The Big Picture of the End Times: Daniel to Jesus to Paul

The Doctrine of the End Times: Rapture, Antichrist, Return of Jesus, Day of the Lord, Final Judgment

Previously, I taught a series of messages on the end times, but I haven’t ever written it all out in any kind of systematic way. This article is the first of two attempting to cover the relevant Biblical teaching on the topic of the end times. In this article, I will cover the teaching of Paul, Jesus, and Daniel and in the next article, I’ll address the teaching of the Apostle John (specifically Revelation). But first, let me give an explanation of my methodology.

Methodology

When it comes to studying the end times, the discipline called eschatology among scholars, there are a number of different approaches people take, but two methods that can be dangerous are these. If you start with a system of understanding the Bible as a whole (sometimes called systematic theology) and then try to figure out how the specific bits of teaching fit into that bigger picture, your understanding of specific teaching will depend more on your own understanding of the whole system and less on the intent of the person who originally wrote or spoke that teaching. Additionally, if you take each individual bit of teaching as a sort of “code” that must be cracked or deciphered to get real understanding, then your own biases and creativity will take precedence over the intent of the original teacher.

Let me illustrate with two examples:

  • There’s a school of thought in systematic theology called Dispensationalism that says God isn’t finished with national Israel yet. He is currently working with the church, but one day, he will need to resume his work with Israel. This isn’t based on any specific teaching in Scripture, but it is based on the idea that some Old Testament prophecies about Israel and the Temple have not been fulfilled yet. Dispensationalism is one way to understand those prophecies.
  • In 2 Thessalonians 2, you will see Paul talking about a man of lawlessness who will establish himself in opposition to the temple of God but that he won’t be revealed until the restraining force is removed.
  • If you start with a dispensational perspective, you will interpret this to say the restraining force is the church which must be removed in the “rapture” so God can resume working with Israel, so the temple can be rebuilt, and so the “antichrist” can rise up against the temple of God.
  • However, if you don’t start with a dispensational perspective, your interpretation can be wildly different.

Here’s another example:

  • In the book of Revelation, we learn about the “beast” who forces people to get an identifying mark so they can participate in the economic life of the society.
  • If you take the idea that end times teaching is a cryptic text that must be decoded, you can conclude that the “mark of the beast” really means something else. It might mean a vaccine, a credit card, a computer, or a social security number. All of those things allow a person to participate in the economic life of the society, so any of them are equally possible as the “true meaning” of the “mark of the beast.”
  • However, if you don’t take the approach that the end times is a cryptic text to decode, you are free to leave the interpretation to whatever the text actually says: The “mark” is simply the “name” of the beast.

Additionally, each of these approaches suffer from an abuse of the relevant biblical texts.

Specifically, each of these approaches will frequently take one passage out of its context, combine it with different passages out of their context, and assemble them together like a jigsaw puzzle from pieces scattered throughout the Bible to form what seems like a coherent picture. The final picture might be rather consistent and even attractive, but it depends on ripping the Bible up into pieces. Approaches like that end up revealing more about the presuppositions of the puzzle solver than they do about the text itself.

My approach is different from either of these. In the following analysis, I attempt to discern the meaning and intent of the author first and allow that intent to color any interpretive work. Along the way, I will also bounce around from passage to passage, but I will do so only within the framework of the author’s intent. That is, when Paul refers to the words of Jesus, I will move over to consider the words of Jesus. When Jesus refers to the teaching of Daniel, I will consider the teaching of Daniel. This way, I honor the intent of each teacher in the context of their own teaching. Again, the aim is to understand what the original intent was and not to decode some secret meaning that can only be discerned by me in my unique “wisdom.”

Rapture, Antichrist, Day of the Lord, etc.

Also, before looking too deeply into any of the passages about the end times, I have to address the most popular understanding of the end times. I have to address it first because its popularity is so widespread it will inevitably be the mental starting point for many of my readers. It’s so popular and well-known that even non-Christians in America know about it on some level. Hollywood even made a movie (Left Behind) about it with Nicholas Cage as the lead actor.

The narrative of this perspective goes like this:

  • The world is going to keep getting worse and worse morally speaking until God is finally fed up with it.
  • Simultaneously, the gospel is going to spread throughout the world until everyone has had a chance to hear it.
  • Additionally, the temple of God will be rebuilt in Jerusalem, and Israel will be restored as a truly Jewish nation.
  • At just the right time, God will remove faithful Christians (living and dead) from the planet and take them to heaven through a secret and surprising disappearance event known as the rapture.
  • After the rapture, a man known as “the Beast” or “the Antichrist” will rise to power over the entire earth convincing many that he is an agent of God and making a covenant of protection over Israel for 7 years.
  • Those 7 years will also involve increasing persecution for people who become Christians during that time and is known as The Tribulation.
  • Halfway through those 7 years, he will break his covenant with Israel, declare himself superior to all gods and will demand worship and allegiance (signified by people getting “the mark of the beast”) from all the earth initiating even greater persecution for all who don’t worship him.
  • The latter 3.5 years are known as The Great Tribulation and will also involve extreme expressions of God’s wrath on the people of earth. Faithful followers of God will face earthly persecution but will be spared from God’s wrath.
  • At the end of the Tribulation years, Jesus will return in power and glory, the Beast will assemble an earthly army against the forces of heaven, and there will be a great battle at a place called Armageddon.
  • Jesus will defeat the Beast there, throwing him into the Lake of Fire and killing his army.
  • Jesus will lock Satan up in “the Abyss” for 1000 years and will establish a kingdom on earth with his followers acting as priests ruling with him for those 1000 years: a time known as the millennium.
  • Then Satan will be released, will raise up another army from the earth, and will assemble them again for battle, but they will be defeated by fire from heaven, and Satan will be thrown into the Lake of Fire.
  • Every human who has ever lived will then be raised to life (if dead) and brought to the Great White Throne of judgment to answer for what they have done. But regardless of their deeds, if their name is found in the Book of Life, they will be given entrance into eternity. All others will be cast into the Lake of Fire.
  • Finally, God will establish “a new heaven and a new earth” where “the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them” (Revelation 21:1-4).

Using the technical terms, this narrative can be summarized as the following sequence of events:

  • Gospel Transmission / Increasing Wickedness, Apostasy
  • Rapture (secret return of Christ)
  • Antichrist & Tribulation
  • Armageddon / Return of Christ
  • Millennium
  • Great White Throne Judgment: Book of Life
  • Eternal Life or Lake of Fire
  • New Heaven and New Earth

This view of the end times arises from the Dispensational perspective on the Bible and it is known as Pre-Tribulational and Pre-Millennial because the Rapture happens before the Tribulation and the real return of Christ happens before the Millennium. It’s the most popular view of the end times mostly because of its prevalence among evangelical books and media and their influence on popular culture.

However, this is not the only way to view the end times nor is it even the most widely held view once you consider the views of Catholics and the broader history of the church. These other traditions generally read Revelation in a more metaphorical way and are known as Post-Millennialism (the Millennium has already started, and the church is currently ruling with Christ to usher in an age of increasing faithfulness on the earth) or Amillennialism (the whole concept of the Millennium is unknowable in scope).

There are also a variety of scholars who hold to a Pre-Millennial but Post-Tribulation perspective believing the Rapture to happen when Christ returns to initiate the Millennium and not at some secretive earlier time. I am one of those as you will see.

Working Backwards

Starting with Paul

We are going to start with the Apostle Paul because when he wrote his letters to the Thessalonians, he was writing to specifically address their fears about the end times. They were worried that some of their loved ones had died but Jesus hadn’t returned yet. Paul wrote 1 Thessalonians to address that problem. Then, not much later, they started worrying that maybe Jesus had actually already returned and they missed it. 2 Thessalonians was written to address that.

1 Thessalonians 4

Here’s the first relevant passage:

(13) Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. (14) For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. (15) According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. (16) For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. (17) After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. (18) Therefore encourage one another with these words.

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 NIV

In a moment, I’m going to list off the important bits of information we get from this passage so we can start building an end times timeline, but before we do that, we need to recognize three important items from the context. First, Paul waited until chapter 4 to talk about the end times. It clearly wasn’t the most important thing he wanted to talk about. Secondly, notice that verse 13 and verse 18 describe the reason for the whole paragraph. Paul wanted them to be encouraged and hopeful regarding the eternal destiny of the dead and the eventual return of Christ. He didn’t write this to give them details and explanations beyond whatever they needed to be encouraged. Thirdly, the beginning of verse 15 is essential. Paul didn’t make this up, nor did he get it from some supernatural revelation to him. No, Paul was simply re-teaching something Jesus had previously taught. Paul’s information came from “the Lord’s word,” and therefore, we will later flip over to what Jesus had to say about the end times. We will definitely need Jesus’ words to give Paul’s words their proper context, but first, let’s list out the details from this passage.

Here is the sequence of events from 1 Thessalonians 4:

  • Jesus’ death and resurrection promises a resurrection for humans.
  • When Jesus returns, the souls of the dead will come with him.
  • Jesus will come “down” from heaven.
  • There will be a loud command, the voice of the archangel, and the blast of a trumpet.
  • The bodies of dead believers will rise.
  • Living believers will be caught up and lifted from the earth.
  • In the air, souls will be reunited with bodies and all believers will be united with Christ.
  • Thus begins “forever.”

Aside on the Rapture

Among American Evangelicals, this passage is the primary passage used to support the doctrine of a Pre-Tribulation Rapture. There are three main components of that argument. First, the passage clearly teaches that living Christians and resurrected dead Christians will be “caught up” to “meet the Lord in the air.” The fundamental idea of the Rapture is the belief in a literal, bodily departure from planet earth. Secondly, there is no reference in this passage to anything about an antichrist or time of tribulation, so it seems most natural to take it as an event that happens before the time of tribulation. Thirdly, “forever” appears to be initiated “in the air.” Pre-millennials believe Jesus will someday establish a kingdom on earth, but this passage doesn’t mention that, and so the assumption is made that levitated Christians are simply taken to heaven like Enoch or Elijah of old.

