In recent times, we have heard a lot about “The Last Days.” A large number of non-mainline conservative Christians in this country (“evangelicals”) believe that we are living in the last few years (or even months, or days, or hours) before the “rapture” of the church, which will precede a seven-year tribulation period dominated by a single, sinister figure known as “The Antichrist,” followed by the Second Coming of Christ at which He will establish an earthly, visible, thousand-year reign in Jerusalem. This is classic or “scholastic” dispensational eschatology.1 Today we witness the queer coincidence of, on the one hand, the refusal of almost any leading conservative seminary in the country to defend classical dispensationalism and, on the other hand, the dramatic revival of dispensational eschatology in the form of the staggering series of best-selling novels in the Left Behind phenomenon. What is indefensible in the seminaries is indefatigable in the bookstores.
The notion that in the Bible “The Last Days” denotes the final few years or months before Christ’s Second Advent reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of Biblical eschatology (the doctrine of last things). Proof that this view is mistaken appears in prominent statements like those of Peter in Acts 2, quoting Joel in describing the events of that first post-resurrection Pentecost as inaugurating “The Last Days,” during which “your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams” (v. 17). In his first epistle, John writes (2:18), “Little children, it is the last time: and as ye have heard that antichrist shall come, even now are there many antichrists; whereby we know that it is the last time.” Jude writes similarly in v. 18 of his epistle. And the writer of Hebrews declares (1:1-2):
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....
Whatever else these statements denote, they certainly indicate that their human authors recognized the days in which they lived as “The Last Days.”
Consistent dispensationalism is forced to argue in the light of passages like these that “The Last Days” did in fact begin at Pentecost but were “postponed” when God “withdrew” the offer of the kingdom to unbelieving Jews.2 There is not a shred of Biblical evidence to support this view, which is maintained only to conform to a preconceived theological system. The ministry of Paul himself was immersed in the kingdom of God (Ac. 20:25; 28:31; 1 Cor. 4:20; Col. 1:13; 4:11). Christ’s earthly kingdom and reign are not postponed until the Second Advent. They are events continuous with Jesus Christ’s resurrection (Acts 2:22-36). Christ is presently reigning at His Father’s right hand, and we are living in “The Last Days.”
The "Time Between"
“The Last Days,” in fact, refers to the entire inter-advental era — more specifically, to the period between Christ’s past bodily resurrection and His future bodily return. Why is it termed “The Last Days”? Because it is the last epoch or period of God’s redemptive work in the earth. Paul tells us that when Christ returns, “then cometh the end, when He shall have delivered up the kingdom to God, even the Father; when he shall have put down all rule and all authority and power” (1 Cor. 15:27). That is, there is no period of redemptive history subsequent to Christ’s Second Coming. “The Last Days” is the consummation of redemptive history — when we bask and work within the victory of Christ’s death, resurrection, ascension, and session.
We sometimes speak of A.D. 34-90 or 100 as the “apostolic age”; but in a profound sense, the entire inter-advental era is the apostolic age. It is true that the apostles and their miracles and certain other works seemed unique to their lifetimes.3 For one thing, the requirements of an apostle cannot be met in the modern era (Ac. 1:21-22). Theirs was, in fact, a unique, unrepeatable era of redemptive history (Heb. 9:26-28).
We must never allow these facts, however, to deter us from recognizing that the message of the apostolic era and its effects are designed to cover the entire inter-advental age. The first days of “The Last Days” were the historical age of the apostles, whose authority and message and power persist into the present and will persist until Christ’s Second Advent. While in the chronology of history we are far removed from the first century, in the theology of history we are united to that age. In salvation history, we are as close to the resurrection of Christ as the first-century apostles were, just as they were as close to the Second Advent as we are today. The first-century Christians did not know when the Lord would return, any more than we do. What they did know — and what we should know — is that the great, decisive event of history is past, not future. The great battle has been won on the Cross and in the empty tomb. Salvation history in Christ is a unit, beginning with His birth and ending with His delivering His kingdom to His Father (1 Cor. 15:24). His atoning death and bodily resurrection stand at the center of this history and in fact constitute the gospel (1 Cor. 15: 1-8). All of this hangs together as a cluster of events in one overarching history.4
The Eschatological Expectation
This readily explains many of the New Testament writers’ apparent expectation of the Second Coming within their lifetimes. While Christ Himself did not expressly teach this, and in fact implied otherwise (Mk. 13:32-37; Lk. 12:37-48), the apostles were dramatically aware, as many of today’s Christians are not, of the basic meaning of “The Last Days” in redemptive history. Their consciousness of the relative nearness of the Second Coming is not equivalent to today’s sort of dispensational date-setting, about which our Lord Himself warned His followers (Mt. 24:42; Ac. 1:6-8). They were not aware of the timing of Christ’s Second Coming; and, in fact, it seems that Christ Himself in His incarnate but pre-resurrection state was not aware of the exact time of His coming, having intentionally limited His divine omniscience (Mk. 13:24-32). The theologically liberal accusations that the New Testament writers taught that Jesus Christ would return in their own lifetimes (thus denying Biblical infallibility)5 is no less erroneous than is the notion by some conservatives that we must attribute most or all of such texts to the destruction of Jerusalem in A. D. 70 in order to maintain the integrity of the Bible’s infallibility.6
Both of these views constitute a critical misunderstanding of the nature of redemptive history. The New Testament writers were not attempting to set forth a “futurist” eschatology.7 Vos and Gaffin are correct to assert that for the New Testament writers, eschatology was a present reality.8 In the Person of Jesus Christ, the future had invaded the present, because the (recent) past had re-shaped all history from beginning to end.
