Eschatology for beginners (part 1)

‘Eschatology’ is just a fancy word for ‘the last things’ – i.e. the events leading up to the return of Christ and the Day of Judgement. Many people find it a confusing subject. Scripture is often ambiguous regarding the details, and Christians therefore hold widely differing opinions.

Mark 13

Christians in the first century lived in eager anticipation of Christ’s return. However, since the end of the first century, the Church has generally lost this sense of expectation. Christians have tended towards one or other of two extremes: either not to believe in Christ’s coming at all, or to spend a great deal of effort in trying to predict exactly when it will happen.

When talking about the ‘last things’ and Jesus’ second coming, everyone immediately thinks of the book of Revelation (sometimes called the ‘Apocalypse’). However, the ‘Little Apocalypse’ in the gospels (Mark 13/Matthew 24) is actually more important than Revelation for our understanding.

For one thing, the first two generations of Christians did not have the book of Revelation (which was not written until towards the very end of the 1st century AD).

Secondly, in the gospel we have Jesus speaking to us directly in (more or less) plain language, rather than in the sometimes obscure symbolism of Revelation.

In Mark 13, like many of the Old Testament prophets, Jesus talks about two separate events at the same time – the destruction of Jerusalem (which actually happened about 40 years later, in AD 70), and the end of the world (for which we are still waiting). This is because the first event foreshadows the second (yes, history really does repeat itself!). It is not always absolutely clear which parts of the chapter are about which event, but it is generally assumed that verses 13:14-23 refer to the Roman invasion of Palestine and the fall of Jerusalem and verses 24-37 to Jesus’ return at the end of the age. Verses 5-13 could refer to the time leading up to either (or both).

Some certainties:

1) Jesus will come back to earth one day, not secretly as a baby but in splendour as the King and Judge of the whole world (v26).

2) The exact time of His return is a well-kept secret (v32,33).

3) Before then, both the world and the Church will go through a long time of suffering (v7-13).

4) But God remains in control (v20).

Some matters of dispute:

When Jesus refers to the fig tree (v28,29), is it just because it’s a good illustration of a sign, or is He using it as a symbol for the nation of Israel? Many people believed that the reappearance of Israel as a political entity (in 1948) was a sign that the End was near. Or was Jesus referring to a spiritual reawakening – as Paul seems to predict (Romans 11:25,26) – that is still to happen? Personally, I think the latter is the more likely.

What did Jesus mean by “this generation” (v30)? Did He mean that the world would end within a few decades of this conversation (it hasn’t)? Or that Jerusalem would be destroyed within that timeframe (it was)? Or that the generation witnessing the first sign of the End would also see His return? (Which rather begs the question: what is the ‘first’ sign of the End? We don’t know)

Part 2

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