Every human being today lives at the nexus of the old and the new. The “end times” are already and not yet. Like the Early Church, we find ourselves living in that tension of “realization and expectation.”2The question of whether we are living in the last days is answered without the slightest vagueness by the New Testament authors: “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son” (Hebrews 1:2).
“God chose him as your ransom long before the world began, but he has now revealed him to you in these last days” (1 Peter 1:20 NLT).
Learning to live in the tension of “the already and the not yet” of the End Times is no blind faith to be taken lightly, but rather faithful living to be cultivated prayerfully. For Advent, the best lived-in description of discussing the End Times—is a season of waiting. And waiting is not what we do best.
The stilled, Simeon-like posture of simple believers waiting on the Lord is too often juxtaposed with multi-million-dollar bestsellers with kitschy covers of the Apocalypse. Somewhere between the unbridled extremes of neglect and mania lies the unpretentious truth of an ancient memorial acclamation from the liturgy of the Eastern Church: “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.”3 That singular and early memorial is often recited today in Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian, and other Protestant congregations, as well as in Roman Catholic and Orthodox communities. Millions recite the words, “Christ has come. Christ will come again.”4 Millions more distort, ignore, or forget the meaning of the words. The old saying sounds simple, sane, and certain; because it is. But the extremes too often get the headlines and in doing so cloud the otherwise clear Biblical truth for others.
In one extreme corner are the cynics, the unconcerned, and the unmovable. They are like the aging protagonist in Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin: “But why bother about the end of the world? It is the end of the world every day, for someone.” With all due regard to the character in Mrs. Atwood’s novel, this que sera, sera attitude is part of Peter’s warning to the Church: “Above all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires” (2 Peter 3:3 NIV). Then, in the other corner, there are sensationalists, who use the “End Times” like stolen Bitcoins for buying publicity to convert their obscurity into spectacle. One late, infamous, modern-day diviner-of-dates sadly deluded into thinking that he had “inside information” on how to use “Biblical mathematics,” predicted the end of the world “no fewer than 12 times.”5 There is no delight in taunting his tall tales; only pity.
But what does the Bible say about the End Times? The little memorial affirmation of faith — “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again”— is at once simple, satisfying, and correct.6 But let us examine the depth of that confession by carefully answering common questions surrounding the Last Days or End Times.
What Do the Words “End Times” Mean in Scripture?
One contemporary evangelical theologian gave a succinct response to the meaning of the “end times” or “last days” as used in the Holy Scriptures:
“The end-time period surrounding Jesus’ second coming is variously called the last times, last hour, last days, day of the Lord, day of judgment, day of Gods wrath, time of punishment, end of the ages, end of all things. The temporal finality of these expressions highlights the firm New Testament belief that the present course of history will come to an end when Jesus returns. The certainty of the first advent guarantees the certainty of the second (Acts 1:7).7
Bible scholars agree that the Early Church adopted the simple framework of “apocalyptic dualism.” Apocalyptic dualism, a fancy phrase for a plain teaching, means Jesus Christ comes to earth twice. His first Advent brought a New Covenant. The Second Advent will bring a New World. Thus, once the first coming was accomplished, the Second Coming is awaited. Such a position is consistent with Scripture. To wit, “Yes, we live in the last days and we have been since Christ returned to Heaven.” No less than the Lord, the Holy Spirit, through the inspired writers of the Old and New Testaments, declares that we are in those last days now. The Apostles Paul, Peter, and the writer to the Hebrews, each support the other in saying that the resurrection and ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ inaugurated the end of days.
Key Bible Passages
One must be careful in “rightly dividing the Word” when considering Old Testament teaching on the End Times or Last Days. The writer could be prophesying about the first or second Advent of the Messiah. Two good examples of this are Daniel and Joel. Daniel is an apocalyptic book—that is, a genre of Biblical literature that dispatches imagery, mystery, and symbolism to speak of the end times, or the latter days. The prophet Joel is an Old Testament book that not only speaks to the last days before the end of the world but signals that the last days begin with the Spirit-inaugurated event after Jesus’ ascension. How do we know that? Peter interprets Joel 2:28 in his sermon at Pentecost by applying its truth to that moment:
“And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams” (Acts 2:17 ESV).
