As we study prophecy, we attempt to familiarize ourselves with trends and historical markers. Arbiters of biblical interpretation often remind us that we must be cautious about reading too much into current events. They tell us that the timing of the Church Age is not connected in Scripture to any specific event of future history.
And although the Seven Churches of Revelation do, to some degree, lay out a historical pattern, they don’t reveal events that can be used to time the arrival of future events.
Over the years, we have noted in various ways, that while Israel is connected to geography and politics, the Christian Church is not. In a profound way, it operates independent of the pre-ordained steps that Israel is taking toward the millennial Kingdom.
Nevertheless, the Apostles wrote that toward its end, the Church would sink into apostasy and worldliness:
“3 Knowing this first, that there shall come in the last days scoffers, walking after their own lusts, 4 And saying, Where is the promise of his coming? for since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of the creation” (II Pet. 3:3,4).
These “scoffers” are the legions of latter-day atheists, agnostics and humanists, who absolutely deny any such thing as the “word of God.” In their view, the Bible is a concoction of human tales and speculations. Faithful believers, however, know that God’s absolute power over His creation is well documented, and His word can unleash the fire of judgment. It has in the past, and is prophesied to come forth again:
“The Lord knoweth how to deliver the godly out of temptations, and to reserve the unjust unto the day of judgment to be punished” (II Pet. 2:9).
A NEW “RELIGION”
On this note, it is interesting that for almost a century, the world has witnessed the rapid growth of a new belief system that conceives itself as the successor to Christianity. It calls itself a religion! Its leaders would like to take upon themselves the mantle traditionally reserved for the church. Its rapid growth may provide a valuable clue in the discernment of end-time prophecy.
In their epistles, Paul and the other Apostles presented the body of Christ as a great mystery to the intelligentsia of the world. Secular historians and humanist philosophers view it in terms of political and economic theories. Certainly, liberal humanists do not understand its nature. They fail to comprehend that it is a Spirit-led movement.
Nevertheless, for their own purposes, they seek to imitate its outward appearance. Some have labeled this new religion, “secular fundamentalism.” Its emergence presents us with a significant sign that we live in the end times.
To the greatest degree possible, we watch for developments that would suggest that His day is approaching, and that soon, He will catch away the living remnant of the church. One of the signs of the end is given as growing apostasy. It is not foolish to watch these signs. In fact, the Apostles urged watchfulness:
“12 Teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world; 13 Looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:12,13).
Paul’s letter to Titus was written about seven years before the destruction of the Herodian Temple. Nevertheless, he includes the above exhortation to look for the coming of Jesus and the rapture of the church. Centuries ago, he defined the theological posture of the redeemed, as they await His coming. But in those long-ago days, only the Lord knew that the dark ages, reformation, machine age, missionary movements and world wars would pass before Israel’s latter-day regathering. We view this tiny country as God’s timepiece. We now know that the reestablished state of Israel warns of the near approach of the Lord’s judgment. The Apostles knew only that the redeemed were to remain watchful in the general sense.
In the context of the Great Tribulation, Luke records Jesus’ Olivet discourse, placing special emphasis upon awareness. Though His exhortation is directed toward a Jewish audience, Christians also watch and pray as we look forward to the“blessed hope.”
“34 And take heed to yourselves, lest at any time your hearts be overcharged with surfeiting, and drunkenness, and cares of this life, and so that day come upon you unawares. 35 For as a snare shall it come on all them that dwell on the face of the whole earth. 36 Watch ye therefore, and pray always, that ye may be accounted worthy to escape all these things that shall come to pass, and to stand before the Son of man” (Luke 21:34-36).
From this and other prophecies about the Day of the Lord, we know that it will come with frightful suddenness. There will be no time to prepare, either physically or spiritually. The wise will be ready.
THE TERMINAL CHURCH
As we have often stated, the greatest of all end-time signs is the existence of the modern state of Israel. It is one of two central features of Old Testament prophecy: They are the Messiah and Israel. His first and second coming are intimately attached to Israel’s possession of the Land. But of the church, it is stated that there are no real prophetic guideposts along the prophetic timeline. While Israel’s apostasies, captivities, dispersions and victories have clear connections with world history, there are no similar markers for the true church.
It is never predicted to acquire designated land holdings or political power. It is never related to geography, or to events of the calendar. Its holidays are not legal proscriptions, as are the Jewish festivals. Its two main OBSERVANCES – Easter and Christmas – are held at different times, depending upon a variety of traditions. Nor are they mandatory observations … just TRADITIONAL.
