As I grew up in a church that did not believe in a special rapture for believers before the time of trouble and persecution, my peers often looked for signs that they should run and hide to escape suffering. This time of trouble and tribulation held a prominent place in there religious teachings. It would be a time when one would need to run to remote places, to forests and rocky caves. It would be a time to band together in small groups to survive. My peers expected that at any moment, laws would be enacted to purge the land of the faithful, much like wicked Haman did in the book of Esther when he made a death decree to rid the kingdom of Jews.
The ideology of many in my family church was a crisis-centered Christianity, with a persecution-driven faith that fostered an end-time obsession that was downright terrifying. Discussing end-time events was like a suspenseful thriller—imagining priests, prelates, and others coming to kill you. Oh, to be sure, there would be a second coming of Jesus to save the survivors in the nick of time, but there was something about the adrenaline rush, the suspense, the pursuing men with swords and spears that pulled believers back into the apocalyptic plot. It caused them to distrust others. It caused them to focus on events that might trigger the persecution of an end-time crisis. It triggered in these timid and fearful believers a fight-or-flight response.
These last-day prophecy buffs felt more comfortable huddling together and whispering about worst-case scenarios and the latest headlines than walking among the infidels and apostates of our world. They advocated escapism as a response to the coming persecution—flight from cities and towns into the isolated wilderness to save their own hides. Don’t get me wrong; I love studying end-time events, but I’ve learned that prophecy must be interpreted within the context of Scripture’s larger themes. Otherwise, despite carefully charting the bus schedule, we may end up missing the bus.
We’ve been given a sure word of prophecy but are left wondering why some predictions remain so vague. Why wasn’t God more specific, telling us exactly when these prophecies and events would happen? It may be that God does not want us pinpointing every prophetic event, for if they were fully determined, we could sit back and relax until they arrived. God has certainly demonstrated validity beyond the flux of history—we may not know exactly how future events will play out, but we’re given enough signs and events to develop a framework about what is to come. God wants us to understand the issues involved. Event-focused Christians fail to see these issues, but understanding them prepares us to respond in meaningful ways during times of crisis—ways that make God look good. I think God wants us to concentrate on the important issues, not specific events. Jesus said, “And now I have told you before it comes, that when it does come to pass, you may believe” (John 14:29; NKJV). He focused on trust and belief, not the prediction itself. We do not understand the future, and we will not until it comes to pass and see that God was in control. Knowing and trusting God is helpful when one can’t understand what is happening or is faced with a delayed or unfulfilled prophecy. What are we to do when history does not play out as we expect, like when Jesus came in a different way than the Pharisees had predicted? Or when the wicked city of Nineveh was overthrown in a different way than Jonah had prophesied?
It appears that the prophecy about Nineveh included some conditionality, which Jonah was unwilling to accept. Nineveh was eventually destroyed, but this occurred much later than originally predicted. As Abraham Joshua Heschel says, “Judgment, far from being absolute, is conditional. A change in man’s conduct brings about a change in God’s judgment” (The Prophets, p. 194).
Events on earth are not disconnected, frayed strands of history that go nowhere. There is a meaning to history and the events that take place in our world. In the Book of Revelation, God holds back the winds of strife and chaos, waiting for a people to become prepared to meet the crisis with divine aid (Revelation 7:1). In this sense, the end seems to be conditioned on people’s responses. In the meantime, history emphasizes God’s love for all creatures and His hope that they will gain knowledge of Him and become repentant. God is clearly focused on larger issues, not specific events. An event’s specific circumstances may be surprising, diverging from our expectations. We should be prepared for such surprises. After all, Jesus asks us to watch and be always ready.
If you find yourself seeking clarity in this world, keep a sharp eye out for issues that demonstrate an irresistible and powerful God getting you through the rough pathways of life. Don’t rely on your ability to read signs, for “the kingdom of God does not come with observation” (Luke 17:20, NKJV). Instead of fixating on future events and focusing on crisis, become an issue-centered person.
