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“Therefore be on the alert, for you do not know which day your Lord is coming” (Mt. 24:42).
There is probably not a more enigmatic and debatable topic in all of Scripture than the end times. What events will transpire as the human story moves towards its grand conclusion? How should believers interpret the world around them, especially as the return of Christ draws near? What will happen at the “end of the world?”
Aside from being mysterious, the end times may also be the single-most important matter we could consider.
Certainly, there have been particular traditions and individuals that displayed an unhealthy obsession with the end times. Some have nearly been driven mad in their efforts to “crack the code.” Every religion has its lunatics (or heretics), and Christianity is no different.
However, a concerning number of people have taken the complete opposite approach, choosing to ignore the sections of the Bible that deal with the end times entirely. The Methodist Bible commentator, Adam Clarke, capped off his tirade about the book of Revelation in the following way: “I repeat it, I do not understand the book; and I am satisfied that not one who has written on the subject knows anything more of it than myself.” I cannot tell you how many believers I have encountered over the years that feel the same way. There are even entire denominations that essentially spend no time—zero, zip, nada—discussing the events that might transpire at the climax of our history. To them, the issue has very little bearing (if any) on the Christian life. People of this stripe wish to remove the topic of the end times as a surgeon would remove a tumor.
Some figure that “the end” will come long after they are dead and buried. Others have come to believe (like Clarke) that we just can’t make any sense of these teachings in the first place: that apocalyptic literature (especially Revelation) is simply incomprehensible. What matters is now. “Now” matters so much, apparently, that there is no point in considering “later.” The overall sentiment seems to be: “Jesus will come back someday, and that’s all we need to know.”
The first part is certainly true . . . but is the second? Can we really just dismiss an entire genre of biblical literature as “unessential?” Can we disregard everything the biblical authors said about the end times?
I suggest that we can only do so at our own peril. In Revelation, Jesus urges his followers to investigate these matters for themselves: “Blessed is he who heeds the words of the prophecy of this book” (22:7). While this is nowhere else stated specifically, the reality that so many parts of the Bible cover this topic should be all we need to know. The fact is, apocalyptic literature is so pervasive within Scripture—especially the New Testament—that it is impossible to disregard without sacrificing our understanding of the biblical narrative at large.
Of course, when examining all that the apocalyptic texts reveal, why would we want to overlook them? Can we even afford to?
While it is true that these passages and books can be difficult to understand at points, there are several teachings that are quite clear and should play a significant role in our understanding of both the present and the future. The Bible reveals to us certain expectations that we might call “end time essentials.” While the deepest details of these themes are not known to us, the general teachings can be easily discerned. I have done my best to sort these teachings in a logical—and not necessarily a chronological—order, and this does not reflect their importance. All these events and people are equally important in terms of what will occur at the climax of human history.
We will begin with what has broadly been called the “Great Deception.” Paul introduced this concept in 2 Thessalonians 2, which is a small treasure trove of end time topics. Paul said that, near the end, “ . . . God will send upon them a deluding influence so that they will believe what is false . . .” (2:11). This deception is connected to the workings of the Antichrist (discussed next). This means that we can expect there to be a massive lie before the end. This lie will be of exceeding power and magnitude. Sadly, it will be strong enough to deceive many who were merely self-proclaimed believers. Jesus described this group in Matthew 7:21-23.
Along with the Great Deception is the possibility of a cashless society. That is, there could realistically be a point when there is a one-world currency (of some sort) or no need for currency at all. While the Bible does not directly tell us this, it strongly suggests it. Revelation’s “beast from the earth” will cause all people to receive the “mark of the beast,” which will prevent anyone from buying or selling without it (13:16-19). Basically, one must have the “mark” in order to function in society. While this certainly pertained to following Rome and worshipping its emperors, it also seems to point towards something that will occur in the last days. Some have speculated that this could be something involving purely digital currency, or even some type of bodily mark that one must get (like a microchip, a vaccine or a digital tattoo).
While their may be a physical token involved with the mark of the beast, it is most specifically about being sucked into a system of beliefs. It’s about having Satan’s laws in our minds (head) and carrying them out in our actions (hand), rather than having God’s laws in those places.
As an important note, we are well on our way to having the technology to put tiny tracking devices–much smaller than a conventional microchip–within the human body. There can be no doubt that our world has now come upon things that would perfectly fit the description of the mark, and a cashless society is only a question of when (not if).
