End of the World or World without End?

Sometimes I wonder why so many people (but especially the media!) are fascinated, even obsessed, with the end of the world. Today, of course, is December 21–the date supposedly identified by an ancient Maya calendar as the end of the world. The build up to it has been years long. Some people have traveled the world to be in just the right place either to greet the world’s end or survive it. (What would it mean to “survive” the end of the world?)

I have to admit, I haven’t paid much attention to this current wave of popular apocalypticism. It seems they come and go so frequently and and are so drawn out and over exposed (by the media) that now there is always at least one and sometimes two simultaneous ones–at least overlapping each other.

I got my “fill” of apocalypticism as a child and youth. My church and family were absolutely obsessed with the “second coming of Jesus”–what scholars call the “parousia.” We were passionate pretribulational premillennialists. We even sang songs in church about it. Before Larry Norman popularized his song “I Wish We’d All Been Ready” we were singing “The Lord’s Return to Earth”–a premillennial hymn (“Satan will be bound a thousand years; we’ll have no tempter then, after Jesus shall come back to earth again”).

I was present at the world premier of the movie “Thief in the Night.” (One of my uncles was an investor in the film and it premiered in the city where I then lived and attended college.) Around our home and church were pre-Hal Lindsey books about the “rapture” by dispensationalists like Clarence Larkin. The main reason I never attended a movie in a theater before age 19 was that I believed if the rapture happened and I was in a movie theater, watching a Hollywood movie (as opposed to, say, a Billy Graham film) I’d be left behind.

Now, I’ll have to admit, I was pretty confused about what was going to happen after the rapture–to those of us who were taken away. My male teenage friends and I expressed (only to each other) our fervent hope that Jesus would wait to return until after we had sex (which wasn’t going to happen until we got married). At least one of my friends couldn’t wait. I’m sure our belief in the imminent rapture played into his decision not to wait for marriage. I say we were confused because, of course, we also believed (or were supposed to) that we would dwell on earth in Christ’s millennial world. We didn’t believe (or weren’t supposed to) in a purely spiritual millennium. The millennium would be very this-worldly but changed so that Christ and his values would reign.

I can remember one older friend who had taken classes on eschatology expressing his intent to miss the rapture so that he,  unlike the rest of us raptured ones, would hide out during the Great Tribulation and survive the horrible persecutions of the Antichrist and then enter the millennium with his physical body. That way he could have sex during the millennium. He assured us, those who hoped to be raptured, that we would be given new bodies that can’t have sex. Pentecostal teenage boys are pretty much like others in certain ways.

All that “rapture fever” aside, what should we Christians make of popular apocalypticism that seems to have gripped America if not the world? How should we respond?

Well, I hope preachers will take opportunities like this to speak to their congregations about the biblical hope as explained, for example, by N. T. Wright in Surprised by Hope. What he says there isn’t new; it’s just his reiteration of what biblical, orthodox Christians have always believed when their minds were not confused by popular culture and wild-eyed Christian apocalypticists.

Roman 8:18-25 should be preachers’ chosen text on this subject. The Christian hope is the resurrection of this world to a new form of life analogous to Jesus’ resurrected (changed) body–freed from bondage to decay but still, nevertheless, this world. The “end of the world,” then, simply means the end of this world as we know it under the curse of the fall–in bondage to decay. But “world without end” refers to this world liberated, renewed, made fully alive.

Some years ago I wrote an article about the resurrection of the cosmos (world) that was published in the journal Ex Auditu: “Resurrection, Cosmic Liberation, and Christian Earth KeepingEx Auditu 9 (1993), pp. 123-32. There I argued that Christian eschatological hope, far from being a hindrance to care for this world, is a motive for Christian stewardship of the environment.

I have come to the place where whenever I hear of another “end of the world” scenario I just yawn and pay little or no attention. I don’t believe in any “end of the world.” I believe in the “world without end” promised by God. According to legend (which doesn’t mean it’s not true) Luther was once asked what he would do if he knew for sure that Christ would return the next day. According to the story, he said “plant a tree.”

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  • ‘…and collect the rent’

  • Tim Reisdorf

    Hi Roger,
    I’m with you in being tired of hearing heralds of Jesus’ immanent return. I never read the Left Behind books because of that. Jesus will return at some point, but most of life should be wisely walking through life with God – enjoying His blessings, and working to bless others.
    When it happened, I thought hard about the Heaven’s Gate event – I’d like to think I learned something from their mistakes.

