The End of the World?

A more recent version of this article can be found here.

Christianity is often seen as an "apocalyptic" religion, looking forward to "the end of the world," but Jesus actually never says anything about "the end of the world" as such. However, this article looks at a variety of phrases and words used that are assumed to refer to the destruction of the world.

This  phrase translated as "the end of the word"  is only used only four times by Jesus. The Greek words means "culmination" (synteleia) and "era" (aion). This phrase appears three times with definite articles "the culmination of the era,"  and and once without definite articles "a culmination of an era," once (Matthew 13:39).

There are also a number of verses where Jesus uses the word "end" that are interpreted as referring to the end of the world. However, this in not the same Greek word as appears in the "end of world" phase above, but the root word (telos) for that word.  It means "purpose" or "goal."  The synteleia adds a prefix to this root meaning "together."

Another phrase that is interpreted the same is "a day of judgment" is used four times by Jesus. It is never used with the definite articles, so it is always "a day of a judgment." This phrase is better translated for this is "a time of the testing" or the very generic "a time of crisis." The word translated as "judgment" is krisis, This is, of course, the source word for the word "crisis," but it has the same root as the word for "judge," krites. These words are related to the English word "criteria," that is, the source of judgment.

The "End" as a "Goal"

One keyword in the "end of the world" phrase is Greek root Greek word, telos, which means much more than "end," carrying primarily the idea of "purpose" and "goal." When Jesus talks about an “end”, he is always talking about the purpose of something, not its destruction. His prophecy of the "end times" in Matthew 24:6 conflates the ideas of the end of the temple in Jerusalem, the end of the state of Israel, the end of a given age, and the end of each of our individual lives. “End” is from telos, which means  is translated from ancient Greek in a variety of ways including, “performance,” “consummation,” “result,” “product,” “outcome,” “end,” “achievement,” “attainment,” “goal,” “state of completion,” “maturity,” “services rendered,” “something done,” “task,” “duty,” “toll,” and “custom.”

However, this common word is not the word translated as "end"  in "the end of the word" in Matthew 13:39,which is the first mention of the phrase is a KJV. In that word, "end" is synteleia, which means "joint contribution for the public burdens," "(compulsory) provision of recruits," "a body of citizens who contributed jointly to bear public burdens," generally, "company," "the consummation of a scheme," "an end of," "full realization," "unjust gain," and, in Grammar, "completed action." This word is interesting because it implies that the consummation is a general obligation of the public. The prefix "syn" means "together."

We start this analysis by analyzing the terms used in the discussion starting in Mat 24:3. We then go on to look more closely at another "end time" discussion in the "Parable of the Weeds." 

The "End" as a "Consummation"

This question from the apostles to Jesus  in Matthew 24:3 is translated as (KJV), "Tell us, when shall these things be? and what shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world?"

This question makes sense from our current perspective--and common Christian teaching)-but is it a good translation of what the apostles really asked? At this point, Jesus had predicted his death, but it really didn't seem like the apostles believed him. They certainly don't seem focused on a "second coming," though that idea has become such a big part of Christian teaching. Nor were they focused on the "end of the world." Those ideas actually come, rightly or wrongly, from what he is about to say, not what he has said before.

The phrase they used was the same as that above with synteleia and aionA better translation of this question is: Tell us, when will this happen and what does your presence signify about an completion of an era? (See vocabulary below for more.) The parallel verse in Mark 13:4 translates the  synteleia as "fulfilled" without the "of this era." This question makes perfect sense given what the apostles were really thinking about after being told that the temple would fall.  And this is a VERY different question and it changes the meaning (and translation) of the answers Jesus gives to the apostles.  Out of this answer, you can get the idea of a second coming, but Jesus is talking generally about how his presence then leads to the end of an era, specifically, the end of the Old Testament era, the fall of the temple, and the scattering of the Jewish nation.

Do these statements also apply to the end of the world? Perhaps. More to the point, they also apply to end of any civilization or ea. They also apply (in a way that is clear to me, anyway) to the end of every life. There is a greater meaning here, especially in terms of Christ's presence at the culmination of these events.

"Coming" is from parousia, which means "presence," "arrival," "occasion," "situation," "substance," and "property." It is not the word consistently used to describe something coming or "on its way," which is erchomai.

"World" is from aiôn, which means "lifetime," "life," "a space of time," "an age," an epoch," and "the present world." It is not the word that the Matthew uses when Christ is referring to the world or the earth. It is only translated as "world" in the phrase "end of the world," which is more directly translated as "end of the era."

"Sign" is from sêmeion, which means "mark," "sign," "omen," "sign from the gods," "signal," and "indication."

Parable of the Weeds

As normally translated, the Parable the Weeds seems to describe the last judgment and the punishment of evil people . However, in the original Greek, it tells a very different story. This is one of those cases where if you misunderstand Christ’s use of symbols, you miss the whole point of his lesson. While there is nothing wrong with seeing this simply as a parable of the end of the world, a more useful understanding takes more work. This is what Christ himself suggests at the end of this parable when he says, “Who has ears, let him hear.”