Again, for Peter, in Acts 2:17, we are in the end times. This passage is important to unlocking the language of the Bible about the end times. New Testament insight is necessary to interpret the Old. Old Testament prophecy gives appreciation for the Plan of God across the Ages.
So, let us focus on a few of the many passages that teach us about the end times.
The Teaching of Jesus
Mark 13 is arguably one of the most vital passages for understanding the last days or end times. In it Jesus moves, sometimes in the same sentence, between speaking of the last days as referring to the destruction of Jerusalem (AD 70, sacked by Rome) and His Second Coming.
“’Do you see these huge buildings?’ Jesus asked. ‘Not one stone here will be left on top of another. Every stone will be thrown down’” (Mark 13:2 ESV).
“You will hear about wars. You will also hear people talking about future wars. Don’t be alarmed. Those things must happen. But the end still isn’t here. Nation will fight against nation. Kingdom will fight against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in many places. People will go hungry. All of those things are the beginning of birth pains” (Mark 13:7, 8 ESV).
There is an ebb and flow to the message that should bring humility to the believer in such matters. God knows the timing. We don’t. Yet, the era between the First Advent and the Second Advent of Jesus is marked by precisely what we see today (and throughout history): deceitful pretender-messiahs who claim to know the date!
“Many will come in my name. They will claim, ‘I am he.’ They will fool many people” (Mark 13:6 ESV).
“At that time someone may say to you, ‘Look! Here is the Christ!’ Or, ‘Look! There he is!’ Do not believe it. False Christs and false prophets will appear. They will do signs and miracles. They will try to fool God’s chosen people if possible. Keep watch! I have told you everything ahead of time” (Mark 13:21-23 ESV).
Jesus shows in Mark 13 that we are in the end times. We do not know where we are on that continuum. But we know that various disruptions of the heavens and the earth, continuing catastrophic events will happen, but we are not to be caught like a deer in the headlight by such incidents. But there is a sign. If the end times begin with the inauguration of the missionary activity of the Church at Pentecost, it also will be consummated by the successful preaching of the Gospel to all nations. Then the end will come (Mark 13:10).
The Apostles’ Teaching
As we have noted, the writer to the Hebrews and the Apostle Peter teach that we are now in the last days. In like manner, St. Paul wrote to his protégé, Pastor Timothy, that he was ministering at Ephesus in the last days. When Paul instructed the young pastor about “the last days,” he was not referencing some future date that Timothy would never see. Paul was warning Timothy that the last days were here: “But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty” (2 Timothy 3:1).
What Is the Rapture?
One of the most interesting developments in the history of the Church has been the concept of the Church being secretly removed from the earth. While a millenarian impulse (a literal one-thousand-year reign of Jesus Christ upon the earth, in the presence of sin, and a final rebellion by Satan) has been a minority strain of eschatology (the study of the last things) in the Church’s history, the concept of a secret rapture is relatively new.8 The doctrine (and the English word used to describe it) emerged from a study of 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. There Paul is speaking pastorally to believers about the state of those who have died in faith and the Second Coming of Christ. Rather than a speculative, sensational presentation of a secret removal of believers, the miraculous revelation is “one of the loudest verses in the Bible.”9 The passage in question reads:
“But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this, we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words” (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 ESV).
For most of church history, the passage sought to bring comfort to those who were awaiting the coming of Christ. In the nineteenth century, John Nelson Darby (1800–1882), an Irish lawyer-turned-priest-turned-entrepreneur, became increasingly involved with the development of a “highly distinctive” ecclesiology and a complex system of eschatology. With an emphasis upon “Futurism” (the study of how events are destined to create a certain future that can be known and prepared for), Darby developed a doctrinal framework that became known as “Dispensationalism.”10While there is no scholarly biography on the Irish religious leader (he did not believe in “clergy” or ordained ministers in the Church), it is safe to say that through his booklets and pamphlets his cryptic system of the future that included an arbitrary division of history outlasted his own life and, undoubtedly, became more popular in the United States and Canada than it ever was in the British Isles.11 Nevertheless, the teaching of 1 Thessalonians 4 certainly includes a sudden appearance of the Lord Jesus and a reanimation and miraculous resurrection of those who have died in Christ, followed by those who are alive at His coming.