  • I grew up steeped in premillenial dispensational theology (and have sense rejected it). However when I was a kid the idea of the rapture terrified me for fear I’d be left behind. Lying in bed at night I’d hear a train coming in the distance or some other loud noice that I couldn’t quite make out, and I was just sure the rapture was happening and I’d be left befhind. I’d throw the covers over my head and pray fervently for Jesus to save me and plead with him to not leave me. I think I must have gotten saved about a million times in my childhood. Praise God for leading to professors, writers, and thinkers who exposed me to a different way of thinking; indeed, a more biblical way. Thanks for the thougtful post, Prof. Olson.

  • Jeff

    Dear Roger,

    Nice write-up, and as a former dispensationalist myself, I give a big hearty “amen,” especially regarding Christian stewardship of the environment. A while back, I published an essay entitled, “How Green Was John’s World? Ecology and Revelation.” And while researching for that, I also came across that plant-a-tree quote that’s been attributed to Luther so often… and found it in at least 3 publications (not Luther himself… modern ones… but all without reference to where Luther supposedly said this).

    After quite a bit of digging around, the best I can tell is that the quote originated with Stephen Girard, the wealthy early-nineteenth century French-born banker who called Philadelphia home. At least in _The American Daily Advertiser_ on February 1, 1832, he made the following statement: “When Death comes for me he will find me busy, unless I am asleep in bed. If I thought I was going to die to-morrow I should plant a tree, nevertheless, to-day….” [Source: _The Life and Character of Stephen Girard_ by Henry Atlee Ingram (Philadelphia, 1886), p. 95 as found on Google Books]

    If this is the origins of the plant-a-tree quote, then it’s actually not from Luther… and also not so much a quote about environmentalism, but more about productivity, industry, and avoiding laziness… at least, I was a little disappointed to find this out since I couldn’t use the quote in my essay… 🙂 Oh well. Maybe someone else can come along and cite the reference and show us it actually is a quote of Luther’s. And maybe I should go plant a tree anyway. 🙂

    Merry Christmas to you and a happy 2013. Keep up the great blogging.
    –Jeff Cate

  • B Brown

    2Peter 3:10-13 “But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night, in which the heavens will pass away with a great noise, and the elements will melt with fervent heat; both the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up. Therefore, since all these things will be dissolved, what manner of persons ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness, looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be dissolved, being on fire, and the elements will melt with fervent heat? Nevertheless we, according to His promise, look for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.”

    And some after realizing they were duped go to the other extreme. I was premillennial but after studying amillennialism came to the conclusion that it best explained the future.

    I take Peter’s words here literally. This earth will be dissolved and a NEW atmosphere and new earth will be created and then the redeemed will live here….as God intended from the beginning. No millennium after His return as amillennialism teaches. peace

    • rogereolson

      Historic premillennialism (the premillennialism of the earliest Christians such as Irenaeus) can explain 2 Peter 3. But can amillennialism explain Isaiah 65? There the prophet foretells a “new heavens and a new earth” (v. 17) in which “one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth, and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed”? (NRSV) Only premillennialism can explain the two futures foretold by the the prophets, Jesus and the apostles–one continuous with this world and another that is heavenly.

      • B Brown

        The NT is the final arbiter on how to understand the messianic prophecies. Here is Burton Coffman’s comments on this matter:

        “The new heavens and the new earth mentioned by Isaiah here are indeed associated with the Messianic age, but coming at the end of it, its termination, rather than being identified with the period of probation, which constitutes the extended middle portion of the Messianic period, stretching from the first advent to the second advent. It will be remembered that Peter referred to the current dispensation as “the last days” (Acts 2:16,17); and it is a characteristic of all the prophets that events during the Messianic age are telescoped in the prophetic visions so that events, actually separated by millenniums of time, are often mentioned as if they occurred simultaneously. That is exactly what we believe to be evident here.

        Another helpful factor in understanding what is written here is seen in the limitation of such promises as, “They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain” (Isaiah 65:25), to conditions “within all God’s holy mountain,” that is, within the holy Church of Messiah, It is within that sacred fellowship that the lion shall eat straw like the ox, and the wolf and the lamb shall lie down together, as stated in Isaiah’s earlier reference to the Messianic Age (Isaiah 11:6-9). Of course, what is meant is that the changes in men’s lives, due to their obedience of the gospel, will be “As great as if,” the nature of fierce animals should be so changed.

