by John Pridmore
Hebrews 10.11-14 [15-18] 19-25;
“NOT ONE stone will be left on another.” Jesus uses hyperbole. Some stones are still in place — just as, for a little longer, some of our own ecclesiastical structures survive. The vast retaining walls, supporting the platform on which Herod built Jerusalem’s Second Temple, still stand. The masonry of the lower courses is the original Herodian work. As we say our prayers at the Western Wall, alongside our Jewish sisters and brothers, we are moved to wonder by these colossal stones, as were the disciples.
With those disciples, we cross the Kidron and climb to the top of the Mount of Olives. With them, we survey the city spread beneath us, and with them we ask the question Jerusalem always makes us ask. When will it all end? The disciples ask “When?”, and so do we, for we feel that we’ve had enough.
The first Christian prayer was “Come, Lord Jesus!”(Revelation 22.20). Two millennia later, we ask: “How long, O Lord? How long?” And so we search the Bible for whatever hints and clues it offers about what is to be, and when it is to be. In Mark 13, the so-called “Little Apocalypse”, Jesus addresses these longings directly. (We need to read the whole chapter, not just the first eight verses.)
Jesus’s teaching about the end is characterised by two paradoxes. The first is that he appears to speak in some detail about events of which he says he knows nothing. He claims that he has told his disciples everything that is going to happen. Yet he says that these things are hidden from him.
This first paradox is eased, though not eliminated, when we take to account of the character of Jesus’s eschatological teaching. Jesus’s purpose is not to provide a timetable — some kind of countdown to Armageddon, a series of predictions capable of being ticked off one by one as they are fulfilled. Such “apocalypses”, purporting to reveal esoteric information about the last days, abounded in the period “between the Testaments”, and many a head was addled by them.
Jesus’s aim was not to publish a programme of the end of history. The focus of his teaching is the here and now.
His words about tomorrow are about how to live today. The disciples’ question, and ours, is factual: “When is it going to be?” But Jesus’s answer is moral. Our queries about the future are met with instructions about the present. “Make sure no one leads you astray.”
The second paradox in Jesus’s teaching about what is to come is more troubling. The paradox is stark. Jesus teaches that things will get much better — and that they will get far worse.
He urges us to pray and work for the coming of God’s Kingdom on earth. In this conviction, Christians run night-shelters in church halls, dig wells in dry places, persuade rich countries to write off the debts owed them by poor ones. These are bridgeheads of the approaching Kingdom. God’s reign of justice and peace is brought that much nearer as each is established. According to this scenario, things here get better, however slowly and painfully, and evangelism is primarily social and political action to make it happen.
But then we turn to Mark 13, with its talk of wars, earthquakes, and famines. And these are just for starters. God will say: “Let there be darkness,” and there will be darkness. Things will go from bad to worse. It is the scenario described in one of the great passages of modern theological literature, written in Germany as Hitler was seizing power.
All the calamities that meet and have met us are but the menacing heralds of a final, fearful visitation that God has appointed for the end of history. When that time comes, the avalanche of sin, sorrow, and death, which ever since man’s first sin has been sliding down history with unremitting, increasing, and overpowering momentum, will finally come to rest in one mighty roll of thunder.
E. Stauffer, New Testament Theology, 1941
Those who believe that this is all the future holds will see social action as a dangerous distraction from the Church’s proper task. The business of evangelism, they’ll say, is the saving of souls, the plucking of brands from the burning, and nothing else.
Can we resolve these conflicting prospects: that the best is yet to be, but the worst is still to come? No, nor should we try to. The same principle applies to the doctrine of the Last Things as to every other Christian doctrine: “They who will to do his will shall know of the doctrine” (John 7.17). The only path to understanding is the next thing to be done.
And supposing the cosmologists are right, that one by one the stars will go out, that we are all for the dark? We’ll still dig those wells and share our story. Rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic never was a silly thing to do. On the contrary, it is the courtesy of the Kingdom to do just that.