That’s what you can expect to hear about when you turn on the news these days – wars and rumors of wars. A guided missile strike on a Syrian airfield in retaliation for a chemical attack on civilians that went viral on the internet. North Korean display of military troops and hardware, along with the aborted firing of an intercontinental missile. In answer, a fleet of U.S. Warships steaming toward North Korea. The Mother of All Bombs dropped on troops and munitions in Afghanistan. What will it be tomorrow?
“Wars and rumors of wars” – you may recognize this phrase as part of one of Jesus’ most powerful teachings, “The Olivet Discourse”:
When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” Jesus answered them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Messiah!’ and they will lead many astray. And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars; see that you are not alarmed; for this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places: all this is but the beginning of the birth pangs.” (Matthew 24:3-8)
This is often interpreted as Jesus prophesying that there will be a particular clustering of war activities as a sign of the end times. But, as a matter of fact, Jesus could have been describing any period in human history. Researchers with the Society of International Law have concluded that over the 3,400 years of human history they have been able to study, there have been about 268 years of peace, in which trackable records indicate no active military conflicts in the world. During the other 3,132 years, people have lived under the cloud of wars and rumors of wars.
Jesus showed great insight in choosing his words; rumors of wars can be almost as bad as wars. Some of us grew up during the height of the Cold War, as the USA and the USSR kept building up their stocks of nuclear weapons and frequently did the modern equivalent of saber-rattling. It was a scary experience for me as a young adult. I heard sermons during those days that expressed confidence that the world was definitely going to face the end-time judgments within months. But that didn’t happen. As Jesus said, “the end is not yet.” It’s my guess that every generation throughout those thirty-four centuries of human experience felt the same kind of dread that the cloud of war might, this time, explode into the final extinction — of my tribe, of my nation, if not of the whole human race.
The same researchers have estimated that about 8,000 peace treaties have been made during those 3,400 years. The signers of the treaties have sincerely believed that their covenant would last a long time, hopefully forever. But the researchers have calculated that the average duration of peaceful co-existence under a treaty is about ten years. Then back to wars and rumors of wars.
World War I (1914-1918) cost 39 million lives, but it was labeled by hopeful leaders “The War to End All Wars.” However, after only two decades, a reshuffled cast of allies entered World War II (1939-1945), which became the deadliest war of all time, resulting in 60 to 85 million deaths. More wars and rumors of wars.
Modern technology has upped the ante, and future wars are likely to be even more deadly. Gun powder escalated war’s destructiveness in the Middle Ages; atomic weapons seemed infinitely more dangerous when they appeared on the scene in the 1940s, but their power was soon dwarfed by the hydrogen bomb, developed a decade later . Today we’re talking about chemical and biological weapons, but we’re also taking warfare technology in new directions, through fiction (“Star Wars”) and in technology (cyber warfare). Who knows where these trends will lead us? Certainly to even more wars and rumors of wars.
Jesus could see this from his overview of history. He was able to look past puppet King Herod on his throne of self-interest, past the seemingly invulnerable Roman Empire with its dictators who confused themselves with gods; he could look back to once-great dynasties in Egypt, Babylonia, Assyria, Persia, Greece — now just vague memories. He could scan the future and see that “nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom” in a never-ending succession. He could see that constant warfare also leaves collateral damage, as “there will be famines in various places” as a result of the devastating economic cost of war. I’m sure he could see into the IT world of warfare as well and understand the dimensions of a potential new kind of trauma.
But still, “the end is not yet . . . all this is but the beginning of the birth pangs.” That slogan about World War I, “The War to End All Wars,” ought to make us stop and think. Every war seems to be justified by the belief that it will prevent further wars, or greater wars; that in the end, it will save lives – at least ours. But, by the time the peace treaty is signed, it never seems to work out that way. We all somehow come out losers . . . again. Wars and rumors of wars.
“The end is not yet.” The end will not come because the world has finally discovered the perfect war, the most charismatic leader, the most advanced weapons, the ultimate righteous cause. The end will come when and where and how God wants it to.
— Pastor George Van Alstine