Signs of the End

 

Our obligation to teach about the Signs of the Times

Jesus made it very clear that we are to recognise and teach about about the signs described in Matthew 24; Mark 13 and Luke 21. The NT teaches that we are to be watchful and discerning about them. Jesus said:

  •  
  • “Keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.”
  • [1]
  •  
  • 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!’[2]
  •  “Be always on the watch.”[3]
  •  
  • Paul expected believers to be waiting for Jesus coming from heaven.[4] He says to the Thessalonians “what is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of our Lord Jesus when he comes? Is it not you?”[5] He prays that they will be “blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones.”[6] Then he says to them
  •  
  • “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.”[7]
  •  
  • Jesus clearly taught that famines, earthquakes, pestilences and persecution are reminders of the coming End Times. He also expects apostasy and false prophets etc., to be reminders too.  How many of us actually take them as such?

  • It should go without saying that our prime concern should be to pray for and, where possible, assist those affected by such traumas. It is, of course, a Christian responsibility to love one’s neighbour. This means we must defend and rescue the weak and needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed and set them free; oppose injustice; provide food, shelter, clothing for the needy, hungry and oppressed (Psa 82:2-4; Isa 58:6-10). All this includes the foreigner (Zech 7:9-10). See also what Jesus says in Luke 12:33a and 14:13.

    However, there is another reaction we should have to these traumas. The disciples asked Jesus: “What will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” (Matt 24:3). Jesus replied at length but he first of all mentioned wars, famines, earthquakes and pestilences and he called them “the beginning of birth-pains.” This is a technical term meaning the birth pains of the Messiah, i.e. the traumas which will herald his return. He made it clear that they were early signs. Some Christians regard them as irrelevant but Jesus didn’t and, as you will expect, I’m going to agree with Jesus!

    Someone will say: “But these things are always happening and have done throughout history. They will get worse just before Jesus returns (Luke 21:25-28) and it’s only at that stage they will be signs.” However, Jesus makes another very significant statement. He urges us all to keep watch – not at some time in the future but now – day by day.
  •  
  • The main thrust of this paper will be on discerning the Signs of the Times. We need to read what is going on in society and the world around us to see how it relates to what the Bible teaches about eschatology. This involves:
  • ·         seeking to be adequately informed.
  • ·         taking a properly critical attitude to this information and its possible implications.
  • ·         standing back and trying to get a sense of perspective about trends and dangers.
  •  

  • Attitudes to avoid

  •  
  • There are three attitudes towards discerning the Signs of the Times which we should seek to avoid:
  •  
  • ·         Paranoia: Suspecting everything, seeing apocalyptic doom everywhere, reading everything negatively, not supporting the good in society or the world because of the danger that some trends may lead to future evil.
  •  
  • ·         Naivety: Uncritically accepting the good motives and intentions behind what is going on in society and the world, only expecting the best, not taking seriously human selfishness.
  •  
  • ·         Literalism: Jumping to literalistic interpretations of Scripture and literalistic application of those interpretations to events and trends in society and the world.
  •  
  • Summary

  •  
  • This section is an attempt to take the words of Jesus seriously in the 21st century. Writing in areas where much ridiculous and often paranoid material is produced is somewhat embarrassing but I would readily defend what I have said in this paper, which is backed up by carefully researched evidence. There is detailed evidence for all the points enumerated in this Summary. I have tried only to quote reliable and, where possible, original sources. I have mainly quoted secular sources and sought to avoid Christian and other sources which seem to be lacking in objectivity or the backing of reliable evidence.
  •  
  • In summary I believe that:
  •  
  • 1.      The preliminary and repeated signs of the end are, as expected, very evident. The New Testament doesn’t actually say that they will increase in intensity as we draw near to the end but I note that:
  •  
  • ·         It is debatable whether war is increasing currently, nevertheless there are serious factors which could lead to even greater wars than the world has already experienced in the future and there are more horrific weapons than ever before.
  •  
  • ·         Famine could be radically reduced but there are various factors that could bring worse famine than ever.
  •  
  • ·         Earthquakes do not seem to be increasing.
  •  
  • ·         There is a real danger of greater worldwide pestilences and pandemics.
  •  
  • 2.      There is a great deal of persecution of Christians in the world and potential for much more. Persecution has increased in the last century or so. The present trend towards marginalizing Christians in Britain could easily turn into real persecution.
  •  
  • 3.      In the western world, particularly Europe, there is extensive turning away from Christianity (though there is remarkable growth of Christianity in Africa, Asia and Latin America). The fairly swift decline in Europe illustrates that a massive turning away from Christianity can take place within a fairly short period of time.
  •  
  • 4.      There has been an increase in the number of false messiahs.
  •  
  • 5.      The modern missionary movement and global communications mean that the world has been very extensively evangelized.
  •  
  • 6.      Whereas we don’t know exactly what Jesus meant by “cosmic disturbances” the astronomical community is very concerned and active with respect to asteroids or other near earth object hitting earth with disastrous consequences. What the scientists describe make what Jesus predicts seem very feasible.
  •  
  • 7.      The return of the Jewish people to their ancient land, including Jerusalem, is clearly significant in God’s purposes, as I understand Scripture. (I am, nevertheless a critical friend of Israel and deeply concerned about justice for the Palestinians).
  •  
  • 8.      We do not know the details about the Antichrist but there are very significant facts which show that the world is much more ready for him than it was a century or so ago.
  •  
  • 9.      The fact that the modern globalized economic system could collapse quickly (‘Rome’ collapsing ‘in one hour’) seems quite clear.
  •  
  • All these signs and the evidence recorded below point to the one who says: “Yes, I am coming soon.”
  •  
  • These are the conclusions of this paper. However you respond to them, I hope you will read the detailed evidence and comments.
  •  
  • We now turn to consider the signs of the end, which Jesus taught us to note, in the light of current events and trends. I have divided the signs into three sections:
  •  
  •        I.            The preliminary (repeated) signs
  • Wars, uprisings[8]
  • Famines[9]
  • Earthquakes[10]
  • Pestilences[11]
  •  
  •     II.            The intermediate signs
  • Persecution[12]
  • Turning away from the faith[13]
  • False prophets and messiahs[14]
  • Worldwide evangelism[15]
  •  
  •  III.            The imminent signs
  • Cosmic disturbances[16]
  • The Jewish people regaining control of Jerusalem[17]
  • The rebellion and deceptive ‘signs and wonders’ of the man of lawlessness (Antichrist) who proclaims himself to be God[18]
  • The sudden financial collapse of the world system (‘Babylon’)[19]
  •  
  • The Reminders of the End