According to the KJV, Christ said:

Matthew 13:37He answered and said unto them, He that sows the good seed is the Son of man; Matthew 13:38The field is the world; the good seed are the children of the kingdom; but the weeds are the children of the wicked [one];Matthew 13:39The enemy that sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the world; and the reapers are the angels.Matthew 13:40As therefore the weeds are gathered and burned in the fire; so shall it be in the end of this world.Matthew 13:41The Son of man shall send forth his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity;Matthew 13:42And shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth.Matthew 13:43Then shall the righteous shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Who has ears to hear, let him hear.

A Deeper Analysis

This analysis is based on the assumption that Christ is consistent in his use of the four keys and their symbols. Christ is saying something more universal here than simply describing good and evil people being rewarded and punished at the end of the world. As a matter of fact, that simplistic view of evil being punished is almost all the result of bad translation, or, the result of a putting a certain philosophy into the translation.

The World

First, let us start with “the world.” The KJV and most other Biblical interpretations are very sloppy about their use of this term, readily confusing three words in Greek for the physical earth, for natural order, and for “the age” or the current situation. Here, we have two mentions of “the world,” and in Greek, two very different terms are used. The first phrase, “The field is the world,” translates the word kosmos as “the world,” but kosmos really means something closer to “the world order” or “the universe” like our word “cosmos,” which comes from it. The second phrase, is “the end of the world,” but that phrase uses a very different word, aiôn, which means “a period of existence” or, as we would say an “eon.” The field does not come to an end in this parable nor is Christ talking about the end of the “world order.” He is talking only about the end of an age or, as aion is often translated in the NT, the end of a generation.

The Seed

Symbolically, the key word here is “the seed” since Christ is explaining “the seed” through all of Matthew 13 and this is just one part of that explanation. In this bigger picture, the “seed,” whatever it else it is, is first and foremost, the spirit of God, divine inspiration. Christ in the earlier Parable of the Sower, describes the seed generally as “hearing the word of the kingdom” in the KJV which means “hearing the logic of the [God's] rules” in our understanding. Christ specifically describes “the kingdom” as a tiny seed that goes into the ground to produce a giant tree.

So, does Christ contradict that idea in this verse when he describes “the seed” as the “children of the kingdom” and “children of evil?”

Not at all. Rather, he is explaining the “seed” of divine inspiration in more detail. The term used for “seed” is sperma, which means both “seed” of plants and the “sperm” of animals. It also means “origin,” “offspring,” and “descent.” Children are the offspring of seed.

Here, however, the offspring of seed are also themselves seed. Remember, as we said in our explanation of the four keys, Christ is all about the cycles of things. Every cycle begins and ends with the spirit, that this, the seed. The seed of one generation creates the seed of the next. “Children” is from the Greek huios, which means “sons” and “children,” but this term is commonly used in combination with another term to mean the type of people that are produced a certain type of activity or more simply, the product of that activity, for example, “children of injustice” or “children of death.” In this case, we specifically have the huios (sons) basileia (kingdom, rule) compared to the huios (sons) poneros (burdened, useless). This contrasts those people produced by the universal rule and those people produced by useless ideas. So the “seed” of divine inspiration creates children but the “seed” of useless ideas also creates children. Both type of these children themselves are also “seeds” creating a new crop.

The children of the seed become the seed themselves. This is the whole point of the cycles Christ is describing in painting a picture of the universal rule, that is, the kingdom of heaven. This is indeed the way the world works as each generation replaces itself.

The “Devil”

So, are “evil people” produced by “the devil?” Christ doesn’t say that, at least no in Greek. The term translated as “the devil” is actually, diabolos, which means “slander” and “backbiting.” It came to mean “the devil” only after people started personifying the idea for the Gospels. What Christ said in Greek is:

“Echthros (adj. hated, hateful) speiro (verb:sowing, spreading) autos (themselves, the same) esti (is) diabolos (noun: slander). This could be interpreted as “The hateful spreading their [seed] is slander” as opposed to “The enemy that sowed them is the devil.” Certainly, the first version of this is much closer to the Greek. The later is a purely philosophical interpretation that assumes an enemy and a devil.

The Summation of a Generation

So, if we are talking about a cycle here, can we be talking about “the end of the world?” No, but since Christ didn’t say that, we don’t really have a problem. He said “the end of an age” or “the end of a generation” and aion is usually interpreted in the NT.

Except, of course, Christ did quite say anything as simple as “end.” The Greek word is sunteleia, which means “a joint contribution,” “a company,” “a union of states,” “the consummation [of a scheme],” and, in grammar, “a completed action.” So, at best, he said “the consummation of an age,” but the sense was more of “the summarization of an age.” This is very consistent with Christ teaching about “last judgment” which is usually described as a distinctions and separations made at the end of an age.

