I write on diverse religious issues, often analysing perspectives from the Abrahamic faiths (Jewish, Christian, Islamic, and Bahá’í).
The End Times
To keen watchers of global events, man is living at the end times, also known as the last day or the latter days. This is broadly understood to be an occasion for unprecedented changes in human affairs, changes associated by religious groups—especially those of the Abrahamic traditions—with a world-shaking, world-embracing messianic appearance. Some believe this unprecedented occurrence would usher in an end to human civilisation, if not to all earthly existence (or at least, earthly existence as we know it).
Over the centuries, among diverse worshippers, there has arisen a plethora of doctrines, dogmas, traditions, myths, and superstitious beliefs in connection with this hoped-for messianic encounter. In the sections that follow, we look at some likely misconceptions concerning the messianic expectations of the end times. (All biblical references are from the Authorised King James Version).
1. The Long Wait Is Nothing to Worry About
Jews have long waited—and continue to wait—for the Messiah promised to them in their holy scriptures. On the other hand, Christians and Muslims consider them to be living under an illusion. This is because, as far as members of these two religions are concerned, the Messiah made his appearance some 2,000 years ago in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Yet today, even as Jews continue with their interminable wait for the Messiah of their imagination, Christians and Muslims are faced with a situation no less different. The signs are too abundant for them to deny that man is living in the last day, the day appointed for a worldwide messianic encounter. So, what accounts for the delay in the appearance of the expected Christ? And more importantly, how can members of these two great religions be sure they are not operating under the same kind of illusion they deride the Jews for?
After all, in Luke 21:28, did Jesus not assign the beginning of fulfilment of the eschatological signs he had given as the opportune occasion for the appearance of the promised Christ? The signs that have come to pass since the beginning of the 20th century, just over a century ago, include two world wars of unprecedented scale and destructiveness, widespread epidemics and pandemics, recurrent famines in diverse regions of the earth, and regular earthquakes and other natural disasters around the globe.
Christians and Muslims maintain (just like the Jews did before them) that the promised Advent could not have occurred. Their argument is that certain expectations (rightly or wrongly anticipated by their respective communities) have not occurred. But with the undeniable fulfilment of many of the other signs, is it not likely a misconception on their part to hold on to such an argument—that the Advent could not have occurred?
Wars and Pestilences Were Foreshadowed
2. The Advent is Exclusive to One Religion
For now, the Jewish faithful continue with their protracted wait for their promised Messiah, while Christians never tire of telling them that he did come some two millennia ago unrecognised by Jewry. Christians do go further than this, though, to proclaim that the Messiah is due to come a second time.
A pressing question then is: Is the current Jewish messianic expectation the same as the Christian expectation of the Return? In other words, are the two expectations the same and are the two religions in wait for the same holy personage? What about Muslims, who also await Nabi Isa (Arabic for Prophet Jesus)? Is Nabi Isa the same personage awaited by Jews and Christians?
There are, of course, important differences in the expectations of these three religions. It is well known, for instance, that what Jews see as critical to their expectation is the appearance of the Messiah in no other place than Israel, their biblical Promised Land. What Christians look forward to, on the other hand, is an appearance that unfolds according to their understanding of the signs and portents appointed to them in their holy book. Many of these signs seem already to have been fulfilled, at least ever since human exploration and technological ingenuity helped open the world up to all its diversified inhabitants. Muslims, meanwhile, expect the appearance to occur in the Middle East and be preceded by the advent of another messianic figure known to them as the Mahdi.
So again, the question is: Are the expectations of these three Abrahamic faiths related? Going beyond the Abrahamic faiths, we find, rather surprisingly, that the Eastern religions of Hinduism and Buddhism and the ancient Persian religion of Zoroastrianism are also all in expectation of a great divine figure in our time. To Hindus, he is Kalki Avatar, who comes for the destruction of evil and the re-establishment of righteousness in society. To Buddhists, he is the Fifth Buddha, known also as Maitreya, the Buddha of universal fellowship. And to Zoroastrians, he is Shah Bahram (or Saoshyant), whose appearance is awaited in the ancient land of Persia (today’s Iran).
