In May of 2016, Billy Graham issued a familiar warning. He said “The Bible many times warns that toward the end of history as we know it, there will be a return to pre-flood conditions of gross sin and wickedness.” Problem is, he’s wrong.
Graham’s outlook isn’t uncommon. Another page asks the question, “Jesus Christ said that end-time events would be like those during the time of Noah. What were those conditions like, and why should we be concerned?”
These dire predictions of end-times chaos come from verses in Matthew 24 and Luke 17, which parallel each other. They contain similar content. Can a careful reading of these verses really tell us what the world will be like at the Second Coming?
Christian theologians have good intentions when they explain the difference between exegesis and eisegesis. They are correct when they point out the difference: exegesis is the process of extracting truth from biblical passages, where eisegesis is the process of reading into Scripture what you want it to say to fit your own preconceived notions.
It is our duty to interpret God’s words correctly. If we don’t, we are essentially adding to Scripture or, worse, twisting its meaning to the corruption of God’s truth.
The common interpretation that the end times will be preceded by a sustained growth of wickedness and immorality that overtakes the Church is wrong. It comes from misreading at least two common passages in Scripture.
If you come to those passages with a preconceived idea that this is what the end times will be like, it’s easy to interpret them.
Let me show you how easy it is.
TWO PASSAGES ABOUT CHRIST’S RETURN
There’s much debate, often contentious, about what the world will be like when Christ returns at his Second Coming to inaugurate the Final Judgment. The academic term for the doctrine or study of the end times is eschatalogy. Though not a term we use among our friends or newly met acquaintances at parties if we hope to build enduring relationships, everyone has an idea about the end times.
There are three main millennial views. They break down in two ways: either the world is going to get worse and worse, or the world will be steadily Christianized and improve over time as God pours out his blessings in history. Those who believe conditions will gradually improve are called post-millennialists.
Those who take the view that things will become more and more evil, reaching the near-total-depravity present during the days of Noah, are generally amillenialists or dispensationalists.
The post-millennialists use certain passages from the Bible to justify their view. I’m a post-millennialist. But am I (and others) just reading my own ideas into passages that are otherwise clear in their meaning?
Are the dispensationalists right in believing things are going to become worse and worse, “as in the days of Noah”?
It is rather straight forward to prove (wrongly) that things will become worse and worse from two parallel passages from the gospels of Matthew and Luke. First, a passage from Matthew:
But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only. For as were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. (Mat. 24:36-39)
Next, a similar passage from Luke:
Likewise, just as it was in the days of Lot—they were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building, but on the day when Lot went out from Sodom, fire and sulfur rained from heaven and destroyed them all—so will it be on the day when the Son of Man is revealed. (Luke 17:28-30)
The next question we need to ask is: what was the condition of humanity during the days of Noah? For that, we turn to Genesis:
And God saw the earth, and behold, it was corrupt, for all flesh had corrupted their way on the earth. And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence through them. Behold, I will destroy them with the earth.” (Gen. 6:12-13)
God was extremely displeased with the state of humanity during the days of Noah. They were all corrupt. None but the eight who passed through the deluge on board the ark survived (1 Peter 3:20). And, as we’ve seen from these passages, Jesus said that the state of mankind when he returns will be like that during the days of Noah.
Therefore, we should look forward to a continual decline in the world. People will become worse and worse. Evil will gradually triumph over the righteous until there are only a handful of righteous remaining.
NOT SO FAST
If you have seen an explanation like this before and believed it, then it is time that we revisit how sound this exposition is. Is this explanation exegesis, or eisegesis?
One of the methods of sound exegesis is called the historical-grammatical method. Wikipedia explains that “the historical-grammatical method is a Christian hermeneutical method that strives to discover the Biblical author’s original intended meaning in the text.”
In other words, we should establish the historical context of the Bible passage and understand its original meaning before trying to apply it to our own lives in our own day.
The first question to ask is: are the two passages cited above really about Christ’s second coming? If so, do they really say that the world is going to be in a state of almost total corruption?
So, let’s examine the historical context.
The first set of verses from Matthew 24 really does talk about the Second Coming. But it is important to establish the context. The disciples had just walked out of the temple with Jesus and were pointing out the various buildings of the temple complex to him. In response, he said “You see all these, do you not? Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down” (Mat. 24:2).
They replied to him: “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” (vs. 3)
It’s quite plausible that they thought the destruction of the temple would also mean the end of history. They conflated these two events in their question to Jesus: “your coming” and “the end of the age.” They said this as if the two constituted a single event.
In his explanation, Jesus makes clear that these are two separate events. The end of the age would signal the final transition from the Old Covenant to the new. As the author of Hebrews says, “In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away” (Heb. 8:13). On the other hand, Jesus’ “coming” would inaugurate the Final Judgment at the end of history.
From verses 4 through 35, Jesus goes into great detail about the events that would lead up to the destruction of Jerusalem and the fall of the temple in AD 70 at the hands of the Roman army. This great calamity would occur in about 40 years from then. Anyone listening who was younger than 40 would probably live to see it. This is why he said “Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place” (vs. 34). He was warning his listeners about the coming judgment upon Old Covenant Israel so that they could escape: “So when you see the abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand), then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains” (vs. 15, emphasis added).
He also provides specific details about how quickly things will happen: “Let the one who is on the housetop not go down to take what is in his house, and let the one who is in the field not turn back to take his cloak” (vs. 17-18). He is clear: if you are on your roof and you see these signs, then you don’t even have time to go back into your house. Or if you are in the field, you better not even go back to grab your cloak.
Doing those things won’t take very long at all, but that short amount of time will make all the difference between life and death. Instead of going back into your house, flee Judea altogether.