As I said, we won’t fully understand Paul’s words here until we see the context of Jesus’ own words, but before we get there, we can at least acknowledge three weaknesses of the Pre-Tribulation interpretation from the passage itself.

First, the idea that the Rapture will be somehow secretive doesn’t match the dramatic description of this event which includes a loud command, a trumpet call, dead people rising, and living people levitating.

Secondly, unless you begin with a Pre-Tribulation perspective, this passage most naturally seems to say Jesus is coming from heaven all the way to earth. It says at the beginning that God is bringing with Jesus the souls of dead believers. At first glance, this seems like the moment the Father has chosen to send Jesus back to earth and to bring with him the souls of dead believers to be reunited with their bodies. If the point of this moment is to sweep away believers into heaven, what’s the point of all the souls of the dead traveling with Jesus?

Thirdly, the Greek word chosen by Paul for us to “meet” the Lord in the air is the same word used in history to describe the behavior of citizens when a victorious king would return to his city. As the king was on the way into the city, the citizens would rush out of the city to “meet” him on the way and escort him to his palace. We actually saw that happen with Jesus on Palm Sunday as he entered Jerusalem on the donkey. Since Paul doesn’t say anything about what happens after we “meet” Jesus in the air, it’s as likely that we escort him down to establish his kingdom on earth as it is likely he makes a U-turn and we all continue on to a heavenly existence.

We will not be able to fully understand what Paul means without understanding what Jesus said, and as we will see, Paul’s words in 1 Thessalonians 4 echo the teaching of Jesus recorded in Matthew 24. However, Matthew 24 also mentions things that Paul didn’t touch until 2 Thessalonians. Let’s stop over there before we go to Matthew 24.

2 Thessalonians 1 & 2

In 2 Thessalonians 1, Paul made a quick reference to the coming day of judgment:

(6) God is just: He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you (7) and give relief to you who are troubled, and to us as well. This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels. (8) He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. (9) They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might (10) on the day he comes to be glorified in his holy people and to be marveled at among all those who have believed. This includes you, because you believed our testimony to you.

2 Thessalonians 1:6-10 NIV

Quick bullet points:

  • Jesus will be revealed from heaven with blazing fire and powerful angels (same as his arrival in 1 Thessalonians 4).
  • Judgment and reward will immediately follow his arrival on the day he comes (now we know what happens after he shows up).
  • Reward will be given to the “holy people:” all who believed the message, know God, and obey the gospel.

Then, in chapter 2 Paul really got into more detail.

(1) Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him, we ask you, brothers and sisters, (2) not to become easily unsettled or alarmed by the teaching allegedly from us—whether by a prophecy or by word of mouth or by letter—asserting that the day of the Lord has already come. (3) Don’t let anyone deceive you in any way, for that day will not come until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the man doomed to destruction. (4) He will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped, so that he sets himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God.

(5) Don’t you remember that when I was with you I used to tell you these things? (6) And now you know what is holding him back, so that he may be revealed at the proper time. (7) For the secret power of lawlessness is already at work; but the one who now holds it back will continue to do so till he is taken out of the way. (8) And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will overthrow with the breath of his mouth and destroy by the splendor of his coming. (9) The coming of the lawless one will be in accordance with how Satan works. He will use all sorts of displays of power through signs and wonders that serve the lie, (10) and all the ways that wickedness deceives those who are perishing. They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. (11) For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie (12) and so that all will be condemned who have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness.

(13) But we ought always to thank God for you, brothers and sisters loved by the Lord, because God chose you as firstfruits to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth. (14) He called you to this through our gospel, that you might share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.

(15) So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter.

(16) May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, (17) encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word.

2 Thessalonians 2 NIV

Once again, recognize that Paul’s main point for writing (indicated at the end of the chapter) was to provide encouragement to the Thessalonian Christians. This was not a passage designed primarily to inform them about end times details but to give just enough details to offer them the encouragement they needed.

Here are the main points:

  • “The coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him” refers to the same moment as “the day of the Lord.” They are synonymous concepts.
  • The return of Jesus will not come until “the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed.”
  • The man of lawlessness will set himself up in God’s temple, against God, against all gods, demanding worship.
  • His arrival is being held back by a restraining force that is also personal (notice the use of what & who).
  • When Jesus comes, the lawless one will be destroyed with a breath from Jesus.
  • The lawless one will rise through displays of power that serve his lie.
  • God himself will enhance the deception so unfaithful people will be deceived.

Aside on the Rapture

As with 1 Thessalonians, I need to take a detour at this point to discuss the doctrine of the Rapture in light of 2 Thessalonians 2. As we saw before, the moment believers are “caught up” to meet Jesus in the air lines up perfectly with the moment Jesus returns in power and judgment, a moment that happens after the man of lawlessness, and, as we will see by considering the words of Jesus, after the great persecution and great distress of those days.

