No subject in scripture captures the imagination of believers more than the last days. And no subject generates more speculation, disagreement, and debate, even among Christians.
Whole books and documentaries have been devoted to the last days. Countless commenters and scholars have invested years—even whole careers—into making sense of what is yet to come.
Here, we have neither the time nor the space for an in-depth review, so we offer a review of key passages about the last days.
What are the Last Days in the Bible?
We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. ” Romans 8:18-22
When Adam and Eve introduced sin into the world, they not only brought death to all of mankind, but they invited the curse of death and decay on all of creation (Genesis 3:14-19). In Romans 8, Paul refers back to that event while looking ahead to the future redemption of all creation. Paul presents a timeline from creation to redemption in the space of a single paragraph.
When do the Last Days Begin?
If we hope to read Revelation and find an answer, we are sure to encounter frustration. Unlike modern stories and news reports, ancient literature was seldom written in chronological order.
In Revelation alone, we read letters to then-contemporary churches (chapters 2 and 3), a peek at eternity (timelessness, chapter 4), and a foretelling of events yet to unfold. To add to our confusion, Revelation even mixes in a look back at past events (chapter 12).
As we expand our search into other New Testament writings, we find that the writers believed that they were already in the last days.
- In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. – Hebrews 1:1-2
- Dear children, this is the last hour; and as you have heard that the antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come. This is how we know it is the last hour. – 1 John 2:18
So if the last days had already begun before the New Testament was written, when did they start, and can we tell when they will end?
Signs of the Last Days
In the first century, it was common for would-be messiahs to rally the people, usually for the near-term cause of defeating Rome and restoring Judea to self-rule.
The people demanded signs from their prospective saviors, and Jesus was met with similar demands. His answer, though, proved both remarkable and unique. Jesus rebuked the question as wicked and self-indulgent. Still, he offered one sign: the sign of Jonah.
Jonah famously spent three days in the belly of a fish before being vomited upon the shore, alive. Most scholars interpret the ‘sign of Jonah’ as Jesus’ declaration that his resurrection, on the third day following his death, will usher in the beginning of the age of redemption.
So the writers of the New Testament understood themselves as living in the last days. But that was 2000 years ago. Are there other signs that will let us know when the end is close?
When Jesus’ disciples asked him this very question in Matthew 24, he described several events which are also portrayed later in Revelation.
Confusion in the Last Days
Paul similarly warned against straying from the gospel that we have received and being taken captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ. (Colossians 2:8). To Timothy, he writes “in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons.” (1 Timothy 4:12).
War in the Last Days
Jesus continued, “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. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom” (Matthew 24:6-7a).
And the first two horsemen of Revelation 6 arrive to usher in conquest and war:
- I watched as the Lamb opened the first of the seven seals… I looked, and there before me was a white horse! Its rider held a bow, and he was given a crown, and he rode out as a conqueror bent on conquest.
- When the Lamb opened the second seal… Then another horse came out, a fiery red one. Its rider was given power to take peace from the earth and to make people kill each other. To him was given a large sword.
As the New Testament was being written, the Jews experienced ongoing conflict with the Romans that would culminate in war and the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. Since then, war has not ceased and conflict between nations has persisted somewhere around the globe.
Persecution in the Last Days
Jesus warned that his followers would be met with violent opposition, saying, “Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me. At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other” (Matthew 24:9-10).
The story of the early church in Acts depicts ongoing persecution against the church that included stoning, beating, imprisonment, and execution.
Hostility against the church continued through the early centuries, as Christians were subject to economic oppression, thrown to lions, and forced into gladiatorial contests.
Even after Emperor Constantine sanctioned Christianity, persecution continued outside of Rome. Even today, Christians are subject to torture, imprisonment, and death in various parts of the world.
Plagues and Diseases in the Last Days
Jesus warned of ‘famines and earthquakes’ (Matthew 24:7b), reminiscent of past plagues of pests and hail that produced famine.
And the final two horsemen of Revelation 6 usher in famine and pestilence:
- When the Lamb opened the third seal… I looked, and there before me was a black horse! Its rider was holding a pair of scales in his hand. Then I heard what sounded like a voice… saying, “Two pounds of wheat for a day’s wages, and six pounds of barley for a day’s wages, and do not damage the oil and the wine!”
- When the Lamb opened the fourth seal… I looked, and there before me was a pale horse! Its rider was named Death, and Hades was following close behind him. They were given power over a fourth of the earth to kill by sword, famine, and plague, and by the wild beasts of the earth.
Just as the 10 plagues brought upon Egypt prior to the exodus took a variety of forms and were not limited to disease, the plagues of Revelation are similar, as we read in chapter 16:
Seven Bowls of Wrath
- Ugly, festering sores broke out on the people who had the mark of the beast and worshiped its image.
- The sea… turned into blood like that of a dead person, and every living thing in the sea died.
- The rivers and springs of water… became blood.
- The sun was allowed to scorch people with fire. They were seared by the intense heat.
- The kingdom was plunged into darkness. People gnawed their tongues in agony and cursed the God of heaven because of their pains and their sores.
- The great river Euphrates… was dried up to prepare the way for the kings from the East. Then I saw three impure spirits that looked like frogs… They are demonic spirits that perform signs.
- Flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, and a severe earthquake.
Watching the Signs
If we are watching, we quickly determine that war, disease, famine, persecution, and confusion are very much present in our world. So does that mean we are close to the end?
Perhaps, but perhaps not. As stated earlier, the New Testament writers believed that the last days had begun in their lifetime, and Jesus declared his resurrection as the event that would usher in the final age. War, disease, and persecution were just as prevalent then as they are now.
Nobody Knows the Final Hour
After describing the signs of the end and declaring that heaven and earth will pass away (v 35), Jesus declared that no one will know when the final hour will be upon us.
This might seem frustrating because 2000 years is a long time to stretch the ‘last days.’ But since God operates outside of time, He is not subject to our interpretation of time. As Peter reminds us, “But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” (1 Peter 3:8-9).
What looks like a long wait to us is really a gift, so that more people may hear the gospel and believe in Jesus. Therefore, Jesus cautions us to always be ready, and always proclaim the good news. A church that expects the end extremely soon is a church that turns inward with fear, as we have seen in the mass suicides of famous ‘doomsday cults’ in the 20th century.
On the opposite extreme, a church that is confident in a far-off end will grow complacent and fall away from the teachings of the gospel and life with Christ.
So we are left to live in the tension of not knowing the final day or hour. That way, we may remain alert as we focus on Jesus and live for Jesus, so that we may be ready for Jesus at any time.