The End Times Part V: Signs, Prophesies, and Current Events

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.

Conclusion

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:

Part I – The Millennium, Tribulation, and Rapture

Part II – Social Justice, Dominionism, and the Culture Wars

Part III – Dispensationalism

Part IV – The Tribulation in Detail

Part V – Signs, Prophesies, and Current Events

Part VI: Rapture Anxiety

Part VII: Dispensational Premillennialism’s Recent Origins

  • Anders

    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.

    Excellent post.

    Is there anything to indicate that the premillenialists have sabotaged peace talks to keep war going?

  • KG

    There seems to be an odd inconsistency in the attitudes to various “signs”: for example, the uncritical support for Israel versus the equally uncritical condemnation of the UN – although the establishment of both, which of course took place very close in time, are interpreted as signs of the end times. Both are consistent with an uncritical American nationalism – support for Israel because of its strategic alliance with the US, opposition to the UN because at least in principle, it acts as a check on national freedom of action (in practice, those powers with a Security Council veto are not hindered by it). It often seems to the outsider that the real object of worship of many American right-wing Christians is the USA itself, and you’ve touched on the role premillenialists see the USA as having – but how far do you think this perspective helps understand their point of view?

    I note in passing that the past 20 years have seen a marked decline in war deaths – but one would hardly expect the premillenialists to take any notice of something as mundane as empirical evidence.

    • Libby Anne

      Yes, I thought about that as I was writing it too, but the post was long enough already. :-/

      I do agree that things like American nationalism feed back into Premillennialist thinking. But then there’s also the expectation that even the United States will end up persecuting Christians. I think part of what is going on in the specific disconnect you mention is that ultimately, Israel, as God’s chosen nation, is “good” while the U.N., because it will eventually be ruled by Satan, is “bad.” But then, sometimes I think you just have to stop demanding consistency. :-P

      • Anders

        Yeah, especially since – as the author of Revelations points out – these bad things are really a good sign, since it proclaims that Christ will come. So a consistent Christian should do his utmost to help the UN take over the world. How else is the Second Coming to… err… come?

      • Petticoat Philosopher

        Good point, but the thing is, as far as I’m concerned, this same contradiction applies to a lot of things, including the FIRST coming. It has always really confused me how the crucifixion is supposed to be a really good thing and a really bad thing at the same time. It was part of God’s perfect plan and enabled the redemption of all humankind…AND THE PEOPLE WHO DID IT MUST PAY!!! Huh?

        A little while ago, a slightly tipsy guy I was chatting with at my neighborhood bar responded to figuring out I was Jewish by demanding that I apologize to him for killing his Lord. (Yes, seriously. It was one of those conversations that starts off perfectly pleasant and friendly and then gets super-weird, super-fast…). My thoughts were: a)Wow, you’re an anti-semitic creep and b)wait, even assuming I were responsible for this, shouldn’t you be thanking me? Wasn’t Jesus’ death on the cross, like, the whole point?

        Have never figured this one out…

    • Iain

      Another excellent post. I really appreciate this series.

      Several years ago – you’ve probably seen this – Bill Moyers spoke about the practical effects of Premillenialist thinking, particularly on war and the environment.

      I’m not making this up. Like Monbiot, I’ve read the literature. I’ve reported on these people, following some of them from Texas to the West Bank. They are sincere, serious, and polite as they tell you they feel called to help bring the rapture on as fulfillment of biblical prophecy. That’s why they have declared solidarity with Israel and the Jewish settlements and backed up their support with money and volunteers. It’s why the invasion of Iraq for them was a warm-up act, predicted in the Book of Revelation where four angels ‘which are bound in the great river Euphrates will be released to slay the third part of man.’ A war with Islam in the Middle East is not something to be feared but welcomed – an essential conflagration on the road to redemption. The last time I Googled it, the rapture index stood at 144-just one point below the critical threshold when the whole thing will blow, the son of God will return, the righteous will enter heaven, and sinners will be condemned to eternal hellfire.

      War and environmental destruction are to be welcomed as signs of the end-times. The view has been increasingly incorporated into American nationalism and isolationism. (How did Mitt Romney’s ability to speak French become a negative?)

  • Brad

    Good summary, and I’ll again attest that everything you are discussing here is accurate for what a lot of Christians around me really believe (and that I used to believe myself).

    Side note, your “Also in this series” links at the bottom are missing links to chapters III and IV.

  • seditiosus

    I’ve said it before, but I’m saying it again: thanks so much for this series Libby Anne!