What happens at the summarization of a generation? The son of man shall dispatch (apostellô ) his messengers ((angelos ). If the word apostello looks familiar, that is because it is the word that gets translated into “apostles.” This is what Christ does: he sent out the original apostles and he sends us out as his messengers. This is another cycle, not a one time happening at the end of the world.

What do these messengers do? They “gather” ( sullegô) and collect “all things” (pas) that scandalize (skandalon) and “do iniquity,” which is from poieo (make, produce, do) anomia, which means “lawlessness” or “lawless conduct.” In other words, Christ’s apostles and messengers will identify those things which are not consistent with the universal rule, that is, the kingdom of heaven.

The summation of a generation is the harvest (therismos) and Christ’s messengers are the harvesters (theristês). In every generation, society produces something. As Christ’s apostles, we have to discriminate between what is good and what is bad. Again, this is an on-going process, not a one-time event. The harvest of a field doesn’t come once. It comes over and over. Christ was very specific about this in the previous Parable of the Sower.

Worthless Things, Not People

Notice that the term used here, pas, does not refer to people but to things. The people were the seeds in this analogy. They go into the earth (the symbol for emotional nourishment) either in caring or in hatred. What comes out is what these people produce. Remember what Christ says about good trees producing good fruit? This parable is just continuing the cycle. Good fruit produces good seeds. Good seed produces good plants. Good plants produce good fruit again, which then again results in more good seed.

However, people shaped by worthless ideas also produce things. The product of worthless ideas can create more people with worthless ideas. Think of the way a criminal or a drug addict misleads other people into thinking that a life of crime is a good thing. What the messengers are gathering up here, that is, identifying here, are not the criminals, but their crimes, what they have produced. This is the fruit of worthless ideas.

Fuel for Transformation

What happens to those worthless products? This is where it gets interesting. These products are not sent to “hell” in any sense of the word, not even the term, Gehenna, used to describe the burning trash heap outside of Jerusalem. They are “thrown,” “cast,” or “put into” (ballô) a kaminos, which is very specifically an oven for baking bread and bricks. These worthless things have some value after all: they become fuel for the fire. What is the fire used for? It is used for doing something very productive, very necessary, specifically for baking bread and the creation of bricks to build with..

What role does bread play symbolically in Christ’s system? It is the transformation of thought into substance. Grain, which is theoretical wealth, into sustenance, which is satisfying our physical needs. This transformation from abstract value to a valuable substance requires energy. What fuels this process of transformation? Recognizing and using that which is useless. We burn out the uselessness in ourselves and in our society over time, not by destroying people, but by recognizing and using the very worthlessness of their products as fuel for that transformation.

The people’s whose worthless products are destroyed don’t like their products being destroyed. This is why we get weeping ((klauthmos ) and teeth gnashing (brugmos), which means “chattering” and can even mean the roaring of a lion, if you prefer. It comes down to a lot of crying and complaining about getting criticized for producing worthless stuff. And don’t those with the most worthless ideas complain the loudest when those ideas are attacked?

The harvest here has not one but two useful products. The good fruit is the grain, which becomes our bread and eventually our flesh. The bad fruit is the weed, the fuel that transforms the grain into bread. Both are needed for the process.

Why is there Evil in the World?

A very deep question gets answered here. Why does God allow evil in the world? We need it for fuel. We need it to transform ourselves. It is our reaction against the fruits of evil that makes us better people.

The specific evil being discussed here is emotional hatred that leads to mental slander, contrasting this evil with Christ’s emotional caring and the mental truth. As Christ said, we recognize a tree by its fruit. The specific weed described here (zizanion) looks just like wheat until it produces grain, that is, its fruit. Evil ideas sound like good ideas until we examine what there really produce. Good ideas make people’s lives better. But bad idea make them worse. But if hatred and slander produced the same result as caring and truth, what sense would the world make?

Christ is telling us very clearly that evil exists because hatred and lies exist. Hatred and lies will appear in every generation. Could God have prohibited hatred and lies? Yes, but then we would have no choices to make. Could he have prevented hatred and lies from hurting anyone? Yes, but then we could not tell the different between hatred and caring. Both would be the same because they had the same effect.

Evil exists because people are given a choice. Choices must matter or there is not way to tell right from wrong. God cannot protect us from ourselves.

The Burning Within

What is the end result of using these evil products to fuel our transformation, this burning that is more within us than in the world? The righteous (dikaios, literally, “those who observe the rules”) “shine,” which is from a word you can understand almost by looking at it, eklampô , (”out of a lamp”) which means “to shine,” “to beam forth,” and “to distinguish” yourself. This is clear evidence that the fire Christ is talking about is not a fire burning in hell or even in the world, putting all those evil idea to the flame. It is a fire of transformation within us. The kingdom of God is, after all, within us.