The United States has just faced two back-to-back hurricanes; Mexico experienced a powerful earthquake, and both get-rich-quick end-times preachers, and mainstream ministers, are warning of the end. In fact, Max Lucado– an author and pastor who is well-liked and almost a household name– told his readers after Harvey that we are in the “third trimester” and that the “end” is getting closer:
“Our world is experiencing a rash of birth pangs these days. It is not to me to declare the day the Lord will return. But we know this much: it’s the beginning of the end and the beginning of new beginnings. Calamities and catastrophes must occur before the birth of the new world…” (emphasis mine)
The idea that natural disasters are “signs” of the end times is nothing new; you will find many claiming this after each natural disaster, no matter when or where they occur around the globe. When we combine the frequency of this end-times claim with the general biblical illiteracy of the church in America, it is understandable– yet horribly tragic– that so many Christians blindly believe it.
The truth? Natural disasters are not signs that we are in the “end-times.”
In fairness, the belief that natural disasters and other events will proceed the “end” is not something pulled out of thin air, but is an idea that comes from a very specific passage in Scripture: the Olivet Discourse of Matthew 24. In this passage Jesus is quoted, in part, as saying the following:
“…You will hear of wars and rumors of wars. Make sure that you are not alarmed, for this must happen, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise up in arms against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. And there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these things are the beginning of birth pains.”
For those of us who are raised within an end-times framework it’s easy to read the Olivet Discourse, especially isolated parts such as what I quoted above, and to ignore the context entirely to make it fit with what we were taught about the future of the world. It’s also easy to read into it things that are not there, while ignoring some important things that are there.
Like a horoscope that’s written so general it can apply to anyone, when we isolate statements such as “there will be earthquakes” or “there will be rumors of wars” it’s quite natural to say, “aha! I can see that now” because those two things have always been among us.
So, here are the critical things you need to know about Matthew 24, and here’s why modern natural disasters are not “signs” of the end of the world:
1. Jesus isn’t predicting the end of the world, but is predicting what will happen immediately before the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem.
In the first two verses of Matthew 24, it gives us the context for the entire discussion: it says that Jesus was walking away from the temple and told his disciples that this building– the focal point of the Jewish world– was going to be totally destroyed. Naturally, this was a shocking claim so his disciples asked two obvious follow up questions: (a) “When will this happen?” and (b) “What will be the signs that the end is near?”
Everything Jesus says in this passage is a direct answer to those two specific questions– they want to know the signs to watch for so that they’ll know when the end of the “age” is at hand.
2. Jesus claimed that natural disasters and war would be signs that the time for the destruction of the temple– not the end of the world– was close.
Remember the two questions Jesus is answering: “What are the signs?” and “When?”
The prediction of war, famine, and earthquakes would be a pointless prediction if talking about the far-away future because there would be no way to know which ones would be *the* ones. There has always been famine, always been earthquakes, and always been wars and rumors of wars. Furthermore, the people Jesus was talking to weren’t concerned with the end of the world thousands of years later– they were concerned about their present lives.
Jesus told his audience to “stay alert” to these signs– there would be no point in telling his disciples to stay alert to events that weren’t scheduled to occur for another 2,000 plus years. However, these signs actually become both helpful and relevant if he is speaking about the immediate or near future. In verse 16 Jesus actually tells them why they should be alert to the signs he gave them: when they witnessed the signs they were supposed to flee into the mountains and wilderness in order to survive what was about to happen.
Looking back in history, we see that there were various significant earthquakes recorded in this region in the lead up to the destruction of the temple in AD 70 (one is even recorded in the book of Acts). In addition, we also know that when Rome destroyed Jerusalem it was a bloodbath with some estimates saying they may have crucified up to 500 people a day. This shows us that when Jesus said “here are the signs to look for” and “when you see them, flee to the mountains” he was giving some practical, life-saving advice to his immediate audience.
3. Jesus claimed all of the signs/events that he described would be witnessed and completed during the lifetime of those he was speaking to.
After Jesus answered the first question of “What will be the signs this is about to happen?” he moves on and answers the question of “When?” this will happen.
The answer Jesus gives is clear and direct: in verse 34 Jesus says “This generation will not pass away until all these things take place.” While end-times preachers will jump through hoops to define “this generation” in some truly bizarre ways, the grammatical reality is that “this generation” always means the generation the speaker is talking to. In this case, Jesus is speaking to his followers, he is answering the two questions of what will be the signs of the coming destruction of the temple, and when it will happen.
When will it happen? “In your lifetime” Jesus said– and it did.
So, will there be a host of wars and natural disasters before the “end of the world”? Well, if the world does actually end one day, it’s likely those two things will be present– because they have always been present.
But are natural disasters “signs” that we’re in the end-times?
No, not at all– and a more careful reading of Matthew 24 shows us that.
Dr. Benjamin L. Corey is a public theologian and cultural anthropologist who is a two-time graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary with graduate degrees in the fields of Theology and International Culture, and holds a doctorate in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is also the author of the new book, Unafraid: Moving Beyond Fear-Based Faith, which is available wherever good books are sold. www.Unafraid-book.com.