Distress of Nations with Perplexity

By Gary Hedrick

And there will be signs in the sun, in the moon, and in the stars; and on the earth distress of nations, with perplexity, the sea and the waves roaring (Luke 21:25).

When the disciples asked Jesus when He would be coming back, He responded with a series of remarkable signs and trends' that He said would characterize the period immediately before His second coming. The Lord entered these reference points into the prophetic record so the terminal generation-that is, those of us who are alive on earth when the end-time drama commences-will be able to monitor the progression of events right up to the end of the age.

The apostle Paul wrote, "But you, brethren, are not in darkness, so that this Day should overtake you as a thief' (1 Thessalonians 5:4). Every generation of believers, like the first-century congregation at Thessalonica, has been admonished to be expectant and watch for the day of the Lord.

However, we have always known that only one generation would actually survive to witness these events firsthand. The Bible outlines a number of prophetic indicators that will be reflected in world conditions as the time of His return draws near. None of these indicators, by itself, is prophetically significant. They only become significant when they happen simultaneously, with unprecedented frequency and intensity. Jesus said, "So you also, when you see all these things, know that it is near-at the doors!" (Matthew 24:33, emphasis added).

Technically, because the rapture is an imminent event and is not associated with any specific prophetic sign, it can happen at any time. However, the prophetic trends Jesus said will characterize the world after the rapture, during the tribulation, will surely become evident even before this seven- year period commences. In fact, a trend, by its very nature, develops over an extended period of time. It does not happen suddenly.

The Olivet Discourse

Preterists and other nonmillenarians claim the Olivet prophecy was fulfilled in its entirety nearly 2,000 years ago when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in A.D. 70. Even references to the sun, moon and stars (Matthew 24:29; Luke 21:25), they say, are not literal but figurative. Interpreters such as John Gill point to obscure Jewish sources referring to the "sun" symbolically as the kingdom of the house of David, the "moon" as the Sanhedrin and the "stars" as the rabbis, or teachers of Israel. They suggest that the kingdom ("sun") was darkened, the Sanhedrin ("moon") stopped giving its light (for example, stopped handing down legal decisions) and the teachers of Israel fell from their positions of leadership-and it all happened in A.D. 70.

One problem with this approach is that it is simply not consistent with traditional Jewish interpretation. The Babylonian Talmud mentions the "sun, moon and stars" 13 times and in 11 of those instances it refers to literal heavenly bodies. The Soncino edition of the Talmud uses "sun, moon and stars" in a figurative sense only twice and neither of those references pertains to the Davidic kingdom, the Sanhedrin or the rabbis.'

Another problem is that the Olivet prophecy climaxes with the second coming of the Messiah: "Then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to happen, look up and lift up your heads, because your redemption draws near" (Luke 21:27,28). Who is naive enough to believe that Christ returned in A.D. 70? The Son of Man did not return to earth in power and glory, the Jewish people were not rescued and the promise of Zechariah 14:11, that Jerusalem would never again be destroyed, was not fulfilled. Quite to the contrary, the land was overrun by the Romans in A.D. 68-70, Jerusalem and the temple were burned to the ground, and the Jewish people were scattered to the four winds.

There is only one tenable position-that many elements of the Olivet Discourse await a future fulfillment during the coming tribulation period and subsequent return of the Messiah to planet Earth.

A World in Distress

One of the trends prophesied in the Olivet Discourse is "distress of nations, with perplexity." The Greek word translated distress comes from a verb meaning "to squeeze" or "to compress." In classical Greek, this word was used to describe a "cattle squeeze," a contraption whose sides could be pushed inward to hold an animal in position while the farmer administered medication.

This imagery from an ancient farm suggests an interesting analogy. As we approach the time of the end, the nations will be increasingly wicked and out of control. We see this even in the Old Testament messianic prophecies, including: "Why do the nations rage, and the people plot a vain thing? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and against His Anointed, saying, 'Let us break Their bonds in pieces and cast away Their cords from us"' (Psalm 2:1-3). So how does the Lord respond to this rebellion of the nations? David tells us, "He who sits in the heavens shall laugh; the LORD shall hold them in derision. Then He shall speak to them in His wrath, and distress them in His deep displeasure: 'Yet I have set My King On My holy hill of Zion"' (verses 4-6).

It is difficult to imagine a more appropriate description of the world today than the one presented in Psalm 2. David prophesies that the rulers of the earth will "take counsel together." All we have to do is look around us and see that there are more international organizations in the world today than at any other time in history. There are regional and global alliances, trade agreements, economic treaties, and on and on it goes. Yet the international community in our generation continues to be plagued by ethnic conflict, anarchy and colossal power struggles.

