Eschatology in a Time of Pandemic

Eschatology in a Time of Pandemic

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Published:
April 30, 2020

During the current COVID-19 crisis many Christians are giving new or renewed attention to Bible prophecy about last-day events. References to Matthew 24 are increasingly sprinkled across the internet. Adventists, who have historically developed an elaborate scenario of the End Times, also have had a tendency to look at current events from the lens of eschatology. And the less disciplined SDAs manage to always find a way to force-fit current events into that perspective.

But this pandemic is certainly not some tangential event that would just trigger fevered apocalyptic imaginings in unhinged believers. It is so significant that people who take the Bible seriously ought to consider whether this world-wide calamity is part of the Last Days. Is the Second Coming now on the horizon? It’s a fair question, but understandable fear and uncertainty in such momentous times can make it difficult to think through all of this slowly, and hopefully with balance.

The information Jesus gives in Matthew 24 is both specific and ambiguous. Wars, famine, earthquakes – these words have clear definitions. But how they fit together into the actual last-days scenario has produced a great amount of speculation and mistaken conclusions across the centuries. And, since serious examples of such calamities have occurred throughout history, it is understandable, though problematic, to look at some significant (let alone insignificant) world event while it is happening and correctly assess whether it has anything to do with what Jesus was talking about. Things look big in the moment when you are experiencing them. And we humans long for certainty and are easily frightened when a “normal” world comes under threat.

Consequently, I think there is a certain embarrassment among Christians who are literate enough to be aware of past incautious pronouncements. Within Adventism it’s almost a cottage industry to peddle eschatological nonsense. We all know the Aesop fable of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.” We presumably wouldn’t want to make that mistake, and expose our Christian faith to deserved ridicule. And that’s good. But the flip side is to inappropriately pre-assign this significant world event into the “wolf-cry” category. So, what to do?

To begin with, let me state the obvious. This pandemic either: 1) is or, 2) is not something that fits into God’s actual pre-Second Coming sequence. But now let me ask: what difference does it make, to each of us, whether it is or is not?

So consider option #1 – that this event is indeed part of a rapid-moving end of the world. The Second Coming is really going to be soon. How would and should such knowledge affect you and change what you do in the next week, month, year – or whatever time is left? Now, the “Official Right Answer” is that Christians would then have joyful anticipation. Presumably like the SDA pioneers had just before their great disappointment in 1844. But frankly, I think reality is more complicated. Adventists, not to mention Christians more broadly, struggle with assurance of salvation. It’s a matter of both faith and theological understanding. We don’t have a punched ticket to Heaven tangibly in our hand. So if the Second Coming was imminent, I think many – perhaps most – believers would have a measure of anxiety. Am I saved? How will I feel at His appearing? If I’m frightened would that mean I’m lost? The issue of this potential angst does not necessarily indicate some Laodicean, too-late recognition that you blew your salvation. But an impending Second Coming event also means that everything we know and do – our normal lives – will shortly become irrelevant. All the context, familiarity and competence in how we now navigate reality – gets removed in a single stroke. And while we have been told this transition is from a bad situation to a wonderful one, and a visible Jesus would obviously validate the truth of that belief, it’s hard to imagine that such a momentous, shocking event would occur without a major jolt of multiple emotions, possibly including some fear. Well so what? God isn’t going to hang us out to dry if we are momentarily overwhelmed when experiencing the most astonishing event ever to happen to Planet Earth. So I don’t doubt that whatever range of feelings a believer might have during such a transitional event – it’s covered by God’s grace, and is not something to overly worry about.

But let’s step back further. Aside from some understandable personal dissonance that might accompany your thinking about such an event, why in general wouldn’t we want this current world to end? It’s again true that the “Official Right Answer” here is – “yes, we want Jesus to come and end our current world.” But, any personal ambiguity aside, this ought to also be true on a purely human, even visceral level. The world we live in is pretty terrible. If you are slow to reach that conclusion I would suggest you are perhaps sheltered by privilege and/or not widely-read, especially in history. Misery is the norm, now and even more so in the past. A lucky birth might distance you somewhat from that reality, but it is reality. And the longer the earth continues as it is now, the longer both moral and natural evil are free to work immeasurable harm. Surely at the global level, looking at the facts of evil, we would wish for an end.

Of course, we obviously don’t and cannot know. What is spiritually healthy, in any event, would be to first process our readiness and possible range of emotions, in the event we are close. And that processing doesn’t need to be fearful, even if your life is in disarray. It can be an opportunity for objective self-evaluation. And, if getting right with God is needed, don’t be delusional about that. The Bible tells us how. Then, if you can conclude – sinner though you are – that God has accepted your commitment, you can essentially be glad if Jesus is coming soon.

Either way, I cannot see how the choices we make in living our lives should be much different. Those who know Adventist history might recall that there were two seminal events which impressed the Millerites, pre-1844. One was the 1833 “falling of the stars” and the other was the 1780 “Dark Day” in New England. Now we have naturalistic explanations for these occurrences, although that does not preclude God from employing them for religious purposes. But there is a moderately-famous response by a Connecticut judge named Abraham Davenport, supposedly spoken during that Dark Day. The Governor’s Council was in session and his colleagues were fearful that the darkness portended the Second Coming. So they suggested adjournment. Davenport responded:

“I am against adjournment. The day of judgment is either approaching, or it is not. If it is not, there is no cause for an adjournment; if it is, I choose to be found doing my duty. I wish therefore that candles may be brought.”

 I can’t think of better counsel in the midst of the current crisis. What is your duty? You should be going about it. And bring candles. Others might need your light.

 

Rich Hannon, a retired software engineer, is Columns Editor for SpectrumMagazine.org.

Previous Spectrum columns by Rich Hannon can be found at: https://spectrummagazine.org/author/rich-hannon

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