It is enough to be certain that God’s purpose will be accomplished
By W. Eugene March | Reprinted from the January/February 1999 issue of Presbyterians Today
A “Peanuts” comic strip from some years ago pictured Peppermint Patty in great turmoil over something she had heard about the imminent end of the world. “What if the world ends tonight?” Patty tremblingly asked her friend Marcie.
The response Marcie gives is important for placing this whole issue into context: “I promise there’ll be a tomorrow, sir” [she frequently calls Peppermint Patty “sir”]. “In fact, it is already tomorrow in Australia.”
The approach of the year 2000 has given rise to grave concern and speculation. There are legitimate concerns centering around the very practical matter of making certain that the computers central to modern banking, communication, air traffic and the like are properly programmed so as to distinguish 2000 from 1900. But for too many people the worry is rather like Peppermint Patty’s “theological speculation” about the “end of the world.”
T.V. preachers are finding ready audiences. There are more than the usual numbers of predictions about the Second Coming of Jesus. Bumper stickers warn of suddenly driverless vehicles when the Rapture comes. Apocalyptic tracts are circulating. The political turmoil of the times, say some, is “proof” that the end of the world is near.
Presbyterians have clear teaching and strong conviction about the end of the world. These come under the theological category of eschatology, the study of “last things,” and include such matters as the return of Jesus Christ, God’s final judgment, and the full reign of God. But fundamental to Presbyterian beliefs is a rejection of idle speculation about the “end times.” No one but God can know the time and way (Matthew 24:36). Therefore certainty that God’s purposes will one day be brought to completion is sufficient for Presbyterians.
Some Historical Reminders
Over 20 years ago the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS) noted the growing anxiety being fed by “doomsday” marketers. People like Hal Lindsey, with his best seller The Late, Great Planet Earth, were creating uncertainty and confusion. The Rapture or Second Coming of Jesus was being interpreted by dispensationalism* (a questionable theological position from a Presbyterian point of view) as two events rather than one. First would be a “secret” coming to take the church out of the world. Then, at a later point, and dispensationalists argue frequently over the exact details, Christ would come a second time to establish God’s reign on earth for a thousand years. Though there is scant Biblical testimony to support such a view (see 1 Thessalonians 4:17), this interpretation was advanced as clear and fundamental for faithful discipleship.
In response a set of “Twelve Theses” and a position paper entitled “Eschatology, The Doctrine of Last Things” were prepared for and adopted by the 1978 General Assembly. The paper rehearsed briefly, but helpfully, the rise of futuristic speculation that has occurred during the past 150 years or so. What it labeled as the “lure of the unknown” has only increased during the past 20 years.
A thousand years ago, the approach of the year 1000 was preceded by much of the same anxious fear of a Last Judgment, the end of the world. Times of social upheaval and war have often been interpreted as certain signs of the end. “Outpourings” of the Holy Spirit as experienced by some have raised expectations and speculations about the imminent return of Christ.
What is happening now is only new in its style of communication. With electronic and digital technology “gurus” and “prophets” can spread their messages farther and much more quickly than their counterparts in previous centuries.
God’s Sovereignty and Freedom
Presbyterians, along with other Christians in the Reformed family of churches, approach this subject with one central affirmation: God alone is sovereign and free. All that is has been created by God. Time flows from God’s initial act of creation, through God’s acts of redemption, until God’s full purpose is finally accomplished.
Through Scripture, and as witnessed by God’s people across the centuries, the one God is known to be gracious and loving. God intends good for the whole of creation. In Jesus Christ God has dramatically and uniquely revealed the goal of the divine purpose: reconciliation, justice, peace, wholeness, the “good” that marked each part of God’s first creation.
Although there is evil in the world, evil will not finally prevail over God. Despite the realities of sin, pain, disease, oppression and greed, the good purpose of God will finally be realized. This affirmation sounds to many in today’s world like wishful thinking, but for Presbyterians this conviction is simply the place to begin. God’s sovereignty and freedom are the bedrock for Presbyterian reflection on the end times.
One immediate consequence is a reduction of the anxiety level. Since God really is Creator, Redeemer and Lord of all, we need not fear. Clearly there are times of uncertainty, but this need not lead to despair or cynicism. There is simply no need to speculate about when or how God’s purpose will finally be accomplished. It is enough to be certain that it will.
There have been various approaches dealing with the idea of Christ’s eschatological return, the Second Coming, the Parousia. During the 19th century (and at different points in earlier church history) some rather optimistic movements arose. So-called postmillennialists taught that the church would largely succeed in evangelizing the world and in establishing God’s reign on earth in preparation for Christ’s return and the initiation of the eternal dominion of God.
