The doctrine of the “End Times” (eschatology) is, sadly, controversial, with some Christians polarising over different views and (many) others avoiding the subject, perhaps regarding it as a happy hunting ground for extremists. Yet nearly 10% of the New Testament is about eschatology. It is not a fringe subject. We should not neglect it.

 

The problem is that some people have a natural tendency towards naivety – readily believing assumptions about what prophecies mean and how they relate to current events. Others have a natural tendency towards rationalism – being rather cynical about the subject. I am more like the latter group but because of the importance of the subject in Scripture I seek to overcome it. However we do need to be careful in our approach.

 

Yes, there are those who jump to naïve conclusions about the eschatological significance of current events. Nevertheless I do find an approach which regards prophecies as totally symbolical, rather than referring to literal events unconvincing in the light of the evidence. For example, it is difficult to see Jesus’ prophecy of the End Times return of the Jewish people to Israel as symbolical in view of the remarkable event which has happened 2000 years later. In addition, so many of the Old Testament prophecies have come to pass.

 

One of the main areas of disagreement is over the biblical prophecy of the millennium (the future thousand year reign of Christ on earth). Some believe that happens after Jesus returns, others before he returns and others that it is symbolical about the on-going influence of God in the world. Some years ago, we brought together 75 clergy, ministers and teachers from various denominations for three days of intensive discussion on eschatology. Initially, there was a good deal of tension and apprehension. But, as we listened to one another, that disappeared and, whereas there were respectful disagreements, the conference put out a united statement as to what it agreed over (we must avoid falling out over secondary disagreements over eschatology). You can find the statement on my Christian Teaching website at http://www.christianteaching.org.uk/ChurchLeadersAgreeReturnofChrist.pdf. It ended with the words “We urge all Christians to recognize that eschatology is a vital context and incentive for growth in holiness and for evangelism.” I personally would now add “and as a motive for prayer for Revival” but that was before the Lord spoke to me about Revival.

 

We are called to live in the light of the Return of Jesus

 

On several occasions Jesus says this.

 

“Keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come” (Matt 24:42; 25:13). “‘But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come. It’s like a man going away: he leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with their assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch. ‘Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back – whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the cock crows, or at dawn. If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to everyone: “Watch!”’(Mark 13:32-37).

 

“‘Be dressed ready for service and keep your lamps burning, like servants waiting for their master to return from a wedding banquet, so that when he comes and knocks they can immediately open the door for him. It will be good for those servants whose master finds them watching when he comes. Truly I tell you, he will dress himself to serve, will make them recline at the table and will come and wait on them. It will be good for those servants whose master finds them ready, even if he comes in the middle of the night or towards daybreak. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.’(Luke 12:35-40).

 

Similarly, Paul writes:

 

“The day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, ‘Peace and safety’, destruction will come on them suddenly, as labour pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape.

But you, brothers and sisters, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief. You are all children of the light and children of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness. So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be awake and sober” (1 Thess 5:2-6).

 

Unfortunately many Christians seem to ignore this teaching. But, the Lord says we need to be eschatological in outlook.

 

We are called to take note of the “signs of the times.”

 

It is also clear that Jesus wants us to note the signs of the End Times.

The disciples askedWhat will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?’ Jesus answered: ‘Watch out that no one deceives you. For many will come in my name, claiming, “I am the Messiah,” and will deceive many. You will hear of wars and rumours of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth-pains” (Matt 24:3-8).

He is speaking here of long term, repeated signs pointing towards his return – false messiahs, wars, earthquakes, famines, persecution. They do not mean the End is imminent. They are like motorway signs repeatedly pointing towards a distant destination. But he goes on to refer to later signs which are closer to the destination – the ‘abomination that causes desolation’ antichrist, the great distress (often called “tribulation”), cosmic signs – and he adds “Even so, when you see all these things, you know that it [the End] is near, right at the door” (Matt 24:33). He also speaks of the fall of Jerusalem, the exile of the Jewish people to the nations and their eventual return to Jerusalem. (See the footnote for comment on the controversies surrounding Israel’s relationship with the Palestinians).[i]

 

So Jesus wants us to take note of what is happening in society and the world and to understand its significance vis a vis the End. In other words, we have to be prophetic (although we need to be careful and properly critical, rather than jump to conclusions). But many of us never stand back to see the bigger picture. We have our eyes down on the details of everyday life, including church life.

