One can’t be around Evangelical and Fundamentalist Christians very long without hearing it affirmed that we are living in the ‘last days’. We are warned about a coming 7 year period of terrible ‘tribulation’ which is to come upon all nations, and which is ‘just around the corner’. A grossly evil man is going to arise to seize the reins of world government, a tyrant of such evil that Nero, Stalin, and Hitler are good guys in comparison. He is to be known as ‘the Antichrist’, and in fact will rise to power because humanity has rejected God’s Christ (Jesus) and is willing to accept Jesus’ exact opposite instead of him. The rise of this tyrant is both an act of God’s judgment on the earth for humanity’s rejection of his ‘offer’ of salvation through Jesus Christ, and is a first step in a process which leads up to the final judgment and eternal hell introduced by the ‘second coming of Christ’. (Well, actually the final judgment, according to this view, won’t occur until 1000 years after the ‘second coming’, because Christ will personally reign over the earth from the city of Jerusalem for that 1000 years before finally consigning all of the wicked to eternal hell).
There is a difference of opinion among the proponents of this view as to whether Christians will be around during this ‘great tribulation’: some believe ‘the church’ will be ‘raptured’ to heaven before this terrible period begins (so it is quite common to hear the question “Are you ready for the rapture?”), while others believe ‘the church’ will be present the entire time, though they will be protected from the horrors of God’s judgment. Others believe ‘the church’ will be present for the first half of the ‘tribulation’ but will be ‘raptured out’ before things get really bad in the last half of the period.
Many Bible passages are brought forward to ‘prove’ this viewpoint; passages which speak of ‘the last days’, a ‘man of sin’ who will assert that he is God and will seat himself in the Temple of God, and a ‘Beast’ who will mark all of his followers with the number 666 on the hand or forehead. Anyone who refuses to receive this mark will be unable to buy or sell anything. At least 2 questions need to be asked about all of these ‘Bible threats’.
(1) Assuming that the Bible passages produced really do teach what these Evangelicals and Fundamentalists proclaim for a ‘last days’ scenario which is just around the corner for us today, does that mean that we must accept it as ‘truth’? If you have read my previous posts, you will know that I do not believe that such a conclusion of ‘truth’ follows from the fact that ‘the Bible says it’s so’. Just because Isaiah, Jeremiah, Paul, or Peter believed something does not mean it is true, any more than the fact that Martin Luther or John Calvin believed something means it is true. (By the way, Martin Luther and John Calvin did not believe these ‘last days’ doctrines as they are taught today). Bible writers were no more infallible than any of the ‘expositors’ in the centuries after them were. What Paul the apostle wrote in 1 Thessalonians 5:21 and 22 is a good admonition to follow at all times: “…test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil.”
(2) Is it appropriate to assume that the fact that passages can be quoted which talk about ‘antichrist’ in the ‘last days’, the ‘man of sin’ who asserts that he is God, and the ‘Beast’ and ‘false prophet’ who demand obedience and worship, and place the ‘mark of the Beast’ on all of their followers, means that these quotations are being properly understood and applied to us today? Did the Bible writers really teach what the quotations from them are being produced to prove? Again, the answer is no. Just because the Bible writers are as fallible as anyone else, does not mean there is no truth in them. But things they taught which were true in their context and proper interpretation can become untrue when taken out of context, misunderstood, or misapplied. And it is also true that these writers may have taught things which ‘contained’ truth, even though the ‘container’ itself was untrue; or the ‘literal’ meaning may be untrue, while the ‘spirit’ of what they wrote is true. (What is in the box may be of value, though the box itself can be discarded).
I will be attempting to show, probably with several articles, that what the Bible writers taught about ‘the last days’ was something quite different from what is currently taught in ‘popular’ Christianity. It should be noted, though, that this ‘popular’ scheme of things is not taught by all ‘orthodox’ Christians. There are views known as ‘Amillennialism’ and ‘Postmillennialism’ whose teachings about ‘last things’ are similar in many ways with what I will be presenting; and in fact they were prevalent throughout most of church history – they just aren’t ‘popular’ today. My understanding of the Biblical ‘last days’ teachings falls in the category known as ‘Preterist’, which means ‘past tense’; that is, the Biblical ‘prophecies’ were about things which were in the very near future to the writers, but are in the past for us. Amillennialists and Postmillennialists would be known as ‘Partial Preterists’ because they believe that many of the ‘last days’ prophecies are past to us, but maintain that some predict events that are still future to us – in particular the ‘second coming of Christ’ as a literal physical coming to earth which has not ‘yet’ happened. My own viewpoint would be closest to Postmillennialism, although they would reject me as a heretic, not even a Christian, because: (a) I don’t believe in a literal physical ‘second coming of Christ’ at all – it is my contention that the Biblical references to the coming of Christ did not have any reference to a physical appearance of Jesus at any time in the future of the Biblical writers, whether near at hand or far away in time; (b) I believe that the aim and assured purpose of God is the salvation of the world in its most absolute sense – everyone who has ever lived and ever will live, not just all nations in a general sense at some far future point in time; and (c) I don’t believe in infallibly inspired scripture. I have presented my beliefs about (b) and (c) in previous articles, so now I’ll begin showing what I believe about the ‘coming of Christ’.
To begin with, let’s look at a few passages which are somewhat ‘time specific’ as to when the followers of Jesus could expect ‘the coming of the Son of Man in his kingdom’. Matthew 16:27, 28 says: “For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom” (NRSV). While this has proven to be quite an embarrassment to traditional Christian beliefs, Jesus plainly said here that he would come ‘in his kingdom’ and ‘in the glory of his father’, to judge everyone according to their works, within the lifetime of some of those who were in his presence at that time; and they would ‘see’ it.
