When I last visited Karlštejn castle in what was once the kingdom of Bohemia, I perused a chapel which had its walls covered with a frenetic mural from some 500 years ago. The mural laid out each scene from the book of Revelation in order. Our guide explained that “people from this era were obsessed with the idea that it was the end of days.” She elaborated that the medieval Bohemians interpreted several contemporary wars, plagues, and an earthquake as signs that they were living in the end times.
And of course, they were not alone in that belief. In the churches I grew up in, there was a pervasive belief that we had reached the end of time and that was why our churches were shrinking. Sermons and Sunday school lessons routinely referred to why the world was “gospel-hardened” and used that as a way to explain the distinct lack of fruit our churches were bearing. There was frequent talk about the end of days. Many news events were understood in the light of prophecy.
The mere belief that “the end of the world is nigh” is not a problem. However, the version of this belief that I grew up with was distinctly counter-productive. There were two basic premises to how they understood the last days:
1) Everything has been getting worse.
2) Everything will continue to get worse and there is nothing we can do about it.
As it turns out, belief 1 isn’t factual and belief 2 isn’t biblical.
Is everything getting worse?
As evidence that we were living in the last days, frequent references were made to the state of world affairs. Microchips and the mark of the beast were discussed in hushed tones. News of any tension between nations was sure to evolve into the next world war. Any threats against Israel would inevitably portend Armageddon.
It is very easy to find statistics proclaiming the 20th century as the most violent in history. The reality is the complete opposite. Taken in absolute terms, more people died untimely deaths in the 20th century than any other, however, this is primarily because the world’s population exploded in size. Why did the world’s population explode? Because the 20th century saw tremendous progress in science, reduction in crime, and diminishment of war. Percent terms matter far more than absolute terms.
To understand that, consider this question. If your primary concern was safety from violence and you had two choices to visit on your vacation, would you go to New York City or Ciudad Victoria in Mexico? In the most recent year for which I have data, 318 people were murdered in NYC and 314 in Ciudad Victoria. On face, NYC seems to be a bit more dangerous. However, you won’t be surprised to learn that the population of NYC is 23 times greater than population of our Mexican metropolis, so the rate of homicide is 86 deaths per 100,000 in Ciudad Victoria and a mere 3 per 100,000 in New York City. New York City is far safer. This is an illustration of the world. The ancient world was Ciudad Victoria, the modern world is New York City. A massively expanded population, and better outcomes in per capita terms on almost every metric.
Don’t take my word for it – look it up. The data speaks for itself. This is a great source on violence: https://slides.ourworldindata.org/war-and-violence/#/title-slide
For a sample, look at the reduction in homicide rates over recent history:
This is just one measure of improvement. There are many others. We can look at health outcomes, as approximated by life expectancy. In the pre-modern world, global average life expectancy was around 30 years, today the average is 72 years, with many countries having an average life expectancy of 80+ years. In 1950, not a single country had a life expectancy of 72 years or better. Even when you factor in such scary things as the Covid-19 pandemic, it must be scaled against the Black Death, which killed between 30% – 60% of the population of the infected regions. Unless at least 2 billion people die from Covid-19, you can’t make the case that things are getting worse.
We can look at human freedom as well, as measured by the type of government that people live under. While no government is perfect, if I offered you a choice between moving to a randomly selected democracy or a randomly selected autocracy, I’m pretty sure I know which one you would choose. Democracies are much better at protecting human rights and improving standard of living. More countries are democratic today than at any point in history.
I could go on for a very long time pointing out obvious improvements to our world. Improvements in education, standard of living, access to law enforcement, and many other things. But these are mere temporary matters, what about matters of eternity? Let’s look at the church around the world.
Though I understand that not everyone who claims the name of Christ follows his commands, the percentage of the world that owns him at least in name is at an all-time high. Certainly 0% of the Americas was Christian before 1492, and most of Sub-Saharan Africa hadn’t heard the name of Christ until the 1700’s. The Chinese church was miniscule until the 1800’s, and there are officially 29 million believers there now (and the real number may be as high as 100 million).