 

The interesting thing is that some secular scholars do stand back to see the bigger picture in connection with the threats to the future of the world and they speak about it in the ways prophets should do. So there is a secular eschatology over such things as dangers from global warming, viruses, war (nuclear and cyber), genetic engineering and artificial intelligence.

 

Many Christians need to wake up to what is going on. And we need to be discerning because often something developed for good reasons can go wrong and have bad effects. Here are some concerns very briefly:

  • The dangers in globalisation in our ‘global village’ becoming oppressive. (The current moves against globalisation could misfire and are very likely to be reversed by the pressures of inevitable international interdependence in trade, security, etc).
  • The dangers of the development of dictatorships (including through the growth in populism, political leaders on the extremes of politics, surveillance etc).
  • The growing influence of a major world religion, Islam, which believes in a Christ who is not divine, didn’t die on the cross or rise from the dead but who will come to earth in power.
  • More widespread worldwide persecution of Christians than has ever happened previously (Jesus foretells an increase in persecution).
  • Huge problems with water sources, extreme weather, mass migration, starvation, conflict caused by global warming, pollution etc (which seems relevant to New Testament prophecies)
  • The possibility of sudden global economic collapse (foretold in the New Testament in the End Times).
  • Israel becoming more central to world affairs and the nations (particularly the UN) becoming more negative towards her (also prophesied in Scripture). There is also a growth in antisemitism.
  • (I might also refer to the serious concern that NASA etc., have about the possibility of a large asteroid or meteorite colliding with the earth which seems to relate to the prophecies about cosmic signs, even though some of the language may be symbolical).

 

See my Christian Teaching website for detailed teaching on eschatology in both a full version and a summary http://www.christianteaching.org.uk/eschatology.html.

 

I find no difficulty in seeing the relevance of all these issues to biblical prophecy about the End Times and I think this is justified by reasonable thinking, not naïve jumping to conclusions.

 

We are called to hasten the return of Christ by praying for revival

 

We have noted that the New Testament makes it clear that we are not to ignore the “signs of the End.” Nor are we, as some do, just to be excited by the subject. We are to “look forward to the day of God and speed its coming” (2 Peter 3:12). The apparent delay in the coming of the day of God is because God is “not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). Similarly, in Acts 3:19-20, Peter says: “Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord, and that he may send the Messiah, who has been appointed for you – even Jesus.” Hence in the predominantly eschatological Book of Revelation Jesus called the church not just to take an interest in the End Times but to come to repentance (Rev 2-3).

 

So praying for Revival (alongside evangelism and living “holy and godly lives”) is a very important way of speeding the coming of the day of God, the return of Christ.

 

What Peter preached on the Day of Pentecost is very significant:

“This is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy. I will show wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below, blood and fire and billows of smoke. The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord. And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Acts 2:16-21).

 

He uses the term “the last days” and we need to remember that the last days began at the time of Jesus’ first coming. When we use the term we often mean “the end of the last days.” But Joel’s prophecy about the outpouring of the Spirit is definitely related to “the end of the last days” or what we call the End Times. It is associated with cosmic signs of the End e.g. by Jesus in Mark 13:25 and Luke 21:25. It is therefore reasonable to conclude that there will be a major outpouring of the Spirit (Revival) in the End Times.

 

Some Christians who are interested in eschatology focus on doom and gloom and almost seem to be excited about it. Others are fascinated by eschatology but it doesn’t affect their lives or motivate them to greater obedience and witness. But if we are truly eschatological we will seek to do something positive in the light of the doom and gloom, including living holy lives, doing evangelism, but also praying and preparing for revival, which is much more far reaching, in terms of the numbers affected, than our evangelism. In that way, we will be speeding the return of Christ.

 

When the Lord spoke to Patricia (my wife) and me about Revival he seemed to be underlining Luke 1:17 “Make ready a people prepared for the Lord” which was John the Baptist’s calling. And that is an excellent motive for prayer and preparation for Revival. We are praying for the formation of a people prepared for the Lord – a more numerous people than can be achieved by evangelism (although evangelism remains an important priority).

 

So, by the grace of God, we are seeking to hasten the return of the Lord by making ready a people prepared for the Lord through Revival.

 

However we are also seeking to have a positive impact on society and the world by praying and preparing for Revival. It is a historical fact that the Wesleyan Revival had a profound positive effect on 18th century society which previously was described as a spiritual and moral quagmire. How we need that again.

