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I just received a book notice from Moody Press for a new commentary on Revelation by John MacArthur with the title Because the Time is Near. At this time I will forego a critique of MacArthur’s use of “near” to describe an event he believes is “near” while the use of “near” by New Testament writers (e.g., James 5:8; Rev. 1:3) did not mean “near” when they used the same word.
For years, I have been dealing with issues related to the last days. I got involved in this topic because Christians were using last-days theology as a way to explain the state of the world and why Christians can’t do anything to reverse present trends. MacArthur is representative of this view when he writes, “‘Reclaiming’ the culture is a pointless, futile exerci se. I am convinced,” he writes, “we are living in a post-Christian society—a civilization that exists under God’s judgment.” A good case could be made that the people in Europe in the fifteenth century were living under a similar “post-Christian society.” Here’s how Samuel Eliot Morison opens his 1942 biography on Christopher Columbus:
At the end of the year 1492 most men in Western Europe felt exceedingly gloomy about the future. Christian civilization appeared to be shrinking in area and dividing into hostile units as its sphere contracted. For over a century there had been no important advance in natural science, and registration in the universities dwindled as the instruction they offered became increasingly jejune [immature] and lifeless. Institution s were decaying, well-meaning people were growing cynical or desperate, and many intelligent men, for want of something better to do, were endeavoring to escape the present through the study of the pagan past.
Islam was now expanding at the expense of Christendom. . . . The Ottoman Turks, after snuffing out all that remained of the Byzantine Empire, had overrun most of Greece, Albania and Serbia; presently they would be hammering at the gates of Vienna.
Sound familiar? Change 1492 to any modern date, and the above description of the world of Columbus would fit just as well today. All the major characters and signs are once again in place, or so it seems.
Prophecy pundits in the fifteenth century were sure that the end was near, just as those five hundred years before them knew it was near, and five hundred years before them.
The end of the world: the idea was taken quite seriously by Europe of the late fifteenth century—not as a mere conceit, not as a metaphor or theological trope, but as a somber, ter rifying prediction based solidly on the divine wisdom of biblical prophecy and the felt experience of daily life. . . .[I]n the words of Joseph Grünpeck, the official historian to the Hapsburg emperor Frederick III, “When you perceive the miserable corrupt ion of the whole of Christendom, of all praiseworthy customs, rules and laws, the wretchedness of all classes, the many pestilences, the changes in this epoch and all the strange happenings, you know that the End of the World is near. And the waters of aff liction will flow over the whole of Christendom.”
As history attests, it was the end of the world, the end of a stagnant worldview that left people without any future hope. But a mere 25 years later, history took a dramatic change in direction. Through a single act, Martin Luther reclaimed the Bible, the gospel, and culture when he confronted a corrupt church. The rest, as they say, is history.
What makes today’s speculations about the end any more reliable? Why are today’s prophecy writers any more trus tworthy? They aren’t. Prophetic texts that applied to the generation of Jesus’ day (Matt. 24:34) are being misapplied to our generation. This is a huge mistake that has significant implications theologically and culturally. Prophecy books like those of Mac Arthur are only adding to the confusion.