The case of the “rapture” and the various eschatological schools of thought tend to reveal the mystery rather than clarity. Much unnecessary division has come upon the Church because of placing schools of interpretation above love. However, all agree to the essential truth—once more to our ancient phrase—Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.
Revelation, the Antichrist, The Man of Sin, the Beast, and 666
There are, of course, other important matters revealed in the Bible about these last days. The “Man of Sin,” the Antichrist, the “many antichrists,” the Beast, and other apocalyptic persons and images. These all remind us that the letters, e.g., 2 Thessalonians and The Revelation of Jesus Christ to the Apostle John, were written to real people facing menacing powers that threatened their lives, that threatened the Body of Christ in the world. The beastly powers of Statism (the tyrannical rule of human government denying the God-given rights of people)—with the dictatorial the “mark of the Beast (“666” or “never 7, never 7, never 7”; the Hebrew word for the number seven being the word marking the completion, the resting, of God from creating the cosmos; 666 is “always man, always man, never God’s”).12 Each and all have meaning, to those under persecution then and now. The symbols move before us in Scripture like a reel on fast-forward. But the background is still and clear: He came. He’s coming again. The return of Jesus is the next great event in the unfolding drama of the ages. That is where we are today.
How Shall We Then Wait?
The cross of Christ is the supreme sign staked out by God Himself in the historical pathways of this old world. There was life before Christ, anticipating His first Advent. There is life after Christ—anno Domini, in the Year of our Lord—not only awaiting His Second Advent, but actively fulfilling God’s mission in the world. The entire epic of redemption in the coming of the God-Man, Jesus of Nazareth — His life lived for us, His sacrificial death on the cross for us, His burial, resurrection, appearances, ascension, and the Holy Spirit coming upon the disciples gathered in the Upper Room, catapulting the Kingdom of Christ unto the ends of the earth—inaugurated the final act in the Plan for a New Heaven and a New Earth. We must faithfully seek answers to our questions about the last days in the larger cosmic context of the panorama of redemption. Rather than quarreling over the sequence, details, and apocalyptic imagery designed to say, “whatever you think, it’s greater than that,” we are called to just wait. To borrow a title from Lewis, the End Times is “Mere Waiting.” Holy Waiting. But holy waiting is not passive. Holy waiting is active: living the Gospel, teaching the Gospel, and proclaiming the Gospel, so that there will be a multitude of souls safe in the arms of Jesus when He comes again. To wait by working in the Temples of our lives we fulfill God’s mission. And it is true:
“Mission is not primarily an activity of the church, but an attribute of God. God is a missionary God . . .”
When are the End Times? We have always lived in the End Times. Each day is a sacred gift of life at the nexus of time and eternity. We are called to receive the gift of this day, not in futile speculation, but in bowed doxological humility. As C.S. Lewis wrote,
“Now, today, this moment, is our chance to choose the right side. God is holding back to give us that chance. It will not last forever. We must take it or leave it.”14
And sometimes we are so thrilled with the glorious vision of “Paradise Regained,” that we can’t help but whisper a prayer as we witness the morning sun painting the eastern skies: “Even so, come, Lord Jesus.”
Michael A. Milton, PhD (University of Wales; MPA, UNC Chapel Hill; MDiv, Knox Seminary), Dr. Milton is a retired seminary chancellor and currently serves as the James Ragsdale Chair of Missions at Erskine Theological Seminary. He is the President of Faith for Living and the D. James Kennedy Institute a long-time Presbyterian minister, and Chaplain (Colonel) USA-R. Dr. Milton is the author of more than thirty books and a musician with five albums released. Mike and his wife, Mae, reside in North Carolina.