The Last Things
Few aspects of
Christianity make less sense to the ordinary person today than the
doctrine of the so-called "last things". It is a good example of the
profound break between ancient and modern ways of thinking
Not many today think that the world is going to end suddenly on a
particular day. If they do consider the possibility, a cause might be a
very large meteor or something similar striking our planet from space.
Others think that the "last things" might be the demise of humanity,
perhaps by an ecological disaster. There's a sense in which the world
"ends" if human beings die out.
Some believe that the "last things" are imminent. They conclude that
there's enough evidence - though not necessarily of the scientific sort -
indicating that this will happen at some point in the near future. In
thinking along these lines, it might be useful to recognise that "soon" in
geological terms might be many thousands of years from now.
Yet others from time-to-time look at certain evidence and predictions
and conclude that they have identified the precise date when humanity will
experience the "last things". Some have gone to the top of a mountain to
wait for such an event. Some, quite recently, went to Israel to wait for
the final day. So far they have been disappointed.
The Christian expectation of the "last things" is somewhat unusual.
Other great world religions either don't deal with the subject at all, or
relegate to a minor place in their thought.
In contrast, the Christian doctrine of the "last things" is central. It
derives from the early days of the Church.
Church teachings were developed mainly during the first four centuries
of the first millennium. Doctrines were influenced by the two major
civilisations which had impacted the Palestine area by the time of Jesus.
The first was the Greek/Roman culture. Every educated person during the
entire period was expected to speak and write both Latin and Greek. Social
and ethical conventions were an amalgam of both cultures. Greek and Roman
religions were similar. But neither speculated much about the end of the
world. The Greek word apokalypsis means simply "revelation".
The second major influence on Christianity was that of the Old
Testament. The Christian doctrine of the "last things" was derived almost
entirely from the Hebrew religion. Some elements may have come from
Persian or Egyptian religion, but these were probably not extensive.
A massive amount of material has been produced over the last couple of
centuries about Christian teaching of the "last things". It is termed
eschatology from the Greek eskatos (last) and logos
(discourse). It generally refers to the ultimate end of the world and the
bringing in of a supernatural order of some kind.
All four gospels take up the Old Testament theme of God putting his
chosen people in charge of the world. For example, Mark 13 has Jesus
forecasting troubles and persecutions. The author goes on to relate how an
"awful horror" will come to the world before the Messiah takes over to
rule the world on God's behalf. Some think that Mark 9.1 indicates that
the author expected God to wind things up soon.
The Markan author is followed quite closely by Matthew 24. Luke's
Gospel is less clear, although Chapter 21 is quite similar to Mark and
Matthew. Some have concluded that the Lukan author was not convinced that
the "last things" would come soon (Luke 12.45 and 19.11). John's Gospel
differs from the other three in this and in many others ways. Mention of
the "last things" is more formulaic (5.29-29; 6.39-40), perhaps because
the Gospel was written so much later than the others.
The letters of Paul show that there was probably a significant change
in the view of Christians about the last things during his lifetime. In
his first letter to the Thessalonian churches Paul writes as though it is
the norm to expect the imminent return of Jesus to judge the world
(4.13-5.11). He writes in much the same vein in in letter to the
Corinthian Christians (15.20-55). Elsewhere Paul seems to hint that his
expectations may not be realised.
That the Hebrew peoples should, almost alone amongst the
religions of the times, place so much emphasis on the "last things" is
understandable. They thought of a single, all-powerful God being in charge
of history. God punishes sin and rebellion - hence all the terrible wars
and famines God had brought upon the nation. It followed that one day God
would bring it all to an end and usher in an era when everything would be
put to rights.
The world is perceived in very different terms today. We
now know that our planet is part of a huge solar system which has existed
for some five billion years. It will probably continue for about the same
length of time into the future. A billion is such a large number that
nobody is able to comprehend it except with the help of abstractions. As
far as we are concerned in our everyday lives, the world will continue
more or less "for ever".
It's almost certain that by the time our planet ceases
to be a viable place for life of any sort, the human race will long
since have died out. We don't and can't know how that will happen. But,
given the size of the world's population today, it will most likely be
with a whimper rather than a bang.
Even when this planet dies, the universe will continue.
We have no idea for how long. In short, the end of everything is unlikely
to be within any period of time we can either understand or know about.
Many theologians have recognised the clash between
traditional "last things" theology and contemporary thinking. They have
tried to moderate understanding of the "last things" by suggesting a
number of alternative approaches.
Albert Schweitzer, in his famous book The Quest of the Historical
Jesus proposed that Jesus spoke of himself as the one who would take
over the world when God ended the corrupt rule of humanity. Schweitzer
thought that the "last things" were a primary and central part of Jesus
life and teaching. But his work was done long before theologians took a
much more discriminating look at the gospels. It is still possible to
reach similar conclusions - but only if the gospels are given considerably
more credit as good history than the evidence suggests.
A conservative Roman Catholic theologian, J P Meier, thinks that Jesus
did speak of a final ending of history when God would cause his kingdom to
be installed. But Meier goes on to show that Jesus did not see himself as
the Messiah who would take up the heavenly throne in the Kingdom of God
Similarly "realised eschatology" attempts to explain the
"last things" as both realised in the lives of Christians here and now, as
well as potentially in the far future. In that sense, God's Kingdom can be
said to have come already in the lives of those who repent. The prophecies
in the gospels about the "last things" are not Jesus speaking, but are the
product of the early Church looking ahead and hoping for Jesus to return
R H Fuller in The Mission and Achievement of Jesus
(1954) suggested "inaugurated eschatology". That is, the ministry of Jesus
inaugurated God's Kingdom, but the latter did not fully come into being
until after his resurrection from death and the start of the Church. In a
sense, therefore, all history after Jesus can be construed as God's new
rule being gradually brought into being.
Other critics such as the Jesus Seminar strip the
historical parts of the gospels down to a bare minimum, retaining only
that which can be rated historical to a very high degree of certainty.
When that is done, almost nothing of the "last things" remains
. As A T Hanson puts it,
As more and more of the material in the Synoptic
Gospels is being attributed to the early church rather than to Jesus
himself, it becomes easier and easier to relegate to the same source the
eschatological sayings attributed to him. 
A more reasonable position today might be to hold that
the life and death of Jesus did usher in a decisive change. The history of
the West was changed in major ways by his followers. And in that sense,
the course of world history was substantially defined by a single person.
 To get an idea of the severity of the problem,
read The Great Divide
 A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, Doubleday,
 The Five Gospels, Polebridge Press, 1993
 New Dictionary of Christian Theology, SCM Press Ltd, 1983