More frequent in recent years has been a more pessimistic response. Its advocates believe the world to be under Satan’s power. Evil is rampant. Religious authorities (except those taking this position, of course) are to be distrusted. The church — particularly the mainline Protestant churches and the Roman Catholic Church — is corrupt beyond reclamation. Only the return of Christ can right things. Until that time Christians must just pray and wait.
Evoking fear (and contributions) seems to be the prime pursuit of many end-of-the-world-soon preachers. Most seem to be premillenninalists, understanding Christ’s return as inaugurating a thousand-year period before the final Judgment. (However, there are also many premillennialists who do not share in the negative view of the church described above.)
Presbyterians have emphasized confident hope over against such extreme optimism or pessimism. Since there is only one God who has created the world and intends good for all creatures, there is no need for despair or fear. Since there is one God who is both gracious and purposeful, there is hope even in the face of human sin. God’s purpose does not depend on human achievement, though human participation is clearly sought by God.
Confident hope is founded on belief in the goodness, mercy and reign of God. In Jesus Christ, God has acted to defeat the power of sin, although humans continue to sin. By raising Christ from the dead God has declared the divine intention to redeem creation. Nothing, not even death, will finally thwart God’s will. In the assurance that Jesus will one day return to celebrate the fulfillment of God’s purpose, believers can sustain confident hope. Christ’s followers hope in God, not themselves. Rather than being anxious and pessimistic, God’s people trust hopefully and live joyfully because in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has revealed the divine purpose of well-being for all.
Christ’s followers are called to vigorous engagement in God’s world. The task is to establish communities that demonstrate God’s purpose. Instead of worrying about or speculating about the end times, energy can be invested in addressing the many problems caused by sin.
Injustice in the form of racism, sexism, economic oppression is to be resisted as contrary to God’s way. The brokenness of individual lives and the rips in the social fabric need attention. In the end, all that is outside God’s purpose will be overcome. But until then Presbyterians, while watchfully waiting, will resist such evils.
The doctrine of Christ’s Second Advent is not intended to terrify. Rather, it is aimed at motivating faithfulness in times of tedium as well as in times of crisis. Believing in Jesus’ certain return provides encouragement when life seems purposeless or when evil seems to be too powerful to overcome. Keeping our expectations of God’s full reign fixed on Jesus provides protection from overly valuing our own achievements and from undue disappointment when human beings fall short of perfection.
Jesus clearly set the agenda for the time remaining until he returns. Feed the hungry, heal the sick, care for the suffering, free the oppressed, preach good news to the poor and disenfranchised (Luke 4:18-19; Matthew 28:19-20). God’s full purpose remains to be accomplished, but its certainty is assured.
What, Then, Do Presbyterians Believe?
To those obsessed with trying to work out a timetable for Christ’s return, Presbyterians say, “Only God knows, but God has given us important work to do in the meantime.” To those who make too much of obscure or infrequent references in the Bible, Presbyterians say, “Let the clear and plain meaning of the Bible direct our way.” To criticism of church leaders and sometimes ineffectual church programs, Presbyterians say, “Yes, even church leaders sin. And, yes, the church isn’t perfect. But the church is here by God’s design to proclaim the good news of God’s love by word and deed until God’s loving reign is made real throughout God’s world.”
Presbyterians believe in being ready for the end times while not being fearfully anxious about them. Presbyterians believe that God’s purpose for the world is that loneliness, pain, poverty, sickness, injustice, even death, no longer mar creation. Presbyterians believe God is as concerned with the redemption of society as of individuals and therefore actively seek to demonstrate God’s purpose here and now until it is fully realized in God’s good time.
We’re Already There
If anyone is still concerned that the turn from the second to the third millennium is especially significant to God and potentially dangerous, take comfort. The third millennium has already begun!
The current calendar is built by counting from the birth of Jesus Christ. However, a mistake in calculation was made centuries ago. In all likelihood Jesus of Nazareth was actually born four to six years earlier than once believed. Therefore the year 2000 has probably already come and gone, in God’s time.
And God’s charge remains: confidently hope and watchfully work until the Lord returns.
*Dispensationalism or dispensational premillennialism divides world history into seven eras or dispensations, based on how God deals with humanity, before the establishment of God’s kingdom. <Return >
W. Eugene March is professor of Old Testament, vice president of academic affairs, and dean of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, Louisville, Ky.