A New Vision
It seems to me we spend too much time and effort worrying and wondering about the end times. The Book of Revelation may be fascinating, but it shouldn’t be our chief concern. Confucius was right when he said, “When we do not yet know enough about life, why worry about death?” What will happen when Christ returns and the world ends should not concern us anywhere near as much as doing what we can to improve the world here and now.
I’m afraid that one of the reasons we focus on Revelation and the end times is that we want those we don’t like or who don’t agree with our view of the world to suffer the punishments described in John’s vision. We each have our own private list of those we can’t wait to see dropped screaming into the lake of fire. Getting even is, unfortunately, a too-human desire, one that most of us haven’t been able to extinguish.
Jesus certainly spoke often enough about what would happen to those who failed to live according to his teachings. Once again I turn to Matthew 25:31-46 for a description of the fate of those who did not serve “the least of these.” But Jesus, in his teaching, was much more concerned with the here and now. Even in the abovementioned passage he spoke of the present actions that would lead to eternal reward or eternal separation from God.
Jesus’ first words in Mark’s gospel are, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” The gospel—the good news. Not the news of impending doom for the wicked (although that is included), but the good news of a new life. Not the news of a life somewhere, sometime in the future, but one that could—should—must—begin now. Not the news about a set of doctrines that one must adhere to in order to achieve that life, but the good news about a new way to live. Not belief but action.
Karl Barth, one of the great theologians of the twentieth century said, “The Church exists to set up in the world a new sign which is radically dissimilar to the world’s own manner and which contradicts it in a way full of promise.”
The Church is not a social club. It does not exist as a place where like-minded individuals can meet, exchange the secret password with each other, and feel smug about being better than—or at least different from—people on the outside. The church is not a place of escape from the troubles of the world. It is (as we often call it) a sanctuary, but it’s much more a place where we can receive strength to face those troubles and overcome them—not just strength for ourselves, but strength we can share with the truly hurting people around us.
The church, Barth says, is a sign—a big neon sign that tells people, “Here is something different from what the world has to offer. You don’t have to play by the world’s rules: the rule that says ‘He who dies with the most toys wins;’ the rule that says, ‘If you don’t eat the other dog the other dog will eat you;’ the rule that says, ‘If it feels good, do it;’ the rule that says, ‘Get yours and don’t worry about the other guy—in fact get yours before the other guy gets yours.’”
The church is “radically dissimilar to the world’s own manner and…contradicts it in a way full of promise.” If we are to be the church which represents the kingdom of God as it exists on earth we are—we must be—radically different from the world and its standards. To the extent which we compromise with the world’s standards we fail in our attempt to exhibit the kingdom of God here on earth.
And what is the promise? Eternal life? Eternal reward? That’s good—but only if we let people know that the reward is for them as well; that the promise is theirs as much as ours; and that the kingdom of God is open to all who dare to live as Jesus lived.