Indicators of the end time: Are the "signs" really signs?

The role of signs as Christians await the Second Coming

Jon Paulien, Ph.D., is chair of the New Testament Department, Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States.

Though most evangelical Christians are familiar with the biblical concept of "signs" of the End, they are less sure about what to make of these "signs," particularly in the light of the wild and sensational claims that have accompanied the new millennium.

How can Christians distinguish true signs from false ones? Are all these "signs" really signs? In short, will we ever know with absolute certainty that the return of Jesus is at hand?

Signs of the age

Many world events that Christians take as signs of the End are "signs of the age" instead. Rather than pointing to the date of the Second Coming, they confirm that Jesus' predicted return at the end of the age is secure. They en courage us to believe that if Jesus knew the character of the whole age in advance, He will not be mistaken about the event that brings it to a close.

When the disciples asked Jesus (Matt. 24:3) about the "sign" of His coming and the end of the age, He replied, " 'You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come " (Matt. 24:6 NIV, emphasis mine). Wars and rumors of wars made great signs of the End in Jewish apocalyptic,1 but in Matthew 24 they do not herald the End; they are, instead, part of what life is like before the End.

" 'Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains' " (Matt. 24:7, 8, emphasis mine). Wars, famines, and earthquakes do not signal the End but the beginning! The disciples asked for a sign of the End, Jesus gave them signs of the age. These "signs" were not intended to stimulate speculation regarding the date of the End; they were, rather, to remind us of Jesus' words, which encourage us to be watchful and ready for the End at all times (Matt. 24:42-44).2

The signs have been with us

If wars, earthquakes, and famines are signs of the age, then many "signs of the End" have been with us from the beginning of the Christian age. There were false messiahs already in Jesus' day (Acts 5:36, 37), and plenty more in the approach to A.D. 70.3 While peace characterized Palestine in A.D. 31, there were "wars and rumors of wars" throughout the A.D. 60s. There were famines (Acts 11:28), earthquakes (Laodicea in 60 A.D., Pompeii in 63, Jerusalem in 64, and Rome in 684 ), and heavenly signs. 5 The New Testament contains abundant accounts of persecution, false teachers, and false prophets.6 Paul could even claim that the gospel had gone to the world within his lifetime (Col. 1:23; Rom. 1:8; 16:26). It is no wonder, then, that the apostles believed that they were living in the last days (Acts 2:14-21; Heb. 1:2; 1 Peter 1:20; 1 John 2:18).

The normalcy of the End

Compounding the issue is the question of just how unusual the events of the End will be. There is no question that New Testament descriptions of the final days are momentous. People develop strange diseases, rivers and seas turn to blood, and humanity is subject to "global warming" of searing proportions (Rev. 16:1-9). Nations are angry (11:18) and confused (Luke 21:25), and the world is seriously divided over issues of faith (Rev. 17:14). Unusual events take place in the sky and earthquakes, storms, and disasters become more severe (Luke 21:26; Rev. 6:12-15; 16:18-21). There is the deceptive confusion caused by competing claims to truth (Matt. 24:24-27; Mark 13:19-23; 2 Thess. 2:8-12; Rev. 13:13,14) and direct demonic intervention (1 Tim. 4:1). Social unrest and contempt for faith increase (2 Tim. 3:1- 5). 7 The people of God suffer greatly from persecution (John 16:2; Rev. 13:15- 17; 16:4-7; 17:6). Other considerations could be given as well. 8

However, both Jesus and Paul portray the last days as somewhat normal times, in spite of all the spectacular events.9 Like before the Flood (Matt. 24:37), people will pursue their normal round of eating and drinking; even weddings will not be postponed (Matt. 24:38). As in the days of Lot, there will be buying and selling (Luke 17:28), which suggests that the basic economic structure of the world remains. Planting and building continues (Luke 17:28). Most people seem to have no premonition that the End is upon them (Matt. 24:39).