What I worry about most is the deception of evil. Evil manipulates people. We need a more nuanced way to describe how end-time events will play out. The only way I can begin to make sense of the prophetic outlook is to focus on issues behind the scenes. If God permits Satan to operate in the world, we should be ready for deception in its highest form. After all, the devil comes as an angel of light (2 Corinthians 11:14). Satan imitates light and truth, sophisticating the way evil works. I suspect that end-time events will be more sophisticated than we imagine. Prophecy addicts tell me the sure way to avoid being deceived is to know that Jesus will come with more light—as if differentiating truth from falsehood were as easy as comparing the wattage and lumens of light bulbs. If we are not careful, we may miss the real deception. What about the feared mark of the beast? Well, it’s a counterfeit. It’s an imitation, a deception.
The last book of the Bible warns us that the ancient serpent, called the devil, will deceive the world with signs, prompting all people on earth to worship it (Revelation 13:14–18). I wonder what religious signs will prove so attractive to everyone. To focus on the issues behind the scenes, we should look to the start of human history, which offers insight into how history will end. At the tree in the Garden of Eden, the issue was trust and loyalty to God, which was brought to light by the serpent’s deception. The devil is not stupid. American radio broadcaster Paul Harvey’s popular essay “If I Were the Devil” is a warning to America. It shows what methods the devil might use in order to corrupt. It makes me wonder; if I were the devil, how would I tempt and deceive people? What tactics would I employ to deceive me?
When we see trouble taking shape in our world, we should remain alert and open. We should watch developing events carefully, but I think it is a terrible mistake to overlook what end-time events indicate about God’s character and earthly governments. Understanding that things may happen in unexpected ways, I can trust that the issues and principles operating behind the scenes remain the same. In the beginning of biblical history, we see that issues revolve around individual loyalty and trust in God. As the story develops, we see Abel’s loyalty and benevolence and Cain’s rebellious feelings that lead him to control others and even act on murderous hate. Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, Jesus and the religious leaders—all stories depict the same basic issues of benevolence and love versus intimidation, violence and hate.
In Matthew 24, Jesus foretells that lawlessness will abound in the world and that many will stop loving one other. Jesus also encourages us to pray that our flight from danger will not be on the Sabbath. How does a world in rebellion against God’s law relate to fleeing from suffering and persecution on the Sabbath? Might Jesus have been prophesizing the traditional church’s abandonment of the Sabbath, foretelling a crisis over a return to the Sabbath? Is this a reminder that end-time issues revolve around loyalty and relationship to God, as reflected in the theology of the Sabbath?
In the beginning, the Sabbath was given as a sign of divine presence and love, a celebration of the world God had made. Might the mark of the beast imitate or counterfeit it? Could secular governments be used as instruments of control? Do religious antagonism and intolerance reflect prejudice or even hatred? Looking at the issues and examining their implications will help us confirm our understanding of current and future events.
Persecution and trouble are aspects of the end-time scenario. Jesus said persecution was coming, but He also said to “Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy!” (Luke 6:20–36, NKJV). Jesus is not a morbid sadist, but I have noticed that God likes to show up during a crisis. We have good reasons to rejoice, for we will have an experience with God. So, while I will certainly heed the signs of trouble to avoid impending doom, as one might flee from an oncoming truck, I will also look for places to stand, as did Esther, who said, “if I perish, I perish.” Like Job, I can seek opportunities to speak well about God, even in the midst of tribulation. As Job said, “Though he slay me yet will I trust in Him.” Like Paul and Silas, I can rejoice and sing hymns to God even from a jail cell.
When external forces outside our control collide with culture, politics or religion, I hope to have a deeper experience that will help others see the worth of the God I have come to know and love. God will not forsake us, for He promised to love us and always give us His presence. God will give us the gift of strength whenever we need it. Yes, I am fascinated by end-time events, but I am more fascinated by who God is. I believe that what we need today is a clearer picture of God—to really see Him as He is—which requires paying closer attention to the issues relating to the character of God’s kingdom. When we do, our understanding of prophecy and the events that will transpire will also become clearer.
Craig Ashton Jr.