  •  
  • There are those signs which Jesus refers to as the “beginning of birth pains” (Matt 24:8). They are events which happen frequently in the world: wars, uprisings, famines, earthquakes (Mt 24:6-7), pestilences (Lk 21:11). I have tended to use the illustration that some motorway signs refer to a far distant destination and are repeated at regular intervals as a reminder to the driver. These early repeating signs should be like that for the Christian. They are not indicating the end is literally about to happen. In speaking of these signs Jesus says: “Such things must happen, but the end is still to come” (Matthew 24:6). However, it could be said that they indicate that the end is imminent in another sense, i.e. Jesus is always ready and waiting in the wings, ready to come onto the stage of history (see below for comments by scholars on this).
  •  
  • One could argue that these signs might become more obvious as the End approaches and there are some passages in the Book of Revelation which could be interpreted that way. I deal with this suggestion in what follows.

  • 1.    Wars, uprisings,

  •  
  • Clearly, the main interest Christians should have about war is how to prevent it and how to help the victims. But Jesus also did say that war was a reminder of the end times.
  • Is war increasing?

  •  
  • Some Christians have a tendency to say that war is increasing and this increase is a sign of the end. However, quite apart from Jesus not actually speaking of the ‘sign’ of war increasing, the idea that war is increasing overall seems not at present to be borne out by the facts according to some people. They say that one of the reasons why war may seem to have increased is that we now have global media which report each conflict graphically into our living rooms.
  •  
  • At the end of 2011 Joshua Goldstein, Emeritus Professor of International Relations at American University, pointed out that there were far less deaths from war per annum in the previous ten years than in each of the previous hundred years (an average of 55,000 p.a. compared with 100,000 p.a. in the 1990s and 180,000 p.a. from 1950-1989 – many more die indirectly as a result of war). Also global military spending declined significantly at the end of the 20th century, after awesome increases in the previous four decades. Goldstein wrote: “Far from being an age of killer anarchy, the 20 years since the Cold War ended have been an era of rapid progress toward peace.” He gives various reasons:
  • ·         Wars between large national armies has all but disappeared since the Korean War.
  • ·         A growth in economic interdependence between nations. This is one of the reasons why China is relatively peaceful since the death of Mao.
  • ·         The growth of international organizations which are mutually supportive of each other and of peace within the community of democratic countries. For example the United Nations’ 100,000 deployed peacekeepers have measurably improved the success of peace agreements in civil wars.
  • ·         War no longer reallocates territory. Since shortly after World War II, virtually no borders have changed by force, and no member of the United Nations has disappeared through conquest.
  • ·         There is a growing repugnance toward institutionalized violence in many parts of the world.[20]
  •  
  • Others point out, though, that 20 years is a short time and although the UN was set up to prevent another world war some 135 wars have taken place and there were 200 million war deaths in the 20th century. In particular, democratic societies do have a tendency to go to war against autocracies. At the end of 2011 there were 18 wars taking place around the world. Also, although repugnance against institutionalised violence may have grown, it is worth remembering that 21 years after World War I “the war to end all wars” which was too terrible to repeat, World War II broke out.

The Global Peace Index  measures peace in 162 countries, covering 99.6% of the world’s population, and has discovered that since 2008, 111 countries have deteriorated in levels of peace which goes against the trend of a reduction in conflict since the Second World War. There are only 11 countries in the world free from conflict. 500 million people live in countries at risk of instability and conflict, 200 million of whom live below the poverty line. Trends in war are shifting from hostility between states, to a rise in the number and intensity of internal conflicts.