Strongly connected to the previous two concepts is the Antichrist. In several places, the Bible speaks of an individual who will deceive the world through his satanic power. The “spirit of antichrist” has been in the world for ages (1 Jn. 4:3), but this person marks the fulfilment of such a figure. Paul—also in 2 Thessalonians 2—refers to this person as the “lawless one” (2:8). Like Satan, he will come in the guise of virtue, performing counterfeit miracles that will make us believe he is holy (2:9). To the contrary, he will oppose everything that is good, holy, virtuous and just. As the prophet Daniel said: “He will speak against the Most High and oppress his holy people and try to change the set times and the laws” (7:25). While this figure was certainly embodied in the Seleucid ruler, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, it probably points forward to someone that will perfectly fulfill the prophecy. The Antichrist is the man whom the Lord Jesus will destroy at his coming (2 The. 2:8).
Speaking of overthrowing the Antichrist, one of the clearest and most essential teachings in Scripture is that Jesus will return to our world. The Second Coming—or the “Parousia”—is imperative, otherwise the entire Christian faith is a sham. Scripture reveals that the booming voice of the archangel will sound and the heavenly trumpets will blow (1 Cor. 15:52, 1 The. 4:16). Then, Christ will be revealed from heaven. Jesus announced that his return would be a world-altering event that could not be missed: “For just as the lightning comes from the east and flashes even to the west, so will the coming of the Son of Man be” (Mt. 24:27). Indeed, every eye will see Jesus coming (Rev. 1:7). Almost every event that will take place at the climax of history involves Jesus’ return.
If you don’t believe in this event, you are wasting your time with anything else.
Just as Jesus was raised from the grave, so shall we be. This mass event is often called the General Resurrection. At Christ’s coming, those who have died will be brought back to life in bodily form (i.e. “resurrected”). In 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17, Paul clearly described what this event will be like: “For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord.” Daniel spoke of this time hundreds of years earlier, stating the those who “sleep” in their graves will be raised to life (12:2). Famously, Jesus told Martha: “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die” (Jn. 11:24).
*Note that the resurrection– not living in heaven as a disembodied spirit–is the biblical hope of the afterlife. I discuss this issue here.*
After the resurrection will come the Final Judgment. Jesus spoke of this event on many occasions, making it known that all people will be judged according to their deeds (Rev 22:12). Acts 17:31 reveals that God “has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness.” Paul made this event clear: “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad” (2 Cor. 5:10). Without question, there will come a day when each one of us must stand before God and be righteously judged. This evaluation will literally determine the rest of eternity.
Will we reign with Christ, or share in Satan’s punishment?
Speaking of punishment, the Bible also affirms something commonly called the Great Tribulation. Daniel spoke of this period, saying it will be “a time of distress such as never occurred since there was a nation until that time” (12:1). In some views (like the “futurist” view), this Great Tribulation speaks to a short period of intense suffering that occurs prior to Jesus’ return. Certain others see this period as having been fulfilled when the Roman Empire leveled Jerusalem and God’s temple in 70 A.D.. In reality, both are probably true. Predictive prophecies often have multiple fulfillments, with each event pointing towards something greater down the road. Jesus was quite possibly explaining both events in Matthew 24. Revelation 7:14-17 seems to be describing the last days, stating that those who come out of the “great tribulation” will proceed to reign with God forever.
The Millennial Reign is less clear than the previous beliefs, but not because it “may or may not” happen. Some see this as a time after Christ’s return when believers will reign with him during some (or all) of the Great Tribulation. The questions come about when trying to find a chronological spot to put the event, and in estimating its duration. Revelation 20 reveals that those who remained faithful and did not receive the mark of the beast came back to life and reigned with Jesus for a “thousand years” (20:4). Prior to that, Satan will be bound to the “abyss” for the duration of that time. Is the “thousand years” to be taken as a literal 1,000 years, or as a symbolic period of extended duration?
It is my opinion that the 1,000 years is a symbolic period of time that began at Christ’s resurrection. It has been occurring for two thousand years. Christ has ruled through his church and Satan has been restrained. Further, the global chaos of our time now suggests that Satan has been released from the abyss and is making his fiercest go at deceiving the nations. In many respects, this would make better sense of how Christ’s return is described to us throughout the NT and how the events of the end times are said to unfold in general.
