Mark 13 contains several biblical passages that have fueled speculation about the "end times" throughout Christian history. Part of this speculation arises from assumptions about when the gospels were composed, and part of this speculation arises from a human desire to feel special. If you believe that you are among a select group of people who know an incredible secret, that can be very psychologically persuasive. Even for people like me who believe that there is no supernatural, it helps to have reminders that all human perception is limited -- it helps to know what would convince you to believe something different. If you don't know what would convince you to revise your beliefs, then your beliefs are more likely to be incongruous with reality. That is what happens to some people who believe that Mark 13 is describing something about their circumstances rather than the circumstances of people in the first century.
The Jewish people during the days of Roman occupation didn't like the Roman Empire very much. They staged rebellions every so often, and these rebellions were led by "messiahs" -- men who people thought would fulfill a prophetic role and establish a Jewish kingdom that surpassed all other kingdoms. Jesus was just one of a number of messiahs running around in the first century, but if the portrayal of Jesus in the gospels is anywhere close to an accurate depiction of an actual human being, he was not the typical militaristic messiah that people were becoming accustomed to seeing. Most messiahs collected a militia and struck out against Roman authorities. Eventually, as one might imagine, Rome became rather weary of this, and under the military leadership of Titus (who would become emperor), the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 CE. Literally, the stones of the temple were pushed down a steep hillside so that they could not be easily used to reconstruct the place.
People were scattered, some forcefully relocated and some fleeing to the hills. The historian Josephus reported that 97,000 Jews were captured or enslaved. Prior to the Roman attack, Caius Caesar had intended to have a statue of himself erected in the temple in Jerusalem (this was perhaps the desecrating sacrilege -- a term that refers back to the book of Daniel), but historical records suggest that he died before it could be installed. Another Roman emperor may have followed suit, or there may have been some other Roman religious paraphernalia installed at the temple. It is clear that Roman authorities pilfered the temple treasury, and that some of the Jewish sects known collectively as Zealots retaliated against what they saw as abuses of Roman rule. This chaotic environment was the norm of first century Jerusalem, but particularly during the period between 50 and 70 CE.
Logically speaking, the gospel of Mark, with its reference in chapter 13 to the destruction of the temple, must have been written after 70 CE. At least the version that we now have (and there are no extant complete copies of Mark that lack this "little apocalypse" section) must have been completed after the destruction of the temple. Some evidence (internal monetary and administrative terminology) suggests that Mark was written in or near Rome, which would make a great deal of sense in the aftermath of the siege of Jerusalem. The book also appears to be written to an audience of people already converted to Christianity, since is assumes familiarity with the Old Testament and includes themes of mature discipleship and comfort. If one insists that this biography was written in the midst of persecution, then this could push the date of composition to the end of Domitian's reign (89-96 CE), but its use by the authors of Matthew and Luke would limit the latest possible date for the document's completion to about 92 CE.
With that in mind, then, Mark 13 offers a contextualization of the destruction of the temple within the framework of Christian identity. Thus, all of the words about upheaval, persecution, fleeing to the hills, and false prophets or messiahs are about first century realities. You may have noticed the words, "this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place" (Mk 13:30), and you may have noticed that included in "all these things" that was supposed to happen before that generation passed away was that the Son of Man would visibly descend from the heavens, send forth angels, and collect those who were chosen for salvation from across the planet. This, as you may be aware, did not happen.
Attempts to reconcile this failure of prophecy with a belief that the Bible is absolutely true has caused a lot of people a lot of problems. Some believers interpret a different definition of "generation" and are still expecting a major supernatural event. Some believers want to include themselves as part of those who suffer persecution, assuming that public admonition or even ridicule is equivalent to being beaten in synagogues and tried before political authorities. More often than not, in developed nations, some Christians proclaim messages of hatred and judgment or try to deny people equal treatment under the law, and then wear the subsequent "persecution" as a badge of honor. Mark 13 is not talking about so misrepresenting the Christian message that you suffer adverse consequences in your society.
What can we derive from this collection of passages intended for first century people in a situation we will never experience? Consistently throughout the last two thousand years, people have predicted the end of the world, some of them Christian, and some of them thinking that they were following the advice of Mark 13, attending to the secret signs around them. No predictions about the end of the world have come to pass. Perhaps people are profoundly unskilled at interpreting signs, or perhaps people cannot actually make risky predictions about the future with any sort of accuracy. It even says right there in Mark 13:32-33 that nobody knows when this supernatural event will happen. The value in this chapter is not about how to predict things to come.
Rather, the value in this passage is recognizing that people need hope, especially in extremely dire circumstances. One reason that religion thrives is because it offers people hope. Sometimes they still take that hope and infuse it with anxiety, which is understandable given the level of anxiety in our world. Let's assume for a moment that there will not be a massive supernatural event in which all of the elect are gathered from across the world by the Son of Man. Let's assume for a moment that human fear is the biggest threat to our well-being -- our own fear and the fear of people around us. Fear is, after all, the underlying motivator of all of the first century upheaval as well as the upheaval we continue to see in the world. How do we respond to our circumstances if we have no firm grasp of the future? How do we respond to fear if we cannot trust a supernatural to eventually rescue us?
Sometimes I feel like I'm repeating myself, but this just seems like the best place to start, and I don't hear a lot of other people saying it. We have to recognize who we are, at a deeper level than our fears, at a deeper level than our daily struggles to make it through traffic and get a certain number of tasks done and pay our bills on time. We are human beings of inherent value who need connection with other human beings. And other people are human beings of inherent value who need connection with us. We are, at our core, loving beings -- even though our fear gets in the way. What we long for is the same thing that everyone else longs for: wholeness and well-being in every facet of our lives. We want to be able to express ourselves as individuals, and we want meaningful relationships with other people. We want our lives to have purpose, and we want hope that what we do will make a difference.
The remarkable thing is that we can create these things in our lives and in the lives of others. We can't know the future, but we can know ourselves. We can express ourselves authentically, and we can connect with other people. We can create meaning by reaching beyond our fears and recognizing what matters most in our lives -- who we most want to be in the world. We can help others create meaning in their lives, too. We create hope for ourselves and other people every time we recognize how little actions make a big difference in someone's life. Every time we recognize commonality or offer a simple smile to a stranger, we bring forward a little bit more the best possible versions of ourselves. With a little intentionality, we might be able to bring our deepest most noble selves forward even more. Whatever future that creates, we'll be more deeply satisfied with the journey.