Unsurprisingly, each religious group confines its expectations to the prophecies in its own scriptures and traditions. But is it not likely a misconception to assume that the Advent is exclusive to one religion only and that the messianic expectations of all the diverse religions are necessarily separate and unrelated?
3. The Advent Will Be Dramatic and Instantly Known
Some religious groups hold the view that the messianic events of the last day will be a very different affair from anything that has gone before. They believe it will be dramatic, instantly observable worldwide, and not be subject to the established laws of science. In support of this argument, Christians will cite such biblical prophecies as Revelation 1:7: “Behold, he cometh with clouds; and every eye shall see him,” or Matthew 24:30: “…and they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven….”
It is apparent that their understanding of such predictions does not take account of other verses in the same Bible that seem to suggest a different outcome—an event so quiet it would be like the coming of “a thief in the night” (I Thessalonians 5:2; II Peter 3:10). And why else were the faithful repeatedly warned to “watch” (as, for example, in Revelation 3:3, 16:15 or Mark 13:33-37). Nor has any tangible reason be given as to why the laws of science would have to cease operating that day.
And even if the Advent will be known worldwide, is it not more logical to assume that it will unfold much as it has done with the rise and establishment of religions in the past—that is, over the course of centuries rather than in an instant? After all, were the faithful not cautioned, in II Peter 3:8, not to be “ignorant of this one thing, that one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day”?
So, it is likely a misconception that the messianic appearance will be dramatic and instantly known worldwide.
The Clouds of Heaven
4. He Comes With Unprecedented Power and Glory
The scriptures anticipate the Holy One to come with overwhelming power and glory. Christians can cite specific verses in the Gospel in support of such a belief, like Luke 21:27: “And then shall they see the Son of man coming… with power and great glory.” They will also argue that they did not see much of Christ’s power and glory at his first coming. And this is what leads them to the conclusion that things are going to be different this time.
The issue, though, is that believers often confuse perceptions of physical reality with spiritual truths. For example, based on what happened, it is easy to assume that at his first coming, Jesus did not come with overwhelming power and glory and that it is only at the Second Coming that he would do so. If he had not come with power and glory, how come his faith has reached the ends of the globe and become the largest and most widespread religion on earth? How come both the high and low of the planet, not excluding monarchs and presidents, bow the knee before him? Jesus is known and revered worldwide, even by those who do not follow his faith, while his holy book, the Bible, is estimated to be the world’s best-selling and most widely distributed book.
Let us also not forget that Jesus himself had predicted, in John 6:39, that: “And this is the Father’s will which hath sent me, that of all which he hath given me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up again at the last day.” Does this not point to a similar pattern of events at the Second Advent as happened to Jesus during his earthly ministry—rejection, persecution, humiliation, martyrdom, etc.? In Luke 18:8, Jesus asks somewhat rhetorically: “Nevertheless when the Son of man cometh, shall he find faith on the earth?” Why would he say that if the power and glory of the Christ would be evident to all?
Hence, it is likely a misconception for believers to cling to the assumption that the anticipated messianic appearance would be any different from the Advents of past dispensations.
5. Once the Elect, Always the Elect
It is unsurprising when the devotees of any faith argue that their religion is right and true and, consequently, that they and their fellow believers are guaranteed eternal salvation. But it becomes a cause for worry when the same devotees neglect to draw a line between the fate of a believer before and his fate after the promised Advent. In other words, it becomes an issue when devotees carry on as if being saved in their present religious condition automatically translates into salvation at the messianic appearance of the last day.
We need only reflect on the story of the Jewish people to appreciate how flawed this line of thinking is. The Jews lost their God-given status as the “chosen people” of God (cf. Deuteronomy 7:6, 14:2) when they turned their backs on Jesus. And so, if it did not work that way for God’s chosen people of a previous era, why would it work differently for any other group today?
