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Understanding End-Time Prophecies

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Is Bible prophecy something to be feared and avoided? Is it too complicated or too obscure to be meaningful in your life? Is it just myths and fables, or can it change your life today? You need to know!

Few subjects today generate more doubt, fear and confusion than this vital subject!

Ever since the development of nuclear weapons at the close of World War II, the world has lived under the menacing shadow of nuclear annihilation. The outbreak of international terrorism and the flare-up of hostilities in the Middle East have rekindled this threat. These fears are joined by concerns about epidemic diseases such as HIV-AIDS, cholera, drug-resistant tuberculosis and hemorrhagic fevers that can spread rapidly around the globe. At the same time, we are witnessing record-breaking droughts, fires, famines, and more extreme weather conditions—floods, hurricanes, tornados, earthquakes and tidal waves—that many associate with global climate change. Is there any significance to these concurrent and calamitous events?

Many "Bible-believing" people recognize a connection between today's news and the ancient "end-time" prophecies recorded in Scripture. Yet others, aware of so many self-styled prophets' failed prophecies and projections of the world's end, are skeptical about the significance of the Bible's end-time prophecies.

Theologians and academics often question and ridicule the accuracy and authenticity of Scripture, which only fans such skepticism. In addition, many today who say they believe in God do not know what the Bible actually says! So it is not surprising that many people are confused about what lies ahead.

Biblical Ignorance Prevails!

Studies show that many professing Christians cannot identify the first five books of the Bible, cannot remember any of the Ten Commandments, and cannot name the four Gospels or Jesus' twelve disciples (Religious Literacy, Prothero, pp. 1, 5, 30). The United States, one of the most openly religious nations in the world, has also been called "a nation of biblical illiterates." Given such scriptural ignorance, it is no surprise that many people today do not recognize the significance of world events that coincide with Bible prophecies about the end-times.

The problem is worsened by scholars and preachers who misinterpret and misapply Scripture, or who undermine its authority with their intellectual speculations. Even most churchgoers find that their preachers usually give Sunday morning sermons on "non-controversial" topics like love, forgiveness, faith and joy—and seldom or never mention the Bible's many prophetic books, because most pastors simply do not understand prophecy (End Times, Walvoord, p. v).

Yet 25 to 30 percent of the Bible is prophecy. Approximately 50 percent of all the biblical prophecies have been literally fulfilled—as history can document (ibid., p. 7). Another 50 percent—many relating to the "latter days" or "end-times"—have yet to be fulfilled. And those end-times increasingly resemble the times in which we are now living!

With so much of the Bible devoted to prophecy, why do most people fail to understand the many end-time prophecies? Why do theologians fail to make connections between ancient Bible prophecies and world events that are making news today? Why do preachers and religious teachers ignore or explain away important details of Bible prophecy? Why are people unaware that Scripture reveals where world events are leading in the years just ahead? Both the Bible and history provide important answers that you need to understand—because your future is at stake!

Apostles, Eccentrics and Skeptics

Concerns about "the end of the world" run deep in the roots of western civilization (see A Brief History of the End of the World, Pearson, p. 1). Two thousand years ago, Jesus' disciples asked Him, "What will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?" (Matthew 24:3). Jesus did not dismiss the question, nor did He say that He would return unexpectedly at any moment. Instead, He listed a series of specific events that would let His disciples know His return was near (see Matthew 24; Mark 13; Luke 21). The Apostle Paul described specific end-time events that would occur just before Jesus' return (see 2 Thessalonians 2; 1 Timothy 4:1–3; 2 Timothy 3, 4). The Apostle John was inspired to write the book of Revelation, which is a veritable outline of end-time events, building on the book of Daniel and the writings of other Old Testament prophets.

