I have always been a bit wary of talking about the second coming, the end times, however you wish to describe it. This is for several reasons, one being that so many people end up with conspiracy theories, seeing the beast under every rock, that I end up thinking that we sound completely mad! I don’t want to be someone who spends vast amounts of time trying to decode Revelation – frankly, I have no idea what it means and I don’t think anyone else can truly say they know what John was on about either. It obviously means something -John is trying to give us some hints about what will happen at the end – but I don’t know what. I have pretty much given up on that sort of thing and just trust that when the end comes, the Lord will let us know, and it will be fairly obvious to the believer what is happening.
The other reason is that I am well aware of how problems in this life have been masked and swept under the carpet by the unscrupulous by playing on the idea of the life to come. Marx had a point when he talked about religion as the “opiate of the people” – poor people have had to endure the rich telling them that they will be happy/rich/etc in heaven, so that they do not complain about their conditions too much on earth. I don’t want to be someone who is so focussed on the life to come that I neglect the problems of this life, either in my own life or in other people’s.
So all in all I have been wary of end-times talk. I realise that I know very little about it because of this. What I am aware of at the moment, which may be rubbish, is that the Bible talks about heaven as being a place we go to after death (Jesus says in John that we have eternal life now) and that, in the end, Jesus will return, and after a variety of things happen the earth will be destroyed and there will be a new heaven and a new earth.
I am, though, aware of some points of disagreement. For instance the Bible describes those who have died as “sleeping” – which suggests they are in the grave awaiting resurrection rather than in heaven. Then again there are some verses which describe people going to paradise after death (e.g. the thief on the cross) rather than waiting for the eschaton. The rest of Revelation, about the final battle, the whore of Babylon etc, is a mystery to me.
That is my general idea of the end times, but I am starting to rethink my opposition to thinking/talking about it. It is, I think, a little strange not to focus at all on the life hereafter when Jesus spent quite some time talking about it! I think perhaps my spirituality has been poorer because of this, because I fail to acknowledge the life to come, and focus too much on the here and now. I am still, though, wary of over-focussing on the good things to come lest I blind myself to injustice and evil in the world today.
All this is a long-winded introduction really. What I wanted to bring to your attention is the promise of a wonderful life to come. Sometimes there is nothing we can do to make our situation better – when we are ill we are at the mercy of our illnesses/the medical system, and we spend a lot of time waiting to get better. It is then that knowing we will face a better future, that things will not be like that soon, can help. Of course it may also make us want to commit suicide, but I think we all know that God would really rather we didn’t do that.
The book of Isaiah has some wonderful passages about the life to come, when the world is made new and every tear dried. He writes:
The LORD’s justice will dwell in the desert, his righteousness live in the fertile field. The fruit of that righteousness will be peace; its effect will be quietness and confidence forever. My people will live in peaceful dwelling places, in secure homes, in undisturbed places of rest.
As someone who has anxiety problems and is still far too shy, the idea of “quietness and confidence forever” sounds absolutely, well, heavenly. Peace is elusive when I’m mentally unwell, to me my illness is the very opposite of peace, and that is something I struggle with. Sometimes I think Christians should be peaceful, as it is one of the fruits of the Spirit, so when I am not peaceful, perhaps I am not saved. Then I remind myself that the only condition of salvation is belief – not what we are feeling. I cannot imagine Jesus turning one of us away at heaven’s door because we are ill, and therefore do not feel the fruits of the Spirit in the same way a well person does. I also think that even a well person does not feel peaceful (and so on) all of the time – we are still human, we are not all spiritual giants either.
I love the image of God drying our tears:
On this mountain he will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations; he will swallow up death forever. The Sovereign LORD will wipe away the tears from all faces; he will remove his people’s disgrace from all the earth. The LORD has spoken.
That to me just underlies the personal nature of our faith. God wants to be close enough to wipe our tears, not just a God who we worship from afar. The odiously pop-culture thing about having a “personal relationship” with Jesus is correct, we do have a relationship, although it would take a better person than I to unpack all that means. I rejoice in the knowledge that however bad it gets right now, however depressed I get and however long I wait for some sort of healing – it will end. There will be an ending and it will not come back, one day, and the Lord will wipe my tears and bind up my wounds and he will give me peace. For we serve a God of peace, the Prince of Peace, and ultimately that is what he offers, even if we can only sense it in periods between bouts of ill-health. I’d like to conclude with a conclusion from the New Testament:
Now may the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times and in every way. The Lord be with all of you.
(2 Thessalonians 3:16)