Globalization, nuclear proliferation, saber-rattling in the Middle East, the rise of militant Islam, a weak European economy, a pivotal United States presidential election, and, of course, the end of the Mayan calendar at 11:11 on December 22, have folks once again contemplating the end of the world.
Usually this preoccupation is religious – think 1843 when 100,000 Millerites went off into the hills, or 1994 and 2011 when some Christians succumbed to Harold Camping's date setting. Today however, secularists are also alarmed by this possibility as they discuss global warming, over-population, asteroids and comets, and a host of social maladies. Hollywood has seized on this fear with a boatload of end-of-the-world movies and countless doomsday scenarios.
Apocalyptic thinking is not new with our generation; it actually has its roots in the Bible. Old Testament Hebrew prophets were the first to write in this literary genre and, for Christians, the prophesied return of Jesus Christ is their ultimate hope. In fact, the last book in the Bible, Revelation, gives explicit details and vivid imagery concerning apocalyptic events that one day will usher in the Lord's return.
A fair question to ask then is, "Are we living in those days?" Are we the generation that will see the Lord's return? Are there specific conditions that will bring Jesus back to earth?
I want to begin by saying I firmly believe in the doctrine of imminence, the teaching that Jesus can return at any time. This was the dominant view of the early church, as evidenced by Paul's writing to the believers at Thessaloniki and Corinth:
For they themselves report what kind of reception you gave us. They tell how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead--—Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath. (1 Thes. 1:9-10)
Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed--— in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. (1 Cor. 15-51-52)
The doctrine of imminence demands that there be no prerequisites for Jesus's return: no third temple, no anti-Christ, no one-world monetary system, no nuclear strike. What then to make of Jesus' end-time conditions laid out in Matthew 24 and the corresponding four horseman of the apocalypse in Revelation 6? Won't the "birth pains" of religious deception, famine, and pestilence lead us to the coming of the Lord? Should we be looking for these signs in our day?
Twenty-five years ago as a young Christian studying prophetic events, I stumbled upon a book by author Dave Hunt entitled Peace, Prosperity, and the Coming Holocaust. Until that time most of my understanding of prophecy had come from the writings of Hal Lindsey, whose end-time books had sat atop the New York Times best-seller list for much of the late 1970s. Mr. Lindsay was a stellar scholar and writer, and at the height of his popularity world events were ominous.
The 1970s began with Life magazine proclaiming, "In a decade, urban dwellers will have to wear gas masks to survive air pollution," (January 30, 1970). America was locked in a Cold War with the Soviet Union, a superstate was rising in Europe, Arab nations had an embargo on oil coming to the West exacerbating a struggling United States economy (18% home-mortgage rates), 52 hostages were seized in Iran as that country was converting to an Islamic republic, and airplanes were being hijacked as the beginning of what is now called terrorism.
However, history tells us that this gloom was quickly replaced by the prosperity of the 80s and the collapse of the Soviet empire. This left many readers of prophecy jaded, suspicious of the trustworthiness concerning its teachers.
This is what made Mr. Hunt's book so appealing to me. Steeped in Scripture, he set forth with great precision what he called a "contrary scenario." This scenario taught the imminent return of Christ but not at a time of worldwide calamity and upheaval; rather, it would come "like a thief in the night" (see 1 Thes. 5:2), at a time when folks would least expect it.
Mr. Hunt pointed to Jesus' own words in Matthew:
But as the days of Noah were, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be. For as in the days before the flood, they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark, and did not know until the flood came and took them all away, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be. (Matt 24:37-39)
What were the conditions like in Noah's day? At first glance it seems like business as usual, people living and enjoying life. Certainly the last thing the pre-flood world was looking for was judgment.
A closer look reveals some interesting truths:
"Now it came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth..." (Gen. 6:1).
I wish I had the capacity here to show you a graph of the world's human population over history, but if you imagine the letter J, that should give you an idea of what the growth line would look like. World population in 1350, after the relative decimation by the bubonic plague, stood at an estimated 370 million. It took about 450 years (to 1804) to reach one billion people, and since then, the population has grown exponentially: 1927 (123 years later), two billion; 1960 (33 years later), three billion; 1974 (14 years later), four billion. Since then we have added another billion every twelve or thirteen years, and now stand at seven billion people on the planet.
Then the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. (Gen. 6:5)
Evil continuously: this one is a little tricky. While evil has always existed in our world and can be difficult to quantify, the writers of the New Testament corroborate these conditions.
Let no one deceive you by any means; for that Day will not come unless the falling away comes first, and the man of sin is revealed, the son of perdition, who opposes and exalts himself above all that is called God or that is worshiped, so that he sits as God in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God....For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work; only He who now restrains will do so until He is taken out of the way. And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord will consume with the breath of His mouth and destroy with the brightness of His coming. The coming of the lawless one is according to the working of Satan, with all power, signs, and lying wonders, and with all unrighteous deception among those who perish, because they did not receive the love of the truth, that they might be saved. And for this reason God will send them strong delusion, that they should believe the lie, that they all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness. (2 Thes. 2:3-4, 7-12)
What is interesting about the Genesis account is it doesn't talk about evil actions, but evil intents and thoughts. Until the Internet, this was almost impossible to observe. Sadly, we can now see the depravity of the human mind by what is propagated quickly and easily via this medium.
So how can Jesus return at a time when we don't expect and at a perilous time that we can see signs of?
The answer is He comes twice, once for the Church and once with the Church.
Jesus' coming for the Church is commonly called the rapture. This comes from the old Latin version of 1 Thessalonians 4:17: "Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up [Latin rapio] together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord."
At an unexpected time, a worldwide cataclysmic event will take place that will leave millions missing from every part of the globe. Dave Hunt writes, "The rapture is the only conceivable event that could cause the entire world to unite in a new world government and a new world religion and to submit suddenly to the leadership of the Antichrist as the world dictator."
After seven years of deception, tribulation, and worldwide upheaval, Jesus will return with the Church to judge the world (Rev. 19), fulfilling many Old Testament Scriptures that speak of a time called the Day of the Lord. (See Isaiah 13:6-11, Joel 2:1-11, and Zechariah 12, among others.)
While this position is not held by all Bible-believing Christians, it is the one view, in my opinion, that allows all prophesies of the Old and New Testaments to align. Remember that 2000 years ago Israel was for the most part unable to tease apart the apparently contradictory prophecies concerning the coming Messiah; they could not conceive of a Savior who would come once to die and again to conquer.
Let's not make the same mistake. Let us be diligent in what God has called us to do, looking with one eye to heaven, knowing the Lord could come at any time.
Jesus said it was not for us to know the time of His coming (see Acts 1:7). But one thing we can know: He is in control.
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