It is said of the book of Revelation, "the final book of the Christian Bible has probably had more influence on history and human behavior generally than any other single piece of writing… it has variously terrified and inspired millions over the last two thousand years" (Pearson, p. 19). Soon after John completed Revelation, self-appointed religious teachers began to distort and misapply this intriguing and outwardly mysterious book. In the second century ad, a charlatan named Montanus, claiming to be a reincarnation of the Holy Spirit, appeared in Asia Minor with two prophetesses. They would fall into trances, make ecstatic utterances and preach that the end of the world was near. Montanus, distorting Revelation 21, urged people to abandon their homes and gather at a certain village to await the arrival of the New Jerusalem. When Montanus' prophecies failed to occur, new dates were set as the movement spread across North Africa to Rome and Gaul (Pearson, pp. 75–79). Montanus was merely one of the first of many misguided individuals who misread and misjudged Bible prophecies about the end-times.

Through the centuries, religious movements heralding the end of the world spawned violence against others who did not share their views. Many misguided religious leaders have urged their followers to "eliminate" unbelievers to prepare the earth for the kingdom of God (Pearson, pp. 122–133). During the Middle Ages, popes in Rome launched the Crusades by preaching hatred against Muslims, Jews and dissenters from the Roman Church, in an attempt to regain control of the Holy Land, restore "Christian" unity and bring about their idea of the Kingdom of God on earth. Interestingly, self-proclaimed prophets and "messiahs" who required celibacy or strict sexual abstinence from their followers often took many wives for themselves as they prepared for the end of the world and the coming kingdom of God. Down through the ages, dozens of end-of-the-world dates have been set and re-set: 500ad, 666, 800, 1000, 1666, 1668, 1694, 1700, 1757, 1761, 1836 (proposed by John Wesley), 1844, 1975 and 2000—all supposedly based on Bible prophecies. Yet all these dates have come and gone, and the world is still here.

Speculations about the end of the world are not limited to "Christian" sources. The Mayan calendar predicts that the world will end on December 22, 2012 with the death of the sun (Pearson, p. 285). Pagan Norse sagas written in the tenth century contain vivid tales of how the world will end. Apocalyptic Jewish groups are busy today preparing to reinstitute sacrifices and temple worship in Jerusalem to hasten the return of the Messiah. Muslim extremists are willing to promote an East-West confrontation to hasten the return of the Mahdi who they believe will establish a worldwide caliphate in which everyone will be converted to the Muslim faith or be "eliminated" (Pearson, pp. 80–85). In today's environment, some consider the Bible's end-time prophecies dangerous, scary, delusional and intentionally provocative (see A History of the End of the World, Kirsch, pp. 1, 99, 103, 249).

Sanitizing the Biblical Text

Hoping to counter the literal use of biblical prophecy, early church leaders adopted novel strategies that are still with us today. Theologians such as Augustine (354–430ad) promoted the idea that "good Christians should not commit the error" of reading Bible prophecies literally, but instead must understand them "as an allegory rather than a plain depiction of what will actually happen when the world comes to an end" (Kirsch, p. 116). Religious leaders influenced by Greek philosophy saw Bible prophecies as symbols of the struggle between good and evil, not as descriptions of real events. Prophecies about Jesus Christ's millennial reign on the earth, assisted by the saints (see Revelation 20:4–6), were to be viewed as symbolic and not as a future reality. In Augustine's allegorical theology, the kingdom of God existed here and now as the Catholic Church—not as a future government Jesus Christ would establish at His return—though Augustine's view plainly contradicts Scripture (see Revelation 5:10; 11:15–18; Daniel 7:27)!

This allegorical method of interpreting biblical prophecy came out of Alexandria, a north African city, in the second century ad. It stands in stark contrast to the literal view of prophecy that the Church had accepted from its beginning (Walvoord, p. 9). Jesus' prophecy about the future destruction of the temple was literally fulfilled in 70ad—about 40 years after He spoke it—so early Christians had no reason to assume that His other prophecies about subsequent events, including His return and the end of this age, would be merely allegorical, not related to literal events (see Matthew 24:1–31). Remember, Jesus asked His disciples to "watch" for the events He described, so they would be prepared for His return (Matthew 24:32–44).