Conclusion

 

Prayer and preparation for Revival is properly related to eschatology. We Christians are not only called by God to
live in the light of the End Times and to take note of the “signs of the times.” We are also called to pray and prepare for Revival in order to “make ready a people prepared for the Lord,” for his return and to seek to counteract the negative “signs” in society and the world.
Tony Higton

 

[i] I am very aware of the justice issues in the Israeli – Palestinian conflict. I was General Director of the Church’s Ministry among Jewish People and Rector of Christ Church in the Old City of Jerusalem and had contact both with Jewish Israelis and Palestinians/Israeli Arabs. I have seen the conflict first hand (and heard the bombs going off). For years I have encouraged Christians (via a mailing list and website http://www.prayerforpeace.org.uk) to pray about the needs, pain and fears of both Israelis and the Palestinians. Both sides act wrongly at times. But we must not ignore Jesus’ prophecy about the return of the Jewish people to Jerusalem (plus Old Testament prophecies on the issue) as a sign of the End Times.

The failed Arab Spring

It was in January 2011 that the “Arab Spring” began with the ousting of the President of Tunisia. The overthrow of repressive regimes throughout the Middle East was inspiring. But now, five years later, Islamic State is creating mayhem. There are civil wars in Syria and Yemen. The Sunni-Shia conflict has increased in Iraq which has been destabilised further by the civil war in Syria. There are authoritarian governments in Egypt and Bahrain and the Tunisian government is becoming more dictatorial. The Libyan central government has collapsed. Turkey is attacking the Kurds across its border in Iraq and Syria. Then there is the huge number of migrants fleeing the conflicts.

One of the causes of the failure of the Arab Spring has been the fact that the removal of dictators has not been followed up by the establishment of democracy and a trustworthy state. The Islamic movement was seen as the means for opposition. Initially, the west failed to see that the opposition in Syria and Iraq was becoming dominated by extreme Islamists.

So the Middle East has become more unstable than for at any time in the last century.

The colonial background

One of the factors which has caused tension in the Middle East and which drives the extreme Islamists is what the colonial powers did back in 1916. Britain and France secretly agreed to divide up the old Ottoman Empire between them. They created modern Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine without regard to the people groups and religious affiliations. This did not go down well with the Arabs and led to distrust of the West.

More recently the Western powers have not supported various Middle Eastern countries as well as they should. During the Cold War the US and the Soviet Union supported weak regimes because their collapse could have given an opportunity to one side or the other. That need is no longer relevant. So there are numerous conflicts in the region.

Christianity disappearing

A report has been published by Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), entitled “Persecuted and Forgotten? A Report on Christians oppressed for their Faith 2013-15.” In it John Pontifex, ACN Head of Press and Information, said: “A cultural genocide of Christians is erasing the presence of faithful from large swathes of the Middle East, the very heartland of the Church. Far from laying the entire blame for persecution against Christians at the door of extremist Islam [the report] demonstrates that many of the problems stem from non-Muslim extremist – nationalist – faith groups and historically communist totalitarian regimes.” The Middle Eastern countries where Christians are most at risk include Eritrea, Iraq, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria.

Saudi Arabia

I have written elsewhere about the secret agreement between the UK and Saudi Arabia to ensure that both countries are on the UN Human Rights Council. Yet Saudi Arabia has a bad human rights record and executes one person every two days, normally by beheading. When Malcolm Rifkind, the former Foreign Secretary, was asked if the UK should be urging the Saudis to reform their policies he responded: “That is not the way the world works. You can’t just trade with the countries you approve of, otherwise you would be ruling out trade with China, Russia, and probably three-quarters of the world.” However, that should not involve the UK doing such things as helping Saudi Arabia to be on the Human Rights Council. Little wonder that The Independent carried an editorial in January 2016 which stated: “Britain’s policy towards Saudi Arabia is a disgrace.”

Syria

Saleh Muslim, a Syrian Kurdish leader, warned that if Bashar al-Assad, President of Syria, is defeated by the rebels it would be a world calamity because they are dominated by Isis and al-Qaeda terrorists. Yacoub el-Hillo, the UN humanitarian co-ordinator in Syria, warned that because of the conflict in Syria “Europe will be faced with a refugee situation similar to the one that led to the creation of [the UN Refugee Agency] UNHCR in 1950”.

Egypt

Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, President of Egypt, is becoming increasingly dictatorial. There are 40,000 political prisoners in Egypt, half of them supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and many of them sentenced to death. This has encouraged extremists like Isis. Sinai is now as much under Isis control as Egyptian control.

