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.

In a recent interview Dawkins said: “Christianity may actually be our best defence against aberrant forms of religion that threaten the world.” He added “There are no Christians, as far as I know, blowing up buildings. I am not aware of any Christian suicide bombers. I am not aware of any major Christian denomination that believes the penalty for apostasy is death.” http://www.christiantoday.com/article/richard.dawkins.says.christianity.is.worlds.best.defence.against.radical.islam/76416.htm

It is worth remembering that Dawkins experienced sexual abuse at his Christian school. However he commented: “Horrible as sexual abuse no doubt was, the damage was arguably less than the long-term psychological damage inflicted by bringing the child up Catholic in the first place.”

Sughra Ahmed, chair of the Islamic Society of Great Britain, wrote in the Spectator that he might be expected to support the opinion that the next Coronation should not be a Christian ceremony. He wrote: “
I support the idea of a Christian coronation. Only 19 per cent of people [in a recent ComRes poll] thought that a Christian coronation would alienate people of non-Christian faiths from the ceremony, while only 22 per cent of people from a religious minority agreed that it would alienate them. I believe that many British Muslims feel the same way as me. We, like others, respect the traditions of our country, and would not see it as alienating if that Christian tradition continued.” He added: “The idea of Christian traditions being at the heart of the coronation is an affirmative sign that religious traditions play an important role in our nation’s key ceremonies.” He does think that the ceremony could involve representatives of other faiths.

No, I don’t believe the (ultimate) Antichrist predicted in the New Testament has been revealed. But I do believe that many Christians (and others) do live under antichrist rule today. In fact, around a quarter of the world’s population does.

John writes: “You have heard that the antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come … whoever denies that Jesus is the Christ … is the antichrist – denying the Father and the Son … every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world … many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh, have gone out into the world. Any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist” (1 John 2:18,22; 4:3; 2 John 1:7).

In the days when John wrote Rome, which persecuted Christians, would have been seen as an antichrist power. Others through history have been in the same tradition. And today there are many antichrists in the world including those who persecute Christians.

Persecution of Christians has greatly increased

A report presented in March 2015 to the United Nations in Geneva by the World Evangelical Fellowship, a global network of 160 million Evangelical Christians, estimated that over 200 million Christians in at least 60 countries are denied fundamental human rights solely because of their faith.

The Pew Research Center found that Christians face harassment and persecution in 102 countries – more than any other religion. Pope Francis commented: “In this third world war, waged piecemeal, which we are now experiencing, a form of genocide is taking place, and it must end.” John Pontifex, a leader in Aid to the Church in Need, a Catholic campaign group monitoring persecution said: “The persecution of Christians is at a level we’ve not seen for many, many years and the main impact is the migration of Christian people. There are huge swaths of the world which are now experiencing a very sharp decline in the number of Christians.” For example, The Chaldean Bishop of Aleppo, has said that “if the war continues, as seems likely . . . all the Christians will leave Syria.”

Lisa Pearce, chief executive of Open Doors UK and Ireland said that in general, persecution of Christians is increasing, “and the rate of increase is accelerating.” She added that the nature of persecution has changed: “It used to mean several years in a forced labour camp. Now it means watching your loved ones being beheaded.”

The Pew Research Center concluded: “Restrictions on religion were high or very high in 39 percent of countries. Because some of these countries (like China and India) are very populous, about 5.5 billion people (77 percent of the world’s population) were living in countries with a high or very high overall level of restrictions on religion in 2013, up from 76 percent in 2012 and 68 percent as of 2007.”

The 10 countries who are the worst persecutors

The 10 most dangerous countries for Christians are
• Laos where the government is openly hostile to Christians.
• Uzbekistan where there are raids on churches.
• Iraq where attacks on Christians are growing.
• Yemen which practises Sharia law.
• Maldives where all citizens must be Muslims.
• Somalia which has no effective central government and Christians are in particular danger.
• Saudi Arabia which has no religious freedom. Public non-Muslim worship is banned and conversion to
Christianity is punishable by death.
• Afghanistan
• Iran
• North Korea where being a Christian is one of the worst crimes possible.

A 2014 Aid to the Church in Need report stated that conditions had deteriorated in 55 countries, and significantly so in six countries: Iraq, Libya, Nigeria, Pakistan, Sudan and Syria.

Lord Alton of Liverpool said we will see at least half of the 12 million Christians in the Middle East either gone or killed by 2020.

Persecution in China

Persecution of Christians is at an all-time high in China. One of the reasons is that there are 100 million Christians in China and only 87 million members of the Communist Party. In 1947 there were only 4 million Christians and under Mao tse Tung 500,000 Christians were martyred. Yet the Christian community has grown phenomenally. Since China has a one-child policy for families, this growth has almost all happened as a result of conversions. This seriously worries the Communist government. By 2030 China will have the largest number of Christians of any country in the world.

Persecution in Israel

Sadly, some Israeli extremists have also joined the ranks of persecutors. Benzi Gopstein leads an organisation called Lehava which means “[Organization for] Prevention of Assimilation in the Holy Land. Gopstein has called for the removal of churches from Israel. “We don’t have a place for churches here…. It’s Jewish law. This is what God told us.” He condemned “the state of Israel’s great sin of allowing idolatry – churches and monasteries abounding in the Land of Israel.” In June 2015 the historic Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish at Tabgha, on the Sea of Galilee was burnt. Sixteen religious Israeli Jewish students were arrested on suspicion of involvement in the arson.

Some Muslims also make life difficult for Christians in the West Bank and the Christian sector of the Old City of Jerusalem. Areas which previously had a majority of Christians now have a majority of Muslims and many Christians have emigrated, partly because of persecution.

We need to pray for our persecuted brothers and sisters in Christ. What they are experiencing is a foretaste of what is to come, as Jesus predicted.

Tofik (not his real name) was taught to hate Christianity, beat Christians and attack churches. Then he was trained and became a prominent Imam in West Africa. However in 2002 he had a dream one night. “In the vision I saw Jesus very clearly telling me to follow him.” He started to attend church. But the local Muslim community set fire to his house, stole his cattle and beat him almost to death. Initially, he took legal action against those who had destroyed his house but then decided to forgive them. He now travels around preaching the Gospel. We must pray for more such conversions.