        This reference to the lion and the wolf, along with its counterpart, has a number of utilities: (1) again we have an instance of “here a little and there a little,” so often seen in Isaiah; (2) it identifies this passage as pertaining to the age of Messiah, as is the case in Isa. 11:6-9; (3) and it serves to illustrate the unity of the prophecy and its authorship by Isaiah.

        The wonderful blessings pertaining to God’s people which are cited in these verses, along with Isa. 65:10 (above) refer to spiritual privileges, despite their being expressed here in the terms of material prosperity. Quite obviously in the passage, the natural laws of birth and death, and other conditions of our earth-life still prevail during the age of Messiah, in which we most assuredly live.

        Of course, death itself shall finally be conquered; but when this finally occurs, Christ will render back to the Father the kingdom of heaven; and such shall mark the termination and not the beginning of the Messianic Age (1 Corinthians 15:24-28).

        “The new heavens and the new earth,” like many other prophecies has an immediate and a remote fulfillment, the first being the creation of “an utterly new environment” in the first advent of Christ and the preaching of the Gospel to Jews and Gentiles alike. The remote and final fulfillment is yet to occur when God will shake the earth the second time, signifying its “removal” (Hebrews 12:27), when the present earth and the works within it are “burned up” (2 Peter 3:7-10), when the “elements shall melt with fervent heat,” and when has arrived that final “day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men.” It is freely admitted that these sensational promises could all be interpreted figuratively; but this writer, along with many others, clings to the conviction that cosmic disturbances of the most tremendous and far-reaching nature are most surely associated with the final Judgment Day in the Word of God.

        The word “new” is significant in these chapters. There is to be a”new” heaven and earth, a “new” nature in the people of God, and a “new” name. Is not all of this what Paul spoke of? when he wrote: “If any man is in Christ, he is a new creature: the old things are passed away. Behold, they are become new” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

        On Isa. 65:20. here, Rawlinson noted that, “The remarkable thing in this paragraph is that death and sin are represented as continuing.” Nevertheless, “Death was spoken of as being `swallowed up in victory’ in one of Isaiah’s earlier descriptions of Messiah’s kingdom.” (See Isa. 25:8 and my comment there). This harmonizes with what we have written above, namely, that both are correct. Sin and death prevail throughout the period of probation (the present dispensation) until the end of it, at which time the judgment and the new heaven and the new earth will appear. Death will be swallowed up in victory when the dead of all generations arise in the judgment to confront the Son of God upon the throne of his glory (Matt. 25). All of these are associated with the Messianic Age. ”


        • rogereolson

          What I find ironic, of course, is the “of course-es.” I don’t see the “of course-ness” in this interpretation. This thread began with someone insisting that the references to this world being burned up in 1 Peter be interpreted literally. I’ve never been able to understand amillennialists’ rules about when biblical apocalyptic literature is to be interpreted literally and when it is not. I simply don’t see “the church” referred to in Isaiah, for example. That seems a stretch to me. Also, what do amillennialists do with the fact that Irenaeus, who was taught the Christian faith by Polycarp, who was taught it by John, was a premillennialist? So were most church fathers before Augustine (excepting Origen). If premillennialism is wrong, how did it creep into Christian theology between John and Irenaeus (writing about 77 AD)? Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t elevate this difference to status confessionis. My late friend Stan Grenz was an amillennialist who converted to that from premillennialism. We argued this much without ever implying that it is a matter of orthodoxy.

          • B Brown

            The Irenaeus/Church Father argument is a strong one. But the stronger argument for me is the Biblical one. There are many fine commentators who are amill as you know: M.L. Jones; John Stott; P.E. Huges; Hendrickson; Leon Morris; Greg Beale; R. Bauchaum; Robert Mounce; Philip Mauro and many others. I have Dr. Grenz book. I too converted to amillennialism after decades of being premillennial. It seems that the Arminians who are amillennial are few. Can you recommend any other arminian amills Dr. Olson? I often wonder why there aren’t more arminians who are amill.
            The one issue that nagged at me for years was the release of Satan after the thousand years were completed. As a premill I often wondered at the necessity of that and also at the success of Satan. How could so many be deceived by Satan with Christ Himself on His throne on the earth? I found an exegetical paper by Dr. R. Fowler White that settled it for me. He proves that the battle/war in Rev. 20:7-9 is the same battle/war in Rev. 16 and Rev. 19 based on the word used by John:

            Reexamining the Evidence for Recapitulation in Revelation 20:1-10
            by Dr. R. Fowler White

          • rogereolson

            I’m not aware of any necessary connection between Arminianism and amillennialism or premillennialism. One can be an Arminian and hold any of the major eschatological views found within orthodox Christianity. Wesley, of course, was a postmillennialist. So was Edwards. If I’m not mistaken, most Holiness Christians (Nazarenes, Wesleyans, Free Methodists, etc.) have been amillennialists.

