It’s the End of the World Again (Refiner’s Fire, Pt 34)

NOTE: This is part 34 of the “Refiner’s Fire” series, now available as a book from Amazon and other retailers. To read it on the blog, go to the Matthew series and scroll down for the “Refiner’s Fire” section at the bottom.

When I was sixteen, the world had somehow convinced itself that at midnight on December 31, 1999, every digital clock in every computer and computer-driven system in the world would fail to roll over to 2000, and catastrophe would ensue.

At the time I was closely connected to a small Christian community in the Mojave Desert of California. We had a mandate to “love our neighbor” through practical means—food, water, clothing, and yes, disaster relief. At the same time that the news was predicting a potential societal meltdown, much of the church world was going predictably apocalyptic with the whole thing.

Our community never quite bought into the “Jesus is coming back at midnight on New Year’s Eve” thing, but we did prepare for the possibility that our neighbors would need us in a bigger way come January. We stockpiled water and canned food, took some disaster relief training, and just … waited.

On December 31 the whole community gathered for a time of worship and prayer, which was our typical way of ringing in the new year anyway. The mood was curious and expectant, maybe a little apprehensive, but mostly just interested to see what would happen. We’d all heard the buzz. Maybe this would be the night after all.

Midnight arrived, every clock and computer in the world rolled over just fine, and in our little gathering, we held our collective breath for an instant while the lights stayed on, the fans kept running, and the night remained still. Then my friend Janet, who I think was helping lead worship and so had a microphone, said “Well, that was the biggest thing that never happened.”

For us, this was no big deal. But there were groups that had convinced themselves Jesus was coming back, and/or that a disaster so large it would kick off the end times was in fact upon us. They had preached on it, prayed about it, and raised it to the level of gospel.

Back in the 1980s the same thing happened (Jesus was supposed to return in 1988, and then 1989), and the same thing in the 1970s before then, when Chuck Smith of the large and influential Calvary Chapel movement fervently taught and believed that Jesus would return by the end of 1981. He was so clear and so adamant that many of his congregation gathered in his church on New Year’s Eve, 1981, waiting for the Rapture to take place.

They were disappointed. More than that, some of their members experienced this disappointment as cause for their entire faith being rocked. Some fell away from Christianity entirely. Why not? Their leaders had preached that the end was at hand. Pastor Chuck had written convincing books on it, clearly showing how current events were “predicted” by the Bible. And critics may point to this type of thing as evidence that Christianity as a whole is a sham.

But the truth is, the failure of a pet theory like this doesn’t dismantle Christianity any more than the lack of a Y2K disaster means computers don’t exist. Christianity is not built on pet theories. It’s built on the resurrection and on everything the resurrection makes plausible and likely, including the present-day activity of the Holy Spirit in your life, my life, and your neighbor’s life. We can fully embrace that and hold to it with absolute confidence even while recognizing that we are given to misunderstanding and embracing things that are, in retrospect, wrong or silly.

Nevertheless it is difficult when we believe something, or when everyone around us believes something, that turns out to be false. Peer pressure is powerful, and our desire for acceptance may cause us to accept things even if we’re a little uncomfortable with them. We should all be careful to share our own pet theories with humility, recognizing the difference between foundational, resurrection-based truth and our momentary understanding of a passage or doctrine, or of something we believe God has said to us personally.

My pastor, Marc Brûlé, teaches that when the Holy Spirit communicates directly with us, there are three parts to that communication. First there is the information we receive: the actual picture, words, or impression. Then there is our interpretation of that information: the words we use to describe it and anything we may extrapolate from it. And finally there is our application of it: the actions we choose to take based on what we have seen or heard and then interpreted.

This holds true for any type of experience with God or even how we initially understand Scripture. While the first element may come directly from God, the latter two involve our own understanding and so are very open to misunderstanding. These kinds of experiences with God may be very real. They may be transformative. They are very much an outworking of the resurrection: they happen because Jesus was raised from the dead, ascended into heaven, and poured out the Holy Spirit on humanity as he promised to do. But they are not, in and of themselves, the foundation of our faith. That foundation is the resurrection of Jesus Christ in real human history.

