Recently I met a man who articulated his preparations for end-time events. We were talking about how hard the past couple of years have been with the COVID crisis, the lockdown, the economic downturn, and the rise of political divisiveness. Once we had painted a sufficiently abysmal picture of the past two years, I said, “I wonder what 2023 has in store for us?” He responded, “Well, if we are entering the end-times, everything is about to get much worse.” Then, after a solemn pause, he said, “But I’ve got a 50-pound bag of lentils and a shotgun, so I’m ready.” An awkward laugh escaped my lips, but he didn’t even crack a smile. He wasn’t joking.
Maybe we have overlooked the primary factor Jesus said will define the final events of human history.
The disciples asked Jesus, “What will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?” (Matt. 24:3). Most of us are familiar with the first half of the answer Jesus gave: “And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not troubled; for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. And there will be famines, pestilences, and earthquakes in various places” (verses 6, 7).
In passing, notice that Jesus, after listing these signs of the end, offers an important clarification: “All these are the beginning of birth pains” (verse 8, NIV). All of human history has been characterized by famines, pestilences, natural disasters, and wars. So why does Jesus say these things will constitute signs of the end? Well, He explains that these kinds of events will not be unique of themselves, but their manner of occurrence will be. They will become like “birth pains,” like a woman experiencing contractions leading up to giving birth—more frequent and more intense as the end approaches.
Now back to the main point toward which we are inching. After explaining that His second coming will be preceded by an increase in the frequency and intensity of disastrous events, Jesus says these events will precipitate an escalation of hatred and a plummeting of love:
“Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and kill you, and you will be hated by all nations for My name’s sake. And then many will be offended, will betray one another, and will hate one another. . . . And because lawlessness will abound, the love of many will grow cold” (verses 9-12).
Jesus tells us that the final events of human history will take on the form of hate versus love. And then, at some point along the way, as disasters overtake the world, hate will aggregate and animate into a persecution machine. With this vital insight, Jesus has brought to our attention the psychodynamics of end-time events, which is crucial for us to understand, because this is precisely where the real “preparation for the end” needs to occur.
Jesus indicates that the pressure-inducing events of the end-times will generate a focused hatred on His followers, not because they are obnoxious and annoying (so let’s stop all that), but for His “name’s sake.” His character operating within them, in resistance to the principles of the world system, will arouse the world’s aggression against them. It’s not difficult to understand the relationship between these two factors. When people are threatened by disastrous events, the impulse to preserve self kicks in by creating a sense of need for a scapegoat to cast blame upon. Populous forces will channel their fear-stimulated rage against those who are out of sync with the self-preserving impulse, which politicians stoke in the masses with no small amount of help from religious leaders who hold in their hearts theological views that will interpret the scapegoating venture as righteous necessity.
Then comes the vital stroke of end-time insight offered by Jesus. After stating that “the love of many will grow cold,” Jesus says, “But he who endures to the end shall be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come” (verses 13, 14).
The qualifying “but” is preceded by the love of many growing cold and followed by God’s people enduring to the end. So, then, Jesus is saying something quite astounding: as love grows cold in the world, it is precisely the sustained practice of love, even in the face of hate, that will enable His people to “endure to the end.” The grammatical flow also indicates that “this gospel of the kingdom” refers back to love enduring in the face of hate. That love is the practical manifestation of the gospel in God’s people as their final witness to the world. The end-time followers of Jesus will offer to the world a minority report, a counterwitness regarding the character of God. As the world becomes increasingly embroiled in the politics of hate, the followers of Jesus will stand out as advocates of nonviolent love. They will refuse to participate in the prevailing rage of the times and will resist the scapegoat impulse that seeks to resolve collective guilt by finding an enemy to blame.
The betrayal, trial, and crucifixion of Christ is the microcosmic historical event that includes all the elements that will define the macrocosmic final crisis of human history. The dominating religious orders of the day—Pharisees and Sadducees—found it expedient to their self-preservation to unite in a diabolical scapegoating maneuver against Christ. “It is expedient for us,” they reasoned, “that one man should die for the people, and not that the whole nation should perish” (John 11:50). Having joined forces, these politically motivated conservatives and liberals leveraged their collective influence with the state to engage in a litigation process that made it appear as if Jesus were a criminal threat to the stability of the mutually beneficial arrangement between church and state. The fact is that both systems—religious and political—were imploding under the weight of their own moral corruption. But rather than address the real cause of their imminent fall from power, they found in Jesus a convenient focal point of blame, against whom they could stir up the hatred of the masses and thus get the heat off themselves. At Calvary, religious and political forces coalesced into a singularly of murderous evil in defiance of the love of God.
