This is a question I get asked from time to time by visitors to our church or friends I have in other churches. It arises because it seems to me that such Christians are trying to read the times and are seeing things getting worse by the day in our western society. Christians are increasingly being pushed to the margins of national life with the effect that what the Bible calls good the world around us is calls evil and vice versa.
My answer to that question is usually a pretty simple one: yes. The questioner is confirmed in his or her own opinion! But then I say that the first century Christians thought so too, which causes a raised eyebrow or two. Unfortunately, that does not confirm the questioner’s opinion! Aren’t these days are worse than they have ever been – surely these present days are the “last days”?
A couple of observations about this kind of conversation. Firstly, people with a premillennial eschatology (both the dispensational and historic varieties) tend to be somewhat pessimistic about what is coming because the kingdom will be preceded by a relatively short time of intense tribulation. The natural inclination then is to interpret current “bad things” as signs that the tribulation is making an appearance and so these must be the “last days”. I am a little worried there is some “confirmation bias” going on where if you expect or want something to happen, you only consider evidence that confirms it and you discount the rest.
Secondly, people can be quite ignorant of the church’s historic experience in the midst of the all the many convulsions there have been in the world. For example, there are some present-day Christian writers and thinkers who advocate looking back to the first three centuries of the early church to get some pointers how we should be living in our post-Christian society today. Then, the church was a minority in a Roman pagan society that was going in the opposite direction morally, much like today. Knowing history might help get a better perspective on our current situation.
However, back to my answer to the “last days” question: are there biblical reasons for my answer? Let me try to show from three places. Firstly, there is Peter preaching on the day of Pentecost. In order to explain that he and the other apostles are not drunk but have in fact received the promised Holy Spirit he quotes from Joel, “in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh”. So on that day of Pentecost the prophecy was being fulfilled and so was one of the last days. That does not mean that there would not be another “last day” in the future. The apostles expected a future time when God would “send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus, whom heaven must receive until the time for restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago.” (Acts 3:21)
A second place to look is in Hebrews. The writer makes a striking start to the book by speaking about God’s revelation: “in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son” (Hebrews 1:2). The last days of this final revelation are to be distinguished from the revelations of “long ago” (Hebrews 1:1). The difference between the two is that Jesus has come. His first coming marks the beginning of the “last days”. The first coming of Jesus is described as the “end of the ages” (Hebrews 9:26). In other words, the death and resurrection of Jesus marked a change in epoch – ages past had come to an end, a new age had started. But there is still a future event, where Jesus will “appear a second time” (Hebrews 9:28) to bring to complete salvation those who are eagerly waiting for him. The “last days” is one way of speaking about this new age and, it seems, are those days between Jesus’ first and his second coming.
Thirdly, Peter has something to say as well. He writes about the earlier appearing of Christ as the fulfilment of what was foreknown before the foundation of the world and he describes that coming as happening in “the last times“. (1 Peter 1:20). Not only that but a few verses earlier he looks to a future hope which all Christians possess. Christians are those “who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.” (1 Peter 1:5). That “last time” is the last of the “last times” which began with Jesus’ first coming!
So, the picture that emerges from these verses is that Jesus Christ began a new age with his first coming, but it is not yet complete. That awaits his coming a second time when he will consummate all things. Meanwhile as Christians we live in the new age, but there is a sense in which we do not have all that we are promised. We have it, but in a sense we don’t have it yet. It is promised but has not yet come to us in its fulness. It is this already/not yet age that the Bible calls at times, “the last days” which was known both by the early church and by the church today.