In a remarkable prophecy shortly before His death, Jesus described the signs that would preceed His return. What do those signs reveal?
Jesus Christ, in His Olivet Prophecy recorded in Matthew 24, Mark 13 and Luke 21, foretold several major trends that would increase and intensify before His return. The trends He emphasized were religious deception, wars, famines, disease epidemics, earthquakes and devastating storms.
This is especially apparent in response to His disciples' inquiry concerning what signs would precede His return and the end of this age. "Take heed that no one deceives you," He warned. Many would come claiming to represent Him, "and will deceive many. And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not troubled; for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. And there will be famines, pestilences, and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of sorrows" (Matthew 24:4-8).
Are any of these prophesied signs apparent today?
Religious deception and confusion
We have been horrified by the headlines of mass cult suicides such as Jim Jones and his followers in Guyana in 1978 and the Heaven's Gate cult in Southern California in 1997. Another tragic chain of events led to the deaths of David Koresh's Branch Davidians in Texas in 1993. These tragedies made the news because charismatic leaders led their followers not to life, but to death.
But by no means should we assume this is the only kind of religious deception Jesus intended by His warning. Even in the early days of the Church, Paul warned of "false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into apostles of Christ … For Satan himself transforms himself into an angel of light. Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers also transform themselves into ministers of righteousness, whose end will be according to their works" (2 Corinthians 11:13-15).
Other apostles also warned of a great religious conspiracy masquerading as Christianity. Peter warned of "false teachers … who will secretly bring in destructive heresies" (2 Peter 2:1). John wrote that even in his day "many false prophets have gone out into the world" (1 John 4:1). He also reveals the power behind this great deception—"Satan, who deceives the whole world" (Revelation 12:9).
Some two billion people claim to be Christian. Yet they are divided among thousands of churches and denominations, all claiming to follow Jesus Christ even while they hold to a bewildering variety of contradicting beliefs and practices. Is this the Christianity of the Bible, or is it part of the religious deception and confusion Christ Himself foretold? (For further information, be sure to request or download your free copy of the booklet The Church Jesus Built .)
Wars and rumors of wars
World War I was supposed to be the war to end all wars, after it took 8 million lives. A generation later World War II claimed almost 10 times as many.
But what about other wars? Hundreds of thousands more have died since in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Bosnia, Rwanda, Somalia and other countries. Although most rarely made the news, 20 to 30 wars raged at any given time in the late 20th century.
According to some estimates, wars in the 20th century alone killed more people than all earlier wars combined.
When the Japanese city of Hiroshima was destroyed by an atomic bomb on Aug. 6, 1945, the commander of the B-29 that carried the deadly payload wielded the power to destroy a medium-sized city. Today the commander of a single nuclear submarine oversees enough destructive power to vaporize more than 150 large cities—quite enough to bring several countries to their knees.
Dozens of such submarines bristling with nuclear weapons prowl the oceans, and that number doesn't begin to include the nuclear warheads that can be rained from other warships, aircraft, artillery and silo or trailer-launched missiles. Jesus said that world conditions at the time of the end would be so menacing that "no living thing could survive" unless He returned (Matthew 24:21-22, REB). Only within recent decades has mankind held the enormous destructive capability to literally exterminate all human life many times over.
What will the last great war before Christ's return bring? According to Jesus Christ's revelation to John (Revelation 9:13-18), well over a billion people will be slaughtered. With the development in recent decades of terrifying arsenals of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, such staggering casualties are now a sobering possibility.
You may remember the headlines of the 1960s and 1970s, when drought and exploding populations led to the starvation of hundreds of thousands in India and Africa. Later we learned that millions had died in China, the Soviet Union, Cambodia and Ethiopia during war's aftermath and communist takeovers in those countries.
Famine doesn't have to be caused strictly by natural conditions; human beings have been shown to be capable of producing their own famines through ill-founded ideologies, policies and practices. Famine is also a natural consequence of disrupted economies, transportation and normal agricultural cycles during times of war.
Widespread famines have taken hundreds of thousands of lives in African countries in recent years. It appears to be only a matter of time before a surging world population produces another round of drastic food shortages. In the last century alone the world population quadrupled to more than 6 billion. Some 80 million new people are being added every year, with another billion people expected to be added every decade.
