The Collapsing Universe in the Bible, Part 3
In the previous post in this series, Godawa discussed examples of biblical language that seemingly describes a collapsing universe. Most likely, descriptions of a “melting sun and moon” and the “sky turning red” are not literal but rather describe the destruction of earthly powers. Here in part three, Godawa explains that the “last days” referred to by New Testament writers refer to the time in which they were written rather than to an apocalyptic era in the future.
The Last Days
The term “last days” comes from several New Testament passages (Acts 2:17-21; 2Tim 3:1; Heb 1:2; James 5:3; 2Pet 3:3), but the one that encapsulates the issues addressed in this article is Acts 2:17-21:
“‘And in the last days it shall be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams;
even on my male servants and female servants
in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy.
And I will show wonders in the heavens above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke;
the sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the day of the Lord comes, the great and magnificent day.
And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.’”
This passage seems to have it all: Day of the Lord, last days, wonders in heaven and earth. But let’s take a closer look. This is an Old Testament prophecy that the apostle Peter is quoting to a large crowd of Jews and devout believers from all over the known world gathered in Jerusalem for the Day of Pentecost. He is preaching one of the first recorded salvation sermons on the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the need for all men everywhere to repent and be baptized in light of God’s coming judgment.
The question arises: Is this “Day of the Lord,” or these “last days,” something yet to occur in the distant future, a part of the end of the space-time universe? Is it the beginning of a series of momentous geophysical catastrophes including astronomical phenomena like a blood red moon and an eclipsed or darkened sun? As indicated earlier, most New Testament imagery is rooted in Old Testament concepts, so let’s take a look at the Old Testament background at this concept of “the last days” in order to understand what the New Testament writers intended with their words.
First of all, in the Old Testament, the “Day of the Lord” never meant the end of history or the destruction of the physical heavens and earth. It was used in varying contexts to proclaim God’s judgment upon a specific city or nation. It was like saying “the day is coming when God will punish you.”
Obadiah prophesied the destruction of Edom as the day of the Lord (Obad 15), judgment on Judah and Jerusalem in the time of Zephaniah was called the day of the Lord (Zeph 1:7, 14), Amos called the Assyrian destruction of the northern tribes the day of the Lord (Amos 5:18-20), Isaiah called the fall of Babylon to the Medes the day of the Lord (Isa 13:6, 9). So when we read of “the Day of the Lord” in the New Testament, we must be careful not to expand it into an end of the universe scenario, but to understand it in context as coming earthly judgment upon a nation or people.1
The Old Testament precedent for “last days” is translated in most English Bibles as “latter days.” In some instances it simply meant events that would happen years later from when the subject was addressed (Num 24:14; Job 8:7). But with the prophets it became an eschatological reference about the children of Israel some day returning from exile and renewing the Kingdom of David, the archetype of Messiah, whose kingdom would be eternal after crushing the four previous kingdoms of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream statue (Dan 2:28; 10:14; Hos 3:5).
The “stone cut from a mountain by no human hand” (Dan 2:35) that would crush the other successive kingdoms has been long known to be the “cornerstone” of God’s Kingdom: Messiah, Jesus Christ (Isa 28:16; Act 4:11). That cornerstone that toppled the kingdoms of man came during the Roman Empire, the kingdom of iron mixed with clay (Dan 2:40-45). Daniel then says that, “the stone that struck the image became a great mountain and filled the whole earth” (2:35).
So now the question is, when does this mountain begin filling the earth? The prophets Isaiah and Micah further explain that “in the last days, the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains and many nations shall come, and say: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob” (Isa 2:2-3; Micah 4:1-2).
When do the nations begin coming to the mountain of the Lord? Are these last days at the Second Coming of Christ at the end of time or is this a figurative reference to the spread of the Gospel after the first coming of Christ? In their book The Early Church and the End of the World, scholars Gary DeMar and Francis Gumerlock list early church scholars such as Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, and others who understood Isaiah 2/Micah 4 and other Old Testament prophecies to be about the first coming of Christ rather than the second coming.2 But don’t take early church scholars’ word for it. The New Testament apostles clearly claimed that they were in fact living in “the last days.”
If we return to Peter’s sermon in Acts 2, and read it in context we see from the very start that Peter claims that the mysterious tongues speaking that the crowd was hearing was in fact the fulfillment of the Joel prophecy about God pouring out His Spirit in the last days (Act 2:16). This Pentecost event, with it’s explicit proclamation of the Kingdom of God in the various tongues of the nations, marked the beginning of that drawing in of the nations to the Mountain of God, Messiah and the New Covenant (Heb 12:22-24).
But Peter did not stop with the prophesying, dreams, and visions. He also included -- in that current day fulfillment -- the astronomical catastrophic phenomena of the sun, moon and stars which we now know are references to falling principalities and powers both earthly and heavenly. Peter claims that those prophecies were being fulfilled in their very day, not in some distant end of the universe. And Peter reiterates his belief of being in “these last times” (1 Pet 1:10) when he claims in his letters that “the end of all things is at hand” (1 Pet 4:7), not in some distant future.
But Peter was not the only one who explicitly proclaimed their era as the “last days.” Both Peter and Paul referred to the scoffers and depraved people of their own time to be a sign that they were in the last days in the first century (2Pet 3:1-4; 2Tim 3:1-9). Paul wrote to the Corinthian church that they were the generation “on whom the end of the ages has come” (1 Cor 10:11), the same generation that Jesus said would see the destruction of the Temple that occurred in A.D. 70 (Matt 23:36; 24:34). The writer of Hebrews said conclusively that “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son” (Heb 1:1-2).
So if the New Testament writers believed they were living in the last days, then what could that concept mean if not the last days of the space-time universe? As I will explain in the next section, I think the cosmic language of the Bible indicates that they believed they were living in the last days of the Old Covenant and the beginning days of the New Covenant. And in a further concluding section I will explain why this interpretation does not necessarily deny a Second Coming of Christ. You’ll have to bear with me .
1. In 2 Thess 2:2, Paul exhorts the Thessalonians not to believe anyone who says that the Day of the Lord has come. But he doesn’t make the obvious rebuttal of saying “because it would be the end of the universe, duh.” Instead he gives them other events that will happen first, thus proving that the Day of the Lord was a localized event not a universal or global one. If it was universal or global, they could not possibly be deceived into missing it. See Isa 34:8, 35:4 in conjunction with Luke 21:22ff and Matt 21:33-43. In these passages, the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 was the “days of vengeance” of God upon Israel for rejecting Messiah. “Days of vengeance” is a synonym for “Day of the Lord.”
2. DeMar, Gary and Francis Gumerlock. The Early Church and the End of the World. Powder Springs, GA: American Vision, 2006, pp. xi-xiii. Among other important scholars who held this preterist interpretation of the last days or “end of the world” (especially of Matthew 24) were St. John Chrysostom, Bede, Eusebius, Augustine, Origen, Hugo Grotius, John Lightfoot, Milton Terry, Moses Stuart, John Calvin, Philip Dodderidge, Thomas Newton, John Gill, Adam Clarke, and F.W. Farrar.
Brian Godawa is the screenwriter of To End All Wars and other feature films. He has written and directed documentaries on church-state relations, stem cell research and higher education politics. He is the author of Hollywood Worldviews: Watching Films with Wisdom and Discernment (InterVarsity Press) and Chronicles of the Nephilim, a series of fantasy novels about Biblical heroes within their ancient Near Eastern mythological context. He speaks around the country to churches, high schools and colleges on movies, worldviews and faith. His movie blog can be found at godawa.com/movieblog/.