The End of the World

From the Differentiator magazine:

Strange doctrine has become so common that it has long ceased to be surprising and has become commonplace. An outstanding example is the notion, repeatedly put about by all sorts of people, that the early Christians were expecting the end of the world and were even mistakenly expecting it within the lifetime of many of their number. Some of the exponents of this extraordinary doctrine even pretend that the Apostle Paul believed it and, towards the end of his ministry, found that he was mistaken. This set of strange ideas would not be worth mentioning but for the fact that many Christians believe the false teachers who proclaim them, and are thereby caused to stumble.

The answer to these teachers is short and simple: Scripture never uses the term "the end of the world."

Admittedly, bad translators do; but that is not the fault of Scripture, but of the men who through carelessness or incompetence have distorted Scripture.

Outrageous though this assertion may seem to anyone unacquainted with any other translation than the A.V. or King James Version, it is nevertheless true. The possessor of that indispensable aid to Scripture study, Wigram's "The Englishman's Greek Concordance of the New Testament" can easily test the matter by going through the occurrences of kosmos, world, in it. These occupy rather more than 2½ columns; and not even one occurrence refers to the end of the world. It simply is not there. Nevertheless, many people try to get over the difficulty by referring to the six occurrences in the A.V. of "the end of the world." These are in Matt. 13:39, 40, 49; 24:3; 28:20; Heb. 9:26. In the Greek original of each, the word translated "world" is aiOn, eon or age. It is not a word of space or of order, but of time; and even the A.V. renders it in accord with that basic idea in most of its occurrences. The confusion is made worse by the rendering of the word sunteleia by end. This word really means culmination. It comes from the word teleO,finish, not in the sense of cessation, but of accomplishment, as the C.V. Concordance well puts it. From it derives such ideas as mature, perfect. The prefix sun, with, gives the idea of gathering together all strands, all loose ends, into a completed perfected work. So the culmination of the eon carries the idea of the time when all this present eon's affairs, problems, endeavours, come up together for settlement and consum mation by God; the promised day when no more doubts, difficulties, wrongs and injustices shall remain unresolved, when all the mess we have made of the world and this earth on which we dwell shall be cleared up.

By contrast, it is interesting to examine the way that latest presentation of the (supposed) best that modern English scholarship can produce, the "New English Bible," handles this phrase. In Matt. 13:39, 40, 49; 28:20 it has "the end of time" ; in Heb. 9:26 it has "the climax of history" ; yet in the remaining place, Matt. 24:3, it renders the phrase much more nearly correctly by "the end of the age." How this relatively accurate rendering managed to slip in is a mystery! A more convincing illustration of the folly of translating by committee is hard to find.

To resume, we see that when people talk glibly of "the end of the world," they part company with Scripture in both of two quite different ways. The Greek original, does not say end, and it does not say world. In it, there is no question of anything coming to an abrupt end as if severed by an axe or a guillotine, or of the sort of finish of everything that people have in mind when they talk of the disaster of a nuclear war. I t is a finish in something like the sense that a farmer's year culminates in harvest. The culmination of this eon will be the time of God's harvest of all He has been achieving throughout the present wicked eon (Gal. 1:4); because, wicked though it is, also it is the time for working-out some of God's highest and greatest purposes. At present there is little to show, apparently, for this process. All around is strife and wretched ness, failure and frustration. Even while this paper was being prepared, news came of the terrible assassination of President Kennedy. The earth is filled with lawlessness and violence. Yet, in due time will come the harvest, the culmination of the eon, the consummation of all the glorious things that God is now doing, behind the scenes as it were, and largely hidden from sight (except to the eye of faith in His own) by the tinsel display of man's day and the fearful hubris he displays. towards the earth, over which God gave him dominion, and everything in it that he can lay his hands on, poisoning even the land, the air and the water.

Curiously enough, at first glance, Scripture does not refer to the culmination or consummation of man's wickedness in terms such as these. This culmination is part of the culmination of the eon; but it is important only in so far as it is the foil to the culmination of God's purposes. It is a harvest in a sense; but it is a harvest of self-destruction and death culminating in judicial destruction by God. It is not the rich fruitfulness of the harvest of good, but the desolation and ruin of a harvest that has come to nothing and is no more than a ghastly waste of effort; frustrated because those who sowed were doing so for their own ends. Even when they supposed they were working for the glory of God, they failed because they did not know, or did not trouble to discover, what was God's will for mankind. Yet the manifold evils of the present time are in accord with His ultimate purposes; and this will be seen to be true when the harvest time arrives, and all that is crooked is straightened out.

