I wrote yesterday about the Tribulation. According to Premillennial belief, though, the Tribulation won’t just randomly start. Instead, it will be preceded by various signs. When Premillennialists watch current events, they look for these signs.
Now, the Bible is chock full of passages talking about the signs of the end times. I’m not going to try to survey them all here, but will instead quote one passage and then turn to how this sort of thing turns out in the way Premillennialists view the world.
From Matthew 24:
As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately. “Tell us,” they said, “when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”
Jesus answered: “Watch out that no one deceives you. For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am the Messiah,’ and will deceive many. 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. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains.
“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, and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.
Again, this is not comprehensive, but rather an example. There are several signs to be detected here. Wars, famines, earthquakes, persecution, false prophets, and every nation hearing the gospel. There are many other such passages, some of which talk about the threats the nation of Israel will face in the end times and others of which talk about the increasing formation of a one world government.
Instead of detailing these prophesies, I’m going to address seven specific ways in which searching for the signs of the end times affect Premillennialists’ perception of current events: Israel, natural disasters, wars, persecution, spreading the gospel, one world government, and the Antichrist.
Point 1. Israel, temple
The nation of Israel is supposed to play an important part in the end times. Some Premillenialists hold that the temple just be rebuilt in Israel before the Tribulation will begin, while others argue that it will be rebuilt during the first half of the Tribulation.
Furthermore, the signs of the end times indicate that as the Tribulation approaches Israel will be under threat from those around it. In fact, as the Tribulation begins, in fact, the nation of Israel is supposed to be surrounded by its enemies, and the first step the Antichrist will take as the Tribulation begins following the rapture is to make peace with Israel.
This helps explain why so many Premillenialist Christians were so excited when the nation of Israel was established after WWII. For these Christians, this was the first tangible sign that we were truly living in the end times. Similarly, many Premillennial Christians watch the contest over the original site of the Jewish temple, which currently houses a mosque, with keen interest, believing that the temple must be rebuilt before the Tribulation will begin, and that that is the next step.
In addition, Premillennial Christians don’t believe that peace in the Middle East is possible. They believe that there will be only more and more conflict, leading up to the rapture and Tribulation. The continuous conflict that has wracked the Middle East since Israel was founded appears to confirm Premillennial Christians’ beliefs and the immanent nature of the end times. As part of this, many Premillennialists don’t believe that peace between Israel and Palestine is even possible.
One last result is that Premillennialist Christians automatically side with the nation of Israel, seeing it as the fulfillment of God’s plans and its citizens as God’s chosen people. This is where “Christian Zionism” comes from, with actual pro-Israel rallies held by Premillennial Christians across the United States. Any slight of Israel by the U.S. government is immediately condemned.
Point 2. Increasing natural disasters
Premillennialists expect to see earthquakes and famines, along with a multitude of additional natural disasters, increase as the end times approach. Every time there is an earthquake, or a flood, or news of famine or drought somewhere in the world, Primellennialists point to them as signs of the end times. And in our world of instant news, we hear about this sort of thing a lot. Haiti, Japan, Darfur. Even the increase in hurricanes a few years back was seen as a sign of the end times. I’m not saying that Premillennialists rejoice over these things, but rather that every time one occurs they exult that Jesus’ second coming cannot be that far off.
This leads to extremely short term thinking. In fact, some Premillennialists even see global warming and the natural disasters that are predicted to accompany it as a sign of the coming end times (at least, when they actually put any stock by global warming). There is no impetus to fight something like global warming, or to find ways to combat earthquakes and tsunamis, or to try to find an actual global solution to world hunger, because these things are seen as inevitable signs of the end times.
When I was a Premillennialist, I honestly didn’t engage in a lot of global long term thinking. I didn’t figure the world had more than fifty years left, tops, and I’m not alone. Eleven percent of voters think the rapture will occur in their lifetimes. Because of this, I saw our role more as coping with the inevitable increase in natural disasters than with trying to find global solutions to prevent them.
Point 3. Wars and rumors of wars
As the end times approach, there is supposed to be increased warfare. This is one thing that the Antichrist will briefly bring an end to during the beginning of the Tribulation with his promises of peace. Until then, though, Premillennialists only expect to see wars, wars, and more wars.
The result is an extremely pessimistic outlook. Global peace isn’t seen as something that we can actually achieve, and in fact, striving to bring about global peace taints one with association with the Antichrist. Yes, that’s right, thinking that it is possible to achieve some sort of global peace is seen as anti-Biblical and highly subversive.
When the Tribulation begins, Israel’s enemies are supposed to be bringing war on it. For this reason, Premillennialists watch things like the heightening tension between Israel and Iran with extreme interest. They honestly believe that at some point, right before the rapture, a whole coalition of nations will declare war on Israel, and that this is a good thing, part of God’s perfect plan.
Point 4: Persecution
The Tribulation is also supposed to be preceded by the increasing persecution of Christians, which Premillennialists believe they can see occurring around them today. Organizations like Voice of the Martyrs keep Premillennialists up to date on the global persecution of Christians, sharing graphic pictures and descriptions of unthinkable tortures. While Premillennialists believe in pushing for freedom of religion in countries that persecute Christians, they don’t ultimately believe that this persecution can be stopped.
