For centuries people have read the Bible and concluded that the world will come to an end. But will it? If so, how? What do the Scriptures teach about the end of the world?
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Nearly two millennia ago the disciples of Jesus of Nazareth asked Him a question that has intrigued people ever since: "What shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world?" (Matthew:24:3, King James Version).
People in every generation since have wondered about this. Will the world literally end? If so, how? Why? And when? What does the Bible really say about this crucial and disturbing question?
Religious people aren't the only ones asking these questions. In recent decades people from many walks of life have expressed concern about the possibility of the end of the world as we know it. Politicians, educators and scientists foresee the potential destruction of our world from a number of causes —including nuclear warfare, environmental disaster, planetary pollution, overpopulation, killer diseases and collision with a comet or asteroid.
Potential devastation from the sky
Although some of these possibilities are unlikely, others present a real threat. Based on the increasing number of gigantic impact craters discovered in recent years, scientists believe that a collision between earth and a killer asteroid is inevitable.
What would be the result of such a violent encounter? "An asteroid only a kilometer across would create cosmic havoc by impacting on the earth," writes Michio Kaku, professor of theoretical physics at City College of New York. ". . . The shock wave would flatten much of the United States. If it hit the oceans, the tidal wave it created could be a mile high, enough to flood most coastal cities on earth" ( Visions: How Science Will Revolutionize the 21st Century , 1997, p. 317).
In 1908 a meteor or comet exploded over a remote area of Siberia. Though it was relatively small, with an estimated diameter of only about 50 yards, it flattened 1,000 square miles of forest, felling 80 million trees. The energy released by that celestial missile is estimated to be about equal to that of a large hydrogen bomb. The resulting tremors were recorded as far away as London. (To learn how such events might tie in with Bible prophecy, see "Will Civilization End in Global Cataclysm? ")
The increasing nuclear threat
Experts generally agree that, of all possible means of destroying humanity, nuclear weapons pose the greatest threat.
And the genie cannot be put back in the bottle. Austrian theologian Ulrich Kortner put it this way: "The nuclear threat . . . constitutes not a temporary, but rather an irrevocable global threat . The actual possibility of an end to all life is now a constituent part of our reality" ( The End of the World: A Theological Interpretation , 1995, pp. 229-230, emphasis added).
Some sober scientists go even farther, saying that nuclear annihilation is inevitable. The late Carl Sagan, perhaps the world's best-known scientist before his death in 1996, wrote that "the development of nuclear weapons and their delivery systems will, sooner or later, lead to global disaster" ( Cosmos , 1980, p. 328).
With the Cold War ended, the probability of all-out nuclear war between countries has lessened for the time being, but the continuing addition of more nations to the nuclear club ratchets the threat back upward.
If North Korea has successfully developed nuclear weapons—as it has strongly hinted it has done—the nuclear club of nations now totals 10. More than 50,000 nuclear weapons exist in the world, many in dangerously unstable places. No one dares dismiss the idea that terrorist groups, if they can get their hands on nuclear devices, will use them in pursuit of their deadly aims.
Optimistic scientists believe that, thanks to continuing discoveries in science and technology, the nations will realize they must cooperate and work together to develop a unified global civilization. However, admits Dr. Kaku, "in the background always lurks the possibility of a nuclear war, the outbreak of a deadly pandemic, or a collapse of the environment" (p. 19).
Is time running out?
Reagan expressed concern that Armageddon may occur in our generation. His defense secretary, Casper Weinberger, observed: "I believe the world is going to end—by an act of God, I hope—but every day I think time is running out" (quoted by Reginald Stackhouse, The End of the World , 1997, p. viii).
Former French president Valery Giscard d'Estaing commented on the state of humanity: "The world is unhappy because it doesn't know where it is going and because it senses that, if it knew, it would discover that it was heading for disaster" (ibid.).
Former U.S. vice president Al Gore speculated on the longevity of the world: "Two world wars, the Holocaust, the invention of nuclear weapons, and now the global environmental crisis have led many of us to wonder if survival . . . is possible" ( Earth in the Balance , 1992, p. 366).
Indeed, experts from many fields share the concern that we could see the end of civilization as we know it. These concerns have created an age of anxiety, especially in a world where so little seems certain anymore.
Many others, however, say there is no need to be concerned about the world ending. They point to epidemics of end-time panic that have raged in the past. They list many failed past predictions regarding the end of the world.
Such criticism is justified to a point. Doomsday predictions have abounded for centuries; date-setters have been wrong many times. The problem with most of these prognostications was that, though well intentioned, the specific chronological details were the ideas of men who badly misinterpreted information in Scripture.
Is there a source to which we can go for reliable information? There is! That one reliable source is the Bible—what it really says. Many people today have a vague idea that the Bible says something about the end of the world. Does it? Most certainly!
The end of an age
Although we do not know the time, one thing we know for sure is that the Bible prophesies the end of the world as we know it. But what does that mean?
When Jesus'disciples asked Him about "the end of the world," they weren't talking about "world" in the sense of our physical planet, the earth. The Greek word translated "world" is aion , from which we get the English word eon . The two mean essentially the same thing—an age, an epoch, an era .