However, scholars who believe in the Rapture hold to that idea more because of the passage we just read than because of the “caught up” passage in 1 Thessalonians 4. In fact, the primary argument for a Pre-Tribulation Rapture is based on this passage in 2 Thessalonians 2. The argument is based on two specific interpretive decisions.

First, the word translated in the NIV as “rebellion” is the Greek word apostasia which is sometimes translated “falling away” as in the KJV.

Let no man deceive you by any means: for that day shall not come, except there come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition;

2 Thessalonians 2:3 KJV

Taken literally, the word can mean to “fall away” from the faith. However, some choose to interpret “falling away” as meaning to “depart from” the earth. Coincidentally, in the ancient world, the word most naturally meant “rebellion” as in an “uprising” or “rising up” against some authority, which some may interpret as believers “rising up” from the earth. However, both of those interpretations depend on viewing apostasia as a possibly positive word, and there is no evidence in the New Testament of it ever being used as such. In all such cases, whether the best translation for the context is “rising up” or “falling away,” the word always means a rejection of truth or a rejection of proper authority. (It’s also interesting to note that the Greek word apostasion meant a certificate of divorce!)

Still, not many scholars pin their Rapture doctrine entirely on the translation of the word apostasia. In fact, the strongest argument for the doctrine of the Rapture actually comes from this phrase: “…the one who now holds it back will continue to do so till he is taken out of the way.” In 2 Thessalonians 2, Paul taught that there was some kind of restraining force that was also personal (sometimes it’s a what and sometimes it’s a who) and that the restrainer needed to be “taken out of the way” before the man of lawlessness could be revealed.

Although there is no biblical evidence for what this restrainer is or could be, it’s clear that the power of the restrainer must be greater than “the secret power of lawlessness.” Although the restrainer could be an angelic being or God the Father himself, most interpreters conclude that the restrainer being both a what and a who is the Holy Spirit. By making that interpretation, the scholar must then determine what it means for the Holy Spirit to be “taken out of the way.” Assuming that the Church is the embodiment and the temple of the Holy Spirit on earth (a good assumption for sure), the conclusion is that the Holy Spirit will be “taken out of the way” when the Rapture takes Christian believers off the planet.

Therefore, the belief is that the Church must be raptured away, so the influence of the Holy Spirit can be removed, so the man of lawlessness can be revealed, so the end can come.

However, that is not the only possible interpretation, nor is it even the most likely. If the Holy Spirit is the restrainer, there’s no reason to believe his work of restraint is also tied to the physical presence of Christians on the planet. If the Spirit is the restrainer, the Father might simply say to him one day, “It is time. Take away your hand, and allow the end to come.”

Even though most people think the idea of the Rapture comes from specific verses in Matthew 24 or 1 Thessalonians 4, the real foundation of the Pre-Tribulation Rapture doctrine is this interpretation of the person and work of the restrainer. Those other passages can be talking about the final return of Christ, but this passage gives us something that must happen before the arrival of the man of lawlessness which also comes before the return of Christ. Therefore, this is the only passage that clearly describes a “removal” event preceding the return of Christ. Some think it is the Church which must be removed, but there is no biblical evidence for that conclusion.

1 Corinthians

Finally, it’s widely believed that Paul wrote his letters to the Thessalonians while he was in the city of Corinth, and in his first letter to the Corinthians after he had left them, he mentioned briefly a few points about the last days. To understand Paul’s mindset in context, it’s helpful to see what he said there too.

(51) Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed— (52) in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. (53) For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. (54) When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”

1 Corinthians 15:51-54 NIV

In bullet points:

  • Some Christians will die (sleep) and others will be alive when the end comes. (matches 1 Thessalonians 4)
  • At some future moment, a trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised. (matches 1 Thessalonians 4)
  • The risen dead and the living will all be “changed”—clothed with imperishable immortality. (new information)

This passage lines up perfectly with what Paul taught in 1 Thessalonians 4, but there is the additional bit of information that when the dead are raised, when the “last trumpet” sounds, the risen dead and the living faithful will all be transformed into something imperishable and immortal.

Summary of Paul

We won’t be able to fully understand Paul’s meaning until we see his source material, Jesus’ teaching on the topic, but for now, we can spell out at least a basic bullet point summary of the sequence of events Paul has addressed:

  • At some future moment, there will be a “rebellion” and a “man of lawlessness” will be revealed when God so chooses.
  • The man of lawlessness will set himself up in God’s temple, against God, against all gods, demanding worship and deceiving many.
  • Jesus will return in glorious power to destroy him with a breath.
  • When Jesus returns, the archangel will call out, a trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised, believers will be “caught up” into the air, transformed, and gathered to Jesus.
  • The great judgment will immediately follow with reward for all who know God and obey the gospel, and punishment for the rest.

Now that we’ve seen what Paul said, let’s go back to his source material. What did Jesus actually teach about these things?

Back to Jesus

The most thorough account of Jesus’ teaching on the end times comes from Matthew 24 & 25, but for building a timeline of the end, Matthew 24 is the most relevant. However, there’s a part of it that is so often misused I want to address it first before we deal with the whole context.

Aside on the Rapture in Light of 37-41

These verses deserve special note, so let me quote them on their own here:

(36) “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. (37) As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. (38) For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; (39) and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. (40) Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. (41) Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left.

Matthew 24:37-41

Once again, we see a passage people use to support the idea of Jesus secretly whisking away his faithful followers to be with him in heaven. After all, it says, “Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left.”

This is the linguistic root behind the series of books and movies called Left Behind. You don’t want to be the person who is left behind when Jesus returns, right? Of course, there’s one problem.

Look closely at this passage, and you’ll see Jesus made a comparison between the day of his return and the days of Noah. Now, we all know that the days of Noah were filled with wickedness, right? However, Jesus didn’t mention any of that wickedness. Rather, he mentioned normal human life. Eating, drinking, and marrying are all normal, sometimes even noble things humans do! When Jesus mentioned the days of Noah, he wasn’t referring to their wickedness. He was referring to their ignorance: “they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away.”

If you grew up with the doctrine of the Rapture, this should astonish you. Who were the people who were “taken away” but the ignorant people who were not in the family of Noah and who were not ready for the flood! Who were the people who were “left behind” but Noah and his family!

The crazy irony of this passage is that it is used colloquially by ignorant Christians to support the exact opposite point Jesus was making. Do you want to be taken or left behind? According to Jesus, you should want to be left behind! No one wants to be swept away by the floodwaters of God’s judgment, so be ready. That’s the point Jesus was making.

Therefore, now that we know 37-41 are talking about being ready for coming judgment and not about being ready for a secret rapture, we can look at the rest of the passage with more objectivity.

Main Points of Matthew 24

Here it is completely.

(1) Jesus left the temple and was walking away when his disciples came up to him to call his attention to its buildings. (2) “Do you see all these things?” he asked. “Truly I tell you, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”

(3) 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?”

(4) Jesus answered: “Watch out that no one deceives you. (5) For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am the Messiah,’ and will deceive many. (6) 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. (7) Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. (8) All these are the beginning of birth pains.

(9) “Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me. (10) At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, (11) and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. (12) Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, (13) but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. (14) 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.

(15) “So when you see standing in the holy place ‘the abomination that causes desolation,’ spoken of through the prophet Daniel—let the reader understand— (16) then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. (17) Let no one on the housetop go down to take anything out of the house. (18) Let no one in the field go back to get their cloak. (19) How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! (20) Pray that your flight will not take place in winter or on the Sabbath. (21) For then there will be great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now—and never to be equaled again.

(22) “If those days had not been cut short, no one would survive, but for the sake of the elect those days will be shortened. (23) At that time if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Messiah!’ or, ‘There he is!’ do not believe it. (24) For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. (25) See, I have told you ahead of time.

(26) “So if anyone tells you, ‘There he is, out in the wilderness,’ do not go out; or, ‘Here he is, in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it. (27) For as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. (28) Wherever there is a carcass, there the vultures will gather.

(29) “Immediately after the distress of those days
“ ‘the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light;
the stars will fall from the sky,
and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’

(30) “Then will appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven. And then all the peoples of the earth will mourn when they see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory. (31) And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other.

(32) “Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. (33) Even so, when you see all these things, you know that it is near, right at the door. (34) Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. (35) Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.

(36) “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. (37) As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. (38) For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; (39) and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. (40) Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. (41) Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left.

(42) “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. (43) But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. (44) So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.

(45) “Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom the master has put in charge of the servants in his household to give them their food at the proper time? (46) It will be good for that servant whose master finds him doing so when he returns. (47) Truly I tell you, he will put him in charge of all his possessions. (48) But suppose that servant is wicked and says to himself, ‘My master is staying away a long time,’ (49) and he then begins to beat his fellow servants and to eat and drink with drunkards. (50) The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of. (51) He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Matthew 24 NIV

When Paul wrote, he wanted his readers to be encouraged, but Jesus had a different focus. Jesus wanted his followers to be ready. Thus, Jesus’ words were split between encouraging the faithful and warning the unfaithful. Nevertheless, let’s take note of the sequence of events Jesus mentioned when the disciples asked him “when will this happen”:

  • There will be deceivers claiming to be the Messiah; there will be wars; there will be natural disasters.
  • However, “the end” is still not yet. These things are merely the “beginning of birth pains.”
  • There will be persecution, deceivers, and increasing wickedness leading many to turn from the faith or “grow cold,” but others will remain faithful.
  • The gospel will be preached in the whole world, and then the end will come.
  • The “abomination that causes desolation” prophesied by Daniel will arise, and the faithful should flee.
  • Then, there will be “great distress” greater than ever before or ever again.
  • God will cut those days short to spare the “elect.”
  • More false prophets will arise deceiving many.
  • But the distress will end with cosmic effects, and the arrival of the Son of Man who will come with power and glory, with angels, with a trumpet blast.
  • The angels will gather together “the elect” from all over the earth.
  • When you see these things, the end is “at the door.”
  • It will all happen within the time of that generation.
  • The Father alone knows when the Son will return.
  • When the Jesus returns, he will reward and punish.
  • So, people should be ready.