Judging from the Jewish experience, the most likely scenario is that those to be saved under the new messianic dispensation of the end-time Christ will first have to “watch” for his coming. They then have to recognise his appearance and embrace his cause to earn a place at the camp of the favoured ones. And there is no reason why such an outcome should have anything to do with the religious affiliation they had before.
Christians, in particular, might recall that the Holy One who comes will not be called Jesus Christ. We know that he comes with a “new name” (Revelation 3:12). That is the reason the elect of the last day will also not be known as “Christian,” but will be called by “a new name” (Revelation 2:17).
So, it is likely a misconception for any religious group to expect exclusive salvation for its members or an automatic right to be counted amongst the “called” and “chosen” (Revelation 17:14) of the new day.
6. All Messianic Claimants are False
“For there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets…” (Matthew 24:24). Thus, Jesus warns the faithful to beware of false prophets. But do warnings such as this imply that anyone who advances a messianic claim in our time is false? In the previous section, we referred to the possibility of persecutions and martyrdom in the life of the Holy One who comes.
The reality is that no Manifestation of God has ever appeared on earth who had not faced initial rejection and persecution by the people. Examples include the rebuff of Moses by Pharaoh and his subjects at the inception of the Mosaic ministry, the crucifixion of Jesus in his day, and the war instigated by the barbarous tribes of Arabia in the days of Muhammad. Why is that?
In Luke 13:18-19, “the kingdom of God” is likened to a tiny “grain of mustard seed” that eventually grows into “a great tree”. The Kingdom of God, as is well known, develops on the back of the religion of God. Every religion starts small because, at its inception, most people remain sceptical of its claims. Hence, they ignore or reject it.
So, it is likely a misconception to consider every messianic claim that is advanced as false. The worshipper might well be rejecting the True One without realising it.
7. The End of All Things
One reason for scepticism about any messianic claim in our time is the general belief amongst certain religious groups that all revelation has ended; that there will be no further guidance from God, no new holy book or scripture to carry humanity forward into the future. And some of these groups go further to say that the world will be brought to an abrupt end at the Advent. And, of course, they will unhesitatingly cite references in their holy books or traditions to back up their claims, such as in I Peter 4:7 of the Christian Bible: “…the end of all things is at hand….”
There is a paradox in all this. Because the Word of God, which includes the end-time prophecies, has come from God Himself. Therefore, it is only God, not religious scholars, who can infallibly and authoritatively tell us what the prophecies really mean. Indeed, the Christian believer is specifically asked, in II Peter 1:20, to note that “no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation.”
The usual way God elucidates the true meaning of scripture to man is to send His Manifestation to earth. When the Holy One comes, he interacts with men to “bring to light the hidden things of darkness” (I Corinthians 4:5) in the form of a new divine revelation. The paradox is that the people reject the Manifestation of God because he never comes in the way they expect him to. By so doing, however, they deny him the chance to explain to them what those prophecies really mean.
One reason for the rejection is because the language of prophecy is not always plain. Many of the predictions are figurative; they have hidden meanings and are expressed in a form to test the sincerity, the purity of heart, and detachment of worshippers. How many Christians can claim a perfect understanding of the Book of Revelation?
Because the true meaning of scripture might have eluded them, some believers might be living under a misconception that all revelation has ended or that the world is soon to come to an end.
The End of the World
How to Attain to the Truth of the Last Day
Bahá’u’lláh, the founder of the Bahá’í Faith, asserts that independent investigation of the truth is one of the requirements of a true seeker in this day. He encourages any sincere believer in search of the truth of this day to do the following in respect of any messianic claim that comes to his attention. His detailed requirements have been reduced here to just three simple steps:
- First is to put aside all the doctrines and dogmas of one’s religious faith, the interpretations of the clergy, and the traditions of the past, and adopt a neutral standpoint in one’s heart and mind.
- The second is to pray fervently for God’s assistance, inspiration, and guidance.
- And third is to initiate an independent investigation of the messianic claim.
Whatever conclusion a sincere seeker arrives at after this is naturally between him and his God
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© 2021 Kobina Amissah-Fynn