What is the "End of the World"?

"Is 2012 the end of the world?"

In 2009, director Roland Emmerich posed this question in his $769 million worldwide grossing movie "2012". This sci-fi disaster blockbuster with an all-star cast including John Cusack, Amanda Peet, Thandie Newton, and Danny Glover refers to Mayanism, the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar and related predictions of eschatological events unfolding in the year 2012.

Hollywood fantasy… scholars from various disciplines have dismissed the idea of such cataclysmic events occurring in 2012... but this reminds us of an almost universal human fascination with the end of the world.

The notion of the "eschaton" has some scientific basis in the life cycle of the Sun. Cosmologists predict in about 5 billion years the Sun at the center of our solar system will turn into a red giant.

Solar life cycle

As a red giant, the Sun will have a maximum radius beyond the Earth's current orbit. Long before Earth is actually swallowed up by the Sun, life on the planet will become unsustainable due to the rise in temperature. Clearly, the Sun's expansion will not lead to the end of the Universe, but it will represent the end of the world as we know it.

The End of the World in World Religion

Most religions have beliefs and doctrines explaining the final events in history and the ultimate destiny of humanity. Eschatological (end time) systems tend to see human history as divided into "dispensations" or "ages" (Gk. aeon).

A dispensation is an age or era in which certain realities are present. An age may come to a close and be replaced by a new dispensation in which different realities are present. The transition from one age to another is the substance of eschatology (the study of last things). When religious belief systems speak of "the end of the world" they are usually referring to "the end of the age." That is, the end of "life as we know it" and the beginning of a new reality or the "World to Come."

Contemporary religious eschatological and apocalyptic systems tend to center around the violent disruption or destruction of the world, the end of life as it is now, and the beginning of a new age. If a better world results we call it a "utopia". If a worse world we call it a "dystopia." The same future may be utopian for some and dystopian for others as in the ideas of "heaven" and "hell".

In Hinduism

In Hinduism time is viewed as cyclical. One yuga (age) ends but another will always begin. On the one hand, the familiar Hindu conception of a cycle of birth, growth, decay, death, and renewal at the individual level is reflected in the cosmic order. On the other hand, this order is influenced by the uncertainties of various divine interventions.

The age of the Earth in traditional Hindu cosmology is surprisingly similar to the secular-scientific view. A Divya Yuga (a cycle made up of four yugas) lasts for 4.3 billion years. Scientists estimate the age of Earth to be 4.54 billion years. One Divya Yuga completes the existence of the universe and the universe starts to contract backwards to a speck of dust, ultimately to be renewed by a new beginning of big bang.

The four yugas are:

Satya Yuga, which lasts 1.632 billion years, in which human beings are heavenly bodies.

Treta Yuga is the Silver Age and lasts 1.3 billion years.

Dwapara Yuga is the Bronze Age and lasts 884 million years.

Kali Yuga is the Iron Age of vice and lasts approximately 448 million years.

Most Hindus believe that we are living in the Kali Yuga, which is characterized by a sense of helplessness in the face of the horrors and suffering of the humanity and a certain nostalgia for a golden past or a future salvation. The Kali Yuga is associated with Kalki, who is the tenth and last Avatar of Vishnu before the end of the world ( or yuga) when Shiva dissolves the universe and Brahma regenerates it.

In Buddhism

Like Hindus, Buddhists generally believe in a cycle of creation and destruction, of which the current epoch represents only the latest step.

Some forms of Buddhism believe that the life span of human beings changes according to human nature.

In Cakkavati sutta the Buddha explains the relationship between human life span and human behavior. In the past people lived for thousands of years. Over the course of time they began behaving in various "unskillful" ways, thus causing the human life span to gradually shorten. Now it stands at 100 years, with human beauty, wealth, pleasure, and strength decreasing proportionately.

According to the Sutta Pitaka, the "ten moral courses of conduct" will disappear and human beings will follow the ten amoral concepts of theft, violence, murder, lying, evil speaking, adultery, abusive and idle talk, covetousness and ill will, wanton greed, and perverted lust. This leads to escalating poverty and lawlessness

In Islam

The signs of the Day of Judgment. and the Islamic conception of the end of the world are found in the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad.

Abu Hurairah, a companion of the Prophet, reports that he said, "When honesty is lost, then wait for the Day of Judgment." It was asked, "How will honesty be lost, O Apostle of God?" He said, "When authority is given to those who do not deserve it, then wait for the Day of Judgment."