For an encouraging read and a lot more well-sourced data, check out “The Myth of the Dying Church” by Glen Stanton. As noted there, in 1776, church attendance in America was only around 17%. While weekly church attendance in America today is around 35%, which is down from 44% in the 1950’s, it is still normal by historical American standards. Furthermore, the denominations that are dying are the most liberal ones, that denied the veracity of Scripture decades ago. Larger conservative denominations and the conservative side of the non-denominational movement are growing notably faster that population growth. I would concede that the American church has less cultural influence than it did 50 years ago, but it is far from dead and even if it was, the developing world is not following our trend.
Just to take an example, in Haiti in the 1950’s, the Protestant church made up only about 12% of the population, today it is 30% – an eight-fold growth in churches when factoring in population growth. Evangelicalism is exploding in many parts the world, and the Church is far from defeated. Weekly church attendance in sub-Saharan Africa is an astonishing 71%! There are many concerns to be sure, but the numbers don’t support the idea that the Church of Jesus Christ is on life support.
Ah, but what about the evils of our time? What about moral relativism, abortion, and gender confusion? Certainly, these are grave matters. But there were evils of other times as well. We got rid of legal human slavery and all of the barbarous exploitation that went along with it. We got rid of mob justice, lynching, and witch trials. We got rid of dueling, a whole lot of racism, and quite a bit of anti-Semitism. Eugenics was incredibly popular in the early 1900’s and is mostly out of vogue now. The once popular beliefs in the divine right of kings and romantic nationalism led to much oppression and many pointless wars. And of course, many practices and beliefs we oppose now, were faced by the earliest church as well. There are evils and false teachings in each generation. The truth never changes, but bad ideas come and go.
In summary, I do not think the evidence in any way supports the idea that world today is objectively a worse place to live or worse for the Church than it was in 1800, 1500, or 500. If you had choice to be born any time between 150 AD and now, I suspect you would choose sometime in the last 100 years – if you didn’t, I guarantee you you would regret that choice. Things have changed, many things have improved, and sinful man is still sinful man. If these are the trends of the world, then the idea that everything is getting worse and there is nothing that can be done about it is patently false.
The fact that many things have improved in the past means that more things can improve in the future. I’m not saying that things must improve, or even predicting that they will improve, but rather pointing out that they certainly can improve. The gospel can go to new regions and flourish there. Governments can improve and the poor can be raised from poverty. Why can’t extreme poverty be eliminated in Africa? It was eliminated in much of South East Asia in the past half-century and eliminated in Europe in the half-century before that. Why can’t a new Christian nation be founded? Why can’t we see the third Great Awakening? It has all happened before. Where did God write that it was time for the church to throw in the towel?
What does the Bible say about the last days?
More significant than what I think or what you think about the end times is what the Bible says about it. The Bible references the subject quite a bit. The basic point the Bible makes becomes clear after reading only a few verses.
One of the first New Testament references to end times come from Christ himself in the Olivet discourse, recorded in Matthew, Mark, and Luke.
To take a brief section from Luke’s account, after Jesus talks about the destruction of the temple (a clearly first century event) the disciples ask what the sign is that the destruction of the temple is about to occur. Jesus answers them in verse 10:
Then said he unto them, Nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: And great earthquakes shall be in divers places, and famines, and pestilences; and fearful sights and great signs shall there be from heaven. But before all these, they shall lay their hands on you, and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues, and into prisons, being brought before kings and rulers for my name’s sake.
Jesus moves from talking about the destruction of the temple to the signs that it was about to occur. This is the context in which he talks about “wars and rumors of wars” – to a first century audience, telling them the signs that they should expect to see before the destruction of the temple in 70 AD. And how can we be sure that he hasn’t transitioned to talking about the distant future here? Simple – he tells his disciples “they shall lay hands on you” and then tells them that they will be delivered up to “the synagogues.” I’ve heard of a lot of persecution in the past century, but I don’t believe that it is taking place in front of kings and in synagogues. This is clearly written to describe something that took place 2,000 years ago. The careful reader might note that this passage says the persecution comes before the wars, famines, etc. However, in Matthew’s account, the persecution comes first. If we combine the two accounts, we understand that the first-century persecution is intertwined with the wars, earthquakes, etc., which also clearly occurred in the first century.