  • “When I was still in my teens, our pastor thundered the threat of hell from his pulpit almost every Sunday night. Usually he targeted the youth of the church who were guilty of such cardinal sins as: dancing at the prom, smoking cigarettes (aka “coffin nails”), wearing lipstick and earrings at school, or (gasp!) going to the movie theater (I especially enjoyed a good old wild-west shoot-’em-up — with a sack of popcorn, of course)…Many of the church’s young people “got saved” … again … every Sunday night! If the Lord had returned between the Sunday night service and Monday morning school classes, it would have been okay with us kids; we were all prayed up and ready for heaven. Anytime after that, however, all bets were off.”
    (An excerpt from a new book, Dropping Hell and Embracing Grace, by Ivan A. Rogers. Available from Amazon.com, also on Kindle).

    • rogereolson

      Who would that “pastor” have been? I think I heard him preach, too. 🙂 But I had to live under his roof, so I didn’t get away with the things other “church kids” did during the week! 🙂

  • Elliott Scott

    One of my former professors, Elizabeth Achtemeier, was shopping and the sales clerk discovered that she taught at a seminary. He asked her, “Do you believe we’re living in the last generation before Christ returns?” She responded, “I don’t know, but we’re living in your only generation before he returns.”

    She was often a bit terrifying in conversation.

    • rogereolson

      I met her once–at a theology conference at North Park Seminary in Chicago. (Actually, it was the one where I gave my paper on eschatology and stewardship of the earth that as published in Ex Auditu. She was the conference devotions leader and gave mini-homilies each morning and evening. She was a bit intimidating, but I appreciated her passion.

  • Bev Mitchell


    This response is stimulated by your discussion with ReasJack (Dec 20-22) under “What Does “Supernatural” Mean? Can a Person Be Christian and NOT Believe in It?” and by the present piece. Since this thread is more current, I’ll put it here. Being a biologist, I also bring that view to these discussions.

    And if we could bring the dead back to life, who would be chosen? If it’s to be everyone, what will they eat as the next generations of “artificially” eternal folk come along? Will reproduction be banned to keep us from eating ourselves out of house and home? Some species try a form of this by reproducing essentially by cloning. It works poorly because of lack of genetic reshuffling.

    Our bodies (from a cellular point of view, for example) wear out. Cells are programmed to die on cue (apoptosis) – if they don’t, one horrible result is cancer. Our mitochondria are leaky. They leak free radicals which attack DNA, among other essential chemistry. Living things have DNA repair mechanisms, but it’s a race against time – and the organism always looses. Even birds, which have mitochondria considerably less leaky than ours (go figure) die and are, of course, resource limited (Lane, 2005).

    Matter is limited. Life, overseen by a loving God, continues in spite of this insurmountable limitation. But it is life, in all its beauty that continues, not individual organisms. This is certainly not to say that individuals should therefore be devalued (that would be truly unbiblical) but it is to say that we should tone down our western individualism just a bit. Life is God’s answer to tohu va bohu. “Let there be light” could be paraphrased “Let there be life” without straying too far from the intent of the text.

    So, without a way to create matter out of nothing, we cannot have any species living forever, or resurrecting at will – at least, not in any great number. In the “World Without End” (this blog article) these matters will be taken care of, but not by us. It’s amazing how many of these tough questions can be brought into clearer focus by considering the miraculous nature of our resurrected Lord. We can only speculate, of course, but that event at least provides a clue as to the nature of the coming world without end.

    Nick Lane, “Power, Sex, Suicide: Mitochondria and the meaning of life” Oxford University Press 2005.

    • rogereolson

      Thanks for continuing and deepening the conversation.

  • Steve Rogers

    I would put off weekend homework until Sunday night after church figuring that if the rapture occurred I wouldn’t have to do it. Then, as teenage rebellion consumed me, I figured I wouldn’t make the cut anyway. Since I seemed unable to live good enough to get raptured, I decided to live bad enough to enjoy my lostness. What a wretched superstition!

