I am sure I am not alone in feeling like there seems to be a uptick in the number of natural phenomenon in recent days. This weekend Hurricane Irma is supposed to make landfall. Two weeks ago Hurricane Harvey devastated Houston. Yesterday there was an 8.0 earthquake in Mexico. Recently typhoons in Asia have caused massive flooding. And a month ago we got to witness a total solar eclipse in America.
With all of these events in such close proximity, it is very natural to ask, “What do these things mean? Are they signs of the times?” Are these what Jesus talked about would take place before the end? I think it is human nature for Christians to want to question in what way these things might be interpreted as signs. Is is judgment? Is it God telling us he is coming soon? Is it prophecy coming to pass?
As a student of history and of eschatology I have had to come to terms with how to understand the “signs of the times”. As I have read through 100 years of Pentecostal literature it is clear that they thought WWI, WWII, and other calamities of the twentieth century were signs of the end. They believed Jesus was coming soon. Yet the end did not come. Were they wrong?
Let me suggest that there is an alternative way of understanding the significance of the ‘signs of the times’ that sees natural disasters in an eschatological sense without falling into the pitfalls of speculation and prediction that previous generations have suffered through.
We first must point out that ‘signs’ are by nature to be understood as symbols that point to something else. They are visual reminders of a truth or reality. In the case of Jesus’ prediction, the signs of wars, famines, and natural phenomenon point to the the fact that the end is near (Matt 24). However, though he said these signs would point to the end, it should be noted that he did not say these signs would ONLY take place at the end. Everything Jesus mentioned has been a regular part of the history of human experience.
So in what way are they a sign? Are they a sign of God’s anger or judgement? Or that prophetic time is running out? Paul tells us something different. He reminds us that Hurricane Irma is a symptom of a creation that has been “subjected to frustration”. The effects of sin in the world has caused a “groaning” within creation. (Romans 8:19-22). Many of these natural phenomenon we are seeing today are the result of the environmental conditions of the present day. There are natural reasons for what is happening. All of creation is groaning and suffering as a reminder that there will be an day when humanity AND creation will be redeemed. So these signs are reminders that creation is still in need of eschatological redemption.
This leads us to the second thing to keep in mind. Events like this make us ask, “Is the end near?” But the Scriptures clearly tell us that we are living in the last days. This is true even if there were no natural disasters. On the day of Pentecost, Peter declared, “In the last days I will pour out My Spirit” says the Lord (Acts 2:17). So technically, the “last days” began 2000 years ago. We have always been in the last days! When previous generations looked at the signs and determined the end was near, they were right. When we look at the signs, we get the sense that the end is near as well. Because it is! Jesus is still coming and redemption is still near.
I think it is natural for us to want to assign a significance of natural disasters. But we need to be cautious. God is not picking on Florida or Houston. He is not sending a message to America. When Christians say these calamities are about judgment, we minimize the suffering of those to whom it happens. Instead, we should see natural disasters as a reminder to us that creation has been effected by sin. We still live in a world where people suffer, where nature is dangerous, and where there is loss and pain. But Jesus promised he will come again and he will reverse the curse upon his creation. Every ‘groan’ is a reminder of that promise. As I watch anxiously this weekend the destruction of Hurricane Irma, my soul joins with all creation in ‘groaning’ for a day when creation will finally be at peace.
For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. (Romans 8:19-22)