Back when I had easy access to bookstores that sold books in a language I could actually understand (English), I would often buy books on Medieval history. One of my favorites was Barbara Tuchman’s history of 14th century Europe, A Distant Mirror.
Times were dark back then. This was the start of the Hundred Years War, a bloody conflict that actually lasted 116 years. The war was ruinous to the economy of Europe, as people were taxed to the point of death to pay for it. Meanwhile, every able-bodied man was marched off to fight, usually never to return.
Without workers, many fields lay untended. Then the weather changed, ushering in the Little Ice Age. While before, it was warm enough in much of Europe to actually have a winter crop, now even in autumn the fields were barren. It was almost like a cruel joke–those old people, children, and cripples who miraculously plowed and sowed the fields despite their poor physical condition received nothing in return for their efforts, and were relegated to eating the bark off of trees. Whole countries, which had never seen hunger for as long as anyone could remember, starved to death.
Since the feudal lords and their men were constantly at war, they were not present to protect their towns, villages, and homesteads. Renegade bands of mercenaries and bandits roamed the countryside in the absence of civil authority, ravaging, raping, and pillaging at will.
If this were not enough, there was the Black Death. Plague, probably brought to Europe from Asia, began its own rampage of death and destruction. In a few short years, between 30% to 60% of the population of Europe died. Like the war, the plague came in waves. There would be an epidemic in a village that killed without rhyme or reason–sometimes the elderly and the young would be spared, while the healthy would be slain. Other times, only the weak would be slain, like animals being culled from a herd. Then the plague would recede, and everyone would breathe a sigh of relief, only to see the plague come back ten or twenty years later and kill the survivors.
Death is inescapable for us all, but is dealt with only rarely by most people today. However, for people back then, it was a matter-of-fact part of daily life. Remember the old nursery rhyme?
Ring around the rosey,
A pocket full of posies,
We all fall down!
Indeed, people carried pockets full of posies as a good luck charm, to ward off the plague, but it did no better than any of the other cures they had then available. Inevitably, there would be the round sore on the skin, mottled like a rose, and surrounded by a ring. Then there would be the trip to church where a cross of ashes would be drawn on the forehead–a sign of repentance. However, no matter how much the people repented, no matter how much they prayed, in the end, they all fell down.
Witchcraft and heresy were rife, as people threw off Christianity in a feeble attempt to find something, anything, that would help. Yet, even among Christians, weird fanaticisms and strange beliefs became the norm. People began worshiping relics, as though these talismans would give them some sort of protection from the evil in the world. Those who had the time and money became Palmers–they took pilgrimages to the Holy Land, bringing back palm tree fronds as proof of their piety and devotion. Yet, none of this eased the pain or made anything better. Consequently, many people thought–hoped–that it was the end of the world, that all of the troubles they were suffering would soon come to an end.
I do not have an answer to all of the problems currently facing the world, and in my heart I feel–I know–that things are going to get a whole lot worse than they are now. Yet, nothing within me believes that the world will soon come to an end, not now, nor in 2012, nor even at some distant date in my own or my children’s lifetime. Are we in the end times? In one sense, yes, but we have been in the end times for 2,000 years. The world is always coming to an end. In another sense, no, because things are not nearly bad enough to think that we could be anywhere near the end. The truth is, no one knows when the world will end. Not even Jesus claimed to know the times and dates of such things. So, we must act on the one hand as though the world could end any moment, and we will all be called to account for ourselves, even while realizing that the end may well still be far off. We have fields to plant, walls to build, and arms to make, as we can never be sure what will happen next. We and our children may need to eat and be protected–it is wisdom to hope for the best, but to plan for the worst.
Some people place their hope in a secret rapture to bring them through the fire. Others say that one must just “have faith” and utter positive confessions over things. However, none of this is the Gospel I know. In Revelation, in reference to the end times, it repeatedly talks of those who overcome–only those who overcome will inherit that which God has for them. Overcoming directly implies that we will have to go through trials and tribulations–we will not be saved from them, but will be saved through them. This is the fellowship of Christ’s suffering that Paul talked about–a fellowship that is a privilege to enter into. This is the Cross that all true believers are commanded to bear.
The Gospel I know is a gospel of suffering and a gospel of martyrdom, but it is a hard word to utter to those who have only known plenty, and who have only known a gospel of victory and peace. Will they fall away into witchcraft and heresy? Will they once again worship relics or become modern-day Palmers flitting from one holy site to the next, bringing back palm tree fronds as proof of their piety? Or will they once again turn to God and repent of their sin of self-indulgence, not so that they can find a return to the health and prosperity that they once had, but expecting nothing except to know Him?