Unseen powers are at work behind the scenes that no one seems to understand. World leaders themselves are pawns in a global board game-a game in which their moves are orchestrated by people and organizations motivated by lust for power, position and monetary gain. There is no room for the Lord in the world's halls of power. The international scene, then, is evolving just as the prophets said it would. The Lord is allowing the nations to back themselves into a corner where the problems of the world seem overwhelming. This is the Lord's way of "squeezing" an out-of-control world and holding it tightly in place while He administers a sobering dosage of His wrath and judgment.

Getting Ready for the Anti-Messiah

One of the most mysterious characters mentioned in the prophetic Scriptures is the end-time political leader known as the Antichrist. Actually, this unusual title comes to us from the Greek New Testament, where it appears as antichristos (I John 2:18,22; 4:3; 2 John 7). The prefix anti means "against" or "opposed," and christos is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew mashiach, or "anointed one." So it literally designates someone who is diametrically opposed to God's Anointed One, the Messiah. In the Hebrew New Covenant, or Berith haChadashah, the Antichrist is known as Tzoror haMashiach, or Enemy of the Messiah.

The apostle John explains that a spirit of antichrist has been active in the world for at least 2,000 years: "Little children, it is the last hour; and as you have heard that the Antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come, by which we know that it is the last hour" (I John 2:18). Near the end of this age, a political leader will rise to prominence on the world scene. Although he is portrayed in Scripture as a very charismatic and persuasive individual, he will also be the very incarnation of evil. He will embody the pervasive spirit of antichrist that has been active since the first century. Since the prophets intimated that he would come from the same ethnic stock as the people who destroyed the temple in A.D. 70, we expect him to be a Roman or European (see Daniel 9:26). He will come from somewhere in the Mediterranean world, or roughly the geographical area that corresponds to the ancient Roman Empire.

This evil, end-time political leader is known by a number of biblical names, including the little horn (Daniel 7:8); a king with "fierce features" (8:23); "the prince who is to come" (9:26); the abomination of desolation (9:27; Matthew 24:15); "the man of sin" and "the son of perdition" (2 Thessalonians 2:3); "the lawless one" (2:8); "the beast" (Revelation 11:7; 13:1ff.); and, of course, "the Antichrist" (anti-Messiah) (I John 2:18).

In Christian eschatology, as well as in Jewish tradition, the Messiah is a divinely anointed Deliverer who comes to rescue His people, Israel, in the midst of a great military calamity. Once the enemies of Israel are vanquished, He establishes a worldwide kingdom of peace and prosperity for all nations: Now it shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the LORD's house shall be established on the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow to it.

Many people shall come and say, "Come, and let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; He will teach us His ways, and we shall walk in His paths." For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.

He shall judge between the nations, and rebuke many people; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore (Isaiah 2:24).

The anti-Messiah will oppose God's end-time program in every way he can. He will take steps to consolidate his own power base so he can bring the nations together and form a counterfeit kingdom. He will oppose God's King, Jesus Christ, by setting himself up as a king.

Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary explains the Greek derivation of the prefix anti and says it means "... of the same kind but situated opposite, exerting energy in the opposite direction, or pursuing an opposite policy." How interesting! According to Webster's, the prefix anti suggests something opposite, but still "of the same kind." The anti-Messiah and the true Messiah are both deliverers. They are both redeemers, and both are known as kings. But they have vastly different motives and opposing agendas. The true Messiah is led by the Spirit of God; the anti-Messiah is controlled by the forces of darkness. The true Messiah will establish God's kingdom on earth; the anti-Messiah will attempt to establish a satanic kingdom on earth.

How will the Antichrist elevate himself to a position where he wields so much political power on earth during the tribulation? There are several answers to this question. First, the Bible explicitly says the Antichrist will be supernaturally empowered by Satan. Describing his vision of the "beast," or Antichrist, the apostle John wrote, "The dragon [Satan] gave him his power, his throne, and great authority" (Revelation 13:2; cf. 12:9). Like the serpent in the Garden of Eden, he will be a Machiavellian character in every way-calculating, cunning and crafty.

Second, the Antichrist will possess extraordinary powers of oratory. The prophetic Scriptures tell us that "he was given a mouth speaking great things and blasphemies" (Revelation 13:5; of. Daniel 7:8,11,20,25; 11:36). He will be able to sway the masses with his engaging personality and convincing words.

