Among some subsets of Protestant Christian communities I have sometimes heard pastors and authors insist that before the “last days” come (just prior to the “rapture” or the Lord’s physical return as King of heaven and earth) there will be a massive turning of many people to faith in the Gospel. This has been proclaimed by some who claim to have received it as a “word of knowledge” or a prophetic utterance of the Holy Spirit. I have also read and heard some Christian teachers who insist that we should expect to see an apostasy from the Gospel rather than a large scale revival of true spirituality rooted in the Gospel. I have wondered about these conflicting claims.
The Scripture does address this question but not so clearly as perhaps some would like to think. On the one hand Paul makes it quite clear that in the “last times” at least some people will turn their backs on faith in Christ and teach others to do the same (1 Timothy 4:1-3; see also 2 Timothy 3:1-5). The Lord stated plainly that a powerful demonic deception would, at it were, spiritually flood the human world and many would be drawn away to lawlessness and become hostile to the Gospel and the Lord’s disciples (see Matthew 24:9-14). Paul also echoed this by asserting that Satan would exert a powerful delusion to deceive people into following the “lawless one” (see 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12)
Evaluating the history of the Christian church one can, I think, make a strong argument that a pattern of apostasy and rediscovery and renewal of faith has occurred multiple times. For example, the outpouring of the Spirit after our Lord was raised from the dead (see Acts 1-2) clearly marked a new beginning and is arguably a reliable pattern for what God desires to do in human history. There have been a number of noted renewal movements and “revivals” at different points in the past two thousand or so years. Thus is the power of the Gospel to bring people into the Kingdom of God and to draw back in those who turned away! But there have also been demonstratively evil periods where “the church” on earth dramatically departed from the Gospel both in its teaching and practice.
I make no claim to prophetic insight about future revivals of faith. However, given the general historical pattern I think that it makes much more sense to expect that we may well see the following: Unprecedented renewal of faith in the Lord Jesus (particularly among those people who do not now believe in Christ) and simultaneously broad apostasy from Gospel teaching and a godly manner of living (particularly among those who profess to believe now in Jesus Christ).
The content of the letters to the churches in Revelation (chapters 2-3) appear to confirm this—some churches on the verge of dying while others are healthy and alive in the Lord. First and foremost they are prophesies to the churches in Asia then and continue to be prophetic words to each generation of believers. These messages from our Lord are jarring and precious! For this is the nature of God’s revelation in Scripture to us—it is the record of God’s word given orally and then written down. And thus it continues to have the same power as the Holy Spirit applies it to new and different circumstances.
I am very aware that these chapters have been (and can legitimately be) interpreted in different ways. One such interpretation is the argument that these give a theological grid (according to the dispensationalist perspective) for interpreting church history and predicting the future. I do not think that interpretation can be sustained from those passages or anywhere else in Scripture but I respect those who would differ with me on this point. What I do think these letters are supposed to teach us (at least in part) is this: The Lord is always speaking to communities of believers and calls out their faith and their sins so as to give them an opportunity to repent and so receive what he has promised them—both now on earth and forever in the Kingdom. He is set upon making his people holy and whole as they exercise faith through him to the Father.
In regard to the conditions before or during the “last days” I think that Scripture paints a varied picture. Whatever percentage of human beings are saying “yes” to faith in Christ in the “last days”—whether this be large or small—God will not change and he will continue to honor genuine human choice. If we are looking for God to force people of that “end days” generation into confession of faith in Christ then we are mistaken. For when has there ever been a time when the vast majority of human beings on earth exercised faith in the true God and his Son the Lord Jesus?
We could argue rightly that there have been periods of history when Christian faith was taught and practiced by most people in certain parts of the planet (like the late Roman Empire or “Christian” Europe of the Middle Ages or the United States of America following its founding). But in those examples how many people had genuine faith? God alone knows and the Lord Jesus Christ will be the Judge.
What I believe will be characteristic of the last days is that God will speak with utter clarity to all people about the truth of the Gospel and confirm it with miracles and signs and wonders. No one who lives in these last days will even be able to argue that they did not know what the Gospel teaches and who the Lord Jesus is! The overwhelming and repeated testimony to this is unmistakably declared in Revelation. All people will be forced to acknowledge the choice of “yes” or “no” regarding the call to faith in Christ.
Rather than hoping for a conversion of all (or nearly all) people to faith in Christ in these decisive “last days” I suggest that we should expect to see people decide both for and against faith in the Son of God. What percentage embrace the Lord or refuse the offer of eternal life I do not dare to guess. Such knowledge is part of the “secret things” which God reserves for himself alone (see Deuteronomy 29:29).
However, I do sense in my spirit that God wants to pour out his Spirit on the Church and to bring many people into the Kingdom and that he is now calling those who know him to repent so he can heal his own. For then we can be his hands and feet to bring the good news and his healing power to Satan’s captives. And those who refuse to embrace what the Lord wants to do in this time will come under his stern discipline. This is time for judgment to begin with the Church (1 Peter 4:17) For he is intent upon rescuing all those who will come to him with faith.
And yes, I do believe we are in the last days. Come Lord Jesus!