To view the course of current events one might think that the tide of history is running against Christianity. The widespread acceptance of the Theory of Evolution, a thoroughly secularized educational system, rampant consumerism and the breakdown of public morality all bode ill for the future of religion. Christianity, it would seem, is about to become a thing of the past.
Or will it be? There are several problems with this scenario. First of all, the present course of modern society is simply unsustainable. Contemporary American society is plagued with chronic social, economic and political problems. Our political and economic system cannot survive social chaos. Something will eventually have to give way to something else. But what will it be? Dictatorship? Islam?
Secondly, nothing in modern science or philosophy changes the basic facts of human existence. The rational order of the universe, and our uniqueness as human beings still exist in spite of Darwin’s attempts to deny both. We are still confronted with the basic questions of justice, human rights and morality, and we must still face the fact of our own mortality. Science has no answers to these questions. Whether we admit it or not, we must still function in a universe created by God.
But more to the point, the course of history was predicted in the Bible. Far from being the demise of Christianity, recent developments are ultimately all a part of God’s eternal plan. The stage is very well being set for the grand finale of human history. The world is ripe for divine judgment.
Right at the very beginning Jesus foretold the end. In the second part of the Olivet Discourse in Matthew 24 Jesus comes to describe a final time of persecution and distress. He mentions an “the abomination of desolation which was spoken of through Daniel the prophet” (v. 15; NKJV). This is an apparent reference to a supreme act of sacrilege that will take place during the end time, similar to the one committed by the Syrian king Antiochus IV Epiphanes when he desecrated the temple in Jerusalem in 167 B.C. Jesus, however, does not elaborate on the exact nature of the sacrilege except that it will be “standing in the holy place” – perhaps an idol of some sort erected on the temple mount in Jerusalem.
At that point “the Great Tribulation” will ensue. It be both sudden and severe. There will be no time for escape, and “unless those days had been shortened; no flesh would be saved: but for the sake of the elect those days will be shortened” (v. 22).
Again there will be false messiahs and false prophets, at least some of whom will claim to be able to perform miracles (v. 24). Jesus specifically warns us about them ahead of time, so that we will not be taken in by them. The emphasis throughout the passage is on the importance of remaining faithful to the true Messiah.
This, then, if followed by the Second Coming (Parousia) of Christ. It will be sudden, dramatic, and visible (vv. 27-30). It will be as quick as a flash of lightning, and will be accompanied by celestial omens. The human race will see Him and mourn.
In must be pointed out that it is at this point, “immediately after the tribulation of those days” (v. 29) that the Rapture of the church will take place. “And He sends His angels with a great sound of a trumpet and will father together His elect from the four winds, from one corner of the heavens to another” (v. 31). It will be noted that they are referred to as “His elect,” implying that they especially belong to Christ – they were redeemed by His blood. They are, in fact, the church.
This, then, is what will happen. But when it will happen? On this question Jesus makes two important points. The first is that there will be “signs” that will tell us when the end is near. Jesus compares these signs to a fig tree (vv. 32,33). When the leaves sprout, the harvest is near.
But then Jesus goes on to qualify His answer. “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels in the heavens, but My Father only” (v. 36). Thus there is a certain amount of uncertainty surrounding the exact timing of the Second Coming, and that uncertainty is deliberate, for it leads us to an important practical lesson. Jesus compares the Second Coming to the situation that existed in the days of Noah. The wicked were taken by surprise and were completely unprepared (vv. 37-39). So, too, it will be at the end time. People will be going about their daily routines, completely unaware that anything extraordinary is about to happen. And then, suddenly and unexpectedly, the Lord will return. It is at this point that the saints will be raptured, and the wicked left to perish (vv. 40,41).
This, then, brings us to the main practical lesson of the Olivet Discourse: we must live every day as though it were our last day here on earth. We must live every day in the expectation that our Lord could come at any time, and that we will see Him face-to-face. Thus eschatology (the doctrine of the last things) has a bearing on how we live our lives now: we are to be ever watchful and always ready (vv. 42-44).