Third, the Antichrist will be perceived as a miracle worker. The apostle Paul wrote, "The coming of the lawless one is according to the working of Satan, with all power, signs, and lying wonders, and with all unrighteous deception among those who perish, because they did not receive the love of the truth, that they might be saved" (2 Thessalonians 2:9,10). Prophetic scholars continue to debate the question of whether the Antichrist will have the ability to work genuine miracles. Will his "lying wonders" be nothing more than clever sleight of hand, perhaps using laser technology, holographic images or other deceptive techniques? It is a moot question, however, because the result is the same whether the miracles are genuine or not. Many people will assume that the Antichrist's miracle-working powers come from God. Unfortunately, they will be wrong (cf. Matthew 7:21-23).

Fourth, God will allow the Antichrist to possess these uncanny powers of persuasion and leadership. "And for this reason God will send them strong delusion, that they should believe the lie" (2 Thessalonians 2:11). Over and over again, John says "it was given to" the beast to do these remarkable things. In other words, he is permitted to carry out his tribulation program. God even allows him to "make war with the saints and to overcome them" (Revelation 13:7). It is true that the Antichrist's authority comes from the dragon, or Satan (verse 4), but we also know that all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Jesus Christ (Matthew 28:18). This means even the devil exercises authority only by the permissive will of Almighty God!

Fifth, the restraining influence of the Holy Spirit will be removed during the tribulation. The Holy Spirit lives in believers (1 Corinthians 6:19). So, when the church is caught up in the rapture (prior to the commencement of the tribulation), the Holy Spirit will also be removed. There will be no more "salt" or "light" left in this old world (cf. Matthew 5:13-16). In a very real sense, this will allow Satan and his minions full reign on earth. "And now you know what is restraining, that he may be revealed in his own time. For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work; only He who now restrains will do so until He is taken out of the way. And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord will consume with the breath of His mouth and destroy with the brightness of His coming" (2 Thessalonians 2:6-8).

Sixth, the international community will be prepared to accept a leader who demonstrates an ability to deal effectively with the world's mounting problems. As we enter the twenty-first century, the nations of the world are increasingly distressed and perplexed, just as Jesus prophesied in His Olivet Discourse. Economic and political problems, military emergencies, not to mention the worldwide expansion of Islamic fundamentalism and related security issues, will add to the frustration of world leaders. That is why they will be receptive to the Antichrist's message of "peace and safety" (1 Thessalonians 5:3).

Many Christians think of the Antichrist as a ruthless dictator who will seize power, enslave the masses and transform the world into a global police state. However, I think this is largely a misconception-at least in the beginning. The prophets compare the kingdom of the Antichrist to the ancient Roman Empire (Revelation 13:1; Daniel 7:23-25), and historians tell us that the empire was hardly a police state. There was a period of military conquest, obviously, but for much of its 1,000-year reign the Roman Empire was actually a relatively loose confederation of nations. The Romans often allowed local kings and rulers to remain in power and serve as governors. Nations were actually clamoring to join the empire because Roman citizens enjoyed many social, economic and political benefits not available to noncitizens.

The Antichrist, then, probably will not use gestapolike tactics to seize power. Instead, he will mesmerize the nations, like the snakecharmer from India who holds a cobra under his spell by playing a flute. The Antichrist's "flute" will be his silver-tongued oratory and uncanny ability to forge alliances and solve problems. Evidently, what puts the Antichrist on the map politically, at first, is a seven-year, comprehensive Mideast peace agreement that he arranges (Daniel 9:27). The agreement might include permission for Orthodox Jews to construct a temple on Mount Moriah, possibly in exchange for a Palestinian State in the West Bank. Whatever form the agreement takes, the Antichrist will no doubt will be acclaimed as a hero for succeeding where so many before him have failed. It is not difficult to imagine him being awarded the Nobel peace prize for such an achievement.

First, however, he will focus on consolidating his own base of power, which will very likely be in Europe. Again, many scholars conclude that he will arise from this part of the world because Daniel said the Antichrist would be descended from the same people who destroyed Jerusalem and the temple in A.D. 70 (Daniel 9:26)-namely Romans or Europeans. Furthermore, the Antichrist is portrayed by John as a beast "rising up out of the sea" (Revelation 13:1), a reference to the Mediterranean world and the geographical area occupied by the ancient Roman Empire.

Interestingly enough, our generation has seen the nations of this region coalesce into a United States of Europe. In fact, the prestigious financial publication Strategy and Business recently published an advisory under the title "Business Expectations and Strategy for the United States of Europe."' Skeptical readers should note that this information did not originate with religious fanatics delirious with millennial fever. The article's coauthors were Franco Modigliani, winner of the 1985 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science and professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Hossein Askari, director of the Institute for Global Management and Research and chairman of the International Business Department at George Washington University.