In Revelation, the description of the church of Laodicea reveals the declining state of the Church, just before the rapture:
“14 And unto the angel of the church of the Laodiceans write; These things saith the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of the creation of God; 15 I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot. 16 So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth. 17 Because thou sayest, I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing; and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked: 18 I counsel thee to buy of me gold tried in the fire, that thou mayest be rich; and white raiment, that thou mayest be clothed, and that the shame of thy nakedness do not appear; and anoint thine eyes with eyesalve, that thou mayest see. 19 As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten: be zealous therefore, and repent. 20 Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me. 21 To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with me in my throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with my Father in his throne. 22 He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches” (Rev. 3:14-22).
This is the end-time church of self-sufficiency. It is characterized as wealthy, indifferent to doctrine and unable to see the truth. Of course, types of all seven churches will exist in the last days, but it seems accurate to say that the Laodicean belief system will dominate.
If the church can be said to have a calculable duration on earth, it is only by inference from prophecies specifically spoken about the Jews and Israel. One good example is found in Hosea, where a time period of “two days” is mentioned in connection with Messiah’s return:
“5 I will go and return to my place, till they acknowledge their offence, and seek my face: in their affliction they will seek me early. 1 Come, and let us return unto the LORD: for he hath torn, and he will heal us; he hath smitten, and he will bind us up. 2 After two days will he revive us: in the third day he will raise us up, and we shall live in his sight” (Hosea 5:15-6:2).
In Hosea’s forecast, the Lord is prophesied to revive Israel after two days. From the perspective of the “millennial-day” theory, this span of time is commonly thought to be a figure of speech that represents two thousand years.
Thus it is inferred that the length of the church age will be around two thousand years, plus or minus some unknown length of time. But once again we see that this timeline is attached to Israel, and only indirectly applies to the church. The “us” represented in Hosea 6:1 is Israel.
But with regard to prophecy describing the church, there is really no specific event to watch for, and that would seem to be the end of the matter. We are left with no way to positively and accurately tell the prophetic time in the body of Christ. With nothing to watch for, is watching a waste of time? Absolutely not, since the doctrine of Christ’s imminent return strongly urges us to be alert to the possibility of His arrival. We therefore watch, in the same sense that the followers of the Apostles watched in the first century. Paul addressed the Thessalonians, complimenting them on their indefatigable witness for Christ. In the following verses, he praises them for the quality of their converts:
“9 For they themselves shew of us what manner of entering in we had unto you, and how ye turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God; 10 And to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, even Jesus, which delivered us from the wrath to come” (1 Thessalonians 1:9,10).
Notice that in addition to approving their zeal, he also mentions the other outcome of faith … the patient and watchful observance of Christ’s anticipated return … prior to the time of God’s wrath. Thus, their faith has an external (evangelistic) and an internal (conviction) result.
Even in the first century, they were watching. They are given to us as a model of faith and observant patience. But there were darkening clouds on their horizon. The idolatry of the Roman state and the insidious diluting effect of Greek philosophy rose as obstacles to the faith.
A WORSENING PREDICAMENT
We must stress that we don’t view their watchfulness as futile, even though they didn’t see Christ’s return. Instead, we see it as the purifying focus of their faith. Furthermore, our grasp of history and prophecy dwarfs their parochial view. From our perspective, Israel has been scattered over the face of the earth, and regathered. Both ends of this action were actualized by the bellicose march of Gentile nations. The Caesars of the first century and the Kaisers of the twentieth were instruments of God’s will.
Today, we have literacy, history and media on our side. As the prophet Daniel predicted for “the time of the end” (12:4), knowledge has increased mightily. His prophecy foresaw the massive, exponential growth of technology and communications. It includes billions of unbelievers.
Even though no specific signs are given for the close of the church age, we are not totally without a prophetic compass where it is concerned. We know that over its prophesied lifetime, certain key developments are delineated. Among these, is the rise of secular power.
In fact, there may be one set of signs which, when carefully observed, yields a fairly accurate view of the church’s closing days. The Apostles wrote concerning the spiritual quality of the end-time church. Their observations are complex, but show a discernible pattern that seems tied to our times.
THE LONG DECLINE
They painted a word picture of a church that would grow more and more corrupt as time went by, finally culminating in a more or less complete apostasy. Thus, those watching the progressive decay of the church, now do so on the basis of two thousand years of history. From our current perspective, we can discern the degree to which the church has fallen away from the Apostles’ doctrine and order.
