In the nearly 2,000 years since the apostle John was given the visions of Jesus Christ’s return in the book of Revelation, generations have come and gone and humanity still survives. Jesus has not returned to set up His Father’s Kingdom.
The popularity of the Left Behind series of novels and movies, based on two authors’ views of the events leading to Christ’s return, is testimony to the present fascination with the time of the end.
Theologians, scholars, evangelicals, fundamentalists and science-fiction buffs debate the exact interpretation of biblical prophecy—especially the imagery in the book of Revelation.
Newsweek reports that while 36 percent of Americans believe the book of Revelation contains actual prophecies concerning the future, 47 percent believe that it is not to be taken as a portrayal of actual events to come. Even fewer in Europe know of the existence of the book of Revelation!
Meanwhile, skeptics like to suggest that the signs of the end foretold in the Bible are simply common conditions that have existed at all times.
They point out that we have always seen wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes and disease epidemics—events foretold by Jesus in His most detailed prophecy (Matthew 24; Mark 13; Luke 21).
The wars and bubonic plague of the Middle Ages, the Great Depression, the Holocaust and the massive devastation of World War II were all cataclysmic times that some heralded as the end of the world. In the 1800s, the Adventist movement in the United States formed around the belief that Jesus was returning in the year 1844. Yet here we are. Time goes on.
Jesus Christ’s prophecies of the end time
In Jesus’ prophecy just mentioned, He foretold increasing troubles leading to great cataclysmic events preceding His return. These final events haven’t yet occurred. In fact, their completion has only become possible in the past few decades.
Three major prophetic events have yet to happen that could not have come about until developments in modern times. Let’s briefly consider them.
1. The gospel will be preached to all the world.
In Matthew 24, Jesus tells of wars, disease epidemics, earthquakes and the persecution of His followers. In verse 14 He said, “And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come.”
Jesus sent His disciples to spread the gospel throughout the Roman Empire. But they never reached the entire world. In the centuries since, the gospel message brought by Christ has at times been almost extinguished, a small flicker of light in a dark world.
The printing press, which opened the Bible to millions of people in common languages, and the creation of mass media and modern communications have only recently made the fulfillment of this prophecy possible.
2. Conditions so bad that, apart from God’s intervention, humanity would be destroyed.
Jesus makes some astounding statements in Matthew 24:21-22 Matthew 24:21-22 21 For then shall be great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be.
22 And except those days should be shortened, there should no flesh be saved: but for the elect’s sake those days shall be shortened.
American King James Version×. He says that the time before His return will be so chaotic and terrible that it will be like no other time in history. He also says that if He did not then return, “no flesh would be saved”—human life on earth would be extinguished.
Humanity has experienced terrible calamities, both natural and man-made, over the course of history. The Jewish people of Jesus’ time suffered a national disaster in A.D. 70 when the Romans sacked and destroyed Jerusalem. According to contemporary accounts, more than a million people died.
Yet these events pale when compared to the millions who died from the wars and plague that racked Europe in the 14th century, or the suffering and death of the First World War and the flu epidemic that followed, or the 50 million who died in World War II. Even then, self-annihilation of humanity wasn’t possible until the creation and stockpiling of nuclear and biological weapons. It was simply impossible to kill off humanity with spears and swords, flintlock rifles or even machine guns, tanks and 1,000-pound bombs.
Only after scientists discovered the awesome energy released by splitting the atom did it become possible to kill every living thing on the planet. Today, apart from nuclear stockpiles, there are also enough biological weapons stored around the world to kill more people than all the plagues in history.
3. The reinstitution of sacrifices in Jerusalem.
In Matthew 24:15-19 Matthew 24:15-19 15 When you therefore shall see the abomination of desolation, spoken of by Daniel the prophet, stand in the holy place, (whoever reads, let him understand:)
16 Then let them which be in Judaea flee into the mountains:
17 Let him which is on the housetop not come down to take any thing out of his house:
18 Neither let him which is in the field return back to take his clothes.
19 And woe to them that are with child, and to them that give suck in those days!
American King James Version×, Jesus warns that when we see the “ ‘abomination of desolation’ . . . standing in the holy place,” then we’ll know the end is very near. The holy place is associated with the historic temple that existed in Jerusalem, which was symbolic of the throne of God. “Holy” intimates God’s presence.
Biblical prophecy often has a former and latter fulfillment, meaning that a particular prophecy is fulfilled more than once. Typically the events first happen in a limited way and then later in a more complete way.
Some prophecies have several limited fulfillments. The Jewish people of Jesus’ day experienced a limited fulfillment of this prophecy with the destruction of their holy temple and altar in Jerusalem. But this passage is given in the context of verses 21-22, which foretell a time like no other in history—a time when, as mentioned above, humanity could literally become extinct.
Following the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, the Jewish people were scattered throughout the Middle East, Europe and eventually the New World . Generations of their descendants longed to return to a Jewish homeland and to reestablish the temple in honor of the God of the Hebrew Scriptures.
Only with the establishment of a Jewish state in 1948 and with the capture of Jerusalem in the 1967 Six-Day War did the reinstitution of sacrifices become possible.
The prophet Daniel has foretold that, before the coming of the Messiah, sacrifices will be reestablished in Jerusalem (Daniel 12:11 Daniel 12:11And from the time that the daily sacrifice shall be taken away, and the abomination that makes desolate set up, there shall be a thousand two hundred and ninety days.
American King James Version×). This requires a Jewish presence and control of that city. This wasn’t possible in the year 1000, during the Reformation or even in 1940. But today, with the establishment of the modern state of Israel, it is at last possible for this prophecy to be fulfilled.
The good news
In all the years of human history, we are the first people living in a time when these events can come to pass. The time before Christ’s return will be worse than the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, worse than the events of the 14th century that killed between 25 and 30 percent of Europe’s population, and worse than the First and Second World Wars of the 20th century. The good news is that Jesus Himself promises to return and save us from ourselves.
Christ’s return won’t be like His first coming as a crucified Savior, but with such power and glory that all peoples of all nations will see Him. At that time all peoples will hear the trumpet announcement of the King of Kings who will then establish His Father’s Kingdom—the Kingdom of God—over all the earth. GN