This is a hefty support for postmillennialism, despite the fact that a lot of amillennialists hold it. The advancement of the kingdom of God that the Old Testament predicts and the New Testament attests to centers in the redemptive-historical work of Jesus Christ. This kingdom, which will overspread the earth and dominate every area of life and thought by means of the preaching and acceptance of the gospel,9 is a present reality, though it is worked out under God’s sovereign hand incrementally in history (Dan. 2; Mt. 13:31-33). This advancing kingdom is “The Last Days.” During this period, there is often great opposition to the gospel, but the gospel will win out. There will be great depravity (2 Tim. 3:1), but all enemies (except death) will be vanquished before Christ returns (1 Cor. 15:22-28). All of the Old Testament prophecies of a godly earth will be fulfilled as a result of the preaching of the gospel and the operation of the Spirit of God. “The Last Days” are not the days of anxiety over the decline of the kingdom and the apostasy of the church; they are the days of battle against an already defeated foe — a “mopping up” operation:
The decisive battle in a war may already have occurred in a relatively early stage of the war, and yet the war still continues. Although the decisive effect of that battle is perhaps not recognized by all, it nevertheless already means victory. But the war must still be carried on for an undefined time, until “Victory Day.” Precisely this is the situation of which the New Testament is conscious.... [T]he event on the cross, together with the resurrection which followed, was the already concluded decisive battle.... The chief point in question, therefore, is not the limitation that the imminent end will come within a generation, although this limitation is actually present in the New Testament. The theologically important point in the preaching of the nearness of the Kingdom of God is not this fact, but rather the implicit assertion that since the coming of Christ we already stand in a new period of time, and that therefore the end has drawn nearer.10
The Second Coming was ever before the eyes of the apostles (just as it should ever be before our eyes), not because they expected to escape from the earth, but precisely because it signals the dramatic continuation of the earth’s Christianization secured definitively by the Lordship of Christ, His present rule from the heavens (Ac. 2:23-36).
A Future Alive and Well on Planet Earth
God is intensely interested in this earth as His creation, and He will not abandon it. The Bible, for example, does not teach that all Christians will live together with the Lord eternally in heaven. Rather, it states that the New Jerusalem will descend to the earth (a renovated earth [1 Pet. 3:10-13]) in which God will dwell with men forever (Rev. 21:1-3). In short, the entire inter-advental era constitutes “The Last Days,” God’s final period of redemptive accomplishment. However, it is not God’s final era of purifying sanctification for earth. This Christianization consisting of full sanctification will be God’s final, enduring work of purification after Christ returns. All enemies but one will be put down before the Second Coming. That final enemy to be subordinated is death (1 Cor. 15:26). Death — and the sin that fuels it — will survive within “The Last Days”; it will not be defeated with finality until Christ returns to initiate the final resurrection and the final judgment.
Christians who are aware of redemptive history, therefore, anticipate the Second Coming as a time when they will see their Lord face to face (Rev. 22:4), and when the work of worldwide Christianization will receive its final catapult into definitive earthly perfection. The Second Coming is the destination of redemptive history; and the desire for it burns within knowledgeable believers, not because they wish an escape from the world, but precisely because they wish a more Christian world. The Second Coming introduces a radical discontinuity into history, but it maintains a radical continuity in the Christianization that occurs within that history. In this sense, the millennium is the period of partial, progressive Christianization that ushers in the full, definitive Christianization of eternity.11
“The Last Days” is the time of the great harvest, of Christ’s incrementally trampling down His enemies by the power of the gospel. The definitive victory on the Cross gives way to the final “mop-up operation” that will conclude at Christ’s Second Coming. “The Last Days” is a time of excitement and ecstasy, of trial and hardship, of temporary defeat and permanent victory, of the worldwide expansion of the kingdom of God. It is a time of the “already/not yet” — the “already” of Christ’s universal mediatorial reign within time and history, the “not yet” of remnants of the Second Adam and the sin that war against the incursion of the kingdom of God and the new age (Rom. 7). We are called in “The Last Days” to faithfulness — and to victory in every area of thought, life, and society.
1. John F. Walvoord, The Rapture Question (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1979 edition).
2. Dwight J. Pentecost, Things to Come (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1958), 463-466.
3. But see Ronald A. N. Kydd, Charismatic Gifts in the Early Church (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1984). For a competing view, see Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., The Charismatic Gift of Prophecy (Memphis: Footstool Publications , 1989).
4. Oscar Cullmann, Christ and Time (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1950), ch. 4.
5. Martin Werner, The Formation of Christian Dogma (Boston: Beacon Press, 1957), ch. 1.
6. R. C. Sproul, The Last Days According to Jesus (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), 202-203.
7. G. C. Berkouwer, The Return of Christ (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972), ch. 3.
8. Geerhardus Vos, The Pauline Eschatology (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed , 1986), ch. 2, and Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., Resurrection and Redemption (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed , 1987), 82 and passim. While the redemptive-historical school represented by Vos and Gaffin stresses the climactic effects of the future (clustered around Christ's Second Coming) as they protrude back into the past, the salvation-historical school epitomized by Cullmann accents the climactic effects of the past (clustered around Christ's first coming) as they protrude forward into the present and future. See Oscar Cullmann, Salvation in History (New York and Evanston: Harper and Row, 1967).
9. Loraine Boettner, The Millennium (no loc.: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1957).
10. Cullmann, Christ and Time, 84, 87, emphasis in original. The New Testament writers were unaware of the timing of the Second Coming, just as Old Testament writers were unclear about details concerning Christ's first coming (1 Pet. 1:10-12). See also Herman Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of His Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975), 489.
11. On the impetus behind Christian culture, see Christopher Dawson, Religion and Life, in Enquiries into Religion and Culture (London and New York: Sheed and Ward, 1933), 292-310.