Christ's followers well knew the many prophecies of the Old Testament that foretell the coming age of the Messiah. Our present time, the time of human rule on earth under the deceptive sway of Satan (1 John:5:19), is described by the apostle Paul as "this present evil age" (Galatians:1:4).
Another Greek word translated "world" in the New Testament is kosmos , which denotes the ordered world around us—that is, not the physical planet we live on but man's society and geopolitical dominion. This is what will end.
Paul and the other apostles understood that, at the end of this age, man's corrupt civilization will be swept away and a new era will dawn at the return of Christ. Peter described this change as one in which "times of refreshing" will come from God the Father through Jesus, who will return from heaven when "the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets" (Acts:3:19-21, New International Version).
This transition from man's mis rule—which is, in reality, the unrecognized rule of Satan—to Christ's divine reign in the Kingdom of God was at the heart of the messages of the biblical prophets as well as the gospel Jesus taught. (For more information, request our free booklets The Gospel of the Kingdom and Is There Really a Devil? )
Scripture proclaims that the present age—the civilization and societies we know today—will terminate in a cascade of unimaginable destruction and violence that will climax at the return of Christ. In the New Testament alone, more than 300 verses refer to these events.
Signs of the end time
When Jesus' disciples asked about the end of the age (Matthew:24:3), He responded by listing several warning signs. The first would be massive religious deception, including religious teachers who, while claiming to represent Him, would not follow His teachings but would deceive many through a counterfeit Christianity.
He also said there would be many wars and other conflicts between nations and ethnic groups. He also spoke of famines,massive disease epidemics and earthquakes.
The problem with trying to precisely predict the end from these signs is that these trends and conditions have been with us in varying degrees from the first century until now. This helps explain why end-time fervor has arisen repeatedly for two millennia.
Many believe that man's development of modern weaponry with the ability to annihilate human life is a sure sign of the last days. As for this destructive potential being a sign of the end, Jesus did say that "if that time of troubles were not cut short, no living thing could survive " (Matthew:24:22, Revised English Bible, emphasis added throughout).
Our awesome scientific and technological advancements have bequeathed to this and future generations a heritage over which hangs the ultimate sword of Damocles. Indeed, without miraculous intervention from God the human race has no assurance of survival.
However, we should realize the sobering fact that, no matter when the end of the age comes, people will be living at that time who will dispute the possibility of the world ending. Under inspiration of God, the apostle Peter tells us that "scoffers will come in the last days, walking according to their own lusts, and saying, 'Where is the promise of His coming?'" (2 Peter:3:3-4).
Regardless of when it occurs, there will be people who express disdain even as the very time approaches. No matter how difficult things look, some will assure everyone that man has everything under control. Tragically, such assurances will do nothing but provide a false sense of security, leading people to foolishly continue to trust in human ability rather than in God.
As the end approaches
However long it is until the actual end of the age, one theme the biblical writers emphasized is that it draws nearer every day . Paul warns us that " now it is high time to awake out of sleep ; for now our salvation is nearer than when we first believed" (Romans:13:11).
And salvation is certainly important to keep in mind as everything falls to pieces around us. The end of the world as we know it, though it includes many catastrophes on a scale never seen in history, is not all bad news for mankind. It includes good news too. God will intervene before it is too late (Matthew:24:21-22). The alternative is not only the destruction of human civilization but the annihilation of the human race itself.
The only wise action for anyone who understands what is coming is to turn to God with repentance and obedience (Acts:3:19). Indeed, "now [God] commands all people everywhere to repent . For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed [i.e., Jesus Christ]" (Acts:17:30-31, NIV).
When Jesus comes in power and glory, He will rebuke the world for its sins. This is part of the message proclaimed from the beginning of the true Christian Church. On the day of the Church's founding, the apostle Peter exhorted his audience, " Be saved from this perverse generation " (Acts:2:40).
This is the message the Church is still commissioned to proclaim. How were the people to be saved? Peter urged them to repent —to turn from their own sinful, selfish ways and to seek God's ways—and to be baptized (Acts:2:38). At His second coming Christ will reward those who do so.
Focus not on timing but preparation
It is not a question of whether the world—man's corrupt civilization—will end. God's Word says it will . Our chief concern should not be when it will end. Jesus said it would be impossible for men to precisely calculate this ahead of time (Matthew:24:36, 42, 44).
Instead, our main focus should be to seek God to be spiritually prepared for the times that are coming. "But keep on the alert at all times," said Jesus, "praying in order that you may have strength to escape all these things that are about to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man" (Luke:21:36, New American Standard Bible).
The Bible describes believers as living in a state of expectancy, in a state of tension, between two worlds. We live in the present world, which we know will end, while we look for the world to come with the return of Christ. "So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him" (Matthew:24:44, NIV).
We need to seek God in heartfelt repentance and faith, leading to baptism by God's true ministers so we can receive God's Spirit (Acts:2:37-39). Then we are to remain faithfully obedient while awaiting Jesus' return. For "he who endures to the end shall be saved" (Matthew:24:13).
Jesus never said the Christian calling would be easy. On the contrary, He said it would be challenging (Matthew:7:13-14). The reward, though, is great, far beyond anything we can imagine. GN