Of Earthquakes and End Times
Mar 08, 2010 by Craig Blomberg | 10 Comments
“When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places, and famines. These are the beginning of birth pains.” (Mark 13:7-8 TNIV)
Not long after the 2004 tsunami that devastated Indonesia and neighboring countries, a document was circulating on the internet, purportedly showing a dramatic rise in earthquakes in recent years and using that to fuel fervor that Christ’s return was imminent. Now we have watched the horrific earthquake in Haiti, followed frighteningly closely by another in Chile, even stronger on the Richter scale. Less damage done was directly related to attempts in that country to build structures better able to withstand giant quakes, a caution virtually ignored in Haiti. Then this morning, there are reports that a 6.0 earthquake has hit eastern Turkey.
Doubtless somewhere people will again start to use such disasters as signs that we are living in the last days. Or to put it more accurately, since the New Testament consistently insists the last days began with Christ’s first coming, they will insist that we are living in the last days of the last days!
But wait. How often do we go back and read what the Bible actually says? Revelation, of course, depicts apocalyptic earthquakes during the tribulation itself of a greater magnitude than anything the world has ever seen. But the place in Scripture where people turn to make a link between “ordinary” earthquakes and the nearness of the end is Jesus’ Olivet Discourse. I’ve excerpted the relevant verses above. Along with earthquakes are mentioned several other kinds of plagues on humanity.
What’s crucial is to read the text carefully. Wars and rumors of wars should not alarm God’s people. The end is still to come. The Greek reads all’ oupō to telos, literally, “but the end is not yet” (as, e.g., in the RSV, HCSB, ESV and NKJV). Such portents do not herald the end! Amazing how the Christian grapevine, fueled by popular scaremongering novels, can disseminate a tradition of exactly the opposite of what the Bible actually says.
But what about earthquakes and famines? These are merely “the beginning of birthpangs.” This statement is asyndetically connected to the preceding one (i.e., without a Greek conjunction where one would be expected), so that the two statements are tied even more closely together than they would have otherwise been. In English, though, we need a conjunction for the translation to sound fluent; hence, “this is/these are but the beginning of birth pangs/pains” (RSV, NRSV, ESV, NET).
In other words, just as labor pains remind a pregnant mother that there is a baby inside her that the body wants to bring into the world, so too do these various earthly disasters remind believers that Christ will return, bringing an end to human history as we now know it. But my how unreliable those labor pains can be, sometimes coming months ahead of the actual due date, sometimes weeks in advance. They remind us that we are getting closer to the climactic day, but we knew that already just because of the passing of time. They turn out to be singularly unhelpful in predicting the actual moment of delivery. So, too, with disasters and the Parousia. In fact, given all the scriptural predictions about Christ’s return coming by surprise, like a thief in the night, and so on, I suspect he will choose a time that very few people have predicted and when there is very little apocalyptic fervor in the air!