But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare (2 Pet. 3:10).
A century ago the world was at war. It was an age of massacre. On one single day, August 22, 1914, France lost 27,000 men, killed in what came to be called the “Battle of the Frontiers.” On that day half as many French soldiers died as America lost in 10 years of war in Vietnam. Corpses were heaped up, lying every which way, with rain falling and shells screaming and bursting. During August and September of that year, 400,000 French soldiers died, and by year’s end 2 million were dead on both sides of the war. The elite French military academy of Saint-Cyr systematically listed its dead from the various wars. For 1914 there was one brief entry: “The Class of 1914” – all of it (Philip Jenkins, The Great and Holy War).
By the end of The Great War in November 1918, 10 million were dead. Among these were 114,000 Americans who died in about 1 ½ years of fighting. As if the bloodletting were insufficient to water the earth, the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-1919 claimed between 50 and 100 million lives worldwide, with over 600,000 dead in the United States, 400,000 in France and 250,000 in Britain. To put this in context, AIDS claimed 25 million lives worldwide between 1981-2011.
Jenkins’ account of the Great War is a worthy read for multiple reasons, chief of which is, as captured by the title, it was considered a “holy war” by those on both sides of the conflict. Indeed, it became a “religious crusade” with preachers and leaders on both sides using biblical language and apocalyptic terminology to argue for the rightness of their cause. One takeaway for me, however, is that it helps put in perspective the circumstances in which we find ourselves in 2014.
Human beings are prone to the “illusion of specialness,” meaning that we see our times and situation as unique, most often as uniquely bad. Without question we live in dangerous times, and things could get much worse very quickly. A few bad actors with the right weapons and opportunity can kill thousands, and they have. Moreover, when even one person dies a gruesome death, YouTube can spread the horror to billions, and it has. Remember, wars have started over the death of one person before. The Great War is an example of that as well.
But if there is anything uniquely special about our times, I would suggest that it’s not the outbursts of gruesome violence that we are seeing in multiple places. The world has been ablaze many times. There is nothing new about this. Indeed, the blaze has seldom if ever been extinguished. No, the uniqueness of our times is best seen in the unprecedented Gospel opportunities that are before us. No prior generation has enjoyed the access to nations and peoples that we enjoy. And this access isn’t only experienced by our ability to go to exotic places and peoples. We are increasingly accessing the world’s peoples because they are moving into our neighborhoods. It is not uncommon for school districts in the Northwest to have 100 or more languages represented in the schools. In the past year Northwest Baptists have planted our first Bhutanese church, not in the country of Bhutan, but in the state of Oregon! We have Northwest Baptist churches speaking Mandarin, Japanese, Tagalog, Ethiopian, Russian, Korean, Spanish, English, and around 30 other languages. About 100 of our 450 churches speak a language other than English. For the most part, this is a recent development, occurring over the last 30 years, but greatly accelerating in the past decade.
The Scriptures tell us that the day will come when this planet will truly be ablaze. It will be a purifying fire that will lay bare the earth. The “day of the Lord” will come quickly and unexpectedly. We must be ready.
One hundred years ago, when Europe became a graveyard, preachers on both sides of the fight were certain the end was near. The British General Allenby even fought to victory in the valley of Armageddon! However, the Lord was not yet ready to blow the trumpet. But one day He will. And until that day comes, we must make haste and seize the opportunity which is uniquely ours, that of sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ with every tribe and tongue and people and nation, some of whom live in the house next door to ours.