Most of us have never been the victim of a terrorist attack. We have never seen how someone blew himself (of herself) up, or started to shoot in all directions with a machine gun. But we are worried. The images stay with us for a considerable time, after seeing the reports of the events in Belgium and France, some months ago; of the carnage in Nice and of the young Afghan man who attacked his fellow travellers in a German train. And we tend to agree when someone remarks that this might also happen any time in our own country. When big events take place—like this week in the Netherlands with the four-day trek of some 50.000 people over 30, 40 or 50 kilometers—security has the highest priority. The organizers are greatly relieved when everything passes withour major incidents.
I am writing this blog while sitting in the intercity train, on my way to a meeting in Brussels (to have a discussion with the person who is currently translating my newest book into French!). The train is mostly empty, but how do I know that no radicalized Muslim, who may have boarded the train in the Hague or in Rotterdam, will storm into my carriage and start shooting while shouting ‘Allah is great!’ I am not overly worried, but I do realize that there are many rather easy targets for any extremist who wants to execute some deadly plan. Airports and airplanes may be reasonably safe, but what about trains and stations, ferries and cruise ships, or even busses, shopping centers, museums and churches?
The senseless violence of terrorism creates a lot of fear. But people realize that their life must go on. They know they cannot stay home, but when they go out they look around whether they spot any suspect parcel or any suitcase without a nearby owner, or whether some person is behaving suspiciously.
Some Bible readers will think of texts that tell us about a time when this world will be in the grip of fear, and underline that this is a ‘sign of the times’, an indication that the end of history is near and that Jesus is about to come. However, it is not so easy to answer the question whether this heightened concern, because of the threat of terrorism, is truly a ‘sign of the times’. For let’s be honest: Life was not always so very safe in the past. A traveller in Jesus’ days could easily fall victim to the robbers who operated along the roads between the population centers. Travel in ancient times or in the Middle Ages was not without significant danger, and it has never been totally safe since. Someone could suddenly immobiliz you with his dagger. Your stagecoach could be attacked. Your ship could be the target of organized piracy.
It would seem to me that a person who lived a hundred or two hundred years ago had as much reason to live in fear as we have today. Does that make all talk about ‘signs of the times’ meaningless? Far from it. However, we must never forget that from a biblical perspective the ‘time of the end’ began right after Jesus’s death, resurrection and ascension. The early church knew it lived in the ‘time of the end’ and looked towards the soon coming of their Lord. The ‘time of the end’ is still in progress. But it will not continue forever. Through the centuries there have been signals (‘signs’) that remind of of the fact that this world is worn-out and must (and will) be replaced by something infinitely better.
For christians this expectation must always reign over their fear. Hope must always have the last word. Also (and especially) in a time when reports of terror so often dominate our daily news.