Iran

Despite the agreement that Iran will not develop nuclear weapons (for 10-15 years), it is still a threat. Many countries don’t trust the Iranian regime. Iran backs Assad’s government in Syria, as well as Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon, both of which do not accept the legitimacy of Israel. It also backs the Shia Muslim rebels in Yemen. The new freedom which Iran now enjoys could provoke a major Sunni versus Shia conflict throughout the Middle East. This could lead Saudi Arabia and Egypt into a nuclear arms race. Iran’s antagonism to Israel continues with Iranian Defence Minister Hossein Dehghan calling Israel “the world’s centre of evil, espionage and warmongering.”

Conclusion

The Arab Spring has turned into the Arab Winter. There is great instability and ominous rivalry. Amongst the many innocent people who are suffering from the situation in the Middle East are millions of Christians. We need to pray for them and for the Middle East generally.

Britain has joined in the bombing campaign against ISIS. This is a controversial decision. The traditional Christian definition of a Just War includes six conditions:

1. It must be fought by a legally-recognised authority. Government, not private individuals or corporations.

This has been fulfilled because the UN (as well as the UK Parliament) has approved it.

2. The cause of the war must be just.

Combating the Satanic evil of ISIS is a just cause.

3. There must be an intention to establish good or restrain evil.

This is the intention.

4. There must be a reasonable chance of success.

This is more difficult because many people do not believe that bombing alone will defeat ISIS, although it will weaken them.

5. The war must be a last resort.

It is difficult to see how ISIS will be defeated without military action.

6. Only sufficient force must be used and civilians must not be involved.

This is a controversial point as ISIS deliberately mixes with innocent civilians. It seems inevitable that many innocent civilians will be killed in the raids.

However, it is all very well to debate the ethics of the bombing campaign. But how are the nations to defeat this terrible evil? It seems unlikely that western nations will be willing to provide ground troops, having been stung by the difficulties resulting from the invasion of Iraq. If local ground forces were strong enough to defeat ISIS, supported by the bombing campaign and other non-military action by the western nations, that would be the best way forward. But it is not clear that they are strong enough.

The solemn fact is that the western nations don’t really know how to cope with the terrorists. The bombing campaign won’t be sufficient and the security measures at home will not be adequate. Terrorism is now much more sophisticated with modern communications, weapons and many other resources. For example, Detective Chief Inspector Colin Smith, a security expert and adviser to the Home Office Centre for Applied Science and Technology, warned that a small quadcopter could easily be used by terrorists for attacks and propaganda purposes.

War, in the form of terrorism, poses a very serious new threat to the nations. No country can feel secure because even more extensive surveillance (which, in itself, has negative consequences) is not adequate.

Nicolas Henin, who was held hostage by ISIS for ten months, says that ISIS are not superheroes but “street kids drunk on ideology and power.” They see all that is happening as an apocalyptic process towards the defeat of the “crusaders” by the Muslim army. He adds: “They will be heartened by every sign of overreaction, of division, of fear, of racism, of xenophobia.”

Dangers from immigration

I want nothing to do with the idiotic and offensive comments of Donald Trump. Nevertheless, there are dangers in the refugee movement. I have already mentioned the report that a Syrian ISIS operative has said 4000 covert terrorists have infiltrated the refugee movement into Western Europe. Such a report could be propaganda but it is also credible.

On a different level, the huge influx of Muslims is bound to make significant pro-Islamic changes in western nations. Over 2.6 million refugees from Muslim nations entered the US in 2014, according to the Center for Immigration Studies. That compares with 2.2 million in 2010 and 1.5 million before that. European leaders have said the “greatest tide” of refugees is yet to come.

There are now nine civil wars taking place in Muslim nations in the Middle East and North Africa (Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, SE Turkey, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and north-east Nigeria). Five of them have begun since 2011.

The Prime Minister of Hungary, Viktor Orban, commented on the influx of refugees: “Most are not Christian, but Muslim. Is it not worrying that Europe’s Christian culture is already barely able to maintain its own set of Christian values?” Donald Tusk, President of the EU, responded: “For me, Christianity in public and social life carries a duty to our brothers in need. Referring to Christianity in a public debate on migration must mean in the first place the readiness to show solidarity and sacrifice. For a Christian it shouldn’t matter what race, religion and nationality the person in need represents.” I agree with Tusk’s response but it would be naïve to ignore that having so many more Muslims, with a higher birthrate, will have a profound effect on western nations. Islam is a missionary religion which aims to win the world. Current events greatly further that mission.

