One of the questions I’m asked about most frequently is how close do I think are we *really* are to the end times? It’s one thing to point to current events in Israel or Europe, for example, and say that we might be getting close, but let’s be honest – folks like Hal Lindsey have been doing that for more than 40 years. As I’ve stated many, many times, no one knows when God’s ultimate plan for humanity will unfold and we could be 1, 10 or 100 years away from it. I’ve tried to make the case in these newsletters that we live in unique times prophetically, so I don’t believe it will be at the higher end of that range, but what about the lower end? What is the case against an immediate unfolding of the end times prophecies? It’s an interesting question to consider.
If one analyzes every prophecy in the Bible (and Dr. John Walvoord has in his book, ‘Every Prophecy of the Bible’), one discovers that the Bible contains about 1,000 prophecies, of which, about half have already been fulfilled. That leaves about 500 prophecies that have yet to be fulfilled. Of these, almost all refer to events during, or after, the Tribulation period. How then, can we make a case for the time it might take to get us to that period? The answer is to look at the things we know will happen during the Tribulation period and ask what pieces of the puzzle are not yet in place for these events to occur. In considering this, I think there are three main pieces of the puzzle not yet in place that could help shed light on this question.
The City of Babylon
The first puzzle piece is Babylon. Although many passages in the Bible use the word "Babylon" to refer to the coming worldwide government (Rev. 13:3-4), religion (Rev. 13:11-15) or economic system (Rev. 13:16-18) under the Antichrist, there are also many references to a physical, rebuilt city of Babylon that will serve as the capital of the Antichrist's Empire. The Bible is clear that, in the end times, the city of Babylon will rise to world prominence as a commercial and cultural center. Near the end of the Tribulation period, God will then suddenly and violently destroy Babylon once and for all (Isa. 13:6, 9, Rev. 18). Although the city of Babylon (located near Baghdad in Iraq) was rebuilt in fulfillment of prophecy after thousands of years of desolation by Saddam Hussein in 1987, it can't presently be considered a world commercial or cultural center, but it’s clear from prophecy that it will be as part of the Antichrist's coming kingdom. Now, one could argue that the city will rise to prominence under the Antichrist to fulfill these prophecies during the Tribulation period (so no additional time is needed for Babylon to get to where it needs to be), but the reality is prominent cities are not built overnight. They take time.
How much time? That depends on what is driving the growth of that city. If one looks New York, for instance, the major driver of growth occurred after the opening of the Erie Canal 1825. It’s been growing ever since, but that’s probably not a great example since there are many drivers of growth for New York such as immigration and finance that have occurred over the years. Probably a better example is my hometown of Seattle, whose major growth occurred over the past 25 years primarily driven by the growth of Boeing and Microsoft. In the Middle East, an even better example would be Abu Dhabi, the capital of the U.A.E., whose growth has skyrocketed fueled by oil profits just over the past couple of decades.
What could drive the growth of Babylon to world prominence? Certainly, the fact that, as a result of the Iraq war, Iraq is now the only democratic Arab country in the Middle East. If the war ends and peace takes hold, or if oil prices continue to rise causing more wealth to be transferred from countries like the U.S. to the Middle East, there is no question global businesses will seek to locate there over more hostile Middle Eastern country alternatives. It’s interesting to note because of the Arab Spring, most Arab countries are now in turmoil and Iraq – long considered the most volatile country in the Middle East – is now considered one of the most stable.
Regardless of the reason, I think it’s safe to assume that we are at least a couple of decades away from the city of Babylon looking anything like the city that the Bible portrays in the end times. This is probably one of the most powerful arguments that the end times won’t happen imminently but rather is still a little ways off. Having said that, I should point out that although a literal interpretation of the Bible would indicate that the city of Babylon would be rebuilt on the same location as it had existed in centuries past, it is worth noting that there are other commonly held beliefs among prophecy scholars who believe that the term “Babylon” is a metaphor for Rome or some other city rather than a literal city. Although I don’t hold this belief, I don’t think this one prophecy is enough to base a timeline on.
The re-establishment of modern-day Israel is a hallmark of Bible prophecy and many prophecies of the Old Testament were fulfilled when Israel became a nation again in 1948 and recaptured Jerusalem in 1967. However, there are two prophecy puzzle pieces related to Israel that don’t quite seem ready to fit into place yet that are worth looking at.
The first is the Ezekiel 38 attack. The attack on Israel described in Ezekiel 38-39 is a major event of prophecy and many scholars would argue that this is the next event on God’s prophetic timeline. Although the Bible doesn’t provide any timing (the attack would happen prior to, at the start of, or during the Tribulation period), most would argue that it needs to happen near the beginning. No problem, except for one thing – Ezekiel 38:8. This verse says “In future years [the invading armies] will invade a land that has recovered from war, whose people (Israel) were gathered from many nations…” The attack begins after Israel has recovered from a war. This is the missing puzzle piece. There has to be a major war in the Middle East that precedes the Ezekiel 38 attack.