However, from about the fourth century onward, the Roman Catholic church adopted and actively promoted Augustine's allegorical views of prophecy. Gradually, the exciting literal message that had motivated the first Christians was rejected—first as an allegory and then as a heresy—by theologians in the Roman church (see The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Gibbon, chapter 15). The Roman church took as its dogma the idea that the church was the kingdom of God, described by allegory in Scripture. This allegorical view was accepted by many of the Protestant reformers, and continues today in many Protestant churches, as well as the Roman church. So it is no surprise that few today have any real understanding about the biblical details of literal end-time prophecies of the coming Kingdom of God.

One way early theologians undermined the plainly literal message of Bible prophecy was to cast doubt on the accuracy and authenticity of its major prophetic books. Early critics charged that the book of Daniel was written not by Daniel ca. 600bc, but rather by an imposter in the second century bc who was recording history—not prophecy—after the events had already occurred! Today's liberal scholars use similar arguments, even though they do not stand up under scrutiny. Jesus Himself said that the book of Daniel's prophecies were written by "Daniel the prophet" (Matthew 24:15; Mark 13:14). Copies of the book of Daniel were also found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, dated to the second century bc, which shows that the book was written long before (Walvoord, p. 105).

Similarly, a scholar studying a clay tablet in the British Museum recently made a discovery providing "dramatic proof of the accuracy of the Old Testament" (The Times, July 11, 2007). The name of King Nebuchadnezzar's chief eunuch was found on a clay tablet dated from 595bc—matching a name recorded in Jeremiah 39:1–3. A later writer would not likely have known or recorded accurately such a minor detail from centuries before.

Since eccentric self-appointed prophets like Montanus had made it a favorite text for end-of-the-world predictions, some early theologians sought to discredit Revelation by saying the Apostle John did not actually write the troublesome book. As a result, Revelation became a "disputed" book that some thought did not belong in the Bible (Kirsch, p. 107). Jerome (340–420ad), who translated the Bible into Latin, expressed frustration at the "mysteries" in Revelation. Martin Luther considered Revelation neither "apostolic nor prophetic." Other critics have declared the book "dangerous" and sub-Christian, upset by its apparently bizarre imagery, its portrayal of a violent and vengeful Jesus armed with a two-edged sword (see Revelation 19:11–15), and its lack of Jesus' gentle teachings to "love your neighbor" (Kirsch, pp. 101–103). For these and other reasons, well-meaning but misguided theologians have tried to make the book of Revelation "safe for human consumption" by stressing that it should be read not as a book concerning real events, but only as an allegory—as the symbolic struggle between good and evil (ibid., p. 118).

Back to Reality!

However, the Bible itself clearly states that its prophecies are meant to be understood by God's true servants. The Apostle John was inspired to write, "The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show His servants—things which must shortly take place… Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of this prophecy" (Revelation 1:1–3). Anciently, God told the prophet Amos, "Surely the Lord God does nothing, unless He reveals His secret to His servants the prophets" (Amos 3:7). God told Daniel to explain a king's dream by saying, "there is a God in heaven who reveals secrets, and He has made known to King Nebuchadnezzar what will be in the latter days… the great God has made known to the king what will come to pass after this. The dream is certain, and its interpretation is sure" (Daniel 2:28, 45). The Apostle Peter stated plainly that the true Church has "a more sure word of prophecy" (2 Peter 1:19, KJV). God has given His Church (which a dozen times in the New Testament is called "the church of God"—see 1 Corinthians 1:2; 10:32; 11:22; 15:9; Galatians 1:13) a unique understanding of prophecy so it can warn this world about the true significance of end-time events and what lies ahead!