The UN Refugee Agency said that in 2013 there were 51.2 million refugees (16.7m), asylum seekers (1.2m) and internally displaced people (33.3m). The figure has exceeded 50 million for the first time since World War II.
  •  
  • Goldstein quotes peace researcher Randall Forsberg who in 1997 said: “The vanishing risk of great-power war has opened the door to a previously unimaginable future -- a future in which war is no longer socially-sanctioned and is rare, brief, and small in scale.” However Goldstein himself wrote:
  •  
  • The overall peaceful trend since 1990 may be a harbinger of even greater peace, or just an interlude before new and more terrible wars. It may be robust or fragile. It may result from understandable causes or from an unknown confluence of events. But, for now, peace is increasing. Year by year, we are winning the war on war.
  •  
  • Another argument I do not make is that reductions in war are inevitable, irreversible,or part of an immutable trend. On the contrary, history tells us that the gains humanity makes in building peace are generally fragile, reversible, and require ongoing effort to sustain. Shortly before World War I, British journalist and activist Norman Angell published The Great Illusion to great public acclaim. He argued that economic interdependence, with wealth deriving not from territory but credit and commerce, had made war and conquest self- defeating and pointless. At that time, relative peace had prevailed for almost four decades since 1871— less peace than is sometimes claimed .... but still relative peace by historical standards. A really massive great- power war had not occurred in nearly a century. It was easy to think, in 1910, that war had withered away. Instead, the World Wars followed, even though they created the economic devastation in Europe that Angell had foreseen.
  •  
  • ..... So, no, the culmination of today’s hopeful trends in the permanent end of war is not inevitable, but neither is their reversal. We have good reason to worry, in a world of more and more powerful weapons, that a new outbreak of major war would be more devastating than ever. But at the same time we have good reason for hope, that such a disaster need not happen. World peace is not preordained and inevitable, but neither is a return to large- scale war.”[21].
  •  
  • Political psychologist James Blight and Robert McNamara, former World Bank president and U. S. Secretary  of Defense project the level of warfare forward in the twenty- first century based on population growth, and suggest a “speculative” but “conservative” estimate of “at least 300 million” fatalities from war in the twenty- first century, of which perhaps 75 million would be military. That is to say, the new century would see an average of 3 million war deaths per year, with 750,000 of them military deaths. They acknowledge the tremendous uncertainties in war data and difficulties in projecting forward a hundred years, but note that “our projections . . . may well be underestimates!”[22]
  •  
  • There are various negative factors in the situation today:
  •  
  • Terrorism
  •  
  • The Global Peace Index for 2011 report states: “[2011] has seen the world become less peaceful for the third year in a row - and highlights what it says is a continuing threat of terrorism ....  Despite the decade long War on Terror, the likelihood of terrorist attacks has increased in the past year in 29 countries.” The 2012 Global Peace Index reports that: “Peacefulness has returned to approximately the levels seen in 2007, but while external measures of peacefulness have improved, there has been a rise in internal conflict. This is particularly noticeable in the rise in fatalities from terrorist acts which have more than trebled since 2003.”[23]

A new factor on the scene is, of course, the so-called ‘Islamic State.’ General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff said of the Islamic State: “This is an organisation that has an apocalyptic, end-of-days strategic vision which will eventually have to be defeated.”

British Home Secretary Theresa May said in September 2014: “If [Isis] succeed in firmly consolidating their grip on the land they occupy in Syria and Iraq, we will see the world’s first truly terrorist state established within a few hours flying time of our country. We will see terrorists given the space to plot attacks against us, train their men and women, and devise new methods to kill indiscriminately. 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.”

David Cameron commented: “We are in the middle of a generational struggle against the poisonous and extremist ideology that I believe we will be fighting for years and probably decades.”

The Islamic State has captured advanced artillery, armoured cars, battlefield tanks, anti-aircraft guns and American low altitude FIM92 Stinger manpads (man-portable air defence system). It also has three Russian-built MiG jets. In addition it took control of a large chemical weapons facility northwest of Baghdad, which contained remnants of 2,500 degraded chemical rockets filled with the deadly nerve agent sarin and other chemical warfare agents. Bodies have been discovered which have no bullet wounds but only “burns and white spots” which indicate the use of chemical weapons.

ISIS documents have been discovered which show the organisation aims to capture nuclear weapons from Iran.

It is now the case that extreme Islamist organisations control an area the size of Britain in western Iraq and eastern Syria. Then there is Afghanistan, Libya and Somalia. Boko Haram is a similar organisation to ISIS in Nigeria.

One very disturbing factor is the radicalisation of young Muslims, including from western nations, which leads them to join organisations like ISIS. In June 2014 Richard Barrett, former Head of Counter-terrorism at MI6, warned that some 300 foreign fighters from Syria may now be back in the United Kingdom.

The internet is an important new factor. One jihadist website has a slogan “Half of Jihad is Media.” Fundamentalist Sunni jihadists broadcast their propaganda daily through satellite television stations, YouTube, Twitter and Facebook. Hence they are never short of money or recruits. Hate preachers have huge followings on YouTube.

One of the problems is that Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have encouraged jihadism but they are important allies of the US. Saudi Arabia is a huge market for American arms. Wikileaks released a cable by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton which said: “Saudi Arabia remains a critical financial support base for al-Qa’ida, the Taliban, LeT [Lashkar-e-Taiba in Pakistan] and other terrorists groups.” The 9/11 Commission Report revealed that Saudi donors were the main financial support for al-Qa’ida but 28 pages of the report relating to Saudi involvement have never been published.

  • Civil unrest
  •  
  • The 1994 U.N. Human Development Report stated: “The world can never be at peace unless people have security in their daily lives. Future conflicts may often be within nations rather than between them-with their origins buried deep in growing socio-economic deprivation and disparities. The search for security in such a milieu lies in development, not in arms.”[24]  People are rising up against growing inequality and abusive power everywhere: in China, Central Asia and the Middle East

  • A new Cold War?

    Another disturbing factor on the world scene is the growing tension between Russia and the West. This has, of course, been precipitated by the crisis in Ukraine.

    Patriarch Filaret, head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, without naming him, says that Vladimir Putin (a member of the Orthodox Church) is “under the action of Satan” and is heading for “eternal damnation in hell.” President Obama has pledged $1billion to aid European defence despite warnings from Russia that any build-up of forces in Eastern Europe could lead to an arms race and a new Cold War.  Obama responded: “We are interested in good relations with Russia. We are not interested in threatening Russia” but tensions continue.
  •  
  • Nuclear war
  •  
  • It is true that the 1994 U.N. Human Development Report stated: “The world is safer today from the threat of nuclear holocaust. With the end of the cold war and the conclusion of several disarmament agreements, it is difficult to recall that so many generations since the Second World War grew up with the constant fear of a sudden, unpredictable nuclear suicide.”
  •  
  • The number of nuclear warheads has decreased significantly. In the mid-1980s, there were over 70,000 warheads and in 2000 32,512. In 2012  the Federation of American Scientists said there are an estimated 19,000 (Russia 10,000, United States 8,000, France 300, China 240, United Kingdom 225, Israel 80, Pakistan 70-110, India 80-100, North Korea less than10).[25]  However the destructive power of these smaller numbers should not be underestimated.
  •  
  • Iran is seeking to build nuclear weapons and threatens to attack Israel. Pakistan, not the most stable country in the world, has recurring disputes with India. Pakistani experts are reported to be working on a secret nuclear programme with Saudi Arabia. Then there is always the real danger of terrorists acquiring nuclear weapons.

