors were the Millerites who, in the mid-19th century, created an entire movement hinging on the exact date of the predicted return of Jesus. Safe to say, they were wrong.

So, what are we to make of this? A quick internet search will reveal hundreds—if not thousands—of others who have made similar claims to those I’ve highlighted here. Even the apostle Paul encouraged unmarried believers to remain single, “for this present world is passing away” (1 Corinthians 7:31). Paul believed, as many did in the first century, that Jesus would return in his lifetime. It’s easy to be cynical with the hindsight of 2000 years—many a believer has been swept up in the excitement, only to be bitterly disappointed. Inversely, many a sceptic has found another reason to mistrust the integrity of the Church and its claims.

Whether you’re a believer or a sceptic, the purpose of biblical apocalyptic literature is not, as theologian Ranko Stefanovic points out, “to satisfy a sheer curiosity about the future”.5 As my understanding has grown, I’ve learned to keep two seemingly opposing ideas in tension: (1) having an unshakable confidence in Jesus’ soon return and (2) a realisation that attempts on my part to predict the time and manner of His return are pointless. I believe Jesus is coming soon. When is soon? Whenever God decides. Jesus Himself said, “No-one knows the day or hour when these things will happen, not even the angels in heaven or the Son himself. Only the Father knows” (Matthew 24:36, NLT).6 Not even Jesus knows the time of His return, so why would we have the audacity to think we could figure it out? Jesus never instructed His disciples to spend their days searching for signs of the end. Rather, He instructed them to love the unlovely, serve the poor and share the good news that God has now become king in the person of Jesus. That’s what it means to prepare for the end-times. Whether you’re a follower of Jesus or not, the invitation is open to you. So, why don’t you join me? Let’s prepare together.

1. A Jewish sect known for piety, chastity and the absence of personal property.

2. David Moshe Herr, The History of Eretz Israel: The Roman Byzantine period: the Roman period from the conquest to the Ben Kozba War (63 BCE-135 CE). Jerusalem, Yad Izhak Ben-Zvi, 1984.

3. John Victor Tolan, Saracens: Islam in Medieval European Imagination, Columbia University Press, 2022.

4. “Armageddon” derives from Mount Megiddo, where the last battle is predicted to take place according to Revelation 16:16. Its use in popular culture has made it simply shorthand for “the end of the world”.

5. Ranko Stefanovic, Revelation of Jesus Christ: Commentary on the Book of Revelation. Berrien Springs, MI, Andrews University Press, 2009.

6. Scriptures quoted from NLT are from the New Living Translation copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation, Inc.

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