Other threats

Boko Haram

Whilst we major on thinking about ISIS, it has emerged that Boko Haram, the Nigerian-based terror group, also known as Islamic State’s West’s Africa province (ISWAP), is the most deadly terrorist organisation. In 2014 it was responsible for 6644 deaths, as opposed to 6073 for ISIS.

Iran

It is reported that Iran has stopped dismantling nuclear centrifuges in two uranium enrichment plants due to pressures from the hard-liners who complained that the move was too fast. They produce low-enriched uranium for nuclear power plants but this can also provide material for bombs if refined much further.

Russia

Russia, under Putin, is reasserting itself after the US has dominated the world for over 20 years. In 2014 Moscow re-opened 10 former Soviet-era military bases which were closed in 1991. Russia is also flying more long-range air patrols off the US shores.

China

China is also flexing its muscles. I have noted before its reclamation projects on the Spratley Islands in the China Sea. It has built an air strip and harbour there. China is ignoring the territorial claims of Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei over this area. The US has decided to put a missile destroyer to patrol within 12 miles of disputed islands. China responded by saying that it will seek to “convince the White House that China, despite its unwillingness, is not frightened to fight a war with the US in the region, and is determined to safeguard its national interests and dignity.”

However, Xi Jinping, President of China, said recently: “War is like a mirror. Looking at it helps us better appreciate the value of peace. Today, peace and development have become the prevailing trend, but the world is far from tranquil. War is the sword of Damocles that still hangs over mankind. We must learn the lessons of history, and dedicate ourselves to peace.”

Nuclear threat

Russia’s actions in Ukraine and China’s expansionism has caused the US to look again at its nuclear arsenal. There are signs that US adversaries, especially Russia, want to be ready to employ nuclear weapons to deal with any escalating conflict with the United States.

We need to be alert and to pray about these threats.

The number of deaths per year from terrorism has risen nine-fold since 2000, according to the Global Terrorism Index. In 2014 32,658 people were killed by terrorists – an 80% increase on 2013. Steve Killelea, chair of the Institute for Economics and Peace said recently: “Terrorism is gaining momentum at an unprecedented pace. The Paris incident in many ways is a watershed within Europe.”

However the horrific terrorist attack in Paris has profoundly changed the situation. Although the highest death toll from terrorism has been in Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Pakistan and Syria, Europe now feels very vulnerable. Shortly after the Paris atrocity Brussels (a European capital city) shut down for several days because of intelligence about an imminent attack.

It is also clear that terrorists are mixing with the huge number of genuine refugees entering Europe, which heightens the insecurity felt by Europeans. BuzzFeed, an American internet media company, claims that an ISIS operative told them that 4000 terrorists had been smuggled into Europe.

I am convinced that some of most serious dangers in the world are not caused by totally evil actions but by good actions going wrong. These actions will further trends towards various End Time scenarios. For example, it is clearly right and necessary for governments to protect their citizens from terrorism, including by tightening security and strengthening surveillance. But these actions can go wrong in the hands of failing human beings. They can lead towards a totalitarian state. I do not believe that such a thought is paranoid but rather a serious concern we should pray about.

There is a debate as to whether things are improving with respect to the incidence of war or not. In May 2014 Dan Smith, Professor of Peace and Conflict studies at the University of Manchester wrote a paper called “The conflict horizon.” He pointed out that since the end of the cold war the number of armed conflicts had declined. There were 50 in 1990 but 30 in 2010. There were 646 peace agreements between 1990 and 2007. However he added that “The growth of peace has slowed.” There were 37 armed conflicts in 2012 and 32 in 2012. He commented: “It’s too soon to talk about a new, negative trend but the old, positive one seems spent.”

He then began to refer to causes of war: inequality (“The 85 richest people in the world owned as much as the poorest 3.5 billion”), climate change etc., and concluded: “In short, the risk of violent conflict is elevated where there has recently been violent conflict, where there are deep and growing inequalities, where basic needs are not met (or where the prospects of continuing to meet them are weak), where authority is based on arbitrary power rather than the rule of law or where institutions to address conflicts fairly are weak or non-existent. Where all these factors apply, violent conflict is likely to be endemic—if not as civil war then predation by armed militias or oppressive governments or large-scale crime.”