However there is a possibility of nuclear accidents which could threaten devastating results. There have been disturbing revelations about the dangers inherent in the possession of nuclear weapons. General Lee Butler, former head of the US strategic air command which controls nuclear weapons and strategy once said that we have survived the nuclear age “by some combination of skill, luck, and divine intervention, and I suspect the latter in greatest proportion.”

This year it was revealed that in January 1961 an American plane carrying two nuclear bombs broke apart in flight dropping the weapons in North Carolina. Both bombs were knocked into ‘armed’ mode as they fell. The second bomb went through six of the seven steps to detonation and only damaged cables prevented that happening.

In 1980 a worker was carrying out routine maintenance on a nuclear missile silo in Arkansas. He dropped a spanner and ruptured the missiles fuel tank. Nine hours later the missile exploded, sending the warhead 50 yards away. Fortunately the safety devices worked.

In 2007 six cruise missiles with live nuclear warheads were flown from North Dakota to Louisiana without authorisation. The loaders confused dummy warheads with the real thing.

The problem is that the accidental detonation of a nuclear missile could cause nuclear conflict. The BBC revealed in September 2014 that in 1983 Russia’s early-warning systems registered a missile strike from the United States, and Russia’s nuclear system went onto the highest-level alert. Fortunately, Stanislav Petrov, the officer on duty, decided to disobey the protocol which required a nuclear retaliation. He was reprimanded.

In 1995, after the Cold War had finished, the Russians mistook a Norwegian research rocket for an American ballistic missile. Boris Yeltsin was two minutes away from launching retaliatory nuclear missiles, when the Norwegian rocket fell into the sea.

The turbulent Middle East

Margaret MacMillan, Professor of International History at Oxford University, has recently said that the Middle East is the modern equivalent of the Balkans where World War I was sparked off. She wrote that “A similar mix of toxic nationalisms threatens to draw in outside powers as the US, Turkey, Russia, and Iran look to protect their interests and clients.” She added that if Iran developed nuclear bombs it “would make for a very dangerous world indeed, which could lead to a recreation of the kind of tinderbox that exploded in the Balkans 100 years ago – only this time with mushroom clouds.”  Her warning was: “Now, as then, the march of globalisation has lulled us into a false sense of safety. The 100th anniversary of 1914 should make us reflect anew on our vulnerability to human error, sudden catastrophes, and sheer accident.”

Amoral Robowar

Another disturbing fact is the development of sophisticated killer robots. Robots, of course, do not have any moral revulsion against unnecessary killing and could not be programmed with any means of reconciliation. The Americans have developed the Unmanned Ground Combat Vehicle or UGV which could decide to attack, using a roof-mounted machine gun, without human intervention. They also have drones, which have already killed thousands of people. The South Koreans have developed a robotic sentry which can detect a human up to two miles away and can fire a machine gun or a grenade launcher. Hopefully the United Nations Convention on Conventional Weapons will lead to a global ban on autonomous weapons.
  •  
  • Other factors
  •  
  • There are other factors which could lead to war in the future: unprecedented population growth, climate change, and resource shortages.