    • rogereolson

      I’d say the way we were raised and the preaching and teaching of it kept me out of a lot of trouble. It would have been better, though, if I had stayed out of that trouble for better reasons. And that was partly the case, too. My teen spiritual experiences at “Bible camp” had as much or more to do with it than fear of being left behind in the rapture. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the preaching of the cross and union with Christ through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit could replace fear of God’s wrath in Christian teens’ lives?

      • Steve Rogers

        I had camp experiences, too. But they seemed to have such a short shelf-life. I don’t know if the message of ” union with Christ through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit” instead of fear of wrath would have made a difference in my teen years, but it sure does now. PTL

  • Reverend Robbie

    We’ve got real problems to address for the sake of the human race now and into the future, and it’s up to us to address them on practical terms. We can’t afford to think that anything is part of God’s plan or that he’s going to save any of us. Debating whether global climate change is something God would allow is not going to help us evaluate and deal with evaluating any real potential threat of it. Considering how the degree of our support for Israel will influence God’s timing of judgment day isn’t going to help us navigate the nuances of Middle East conflict in any practical way. And wondering how God will deal with us when we’ve somehow, someday dropped out of existence won’t help us when we’re dead. Let’s stop injecting our superstitious beliefs into the question of how we can practically help the human race to survive and thrive on this planet. As far as we know, we’ve got one shot at it and it doesn’t help to muddy up the issues with trying to decide what a supernatural being wants from us or pretending that he’ll provide a safety net for those of us who do what he wants.

    • rogereolson

      What church are you a “reverend” of?

  • As someone who grew up Mormon for twenty years, I missed all of the rapture hype, but upon becoming a Christian, the guys I did ministry with were big into it and tried to convince me of its validity. Thanks to men like N.T. Wright and Jonathan Welton, I’ve been able to keep myself from buying into it, even though I’m still unsure of the whole pre/a argument. One thing at a time, I suppose. haha. Christ crucified…

  • I think that this world will “pass away” (even scientists believe that)…but that the Lord will bring about a new creation.

    Sometimes I wish that He would hurry it up a bit.

    • rogereolson

      This “world” that will pass away is the fallen social system of violence, domination, injustice and unbelief. If you want to see what “world” will fall away, go to any major DVD/video game store that caters to boys and young men and notice the percentage of films/games devoted to horror, violence, crime, blood, war, etc., compared with the percentage devoted to peace, justice, love and kindness.

  • Jack Harper

    Dr. Olson, I read your article in Pneuma (SPS) about ‘ Pietism and Pentecostalism: Spiritual Cousins or Competitors?” It was a very interesting article. I especially liked your short testimony, I find myself questioning the main line Pentecostal denominations understanding of Spirit baptism. I think you made a great argument for pietism being an integral part of church history. I consider myself a Pentecostal in some respects, but have problems reconciling a dogmatic stance. I am currently a student at Liberty University, working towards my B.S. in religion at the age of 51. My question to you has to do with the sign and wonders movement a foot nowadays. I find a lot of it very troubling and see that it is almost promoting an anti- intellectual stance instead of incorporating the both the power of God’s Spirit with proper exegetical understanding of God’s word. Do you think an aggressive posture against some of the obvious heretical happenings is necessary or should we let these charlatans fissile out?

    • rogereolson

      I think we should take an aggressive stand against all charlatans. But whether we would agree who they are is another question. I don’t allow naming names here (in any offensive way), but perhaps you could describe someone you think is a charlatan in that sense (without naming him or her). Then I can respond more helpfully (I hope).

  • Harv

    / Great blog, Roger. What follows is something unusual that I found on the never boring net. /

    Pretrib Rapture Pride

    by Bruce Rockwell

    Other fascinating Google articles include “The Unoriginal John Darby,” “X-raying Margaret,” “Edward Irving in Unnerving,” “Pretrib Rapture Politics,” “Pretrib Rapture Secrets,” “Pretrib Rapture Dishonesty,” “Pretrib Hypocrisy,” “Pretrib Rapture Secrecy,” and “Roots of Warlike Christian Zionism” – most from the author of “The Rapture Plot,” the most accurate documentation on pretrib rapture history.
    Can anyone guess who the last proud pretrib rapture holdout will be?

    • rogereolson

      I edited this because I disallow posting of long passages from other sources. If you provide the link to the internet site where people and read Rockwell’s essay I’ll post it here. But people can probably find it by googling the title and his name. Some of what that lengthy excerpt contained could be considered slanderous (at least by the person named in it) which is another reason not to post it here.