People like Saddam Hussein and other Middle Eastern dictators have been removed but now we have Isis, Boko Haram and al-Shabaab. Then there is the Russian threat to Ukraine. We are facing the worst global refugee crisis ever. The UN reports that in 2014 60 million people have been displaced, more than any time since the Second World War. One in every 122 people is either a refugee, internally displaced or seeking asylum. The UNHCR estimates an average of 42,500 men, women and children became refugees every day in 2014 – a four-fold increase in just four years. 86% of these refugees are hosted by poor, developing countries. Other states are failing in their responsibility towards them.

The 2015 Global Peace Index listed the 10 most violent countries in the world: Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Central African Republic, Somalia, Sudan, DR Congo, Pakistan and North Korea. Six of them are Muslim nations, two are nations where Muslims and Christians are in conflict, one is a nation with Christian tribal conflict and one is Communist.

Sir John Sawers who was chief of MI6 from 2009 to 2014 stated recently that the modern world was “much more dangerous” than it had ever been, even during the Cold War. He added: “The stability that we had during the Cold War, or the predominance of the West that we had in the decade or two after the Cold War – that is now changing,” he said. “It’s a much flatter world, a much more multi-polar world, and there are real dangers associated with that.”

The danger of nuclear war

Dr Seth Baum spoke at the Vienna Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons in December 2014 and pointed out that whereas there were only two nuclear weapons during World War II, there are now 16,000. He said “If a nuclear war happens now, millions of people could die from the initial explosions, and potentially billions could die from the global nuclear famine that would follow … Nuclear deterrence works. The problem is, it does not always work. And when the consequences could be so severe, that’s a big problem … And then there is inadvertent nuclear war. This is when one side misinterprets a false alarm as a real attack and launches nuclear weapons in what it believes is a counterattack, but is in fact the first strike.”

An official statement from the Vienna Conference said: “Today, nine states are believed to possess nuclear weapons, but as nuclear technology is becoming more available, more states, and even non-state actors, may strive to develop nuclear weapons in the future. As long as nuclear weapons exist, the risk of their use by design, miscalculation or madness, technical or human error, remains real. Nuclear weapons, therefore, continue to bear an unacceptable risk to humanity and to all life on earth …. Nuclear weapons continue to pose an existential threat to all humankind. These risks are not abstract. They are real, more serious than previously known and can never be eliminated completely.

In its Report the conference stated: “As long as nuclear weapons exist, there remains the possibility of a nuclear weapon explosion. Even if the probability is considered low, given the catastrophic consequences of a nuclear weapon detonation, the risk is unacceptable. The risks of accidental, mistaken, unauthorized or intentional use of nuclear weapons are evident due to the vulnerability of nuclear command and control networks to human error and cyber-attacks, the maintaining of nuclear arsenals on high levels of alert, forward deployment and their modernization. These risks increase over time. The dangers of access to nuclear weapons and related materials by non-state actors, particularly terrorist groups, persists.”

In a final statement the conference said it was “aware that the risk of a nuclear weapon explosion is significantly greater than previously assumed and is indeed increasing with increased proliferation, the lowering of the technical threshold for nuclear weapon capability, the ongoing modernisation of nuclear weapon arsenals in nuclear weapon possessing states, and the role that is attributed to nuclear weapons in the nuclear doctrines of possessor states…”

In December 2014 ahead of the Vienna Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons, over 120 senior military, political and diplomatic figures from around the world signed a letter saying: “Tensions between nuclear-armed states and alliances in the Euro-Atlantic area and in both South and East Asia remain ripe with the potential for military miscalculation and escalation. In a vestige of the Cold War, too many nuclear weapons in the world remain ready to launch on short notice, greatly increasing the chances of an accident. This fact gives leaders faced with an imminent potential threat an insufficient amount of time to communicate with each other and act with prudence.”

It is estimated 16,300 nuclear weapons, in nine countries, still exist in the world. Pakistan is one of these countries and it is a cause of deep concern that it has had three military coups since the late 1960s and four prime ministers toppled from power since the 1980s. It also has an extreme Islamist group which is determined to remove the government from power.

Another cause of concern is that there have also been examples of the danger of nuclear conflict being started by misunderstanding. In 1960 an American U2 spy plane accidentally strayed into Soviet air space and almost started a war. In 1962 Americans dropped depth charges to force a Soviet submarine to the surface off the Cuban coast and two of the three officers in charge of the submarine voted to respond with nuclear missiles. So one man Vasili Arkhipov prevented a nuclear war. In 1995 Russian radar picked up a scientific weather rocket off the northern coast of Norway and suspected it was a nuclear missile. President Yeltsin decided not to launch a nuclear retaliation.