  • 1.    Famines


  • Jesus also foretold that another of the preliminary and repeated signs of the end would be famine. He said: “There will be famines” (Matt 24:7).  Famine may be caused by crop failure, overpopulation, war, control of resources and income by military, political and economic elites, land being controlled by absentee landlords and their agents producing meat and butter not for the locals but to ship overseas or government policies (including the policies of rich countries). A good deal of malnutrition is not caused by famine as such, but rather by poverty. It seems appropriate to include it all under Jesus’ prediction. The whole issue of world poverty should, of course, be a major concern for Christians. As far as hunger is concerned, the situation is still very serious. The world produces enough food for everyone but:
  • ·         A fifth of the developing world's population goes hungry every night, a quarter lacks access to even a basic necessity like safe drinking water. It would take just 0.2% of the global income to raise them out of poverty. The 2010 UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimate, the most recent, says that 925 million people were undernourished in 2010.
  •  
  • ·         A quarter of the world’s children are stunted because of malnutrition (it was 40% in 1990). In developing countries this figure is 50%
  •  
  • ·         Poor nutrition plays a role in at least half of the 10.9 million child deaths each year--five million deaths.
  •  
  • ·         Children who survive long-term malnutrition still suffer – their bodies and brains don’t develop properly.[26]
  •  
  • The UN estimates the global population could reach 10 billion by the 2080s and 16 billion by the end of the century (although the latter is a controversially high figure). Oxfam calculates it will be 9.2 billion in 40 years time and the FAO says we will need to produce twice as much food to cope. Oxfam has also predicted that the price of staple foods will double in the next 20 years, which will mainly affect the poor.
  •  
  • However the FAO also says that it would be possible to feed the increased numbers, given radical changes in worldwide government policies. World agriculture produces 17 percent more calories per person today than it did 30 years ago, despite a 70 percent population increase. This is enough to provide everyone in the world with at least 2,720 kilocalories (kcal) per person per day.  The problem is that many people in the world do not have sufficient land to grow, or income to purchase, enough food. 
  •  
  • However it should be remembered that dire predictions in the past have not come to pass. In 1798 Thomas Malthus predicted in 1798 that human reproduction would end in famine and catastrophe. But the Agricultural Revolution increased food production radically. In 1968, biologist Paul Ehrlich in his bestseller, The Population Bomb, predicted the deaths of hundreds of millions in the 1970s. He accepts that he underestimated the “green revolution” but he is even more pessimistic now and, estimating there is only a 10% chance of avoiding a collapse of global civilisation. He added: “We could support a lot more people on the planet if humans were willing to share equally, but they don't: we want to design a world where everybody can lead a decent life without everybody being fair.”[27]  It is worth noting, though, that from 1970-2005 agricultural productivity rose by several times the rate required to feed nine billion people in 2050. Whether food will actually reach those in need is another matter.
  •  
  • Enough crops can be grown to feed the planet. But spiralling grain prices, stock market speculation, climate change and corrupt and failing governments have left almost a billion people facing starvation.
  •  
  • Climate change is a major factor which is going to make the earth less efficient for farming. Hurricanes will increase in intensity, and storms, floods and droughts will become more frequent. Changes in temperature and rainfall will affect what crops can be grown and productivity. It will also increase animal and plant pests and diseases. The FAO warned: ‘Slow-onset climate changes are expected to have potentially catastrophic effects on food production in many developing countries, particularly between 2050 and 2100.
  •  
  • The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts that within ten years in parts of Africa, farmers who depend on the rain to water their crops will see yields fall by up to 50 per cent. “Agricultural production, including access to food, in many African countries is predicted to be severely compromised. This would further adversely affect food security and exacerbate malnutrition,” it warns.[28]
  •  
  • In 2009 Oxfam International, published a report in which it said: “Climate change's most savage impact on humanity in the near future is likely to be in the increase in hunger … Millions of farmers will have to give up traditional crops as they experience changes in the seasons that they and their ancestors have depended on. Climate-related hunger [may become] the defining human tragedy of this century.”[29]
  •  
  • There were some 37 famines recorded in the 20th century and 17 already in the 21st century. The number of hungry people reduced from 1969 to 1997 but then sharply rose by over 200 million until 2009, reducing by 2010. The increase has been due to neglect of agriculture relevant to very poor people by governments and international agencies; the worldwide economic crisis, and the significant increase of food prices.
  •  
  • In the 21st century there have been (or are) famines in the following places: Congo (1998–2004), Zimbabwe (2000–2009), Sudan (2003), Malawi (2005), Niger (2005-2006), Somalia, Djibouti, Ethiopia and Kenya (2006 & 2008), Myanmar (2008) North Korea (2008), Afghanistan (2008), Bangladesh (2008), East Africa (2008), Tajikistan (2008), Kenya (2009), Sahel (2010) Somalia and neighbouring countries (2011) and Mali and Niger (2012).  Niger is now one of the hungriest places on earth. Some 80 per cent of harvests have failed. Locusts have destroyed crops. Food prices have tripled. The poorest families have been reduced to eating leaves to survive. The lives of six million children are in the balance.
  •  
  • The picture over famine is complex. It would be possible to reduce it radically or even eradicate it but there are various factors which could not only prevent this happening but could mean that famine will become much worse in the future. (It should be remembered that Jesus did not speak of famine increasing but only of it being a preliminary and repeated sign of the end). Clearly the exponential increase in world population means that many more people suffer in areas of deprivation than previously.
  •  
  • 2.    Earthquakes

  •  
  • Earthquakes killed an average of 50,184 people per annum between 2000 and 2008. The US Geological Survey (USGS) estimate that there are over a million earthquakes per annum but most go undetected, either because they are in very remote areas or because they are very small. The National Earthquake Information Center (NEIC) records some 50 earthquakes a day – approximately 20,000 per annum. In a recent 30 day period the USGS recorded 609 earthquakes, 12 of them more than magnitude 6.
  •  
  • As with other preliminary, repeated signs mentioned in Matthew and Luke, some people claim that there is a growing number of earthquakes. Again, Jesus did not speak about any increase..
  •  
  • The NEIC records from 1900 onwards show that there are likely to be 16 major earthquakes per year, including 15 over magnitude 7 and one over magnitude 8. The data shows that this was only exceeded in 8 years (1976, 1990, 1995, 1999, 2007, 2009, 2010 and 2011). In 2010 there were 24 earthquakes over magnitude 7.  The number of earthquakes over magnitude 6 has stayed relatively constant. 
  •  
One reason why it seems that earthquakes are increasing is because of a larger number of seismograph stations (from 350 in 1930 to over 8000 today) and an improvement in global communication. Before the 20th century records of earthquakes are much more limited. However, from the records we have since 1700, five of the largest earthquakes (over magnitude 8 ) have been in the 20th century and three in the 21st century.
  •  
  • 3.      Pestilences (Luke 21:11) Part 1 Modern diseases


  • Major advances in medicine, including preventative medicine, have transformed human health, especially in the developed world but ‘pestilences’ are still very much with us.

