Exvangelical Meditation: “The Signs of the Times”

“Signs of the Times” is a popular Evangelical phrase derived from a speech Jesus gives in Matthew 24 in which he foretells of “wars and rumors of war” as the way to know that the Kingdom of God is at hand. The chapter — along with strange apocalyptic imagery in the Old Testament books of Daniel, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and several others — is almost always linked by modern Evangelicals to Revelation, the Bible’s final book, which concerns itself with nothing less than Judgment Day itself and the End of the World.

Or does it? Modern Biblical scholarship (besides Evangelicals) basically concurs that Matthew 24 was actually a later addition to the Jesus narrative, written to have him foretell the fall of Jerusalem by Rome’s hands in 70 AD. They place Revelation’s authorship around 90 AD, during the time of the tyrannical Emperor Nero. But if you were to ask an Evangelical, they’d tell you that Matthew 24 is a set-up for Revelation, which reveals itself every day more and more in our Google newsfeed. Well, I challenge anyone to name a time in human history in which there were not perpetual wars and rumors of war in our headlines — which means that there has never been an era that hasn’t been interpreted as the “End Times.” It keeps Evangelicals constantly on the edge, constantly in anticipation, and constantly looking up toward Heaven instead of looking around at the world we all share.

What most Evangelicals don’t know is that the idea that the Bible is a blueprint to read current times is barely a century old. The ancient church vaguely understood Revelation as a book of prophecies but utilized its imagery for their art more than offer solid interpretations. Martin Luther wanted it removed from the canon altogether on the grounds that it “didn’t reveal anything.” C.S. Lewis (despite the last book in the Narnia series being strongly influenced by its imagery) suspected Revelation was written earlier than modern scholarship theorizes and was actually penned to prophecylize the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD. The overwhelming consensus among (non-evangelical) Biblical scholarship concurs that the antichrist imagery found in Revelation is a reference to the Roman Emperor Nero.

The idea that Revelation is a book of clues that we must use to decipher our daily headlines in order to confirm that we are indeed living in the End Times actually was first introduced by the Scofield Reference Bible, a widely circulated study Bible edited and annotated by Evangelical American Bible student Cyrus I. Scofield and first published in 1917. Scofield, a war veteran turned politician without any formal Biblical training, annotated the Bible so that it became a field guide for drawing parallels between Revelation’s apocalyptic symbolism with contemporary events. The publication was wildly popular among Evangelical Christians and gave rise to the term “dispensationalism,” a religious interpretive system and metanarrative for the Bible. 

To Scofield we owe those atrocious LEFT BEHIND books that all Evangelicals read in the 1990s/2000s, which were basically taught as gospel in my weekly Bible studies. 

Dispensationalism has stuck among most conservative Evangelical communities, with pastors using it to indoctrinate their flock into believing that aligning current times to Biblical apocalyptic imagery is the only way any true believer should interpret Revelation. This is why “Signs of the Times” theology is so popular even today among Evangelicals, and why they continue to insist that global crises like climate change and even our current pandemic are not the arena where we should rally for change. This isn’t our fight, pastors insist. Jesus’s return is imminent — just look at all the Signs of the Times! We must rally now to save souls, not the planet.

Well, I personally prefer to believe that we all share this planet, that we cannot use an ancient text written to a very specific people group from a very specific time as our navigation for how to engage with it. Instead of looking up toward Heaven, we must look around and see our brothers and sisters in need. We must recognize that our planet is dying, and that our wars and rumors of wars have left us all in a place of hurt from which we must collectively heal. 

But don’t ask me. Ask Jesus:

“His disciples said to him, ‘When will the kingdom come?’ Jesus said, ‘It will not come by waiting for it. It will not be a matter of saying ‘Here it is’ or ‘There it is’. Rather, the kingdom of the father is spread out upon the earth, and people do not see it.'” (Thomas 113)

I think this message is pretty clear — we are looking for a kingdom that we cannot see, because it is already here in each other. Couple that with Matthew 24, and we get a clearer idea of what early gospel writers thought Jesus was saying: Yes, there are always wars, always signs of devastation — but have hope, because God’s light is in us. Maybe it’s time we closed the Bible, opened our eyes, and behold the Kingdom of God all around us.

I love you. Remember to be kind to yourself today, and to each other.

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