Another aspect of the danger is that of attacks on satellites in space. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty banned weapons of mass destruction from orbit round the earth. But the situation is now much more complex. Satellites are essential to military reconnaissance, communication and targeting. There is a danger that if a nation’s satellites were attacked or even struck by space debris this could lead to that nation assuming the worst and launching a pre-emptive attack. Some nations have tested anti-satellite weapons and others are thought to be capable of doing so.

The Russian threat

In November 2014 Mikhail Gorbachev, referring to the crisis in Ukraine, said “The world is on the brink of a new Cold War. Some are even saying that it’s already begun.” The President of Finland said that Europe is on the brink of “a new kind of cold war” and in February 2015 Carl Bildt, the former Swedish foreign minister, said a war between Russia and the west was now quite conceivable. David Cameron said Britain might need to accept a new cold war with Russia rather than do nothing about Russia’s actions.

General Joseph Votel, Commander of the US Special Operations Command warned recently that, despite the Cold War being over, Russia continues to be a threat to the US. “Russia is looking to challenge us wherever they can,” he said. He pointed to the recent nuclear energy deals made this year with Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia as showing Moscow is seeking to expand its influence, particularly in the Middle East. He added that President Putin is seeking to divide the 28 members of NATO. “The intent is to create a situation where NATO can’t continue to thrive,” he said.

It is a cause of concern that both Russia and the West have been doing some nuclear “sabre-rattling.” Vladimir Putin said in June 2015 that Russia was buying 40 new intercontinental ballistic missiles. A NATO official commented: “The Russian leadership is rhetorically lowering the threshold when it comes to nuclear weapons and this is something which should not be done. It largely wasn’t done even during the cold war.” As a consequence NATO is preparing to re-evaluate its nuclear weapons strategy.

Lord Ashdown wrote an article in February 2015 saying the crisis with Russia is partly of our own making. He explained: “The West lost the greatest strategic opportunity of recent times when we reacted to the collapse of the Soviet Union, not with a long term plan to bring Russia in from the cold, but by treating Russia to a blast of Washington triumphalism and superiority. Putin has chosen to challenge, not just the sovereignty of Ukraine, but the very basis on which the peace of Europe has been founded these last fifty years. When the Second World War ended, Europe determined that it would end a thousand years of warfare driven by the assertion that large powers have the right to subjugate the freedoms (even the existence) of smaller nations, if they believed them to be within their spheres of influence. Instead Europe’s peace would in future be based on the principles of co-operation, peaceful co-existence and the right of all nations, large and small to determine their future based exclusively on the will of their people. By denying that right to Ukraine on the grounds that it is Russia’s sphere of influence, Putin asks us to abandon those principles. We cannot do so.”

British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond accused Putin of “acting like some mid-20th century tyrant.” President Obama said at the G7 summit in June 2015 that Putin was deliberately ruining Russia’s economy in order to “recreate the glories of the Soviet empire.”

The danger is that, after the conflict with Ukraine, Russia will act against other countries. Andrej Illarionov, who was Putin’s chief economic adviser, said that Putin will not stop trying to expand Russia until he has “conquered” Belarus, the Baltic States and Finland. He is trying to create “historical justice” with a return to the days of the last Tsar, Nicholas II, and the Soviet Union under Stalin. Tomasz Siemoniak, Poland’s defence minister, said: “We can see that Russia is going in the direction of restoring the influence it had at the time of the Soviet Union.”

Isis and Jihad

Isis, in its propaganda, has spoken of the organisation soon having enough money to buy a nuclear device. It acknowledges that such a weapon being made available does not seem feasible at present but they say with their billions of dollars in the bank “it’s infinitely more possible today than it was just one year ago.” Also UK Home Secretary, Theresa May, said in 2014 that Isis could become the world’s first “truly terrorist state” and she added “We will see the risk, often prophesied but thank God not yet fulfilled, that with the capability of a state behind them, the terrorists will acquire chemical, biological or even nuclear weapons to attack us.” Rao Inderjit Sing, India’s Defence Minister, commented: “With the rise of Isis in West Asia, one is afraid to an extent that perhaps they might get access to a nuclear arsenal from states like Pakistan. A senior United States official, commenting on an Isis attack on Kurdish forces in Iraq in August 2015, said “We have credible information that the agent used in the attack was mustard [gas].”