The verb sunteleO means conclude; but not in the sense of terminating a work, but of accomplsihing it, bringing it to culmination, to accomplishment or fruition. There are several reasons for stopping work. We may do so because of fatigue or failing light or some similar cause, or because we have reached the end of our ability to cope with it and have therefore been forced to stop, or because it is completed so. that nothing more remains to be done to it. This last is the meaning of sunteleO. Thus, in Matt. 7:28 the Lord Jesus completed, brought to accomplishment, the Sermon on the Mount. In Mark 13:4 a sign is requested "when all these should be about to be consummated" or "accomplished." In Luke 4:2, at the conclusion or accomplishment of the fortyday trial, the Lord Jesus hungers. Then the concluding trial begins; and in Luke 4:13 the Slanderer, accomplishing or bringing to fruition every trial, withdrew. In Acts 21:27, the seven days were about to be consummated. In Rom. 9:28. the accurate rendering is, "consummating and cutting: short." Lastly, Heb. 8:8 refers to bringing to accomplishment a covenant that is new. This last opens so many matters that its consideration must be left to another paper.

These are the facts about the so-called "end of the world"; but facts are not what nominal Christians want. Having laid their foundation on this quagmire (some might use a different figure of speech and say "hot air"), they go on to build some very curious doctrine on it. We are told by one such:"Yet it cannot be denied that the idea of the sudden and utter destruction of this universe was not merely one of the beliefs of the early Christians, it was most prominent of al1."This in its context is made to refer to 2. Peter 3:12; which is very strange, considering that all these people profess to regard this epistle as spurious! But, then, error combined with confusion is never self-consistent.

This particular example is typical. The author of the quotation has pounced on vv. 10 and 12 without troubling even to glance at vv. 11 and 13. With eyes fitted with these blinkers, he naturally takes v. 12 to mean the final and irrevocable destruction of everything. But that is, emphatically, not what the Apostle Peter is saying here. Certainly, it is vast and apparently universal destruction; yet not for the sake of destroying, but only in order to clear the way for something infinitely better—new heavens and new earth. Furthermore, these are characterized by a new and very special feature: "in which righteousness is dwelling." There seems to be something in the material universe as it is that precludes such a state. Here we approach the inner secret of God's creation which He has not yet revealed and which is probably beyond our present power to understand.

After such an absurd display of eccentricity as the quota tion above, we need not be surprised to find that its author associates Paul with it, thus:"That St. Paul and all the other Christians should have been mistaken as to the time of the Second Coming is not surprising. Christ Himself says that no man knoweth of that hour."Poor man! We can only wonder how men so ignorant of Scripture can have the face to write so dogmatically about it. Not surprisingly, he then asks: "But must we say that they were mistaken as to the nature of the end of the world?"As we know nothing about their views on this, the question is meaningless.

The attack on Paul is pressed home. Presently we are told of a"thing which is clear, to any careful reader of the New Testament, is that as St. Paul grew older, and as his travels and experience taught him more and more about the greatness of the task of converting a world, the thought of the immediate return of the Master grew less distinct. It was not that he ceases to expect and to desire that return. He seems to have realized more and more the greatness of the task to be performed before it could come."Like all his kind, without exception, this writer makes no attempt to prove this strange thesis. He does not even say whence he derives this idea that the Apostle Paul's mission was to convert a world or why such conversion must come before Christ can return, in view of what is stated in the prophetic parts of the Gospels. Instead, he goes on to ask if modern science permits of any expectation of a cataclysmic end to this world. Here we may leave him and his absurd speculations, except for two further aspersions on Peter and Paul:"They looked for the total destruction of the universe. . . . They looked, so to speak, for a crisis when time should be no more."Again, as we might expect, he makes no attempt to explain what he means by the latter, or even whether the cessation of time can have any meaning. If time were to cease, every thing: motion, light, life, thought, even God Himself, would be frozen into an unalterable "Now"; for even the thought of changing, altering, involves time. In such circumstances, God, as revealed in Scripture, could not exist. No being can love who cannot even move or think.

In conclusion, it is as well to refer to Rev. 10:6, which may have contributed through misunderstanding to the spread of this delusion about time. The Greek here, with some of its context, reads very literally: "And the angel. . . . swears . . . . . . that time not still will be; but in the days of the sound of the seventh angel. . . . the secret of God is finished also." Then, after a series of events, in Rev. 11:15, the seventh angel trumpets. From this, it is plain that the passage does not mean "the end of time." The expression is obviously idiomatic, and can only mean that time of waiting has then come to an end. Here, the C.V. rightly renders chronos by delay.

R.B. Withers


The Differentiator Revisited 2009

Send Comments, Suggestions, Etc. to: