I recently had the privilege of interviewing New Testament scholar Jason Maston (Assistant Professor of Theology, Houston Baptist University) concerning the End of Time and how we should approach the apocalyptic texts of the New Testament.
Concerning the “end of times” (eschatology) what causes some to obsess over this concept while others to avoid it all together?
Jason: It’s hard to know exactly why some people are attracted to questions of eschatology, but I would suggest two reasons. First, it is probably a case of the unknown. Most of us don’t like the feeling of not knowing what lies ahead. We plan our lives and days, so we want to know what will happen to us if we live to see the end. We want to be prepared. We know the past, so now we need to sort out the future. Second, the Bible gives some detail but nowhere is a full picture developed. This creates an interpretive puzzle. And since much of the language and imagery is open-ended, this allows people to go all different directions.
As for why some avoid discussions about the end of times, I suspect it is just a lack of interest. Some of us prefer to explore other issues and there are only so many hours in a day.
Many modern Christians have their perception of the end times influenced or informed directly by the ‘Left Behind’ franchise. Can any biblical basis be found for how the end times is portrayed by the authors of Left Behind? Are there biblical grounds for the concept of the Rapture or is this simply a modern phenomenon?
Jason: “Biblical basis” is a difficult expression. The basic ideas of the Left Behind books (a version of Dispensational, Pre-tribulation eschatology) are found in Scripture. There is talk of a “going up” in 1 Thess 4.17. Daniel and Revelation, along with the apocalyptic discourses in Mark 13 and Matthew 24-25 and other texts, refer to times of tribulation or persecution. The problem is, of course, whether the interpretations adopted in the Left Behind books are the best. At the core of the differing views are different interpretations, not explicitly whether there is a “biblical basis.” I wouldn’t adopt the interpretations taken by the Left Behind books because they aren’t, to my mind, the best.
1 Thessalonians 4.13-17, which is where the idea for a “rapture” is drawn from, is a fascinating text. The Thessalonians appear quite bothered by the death of their loved ones (perhaps a problem also for the Corinthians; see 1 Cor 15.29), and Paul is trying to clarify what resurrection means and who it applies to. The background imagery appears to be an imperial procession in which the people would go out of the city in order to greet the imperial representatives and usher them back into the city. If this is correct, then the text is not teaching a “rapture” in which believers leave earth for some time period. Instead, it seems to be indicating that believers usher Jesus back to earth so that he can establish his kingdom. However one understands it, though, the text leaves much out and building a timeline on this text (even in combination with other texts like Daniel 7, 9 or 1 Cor 15.23-28) is fraught with difficulty.
What about the mark of the beast being a microchip? Hal Lindsey really ran with this idea in the 80’s.
Jason: I don’t know how one can prove this since the text gives no clue. It strikes me as a rather modern interpretation divorced from anything that the ancient author or readers could have conceived.
Do you think the New Testament teaches about a literal antichrist? What are we to make of 1 John 2:18 which talks about an ‘antichrist’ as well as many ‘antichrists?’
Jason: In the case of 1 Jn 2.18, I think John (or whoever wrote the epistles) has in mind any person who denies Jesus (especially denies that he is the Son of God who came in the flesh; see 1 Jn 4.3; 2 Jn 7) and strives to deceive the Christian community. John does not provide any eschatological timeline such as one finds in 1 Cor 15.23-28 (itself rather vague in detail). There have, of course, been many people who have deceived believers throughout the church’s history. Whether there will be one specific person who will do this more and better than all others and that this person will appear at the end of time is difficult to tell. John certainly doesn’t provide much detail. Perhaps, then, the best option is to focus more on what John is interested in: the warning not to be deceived and to hold fast to the truth. John has little interest in how the future will play out; his real concern is the community before him, especially since some have already left the community (1 Jn 2.19) and there is trouble from others (2 Jn; 3 Jn).
Has eschatology always been your passion or did you have a “conversion” of sorts?
Jason: The truth be told, I actually have little interest in the common discussions about eschatology. I find them overly-speculative and typically arising from misunderstandings about the nature and purpose of the ancient literature. Indeed, we would all probably be better served if we spent less time debating when the “rapture” will happen and more time following the imperatives that are often attached to eschatological texts: “Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing” (1 Thess. 5.11 NIV); “Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Cor 15.58 NIV). The point of the eschatological texts is not to provide a timeline (even when all combined) but to remind believers that God wins and Jesus is king.
Thank you for your time!
Jason Maston’s current research is in anthropology with a particular focus on Paul. He has co-edited several volumes with Ben C. Blackwell and John K. Goodrich including Reading Romans in Context (Zondervan, 2015), Paul and the Apocalyptic Imagination (Fortress, 2016), Reading Mark in Context (Zondervan, forthcoming), and Reading Revelation in Context (Zondervan, forthcoming). His other publications include articles in New Testament Studies, Journal for the Study of Paul and His Letters, and Expository Times, as well as in various edited collections.