  • On the 28th January 2014 the Lancet Infectious Diseases journal published a study on the Black Death. It pointed out that the 6th century Justinian Plague which led to the final collapse of the Roman Empire and the 14th century were both caused by the same bacterium Yersinia. The scientists concerned think the bacterium re-emerged in the 19th century “Third Plague” pandemic in China and India, which killed millions. They then warned that their findings suggest another plague pandemic could occur from another strain of the same bacterium. The added that long periods of warm, wet weather preceded both the Justinian Plague and the Black Death, which was thought to have resulted in an explosion in the rat population. This is worrying in view of current weather trends.[30]

  • Researchers have compiled a database of 335 infectious diseases first acknowledged as a potential threat between 1940 and 2004.
  • The World Health Organisation lists various disease outbreaks. The most extensive in the 21st century are Avian influenza (in 25 countries 2003-12), Cholera (in 36 countries 2000-11), Dengue fever (in 16 countries) Ebola (in 7 countries 2000-11),   Meningitis (in 29 countries 2000-12), Plague (in 8 countries 2001-10), Polio (in 25 countries 2000-11), Rift Valley fever (in 8 countries 2000-10), SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome -in numerous countries 2003-4) and Yellow fever (in 22 countries 2000-11).The WHO lists a further 46 diseases including Anthrax, Botulism, Hepatitis E, Influenza, Lassa fever, Legionellosis, Malaria, and Swine flu.

More recently Ebola has spread alarmingly in various African countries. Ebola is “the most severe, acute health emergency seen in modern times,” said Margaret Chan, director-general of the World Health Organization in October 2014. She added that it is a “crisis for international peace and security” and added “I have never seen a health event threaten the very survival of societies and governments in already very poor countries. I have never seen an infectious disease contribute so strongly to potential state failure.”  Some, however, have accused her of alarmism.

  • Nathan Wolfe is Visiting Professor in Human Biology at Stanford University and director of the Global Viral Forecasting Initiative. He stresses the importance of Ebola, SARS, Bird Flu, HIV, influenza and Malaria as potential pandemics. He added that there is a possibility of viruses such as Bird Flu (which didn’t affect many humans despite concerns) mutating into a form which could seriously affect humans.
  • AIDS has now surpassed the Black Death and could kill 60 million people by 2015.

  •  4.      Pestilences (Luke 21:11) Part 2 Danger of pandemics


  •  Health authorities are alert to the continuing danger of pandemics. For example, the World Health Organisation (WHO) Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network (GOARN) states: “Today, there is growing recognition that an outbreak anywhere can potentially represent an emergency of international public health concern. Outbreaks threaten the health of the world’s population. They require regional and global alert and response mechanisms to ensure rapid access to technical advice and resources and to support national public health capacity. No single institution or country has all of the capacities to respond to international public health emergencies caused by epidemics and by new and emerging infectious diseases.”
  •  Sally Osberg, CEO of the Skoll Foundation, which encourages and supports innovators who seek to solve the world’s most pressing problems, said: “Pandemics pose an enormous threat to us all. Often, by the time a new virus is discovered, it’s too late to contain it.”
  •  
  • Writing in the Wall Street Journal in May 2009, Larry Brilliant, an epidemiologist, and chairman of the National Biosurveillance Advisory Subcommittee, stated: “We might be entering an Age of Pandemics. In our lifetimes, or our children’s lifetimes, we will face a broad array of dangerous emerging 21st-century diseases, man-made or natural, brand-new or old, newly resistant to our current vaccines and antiviral drugs …. Naturally occurring diseases with pandemic potential are much more ubiquitous and more certain to occur. Over the last decades, we have seen more than three dozen new infectious diseases appear, some of which could kill millions of people with one or two unlucky gene mutations or one or two unfavorable environmental changes.”

  • a.       Factors favouring pandemics: Global communication


  •  We now live in a global village and so the possibility of infection being spread around the world is high. One example proves the point. A flight from Buenos Aires to Los Angeles stopped in Lima in 1992, and picked up some seafood infected with the cholera then making the rounds in Peru. As a result, dozens of passengers who arrived in Los Angeles, some of whom then changed planes and flew on to Nevada and even as far as Japan, found that they had contracted cholera. Within days that single airplane spread cholera 10,000 miles around the whole rim of the Pacific Basin.

As Israeli journalist, Ruth Schuster put it: “The next generation of virologists and immunologists needs to be prepared because in this age of jet travel, a contagious disease could devastate the human species. The flu pandemic of 1918 killed 20 million to 40 million people and that’s before people and their germs were casually climbing onto planes.”

  • b.       Factors favouring pandemics: Increased contacts between humans and animals


  • Scientists are aware that many diseases spread to humans from animals. In April 2009 Scientific American reported the likely sources of various diseases, namely AIDS (from chimpanzees), Hepatitis B (from apes), Influenza A (from wild birds), Plague (from rodents), Dengue fever (from Old World primates), East African and West African sleeping sickness (from wild and domestic ruminants), vivax  malaria (from Asian macaques), Yellow fever (from African primates) and Chagas’ disease (from many wild and domestic animals).  Bird flu, SARS, West Nile, Monkey-pox and Ebola also came from animals.

  • Scholars such as Mark Woolhouse, Professor of Infectious Disease Epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, have found at least 868 human pathogens that infect both animals and humans, although in the last 40 years, only HIV has become a pandemic, with some 40 million people affected, rising to possibly 60 million in three years time.

  • c.       Factors favouring pandemics: Causes of increased human-animal contact


i.            Global warming affects agriculture and leads to deforestation. Yet forests served as a barrier  to viruses which pass from animals tohumans.
 
A 2009 Oxfam report on climate change says many diseases are already migrating as temperatures rise.
  • ii.            World poverty causes poor people to eat more wild animals.
  • iii.            Factory farming increases risk to human health.