Since the founding of Israel, there have been at least six major conflicts. Naturally, any of these could qualify as the precursor to the Ezekiel 38 attack, but the context of this passage seems to imply a major war in the Middle East which would take Israel significant time to recover from – meaning there was significant destruction that occurred during that war. As a result, it’s hard to argue that the six-day war of 1967 (the last real major conflict) would qualify. I think what we are looking for is something more dramatic.
It’s not hard to imagine this is it? Gee…when could there be a major war on Israel that would take it time to recover from. Perhaps a nuclear attack? That would certainly take some time to recover from. Or perhaps a conventional attack in response to Israel launching a pre-emptive attack on a country like Iran? Given current events, it’s not hard to come up with a scenario, but remember that there has to be a major war and Israel will have to recover from this prior to the Ezekiel 38 attack. How long would this take? Does 10 years sound reasonable? Pick your date, but this provides another puzzle piece to figuring out how far away we might actually be.
The second puzzle piece related to Israel is the rebuilding of the Temple. The Bible indicates that the Temple in Jerusalem will be rebuilt a third time. The Temple has to be rebuilt because a restored Temple exists at the midpoint of the Tribulation when the Bible indicates that the Antichrist will defile it (Dan. 9:27, 12:11, Matt. 24:15, 2 Thess. 2:3-4, Rev. 11:1-2). Details of this are discussed in chapter fifteen of my book, but note that the Bible doesn't provide timing: the Temple can be rebuilt before or during the first half of the Tribulation—it just has to be in existence and functioning at the midpoint. As such, this doesn’t provide any firm dates regarding how far away we might actually be, but it does give us some clues since the geopolitical climate isn’t right for the rebuilding to begin. Although devout Jews have been preparing for the rebuilding of the Temple and have even assembled the building materials for the construction effort, something would have to change in the Middle East for the rebuilding to begin since Muslims (who control the Temple Mount) would not permit the rebuilding to occur at present. What would need to change? Well, control of the Temple Mount would need to change hands, which would likely require a war and some agreement regarding the fate of the Dome of the Rock – the Muslim holy site that stands on the center of the Temple Mount. Then, the actual rebuilding of the temple itself would need to occur.
How long would all of this take? Hard to tell, but best case perhaps 5 years? 10 years? It’s unclear, but pick your date and this provides yet another puzzle piece to figuring out how far away we might actually be.
Spread of the Gospel
Another missing puzzle piece is the spread of the Gospel. In response to the disciples asking Jesus for the signs of the end of the age, Jesus listed many signs in Matthew 24 (described in Chapter 9 of my book). After listing more than a dozen and saying they would be like birth pains – increasing in frequency and intensity, Christ concludes by saying the Gospel “will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (Matthew 24:14). The gospel will be preached to all nations, comma, and then the end will come, clearly linking the completion of the Great Commission with the return of Christ. In other words, once our Christian mission is complete, the end of the age will come.
Over the past century, the Gospel has been preached around the world with amazing success. In fact, 70 percent of all progress made toward fulfilling the Great Commission has taken place since 1900. This is primarily due to the explosion of technologies (word processors, airplanes, the telephone, the internet, etc.) that have made it easier than ever before to translate and distribute the gospel to foreign countries. However, in the world today, there are still many unreached people groups. Wycliffe (the leading Bible translation organization in the world today) estimates that there are currently 2,000 languages that are in need of the Gospel – representing about 340 million people (or about 20% of the world’s population). But here is where it gets interesting – about a decade ago, Wycliffe committed to the mission of seeing a Bible translation program started in every language still needing one by the year 2025. This is a big effort, but the end is in sight. Due to modern technology, the translation process is going faster than it ever has before, and it’s exciting to think that we may be living in the generation (perhaps less than 15 years from now) that sees the ultimate fulfillment of the great commission.
Naturally, there are many different ways to measure the fulfillment of Christ’s prophecy and Bible translation is only one way, but there is no doubt that we are living in an age where the gospel will be preached to all nations at the same time we’re seeing various other signs are being fulfilled. According to Jesus, once this is done, comma, “then the end will come.”
So how far are we away *really*? Of course, no one knows, and I’m not a prophet – so all I can do is look at the jigsaw puzzle and try to figure out which pieces are still missing. Looking at the panoramic picture the Bible provides, there is no doubt the end times puzzle is nearing completion – there are just not that many pieces left to be placed, and the puzzle has come together over the past several decades with amazing speed. But, based on the above and several other puzzle pieces I don’t have room to discuss in this newsletter that don’t seem to quite fit yet, my best guess would be that we’re not a year or two years away and we’re not a hundred years away. Looking at the picture we have at present, my best guess would be a couple of decades away from the fulfillment of God’s ultimate plan.
Of course, God’s timing is His own, and people have been made fools who’ve tried to pick dates for His return (the most recent being Harold Camping just last year). Further, some would argue the world is speeding up (we’ve certainly seen that the past couple of years with the events in Europe and the worldwide economic collapse) indicating God is moving toward his ultimate plan to bring justice to the world, but balancing against this is God’s patience. The Bible says the Lord “is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance" (2 Peter 3:8-9).
Weighing God’s perfect justice (arguing for an earlier timing) against his perfect patience (arguing for a later timing), gives us something to consider…