After the Millennial Reign–however that is viewed–will come the destruction of evil. Satan will rally his immense forces and unrepentant humanity in one final push to overthrow Christ and his people (Rev. 20:7-8). However, they will prove to be no match for God and will be defeated (20:9). This is the appointed time that the demons had alluded to, before Jesus cast them into a herd of swine (Mt. 8:28-34). Wicked humanity will then be cast into hell (Gehenna) to join Satan, the demons, the beast and the false prophet (Rev. 20:10-15).
Finally, we come to the ultimate hope of the Christian faith and the very last events of our time: the creation of a new heaven and new earth. Long before the coming of Christ, the great prophet Isaiah was told about God’s plans to form a new creation (66:22). Predictably, Revelation describes this in greater detail: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth passed away, and there is no longer any sea. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband” (21:1-2). In this new world, and within the “new Jerusalem,” God Himself will live with us. There, we will have no more cause for mourning, or crying, or pain, for “the first things have passed away” (21:4).
Ultimately, the message of the end times is one of hope. Hope, not dread. (That is, for those who truly follow Christ).
With the previous issues (the “end time essentials”) in mind, one bit of context should be mentioned. It is absolutely true that believers from all generations have viewed their time as “the end.” Certainly, many groups had good reason to believe that. Believers around the world marveled when Germany’s Nazi regime exterminated hoards of people during the Holocaust, about 6 million of them being God’s first chosen people (the Jews).
They also stood in awe when the U.S. dropped not one, but two atomic bombs on the nation of Japan. I wonder how many thought about Revelation’s description of the “Beast from the Earth”: “He performs great signs, so that he even makes fire come down out of heaven to the earth in the presence of men” (13:13). Those living during the Middle Ages had many reasons to believe they were living at the end times, not least of which was the death of about 1/3 of Europe’s population by the “Black Death.” It is no mystery that the early church expected that Jesus would immanently return, and they saw their extreme persecution and the Roman destruction of the temple (70 A.D.) as clear indicators that they were living in the last days.
The truth is, many of these things should still be considered as end time events. One mistake people often make is to see the end times strictly in futuristic terms, as though every single event must occur in the months or years preceding Christ’s return. This is not the case. Rather, the entry of the Son of God into the world revealed that “the end” had begun: “But in these last days He has spoken to us by His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, and through whom He made the world” (Heb. 1:2).
In this sense, we can accurately say that we have all been living in the last days for about 2,000 years now. There have been Antichrists, false prophets, counterfeit miracles, powerful delusions, and beast-like powers throughout the ages. I mentioned some of these earlier on. In this sense, many prophecies concerning the end times involve multiple fulfillments.
History repeats itself, as each figure or event transpires but points forward to one that will occur in the very last days.
With this being said, we cannot make the mistake of viewing all prophecy as being fulfilled. We have not seen the Antichrist, the false prophet, the grandest counterfeit miracles, the powerful delusion, or others. If we had, Christ would already have returned.
Further, we must never come to believe that our generation cannot be the last or that Christ will not return soon. Remember this: some generation will be one that sees the Second Coming firsthand. Some generation will be alive at the end.
Could it be ours? Yes, certainly. It is irrefutable that no generation has ever been closer. I would add that no generation has ever seen as many of the pieces line up at one time.
Perhaps we would do well to think about big events—global events—that will have bearing on all of us; people, powers, lies, and deceits that have universal significance. I believe that is what all this has been building towards. The Gospel itself has been advanced throughout most (not all) of the world, which Jesus specifically referenced as something that would precede his coming (Mt. 24:14).
And so, it is vital that we watch the times carefully. Someone will only accept that the end time events are indiscernible—or that they cannot happen in our lifetimes—at their own peril. If we are not looking, we may find ourselves unprepared.
Worse, we may have strayed onto a path from which there is no return.
Perhaps this is why Jesus gave us this powerful command: “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour” (Mt. 25:13). Jesus will return, and many things will precede his arrival. It may even be that some of the wheels are already in motion.
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 The name Epiphanes means “manifest.” Believing he was the earthly manifestation of Zeus, Antiochus IV Epiphanes viewed himself as “God manifest.” He desecrated the holy places and destroyed the Jewish temple in 169 B.C.