Australia’s Foreign Minister believes Isis is capable of building chemical weapons. Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a former commanding officer at the Joint Chemical Biological Radiological Nuclear Regiment, said: “It is very evident that Isis are putting much time and effort into training its jihadis in the use of chlorine as a terror weapon and in particular in IEDs (improvised explosive devices).”

In November 2014 Isis and similar groups carried out 664 attacks, killing 5,042 people. In July 2015 a document, believed to be a genuine Isis paper, claims the group is planning attacks on India and also to create a united army with Pakistani and Afghan Taliban. It says the organisation plans to create terror in the Middle East and South Asia in order to draw the US into an “apocalyptic” war.

China

Tensions are growing between China and the US over artificial islands in the middle of the South China Sea. They are called the Spratley Islands, a chain of seven semi-submerged reefs. One of them, Fiery Cross, once was only a metre above sea level. But now the Chinese have made it into about 500 acres (200 hectares) of reclaimed land with a 2 miles long airstrip and a large harbour. The US have detected artillery weapons. There is a dispute over maritime sovereignty over the islands between China, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. But China has taken them over. The Spratleys lie on a shipping route which is estimated to carry £3 trillion ($5 trillion) worth of trade per annum. They lie in a rich fishing area and near a major oil reserve. The surrounding sea is also very deep which is good for keeping Chinese submarines hidden.

However, what is happening in the Spratleys is symptomatic of a more serious trend. The US is perceived as retreating from its international role and China (like Russia and Iran) is seeking to fill the void left by the Americans.

China is seeking to dominate the world, as the US has in the past. Its economy has grown very quickly. Many of its neighbours seek US protection against China but are economically dependent on China. In particular, China is aiming at what it sees as rightful possession of almost the whole South China Sea, an area of 1.35 million square miles.

China is developing the largest submarine fleet in the world, including many with nuclear ballistic missiles. It is also building many aircraft carriers and battleships.

Like Russia, China is seeking to regain its place as a preeminent, top rank global power. It was robbed of this position by European imperialism followed by American dominance. It would seem that China’s actions in the Spratleys is aimed at curbing the freedom of the US navy.

China may well seek to achieve its aims as much as possible through diplomacy but some experts believe that confrontations are inevitable.

North Korea

North Korea is thought to have up to 20 nuclear missiles and the ability to increase that number in the coming years. There is a real danger of nuclear accidents in this small, extremist regime. There is also the possibility of political turmoil or chaotic regime change which would make ensuring the safety of the nuclear weapons difficult. Even more serious, some experts have commented that if the leadership becomes financially desperate it could be tempted to sell nuclear assets even to terrorists.

N Korea has massively built up conventional weapons in the demilitarised zone between N and S Korea and it certainly has the ability to fire nuclear weapons into S Korea.

The nuclear attacks on Japan

The anniversary of the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki focus attention on the horrors of nuclear war. Some 140,000 were killed Hiroshima – about 70,000 on the first day. Others followed. Bill Travers, the Born Free star, was amongst the first to visit Hiroshima and he wrote: “The place disintegrated; there were no holes. Bricks became dust. Trees became blackened stubs. Bottles melted and assumed grotesque shapes. Pieces of metal curled and folded like silk. “There were no rags or pieces of paper; those and wooden beams and planks had disappeared as completely as the flowers and human beings who lived there.”

Christians were amongst the dead. Christianity had been banned in 1614 and all missionaries were expelled or killed. Many Christians were burnt to death or crucified. Then in 1868 religious freedom was established and 15,000 Christians emerged from the shadows. In 1914 a huge Gothic cathedral was consecrated in Nagasaki. It ceased to exist on the 9th August 1945 when the nuclear bomb exploded directly above it.

Kazumi Matsui, the Mayor of Hiroshima, recently called nuclear weapons “the absolute evil and ultimate inhumanity” and criticised nuclear powers for keeping them as deterrents. But there was also criticism of the plans by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to reduce the restrictions on the Japanese military which have been in place since 1945. Survivors of the Nagasaki blast said the new policy “will lead to war.”

Conclusion

We live in a world where there is increasing tension between the great powers: China, Russia, the EU/NATO and the US. There is also great instability in the Middle East, largely caused by extreme Islamists such as Isis. But there is a great deal of terrorist action elsewhere, in Africa, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Then there is the continuing threat of nuclear weapons, including of nuclear accidents and the possibility in the long term of terrorists obtaining nuclear weapons. We need to remember Jesus’ prophecies of wars and rumours of wars and to pray both for peace with justice and for those affected by war.