How close are we to the end of the world? Is it even possible to know?
An often-voiced concern of students of the Bible is the timing of the end of this world and the return of Jesus Christ. Since the Bible is God’s communication to mankind, we must go there to find out about the events to unfold in the end times. In fact, a large portion of the Bible contains prophecy.
So where are we now in the timeline or progression of prophetic events?
What we can and can’t know about end-time prophecy
First, we can—and should—have a good, general idea of where we are in the order of prophesied events. Jesus Himself said, “Now learn this parable from the fig tree: When its branch has already become tender and puts forth leaves, you know that summer is near. So you also, when you see all these things, know that it is near—at the doors! Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place” (Matthew 24:32-34; see also Mark 13:28-31).
In other words, when we see the prophecies Jesus had just described in what is called the “Olivet Prophecy” coming to pass, we can know the end is truly near.
At the same time, Jesus made it clear we cannot pinpoint the exact timing of the end of the world and His return. “But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Mark 13:32, emphasis added throughout).
He said that in reply to a question the disciples had asked, “What will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?” (Matthew 24:3). Jesus had listed a number of events to unfold in the end times. Then in verse 21 He said, “For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world.”
This “great tribulation” is a major prophetic event and is mentioned in many other prophecies throughout the Bible.This “great tribulation” is a major prophetic event and is mentioned in many other prophecies throughout the Bible.
In brief, these prophecies show that this tribulation will last 3½ years and culminate with the return of Jesus Christ. Some specific events prophesied to occur during the Great Tribulation have not yet been fulfilled. So, in other words, we are not yet in the final 3½ years of this age. To learn more about this time of trouble, see the article “Great Tribulation.”
What must happen before the Great Tribulation?
Our question then is, “How near are we to the start of that Great Tribulation?” To answer, we can look at a number of specific prophecies and dynamics that will be in place in the time of the end.
Specifically, the time of the end is a time when the following prophesied circumstances will be in place. As you read the list below, consider that these dynamics were not apparent in even the first half of the 20th century. But together, they give the picture of a world on the brink of the Great Tribulation. Relatively speaking, there seem to be only a few details yet to materialize before all factors are in place for the final 3½ years of this world to commence.
- “Many shall run to and fro” (Daniel 12:4): This prophetic trend comes to mind anytime we’re on a busy highway or flying out of a busy airport. Around the world there are now over a billion cars, and millions of passengers fly rapidly through the skies every day.
- “Knowledge shall increase” (Daniel 12:4): According to sources cited by Boston Commons High Tech Network, up to around the year 1900 human knowledge doubled about every century. By the end of World War II, knowledge was doubling every 25 years. Now our information base is doubling every 12 months, on the way to doubling about every 12 hours.
- The capability exists for humanity to destroy all life: “And unless those days were shortened, no flesh would be saved” (Matthew 24:22). The capacity for humans to destroy all life on the planet did not exist until after 1945, with the advent of the atomic era. Since then, the proliferation of nuclear weapons has made the destruction of all life possible—multiple times over.
- Increase in famines, disease epidemics and earthquakes: “And there will be famines, pestilences, and earthquakes in various places” (Matthew 24:7). There have been food shortages, pandemics and earthquakes at times throughout human history. But Christ’s specific mention of them in the context of end-time events shows that they will become a much more notable, frequent phenomenon.
- Ability to view an event around the world: Revelation 11:3-11 reveals that shortly before Christ returns, His “two witnesses”—who will testify to the world from Jerusalem for 42 months (3½ years)—will be killed. “Then those from the peoples, tribes, tongues and nations will see their dead bodies three-and-a-half days” (verse 9). For people all around the world to view this, the technology will need to already exist. Not only is this now possible, most of us now see images from other nations daily via satellites.
- An army of 200 million can be fielded: Revelation 9:13-19 describes another event near the end of the 3½ years, during the sixth trumpet. Verse 16 shows that an enormous army will be fielded at that time: “The number of cavalry troops was 200,000,000. I heard how many there were” (International Standard Version). Furthermore, this comes after staggering numbers of humans have already died, as revealed in chapters 6 through 9. The ability to field such an exceptionally large army was not possible until recent times, when the populations of some nations (such as China and India, for example) or groups of nations grew so dramatically.
- Sacrifices at Jerusalem to begin: Daniel 12 points specifically to events at the end of this age (verses 4, 9). Verse 1 calls it the worst time of trouble in human history, which coincides with Christ’s words in Matthew 24:21. How long until all these things are finished? Daniel 12:7 answers “for a time, times and half a time.” This expression, also mentioned in other prophecies, equates with the final 3½ years (or 1,260 days) before Christ returns.