That’s a long list, so let’s condense it by first noticing that all the wars, rumors of wars, and natural disasters are not signs of the end. They are merely the normal flow of life on earth and at most just the beginning of a hint that the end is coming.

Now, let’s simplify the main points by combining things together a bit:

  • Many will fall away, some will be faithful, disasters and persecutions will come, but that’s not the end yet.
  • The gospel will be preached in the whole world, and the end will begin with the abomination of desolation predicted by Daniel.
  • Then there will be great distress and great deception, but God will limit those days for the sake of the elect.
  • The distress will end with cosmic effects, the arrival of the Son of Man in power and glory with angels and a trumpet blast.
  • Then, the elect will be gathered together to Jesus.
  • Somehow all this will happen during the current generation, but also, no one will be able to predict it.

This simplified list still leaves some major questions unanswered. Who are the elect Jesus talks about? What is the abomination that causes desolation? To answer the question about the elect, we will need to go back to Paul, but we can’t do that until we spend some time with Daniel. Jesus specifically said that his statements needed to be understood in the context of Daniel’s prophecy, so to that we turn next.

Further Back, to Daniel

There are three places in the book of Daniel where the phrase “abomination that causes desolation” shows up. Let’s look at all of them.

Daniel 9

 (24) “Seventy ‘sevens’ are decreed for your people and your holy city to finish transgression, to put an end to sin, to atone for wickedness, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal up vision and prophecy and to anoint the Most Holy Place.

(25) “Know and understand this: From the time the word goes out to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until the Anointed One, the ruler, comes, there will be seven ‘sevens,’ and sixty-two ‘sevens.’ It will be rebuilt with streets and a trench, but in times of trouble. (26) After the sixty-two ‘sevens,’ the Anointed One will be put to death and will have nothing. The people of the ruler who will come will destroy the city and the sanctuary. The end will come like a flood: War will continue until the end, and desolations have been decreed. (27) He will confirm a covenant with many for one ‘seven.’ In the middle of the ‘seven’ he will put an end to sacrifice and offering. And at the temple he will set up an abomination that causes desolation, until the end that is decreed is poured out on him.”

Daniel 9:24-27 NIV

This is the entire content of the prophecy Gabriel gave to Daniel in chapter 9. There is no explanation given whatsoever. All we know is that an Anointed One will be put to death and that some ruler will eventually arise and do something so abominable in the temple that desolation is assured to follow. We also know that the terrible ruler will eventually come to his end.

Daniel 11

In chapter 11, there is a long and complicated prophecy about kings rising up against other kings, but it culminates in a prophecy about a king from “the North” who is bent on conquest:

(29) “At the appointed time he will invade the South again, but this time the outcome will be different from what it was before. (30) Ships of the western coastlands will oppose him, and he will lose heart. Then he will turn back and vent his fury against the holy covenant. He will return and show favor to those who forsake the holy covenant.

(31) “His armed forces will rise up to desecrate the temple fortress and will abolish the daily sacrifice. Then they will set up the abomination that causes desolation. (32) With flattery he will corrupt those who have violated the covenant, but the people who know their God will firmly resist him.

(33) “Those who are wise will instruct many, though for a time they will fall by the sword or be burned or captured or plundered. (34) When they fall, they will receive a little help, and many who are not sincere will join them. (35) Some of the wise will stumble, so that they may be refined, purified and made spotless until the time of the end, for it will still come at the appointed time.

(36) “The king will do as he pleases. He will exalt and magnify himself above every god and will say unheard-of things against the God of gods. He will be successful until the time of wrath is completed, for what has been determined must take place. (37) He will show no regard for the gods of his ancestors or for the one desired by women, nor will he regard any god, but will exalt himself above them all.

Daniel 11:29-37 NIV

This gives more context to the abomination that causes desolation. It happens because some ruler is licking his wounds from defeat and decides to demonstrate his authority by desecrating the temple. However, this prophecy also gives additional information. Specifically, we learn the following:

  • Some people will forsake the holy covenant, but those who actually know their God will stay faithful despite persecution.
  • The king will set himself up against all religious devotion and demand his own exaltation.

Daniel 12

Finally, Daniel also references this moment in chapter 12. The entire chapter is relevant:

(1) “At that time Michael, the great prince who protects your people, will arise. There will be a time of distress such as has not happened from the beginning of nations until then. But at that time your people—everyone whose name is found written in the book—will be delivered. (2) Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt. (3) Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever. (4) But you, Daniel, roll up and seal the words of the scroll until the time of the end. Many will go here and there to increase knowledge.”

(5) Then I, Daniel, looked, and there before me stood two others, one on this bank of the river and one on the opposite bank. (6) One of them said to the man clothed in linen, who was above the waters of the river, “How long will it be before these astonishing things are fulfilled?”

(7) The man clothed in linen, who was above the waters of the river, lifted his right hand and his left hand toward heaven, and I heard him swear by him who lives forever, saying, “It will be for a time, times and half a time. When the power of the holy people has been finally broken, all these things will be completed.”

(8) I heard, but I did not understand. So I asked, “My lord, what will the outcome of all this be?”

(9) He replied, “Go your way, Daniel, because the words are rolled up and sealed until the time of the end. (10) Many will be purified, made spotless and refined, but the wicked will continue to be wicked. None of the wicked will understand, but those who are wise will understand.

(11) “From the time that the daily sacrifice is abolished and the abomination that causes desolation is set up, there will be 1,290 days. (12) Blessed is the one who waits for and reaches the end of the 1,335 days.

(13) “As for you, go your way till the end. You will rest, and then at the end of the days you will rise to receive your allotted inheritance.”

Daniel 12 NIV

Notice the key points of this prophecy:

  • There will be a time of great distress unequaled in history.
  • The people of God, whose names are in a book, will be delivered. (Book of Life!)
  • Dead people will rise, some to reward and some to judgment.
  • The words of the prophecy will be “sealed” until the time of the end.
  • Daniel asked about timing, and three different answers that all indicate something like 3.5 years of distress after the abomination that causes desolation is set up.
  • Daniel asked for more explanation but was not given one.

Summarizing Daniel

The three prophecies in Daniel give us the following basic sequence of events:

  • At some point a wounded ruler will attack God’s people and their faith by establishing some abomination that causes desolation.
  • That ruler will set himself up against all gods and all religions demanding his own exaltation and the persecution of the faithful.
  • He will come to an end after roughly 3.5 years when Michael arises to deliver the people whose names are in the book.
  • A great resurrection will happen, and some will be given eternal life while others get eternal judgment.

Linking Back to Jesus

Now that we know what Daniel’s prophecy is about, we can put it together with what Jesus said in Matthew 24. Items in bold are the new additions.

  • Many will fall away, some will be faithful, disasters and persecutions will come, but that’s not the end yet.
  • The gospel will be preached in the whole world, and the end will begin with the abomination of desolation predicted by Daniel.
  • Some ruler will attack God’s people, do something abominable in the temple, and establish himself as worthy of worship.
  • Then there will be great distress and great deception, but God will limit those days (to roughly 3.5 years) for the sake of the elect (the people of God, the people whose names are written in the book).
  • The distress will end with cosmic effects, the arrival of the Son of Man in power and glory with angels (Michael) and a trumpet blast.
  • Then, the elect will be gathered together to Jesus.
  • The gathering will involve a great resurrection and a great judgment that initiates eternal life for some and eternal judgment for others.
  • Somehow all this will happen during the current generation, but also, no one will be able to predict it. Not even Daniel understood all the details.

Linking Back to Paul

This all started with Paul who claimed he was quoting Jesus. If you go back to Paul’s statements, you will see that they line up perfectly with everything Jesus taught directly, and what Jesus implied by his own references to Daniel. Here’s the list we previously created from Paul’s instructions:

  • At some future moment, there will be a “rebellion” and a “man of lawlessness” will be revealed when God so chooses.
  • The man of lawlessness will set himself up in God’s temple, against God, against all gods, demanding worship and deceiving many.
  • Jesus will return in glorious power to destroy him with a breath.
  • When Jesus returns, the archangel will call out, a trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised, believers will be “caught up” into the air, transformed, and gathered to Jesus.
  • The great judgment will immediately follow with reward for all who know God and obey the gospel, and punishment for the rest.

Notice that literally nothing Paul said was new information. He used the terms “rebellion” and “man of lawlessness” in the exact same way Jesus and Daniel referred to the persecution and apostasy associated with the ruler who sets up the “abomination that causes desolation.” He used the word “archangel” where Daniel mentioned the name of Michael.

In fact, there are only two pieces of information that are somewhat new for Paul. Where Jesus spoke of the elect being “gathered,” Paul explicitly mentions the levitation of believers off the planet to meet Jesus “in the air.” And where Jesus used the word “elect,” Paul specifically mentioned all who had believed his message and were faithful to the gospel.

Essential Points

Now, the main reason I took this extensive detour through the words of Jesus and through the prophecies of Daniel is to highlight the extremely strong continuity between these three different biblical teachings on the end times. There is a temptation to take individual words and phrases out of context with each other, but we shouldn’t do so. Paul said his source material was Jesus, and Jesus said his source material was Daniel, so by considering Paul’s words in their broader context we can make some very simple conclusions.

  • Jesus will not return until the gospel reaches the whole world, there is a great abandonment of the faith among even apparent believers, and a powerful and deceptive man rises to global influence.
  • Believers will face great persecution and the world will experience great distress (Tribulation), but the time will be brief.
  • After the distress of those days, Jesus will return in glorious power, and there will be a “rapture” event where the dead rise, and believers meet Jesus in the air on his way to earth.
  • At that point, Jesus will initiate the final judgment with eternal rewards and punishments.

Although there is a doctrinal argument that supports a Pre-Tribulation Rapture, there is no strictly biblical argument for it. No biblical text says the Holy Spirit is the restrainer, that the church must be removed so the restraining can cease, or that any partial return of Christ happens before the real return of Christ.