In fact, Paul wrote that the terrible destructions associated with the Second Coming itself (see 2 Thess. 1:5-10) will come when people are proclaiming "peace and safety" (1 Thess. 5:2-3). To many, the last days may seem like a golden age of peace and prosperity. The troubles, disasters, social disruptions, and persecutions of the end time will be on the radar screen, but will not seem out of proportion to normal times. The majority, perhaps the vast majority, will be surprised to see the End come when it does.

We, therefore, should be cautious in our broad and confident pronouncements regarding current events. But at the same time we must remember that the same text assures us that God's true people will not be surprised (1 Thess. 5:4-7). The normalcy will seem that way only to those without the eyes of Christian faith.

Signs can be hard to read

It has never been easier to stay in formed about world events. With the Internet and all kinds of other communication media we can quickly amass much information. But this access poses several problems. For one thing, we must distinguish between sound information and what is simply someone's empty speculation bouncing from computer to computer. We must become familiar with a news source's track record, biases, and reasons for offering the information it does. Christians must be slow to accept the latest report or conspiracy theory, especially when reliable filters like major news organizations of church publications are silent on the subject.

But even when information is reasonably solid, it is imperative to look at the evidence from all sides. Those who emphasize the nearness of the End love to talk about rising crime statistics, catastrophic earthquakes and floods, wars and rumors of wars, imminent economic collapse, and declining morality. But credibility is severely damaged when we ignore solid contrary evidence. For ex ample, many sincere Christians have been predicting imminent economic collapse since 1982. The irony is that the last seventeen years have witnessed the greatest economic boom in the history of the human race.

But what if your information is unquestionably solid, balanced, and care fully verified? You still have to determine whether it is of any spiritual significance. Just because events are taking a course that reminds us of a particular prophecy, it doesn't mean that this particular event is what that prophecy was pointing to. Just because former American President Bush proclaimed a New World Order, it doesn't prevent a new world disorder from being just around the corner; and even if this New World Order came, it doesn't mean it's the eschatological one we've been expecting. We damage the credibility of all preaching about the End when we use inaccurate information, are selective in our use of solid evidence, or make exaggerated claims that are inappropriate to our level of expertise.

True signs of the end of time

Adventist expectation has tended toward the sensational. We have cried "wolf" too many times during the last one hundred and fifty years. Many have become weary of hearing about the "signs." But the subject of end-time signs cannot be ignored. The same chapter in which Jesus says that no one knows the day or the hour (Matt. 24:36) also offers indications as to when the coming is near (verse 33). But what is "near" in actual time? A day? Year? Decade? Century?

In A.D. 95, the author of Revelation considered Jesus' coming to be near (Rev. 1:3; 22:10,12). So, a Western chronological understanding of "nearness" is clearly false in light of the passage of 2,000 years since the New Testament was written. From an Eastern perspective, nearness seems to be much more a state of mind than a chronological datum.

But is there any sense in which the coming of Jesus is chronologically nearer now than it was in the first century? Of course. Note this comment on the wording in Matthew 24:33,36: "One saying of the Saviour must not be made to destroy another. Though no man knoweth the day nor the hour of His coming, we are instructed and required to know when it is near"10 (emphasis is part of the quote) .For this writer, Ellen White, the coming was near because by her day the time prophecies leading to the time of the End had been fulfilled.

Seventh-day Adventist students of Daniel and Revelation know that while the "last days" truly began in New Testament times, the time of the End is a much more recent phenomenon.11 With the passing of the great time prophecies of Daniel and Revelation, we now live in the time of the End. So these are not just ordinary times. The year 2000 is much closer to the End than the year 1000 was. From the Bible's prophetic outlook we know that since 1798 and 1844 this world's history is writing its final chapter. Though we cannot know with certainty that this is the final generation we certainly know that things can wind up very soon.

