Almost 9 in 10 pastors see at least some current events matching those Jesus said would occur shortly before He returns to earth, according to a new survey focused on Christian eschatology, or the study of end times.
A study from Nashville-based LifeWay Research of pastors at evangelical and historically black churches found 97 percent say they believe Jesus Christ will literally and personally return to earth again.
“While Christians prepared to celebrate Jesus’ resurrection, many pastors believe they saw signs His return may be close,” said Scott McConnell, executive director of LifeWay Research. “These sentiments were expressed in January before the prospect of a global pandemic became known.”
In Matthew 24, Jesus’ disciples asked Him about signs of His coming, and He responded by speaking of “birth pains” that would precede His return.
Darrell Bock, New Testament studies professor at Dallas Theological Seminary, noted that the Bible has several lists of potential signs of Jesus’ return — like the Olivet Discourse passages of Matthew 24-25, Mark 13, Luke 21 — and some include concepts of global sicknesses.
“Numerous biblical texts speak of disturbances in the creation that disorient and trouble people,” said Bock. “These disturbances have quite a range, with earthquakes and wars being the most common. However, Jesus mentions plagues or pestilence explicitly in Luke 21.”
According to Mitch Glaser, president of Chosen People Ministries, the idea of birth pains is not unique to the New Testament or evangelicals, as he said Ultra-Orthodox Jews also believe that these types of signs are indicators of the Messiah’s coming.
“The term used in rabbinic literature, ‘birth pangs of Mashiach,’ is similar to the Olivet Discourse,” Glaser said. “The pandemic is viewed in this way by many religious Jewish people who share a heightened Messianic expectation with evangelicals.”
In the study sponsored by a group of ministries led by Chosen People and conducted in early 2020, LifeWay Research asked pastors if they considered certain current events to be included in Jesus’ warnings.
At least 3 in 4 pastors agree Jesus was referring to current events including the rise of false prophets and false teachings (83 percent), the love of many believers growing cold (81 percent), traditional morals becoming less accepted (79 percent), wars and national conflicts (78 percent), earthquakes and other natural disasters (76 percent), and people abandoning their Christian faith (75 percent).
Clear majorities also see famines (70 percent) and anti-Semitism toward Jewish people worldwide (63 percent) as signs of Jesus’ return.
Around 1 in 10 pastors (11 percent) say they don’t consider any of these part of the birth pains to which Jesus was referring.
“For too long, many pastors have shied away from teaching on birth pains and events leading up to the second coming,” said best-selling author Joel Rosenberg, “but the current pandemic demonstrates the need for solid, non-sensational preaching done in a biblical manner.”
More than half of pastors (56 percent) expect Jesus to return in their lifetime.
Perhaps due in part to those beliefs, 89 percent of evangelical and historically black church pastors say that communicating the urgency of Christ’s return is important. While most say they expect Jesus to return while they’re still alive, as many pastors say they’re not sure (24 percent) as say they strongly agree (25 percent). Three in 10 somewhat agree (31 percent), while 20 percent disagree.
“Whether Jesus’ return is near or far, Christians believe these disturbances represent the groaning of creation, reminders of our mortality, our need for God and the accountability we have to Him for life, both now and forever,” said Bock.
“The current global pandemic will create interest among churchgoers and nonreligious people about what the Bible says about plagues, disasters, and the end times,” said McConnell. “The urgency pastors feel is less about stockpiling toilet paper and more about helping people be ready for Christ’s return.”
— Aaron Earls is a writer for LifeWay Christian Resources.