The Real 2012
For the form of this world is passing away.
–1 Cor. 7:31
In November of this year (2009), Hollywood will release the mother of all doomsday movies, 2012. Basing their story line on ancient Mayan prophecies, the producers of this film have employed state of the art special effects to depict—graphically and terrifyingly—the end of the world. Multitudes—including the skeptics—will attend. Multitudes—including many of the skeptics—will indeed be terrified. And multitudes, for the next three years, will wrestle with secret doubts and fears, wondering if the world really will end in 2012.
As a Christian, I believe I understand the attraction of doomsday movies like this one. It is rooted in our innate awareness of our own sin and guilt. It is rooted in our innate awareness of the sin and guilt of the world at large. And it is rooted in our innate awareness of God: that he exists, that he is holy, that he is the Moral Governor of all, that he sees our sin and guilt, and that it would therefore be quite reasonable for him to destroy the world since it deserves to be destroyed. Even if we know nothing of the Bible; even if we have never heard of the Flood, or Sodom and Gomorrah, or the destruction of Jericho; even if we are completely ignorant of the Bible’s own predictions of the second coming of Christ and the Last Judgment, it matters not: Somehow, we still sense (and fear) that the end is indeed coming. Quite understandably, we want to be ready for it. Maybe attending a movie will help.
Here in the West, the oldest and most trusted version of the end of the world is found in the Bible. This means that after people see 2012 they will likely turn to pastors and Bible teachers for insight and comfort. It is a reasonable thing to do. This is because there is no evidence whatsoever for the trustworthiness of Mayan prophecy, whereas there is abundant evidence for the trustworthiness of biblical prophecy. Moreover, unlike Hollywood’s lurid offerings, the biblical teaching here is not designed to titillate but to educate; not to terrify but to edify; not to sow despair but to engender hope. In short, the biblical teaching is lovingly meant to prepare us for the end; indeed, it is actually meant to arouse in our hearts a profound and passionate longing for it!
Have you seen this movie? Do you have questions about the end of the world? Are you or your loved ones afraid that it really will come in 2012? Would you like to know more about what the Bible says on the subject–and why it is more reasonable to believe the Bible than Mayan legends or Hollywood doomsday flicks?1
If so, this essay is for you. As a former pastor and current Bible teacher I have prayerfully written it in hopes that it will answer your questions, calm your fears (unless they are healthy and appropriate), and fill you with rich and lasting hope, not simply for the end of the present evil world, but for the unspeakable joys of the glorious new world that the Bible says is coming soon.
Before examining the biblical teaching on the consummation (i.e., the completion of God’s purposes and plans for the world), we must say a few words about the crucially important idea of salvation history.
Let us begin with a look at the Bible itself. Though it is comprised of 66 books written by about 40 authors over the space of some 1600 years, the Bible nevertheless tells a single story: the story of the creation, fall, and redemption of the universe, life, and man. The story of the creation appears in Genesis 1 and 2. The story of Adam and Eve’s probation in the Garden of Eden, their temptation at the mouth of the evil angel Satan, and the terrible consequences of their fall into sin all appear in Genesis 3 (see also Luke 4; Romans 5, 8). The rest of the Bible—from Genesis 4 to Revelation 22—tells about God’s redemptive response to their sin and the sin of their offspring. In other words, the vast majority of the Bible presents us with the story of God’s redemptive activity in history: the steps that he has taken–and yet will take–to secure forgiveness for his people’s sin, to rescue them from all their (spiritual and physical) enemies, and to restore them and their world to the joy and wholeness of eternal life in communion with him. For this reason, theologians speak of the Bible as a book of salvation history: It is the history of God’s works for the salvation of his people and their world.
Now all who are familiar with the New Testament understand that the single most important thing we can say about salvation history is this: The God-Man–Jesus Christ–lies at its very heart. The following sketch of the course of salvation history will show us just how true this affirmation really is.
The Christ-Centered Course of Salvation History
According to the New Testament, long before the creation of the world God the Father knew that mankind would fall into sin, suffering, and death. Therefore, he decided that at just the right moment (“in the fullness of time”) he would send his divine Son into the world to become “the Last Adam;” to become a sinless human being and the “head” (or representative) of his chosen people; to be the One who would live a perfect life on their behalf and then die on the cross for their sins. Having done so—having actually accomplished his people’s redemption by his righteous life and atoning death—Christ would then rise from the dead, ascend into heaven, and sit down at his Father’s own right hand, henceforth to serve as the exalted Lord of all, the divine ruler of heaven and earth. The primary purpose of Christ’s heavenly reign would be to apply the redemption that he had purchased for his people during his life on earth. He would do this by sending the Holy Spirit to his disciples, then sending his disciples out into the world to proclaim the Gospel (i.e., the good news about his redemptive work), and then opening the hearts of God’s people to believe it and turn to him in repentance and faith. When at last, through the preaching of his Church, Christ had thus brought all of God’s elect to himself, he would descend from heaven bodily and in great glory to consummate (i.e., to complete) the rest of God’s plans and purposes for the universe, life, and man.
