Approximate reading time: 7 minutes. If new to this series, please see the introduction.*
I’m wanting to do this one for a while—in fact, I almost did this one before the last post of this series, but decided not to swing at four softballs in a row. This post yet again deals with eschatology—a subject that, quite frankly, is a source of many batting practice fastballs for those looking for misinterpreted Bible passages. The passage occurs in all three “Synoptic” gospels, appearing in Mark 13, Matthew 24, and Luke 21, and the wording varies slightly between each. Since it was most likely the earliest of the three, I have chosen to follow Mark in this post, though I will also make note of significant differences below:
“And when he was going out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Teacher, what amazing stones and buildings!” And Jesus said to him, “You see these massive buildings? Not a single stone will be left here upon another; they’ll all be torn down.”And while he was sitting opposite the Temple on the Mount of Olives, Peter, James, John, and Andrew were asking him privately, “Tell us: when will these things happen, and what will be the sign when these things are about to be fulfilled?”
And Jesus began to say to them, “Make sure no one deceives you; many will come in my name, saying ‘I am!’ and will deceive many. But when you hear about wars and reports of wars, don’t worry. They are necessary, but they do not represent the end,^ because nation will rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be earthquakes and famines in various places. These are the beginning of birth pains.
“But watch yourselves! They will hand you over to the courts, and you will be flogged in the synagogues, and you will stand before governors and kings for my sake, as a witness to them. The Gospel must first be preached to all the nations.
^Luke has “When you hear of wars and insurrections, don’t be terrified, since these things must take place first, but the end won’t follow them immediately”—in Luke also, the point is that these wars, etc. are not to be considered a sign of the end.
These verses, with their “wars and rumors of wars,” and the “earthquakes and famines” (often simply expanded to “natural disasters”) are normally understood as the “signs of the end times,” where Jesus warns about the many turmoils that will signal the end as it draws near. In a similar manner, Jesus’ reference to “birth pains” is often understood as suggesting that these things (especially the natural disasters) will simply get more frequent and substantial as the end approaches. This reading of the passage has thus been the source of some of the most embarrassing (or entertaining, depending on how one looks at these things) media in the Christian world, such as the amazing “Rapture Index” and other similar websites, newsletters, etc.
The problem with these interpretations is that they read the passage very nearly exactly counter to what Jesus actually says. Jesus lists these things off only to explain that they should not be understood as markers of the eschaton. He lists off many things that could be construed as end-time signals and then summarily dismisses them, then moving on to the things that he declares actual indicators of the end.
In other words, Jesus says something like this: “You’ll hear of wars, reports of wars, nations and kingdoms battling each other, and there’ll be earthquakes and famines in many lands. But don’t worry, these things have little to do with the timing of the end. In fact, many of you will be put in prison and stand before kings—but that also is not an indicator of the end. No, the Gospel must be preached to the all the nations and then the end will come.”
So the point of the passage is first to declare that the main marker of the end will be the Gospel having been preached to all the nations, followed by a number of other signs that he lists throughout the rest of the discourse.
This makes sense, given that wars, reports of wars, nations and kingdoms at odds, famines, and earthquakes have been a reality—and a frequent reality—throughout human history. Just look at 1 Kings, where it declares that there was a season every year “when kings go out to war.” In other words, at least as far back as David, every year there was a designated time when nation rose against nation and decided, “Let’s go out and kill each other.” War has been a nearly constant reality, the norm rather than the exception, throughout human history. Peace, on the other hand, has been a rare thing indeed.
As for famines and earthquakes, these two things have been around throughout human history as well. In fact famines are probably less frequent now than ever before (which is really amazing given how many people there are in this world without adequate food or water). In the ancient world, where they had no modern agriculture or food shipping or preservation, famines were an ever-present threat. A swarm of locusts, major storms, or flooding could wipe out years of plenty in an instant. Earthquakes, also, have been a consistent component of the human experience, as the Earth’s crust is composed of ever-shifting tectonic plates. There certainly have been more active periods and less active periods, but earthquakes themselves are not a sign of the end times even in times when they are happening more frequently than others.
So, frankly, Jesus’ counsel makes sense, especially since any one of these things (especially famine and earthquakes) were often considered “signs” from the gods in the ancient world. Jesus warns his disciples not to get caught up in that kind of concern, telling them not to worry whenever they see these tumultuous (but relatively common) events that otherwise might be thought as signs of the end. (Keep in mind that eclipses, earthquakes, wars, etc. were all seen as “signs” in Jesus’ day; this passage is a warning against this kind of thinking.) Instead, he gives them a task (preaching the Gospel) and states that he will not return until that task is finished. He then follows with a number of more unusual and cryptic predictions of “signs” that he ties into his return and to the end (but we will not deal with those aspects at this time).
“But wait,” you ask, “what about the ‘birth pains’ reference? Doesn’t this mean that these things will increase in frequency and intensity as the day draws near?” Not exactly. First of all, the “birth pains” reference is a common trope for sharp or sudden anguish in Israelite prophetic literature (cf. Ps 48:6; Micah 4:9; Is 13:8; Jer 22:23). Secondly, another New Testament passage sheds light on this particular usage, giving a closer look at how these things were understood in earliest apocalyptic Christianity:
“And we know that the whole of creation groans together and suffers birth pains together up until now” (Romans 8:22).
In Romans 8, Paul asserts that creation has in fact been suffering birth pains throughout history and will continue to suffer until the “children of God” are revealed at the end. This is a pretty good parallel passage, and it is clear that the “birth pains” are envisioned as a constant—and as having a long history—not as a metaphor for increasing frequency or intensity over time. So there is little reason to over-stretch the metaphor in the Synoptic Gospels, either.
Yet again we have found that a passage concerning eschatology has been read to mean very nearly the opposite of what it actually says. Rather than this passage assuaging worry and deemphasizing an ever-present obsession with this kind of event, much of the Christian world continues to use these very things in exactly the way that Jesus warned against. In contrast, this passage, properly understood, places the focus on the spread of the Gospel as the primary and necessary sine qua non (“without which, nothing”) eschatological indicator. After that task has been completed, other signs are to follow, but the reader can rest assured that (at least according to the Gospels) wars, rumors of wars, famines, and earthquakes are not “the signs of the times.”