Verse 11 gives even more details: “And from the time that the daily sacrifice is taken away, and the abomination of desolation is set up, there shall be one thousand two hundred and ninety [1,290] days.”
In order for sacrifices to be taken away just before the final 3½ years, they will first need to be started again. While there are a few Jews—a small minority at present—who are advocating and preparing for a restoration of the sacrificial system in Jerusalem, as of this writing their efforts have not been successful. This proposal to begin animal sacrifices once again seems quite radical to the majority of Jews, and there are political concerns about instituting this type of activity.
Although sacrifices could begin again with or without majority approval, it is difficult to conceive how they could be reinstituted under current conditions. Time will tell how and when animal sacrifices will resume and this prophecy regarding their being taken away will be fulfilled. Read more in our blog post “Does Bible Prophecy Require a Third Temple to Be Built?”
- Jerusalem surrounded by armies: “But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation is near” (Luke 21:20). Verse 24 adds that Jerusalem will then come under gentile (non-Israelite) control. Matthew’s account adds the detail that the “abomination of desolation” (connected with the ending of sacrifices) will be part of this takeover of Jerusalem (Matthew 24:15).
In Zechariah 12:3, which also refers to Jerusalem in the end times, God says, “And it shall happen in that day that I will make Jerusalem a very heavy stone for all peoples; all who would heave it away will surely be cut in pieces, though all nations of the earth are gathered against it.”
If there’s any city on earth that’s in the news almost daily—as a focus of conflict, division, bloodshed and controversy—it’s Jerusalem. It is easy to see how military activity could quickly begin and escalate there at any time. For more about what the Bible reveals regarding Jerusalem, see our article “Jerusalem in Prophecy.”
- Final revival of the Roman Empire: Students of Bible prophecy know that God foretold the rise and fall of four great world empires. The fourth was the Roman Empire, and the Bible shows that it would have 10 revivals (depicted by 10 horns on the fourth beast in Daniel 7:7, 23-24). For a listing of the 10 revivals of the Roman Empire, see our article “What Is Babylon?”
The ninth revival has come and gone, starting with the reunification of Italy by Garibaldi in 1870 and ending with the defeat of the World War II Axis powers of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy (led by Hitler and Mussolini) in 1945. “Following [World War I], … Mussolini decided his destiny was to rule Italy as a modern Caesar and re-create the Roman Empire” (History.com, “Benito Mussolini”).
The last revival of the Roman Empire (which has always been European-based) will be a union of 10 “kings” (or kingdoms or states), who agree to come under the authority of the “beast” spoken of in Revelation 17.Mussolini “concluded the decade [of the 1920s] on a high note: his Concordat with the Vatican in 1929 settled the historic differences between the Italian state and the Roman Catholic Church. Awed by a generosity that multiplied his annual income fourfold, Pope Pius XI confirmed to the world that Mussolini had been sent ‘by Divine Providence.’ As the 1930s opened, Mussolini, seated safely in power and enjoying wide support from the middle classes, undertook to shape his regime and fix its image. Italy, he announced, had commenced the epoch of the ‘Third Rome’” (Encyclopedia.com, “Benito Mussolini”).
The last revival of the Roman Empire (which has always been European-based) will be a union of 10 “kings” (or kingdoms or states), who agree to come under the authority of the “beast” spoken of in Revelation 17. “And the ten horns which you saw [in verse 3—a different “beast” than the one depicted in Daniel 7] are ten kings who have received no kingdom as yet, but they receive authority for one hour as kings with beast. These are of one mind, and they will give their power and authority to the beast” (verses 12-13).
These 10 “kings” will cooperate, but they don’t mix well. This reality is pictured by the 10 toes of the image in Daniel 2:42-44. This passage refers to these toes as “kings” and places them in the time frame at the end of this age, when God will set up His Kingdom on earth. Today we see dynamics in Europe that will make unification and the rise of a strong leader attractive (for economic, military, cultural and other reasons). In fact, dialogue toward this goal is increasing daily.
What are we to do?
Besides the short list above, there are additional prophetic indicators showing that we are near the very end of this present age. Time is short! But most people pay no attention to the Bible and believe their lives will continue securely for many years. And the Great Tribulation—which Christ said will be the worst time of trouble in man’s history—will catch them completely off guard.
“For as in the days before the flood, they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark, and did not know until the flood came and took them all away, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be” (Matthew 24:38-39).
Therefore what does Jesus Christ tell us—His disciples—to do?
“But take heed to yourselves, lest your hearts be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness, and cares of this life, and that Day come on you unexpectedly. For it will come as a snare on all those who dwell on the face of the whole earth. Watch therefore, and pray always that you may be counted worthy to escape all these things that will come to pass, and to stand before the Son of Man” (Luke 21:34-36).