We look back upon the history of collapsing Apostolic zeal that characterized the second century. In the third and fourth centuries, church fathers wrestled with bizarre allegorical interpretations of Scripture, Gnostic heresies, fraudulent insertions of forged pseudo-scripture, and a variety of opinions about what should be considered the canon of the New Testament.
Then came the state church, aligned with the kings of the “Holy Roman Empire.” It devised a system of works in which one’s status before king and church became entangled in a convoluted assortment of rules and laws and rigorous strictures. They kept the serfs in bondage and the church in wealth.
In his pastoral epistles, Paul plainly predicted this descent into state-run despotism. He foresaw that the church would fall under the oppressive pall of politics and strange prohibitions. In his first letter to Timothy, he wrote the following words about A.D. 51. Four hundred years later, the church of the so-called Holy Roman Empire had been seduced into accepting all of the following heresies:
“1 Now the Spirit speaketh expressly, that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils; 2 Speaking lies in hypocrisy; having their conscience seared with a hot iron; 3 Forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from meats, which God hath created to be received with thanksgiving of them which believe and know the truth. 4 For every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused, if it be received with thanksgiving” (1 Timothy 4:1-4).
DEFINING THE “LAST DAYS”
Augustine of Hippo, the theological doctor of the Roman church, was a religious eclectic. He incorporated aspects of Persian Manichaeanism (worship of angelic spirits), Buddhism (asceticism and universal consciousness) and neoplatonism (the spiritualization of Christ) into the formal church. He redefined salvation, not as relationship with God through Christ, but as conformity to the rule of the church—global and local. He set the stage for monasticism and its accompanying variations on asceticism and celibacy.
A new priesthood inserted itself between God and man. The hapless and illiterate plowman of the time believed what he was told, with virtually no access to Latin Scriptures, which were tightly closed to all but the literati.
And so, the descent into the Dark Ages saw the complete fulfillment of Paul’s words. His term, “latter times,” might well have been stated as, “the centuries immediately following the death of the Apostles.” In other words, they were fulfilled long before the end of the church age. From the days of Paul to the present time, the normal behavior in the age of the church has been a steady drift in the direction of false doctrine.
Often, watchful Christians speak of the “last days” as perhaps the closing days of the church age. But this definition attaches a specific definition to a term that is more general. The following verse provides a good example of this idea:
“This know also, that in the last days perilous times shall come” (2 Timothy 3:1).
Here, the word “perilous” is a translation of the Greek, chalepos, meaning ragingly insane, or characterized by intense violence. Given the history of the political and social church, this condition has occurred many times, right from its beginning. The gardens of Nero were lit by Christians, burned as garden torches. They were fed to beasts and martyred in every conceivable manner. Such bitter treatment included even the Apostles, so soon after Christ’s death and resurrection. Evil persecutions continued down through the Middle Ages, the Reformation and beyond. In every way, their persecutors were possessed of a violent insanity – the same kind of insanity that took Christ to Golgotha.
Clearly, the “last days” are all the days of the church age. Just prior to the destruction of the Temple, the writer to the Hebrews even made a point of introducing his epistle with a statement of the times. He referred to this period with the familiar term:
“God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets,
“Hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds” (Hebrews 1:1,2).
If the “last days” are to be considered a norm for the entire age of the church, then how are we to discern developments pertinent to its closing days? It is perfectly obvious that virtually every type of apostasy has been manifested in the last twenty centuries. But a careful scrutiny of history reveals one interesting fact. The greatest of all apostasies did not rise to prominence until well into the twentieth century. If we can identify it in Scripture, then we have a marker attached to the end-time church. It will help us see just how close we are to Christ’s coming.
AN END-TIME BELIEF SYSTEM
The era of the church has encompassed a variety of false beliefs, coupled with numerous attempts to dilute or subvert its key doctrines. Even while the Apostles were alive, they battled a variety of heresies, ranging from the cult of the Caesars and the Babylonian Mystery religions, to bizarre offshoots of Judaism.
Gnosticism, allegorical mythology, fraudulent “gospels,” spiritualism, corrupt priesthoods, cults, and false theologies have raged on since the Apostolic age. They all depended upon different interpretations of God. None of those denied His very existence … that is, until technology and science produced the belief that the universe started itself, and that man evolved from a broth of available earthly chemicals.
This doctrine—originally called humanism—is the ultimate apostasy. It became codified in the period between World Wars I and II. Its declarations appear in the Humanist Manifestos I and II, and first appeared in The New Humanist, May/June 1933 (Vol. VI. No. 3). The following quote is from its introduction, written by Paul Kurtz:
“In 1933 a group of thirty-four liberal humanists in the United States defined and enunciated the philosophical and religious principles that seemed to them fundamental [boldface added]. They drafted Humanist Manifesto I, which for its time was a radical document. It was concerned with expressing a general religious and philosophical outlook that rejected orthodox and dogmatic positions and provided meaning and direction, unity and purpose to human life. It was committed to reason, science, and democracy.”