  • d.       Factors favouring pandemics: Drug-resistant microbes and Bioterrorism

  •  
  •                     i.            The spread of antibiotic resistant bacteria is a major threat to human health. The World Health Organisation calls it “one of the three greatest threats to human health.”
  •  
  • The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in September that 23,000 people in the United States die each year as a direct result of drug resistant infections and 14,000 die from related infections.[31] It lists 18 bacteria which are a serious threat to patients and its director, Tom Frieden said this resistance is “one of our most serious health threats” which would undermine life-saving treatments such as chemotherapy, kidney dialysis and organ transplantation.[32]
  •  
  • Dr Margaret Chan, the director general of the World Health Organisation said in 2012 that there was a danger that normal infections such as "strep throat or a child's scratched knee" could kill, because bacteria had evolved to survive treatments.[33]
  •  
  • David Willetts, UK Minister of State for Universities and Science has warned that this problem could be as serious threat as global warming.[34]
  •  
  • The UK’s Chief Medical Officer, Dame Sally Davies said drug-resistant infections could lead to an “apocalyptic scenario” in the mid-21st century.[35]
  •  
In 2014 David Cameron spoke to the press about the emergence of untreatable bacteria. He said: “This is not some distant threat, but something happening right now … If we fail to act, we are looking at an almost unthinkable scenario where antibiotics no longer work and we are cast back into the dark ages of medicine, where treatable infections and injuries will kill once again. That simply cannot be allowed to happen and I want to see a stronger, more coherent global response.”

Dr Keiji Fukuda, the World Health Organisation's assistant director general for health security said that unless adequate international action is taken, once-beaten diseases will re-emerge as global killers and common infections and minor injuries which have been treatable for decades will once again kill people. It is regarded by experts as a threat equal to climate change and global terrorism.

  • Antibiotics are not only used unnecessarily in humans but also in food animals. It is estimated that 80% of the antibiotics used in America are used on animals to promote growth.

  •                   ii.            Bioterrorism: a few years ago Martin Rees, Master of Trinity College, Cambridge and head of the Royal Society, predicted that bioterror or bioerror would unleash a catastrophic event claiming one million lives in the next two decades.

  • e.    Factors favouring pandemics: experimentation going wrong

  •  
  • Some scientists are exploring how Bird Flu (H5N1) could become more infectious and cause a global pandemic. However 22 other scientists wrote to scientific journals recently criticising these experiments as creating a danger of accidental release of a pandemic strain of the virus. It has killed half the patients infected by it.
  •  
  • Professor Lord May, a former government chief scientist and past president of the Royal Society, called for a moratorium on this research back in January 2013 because “there is the opportunity for evil people to pervert it.”
  •  
  • Dr Robert Webster, a virologist, said: “As long as H5N1 is out there in the world, there is the possibility of disaster… There is the theoretical possibility that it can acquire the ability to transmit human-to-human …. And then God help us.”
  •  
  • Dr. Thomas Inglesby, a bioterrorism expert and director of the Center for Biosecurity of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center said: “It’s just a bad idea for scientists to turn a lethal virus into a lethal and highly contagious virus. And it’s a second bad idea for them to publish how they did it so others can copy it.”
  •  
  • When asked about the possibility of a future virus wiping out tens of millions of people, disease scientists give a range of answers from maybe to probably.

In September 2014 scientists discovered old vials containing smallpox, ricin, plague and botulism between 60 and 100 years old in a US laboratory. They were not stored in accordance with security regulations. In July 2014 6 vials of smallpox viruses were found in a cardboard box in a Maryland laboratory. The same month anthrax was discovered in unlocked refrigerators (or refrigerators with a key in the lock) some in an unrestricted hallway. Some anthrax containers were missing and had to be found. Some 75 scientists in Atlanta may have been exposed to anthrax because proper procedures were not followed. Samples were transferred to laboratories not equipped to deal with them.
  •  
  • What scholars say on the Reminders (or Repeated Signs) of the End

  • Jesus says that they (false messiahs, war, uprisings, famines, earthquakes and pestilences) are “the beginning of birth-pains” (v. 8). This is a technical term. The rabbis used this term of the sufferings which would precede Messiah’s coming. However Jesus makes it quite clear that “the End is still to come” (v. 6).

  • Professor C E B Cranfield, commenting on Mark 13:8 “These things are the beginning of birth-pains, writes “Though these things do not mean that the End is come, they do point to it and are a pledge of it. To the eye of faith they are full of promise.”[36]  He adds: “If we realize that the Incarnation-Crucifixion-Resurrection-Ascension, on the one hand, and the Parousia, on the other, belong essentially together and are in a real sense one Event, one divine Act, being held apart only by the mercy of God who desires to give men opportunity for faith and repentance, then we can see that in a very real sense the latter is always imminent now that the former has happened. It was, and still is, true to say that the Parousia is at hand—and indeed this, so far from being an embarrass­ing mistake on the part either of Jesus or of the early Church, is an essential part of the Church's faith. Ever since the Incarnation men have been living in the last days.”[37]
  •  
  • Professor Anthony Hoekema says: Since these signs are mentioned in Jesus' eschatological discourse, we should consider them as included in the general category of ‘signs of the times.’ The following comments however, should be made about them ..... These are not, strictly speaking, signs of the end. For Jesus says plainly about these signs that when they take place his people must not be alarmed, for ‘the end is not yet’ (Matt. 24:6). To the same effect are his words at the end of verse 8: ‘All these are the beginning of birth pains’ (NIV). The expression here used became a technical term in rabbinic literature to describe the period of suffering preceding messianic deliverance, arche odinon, ‘the birthpangs (of the Messiah).’ In other words, when wars, earthquakes, and famines occur, we are not to think  that the return of Christ is immediately at hand. These signs point toward the end and provide a pledge that it will come .... When they occur, we are not to become fearful, but are to accept them as the birthpangs of a better world.”[38]
  •  
  • R T France says ‘birth pains’ refers to  the period of suffering which must lead up to the new age)” and adds: “while all such events have an ultimate connection with the final consummation, they are far from being its immediate precursors, and so cannot be used to plot its nearness.”[39]
  •  
  • The IVP Commentary comments: “While catastrophic events do not allow us to predict how soon the Lord is coming—such events have happened throughout history (Ladd 1956:72 n. 1; pace Frost 1924:18-19)—they do remind us that such problems characterize this age, summoning us to long for our Lord's coming all the more fervently. Jesus warns us what kind of sufferings we must face.”[40]
  •  
  • Prof R V G Tasker writes: “[Jesus] warns them … not to imagine that events which might seem to be cataclysmic in character, such as wars between nations, earthquakes, and widespread famines, were infallible signs that the end was near. Such happenings would in fact constitute the prolonged birth pangs of the new age.”[41]
  •  
  • The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia states: “The parousia is preceded by certain signs heralding its approach. Judaism, on the basis of the Old Testament, had worked out the doctrine of “the woes of the Messiah,” chebhele ha-mashiach, the calamities and afflictions attendant upon the close of the present and the beginning of the coming age being interpreted as birth pains of the latter.”[42]
  •  
  • So these events are to be seen as the beginning of the sufferings preceding the End of the Age, and as Reminders that the End is coming.
  •  
  • More on the “beginning of the birth-pains” [of the coming of Messiah] Matt 24:8