Jesus taught that His crucifixion would be repeated, in principle, on an eschatological scale and thus constitute the final, climactic event of human history:
“If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. . . . If they persecuted Me, they will persecute you also. . . . They will treat you this way because of My name, for they do not know the one who sent Me” (John 15:18-21, NIV).
“They will put you out of the synagogue; in fact, the time is coming when anyone who kills you will think they are offering a service to God. They will do such things because they have not known the Father or me” (John 16:2, 3, NIV).
Jesus here explains that the world’s hatred against Him will inevitably be leveled against His followers. This will not take place, according to Jesus, in the form of the secular population ganging up on the Christian population. Far from it. Rather, Jesus indicates that the persecution machine of the end-times will be driven by religious people coopting the political system, all the while imagining they are serving God by hating and killing others. He further explains that they will do this in God’s name—please get this point— because they don’t actually know God as God really is. The final persecution will be the logical outworking of bad theology. Professed Christians, having enshrined in their souls an appeasement picture of God, will find it justifiable to hate and kill in the name of God.
Here is a simple way to describe the principles that will play out at the end of the world: the salvation-by-works picture of God inevitably leads a person to act in the interest of self over others when placed under pressure. By contrast, the salvation-by-grace-through-faith picture of God orients a person to prefer others over one’s self. Legalism, whether in its conservative form or its liberal form, shapes within us the habitual impulse to judge and negate others for the sake of personal security. The gospel, on the other hand, forms within us a deep reservoir of security in God’s unearned, unalterable, unconditional love, so that we will lay down our lives, if necessary, to keep on loving people, even in the face of their hate.
It is evident, then, from the teachings of Jesus that the gospel and eschatology are a seamless continuum of enacted principles of character. In the final crisis of human history, each of us will act out our picture of God under the pressures that will be brought to bear upon us.
God’s end-time people do not get “the victory over the beast, over his image and over his mark and over the number of his name” (Rev. 15:2) by means of willpower or tenacity, nor by means of food and firearms.
None of that kind of “getting ready” is ever mentioned in Revelation. Rather, God’s end-time people gain the victory by radically different and counterintuitive means:
“They overcame him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, and they did not love their lives to the death” (Rev. 12:11).
We are called upon to overcome the world system of hatred and violence by living out the implications of God’s self-sacrificing, nonviolent love as demonstrated in Christ when He voluntarily died on the cross.
In the final eschatological shakedown the world will not be divided into conservatives and liberals, but rather into lovers and haters, persecutors and persecuted, those who will find justification for religious legislation in their belief system and those who will find in their Calvary-formed hearts no room for employing coercive political power in matters of conscience. The great controversy is not a war between conservatism and liberalism. It’s a war between good and evil, with love and liberty on one side and hate and force on the other. Followers of Jesus simply cannot safely align themselves with partisan politics on either end of the spectrum. Go ahead and vote your conscience, but whatever you do, do not buy into the zero-sum game of us-versus-them that politicians and their parrot preachers are pushing on the public. You do not have to participate in the hatred that defines the ideology wars. You can, by God’s grace, love your neighbors as yourself, including all your neighbors everywhere along the political spectrum. Keep in mind the fact that Jesus launched His own kingdom rather than joining up with any political system the world had to offer. The gospel of His kingdom is the one and only truly revolutionary alternative to the money-hungry, hate-stoking, warmongering messaging peddled by the politicians and preachers of the dominate world order.
The most effective way to not prepare for the final crisis of human history is to form the habit of participating in the prevailing spirit of our times, which is characterized by demeaning speech, retaliatory posturing , political rancor, and us-versus-them-ism.
The most effective way—in fact, the only way— to really prepare for the end is to believe and practice the gospel of God’s non-coercive love as manifested in Christ. While having some extra lentils on hand isn’t a bad idea, storing up food and firearms will not prepare us for the final events of human history. Storing up the love of Jesus in our hearts will.
So let’s get ready!