In some sense, he provided enough information to let his audience know the day and hour that the end of the age would arrive. He gave them details about the progression of historical events: there would be false Christs, wars and rumors of wars, famines, earthquakes, and so on. Over the next 40 years, these events would play out. They were not the end, only a crumb trail leading to “the end.”
TRANSITION TO THE END TIMES
Three times Jesus referred to the destruction of Jerusalem as “those days” (vs. 19, 22, 29). This is contrasted with the sharp turn he takes in verse 36: “that day.” At that point, he transitions to a discussion about his Second Coming. The end of the age would be a long period of “days,” as opposed to the Second Coming which would be a single “day.” In contrast to the destruction of Jerusalem and the numerous historical sign posts he supplies (prophecies) leading up to that event, he is short and to the point: “…no one knows, not even the angels of Heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only” (vs. 36).
About His second coming, he says that it will be as the days of Noah: “For as were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of Man” (vs. 37)
This is where the explanation above goes astray. Jesus compares his “coming” to the days of Noah, but the explanation above compares what the world will be like at the second coming to the days of Noah.
We have to read carefully and without prejudice because it is easy to miss: Jesus is not talking about the state of humanity. He is talking about the suddenness and unexpectedness of his arrival. People will not be expecting it. They will be going about their normal lives, just as they were doing when the flood came in the days of Noah.
Whether the world will be almost totally corrupted or almost totally Christianized, this verse does not say. It simply says that the Second Coming will catch people unawares. There will be no announcement. There will be no wars or rumors of wars, or an abomination of desolation beforehand which will warn his believers that the Final Judgment is near.
It is also impossible to claim that when talking about “those days” or “that day and hour,” that Jesus is referring to the same event. If he were, he would be contradicting himself. When referring to “that day,” he says no one will know the day or the hour, but when he is talking about “those days,” he pretty well nails it down to the hour: you won’t even have time to go back into your house. Whatever’s going to happen, it’s likely that it will be within the next hour, or less time than it takes you to get your cloak.
This set of verses cannot be used to support whether the world will be in great shape (post-millennialism) or terrible shape (amillennialism or pre-millennialism). It simply talks about the swiftness at which Jesus’ coming will be, not the minds of the people living in the world.
SIMILAR BUT DIFFERENT
Luke 17 is remarkably similar to Matthew 24, but you have to be careful not to let those similarities make you jump to conclusions.
We ask the same question again: what’s the historical context?
The Pharisees had just asked Jesus when the kingdom of God would come (vs. 20). He tells them that there will be no grand entrance for the kingdom. Indeed, Jesus had already been preaching that the kingdom of God was near (Mat. 4:17). Then, he turned to his disciples and gives some interesting details about days to come. “The days are coming when you will desire to see one of the days of the Son of Man, and you will not see it” (Luke 17:22).
He then mentions things to come:
But first he must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation. Just as it was in the days of Noah, so will it be in the days of the Son of Man. They were eating and drinking and marrying and being given in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all. (vs. 25-27)
Here, he also refers to “that” day, but the context is different than in Matthew 24: the day when the Son of Man is revealed (vs. 30).
Just because he is speaking of “that day” in Luke, does not automatically mean he is talking of the same day he referred to in Matthew 24. In Matthew 24, he was talking about the Second Coming. Here, he is talking about the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. We know this because of the context he establishes:
On that day, let the one who is on the housetop, with his goods in the house, not come down to take them away, and likewise let the one who is in the field not turn back. Remember Lot’s wife. (vs. 31-32)
The day Jesus refers to in Luke 17 can’t be the final judgment because people will be in their fields or on their housetops. He tells them just what he told them in Matthew 24 when he was talking about the destruction of Jerusalem: don’t go back into your house, and run away from your fields.
Jesus recalls the story of Lot. But he isn’t emphasizing the people of Sodom. He wants you to focus on the act of Lot leaving.
What happened after Lot left Sodom?
It was destroyed.
Abraham had bargained with God before God rescued Lot. He asked God, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?” (Gen. 18:23) God said that he would spare the entire city of Sodom if he found 50 righteous within it.
Abraham didn’t have too much faith in that high number, so he steadily negotiated down the terms with God: 45? 40? 30? 20? 10?
The point was that God would not destroy the city for as long as a faithful remnant remained. But once the remnant was evacuated, God demolished the city.
Jesus was making a point: the residents of Sodom were unsuspecting and doing normal things like eating, drinking, buying, and selling. But there was a trigger: Lot leaving the city. Once Lot left, the world ended for those oblivious people left behind. Jesus said the destruction of Jerusalem would go the same way. People would be eating, drinking, buying, and selling, but once the faithful remnant, those disciples who heard his words, paid attention to the signals, and acted on them when the time came by heading for the hills, then the lives of all who were left behind would be destroyed. The faithful remnant left Jerusalem before the city was destroyed. The city wasn’t destroyed until the righteous were gone because God would not sweep away the righteous with the wicked.
He then told them to remember Lot’s wife, who looked back and was turned into a pillar of salt. Anyone who was in the field when the fighting began and turned back, or who was on their roof and went back for his goods, would be like Lot’s wife: they wouldn’t make it.
These two verses, though similar in content, are different in context. The verses from Matthew are talking about the Second Coming and the inauguration of the Final Judgment. The verses from Luke are about the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. Both would be sudden. But the remnant would know when the destruction of Jerusalem was near because Jesus gave them specific historical details.
Neither set of verses can be used to directly support one millennial view over another in the sense of what the world will be like when Jesus returns.
For that, a better place to look is Isaiah 65:17-25.