The Old Testament pictures, promises, and prepares for all these great judicial and redemptive events. The New Testament tells of their partial fulfillment in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, and the growth of his Church in the earth. But both Old and New Testaments still look forward to the Day of Christ’s return in glory, and to the awesome acts by which he himself will bring the present evil world to an end.2
A People Prepared for the Lord
With all this as background, we are nearly ready to examine the Bible’s teaching on the consummation. First, however, we must pause to consider a bit more deeply God’s purpose for the present time in which we all live: the era of Christ’s invisible heavenly reign, the portion of salvation history—now some 2000 years long—between his first coming and his last.
As we have just seen, this era is, above all else, a time of spiritual testing for men and women of all nations. Why? Because the Lord Jesus Christ, the High King of Heaven, is sending his ambassadors to people everywhere. He is confronting them with the Gospel, the good news that they can experience forgiveness of sins and the joys of eternal life simply by trusting in him and his finished work. He is testing them to see if they will love spiritual truth enough to consider his claims carefully, to examine the evidence that confirms them honestly, and to submit themselves to him willingly, as Savior and Lord, if and when they see that those claims are true (John 3; Acts 17; 2 Thessalonians 2).
Just here we meet a biblical teaching of the greatest possible interest to spiritual seekers: The New Testament assures us that anyone who seeks the truth will find it (Matthew 7:7-11); that if indeed they do trust in Christ they are henceforth forgiven of their sins; and that being forgiven of their sins they have already escaped the wrath to come, since Christ himself bore God’s wrath for them on the cross (John 5:24; Romans 5:1f). Moreover, they will see that they already have eternal life—life in intimate spiritual communion with the triune God—so that for them the consummation becomes a promise of still greater things to come (John 14; Colossian 3:1-4; 1 Peter 1:13). And they will see that when Christ finally does return at the end of the age, it will only be to perfect them in holiness, health, and everlasting joy; it will only be to consummate their redemption. Accordingly, far from dreading the end of the world at Christ’s return, the saints of God actually look forward to it with deep desire and eager expectation (Romans 8:18f).
The Signs of His Coming
In order to nurture this lively hope–and in order to protect his flock from getting swept up in false expectations and baseless fears–Christ and his apostles gave us a body of signs by which all who want to may know that the parousia (i.e., Christ’s second coming in power and glory) is drawing near. Please note carefully: Mayan prophecies and doomsday movies are not among them!
On this score, Jesus himself led the way, speaking of most of the signs in his famous discourse on the Mount of Olives (Matthew 24; Mark 13; Luke 21). Later, after his ascension and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the apostles completed God’s revelation on this theme, adding a few more signs, thereby giving us a more nuanced picture of the events leading up to the end (Romans 11; 2 Thessalonians 2; Revelation 6-20). To understand them well is to become secure against troubling “winds” of end-time speculation, and to become equipped to teach a worried and wondering world the truth about consummation to come.
Very importantly, the New Testament distinguishes between two kinds of eschatological signs.
The Beginning of Birth Pains
On the one hand, there is what Jesus called “the beginning of birth pains” (Matthew 24:8). As with all the signs, these reflect the intensified clash of the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Satan, now that Christ has entered the world and launched his redemptive assault on that great usurper’s throne (Matthew 12; Luke 4; Revelation 12). Accordingly, these signs appear all throughout “the great tribulation”—that is, throughout the entire course of the church era, the period between Christ’s first and second coming (Revelation 7:1-8). They include what are manifestly judgments of God: war, famine, earthquake, and pestilence, as well as the continual preaching of the gospel, by which sinners may understand these judgments for what they are, and flee to Christ from the far worse Judgment that they portend. But they also include what are manifestly acts of Satan: the appearance of false Christs and false prophets, the apostasy of false believers, and the persecution of true spiritual Church (Matthew 24:4-14; 2 Thessalonians 2; Revelation 6, 7, 11, 12, 13, 16, 20). Notably, Jesus tells his disciples, “Such things must happen, but the end is still to come” (Matthew 24:6). In other words, these are indeed signs that the end is fast approaching (Revelation 12:12), but also that the end is not yet. For this reason the wise disciple will not allow himself to be distracted by the “beginning of birth pains,” but will rather stay focused on the work before him, which is in essence to keep preaching the gospel “in season and out.”