Bible students recognize that fulfilled prophecy is one of the most dramatic proofs of Scripture's divine inspiration, and that God "has revealed in prophecy His sovereign plan for history, a plan that has been unfolding for thousands of years" (Walvoord, p. vii). In fact, no other purported "holy book" contains anywhere near the quantity or quality of prophecies found throughout the Bible. Prophesied "end-time" events were meant to serve as signposts that will indicate the soon-coming end of this present age, and the return of Jesus Christ to set up the Kingdom of God on this earth. But what are those signs?

End-Time Prophecies

Jesus told His disciples that one preliminary sign of the end of the age would be a plethora of false teachers claiming to represent Him. He also warned of widespread religious confusion, escalating war and violence, terrible epidemics and diseases, and other disasters including unprecedented weather upsets—such as droughts, floods, famines and earthquakes (Matthew 24:3–10). Christ foretold that these events would begin to occur at a time when mankind could destroy all life on earth (Matthew 24:21–22)—which first became a real possibility after World War II with the development of atomic and hydrogen bombs.

As these signs appear, Scripture shows that violence will begin to escalate in the Middle East. End-time prophecies reveal that Jerusalem will become the center of world attention, and will "become a very heavy stone [a burden] for all peoples… though all nations of the earth are gathered against it" (Zechariah 12:1–3). Jesus also said, "when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation is near" because the city "will be trampled by Gentiles" for three-and-a-half years (Luke 21:20–24; Revelation 11:1–2) and half of its people will be taken into captivity (Zechariah 14:1–2). These events will occur at a time when the "daily sacrifices were taken away" (Daniel 8:11). How can they be taken away when they have not yet been reestablished? Interestingly, several Orthodox Jewish groups have been preparing to reinstate the animal sacrifices prescribed by Jewish ritual law.

End-time Bible prophecies also reveal that while the above-mentioned events are taking place, significant developments will occur in Europe. Scripture explains that a confederation of ten nations or groups of nations, with historical links to the ancient Roman Empire, will arise in Europe just before the return of Jesus Christ (Daniel 2:40–43). These ten nations will surrender their sovereignty to a strong political leader called "the beast" (Revelation 17:12–13). This cunning political leader will cooperate with a prominent religious leader—the false prophet (see Revelation 13)—who will be the head of a church with global influence, a long record of involvement in European politics, and a record of brutal persecution of those who believe in the Bible (Revelation 17:1–6). The false prophet will deceive the world with miracles (2 Thessalonians 2:1–12). He will promote ecumenical activities in an effort to reassemble the fragmented "Christian" churches under his authority (see Isaiah 47:1–8). Bible prophecies show that this confederation in Europe (led by Germany—"Assyria"—see Isaiah 10:5–19) will take a militant turn, and when provoked by an adversary to the south (most likely a Muslim confederacy) will move into the Middle East and occupy the Holy Land (Daniel 11:36–45). However, Scripture indicates that this resurgent European power will be short-lived, defeated by Jesus Christ at His return (Daniel 2:41–45).

We should be sobered to realize that we are living at a time when these end-time prophecies are coming alive! For the last 50 years, efforts to unite Europe have moved steadily forward, with the encouragement and blessing of popes and pressure from an increasingly influential Germany. At the same time, we have seen the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, which threatens to overwhelm Europe from within and without. Recent news reports from the Middle East suggest that due to the increasing violence in the region, Israel may ask the European Union to send troops to join United Nations personnel trying to stabilize the region (Associated Press, June 13, 2007). All this is happening while we are witnessing increasingly severe weather and other disasters around the world—which God revealed would happen just before the end of the age and the return of Jesus Christ.

Newspapers today are filled with reports of events long ago foretold in the Bible. Yet news commentators—and most religious leaders—simply do not recognize the prophetic significance of those events. Today, critics even question the existence of God and the inspiration of the Bible. Yet prophecy is one of the major proofs that the Bible is the inspired word of an almighty God who intervenes in world affairs. You need to prove this to yourself, and to "watch" the world events Bible prophecy reveals will occur just before the return of Jesus Christ. You can understand Bible prophecy so you will not be surprised by the rush of events that will mark the end of this age!

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