What follows is a modified version of the introduction to one of my papers on Mark 13. You can read the whole paper here: Signs of the Times?: A Study in Mark 13.
Read the rest of the series here.
(Please note that it was written a week after the earthquake, and that the death-toll and other facts may not be up to date )
About a week ago, a 7.0 earthquake ravaged the small country of Haiti. There is no confirmed death toll at this point, but some have guessed upwards of 500,000 but in the last few days the number has lowered to about 100,000 in most news reports. This is not the first natural disaster to cause devastation in recent years. There have been other large earthquakes, a devastating tsunami, and a hurricane with some unexpected repercussions. With all of these natural catastrophes, statements have been made by leaders in the Christian community connecting such events with the judgment of God. In the case of the Haitian earthquake, within days of the disaster, evangelical leader Pat Robertson made claims that this was a divine action to carry out God’s wrath on the nation. Apparently, Robertson believes that several generations ago, Haitian leaders made a pact with the devil to find victory in military so God cursed the nation. As should be expected, the media and other groups of Christians have proclaimed their frustrations with the remarks, but one could only suspect that there are some who may see another kind of connection with this earthquake and God’s activity.
(The above video features the statements that Robertson made.)
In evangelical culture, the tendency of many has been to look to modern day events as precursors of the so-called “end times.” It is believed by several groups of Christians that many of the devastations of our day are ‘signs of the times.’ This is to say that natural disasters (and war) are often connected to biblical prophecy as the very things that will lead up to the so-called rapture of the church and great tribulation. This ideology, which is popular in fundamentalism, has been greatly fueled by the “Left Behind” book series (and films), contemporary Christian music, and other apocalyptic movies. The unique combination of connecting earthquakes with the divine and a near obsession with futurist views of eschatology (end times), it becomes easy for a person to begin to wonder if the tragedy in Haiti was itself a ‘sign of the times.’ If such a person knows about the Olivet Discourse in general, and Mark 13.8 in specific, such a question becomes easily warranted. Jesus states that random “earthquakes” will be the beginning of “birth pains.” This leaves us with a relevant question: Can we make such a connection based on a proper reading of Mark 13 and its parallels?
The way one chooses to read Mark 13 can have ramifications for the whole of one’s worldview. If Mark 13 is believed to be leading to our immanent future, then it could be assumed that there is not much hope for this present world. Such a perspective can lead to escapism theologies that take the focus off of this world, but create a longing for a disembodied experience in an eternal heaven. Often this ideology has left the church out of commission in areas of social action, when the biblical narrative seems to have such as a central theme. So, in the case of Haiti, the idea of meeting the immediate needs of the victims can very easily become a secondary issue in Christian discourse rather than a primary summons from the gospel. Therefore, it will be helpful to discern whether or not events like the Haitian earthquake can be attributed to God’s judgment or causality as a ‘sign of the times,’ or perhaps the text at hand does not lend itself to this kind of conclusion. Perhaps Mark 13 has something else in mind.
(Click on the above image to donate to World Vision’s work for justice in Haiti!)