Christ at the Door
On the other hand, there will be few signs that are historically unique. Since these will occur very near the end of the age, they do indeed herald the imminence of the parousia. Importantly, they will not enable believers to determine “the day or the hour” (or the year!) of their Master’s return, only that it is quite close, even at the door (Matthew 24:32-36). Disciples, then, are to be on the lookout for (the confluence of) these special signs, and to take great hope and courage when they see them on the horizon.
One such sign is the completion of world evangelization. As Jesus himself put it, “This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world for a witness to all the nations, and then the end shall come” (Matthew 24:14). For this reason, believers are to keep close tabs on the state of the global harvest, contribute to it any way they can, and rejoice in hope when they finally see thriving churches planted among “every tribe and tongue and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9).
Another such sign—closely related to the first—is the conversion of the great mass of Jews. According to the apostle Paul, this will occur near the end of the age, when the full number of elect Gentiles have finally come to Christ. At that time, God will graciously turn again to his ancient covenant people and will graft them back into his vine through (God-given) faith in their Messiah. When he does, said the apostle, it will be nothing less than “life from the dead,” an expression apparently referring to the general resurrection that Christ will effect at his parousia (Romans 11:20-26; see also Genesis 45).
A third sign of the nearness of the end is the last battle (Revelation 16:12-16, 19:17-21, 20:7-10; cf. Ezekiel 38-39; Zechariah 14). It commences with the appearing of an individual whom Paul referred to as “the man of lawlessness,” and whom John called “the antichrist” (2 Thessalonians 2:1f; 1 John 2:18). He will be a satanically energized world leader with pretensions to deity, who, by means of persuasive words and miraculous powers, will succeed in consolidating the fallen world-system around himself and against God’s people (Revelation 13:3). The resulting persecution—global in scale and ferocious in intensity—will culminate in the apparent demise of the true spiritual Church: she will lie “ . . . dead in the street of the great city which mystically is called Sodom and Egypt, where also (her) Lord was crucified” (Revelation 11:7-10; Matthew 24:15; Revelation 16:12-16, 20:7-10). It was this final, end-time persecution—and not simply the destruction of Jerusalem—that Jesus had in view when he warned his disciples, saying, “For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world until this time, no, nor ever shall be” (Matthew 24:21).
Christians should not suppose, however, that the Church alone will endure the tribulation of those dark days. Why? Because God—responding to the final assault against his Christ, his truth, and his people—will now bring wave upon wave of judgment upon the rebellious nations. As the end draws near, the judgments will increase in number and intensity, with less and less time in between for (a dangerously deceptive) “business as usual” (Matthew 24:36-44; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-3). These stupendous disruptions in nature and society—which mercifully trumpet a final warning to sinful humanity—are both “death throes” and “birth pangs.” That is, they are clear signs of the imminent destruction of Satan’s kingdom, yet also of the imminent birth of God’s Kingdom in its glorious fullness (Matthew 24:8). Speaking of them, Jesus remarked as follows:
And there will be signs in the sun, in the moon, and in the stars; and on the earth distress of nations, with perplexity; the sea and the waves roaring, men’s hearts failing them from fear at the expectation of those things which are coming on the earth, for the powers of the heaven will be shaken . . . And unless those days were shortened, no flesh would be saved; but for the elect’s sake, those days will be shortened (Luke 21:25-26; Matthew 24: 21-22).
It is easy to see why Jesus makes these signs of the end known to his disciples: How shall they endure such terrible tribulation unless they understand that it is actually part of God’s plan, that it will be ever so brief, and that it will both herald and trigger the return of their King—the One who will swiftly rescue his people from every enemy and richly reward them with the unspeakable joys of the Kingdom of God (2 Thessalonians 1:3-10; Revelation 11:11-19, 20:9-10, 21-22)? In other words, Jesus taught on the signs so as to give his people hope: hope of his parousia and hope of the rich, manifold blessings it will surely bring. As he himself said, “When you see these things begin to take place, straighten up, and lift up your heads, for your redemption is drawing near” (Luke 21:28)!
Here is the hub, the central element of the consummation, the core eschatological event that brings all the others to pass in quick succession. Many NT texts describe the parousia, but the most famous comes from Matthew’s gospel:
Immediately after the tribulation of those days, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And He will send His angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of the heaven to the other. –Matt. 24:29-31; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; 2 Thessalonians 1:3-10; Revelation 19:11-21)
Jesus’ focus here is clearly on the parousia, his arrival in glory in the skies above the earth both to judge and to redeem. But even in this short text we see that his coming cannot be divorced from other elements of the consummation. Moreover, when we read this passage in its larger setting (Matthew 24-25)—and supplement it with material from other passages related to it—an altogether mind-boggling picture emerges: the parousia is a profoundly cosmological event, involving nothing less than the centering of the entire universe around the glorified Son of God, with a view to its complete and ultimate restructuring at his own hand.
Let us take a small moment to flesh out this very big idea.