Another companion of the Prophet reports that he said, "[The Day of Judgment] will not be called until ten signs have appeared: Smoke, Dajjal [the Antichrist], the creature (that will wound the people), the rising of the sun in the West, the Second Coming of Jesus, the emergence of Gog and Magog, and three sinkings (or cavings in of the earth): one in the East, another in the West and a third in the Arabian Peninsula." Mohammad does not list these signs in the chronological order of appearance.

Many surahs (chapters) of the Qur'an describe events that will occur on the Day of Judgment, which parallel many elements in Judeo-Christian views of the end of the world:

* Destruction/flattening of the earth

* Creation of a new earth

* Resurrection of people

* Gathering of the people

* Books of records of the deed accounts of the people shall be given to them in their right hands if they are judged to be good on earth and in their left hands if they are judged to be evil on earth

* Separation of the people who are hell bound and heaven bound.

The End of the World in Christian Theology

In Christian theology the idea of the end of the world uniquely focuses on the central event of the literal, personal, and visible return of Jesus Christ to Earth as predicted in the New Testament. Christians agree on the final results of Christ’s return, though there may be disagreement over the details and timing of future events.

So important is the Second Coming to Christian eschatology that it is called the Blessed Hope. In Titus 2:13 Paul writes, “While we wait for the blessed hope–the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.”

The Promises of Christ's Return

In biblical theology there is a three-fold prophetic declaration of the return of Christ, which is seen as the climax of the close of this age the end of the world as we now know it.

1. The Messianic Announcement

“And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.” John 14:3.

This text, from the lips of Jesus Himself, establishes the fact of his personal return to Earth for his believing people.

2. The Angelic Attestation

“‘Men of Galilee,’ they said, ‘why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.’” Acts 1:11.

At Christ's Ascension the attendant angels underscore the personal return of Christ: “This same Jesus.” They indicate the event as a literal return: “Will come back in the same way.” This implies that his future coming will be as literal as his first. The text does not allow for Christ’s coming to be a figurative reference to some other being or to some spiritual experience in the life of the believer.

The angels declare that Jesus’ return shall be visible: “Will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.” Jesus ascended bodily and visibly from the Mount of Olives in to the clouds. This is reinforces a similar Old Testament messianic prophecy found in Zechariah 14:1-5.

3. The Apostolic Affirmation

“For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.” 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17

Paul affirms that Christ's return will be personal; “The Lord himself,” and that he will come in the clouds as he descends towards the Earth.

What is the End of the World: Two Related Questions

When will the world end?

What are the signs of the end of the age?

The Purposes of Christ's Return

By far the most important issue to consider about the "end of the world" is the purpose of Christ’s future coming. The theological questions which this addresses include:

* Why does Christ need to return?

* Why does the world need him back?

* What did he not do on his first visit that requires a second?

* Did he not complete his mission?

* What will he yet do here on earth that he cannot do from his position of supreme authority in heaven?

David Pawson

British Bible teacher J. David Pawson suggests five purposes of Christ's future return at the end of the world (age). I have added a supporting Scripture for each purpose statement:

To complete the saints - Jesus says to his disciples, “If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.” (John 14:3)

To convert the Jews - “And so all Israel will be saved, as it is written: ‘The deliverer will come from Zion; he will turn godlessness away from Jacob. And this is my covenant with them when I take away their sins.’” (Romans 11:26-27)

To conquer the devil - "“And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will overthrow with the breath of his mouth and destroy by the splendor of his coming.” (2 Thessalonians 2:8)

To condemn the ungodly - “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” (Matthew 25:31-32)

To command the world - “The moon will be abashed, the sun ashamed; for the LORD Almighty will reign on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem, and before its elders, gloriously.” (Isaiah 24:23) “The LORD will be king over the whole earth. On that day there will be one LORD, and his name the only name.” (Zechariah 14:9)

Most Christians affirm the central role of Christ's future coming in the biblical idea of the end of the world (or age). There is broad agreement concerning these principal purposes of Christ's Coming. Regrettably, at times bitter controversy exists concerning specific details, timing and exact relationship of each event to all the others.

Summary Statement

Wayne Grudem

I have always sought to instill my students a broad non-dogmatic concerning any one interpretative system. I agree with Dr. Wayne Grudem, Research Professor of Theology and Biblical Studies at Phoenix Seminary in Arizona...

"No matter what their differences on the details, all Christians who take the Bible as their final authority agree that the final and ultimate result of Christ’s return will be the judgment of unbelievers and the final reward of believers, and that believers will live with Christ in a new heaven and a new earth for all eternity. God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit will reign and will be worshiped in a never-ending kingdom with no more sin or sorrow or suffering.”

To learn more about the Bible's teaching on the "end of the world" and related eschatological themes, order my eBook Developing a Sound Eschatology, revised edition.

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