The United States has just faced two back-to-back hurricanes; Mexico experienced a powerful earthquake, and both get-rich-quick end-times preachers, and mainstream ministers, are warning of the end. In fact, Max Lucado– an author and pastor who is well-liked and almost a household name– told his readers after Harvey that we are in the “third trimester” and that the “end” is getting closer:
“Our world is experiencing a rash of birth pangs these days. It is not to me to declare the day the Lord will return. But we know this much: it’s the beginning of the end and the beginning of new beginnings. Calamities and catastrophes must occur before the birth of the new world…” (emphasis mine)
The idea that natural disasters are “signs” of the end times is nothing new; you will find many claiming this after each natural disaster, no matter when or where they occur around the globe. When we combine the frequency of this end-times claim with the general biblical illiteracy of the church in America, it is understandable– yet horribly tragic– that so many Christians blindly believe it.
The truth? Natural disasters are not signs that we are in the “end-times.”
In fairness, the belief that natural disasters and other events will proceed the “end” is not something pulled out of thin air, but is an idea that comes from a very specific passage in Scripture: the Olivet Discourse of Matthew 24. In this passage Jesus is quoted, in part, as saying the following:
“…You will hear of wars and rumors of wars. Make sure that you are not alarmed, for this must happen, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise up in arms against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. And there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these things are the beginning of birth pains.”
For those of us who are raised within an end-times framework it’s easy to read the Olivet Discourse, especially isolated parts such as what I quoted above, and to ignore the context entirely to make it fit with what we were taught about the future of the world. It’s also easy to read into it things that are not there, while ignoring some important things that are there.
Like a horoscope that’s written so general it can apply to anyone, when we isolate statements such as “there will be earthquakes” or “there will be rumors of wars” it’s quite natural to say, “aha! I can see that now” because those two things have always been among us.
So, here are the critical things you need to know about Matthew 24, and here’s why modern natural disasters are not “signs” of the end of the world:
1. Jesus isn’t predicting the end of the world, but is predicting what will happen immediately before the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem.
In the first two verses of Matthew 24, it gives us the context for the entire discussion: it says that Jesus was walking away from the temple and told his disciples that this building– the focal point of the Jewish world– was going to be totally destroyed. Naturally, this was a shocking claim so his disciples asked two obvious follow up questions: (a) “When will this happen?” and (b) “What will be the signs that the end is near?”
Everything Jesus says in this passage is a direct answer to those two specific questions– they want to know the signs to watch for so that they’ll know when the end of the “age” is at hand.
2. Jesus claimed that natural disasters and war would be signs that the time for the destruction of the temple– not the end of the world– was close.
Remember the two questions Jesus is answering: “What are the signs?” and “When?”
The prediction of war, famine, and earthquakes would be a pointless prediction if talking about the far-away future because there would be no way to know which ones would be *the* ones. There has always been famine, always been earthquakes, and always been wars and rumors of wars. Furthermore, the people Jesus was talking to weren’t concerned with the end of the world thousands of years later– they were concerned about their present lives.
Jesus told his audience to “stay alert” to these signs– there would be no point in telling his disciples to stay alert to events that weren’t scheduled to occur for another 2,000 plus years. However, these signs actually become both helpful and relevant if he is speaking about the immediate or near future. In verse 16 Jesus actually tells them why they should be alert to the signs he gave them: when they witnessed the signs they were supposed to flee into the mountains and wilderness in order to survive what was about to happen.
Looking back in history, we see that there were various significant earthquakes recorded in this region in the lead up to the destruction of the temple in AD 70 (one is even recorded in the book of Acts). In addition, we also know that when Rome destroyed Jerusalem it was a bloodbath with some estimates saying they may have crucified up to 500 people a day. This shows us that when Jesus said “here are the signs to look for” and “when you see them, flee to the mountains” he was giving some practical, life-saving advice to his immediate audience.
3. Jesus claimed all of the signs/events that he described would be witnessed and completed during the lifetime of those he was speaking to.
