Waiting for the “End of the World” as We Know it

The adjective “apocalyptic,” refers to the notion that the hidden realities of the unseen world are being revealed in an imminent and unfolding manner at the “end of the age.” It is not the “end of the world,” but rather a dramatic reversal and transformation of life as it is lived on planet earth.

The “apocalypse” (literally “the revealing”) is good news and bad news, depending on ones stake in the present and ones attitude toward the new future–a future that ushers in the “kingdom of God.” This reign of God involves a complete reversal of the failed and flawed “rule” of humanity over the planet. The Hebrew Prophets picture it as an ideal time of peace, in which justice and righteousness fills the earth, and evil no longer holds sway. It is well summed up by the urgent plea in the Lord’s Prayer:

Let your kingdom come! Let your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven!

I am convinced that the Jesus movement is utterly and thoroughly apocalyptic to the core. In my book, The Jesus Dynasty, I attempted to offer a narrative interpretation of of the historical Jesus and his earliest followers in that light. Recently on this blog, I have written posts here, here, and here, on Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet of kingdom of God. I have tried to situate this particular view of the world and of history within late developments of forms of Judaism in the ancient Greco-Roman Mediterranean world. Years ago I published a popular overview, ambitiously titled, “What the Bible Says About Death, Afterlife, and the Future,” which is available here.1 Other than the New Testament texts, the Dead Sea Scrolls are probably our best witnesses to this development, namely the cluster of Jewish messianic movements in Palestine in late 2nd Temple times. I recently published an overview of ancient Jewish and Christian millennialism in the new Oxford Handbook on Millennialism, on-line here.

Of course apocalyptic thinking remains with us through the ages. In December, 1999, with the Y2K hysteria at a fever pitch, I published an article in Bible Review “Why 2K? The Biblical Roots of Millennialism,” that offers an overview.2 You can read it on-line here. Though I have given some attention to recent millennial movements, my primary academic focus has been on the ways in which this kind of thinking forms the matrix for the development and emergence of early Christianity.

We have many sources for understanding “apocalyptic” thinking in the period but I think some of our best evidence comes from the three strata of our earliest materials embedded in the New Testament itself. They are, in chronological order, the early letters of Paul, the Saying Source embedded in Matthew and Luke most commonly called Q, and Mark, generally considered to be our earliest gospel. Here below is a selection of particularly “apocalyptic” passages that truly catch the atmosphere and flavor of the movement inaugurated by John the Baptizer and adopted and expanded by Jesus and his followers. These texts can all be dated to the earliest days of the movement, a kind of “heyday” of apocalypticism in the years 26-66 CE, before the disastrous 1st revolt of the Jews against Rome that ended in the destruction of Jerusalem, when all hopes dashed for God’s deliverance (66-73 CE). To put things bluntly, the “Son of Man, coming in the clouds of heaven with great power and glory” never happened and those who had relied on the apocalyptic prophecies of Daniel had to drastically recast their interpretations and expectations (Mark 13:26).

I find it helpful with my students to simply read the texts and let them speak for themselves, in the original words of their authors. The apocalyptic outlook in each of these quotations clear, direct, and uncompromising. Those who penned and passed on these traditions surely expected to live to see the “end of the age,” and participate in the kingdom of God upon the earth.

1 Thessalonians 1:9-10: For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God,
and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the impending wrath.

1 Thessalonians 4:15-17: For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we that are alive, that are left to the coming of the Lord, shall not precede them that are fallen asleep. For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call, and with the trumpet of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first; then we that are alive, that are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so shall we ever be with the Lord.

1 Corinthians 6:2-3: Or know you not that the saints will judge the world? and if the world is judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases to? Do you not know that we are to judge angels? How much more matters pertaining to this life!

1 Corinthians 7:26, 29-31: I think that in view of the impending distress that it is well for a person to remain as he is . . . I mean brethren, the appointed time has grown very shortfrom now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none; and those that mourn, as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no good, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the form of this world is passing away.

1 Corinthians 16:22: If any one has no love for the Lord, let him be accursed! Our Lord Come! (Greek Maranatha).

Romans 13:11-12: Besides this you know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.

Romans 16:20: Then the God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet.

Q Sayings (references are to Luke)
3:7-9: [John the Baptizer] said therefore to the multitudes that went out to be baptized of him, “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the impending wrath? Bear fruits that show repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham to our father'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees: every tree therefore does not bring forth good fruit is cut down, and cast into the fire.

16:16:The Torah and the Prophets were until John: from that time the good news of the kingdom of God is preached, and every one enters it forcefully.

10:8-12: Luke 10:8 Whenever you enter a town and they receive you, eat what is set before you. Heal the sick in it and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ But whenever you enter a town and they do not receive you, go into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet we wipe off against you. Nevertheless know this, that the kingdom of God has come near.’ I tell you, it will be more bearable on that day for Sodom than for that town.

11:2: And he said to them, When you pray, say, Father, let your name be holy. May your kingdom come!

11:20: But if I by the finger of God cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.

22:28-30: “You are those who have stayed with me in my trials, and I assign to you, as my Father assigned to me, a kingdom, that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.

1:14-15: Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the good news of God, and saying, The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent and believe in the good news.

9:1:And he said to them, Truly I say to you, There are some standing here who will not taste of death before they see the kingdom of God come with power.

11:9-10: And they that went before, and they that followed, cried, Hosanna; Blessed is he that comes in the name of the Lord: Blessed is the kingdom that comes, the kingdom of our father David: Hosanna in the highest!

13:14, 29-30: But when you see the desolating sacrilege set up where it ought not to be . . . So also, when you see these things taking place you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I say to you, This generation shall not pass away, until all these things take place.

14:25 Truly I say to you, I shall no more drink of the fruit of the vine, until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.

  1. What the Bible Really Says, edited by Morton Smith and R. Joseph Hoffmann (HarperSanFrancisco: 1989).  

  2. “Why 2K: The Biblical Roots of Millennialism,” Bible Review (December, 1999), pp. 16-27, 44‑45.