It is fascinating that humanism is here said to have come into its own around a core belief system of fundamental elements. In the years since, humanists have often uttered their scorn for Christian fundamentalism. Yet, ironically, their own system began as a fundamentalist movement. Perhaps atheists are the real fundamentalists!
THE NEW RELIGION
The opening paragraph of the first Humanist Manifesto presents itself as a signal moment in history. According to its view, as expressed in the preamble, Christianity has failed:
“The time has come for widespread recognition of the radical changes in religious beliefs throughout the modern world. The time is past for mere revision of traditional attitudes. Science and economic change have disrupted the old beliefs. Religions around the world labor with the task of coming to terms with new conditions created by a vastly increased knowledge and experience. In every field of human activity, the vital movement is now in the direction of a candid and explicit humanism. In order that religious humanism may be better understood we, the undersigned, desire to make certain affirmations which we believe the facts of our contemporary life demonstrate.”
Here the humanist—vintage 1933—declares that traditional, orthodox religions are now insufficient to deal with modern challenges. He asserts that knowledge has increased to the point that traditional religions are insufficient to deal with modern problems.
Humanism grew out of the twentieth-century revolution in Western civilization. It is a noxious weed that sprouted from the influence of relativistic science, socialist economics and the cynicism of liberal Christianity. Implicit in its statement is the thought that modern man is more intelligent than the tribal ancients who confabulated their village tales, finally codifying them as Holy Writ. It rejects their God as whimsical, arbitrary and capricious.
In short, the humanist asserts that the “old beliefs” are outmoded. Modern man must create his own religion. This is overtly stated as the introductory remarks continue:
“There is a great danger of a final, and we believe fatal, identification of the word religion with doctrines and methods which have lost their significance and which are powerless to solve the problem of human living in the Twentieth Century.”
Then comes the conclusion:
“Today, man’s larger understanding of the universe, his scientific achievements, and his deeper appreciation of brotherhood, have created a situation which requires a new statement of the means and purposes of religion. Such a vital, fearless, and frank religion capable of furnishing adequate social goals and personal satisfaction may appear to many people as a complete break with the past. While this age does owe a vast debt to traditional religions, it is none the less obvious that any religion that can hope to be a synthesizing and dynamic force for today must be shaped for the needs of this age. To establish such a religion is a major necessity of the present. It is a responsibility which rests upon this generation. We therefore affirm the following:”
At this point, the Manifesto presents a list of fifteen principles for the new humanist, the first of which is an overt rejection of Genesis. The following are only a few selections from among its published principles:
“First: Religious humanists regard the universe as self-existing and not created.”
Its second principle denies that man was created by God:
“Second: Humanism believes that man is a part of nature, and that he has emerged as the result of a continuous process.”
Here of course, is tacit approval of the Darwinian hypothesis that man evolved from a lower-order being to a higher order. God had no part in the “process.” Going along with this philosophical stance, the third principle denies man’s soul and spirit:
“Third: Holding an organic view of life, humanists find that the traditional dualism of mind and body must be rejected.”
In other words, a human being is a physical creature who evolved through natural processes, and whose consciousness is derived from a physical brain and nervous system. This results in the conclusion that this physical life is all there is. Principle number eight actually states this premise:
“Eighth: Religious humanism considers the complete realization of human personality to be the end of man’s life and seeks its development and fulfillment in the here and now. This is the explanation of the humanist’s social passion.”
Taken together, the fifteen principles of Humanist Manifesto I deny God, deny man’s spiritual nature, exalt science and secular thought, ridicule prayer and any supernatural phenomenon. Its principles call for the dismantling of religious orders, yet curiously, it labels itself as a religion! They substitute an economic order as the answer to man’s problems. This is stated in the fourteenth principle.
“Fourteenth: The humanists are firmly convinced that existing acquisitive and profit-motivated society has shown itself to be inadequate and that a radical change in methods, controls, and motives must be instituted. A socialized and cooperative economic order must be established to the end that the equitable distribution of the means of life be possible. The goal of humanism is a free and universal society in which people voluntarily and intelligently cooperate for the common good. Humanists demand a shared life in a shared world.” The ancient Greek idea of a Utopian society rises again.