Granted, we haven’t considered the book of Revelation yet, but at this point, we can clearly say there is nothing in the teaching of Paul or Jesus or Daniel that says anything beyond the few essential bullet points just mentioned.

Understanding “This Generation”

Before turning our attention to Revelation to conclude our study, I want to step back to something Jesus said as recorded in Matthew 24.

(32) “Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. (33) Even so, when you see all these things, you know that it is near, right at the door. (34) Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. (35) Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.

Matthew 24:32-35

Scholars have debated for a long time what Jesus might have meant by “this generation.” There are two predominant interpretations.

First, perhaps Jesus meant “generation” in the way the Bible usually uses the word: roughly 40 years. Maybe he meant it in a way similar to us saying, “The Baby Boomers won’t pass away until all this happens.” If that’s the case, it seems like Jesus made a false prophecy since all those people are long dead and some of the predictions still haven’t happened.

Secondly, perhaps Jesus meant “generation” to mean way of life, worldview or simply everything that happens before the beginning of “forever.” He often uses the phrase “this age” to mean everything before “the age to come.” In that way, he’s merely saying that human life will continue all the way until the end days actually come upon the earth.

However, there’s an interesting middle ground… a perspective that says both interpretations are correct, and it comes from a basic understanding of history.

Almost 200 years before Jesus taught what he taught in Matthew 24, a warrior/king named Antiochus IV swept through Jerusalem, ravaged the temple, and did something abominable there. He sacrificed a pig on the altar of God! Then, he initiated great persecution against the Jews.

The story of Antiochus IV so perfectly lines up with the prophecy in Daniel 11 that some modern scholars who deny prophecy think Daniel 11 must have been written after the time of Antiochus. In other words, by the time Jesus was talking about the abomination that causes desolation, it had already happened, and everyone knew about it. The Jewish defeat of Antiochus is commemorated every year during the festival of Hanukkah! Nevertheless, even though the prophecy of Daniel already happened, Jesus spoke about it as if it were still to come. Jesus said, “When you see the abomination that causes desolation…” as if they should still look for it.

Another interesting piece of history is that roughly 40 years after Jesus said what he said in Matthew 24, a warrior/king named Titus (who would later become emperor of Rome) swept through Jerusalem and did something abominable at the temple. He burned it to the ground, but not before going inside to steal the holy items. He paraded them around Jerusalem while the temple burned. As before, this evil man launched great persecution against Jews and Christians. After all, like the Roman emperors before him, he demanded to be worshipped like a God and punished those who wouldn’t.

When Matthew wrote his gospel and when Paul wrote 1 and 2 Thessalonians, this second event hadn’t happened yet. However, John wrote his letters and books after the destruction of that temple. We’ll look at it soon, but in Revelation, we will see John refer to a world ruler in exactly the same way Daniel and Jesus previously did, leading us to conclude that a third “man of lawlessness” is still yet to come.

Putting all these things together, we get a picture of a pattern that repeats at least three times in human history. An evil man sets himself up against God and God’s people, desecrating the worship of God and persecuting the faithful, but he is defeated. Daniel said it would happen and it did. Jesus said it would happen within the life of that “generation” and it did. But still, some things Daniel and Jesus both predicted haven’t happened yet (great resurrection & great judgment), and as a result we should expect to see this whole scenario play out at least one more time.

Summary of Daniel, Jesus, and Paul

Near the beginning of this article, I listed off the technical terms that usually comprise the end times narrative held by American Christians. Here’s that list again:

  • Gospel Transmission / Increasing Wickedness, Apostasy
  • Rapture (secret return of Christ)
  • Antichrist & Tribulation
  • Armageddon / Return of Christ
  • Millennium
  • Great White Throne Judgment: Book of Life
  • Eternal Life or Lake of Fire
  • New Heaven and New Earth

However, based on our study of Paul, Jesus, and Daniel, we really need to adjust the list some.

  • Gospel Transmission / Increasing Wickedness, Apostasy
  • Removal of Restrainer (?)
  • Rise of the Man of Lawlessness (Antichrist)
  • Great Distress and Persecution (Tribulation)
  • Return of Christ in Power (Resurrection & Rapture)
  • Great Judgment (Book of Life)
  • Eternal Life or Eternal Fire (Jesus taught these two destinies, recorded in Matthew 25)

At this point, you can see that much of the traditional understanding matches up with the teaching of Paul, Jesus, and Daniel, but there are a few items that are different. Paul and Jesus (and Daniel, in a way) refer to a great in-gathering of believers when Jesus returns, but none of these men directly teach a secret rapture or partial return of Christ. Therefore, based on what we’ve seen so far, the traditional idea of a Pre-Tribulation Rapture needs to be discarded unless we can find evidence for it in our remaining study of the book of Revelation.

Additionally, none of the prophecies we have considered mention a millennial kingdom or what the nature of eternal life will be. I’ll leave them out of our list until we study Revelation. That will be my next post.

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