In many Christian circles today, end-times issues are the focus of a huge amount of attention. It is surely not exaggerating to say that large numbers of Christians put more effort into studying this topic than any other area of Christian belief or practice.
There is, of course, nothing wrong with taking an interest in end-times matters. The fact that the Bible contains the books of Daniel and Revelation, and portions of the Gospels such as Matthew 24, Mark 13 and Luke 21, shows that studying end-times issues is a healthy thing in itself. What is more, Jesus Himself, in the parable of the fig tree in Matthew 24:32-33, Mark 13:28-29 and Luke 21:29-31, encourages us to consider these things. Steering clear of end-times matters because they are supposedly too difficult or not important enough is certainly not a biblical attitude to take.
Nevertheless, it is surely true that many Christians spend too much time thinking about this topic. Important though end-times issues are, they should not normally be allowed to take centre stage in the way that they so often do. There are many other important things requiring the urgent attention of Christians today.
Other important issues
For example, at the present time the church in Western countries is under severe attack as regards family and sexual values. There is a great need for those who will get involved in defending biblical truth in this area.
Or take the plight of persecuted Christians. Today, persecution is probably greater than it has ever been, and there is a need for those who will pray in an informed way for brothers and sisters suffering for the faith, and who will help them in other ways too.
Many other important things are also crying out for our attention. Time is very precious, and we need to be careful how we prioritise our use of it. Those who channel so much effort into speculation and discussion of end-times issues should ask themselves if they have got the balance right. I think for many, things have become unbalanced and out of control.
There are certainly bound to be some Christians who are called by God to spend a lot of time considering this topic, just as there are specialists in all other areas of the faith. However, it makes sense to think that those who are genuinely called in this way will be fairly few in number. It seems to me that many immerse themselves in speculation about end-times events without really listening for God’s voice on how they prioritise their commitments. Instead, I would suggest that for the vast majority of Christians, end-times matters should be just one topic among many that are the focus of their attention.
Attitudes to people with other views
As well as spending too much time considering end-times issues, another problem which often arises is that Christians can become inappropriately hostile to others who don’t share their end-times views.
It is very important for us to know when something is worth dividing over and when it isn’t. There are many occasions when we can believe that another Christian is mistaken on something important, yet also rightly believe that it isn’t worth falling out over.
That is not to say that there are no end-times issues worth dividing over. Two beliefs that should be regarded as essential are that Jesus will one day return to earth in the way He ascended to heaven (Acts 1:9-11), and that He will judge all the living and the dead (Matthew 25:31-46; 2 Corinthians 5:10; Revelation 20:11-15). If a professing Christian denies either of these things, they have denied a basic Christian truth that has been held by the worldwide church down through the centuries. I believe it would be right to refuse to offer Christian fellowship to someone who holds such a view.
Nevertheless, in most end-times matters where Christians take different views, falling out over disagreements is the wrong thing to do.
Another problem that often occurs is overconfidence in end-times theories. Many Christians are far too sure of how things will unfold in the future. I think sometimes this is down to arrogance, at other times to naivety, and sometimes to a mixture of both.
For example, I can remember that in the 1980s there were many who were confident that Communism would be a big player in the unfolding of end-times events. Unsurprisingly, with the demise of the
Soviet Union, the vast majority
of those who took this view have now abandoned it.
We need to be clear that if, as seems highly likely, Communism will never be a major player in end-times events, those who said that it would be gave a false prophecy. There is no other way of putting it.
What is worse, many of those who predict things and then change their minds or are shown to be wrong, are much too quick to let themselves off the hook for what they have done. They should be distressed that they have allowed themselves to mislead people, or at least to potentially mislead them. But instead, many seem to say to themselves something like this:
“Well, what do you know. I was wrong. What a surprise. Okay, that was wrong, but this – the next theory – will be right.”
And then they proceed to give another equally confident prediction!
If a Christian gets something wrong in any way, they should always take stock and make sure they do everything possible to avoid making a similar mistake in the future. It seems to me that all too often Christians who make false end-times prophecies are not learning from their mistakes and show no real humility or sense of shame in the light of what they have done.
False prophecies are damaging
Nor should we underestimate the potential damage of false prophecies on people.
First, there is the impact on Christians to bear in mind. If Christians are led to believe something false about the future, the result can be that they spend their time and energy in wrong ways with very bad consequences. They can also become discouraged and disillusioned when they realise that what they believed was false.
Second, it is obvious that there will be damage to the reputation of Christians, when things are predicted that don’t come to pass. And when the reputation of Christians is damaged, there will also be damage to the reputation of the Christian faith and Jesus Himself in the eyes of some non-believers. People will be put off the faith.
The timing of events
As I have noted, there are times when false prophecies concern what events will occur in the future. At other times, however, they involve when events will take place.
It is quite rare to hear people actually predicting the date on which Jesus will return. However, as we know all too well, this does happen, and sometimes predictions of this kind make headline news. The damage to the Christian faith when the date passes and Jesus has not appeared is always significant.
Christians themselves are also sometimes led astray by these predictions. It is important to remember, however, that in the Bible Jesus can be found telling His disciples that no one knows the date on which He will return (Matthew 24:36; Mark 13:32). These verses also strongly imply that that date will never be revealed before He appears. We should therefore never believe a prophecy giving the date of Jesus’ return. It isn’t from God.
Although prophecies of the date of Jesus’ return are rare, there is another type of wrong prediction of the timing of events that is very common. Christians can often be heard saying things like:
“I expect that Jesus will return within about five to ten years, but definitely no later than twenty years from now.”
Many Christians who have made predictions of this kind have lived to see the time limit pass.
It is true that this type of false prophecy is not as bad as giving a false date on which something will happen, but it is still harmful. As I have already said, giving any sort of false prediction of the future can only harm evangelistic efforts, since the credibility of Christians, and by extension the Christian faith itself, will be negatively affected.
Furthermore, giving a false time frame within which end-times events will occur can cause Christians to make bad decisions.
For example, a church might consider expanding its work by starting a new building project. However, if the believers there are then misled into thinking that the Lord will return within a certain time limit (that turns out to be false), they might decide it is not worth going ahead with this work. Then, when it becomes clear that they were mistaken, they might have lost many years of fruitful ministry.
We should be in no doubt that this is a serious business. As a remedy to this problem, I believe Christians should never give any time limits at all for when Jesus will return or anything of this kind. Nor do I believe it is wise even to give probable time limits.
I believe instead that we should say both that end-times events may unfold imminently, and that they may not unfold for many years to come. I think that would be faithful to the tone of Scripture, where both these outlooks seem to be present. It would also serve to keep Christians on their toes, watching for a possible imminent unfolding of things, while discouraging them from making short-sighted plans for the future. Furthermore, it would avoid the danger of Christians, and by extension the Christian faith and Jesus Himself, being brought into disrepute when predictions turn out to be false.
I think in considering end-times issues, there is a real need on the part of many Christians to show much more humility. I, for one, would love to hear words like “might,” “maybe,” “perhaps” and “possibly” used much more often as believers consider how end-times events will unfold. It is far better to be undecided than to firmly believe something that is false.