Because of all the misuse of “end-times” theology, we have often reacted against apocalyptic language. We will read about the forecasts of the end times and, every time, they are wrong. In the Eastern Roman Empire, what is now called the Eastern Orthodox Church began to react somewhat against apocalyptic because of the many false prophets who seemed to spring up in the East more often than in the West. Even back then, the West appeared to be more materialistic and less spiritualistic. No, I am not criticizing that. There are definitely times to be more materialistic, particularly when it helps you to resist the false apocalyptic prophets!
In the modern era, the many false predictions about the return of the Lord have helped to trigger a reaction against apocalyptic. When people keep buying book after book, prediction after prediction, about the final coming of the Lord, that triggers a negative reaction. When people do not even notice that they keep changing beliefs about the end-times on a regular basis, that triggers a negative reaction. When church folk go around using many newspaper articles as proof of the nearness of the return of Jesus, that triggers a negative reaction. When groups use apocalyptic to label various world figures as the fill-in-the-blank fulfillment of some apocalyptic prophecy, that triggers a negative reaction. Even in my lifetime, many politicians in this country and in other parts of the world have been labeled as being the anti-Christ. That label has been used to drum up support for one or another political party. When that happens, and then the person dies, or simply leaves office without anything untoward happening, that triggers a negative reaction.
But, there is a right understanding of apocalyptic. Many of what were called the “Negro spirituals” are examples of a right understanding of apocalyptic. Another way to phrase it is “the hope.” When you have no hope in this world that anything will change, then our hope in Christ is what will carry you on in life and will overcome your despair. When you are born a slave and will die a slave. When you will never get to choose a wife/husband and live out a reasonable life, our hope in Christ is what will carry you on. When you are being beaten and tortured; when you fast and pray but receive no response; when your tears appear unanswered, it is the hope that keeps you going.
But, it was not only slaves who held on to our hope in Christ. When one reads the stories of the martyrs during the times of great persecution, you realize that it was our hope in Christ that let them hold on to the bitter end. And, for all slaves and all martyrs, the end was often bitter indeed. But, there are also those who grow up, live, and die in poverty. In America, we are so wedded to the false idea that we can simply choose to prosper that we cannot understand the stories of the medieval serfs who were born, lived, and died in poverty, with no hope of advancement. We cannot understand the class differences of the late British Empire that kept many in servitude to either masters or to the great Industrial Revolution that demanded cheap labor. Thus, we cannot understand what our hope in Christ means when there is no earthly hope.
Sometimes, apocalyptic is the right response. Sometimes, one has to look at the hope of what will come someday in order to be able to live out the current life with a certain degree of Christian sanity. I am an immigrant. I am most grateful for the opportunities this country has given me. But, I have also lived in a country in which hope does not exist, to this day. My wife, family, and I have been missionaries to countries where there is no hope of advancement, only a certainty that you will live and die in poverty, that (because of your birth) you will never have a high position. There, our hope in Christ is what keeps people going. Our hope in Christ is what gives meaning to life. Our hope in Christ is what allows one to live out a life of hope and not despair, even if there is no hope of advancement in this life.
There are many places in this world in which “Christ in you, the hope of glory,” is not merely a theological statement, but an anchor that allows one to live out their life without slumping into either despair or lawlessness.