Wars and rumors of wars. Nation against nation. Famines, pestilences, earthquakes. Iniquity abounding, love waxing cold. False prophets, false Christs. Matthew 24 is terrifying. And there has never been a time in human history when decent, thoughtful people haven’t read Jesus’ great sermon on the abomination of desolation, looked at their world, their time, their society, and nodded their heads sadly. And thought, ‘yep. Now. Us. Right now.’
And thought as well, with the Revelator, “Even so, Lord Jesus. Come quickly.”
Except that we also know it already happened. Matthew 24 is a private sermon, Jesus to his disciples, warning them of events they would see in their lifetime. It happened. The references to this Abomination of Desolation are generally thought, by most Bible scholars, to have prophesied the invasion of Palestine by the Roman Emperor Titus, in 70 CE. There are many other theories of course, but in context, it’s clear enough: he’s saying ‘you guys living in Judea, horrible things are going to happen. Flee to the mountains.’
Of course, prophesies can have multiple applications, and multiple fulfillments. It’s likewise true, though, that some parts of the Bible are meant to be taken literally and specifically (‘love thy enemies’) and other parts of the Bible are likely meant more metaphorically (Noah’s Ark, for example: not a literal event, but a general reminder: ‘when natural disasters occur, God still loves you’). I don’t know which category the Last Days fit in. As a Mormon, I’m a Latter-day Saint; not a Last Days Saint. We’re here, now, two millennia after Christ’s ministry. A latter time. Not necessarily in the End of Days.
And certainly our day is a time filled with war, with violence, terrible tragedies and violence and hatred and rage. Absolutely true. Always been true. But consider these facts.
In the 1981, the best estimates were that 51 percent of the people of the world lived in deep poverty. In 2015, the best estimate is that 20 percent of the world is in abject poverty. Hugh Evans of the Global Poverty Project believes that it will be possible to end world-wide poverty by 2030, through sustainable development. Of course, that’s an insane goal. It may also be achievable.
Smallpox, one of the deadliest diseases in history, has been eradicated. Guinea worm disease afflicted 3.5 million people, in 21 countries, in 1986. Last year, there were 126 cases world-wide. Malaria remains a terrible scourge, but incidences have been cut in half, and are declining, due to the wide-spread dissemination of mosquito nets, an effort that is on-going. Diseases that once killed millions have been essentially eliminated.
Of course war remains the great enemy of mankind. And certainly there are many vicious wars being fought in the world today, But a smaller percentage of the earth’s population dies violently today than at any other time in the history of mankind. Last Days prophecies, found in both Old and New Testaments, come from the same tortured corner of the globe where unrest and violence most seem to prevail today. That can lead us to overreact to current events a bit. But wars and rumors of wars? They exist today, certainly. So have they always done.
We always like to compare the difficulties and problems of our epoch with rosy-colored projections of how much better things supposedly were in the past. (Better for everyone? Better for women? For racial minorities? For our gay brothers and sisters?) But I ask this: in what possible sense is the world today so very wicked? Yes, war is terrible, no question, and the technology of our day has sadly, managed to perfect the savage art of killing people in large numbers. But there are at least fewer wars, than ever before in history. Women have rights never previously contemplated, and race-hatred is surely greatly diminished. Violent crimes occur, but with much less frequency than ever in history, and we see, to our astonishment, unimaginable advances in transportation, communication, medicine, agriculture. Fewer children starve, fewer suffer from abuse, fewer are forced into labor, than ever before. Of course, we have a long way to go before we can say we have eradicated poverty, despair, disease and violence, but can’t you see how unimaginably far we’ve come?
I do not claim to be a prophet, or anything like one. No one knows the hour or the day. I would add this: no one knows how literally we’re to understand scriptures referring to the destruction of the Last Days. But at the very least, the Biblical use of the word ‘soon’ has come to mean, ‘at least 2000 years, and probably a lot longer.’ Is it possible that the millennium is something we’re supposed to make happen, that peace on earth is something we’re supposed to work towards, with hope and faith and determination? Is it possible that the Second Coming refers to an attitude, an approach, a mindset we’re supposed to internalize, love for our enemies as well as our friends, a general sense of forgiveness and cooperation? Is it possible that we’re supposed to make it happen?
And if there is a literal Second Coming, isn’t peaceful cooperation the thing we want to be caught doing when He comes?