If the rate of growth continues, the global population will double again in 50 years. What troubles many world leaders and organizations is that most of this growth will occur in countries least able to provide food, shelter and clothing for a flood of new arrivals. With so many new mouths to feed, starvation—and accompanying social disruption—will inevitably spread.
The situation is so tenuous that weather disruptions in food-producing areas could bring immediate food shortages. An often-overlooked factor in weather patterns is the relationship between people and God.
We have lost sight of the fact that God sometimes intervenes in the weather to bless or curse peoples according to their attitudes and behavior. King Solomon understood this when he prayed: "When the heavens are shut up and there is no rain because [the people] have sinned against You, when they pray toward this place and confess Your name, and turn from their sin because You afflict them, then hear in heaven, and forgive the sin of Your servants, Your people Israel, that You may teach them the good way in which they should walk; and send rain on Your land which You have given to Your people as an inheritance" (1 Kings 8:35-36).
As people's behavior continues to degenerate as the time of the end approaches, other prophecies indicate that drastic changes in weather patterns—and resulting famines—are a tool God will use to get the attention of an increasingly rebellious humanity.
Medical researchers have been shocked by a growing development in recent years—the sudden emergence of baffling new diseases and epidemics. AIDS has garnered the most headlines—and rightfully so, since it has devastated entire countries and in sheer numbers has claimed more lives than the Black Death that devastated medieval Europe.
AIDS is only one of the incurable plagues that worry governments and scientists. The exotic-sounding names of such killers as Legionnaires' disease, Lassa fever, hantavirus, Machupo virus and Ebola belie their deadliness. Some of these have resisted treatment or cure simply because they spread so fast and kill so quickly that scientists are unable to study how they are transmitted.
Equally frightening is the emergence of drug-resistant strains of old scourges such as tuberculosis, bubonic plague and some common bacteria. Other diseases once thought conquered—including malaria and cholera—are springing to life with deadly vengeance. Lest we forget, an unusual strain of influenza killed 20 million people in a worldwide epidemic in 1918 and 1919, taking more lives than were lost on the battlefields of World War I.
The 20th century saw skyrocketing rates of diseases rooted in human behavior, diet and other environmental factors—cancers, sexually transmissible diseases, diabetes, heart disease and cirrhosis of the liver, to name a few.
If these were not enough, keep in mind that the breakdown in the social structure that inevitably results from war and famine will no doubt lead to massive and widespread epidemics. Chemical and biological weapons—such as smallpox and anthrax—are another possibility when we consider how biblical prophecies may be fulfilled.
Earthquakes in various places
Only in recent decades have scientists understood the underlying causes of earthquakes. The crust of the earth, they have discovered, is like a cracked eggshell encasing an interior of liquid magma. The giant pieces of earth's shell slowly move as they float on the magma. Where the pieces grind against each other, earthquakes and massive volcanoes periodically rock the earth.
Earthquake zones include some of the most densely populated areas of the world—including much of the U.S. West Coast, Italy, southeastern Europe, Turkey, the Philippines, Taiwan, Indonesia and Japan.
Are earthquakes increasing? It's difficult to make long-term comparisons since modern seismographs have been in use for only just over a century. The Richter scale, which gauges earthquake magnitude, dates only to 1935. Also, far more sensitive instruments are in place today, so many earthquakes are detected that would have gone undocumented in earlier years.
Even so, records from the U.S. National Earthquake Information Center identify more than 20 quakes in the 20th century that each killed 10,000 or more people, including some monster quakes that took more than 100,000 lives each. Well over a million people have died in earthquakes in the last 100 years.
Literally thousands of earthquakes occur daily, although most are so minor they are detected only by instruments. However, almost 1,000 moderate to strong earthquakes (5.0 to 6.9 on the Richter scale) shake our planet in an average year, plus an average of 18 major quakes (7.0 to 7.9) and one massive quake of 8.0 or higher. Jesus Christ's prediction of "earthquakes in various places" certainly describes our time.
Remember, though, that Jesus said "all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet … All these are the beginning of sorrows" (Matthew 24:6-8). The many tragedies we see around us are chilling reminders of Christ's words and a foretaste of even greater catastrophes yet to come.
As a result of these terrible things, some of those who survive and remain will eventually be humbled enough to finally repent and accept our Creator's promise of a bright future in the world beyond our age. Only then will the age-old prophecies of a utopian world of peace and plenty find their fulfillment.