    When you explain the fundamentalist xian worldview like this it really helps to put things in perspective for me and allows me to understand why xians do some of the things they do. Previously, I found a lot of this stuff pretty inexplicable, but now I think I have a much better understanding.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1468751142 Kevin

    Hold the phone: So, they WANT the end of the world to happen. But they DON’T want a one-world government, which presages the end of the world?

    Um….cognitive disconnect, anyone?

    • Libby Anne

      Absolutely. The only way I can reconcile it is with the desire to “go down fighting” that I described in part II.

      • ScottInOH

        But it’s interesting, as Anders pointed out above, which of the signs they encourage, which they are indifferent to, and which they resist. It’s good to create Israel, have a war in the Middle East, and send missionaries. It’s fine if there are earthquakes and other disasters. But we need to resist the UN, the “persecution” of Christians in the US (and the real persecution of Christians in some other places), and the rise of the Antichrist (which label is applied to their political foes). I believe many of them are sincere, but they are inconsistent in a politically identifiable way–they’re not following the Bible; their making it follow them.

      • Anders

        If only they would heed Matthew 5:11-12

        “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

        Instead they squeal like pigs when anyone breathes a word against them. Incidentally, does anybody else feel the same smell from extreme Christians and Men’s Rights Advocates? The same hysterical fear of having your privileges taken away?

  • Ace of Sevens

    When i was still getting forced into church camp, I heard a lot of hooey about how the number of earthquakes is way up recently. What’s actually happening is the number of recorded earthquakes is way up thanks to better seismic monitoring. We detect lots of things that would have gone unnoticed before.

    There’s lots of data manipulation to support this narrative. As you alluded to in the post, things like comedians making fun of Christians or just conservatism or court rulings against teaching creationism in the classroom get spun into persecution. I could probably write a book about on this subject.

  • Landon

    Hi there! I attended a Church of Christ school for about eight years, so I’d heard some of this before, but never laid out in such an organized and informative fashion. Thank you for this – looking forward to future installments!

  • ‘Tis Himself, OM

    Thank you, Libby Anne, for an interesting and informative series.

  • http://www.skepticalseeker.com Mikel

    I love how Jesus says there will be “famine and earthquakes” in “various places.” Really specific huh, what part of history does this not describe?

  • Sercee

    Self- fulfilling prophecy. They want it to be real so badly that they do all they can to make it so, and if they are in any way successful they’ll be “right”, but there still will be no proof of god, only dead christians (and others who got caught up in their manipulations).

  • http://angramainyusblog.blogspot.com/ Angra Mainyu

    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.

    But Pre-tribulational Premillennialists believe they will be raptured before there is a world government, right?
    Are they worried about those who aren’t faithful enough to be raptured, or is that only a concern of other Premillennialists?
    But in any case, isn’t the rule of the Antichrist an inevitable part of the plan after all?
    Of course, it’s not that their views have to make sense…

  • http://nolongerquivering.com Vyckie Garrison

    Another blatant inconsistency is the Premillenials’ political activism – considering that they believe the world *has* to get worse and worse leading up to the Great Tribulation – their attempts to “turn America back to God” might thwart God’s end times plan and postpone Armageddon indefinitely.

    I only ever encountered one fundamentalist pastor who did not believe Christians should be fervently involved in the battle to “reclaim” America for Christ – he told his congregation, “Why swab the deck on a sinking ship?”

  • Iain

    Supporting Israel creates the conditions for end times – but surely supporting the UN and encouraging it towards a world government is equally necessary.

    I don’t really get why the first is good but the second is bad.

    I get that the antichrist is bad, but if the ultimate goal, as evidenced by support for Israel no matter what, is bringing about the conditions to fulfill prophecy and hasten the end why is support fot eh UN not equally good?

    • Libby Anne

      You are asking them to be logical!

      I actually didn’t notice this contradiction until working on this series. The best I can think is that it’s because Israel is seen as good, the nation of God’s chosen people, while the U.N. will eventually be run by Satan himself through the Antichrist, so the U.N. is something to oppose regardless of its inevitability. Go down fighting, and all that? Another reader pointed out too that opposition to the U.N. fits in well with American nationalism, so I don’t doubt there’s some mutually reinforcing things going on.

  • coragyps

    “This is why they become concerned about violations of religious freedom –”

    Though their definition of “religious freedom” tends to be, shall we say, an eccentric definition? Like “freedom for our particular flavor of Christianity to be the only flavor allowed?”

