May 2, 2020

Signs of the End?

Famines, floods, earthquakes, terrorism: Does it sound familiar?

Jared Thurmon

You don’t have to look far these days to see headlines declaring that epidemics are a sign of the end of days. In fact, just recently I saw a headline that read, “The Bible predicts more pestilences just before the end of days.”

What’s With Pestilence?

A pestilence is not a good thing. It’s usually a fatal epidemic disease.

COVID-19 has already been fatal for thousands, but does it qualify as a pestilence of Bible prophecy? If it does, how does that change how you react to it? If it doesn’t, how does that affect our view of it?

Looking at events around us and wondering what they mean is nothing new. We read that after a Savior was promised to Adam and Eve, after they understood that He would be one of their descendants, they kept believing that son after son might be the One.

Noah had no early signs to validate his message of a coming storm. Nor do we know of any historical sign given to Sodom. So, is it signs we need for faith, or is there something more?

Scripture tells us, “Surely the Sovereign Lord God does nothing without revealing his plan to his servants the prophets” (Amos 3:7). He doesn’t have to be so generous with information. He isn’t compelled to keep us informed.

Is it our fear or our faith that’s increasing?

But in line with His amazing and beautiful character, God our counselor and friend does reveal things to us beforehand, and even explains why: “I have told you now before it happens, so that when it does happen you will believe” (John 14:29). And: “I am telling you now before it happens, so that when it does happen you will believe that I am who I am” (John 13:19).

God goes out of His way to reassure us in moments of perplexity that He hasn’t forgotten us, that He loves us, and that the trial or perplexity we’re going through hasn’t caught Him off guard.

The Dark Day

One moment that the pioneers of the Advent movement saw as a sign of fulfilled prophecy was the Dark Day, May 19, 1780—a day on which, at 9:00 a.m., birds went back to their roosts and cows to their stalls, believing the sun had set for the day. Many of the citizenry thought it had to be a sign of the apocalypse and hurried to churches to confess and pray. Others concluded that if their world was about to end, they would make the most of their last moments on earth and celebrate in the nearest bar. As Congregationist clergyman Timothy Dwight wrote: “A very general opinion prevailed that the day of judgment was at hand.”

Today, more than two centuries later, scientists committed to naturalistic explanations about everything suggest that forest fires causing dense smoke everywhere blocked out the heavens. But the faith of many remained firm in the conviction that it was nothing other than a sign of the end.

Another Fulfillment?

Seventh-day Adventists have been known to search vigilantly for evidences of the fulfillment of prophecy. Those of the Millerite movement saw in the moments around the Dark Day a clear fulfillment of Jesus’ words: “Immediately after the distress of those days ‘the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light’” (Matt. 24:29). Looking at their own time in context of the previous half century of history, they saw equal prophetic value in the rest of this verse: not only would “the moon . . . not give its light,” but “the stars will fall from the sky” (verse 29). Seventh-day Adventists, as the Millerites before them—the movement from whom they emerged—believe that this last sign was fulfilled in November 1833 with an event that matched the prediction of Scripture: they saw the stars fall from heaven.1 Looking at signs and identifying their fulfillment in prophecy is nothing new for Christians, especially Seventh-day Adventists.

Does It Matter?

I hope what I say next won’t rattle anyone . . . too much.

What’s the connection between any or all of these signs and your faith in Jesus? How do you align May 19, 1780, with November 13, 1833, and October 22, 1844? The last of those events didn’t happen just as Millerite believers had thought it would. For many, it shook their faith so much that they threw out all trust in biblical prophecy.

My question: Where does our faith find its foundation? If it’s in the events of prophecy, could it be possible that when some predicted event ends up being seen differently or finds another explanation, our faith would be so shaken that we lose our grasp on all the promises we hold confidently? What’s the balance between some esteemed interpretation of biblical prophecy and the more sure word of prophecy, “something completely reliable,” to which “you will do well to pay attention,” recognizing that it’s “a light shining in a dark place,” a light God has given us for guidance right up to the glorious moment when “the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts” (2 Peter 1:19)? Could I conceivably be stuck with an explanation that actually came about by some individual’s or group’s “own interpretation of things” (verse 20)? William Miller and others were convinced that the seven last plagues had occurred in the past, before 1844. I wonder how a new understanding that those events were yet future affected their faith.

Jesus has promised to never leave or forsake us, but are we growing in Him, in peace and joy every day? Is it our fear or our faith that’s increasing? If the former, we should ask if we’re planted on the rock or on the sandy opinions of humanity.

Imminence and Sustainability

A recent global church survey found that a growing contingent of our movement doesn’t believe that the imminent second coming of Jesus is closer than 20 years out. But I don’t think it takes a rocket scientist to recognize that this planet and its fragile systems are in need of a Savior, and sooner rather than later.

I remember when my dad died a few years ago. The pain was so great that I just wanted the world to be over and to escape the hurt and sorrow I was going through. I realized then that my faith was built for imminence but not for sustainability. I was ready—or so I thought—for Jesus to come in days, months, maybe a year or so. But as I look back, I realize my faith was not sustainable to last decades.

What God has in store for those who love Him is beyond our greatest imaginations. But how many of us live in fear and can run the race just a little longer before we burn out, stress out, or die out? What systems of faith do we have in place so that if Jesus’ return was still 30 years away, we would have a sustainable, joyous experience and relationship with Him that would last, grow, and thrive as the world around us seems to crumble?

Please hear me clearly: I believe the systems of this planet are breaking and won’t last much longer. I don’t want to be shocked out of my wits because some event marked “final” all over it takes place earlier than I thought it should. And I suspect you wouldn’t want that either! We’ve been given more than enough light to know we’ve been living on borrowed time for decades. According to Jesus, fulfilled prophecy is a sign (Matt. 12:39; 16:4; Luke 11:29). The prophetic “signs” that depend on chronology have all been fulfilled. It now seems that pretty much all that’s needed is a trigger—a black swan event—that no one has been looking for; something that will take us all by surprise. And though the prophetic calendars have run their course and believers are attentively proclaiming His soon return, His coming will still involve a significant element of surprise (Luke 21:34).

“It is in a crisis that character is revealed.”2 The virgins all thought themselves prepared until it was too late. “So now, a sudden and unlooked-for calamity, something that brings the soul face to
face with death, will show whether there is any real faith in the promises of God. . . . The great final test comes at the close of human probation, when it will be too late for the soul’s need to be supplied.”3 And if those four patient angels who hold the winds of environmental and political destruction in their hands continue to hold for the same reason they’ve held for decades—until God’s servants are all sealed (Rev. 7:3)—then we should be living a life that can withstand the storms of life and that doesn’t need signs to confirm it.

  1. Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1911), p. 334: “Many who witnessed the falling of the stars, looked upon it as a herald of the coming judgment, ‘an awful type, a sure forerunner, a merciful sign, of that great and dreadful day.’—’The Old Countryman,’ in Portland Evening Advertiser, Nov. 26, 1833. Thus the attention of the people was directed to the fulfillment of prophecy, and many were led to give heed to the warning of the second advent.”
  2. Ellen G. White, Christ’s Object Lessons (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1900, 1941), p. 412.
  3. Ibid.

Jared Thurmon is director of marketing for Adventist Review Ministries.