PAUL COMMENTS ON GENTILE IDOLATRY
Paul’s letter to the Romans opens with a powerful assertion of Gentile guilt. Recounting their idolatry, he recites a litany of offenses that had, up to his time, been committed by the Babylonians, Medo-Persians, Greeks and Romans. They had all shared a basic perversion, based upon the worship of idols:
“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness;
“Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them.
“For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse:
“Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. “Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, And changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and fourfooted beasts, and creeping things” (Romans 1:18-23).
Paul begins with the premise that humankind is deserving of judgment, then proceeds to offer a beautifully concise description of the manner in which they fell from the knowledge of God. In the beginning, God revealed Himself to them. Following that, Paul relates the obvious fact that the creation, itself, is a clear witness of God’s power and authority.
Their failure was simple. They refused to glorify God. Because of man’s basic nature, this resulted in what is termed “vain imagination,” the substitution of human hypotheses about God’s creation. In the case of the Mesopotamian and Graeco-Roman cultures, this meant the glorification of ancient antediluvean demigods and their lesser companions.
According to their own histories (Hesiod and others), the Greeks and Romans even believed that the demons were their friends! On his missionary journeys, Paul decried Greek philosophy, goddess worship and even confronted the worship of Caesar, who was declared to be a god. But in all their idolatry, even the Romans never fell to the worship of humanity, itself. That descent awaited the contemptuous pessimism of the twentieth century.
Paul wrote the introduction of his letter to the Romans on the basis of past idolatry. But his condemnation cuts through the center of today’s new humanism. In particular, when he wrote that fallen man worships, “… an image made like to corruptible man …,” he precisely targeted humanism’s central premise.
PAUL’S CHARGE TO TIMOTHY
It was Paul’s deepest desire that the leadership of the church be built upon the centerpiece of sound doctrine. It was his passion, and he viewed this as the only defense against the encroachment of various idolatries.
When he wrote to Timothy, he charged the young pastor to teach in the context of Christ’s coming, and to watch Him, rather than the world:
“That thou keep this commandment without spot, unrebukeable, until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ: Which in his times he shall shew, who is the blessed and only Potentate, the King of kings, and Lord of lords; Who only hath immortality, dwelling in the light which no man can approach unto; whom no man hath seen, nor can see: to whom be honour and power everlasting. Amen. Charge them that are rich in this world, that they be not highminded, nor trust in uncertain riches, but in the living God, who giveth us richly all things to enjoy; That they do good, that they be rich in good works, ready to distribute, willing to communicate; Laying up in store for themselves a good foundation against the time to come, that they may lay hold on eternal life. O Timothy, keep that which is committed to thy trust, avoiding profane and vain babblings, and oppositions of science falsely so called: Which some professing have erred concerning the faith. Grace be with thee. Amen” (1 Timothy 6:14-21).
Carefully notice that Paul contrasts the light of God with the wealth of this world. In particular, he focuses on the
By their own words and behaviors, they expose themselves as the ones called “scoffers” in Peter’s second epistle:
“This second epistle, beloved, I now write unto you; in both which I stir up your pure minds by way of remembrance:
“That ye may be mindful of the words which were spoken before by the holy prophets, and of the commandment of us the apostles of the Lord and Saviour:
“Knowing this first, that there shall come in the last days scoffers, walking after their own lusts, “And saying, Where is the promise of his coming? for since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of the creation.
“For this they willingly are ignorant of, that by the word of God the heavens were of old, and the earth standing out of the water and in the water:
“Whereby the world that then was, being overflowed with water, perished:
“But the heavens and the earth, which are now, by the same word are kept in store, reserved unto fire against the day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men.
“But, beloved, be not ignorant of this one thing, that one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” (2 Peter 3:1-8).
Secular fundamentalists are activists, constantly seeking ways to suppress orthodox Christian beliefs. They advocate the use of state power to accomplish this. Not only do they deny the presence and purpose of God, they believe that they have a mandate to restructure the world in their own image.
Their fanaticism knows no bounds. Though they may not actually use the phrase, “New World Order,” it rings through all their documents. They are not at all shy about declaring that they intend to force their secular fundamentalist beliefs upon the entire world … whether it is wanted or not.
Their presence is now an international phenomenon. Their tentacles reach to the halls of power in every capital of the Western Alliance, and to Russia and China in the east. They measure their progress by the redistribution of the world’s wealth, rejecting the human need for spiritual salvation. They believe that Christian salvation is “harmful.” At this point, all they really need is to get the church out of the way. They may soon get their wish. And one thing more—they need a powerful man to unite the world around their principles. Their active presence tells us that we are very close to the end of the church age, and the belief system of the Laodiceans.