This holds just as true for prophetic words, interpretations, or experiences conveyed to us by others. We can take these things as testimony, as evidence from a witness stand, even while recognizing that no human interpretation of events is complete and infallible. Even in the courts, this is true. There is no such thing as an eyewitness testimony that is completely reliable; our memories and perceptions just aren’t that good.

But that doesn’t mean we don’t use eyewitness testimony. In fact, we rely heavily on it—but we recognize its limitations. We do our best to place the testimony of any witness within a larger context that includes the character of the witness, corroboration by others, and surrounding circumstances. And finally we work with what we consider an acceptable rate of error.

Jesus himself encouraged us to do this: while he did not promote judgmentalism as a rule, he did urge us to judge prophets and teachers by their fruit. And Paul, speaking of the exercise of spiritual gifts (like prophecy) in a public church setting, wrote:

Don’t stifle the Spirit.
Don’t despise prophecies,
but test all things.
Hold on to what is good.
Stay away from every kind of evil. (1 Thessalonians 5:19–22)

I say all of this because I think it gives us an important intellectual permission, or if you like, an important freedom for our souls: we are free to embrace Christianity 100 percent, taking in the entire road from resurrection to the present and active involvement of Jesus in our lives today through his Holy Spirit. Yet at the same time we are completely free to retain a healthy skepticism regarding certain claims made by others or even certain understandings held by ourselves. We are allowed to do this. It does not make us unspiritual in the slightest, nor does it amount to questioning God or abandoning our faith. It just makes us more sensible and humble Christians.

The Lord has asked us to be open to him and his Spirit. He has not asked us to throw our discernment overboard.

In the same Christian community where I lived in California, our founder was a very elderly woman of powerful and effective faith who was absolutely convinced that Jesus would come back before she died, because he had told her so. She died in 2010, and Jesus has not yet returned.

Early on I struggled with this a little, because—to be honest—in our context her word was often treated as though it came straight from the mouth of God. But I realized along the way that the struggle wasn’t really necessary. She could be wrong, and I could still honor her, and that didn’t actually change a thing about what I believe, including my belief that she did in fact hear from God clearly and often. I’ve come to realize over the years that many great Christians in many ages have claimed the same thing—that they personally would not die until the Lord’s return, a claim they believed because “God told them.” My theory is that God did tell them something having to do with his faithfulness to them and the way they would experience death. They just didn’t put it into human words in quite the right way.

But even in recognizing the fallibility of human interpretation and understanding, and acknowledging the rather elastic way we navigate our relationships (including relationship with God), we can heartily value and seek out the apologetics of testimony, the evidence of personal experience—multiplied not by a few solitary witnesses, but by millions of them.

Ultimately, a walk of faith is both internal and external, evidence and trust. It’s a tension, and it will remain so until Jesus returns.

To be continued …


This is Part 192 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.


Photo by NASA on Unsplash




One response to “It’s the End of the World Again (Refiner’s Fire, Pt 34)”

  1. Bill L. Tuck Jr Avatar

    Thank You Rachel for this post. I’m following with your Kindle Book and leaving lots of notes. I was saved in 1969 in the Jesus People Movement. It was Red Hot with God. People were completely free to give you a word and The Gifts of the Spirit were in operation. Then came Chuck Smith. Somehow in his teachings it made most of the believers doubt the Gifts of the Spirit and it all came to an end. Most of The Jesus People went to Calvery Chapel. But right to this day There are several friends from those days who still give me a Word from God and I sometimes give them a Word. But like Rachel pointed out I and they need to realize it’s coming thru a person and we need to let The Holy Spirit make it clear to us. I have received many Blessings from these Words. Since they come from God they Create. I also had God tell me that I would. Not die till Christ came. Well I’m 75 years old and he hasn’t come back yet? So I asked The Lord what happened? He answered I came back right away to You. “”” The Second Coming of Christ The Resurrection of Jesus within you “”” so after 50 Years I have come to realize Jesus was Resurrected within me. As I have been lead thru many trials over the years my old nature has become less and The reality that it is dead is a part of my life now and forever and The fact that I am in Christ and am God’s Child is now real to me.

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