Though current events should not be used to encourage date setting, we are certainly living in times like those the Bible associates with the End. Knowledge is increasing with breathtaking rapidity (Dan. 12:4). The Internet and satellite broadcasting make it possible for the whole world to hear the gospel quickly (Matt. 24:14). Unprecedentedly far-reaching divisions among nations are rife; weapons of mass destruction, not heard of just a few years ago, are in increasingly unstable hands. Rebellion, profanity, perversions, and violence seem to have an omnipresence and potency unparalleled in human history (2 Tim. 3:1-5).

The "signs" are here indeed.

The question for us is, How do we accurately, and responsibly, interpret them?

1. An excellent summary of the early Jewish perspective on signs can be found in D. S. Russell, The Method and Menage of Jewish Apocalyptic (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1964), 271-276. The Jewish under standing of signs, which the disciples of Jesus would have shared, was based on the Day of Yahweh passages in the Old Testament. It was felt that the near approach of the End would be marked by wars, wickedness, earthquakes, famines, and heavenly portents, among other things. Jesus is not inventing the concept of signs, He is moderating their impact on the disciples.

2. Jesus does seem to give a measurable sign of the nearness of the End in Matthew 24:14. The End will come when the gospel has been preached to the whole world. Yes, the gospel must be preached to the world before the Lord comes, but it is not the kind of sign you can base a calculation on. After all, Paul had the impression that this sign had been fulfilled already in his day (Col. 1:23). The only sign that meets the disciples' intention is the " 'sign of the Son of man' " in Matthew 24:30. But this appears to be the literal glory that surrounds Jesus Himself at His coming. Those who wait for this sign will be too late. Jesus' response to His disciples is disappointing to me in a way. It would seem easier for us if He would have given us all the details about the End, and the events leading up to it; then we could line them all up, see exactly where we are, and know when we have to get ready. But apparently that
wasn't Jesus' purpose. Apparently that wouldn't have been the best thing for us. What then was His purpose in this chapter? He gives us that in Matthew 24:42." 'Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come' " (emphasis mine).

3. See the accounts in Flavius Josephus, The Wars of the Jews.

4. On ancient earthquakes see A. Hermann, "Erdbeben," in Reallexikon fuer Antike und Christentum, edited by Theodor Klauser, vol. 5 (Stuttgart: Anton Heirsemann, 1962), 1070-1113.Note especially the list of first-century earthquakes on page
1104. It is reported that the quake in Jerusalem damaged the newly finished temple, just before the Roman sieges began in A.D. 66: G. A. Turner, "Earthquake," The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, revised edition, edited by Geoffrey Bromiley (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1982), 2:4, 5.

5. See the account that Ellen White drew from Josephus in The Great Controversy, 1911 ed. (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1950), 29.

6. Note evidence for heretical movements within the church of the first century in 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Colossians, 2 Peter, 1 and 2 John, Jude, and Revelation 2, 3 (note 2:20 especially).

7. A careful examination of this text, of course, would include it among those mentioned earlier that indicate the "last days" as a present reality in New Testament times. Paul instructs his readers to "have nothing to do" with people already acting in this way. The "sign" of apostasy and social unrest has been with us from the beginning of the Christian era.

8. For an analysis of current events in the light of the New Testament picture of the end time see Jon Paulien, The Millennium Bug, (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1999), 9-43 and What the Bible Says About the End-Time (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1994), 139- 159. Samuele Bacchiocchi is offering an ongoing analysis of end-time signs at the following listserv: [email protected]

9. Roy Adams, "The Final Days Normalcy," Adventist Review, April 21, 1994, 4.

10. The Great Controversy, 371.

11. Seventh-day Adventists understand the time of the End to have begun at the time of the relatively-recent events surrounding the French Revolution. For a scholarly study of the distinction between the last days and the time of the End, see Gerhard Pfandl, The Time of the End in the Book of Daniel (Berrien Springs, Mich: Adventist Theological Society Publications, 1992).


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Jon Paulien, Ph.D., is chair of the New Testament Department, Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States.

June/July 2000

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