Observe first that in order to set the stage for his arrival, Christ literally extinguishes the sun, moon, and stars. This is high drama: blackest night falls upon the entire cosmos, so that all eyes may be turned upon the radiant body of him who comes their way on clouds of glory (Matthew 26:64; Acts 1:9-11; Revelation 1:7, 14:14f, 21:23). Note that the spiritual heaven itself has been emptied—or rather descends with Christ into the skies above the earth—since he comes not only with all the holy angels, but also with the spirits of just men made perfect (Zechariah 14:5; Matthew 25:31; 1 Thessalonians 3:13, 4:14). As he draws near, there is a “cry of command,” the voice of the archangel (Gabriel), and the sound of a trumpet (1 Thessalonians 4:16). With this, Christ’s final dealings with mankind begin: he himself raises the dead (John 6, 11, 1 Cor. 15), transforms the living saints (1 Corinthians 15; 1 Thessalonians 4), and—by angelic agency—transports all humanity, both the good and the evil, into the sky above, for the great assize before their divine Creator, Judge, and King, seated upon the throne of his glory (Matthew 13: 41-42, 47-50, 19:29, 25:31; Revelation 20:11).
This rendezvous in the skies above is deeply purposeful, since it supplies a perfect vista overlooking the stupendous cosmological transformations that are about to unfold. All will see, for example, that the world below now “flees” from Christ’s face, which is to say that the Earth and its works are burned up with fire, dissolved in fervent heat (Revelation 20:11; 2 Peter 3:10). They also will see Gehenna—the Lake of Fire—suddenly appear in the vacancy of space. And they will see a new earth arising and taking shape out of the ashes of the old, even as they watch cosmic darkness retreat forever before the dawning light of the glory of God and Christ (Revelation 21:23). In the midst of all this Christ himself effects the Last Judgment, casting the wicked into the Lake of Fire (Revelation 20). Then, with his glorious Bride at his side, he descends to the Earth below, there to remain with her forever in their new and perfect home (Revelation 21:1f). Nevertheless, one final act still remains: having thus judged the world in righteousness and having headed up all (redeemed) things in himself, the triumphant Son now delivers the entire ransomed universe back into the hands of the Father who gave it to him, that God may be all in all (1 Corinthians 15:20-28). With this, the eternal Kingdom of God in its fullness and glory has come at last (Matthew 13:43, 25:31f; Revelation 21:1f).
Observe again from this sketch of the consummation how God the Father has sought, in structuring it thus, to exalt his beloved Son. For the thrust of the parousia is essentially to reduce the universe as we now know it to a sea of men and angels, suspended in vacant space before the judgment seat of Christ, where they await, in awe and dread, the final disposition of all things. And herein will lie a consummate object lesson for every sentient being who ever lived: the One now enthroned at the center of the universe is the One who has always been enthroned at the center of the Father’s heart, and therefore at the center of his every purpose, plan, and work. In short, through the parousia both men and angels will behold the Son of God for who he is and for what God appointed him to be: the beloved creator, sustainer, redeemer, ruler, judge, destroyer, and re-creator of all things.
To understand the deep Christ-centered meaning of the consummation is to see immediately that “the real 2012” is not–at its heart–about fear, wrath, and destruction, though these elements are obviously present and important. Rather, at its heart the consummation is about hope: the hope of seeing the divine Christ fully unveiled in matchless splendor; the hope of seeing his gospel fully vindicated before all intelligent creatures; the hope of seeing justice done once and for all; and the hope of experiencing the glorious fullness of God’s redemption and eternal kingdom.
Small wonder, then, that when the High King of Heaven lovingly promises his Bride that he is indeed coming quickly, her eager response is never to shrink back in fear, but always to cry aloud, “Even so, Lord Jesus come!”
Small wonder also that the Spirit and the Bride continually say to seekers everywhere, “You who are fearful, you who are confused, you who are thirsty: Come, drink of the water of life without cost” (Revelation 22:17, 20)!
- Readers of a skeptical bent will ask, “Why should I believe the Bible’s account of the end any more than the Mayan’s? Are they not both mere myths, unworthy of the serious consideration of well-educated modern minds?” To this excellent question, I would reply, “As a matter of fact, they are not both myths, for the Bible–a patently historical document with rich attestations from history and archeology–abundantly displays various marks of divine inspiration. Any honest seeker who is willing to examine those marks will see immediately that the God of the Bible IS God, since he has given so much supernatural evidence to confirm the divine inspiration of his Word.” If you are such a seeker and wish to survey that evidence, please click HERE and HERE.
- For an extended discussion of the course of salvation history, with numerous citations from the Bible to support my sketch of it in this article, please see chapter 12 and 16 of The Test: A Seeker’s Journey to the Meaning of Life (Dean Davis, Pleasant Word, 2009).