After Jesus answered the first question of “What will be the signs this is about to happen?” he moves on and answers the question of “When?” this will happen.
The answer Jesus gives is clear and direct: in verse 34 Jesus says “This generation will not pass away until all these things take place.” While end-times preachers will jump through hoops to define “this generation” in some truly bizarre ways, the grammatical reality is that “this generation” always means the generation the speaker is talking to. In this case, Jesus is speaking to his followers, he is answering the two questions of what will be the signs of the coming destruction of the temple, and when it will happen.
When will it happen? “In your lifetime” Jesus said– and it did.
So, will there be a host of wars and natural disasters before the “end of the world”? Well, if the world does actually end one day, it’s likely those two things will be present– because they have always been present.
But are natural disasters “signs” that we’re in the end-times?
No, not at all– and a more careful reading of Matthew 24 shows us that.
because earthquakes and wars have never happened be……..oh wait!
The bible has something to say about the prior ages:
2 Peter 2:4 For if God spared not the angels that sinned, but cast them down to hell, and delivered them into chains of darkness, to be reserved unto judgment;
5 And spared not the old world, but saved Noah the eighth person, a preacher of righteousness, bringing in the flood upon the world of the ungodly;
In Revelvation you see a local letter that was fulfilled with the destruction of the Temple; many see the destruction of this age leaving only a remnant going in the next 1000 year period.
‘Jesus left the temple and was walking away when his disciples came up to him to call his attention to its buildings. 2 “Do you see all these things?” he asked. “Truly I tell you, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”
3 As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately. “Tell us,” they said, “when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”’
– my understanding is that Jesus is talking about both the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple within the generation to whom He was speaking, and the time leading up to His return. The disciples, going by how they phrase their questions, seem to assume that both (the destruction of the Temple and His return) will basically occur simultaneously. But is that assumption correct? Believing the so-called ‘full’ preterist view, one would think the main ‘sign’ of Jesus return was the destruction of the Temple, but that isnt what Jesus says. I also do not see how all of the ‘signs’ occurred by AD 70.
I would also point out that we should be careful not to assume that whenever Jesus talked about His kingdom ‘coming’ etc, He was always talking about His return. He wasnt. Mark 9 is a good example of that, where He clearly was talking about His forthcoming transfiguration, as evidenced by 2 Peter (the same word ‘parousia’ for example is used).
Im open to other understandings of Jesus’ words, but I havent seen enough evidence to conclude He was ONLY talking about the forthcoming destruction of the Temple.
Okay. I have a question for all of the full preterists – do you believe in an ultimate consummation of history? a literal resurrection of the body? In other words do modern Christians have anything to look forward to?
Whatever, I am indifferent. I do believe that Jesus will come back one day, maybe even in my life time. But I refuse to live in fear of it, though it feels as though I am intended to, by certain evangelical circles, who ephasize most how Jesus will slay the unbelievers, those sleeping virgins, those who were not ready with the sword of His mouth… it dosent really make a whole lot of sense to me. Anyway, I’m just gonna live my life trying to learn how to love people like Jesus, and to defeat my darkness. I think that’s much more productive than staring at the clouds and point to the tragedies from safely afar, spouting that it definitely means daddies coming home and that it means *our* struggles are almost over, even though *thiers* are just beginning! I’m not convinced The Lord would be pleased with that Heart attitude. :/
I hate cheap scare tactics…all to “help someone believe in Jesus”. There are some who say “Fear leads to wisdom.” yet love casts out fear. :/
Absolutely, Ben. Thanks for this. A very timely word.
This may be true. However, another scenario is just as likely. It may also be true that since God is not confined to time/space He speaks across eternity and this position you dug your heels into is limited by a finite human mind’s perspective. That being said, Jesus’ words could have applied to the Temple (for which there is no more evidence than any other time period) AND a future event. Bottom line: we don’t know. It is not role of church leaders to spring the latest, greatest of their self determined “discoveries” on the church, but to point the lost to Christ for salvation and the saved to the Holy Spirit for divine teaching. Many leaders today insist on imparting their wisdom as supreme, dynamic revelation. This trend is overwhelming the church and breeding followers of theologians. We have a Teacher whose role it is to reveal the truths of God in our daily walk as we follow Christ. Pastors and other leaders point us to Him on behalf of Christ. When we get back to the Teacher whom Christ taught us to seek, we individually and collectively, will be strengthened.
The Bible is not history, nor is it a prediction of things to come.
Jesus is not coming back.
Can you folks focus on reality? If you focus on reality you will realize that these intensifying storms are due to man made climate change. The polar ice caps are melting, which means more water in the oceans. Our temperatures are rising as are the temperatures of the oceans. The Atlantic Ocean temperature hit 94 degrees! Warmer water equals stronger and stronger storms. We will keep seeing this.
End of times, no, but a decreasing coast line, yes.
Stop quoting a book written when the population was low, now the population of the world is at an all time high. We do not need to keep propagating at the rate that we are.
If I was a young person today, I would have either only one child or perhaps none at all.
We have to have stations that will quickly charge battery driven cars. We can look at ways to make cars more fuel efficient. We must expand, fuel efficient, or battery operated mass transit. We must expand our antiquated rail system, and have high speed rail, even across country.
Solar power can be expanded, not necessarily on one’s roof, but large areas that utilize solar plates for energy.
Climate change is what is causing these disasters and they will be more violent with each storm.
Stop living in the past. Remember the people who wrote the Bible thought that the Sun revolved around the Earth. They, also, thought that seizures were caused by demons inhabiting the seizure prone person. Come on people this is the 21st century.
Writers such as Tim LaHaye and Hal Lindsey had big problems with “this generation” of Matthew 24:34 and Luke 21:32, as referring to people who were alive during the 1914-1918 Great War. Eventually they had to interpret that this particular generation must have been born around 1914 or shortly after, and as children they were just old enough to become aware that there was a global conflict taking place. Unfortunately for these writers, not only the generation of the first war had long passed away, but just about the whole of WW II generation had passed away as well, and there is still no sign that Jesus had returned. Furthermore, these writers had affirmed that the third Temple must be rebuilt at exactly the same spot in Jerusalem as Solomon’s Temple used to be, before the Second Advent could occur. As far as I know, that hasn’t happened either.
For one who took their word as gospel truth, I was beginning to feel delusion about all this until I read one of Dave Hunt’s books. He believed that “this generation” actually means “this race” – an interpretation backed up by a footnote in the Revised Standard Version of the Bible. To realise this had a very liberating effect, because “this race” was his reference to the Jews – their bloodline, their religion and their culture.
If Jesus was referring to the Jews in Matthew 24:34 and Luke 21:32, then he was absolutely right! The Jews are with us right up to this day.
I agree with the exegesis but not the origin of the passage. Along with many NT scholars, I believe this passage stems from the early church, not Jesus, and was written in retrospect after Jerusalem had been destroyed. A likely-authentic saying of Jesus that points away from end-times prediction or speculation concerning immanent catastrophe is that the kingdom of God is no longer coming with signs to be observed, so that we can say look over here or look over there, but rather the kingdom is already in the midst of us.
I agree with what much of what you are saying. I think the reason people take this as a “Last Days” prophecy though is because of the mention of Christ’s return in v. 27 “For as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.” Which you don’t comment on. As someone who has been mildly persuaded by the preterist position I still think it makes sense to see this part as future. That would mean that Jesus is answering two questions, “When will this happen?” and “What will be the sign of your coming at the end of the age?” The disciples thought this was one question – Jesus answers it as two. This may not be what you are thinking – if not, I’d be interested in how you interpret the part about Christ’s return.
Well, there is such a thing as dual application, especially in prophecy. Just look at how Matthew wrote his gospel to prove Jesus was the Messiah. So the bible itself gives us liberty to do so.
Great article, Ben.
Ironically, the disruption of our environment to this degree -may- presage the end of the world, but that’s not what Jesus was talking about. I think we might be manufacturing an eschatological crisis of our own.