This plain statement of Jesus has led some to say that Jesus was mistaken, since they feel certain that such a coming did not occur then, and has not occurred yet either. Others, who are not willing to acknowledge that Jesus could be mistaken, maintain that the ‘transfiguration’ story that immediately follows this statement fulfills the prophecy. But in seeking to uphold the infallibility of Jesus, they actually undermine the meaning of what he said.
First of all, the ‘transfiguration’ took place only 6 days later, and it is unlikely that any of his hearers had died in that short period of time. But 6 days is hardly enough of a passage of time to warrant the solemn affirmation: “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom”. The plain implication of the words is that the event is sufficiently distant in time that in the ordinary course of events many of those present could be expected to die. In addition to this, though, is the fact that Jesus did not begin to “repay everyone for what has been done” at his transfiguration.
Still others believe that Jesus was speaking of his ‘ascension’ when he ‘sat down at the right hand of the Father’, where he will remain reigning with the Father until all his ‘enemies’ are made his ‘footstool’ (Acts 2:29-36; 3:21; Hebrews 10:12, 13). Just before his ascension, when he gave his ‘great commission’, Jesus had said that all authority had been given to him in heaven and on earth (Matt. 28:18), so this is a much more likely time of fulfillment of the prophecy than the ‘transfiguration’. Nevertheless it still would not be a sufficient time to satisfy the implication that he was speaking of an event distant enough in time that many could be expected to die before it was fulfilled. (If it were the fulfillment, it would obviously be a ‘second coming’ which is past tense to us, and did not involve a physical coming to earth).
Jesus’ statement to Peter in John 20 also shows that it was neither the transfiguration nor ascension that he had in mind when he said that ‘some’ of those standing there would not taste death before his coming. In verses 18 and 19 of John 20 Jesus told Peter: “‘Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.’ He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.” Then Peter looked at ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved’ and asked “Lord, what about him?” – (verse 21). “Jesus said to him, ‘If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?’” – (verse 22). Peter was to die an old man, and by implication without seeing Jesus come in his kingdom; but ‘the disciple whom Jesus’ loved’ might be one of the ones who would live to see Jesus’ coming. John commented that Jesus did not actually say that he would live to see that ‘coming’, but only that it was a possibility, so when the book of John was written the coming had not yet occurred. I believe that Jesus was talking about a ‘coming’ that occurred at the time of the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, and I’ll seek to ‘defend’ that idea when (in a future article) I talk about Jesus’ ‘Olivet Discourse’ (Matt. 24, 25; Mark 13; Luke 21)
It was certainly this promise of Jesus that some of those in his presence would live to see him coming in his kingdom which was the basis of Paul’s confident expectation that he might be one of the ones who would live to see that event: “For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died…Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air…” (1 Thess.4:15, 17). Whether Paul meant this as a literal event, or was using symbolism and metaphor to describe the Lord’s coming, he certainly expected that it would be in the range of his lifetime, should he not die by ‘unnatural causes’; and he had good reason for this expectation, based on Jesus’ prophecy.
The apostle John did not consider the ‘last days’ to be something way off in the future to him. Notice this confident assertion: “Children, it IS the last hour! As you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. From this we KNOW that it is the last hour” (1 John 2:18). Jesus had not only prophesied that he would come while some of his disciples were still living, but he gave them signs of what to expect prior to that coming in Matt. 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21. As I said earlier, I expect to go into some detail about that in a future article; let it suffice to point out that in that discourse Jesus spoke of the coming of false prophets and messiahs prior to Jerusalem’s fall, who would promise deliverance to the people of Israel. When the disciples would see these signs occurring, they could know that the time was near, even at the door. John, taking Jesus at his word, now confidently states not only that it was the ‘last days’, but that it was actually the ‘last hour’ of the day since those false christs (messiahs) were already abounding! Now keep in mind that John knew that Jesus had said that he might live to see Jesus’ coming, and that some of his disciples definitely would. John was by this time getting to be an old man (approximately 30 years after Jesus’ resurrection), and the prophesied false christs (antichrists) were in abundance. He had every right to be confident that Jesus’ ‘coming’ was indeed ‘at the door’. If he was mistaken in this belief, then Jesus was also mistaken in his prophetic statements, and we certainly have no reason to believe that today’s ‘prophecy experts’ who proclaim that we are living in the ‘last days’ are more correct than Jesus himself and his apostles!
Some seek to avoid this by saying that ‘the last days’ must refer to the whole ‘church age’ period, between Jesus’ resurrection and his (yet future) ‘second coming’. So if John said he was living in the ‘last hour’, we must be in the ‘last seconds’. That, however, makes Jesus and John to speak ludicrous absurdities. If the ‘last days’ have continued longer than the whole period of Israel’s history, from the giving of ‘the Law’ to Moses until the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, then the expression ‘last days’ is completely meaningless. And if the disciples of Jesus could see the signs of ‘the end of the age’ while they were living, yet the ‘end of the age’ did not arrive, then it is foolish for us today to think we see those signs of the end. Even if we do, perhaps it will still be another 2000 years before ‘the end’ arrives! But I’m pretty sure none of those disciples who were in Jesus’ presence are still living today (I’m not aware of any 2000 year old people); so if Jesus has not ‘come again’ he was a false prophet and not to be believed.