The devastating pictures of the war in Ukraine bring to mind for some Christians Jesus’ description of ‘wars and rumours of wars’ as a sign of the end (Mat 24:6). Eschatology (the study of the last things – or the end times), is a controversial and often dangerous practice for Christians – a magnet for some, an aversion for others.
Biblical prophecy is a challenging, formidable, perplexing discipline within academic scholarship, but for the average person jumping in – like with many other subjects – ‘a little knowledge is a dangerous thing’. The problem is that we are inclined, as curious and naturally self-centred human beings, to want to apply prophecy directly into our own contemporary situations. How amazing it would be if we were witnessing the unfolding of the biblical prophetic narrative before our very eyes!
If we’re looking for signs of the end, we’ll find them – just as previous generations of Christians have done in every persecution, famine, plague, or every war that has ever been. Is Putin the anti-Christ? Was Saddam, Hitler, the Pope, Nero? Is this war the beginning of the end? The drive to interpret prophecy in line with current geo-political events is a less overt practice in Britain, but truly big business in America. It appeals to our curiosity, fears, self-importance, desire for secret knowledge – and it sells!
But when this compulsion drives our interpretational response, it blinds us to anything that detracts from our speculation. Real prophetic insight requires a deep understanding of the (often quite tedious) prophetic traditions and apocalyptic symbolism of the OT, which Jesus drew on in conversation with his disciples. Most prophecy involves warnings within specific contexts, not future predictions. Prophetic language often features cosmic or global symbolism even when directed specifically to Israel. We so easily focus on the striking and apocalyptic elements, that we miss the real perspective.
Everyone recognises ‘wars and rumours of wars’, but who recalls the second part of Mat 24:6? ‘But see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come.’ The disciples were asking about the destruction of the temple and ‘the end of the age’ (for Israel), not ‘the end of the world’ (for us). It’s quite possible that Jesus also had a future intention in mind – another feature of prophecy. I believe he did. But careful exegesis is required before jumping to any such conclusions.