For a long time, it has been very common and quite popular in Christian circles to claim we are “living in the last days” every time we’ve heard of “wars and rumors of wars” on the news or on social media, referencing predictions made by Jesus in his Olivet Discourse (in Matthew 24, Mark 13 and Luke 21). And, in this same prophecy, he said that “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.” Thankfully, history shows his predictions were exactly right (more on this later). And yet, every generation since the first century has claimed, as we claim today, 1950-plus years later, that every war, every rumor of war and every uprising of one nation or kingdom against another is a sign we are in “the end times.” Why have we been doing this? Why are we still doing it?
Consider the following:
1. When in history have we not heard of “wars and rumors of wars”? As Solomon said, “All things continue the way they have been since the beginning [Whatever is will be again]. What has happened will happen again; there is nothing new here on earth [under the sun; v. 3]. Someone might say [here is a common expression], ‘Look, this is new,’ but really it has always been here [it was already here long ago]. It was here before we were [existed before our time]. People don’t remember what happened long ago [There is no remembrance of the past], and in the future people will not remember what happens now [nor will there be any remembrance of what will be in the future]. Even later, other people will not remember what was done before them [There is no remembrance of them among those who will exist in the future].” (Ecclesiastes 1:9-11 Expanded Bible) Look in any history book and you will find “wars and rumors of wars” going all the way back to Mesopotamia and Sumer. Why? Because history merely repeats itself.
2. The ideas of many today that every military skirmish around the world, especially involving the Middle East, is a “sign of the times” that we are living “in the last days” misses the larger picture. Why? Because, as Dr. Steven Pinker lays out in his book Enlightenment Now, global wars, civil wars, and all other forms of war-related violence have been trending downwards for a long time.
Here are some key passages from his book (the comments in brackets are mine):
“In almost every year from 1992 through 2015, an era in which the rate of violent crime plummeted, a majority of Americans told pollsters that crime was rising.” (page 40) [Notice the difference between how we perceive things and how they objectively are. As Dr. Pinker points out in his book, subjective readouts of the reality of things “tend to be inflated by the Availability and Negative biases and the gravitas market.” (page 293) An Availability bias is “a distortion that arises from the use of information which is most readily available, rather than that which is necessarily most representative.” A Negative bias is our tendency to register and focus on negative things and events. Pinker goes on to say that “Despair springs eternal… As the historian of science Eric Zencey has observed, ‘There is seduction in apocalyptic thinking. If one lives in the Last Days, one’s actions, one’s very life, take on historical meaning and no small measure of poignance.”]
“Historical criminologists… agree that homicide plummeted after the Middle Ages, and it’s a commonplace among international scholars that major wars tapered off after 1945. But they come as a surprise to most people in the wider world.” (page 43) [And why is it a surprise? Again, because of our myopia informed by our “Availability and Negative biases and the gravitas market.”]
“In The Better Angels of our Nature I showed that, as of the first decade of the 21st century, every objective measure of violence had been in decline. As I was writing it, reviewers warned me that it could all explode before the first copy hit the stores. (A war, possibly nuclear, between Iran and either Israel or the United States was the worry of the day.) Since the book was published in 2011, a cascade of bad news would seem to make it obsolete: Civil War in Syria, atrocities in the Islamic state, terrorism in Western Europe, autocracy in Eastern Europe, shootings by police in the United States, and hate crimes and other outbursts of racism and misogyny from angry populists throughout the West.
“But the same Availability and Negativity biases that make people incredulous about the possibility that violence had declined can make them quick to conclude that any decline has been reversed.” (page 156)
“For most of human history, war was the natural pastime of governments, peace a mere respite between wars… at the dawn of the modern era the great powers were pretty much always at war. But nowadays they are never at war: the last one pitted the United States against China in Korea more than 60 years ago.
“The jagged decline of great power wars conceals two trends that until recently went in opposite directions. For 450 years, wars involving a great power became shorter and less frequent. But as their armies became better manned, trained, and armed, the wars that did take place became more lethal, culminating in the brief but stunningly destructive world wars. It was only after the second of these that all three measures of war—frequency, duration, and lethality—declined in tandem, and the world entered the period that has been called the Long Peace.
“It’s not just the great powers that have stopped fighting each other. War in the classic sense of an armed conflict between the uniformed armies of two nation-states appears to be obsolescent. There have been no more than three in any year since 1945, none in most years since 1989, and none since the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the longest stretch without an interstate war since the end of World War II. Today, skirmishes between national armies kill dozens of people rather than the hundreds of thousands or millions who died in the all-out wars that nation-states have fought throughout history. The Long Peace has certainly been tested since 2011, such as in conflicts between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Russia and Ukraine, and the two Koreas, but in each case the belligerents backed down rather than escalating into all-out war. This doesn’t, of course, mean the escalation to major war is impossible, just that it is considered extraordinary, something that nations try to avoid at (almost) all costs.” (pages 157-158)
“…The turn away from war consists in more than just a reduction in wars and war deaths; it also may be seen in nations’ preparations for war. The prevalence of conscription, the size of armed forces, and the level of global military spending as a percentage of GDP have all decreased in recent decades. Most important, there have been changes in the minds of men (and women).
“How did it happen?…” (page 162)[To continue, read below.👇]
Dr. Pinker goes on to say in his book that “Civil wars kill fewer people than interstate wars, and since the late 1980s civil wars have declined as well.” (page 164)
Summarizing all of this, Dr. Pinker states that “The world is giving peace a chance. War between countries is obsolescent, and war within countries is absent from five-sixths of the world’s surface. The proportion of people killed annually in wars is less than a quarter of what it was in the 1980s, a seventh of what it was in the early 1970s, an eighteenth of what it was in the early 1950s, and a half a percent of what it was during World War II… In most times and places, homicides kill far more people than wars, and homicide rates have been falling as well.” (page 322-323)
Now, considering this obvious historical trend, the question is — if the presence of wars, rumors of wars, nation-to-nation uprisings, etc. are “signs” that we are in “the last days,” what does the absence of these “signs,” or at least their drastic trending decline, mean?
3. When Jesus spoke during his Olivet Discourse in Matthew 24, Mark 13 and Luke 21 of hearing of “wars and rumors of wars,” of “insurrections (disturbances, disorder, and confusion)” [Luke 21:9 (AMPC)] and of nations rising against other nations and kingdoms rising against other kingdoms, why do we presume he was talking to us, about our day in the 21st century, 1950-plus years in the future? Why do we read our modern-day conceptions of war into the Bible, engaging in what some refer to as “newspaper exegesis”?
Consider the broad context of these three passages. Jesus was talking to his disciples in response to questions they asked him in private (see Matthew 24:1-4; Mark 13:1-5; Luke 21:5-7). He was not describing events that would happen in some distant generation. He was warning his followers of what was going to happen to them in their generation (Matthew 24:34). And if you study the writings of Flavius Josephus (Antiquities of the Jews & War of the Jews), Eusebius, Tacitus and the Talmud you will find all these wars [including the Roman-Parthian War (AD 58-63) and numerous foreign and civil wars], rumors of wars, insurrections and disturbances [including numerous battles] laid out in grave detail.
With that said, the culminating war Jesus referred to in these three passages was the Jewish–Roman War (66–135 CE), which included the razing of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. that he predicted in vivid detail as a local judgment that could be escaped on foot by going to the mountains surrounding Jerusalem (Matthew 24:15-20).
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