    • Libby Anne

      Yes, absolutely, but remember that what they’re looking for and expecting is violations of religious freedom, so it’s not surprising that they can find evidence of it even if that requires making mountains out of molehills or essentially inventing persecution where none exists.

  • RickR

    I’m not a Christian, but if I could agree that anything deserved the label “heresy”, it would be PMD end times “theology”.

    The all-consuming focus on biblical prophecy and the End Times Checklist™, reducing the role of the Bible in Christianity to what is essentially a deck of Tarot cards. The twisted “logic” of selectively jumping around the various books in the bible to lay out the end times series of events, all supposedly gleaned by a “literal, plain reading of the text”. Salvation achieved by the casting of a magic spell on God (reciting the Sinner’s Prayer).
    And the God depicted in things like the “Left Behind” novels is a monstrous entity committing atrocities the Antichrist could only dream of, rendering notions of “good” and “evil” in this strain of Christianity into the repugnant idea that the only functional difference between God and Satan is that God is more powerful, therefore WORSHIP!

    The deeper you delve, the more loathsome it is. It would be sadly amusing if there weren’t millions of fervent believers in this nonsense, and they didn’t wield so much political power.

    Ugh.

    • Libby Anne

      A lot of Christians agree with you. There are plenty who see this sort of calculating and figuring as ridiculous given that there are verses that say you cannot know the day when Christ will return, and that he will be like a “thief in the night.” And again, this whole taking Revelation with all of its judgments as literal is fairly new, Christians haven’t traditionally seen it that way at all.

      • Andrew G.

        The moderate (sane) Christians are still in some sense enabling the insanity, though, because even though they can say “you can’t know when the end is coming”, they (generally speaking) can’t or won’t go beyond that and say “the world isn’t going to end for millions of years yet – we have to deal with it ourselves, rather than expecting God to show up to fix things”.

        That said, eschatological insanity (I wonder if there is a clinical term for it) is by no means limited to Christians (cf. Y2k and the 2012 nonsense) or even a recent thing; in fact it was Jewish eschatological delusion that caused the birth of Christianity in the first place. (There is evidence for a 1stC Jewish belief along these lines: that God is overdue to show up and reorder the world, putting the Jews in their rightful place as chosen people; that he’s only prevented from doing this because of the sins of the Jewish nation, making them unworthy of it; that if someone were to die under the right circumstances as a scapegoat for those sins, then that would clear the way for things to proceed – hence the string of wannabe messiahs. Carrier has a good post on this, on his old blog I think.)

      • Nentuaby

        Andrew G.:

        To be fair, while the Bible hedges its bets about any specific time, it’s got a few very clear passages to the effect of “… it won’t be long, though,” So you can’t exactly claim they’re failing on their own terms. (That the Bible supports almost anything if you quote the right part is a different problem).

        E.G.

        Matthew 24:34 [Jesus, Upon describing several of the signs of the end times listed above] Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.

      • Andrew G.

        Nentuaby:

        That’s exactly the point.

        The right response to “the world’s gonna end in 2012″ is “no, it’s not going to end for millions of years”, not “it’s going to end real soon now but nobody knows when, so you’re wrong about 2012″.

        As long as Christians generally are promoting the idea that the world will end at some unspecified near-future time, there will always be openings for abuse by people like that Camping nutcase, who wrecked a lot of people’s lives.

      • RickR

        Leaving aside their obsession with predicting the “End Times”, you’re still left with the disgusting worldview of fundie christianity itself-

        There’s no good, there’s no evil.
        There’s just God, just the Devil.
        And no way to tell the two apart.

        Except for the size of the stick each holds.

  • Elise

    Hi Libby,

    Excellent post, especially as it explains some of the weirder bits about what has hitherto seemed like knee-jerk Tea Party reactions.

    I’ve been wondering this bit: If Jesus reigns for 1000 years, exactly what does he reign over? The ‘good’ have been raptured, the ‘bad’ eaten by festering sores and then earthquaked–what’s left?

    Side note: my pastor who said that the conflict in the middle east could never be resolved because of the Bible also believed it was his right to rape two teenage girls, because they made themselves too tempting, or something. I find all this thinking so dangerous.

  • John Morales

    [meta + OT]

    Top-notch blogging.

    Thanks, Libby Anne!

    • http://angramainyusblog.blogspot.com/ Angra Mainyu

      Seconded. :)

  • Tim

    [quote]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.[/quote]

    Just wanted to add that around the time the European Union formed (and then again when the euro was introduced) I heard Christians in some circles saying that it was the new Roman empire of Revelation.

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