A Future of Hope

November 22nd, 2011

Earlier this year California radio personality Harold Camping delivered a prophecy stating that the world as we know it would end on May 21, 2011. Christian believers, he said, would be raptured—that is, taken up alive to be with Jesus in heaven—while unbelievers would experience final judgment and the destruction of the world. But the date came and went, and nothing happened. Then Camping announced that he had miscalculated: The real date was October 21. Again, nothing happened. Camping has since retired.

Prophecies about the end of the world are nothing new. Interpretations of an ancient Mayan Calendar whose 5,125-year cycle ends next December have generated a lot of hype —including the 2009 action-adventure doomsday movie 2012 starring John Cusack. Since the first century, Christian groups have interpreted current events in light of various biblical texts that seem to speak about “last things” (or what theologians call “eschatology”). American Christians in particular have had an ongoing fascination with the notion of a rapture (based on certain interpretations of 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17 and Matthew 24:37-42). The Left Behind series of books and films are a classic example. But is the real message of prophetic Scriptures one of only doom and gloom? Or, can the church offer a more hope-filled response?

Advent Hope

This Sunday marks the beginning of Advent, the church season during which we anticipate the birth of Jesus. Many Old Testament Scriptures speak prophetically about the coming Messiah or Savior of God’s people. New Testament writers and the early church saw Jesus as the fulfillment of those prophecies, down to specific details about his life (such as Micah 5:2, which prophesies that the awaited ruler will come from Bethlehem). Throughout Advent the church will rehearse a number of these prophecies and celebrate their fulfillment in Jesus Christ.

Meanwhile, last Sunday was Christ the King Sunday, the day on which we celebrated the end of the church year and anticipated Christ’s coming again in glory. While the New Testament contains many prophecies about the “last things,” very few of them are detailed predictions of future events—and none of them offer a specific date. More often they are a diagnosis of the spiritual state of God’s people and a call to repentance.

These judgments, warnings, and promises were not made for some distant unknown future, but for the prophets’ time and place. Many of the events they described happened within their own lifetimes. In fact, that was how prophets earned the right to speak: The words they spoke from God actually came true. But while they often spoke of judgment and destruction, the lasting note in all prophecies is one of hope.

Hope, Not Fear

Today’s youth may feel anxious about or fascinated by doomsday “prophecies” about the end of the world. Or they may find the idea of a catastrophic ending to be wildly at odds with their church’s usual message of grace and peace. In any case, it is important for them to be familiar with what the Bible actually says about the coming of Christ and the “last things”—even if those details seem scary and are difficult to interpret. But more importantly youth need to know that hope is the one theme that unites all of these prophecies. We must encourage youth to claim the hope that we encounter in biblical prophecies. Just as Jesus’ first coming two thousand years ago brought hope and peace, Jesus will come again someday and make all things well.

This blog post is also published as part of LinC, a weekly digital resource for youth small groups and Sunday school classes. The complete study guide can be purchased and downloaded here.

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