  •  
  • We have noted that Jesus mentions such signs as war, famine and earthquakes. In this area, a report has just come out that alarming quantities of Methane are being released from the Arctic (due to global warming) which, if it continues will cause much more extreme weather, damaging rise in sea level and spreading of deserts.  The results would be catastrophic for millions of people. Methane is at least 20 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. The report claims the enormous economic effects of this Methane release could be £40 trillion, almost the whole annual global economic output (although that figure is open to debate). The gas is being released because floating sea ice (which reflects the sun’s heat back into space) has melted dramatically, as has permafrost (hitherto permanently-frozen ice in the Arctic tundra) which traps Methane beneath it. Experts say this has only been detected in the last ten years. As always, our first response should be to pray – for governments to take appropriate action and for the protection of the vulnerable. But, as Jesus said, we should also recognise this as a “birth-pain of the coming of Messiah.”  Linked with other factors, such as nuclear weapons being obtained by terrorists or rogue states, it makes the apocalyptic predictions of the Book of Revelation (however symbolical their language) seem very credible.
  •  
  • Inevitably some people have criticised the Report, saying it won’t have catastrophic results. If you’re interested see the article “Arctic methane catastrophe scenario is based on new empirical observations” in The Guardian which states that these criticisms are based on outdated assumptions. Methane levels are at unanticipated record highs. Prof Peter Wadhams, head of Polar ocean physics at Cambridge University said critics were unaware of unique and unprecedented factors.
  •  
  • A 2010 scientific analysis led by the UK's Met Office in Review of Geophysics stated: “Overall, uncertainties are large, and it is difficult to be conclusive about the time scales and magnitudes of methane feedbacks, but significant increases in methane emissions are likely, and catastrophic emissions cannot be ruled out... The risk of a rapid increase in [methane] emissions is real but remains largely unquantified.”
  •  


[1] Matt 24:42-44

[2] Mark 13:35-37

[3] Luke 21:36

[4] 1 Thess 1:10

[5] 1 Thess 2:19

[6] 1 Thess 3:13

[7] 1 Thess 5:4-6

[8] Matt 24:6-18

[9] Matt 24:6-18

[10] Matt 24:6-18

[11] Luke 21:11

[12] Mt 24:9ff

[13] Mt 24:10

[14] Mt 24:11, 24

[15] Mt 24:14

[16] Mt 24:29

[17] Lk 21:24

[18] 2 Thess 2:1-12

[19] Rev 18

[20] http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2011/08/15/think_again_war

[21] Winning the War on War by Joshua S. Goldstein (Dutton, Sept. 2011)

[22] Quoted in Winning the War on War by Joshua S. Goldstein (Dutton, Sept. 2011)

[23] http://www.visionofhumanity.org/info-center/global-peace-index-2011/

[24] http://hdr.undp.org/en/reports/global/hdr1994/chapters/

[25] http://www.fas.org/programs/ssp/nukes/nuclearweapons/nukestatus.html

[26] http://www.savethechildren.org.uk/sites/default/files/docs/A%20Life%20Free%20From%20Hunger%20UK%20low%20res.pdf

[27] http://www.ejsd.org/docs/The_Population_Bomb_Revisited.pdf

[28] Quoted in http://www.christianaid.org.uk/images/hungry-for-justice.pdf

[29] http://policy-practice.oxfam.org.uk/publications/suffering-the-science-climate-change-people-and-poverty-114606

[31] http://www.cdc.gov/drugresistance/threat-report-2013/

[32] http://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2013/t0916_health-threats.html

[33] http://www.who.int/dg/speeches/2012/amr_20120314/en/

[34]http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/drugresistant-bacteria-as-big-a-threat-as-climate-change-and-water-shortages-for-future-generations-warns-science-minister-david-willetts-8655032.html

[35] http://www.livescience.com/26586-superbugs-apocalypse-sally-davies.html

[36] C E B Cranfield,, The Gospel according to Saint Mark, Cambridge University Press, 1959, p. 396.

[37] Ibid., p. 408.

[38] Anthony Hoekema, The Bible and the Future, Eerdmans, GrandRapids 1979, p 162-163.

[39] R T France, Matthew Tyndale NT Commentaries, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids 1989, p. 338

[41] R V G Tasker, The Gospel according to Matthew, Tyndale NT Commentaries, Tyndale Press London 1961, p. 223



© Tony Higton: see conditions for copying on the Home Page