In Acts 2:15-17, Peter quotes the prophet Joel to explain the sight of the disciples speaking in dozens of languages and says:
For these are not drunken, as ye suppose, seeing it is but the third hour of the day. But this is that which was spoken by the prophet Joel; And it shall come to pass in the last days, saith God, I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh: and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams:
Peter refers to the day of Pentecost as the fulfillment of a prophecy about the “last days.” This prophecy may still be applicable to today, but it was certainly fulfilled initially in AD 33, because Peter makes that clear.
Starting in 2 Timothy 3:1, Paul gives Timothy some advice about living in end times.
This know also, that in the last days perilous times shall come. For men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, Without natural affection, trucebreakers, false accusers, incontinent, fierce, despisers of those that are good, Traitors, heady, highminded, lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God; Having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away.
In verse 10 he continues the practical advice:
But thou hast fully known my doctrine, manner of life, purpose, faith, longsuffering, charity, patience, Persecutions, afflictions, which came unto me at Antioch, at Iconium, at Lystra; what persecutions I endured: but out of them all the Lord delivered me. Yea, and all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution. But evil men and seducers shall wax worse and worse, deceiving, and being deceived. But continue thou in the things which thou hast learned and hast been assured of, knowing of whom thou hast learned them;
If Paul only meant these words to apply to people in the distant future, he would not have written instructions to Timothy as to how he should deal with such people. He wrote “from such [people] turn away,” “all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution,” and “but continue thou in the things which thou hast learned.” Rather, he would have said “be glad you won’t have to meet people like this, they’ll be showing up in a few thousand years.” Certainly, Paul writes this passage to Timothy as if he is giving instructions to Timothy in how to deal with these people. Paul looks like he thought he was living in the “last days” and that Timothy would be dealing with these last days kind of problems.
In 2 Peter 3:3, the apostle provides his audience with additional end times instruction.
Knowing this first, that there shall come in the last days scoffers, walking after their own lusts, And saying, Where is the promise of his coming? for since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of the creation.
Peter then goes on to discuss how unbelievers would reject God and concludes with a warning to his first century audience in verse 17.
Ye therefore, beloved, seeing ye know these things before, beware lest ye also, being led away with the error of the wicked, fall from your own steadfastness.
Peter warns his first-century hearers not to follow the scoffers in the last days. Like Paul, he doesn’t wax prophetic and tell his hearers “Be glad you’re not in the last days yet.” He makes it plain that they are already living in these last days and that these end-times scoffers are already walking among them.
But if my interpretation of Peter is insufficient, Iet’s look at Jude’s interpretation of that passage in Jude verses 17-18
But, beloved, remember ye the words which were spoken before of the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ; How that they told you there should be mockers in the last time, who should walk after their own ungodly lusts.
Jude is clearly quoting Peter here (“mockers” and “scoffers” is the same Greek word, and the only two times it is used in Scripture). Jude is applying Peter’s teaching to his first century audience. Additional reading of the passage emphasizes that Peter’s teaching is not intended uniquely for an audience in the distant future, but applies then, in a time Jude and Peter both referred to as “the last time.”
In 1 John 2:18, the apostle John is so clear to his audience as to remove all doubt. He says:
Little children, it is the last time: and as ye have heard that antichrist shall come, even now are there many antichrists; whereby we know that it is the last time.
In the original language, the word for “time” can also be translated as “hour” and is done so 89 times in the KJV. When is the last time or last hour? Then. Sometime around 60 AD was the last time. John leaves no ambiguity.
Interpreting the biblical sense of the last days
There are two relevant interpretation options for these passages.