One result of all of this is a “persecution complex.” Premillennialists believe that Christians will be persecuted in increasing numbers during the end times, and so they look around expecting to see that, even in the United States. This is why you hear quotes like the following from Rick Santorum:
They are taking faith and crushing it. Why? Why? When you marginalize faith in America, when you remove the pillar of God-given rights, then what’s left is the French Revolution. What’s left is a government that gives you rights. What’s left are no unalienable rights. What’s left is a government that will tell you who you are, what you’ll do, and when you’ll do it. What’s left, in France, became the guillotine. Ladies and gentlemen, we’re a long way from that. But if we do, and follow the path of President Obama and his overt hostility to faith in America, then we are headed down that road.
Premillennialists really, honestly, truly believe that this is where we are headed, that there will come a day in the United States, in the lead up to the end times, when Christians are imprisoned for their faith. This is why they become concerned about violations of religious freedom – they see these things as a foretold sign of the end times, and the beginning of a slippery slope that will play out to finish.
Point 5: Every nation hearing the gospel
Several verses seem to indicate that the end times cannot occur until “every nation” or “every people” hear the gospel. This is part of what is behind Premillennialists’ emphasis on translating the Bible into every language and sending missionaries to every people group, no matter how remote. The idea is that they can help bring about the end of the world by witnessing to unreached people groups. Some even believe that the moment the gospel is preached to the last unreached group, the end times will begin.
Thus in some ways Premillennialists read a double script, one of increasing persecution joined with increased preaching of the gospel. They read the magazines of both Voice of the Martyrs and Wycliff Bible Translators, seeing the two together as indicative of the coming end times. And, of course, they donate their money to both.
Point 6. One world government
While the Antichrist’s one world government will not be completed until after the Tribulation is underway, Premillennialists believe that the seeds of this government will be planted beforehand. And they have located those seed: the United Nations. The United Nations is the organization the Antichrist will take and shape into his one world government, much like Palpatine does with the Galactic Republic in Star Wars Episode III.
As a result, Premillennialists oppose the U.N. at all costs, seeing it as the early shadow of the Antichrist’s one world government. They cannot consider that the U.N. might do any good or might be a good idea, they can only oppose it as their enemy. They therefore oppose any U.S. involvement in the U.N. as highly problematic; after all, the U.N. will eventually have to neutralize the United States, pulling it into the Antichrist’s scheme of one world government.
And finally, this fear of a world government makes Premillennialists wary of any almost any international cooperation (besides missions work, of course). Global solutions to problems are often seen as potential seeds of a one world government, a government that will ultimately hunt Christians down and be ruled by Satan himself.
Point 7: The rise of the Antichrist
While the Antichrist will not cement his power until the Tribulation begins following the rapture, that does not mean he’s not already around somewhere beginning his rise to power. He can’t simply appear out of nowhere, after all. Premillennialists therefore spend a surprising amount of time discussing who the Antichrist might be. My pastor has even said he thinks he knows who the Antichrist is, but he’s keeping that to himself and waiting for time to tell.
The Antichrist is supposed to be charismatic and popular. He is supposed to promise peace and prosperity. It is for these reasons that some Premillennialists have argued that Obama is the Antichrist. Similarly, during the 1930s, some were sure that FDR was the Antichrist. Others are convinced that the Antichrist will not come from America, but rather from Eastern Europe.
As a result of this, any young, popular, charismatic leader who promises peace and prosperity is looked upon with suspicion. Merely giving moving speeches and talking about making the world a better place for all people can invite suspicion, especially if the language is sufficiently global.
There is an obvious problem here. Searching for and expecting the signs of the end times means Premillennialists end up being short term thinkers, and completely eliminates the idea of searching for global solutions to the problems facing the world today. Famines are expected; wars are expected; global agreements are seen as potentially evil; and young leaders speaking of peace are automatically suspect. And then there’s the whole “persecution complex” thing.
There’s another point to be made. While the points I’ve discussed here are fairly universal, some Premillennialists try to fit the actions of countries in the present into the verses of Daniel or Revelation. Let me offer two examples:
First, some passages speak of Rome being rebuilt during the Tribulation, and serving as the seat of the Antichrist’s one world government. Because of this, Premillennialists living in the 1930s thought Mussolini might be the Antichrist, as he was rebuilding Rome. Second, many Premillennialists during the 1970s believed that the “Bear of the North” spoken of in one passage was the Soviet Union.
But of course, the global political situation changes, and then Premillennialists must reinterpret anew – and interpret they do. They fit things like Obama, or Sarkozy, or the new president of China into obscure Bible verses, trying to puzzle out how the last few decades before the rapture and Tribulation will play out. They see the Bible not simply as a tale of the past, after all, but as a guidebook for the future, and they do their best to squeeze every bit of information from it they can. It’s not just an idea. It’s an obsession.
Coming up next: Some personal tales of the “rapture anxiety” I experienced as a child.
Also in this series: