There is never a lack of interest in the “end times.” People with little to no religious background seem just as interested in the questions surrounding the end of the world as those who have fervent belief. Just as there is no lack of interest in the end times, there is also no lack of competing theories and ideas about exactly how and when the end of time will come. But what does the Bible really teach about the “end times”?
You have probably heard stories about one world governments, the “Antichrist,” the “rapture,” and things like these. Some people have made a lot of money writing books about these subjects. The stories are imaginative; many Scriptures are cited and supposedly interpreted. And yet such stories are not consistent with the story of God and His Kingdom taught in the New Testament.
The “end times,” according to the New Testament, is the final age; according to Hebrews 1:2, we live in those times, the days in which God has spoken to us in His Son. We are given no reason to look forward to another epoch in which we will receive further revelation; what can be known about living in Christ has already been made known by Jesus through His Apostles (cf. Jude 1:3).
Yet when will be the end of the age, and what will happen at that time? These questions have been asked time and time again. Jesus and the Apostles gave answers to these questions in passages such as Matthew 24:36-25:46, Romans 2:5-11, 8:17-23, 1 Corinthians 15:1-48, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:11, 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9, 2 Peter 3:1-13, Revelation 20:11-22:6, and some others.
Contrary to popular expectations, no specific timeframe is given; in fact, the only certainty we have about the time is that it comes when it is unexpected. We will not know the day or the hour; Jesus will return as “a thief in the night,” at a time and in a way that the majority do not expect (Matthew 24:36-51, 1 Thessalonians 5:1-10, 2 Peter 3:8-10). We have no indication that there will be a specific seven year period that features a “rapture” and a “tribulation” as is often claimed.
In the parable of the virgins Jesus provided a hint that His return will take longer than many expect and would exhaust the patience of some (Matthew 25:1-13); Peter encouraged Christians to remain firm in their faith despite what they might perceive as a delay, since God’s patience in this matter was for their salvation (2 Peter 3:8-15). Two thousand years is a long time in our perspective; to God, it is not. If anything, Jesus and the Apostles testified regarding how things would continue in many respects as they had. Nations would rise and fall; rulers would act in depraved ways and be overthrown. John’s vision in Revelation can profitably be read as God’s judgment against the Roman authorities extended over a few hundred year period, followed by a long time of indefinite duration in which Satan is restricted (cf. Revelation 1:1-20:10). We should not be troubled by the amount of time which has passed between the Lord’s ascension and the present moment.
Jesus, Paul, and Peter have spoken of the day of the Lord’s return and the events which would transpire therein. Jesus will return as He departed: from the heavens (cf. Acts 1:11, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17). Paul indicates that believers will meet Jesus in the air; many assume that demands all will then ascend to the heavens, but Paul literally left everyone hanging in the text in 1 Thessalonians 4:17. The term used for “meet” more likely means believers will escort Him to the earth (cf. Acts 28:15). Thus indeed we will always be with the Lord (1 Thessalonians 4:18).
Paul expected the moment of resurrection to take place right before Christians met the Lord Jesus in the air (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18). The dead in Christ would rise first: the souls of the faithful who had rested in heaven with the Lord would be reunited with flesh which God would reconstitute, and it would then be transformed for immortality, demanded by the concept of resurrection in John 5:28-29, Philippians 3:21, and elaborated upon in 1 Corinthians 15:1-48. We will thus not only be with the Lord, but we will be fully like Him for eternity (1 John 3:1-3).
On that day the Lord Jesus returns in triumph to the earth for judgment (Matthew 25:31-46). Everyone will stand before the judgment seat of God in Christ and receive the due consequence of their works: for those who are found to be the obedient servants of God in Christ, eternal life; for those who are found to be disobedient, condemnation (cf. Matthew 25:31-46, Romans 2:5-11, 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9, Revelation 20:11-15).
At this point the creation will be redeemed from its subjection to sin and death; it will be purged through fire, leading to the new heavens and the new earth (Romans 8:17-23, 2 Peter 3:1-13, Revelation 21:1-22:6). What Paul made known in Romans 8:17-23 regarding the redemption of the creation from corruption is held in tension with what Peter made known in 2 Peter 3:1-13 regarding the purgation of the creation by fire. The fire may be redemptive, not truly eliminating the creation but cleansing it from sin and death; the fire may lead to destruction on an elemental level, after which God will create all things new in righteousness. Either way we will maintain the heritage of the present creation in our transformed resurrection bodies, as with the Lord.
Life in the “new heavens” and “new earth” is the life in glory and peace in God. The people of God will receive the glory of God as Paul promised in Romans 8:17-18 and 2 Corinthians 4:17; John saw the people of God thus glorified, and the only word picture which could do it any justice was to see a jewel-encrusted city bedecked in gold and every precious thing (Revelation 21:9-21). The people of God will no longer need to depend on what God gives; they will obtain the ultimate goal of all life, the presence of God: God will dwell in their midst; they will be His people, and He will be their God (Revelation 21:3). They will no longer suffer any more pain, distress, grief, or suffering, for the former things had passed away; they now live in the light of the Son, sharing in the delights of God’s righteous creation, sustained by the water of life and the tree of life with leaves that heal the nations (Revelation 21:1-22:6). The original purposes of the Creator for His creation are restored; mankind lives in relational unity with God and one another as God maintains within Himself, and the creation is redeemed from its subjection to futility (cf. John 17:20-23, Romans 8:19-23).
This is the picture we obtain from Scripture regarding what will happen when the “end times” have their final consummation at the return of Jesus Christ. While it may not have the flair for the dramatic of many other presentations, it maintains consistency with the whole of the message of the New Testament and God’s purposes in reconciling His creation to Himself.
How, then, shall we live? Many people have put much time and energy into attempting to ascertain the exact time and sequence of Jesus’ return. In the end, however, such is futile, for we will not know the day or the hour (Matthew 25:13). Nevertheless, God does not expect us to live in suspended animation. Since Jesus’ return will be sudden and may take many unawares, God’s counsel is quite clear: be ready (Matthew 25:1-13, 1 Thessalonians 5:1-10, 2 Peter 3:10-13, Revelation 22:7, 12). We must live our lives as faithful servants of God, always prepared to meet Him, for we do not know whether we will continue to live beyond this breath (James 4:14) or precisely when the Lord shall return. It might well take longer than we originally imagined; we must be prepared whether He returns quickly, or whether we must endure for a longer season (Matthew 25:1-30). Let us not be deceived into thinking we are assured plenty of time, certain things must take place before Jesus returns, or even that we need not maintain much more patience, for the Scriptures do not so teach. He could return at any moment; or He may not return for many years. Do we live in the Lord so that whether we live or whether we die, we will remain in the Lord?
Ethan R. Longhenry