Was Jesus mistaken in warning of impending catastrophe?

One of the most dramatic scenes of the “end of the world” in the movie 2012 was the destruction of St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican.

Mar 24, 2023

Sunday Observer- Anil Netto
One of the most dramatic scenes of the “end of the world” in the movie 2012 was the destruction of St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican.

Now this was clearly a movie depiction, but if such a thing were to happen in modern times, well, it would be an apocalyptic moment.

In modern times, the first images of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre crumbling on September 11, 2001 conjured up similar fears of the end of the world.

The Gospel accounts speak of an imminent catastrophe on the horizon in the First Century.

In Matthew 3:11, John the Baptist warned that the one who would come after him had a “winnowing-fan in his hand; he would clear his threshing-floor and gather his wheat into his barn; but the chaff he would burn in a fire that would never go out”.
John was clearly warning of impending disaster: if the people of Israel did not repent, they could expect a catastrophe, and God would raise new children for Abraham (Matthew 3:9).

Given the ferment and upheaval, the rebellions and Roman reprisals, Jesus could probably have sensed that Israel was on a collision course with the Roman military occupiers.

In Luke 19, Jesus warns: 43 “Yes, a time is coming when your enemies will raise fortifications all round you, when they will encircle you and hem you in on every side; 44 they dash you and the children and your walls to the ground; they will leave not one stone standing on another within you, because you did not recognise the moment of your visitation.”

In Luke 21: 20-21, Jesus predicts: “When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then you must realise that it will soon be laid desolate. Then those in Judaea must escape to the mountains, those inside the city must leave it, and those in country districts must not take refuge in it.”

Some have claimed that these warnings of an impending apocalypse did not materialise during the era of the immediate followers of Jesus, and thus their expectation of the end of the world, and the Second Coming, were unfounded or mistaken. They claim that the early disciples then merely extended the timeframe for the Second Coming.

But such a theory ignores the reality that the Romans destroyed the Temple of Jerusalem and much of the city after encircling the city four years after a Jewish rebellion in 66 AD. Before their final onslaught on the city in 70 AD, the Romans encircled it with raised fortifications to cut off supplies to the city. They finally breached the city walls and destroyed the Temple, setting it ablaze. Hundreds of thousands were slaughtered or captured.

In the distance, the plumes of smoke from the fire over Jerusalem must have seemed like the end of the world. The Temple, which was a central part of their lives, had been utterly destroyed. This was the people’s worst nightmare. [It wouldn’t be the first time — the First Temple on the same site had been similarly totally destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar, the King of Babylon, in 587-586 BC, with the Jews then deported to Babylonia.

So given what happened to the Temple and Jerusalem itself, Jesus and John the Baptist were not wrong in warning the people of impending catastrophe and doom just four decades earlier.

Perhaps they differed in their approach. Whereas John preached a repentance from sin, Jesus set about proclaiming that the Kingdom of God was imminent. But you can almost feel the urgency in their words: both seem to sense they had limited time to act and preach.

It also explains why Jesus focused His attention on the “House of Israel” as a strategic approach. He would have seen that the Romans were clearly the military occupying power, employing brute force to suppress the people. But He also knew that the local political and religious elite of His time were oppressing and burdening the people.

The rulers seemed to employ a classic case of divide and rule. While they exploited the ordinary people, they divided them between the religiously clean and “unclean/impure”, many of them from marginalised groups. Once unclean, it was almost impossible for them to become ritually “clean” as that would involve an onerous cleansing process.

All the time, they enjoyed lavish lifestyles. To divide the people further, they allowed xenophobia — hatred and suspicion towards people different from them, whether it was the Galilean Jews, the Samaritans, the foreigners or Gentiles.
Jesus condemned greed and hypocrisy. He could see that the local political, religious and aristocratic classes were in cahoots with the Romans occupiers. Together, they extracted wealth (through heavy taxes, tolls, levies and portions of harvest) and confiscated land and property from the people.
This fuelled resentment and seething anger and the Romans responded by crushing rebellions with ferocious violence, torture and crucifixion of rebels, who were labelled “bandits” and thieves.
Jesus reserved His anger and fury at the money changers in the Temple, the ‘frontliners’ of the corrupt and oppressive financial system of His day.

There are many lessons we can learn from what John the Baptist and Jesus taught the people in the face of imminent catastrophe. Like the people of the First Century, today, we too are faced with a possible apocalypse.

How do we respond to rumours of war, climate change and rising sea levels, deforestation, poverty and inequality? How do we deal with international financial institutions and vested business interests that facilitate global injustice, environmental degradation and suffering?

For Jesus, the change had to come from the bottom up. He was racing against time, the only “weapons” in His arsenal being deep compassion, a passion against injustice, and love and solidarity with all Creation and abiding faith. He broke social boundaries and preached reconciliation, forgiveness, and love of enemies.

This was in sharp contrast to the Zealots, who resorted to hatred, violence and killings to counter the Roman occupiers and their collaborators.

In the end, John’s and Jesus’ warnings were not enough to stop the Jewish uprising against the Romans in 66 AD and the destruction of Jerusalem. The movement to build a kingdom of a different kind would take much longer.

Today, the world is confronted with much more serious challenges that threaten its destruction. But we have the same arsenal of “weapons” of the Spirit at our disposal: love and compassion, faith and solidarity with Creation. Let us do what we can to create a better world. The stakes are higher, the urgency even greater.

(Anil Netto is a freelance writer and activist based in Penang. He believes we are all called to build the kingdom of God in this world.)

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