1) These passages were written solely or mostly about the distant future. This is the de facto interpretation I grew up with for the bulk of these passages. These passages were read when talking about the book of Revelation and the second coming of Christ. These passages were read to explain perceived changes in American culture from the alleged golden age of the 1950’s. The problem is that the Bible clearly teaches that all of these passages were directly relevant to the first century audiences.
2) These passages were talking about events that occurred in the first century and were either completely or partially fulfilled in that time. While there are many camps for interpreting eschatology, I can find a position sufficiently large enough to find common ground with most of them. These passages are talking about both events that occurred in the first century and events that would occur later. Thus they were talking about the whole final era before the second coming, which we could call the church age, or the “last days.” The window for the use of these instructions opened in 33 AD, stays open for 2, 3, or more millennium, and then closes when Christ returns.
As noted above, possibility 1 is not biblical, because it requires you to distort the obvious first century applications in the texts. If we acknowledge that the first century believers were living in the last days, the takeaway is the simple. Circumstances today are bad, in some sense, but not necessarily worse than they were in the first century.
“The last days” is a phrase God uses to refer to all the time after Christ’s departure from earth. Believing that we live in the last days is not a problem, it is biblical. But how we understand what that means makes all the difference in the world.
How ought we to live?
So what is the point of all of this? Am I trying to lure you into a false sense of security? To think that the world is improving, therefore the end cannot come? No. I think we have been living in the last days for 2,000 years. The Bible says we are. However, our experience over two millennium of living in the last days shows that the world and church can improve and often does.
I have absolutely no Biblical reason to believe that the last days will not continue until the year 5,000. Some people point to the creation of the secular Jewish state in 1948 as concrete fulfillment of prophecy (despite the fact that the prophecy clearly says that the Jews would return to following God’s commands, not just create a secular state that largely rejects both the Old Covenant and the New – Ezekiel 36:25-27). All of the prophecy referring to the reunification of Israel occurs before its reunification under Ezra and Nehemiah, so it seems more likely to me that the older event (plus the coming of the Messiah) is the one to which the prophecy refers. Even if you believe that the 1948 event is what Ezekiel was talking about, all subsequent attempts to predict the return of Christ based on adding some window of time to the creation of Israel have failed … badly. Many preachers from many denominations have egg on their faces from bad predictions.
What is the point? Jesus wanted us to live like we were in the last days in the sense that we were always mindful of his return – never imagining that this life was all there was. Jesus did not have in mind that we would use our end times theology as justification for abandoning the great commission.
We live in the same last days that the Pilgrims lived in who brought the gospel to a new continent. We live in the same last days as the missionaries who first brought the gospel to Africa. We live in the same end times in which the disciples brought the gospel to Europe.
Think of how the Egyptians under Joseph understood the last days of plenty. They understood those seven years as a time to work hard, before the famine came. Jesus wants us to labor as though the fields are white for harvest (they are). He doesn’t want us cowering in our churches like an abused animal – cringing in the knowledge that the apocalypse is inevitable.
Yes, we have to deal with “lovers of their own selves,” covetous people, and scoffers, but so did Timothy, and you don’t see him using that as an excuse not to evangelize.
Protestantism has grown by 35% from 2000-2019. The Church is on a roll. So, if your local congregation isn’t growing, it’s high time to stop blaming the apocalypse.
Find this interesting? Check out all of our articles here.
Violence trends: https://slides.ourworldindata.org/war-and-violence/#/title-slide
Life Expectancy trends: https://ourworldindata.org/life-expectancy
Governance Trends: https://www.systemicpeace.org/polityproject.html
Chinese Church Numbers: https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/christianity-china
Growth of Protestantism: Status of Global Christianity, 2019, In the Context of 1900-2050.
African Church Attendance: The Triumph of Faith: Why the World is More Religious Than Ever by Rodney Stark
American Church Attendance: The Churching of America, 1776-2005: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy by Roger Fink and Rodney Stark
Various other facts like the fatality rate of the Black Death and murder rate of New York city are in the public domain and easily checked.