Here, in part, is what Modigliani and Askari reported to their clients in the global financial community: The economic size and significance of the 15 countries that make up the European Union are indisputable. The combined 1995 gross domestic product of these countries was estimated at $8.4 trillion, exceeding that of the United States ($7 trillion). This means that Europe is the largest single market on the face of the globe.

Effective January 1, 1999, 11 European Union (EU) member states adopted a common currency (known as the "euro") under an agreement that binds their economies irrevocably together. The euro will be gradually phased in until the transition is complete on January 1, 2002, making the union even stronger. Without question, the EU has become a world superpower in its own right. The Antichrist will likely use this platform (the EU) to launch his political career. From there he will use his negotiating skills and charisma to extend his influence, sway the masses and subdue his foes (Daniel 7:23,24). He will take advantage of deteriorating world conditions to maneuver himself into a position of global leadership.

Earth: A Planet in Trouble

The Earth Council is an international, nongovernmental organization (NGO) created in September 1992 "to promote and advance the implementation of the Earth Summit agreements. 114 These summits, held in 1992 and 1997 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, brought together leaders from more than 100 nations to discuss ways of advancing "the mutually reinforcing goals of sustainable development: environmental health, economic prosperity, social equity, and general well-being" for all the inhabitants of planet Earth. Yet the Earth Council acknowledges that it has made little headway in improving the planet's plight since the first summit in 1992. Here are the facts:

More than 100 nations are worse off today than they were 15 years ago. Some 1.3 billion people have daily incomes of less than $1, and 60 percent of humanity lives on less than $2 per day.

The gap between the richest and poorest 20 percent of the world's people has doubled over the past 30 years, from 30-fold to 60-fold. Approximately 1. 5 billion people live with dangerous air pollution; 1 billion live without clean water; and 2 billion without sanitation.

Eighty percent of direct foreign investment in the developing world goes to only a dozen countries, all classified as "middle income" with the exception of China. Just 5 percent goes to Africa and 1 percent to the 48 least-developed nations.

The debt burden on the developing world continues to mount, now reaching $2.1 trillion. Sub-Saharan Africa's debt payments are larger than its expenditures on health and education, even though 63 percent of adults in this region- currently more than 20 million people-are infected with HIV. Experts say this tragic AIDS epidemic is so pervasive and so advanced that entire populations are in danger of being wiped out.

Less than a quarter of the world's population consumes threequarters of its raw materials and produces 75 percent of all solid waste. A child born in the United States will have 30 times more impact on the earth's environment during his or her lifetime than a child born in India, according to the Earth Council's report.

The U.S. Center for Refugees reports that one of the critical issues of the twenty-first century will be the growing refugee crisis. Millions of families worldwide have been driven from their homes in areas ravaged by war and political turmoil.

Terrorism in the Twenty-First Century

Yet another problem the world faces as we enter the next millennium is that of global and domestic terrorism. Militant Islamic and other terrorist groups can strike without warning virtually anywhere in the world. While it is true that a majority of Muslim people, particularly Sunnis, do not endorse such deadly tactics, the unfortunate reality is that a sizable and very violent Muslim minority believes martyrdom during the course of carrying out a terrorist act is "the pathway to paradise."

Over and over again, the State of Israel has been the target of brutal and cowardly terrorist attacks. Radical Palestinian groups have indiscriminately murdered and mangled men, women and children by detonating pipe bombs on buses and in public places in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Libya has been linked to terrorism in various parts of the world, and so has Syria. Northern Ireland has suffered at the hands of terrorists for decades.

The bombing of the World Trade Center in New York City on February 26, 1993, showed that we are not safe from these attackseven on American soil. The mastermind of the bombing, Ramzi Yousef, confessed to the FBI that he "sought to punish the United States for its continued aid to Israel."' Yousef fled the country after the bombing, but was arrested in Pakistan in February 1995, and extradited to the United States. This was not his first brush with the law; he had previously been convicted for his role in a plot to create "48 hours of terror in the sky" by bombing a dozen U.S. passenger jets. Yousef allegedly said he hoped the blast in New York City would topple one tower on top of the other, which could have cost 250,000 lives.

On April 19, 1995, the attack on the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City by white supremacist, antigovernment terrorists shocked the nation yet again. In the deadliest mass murder in American history, 168 men, women and children perished. Apologists for the "Christian Patriot Movement" claimed the attack was in retaliation for the horrible extermination of the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, two years earlier to the day, by out-of-control government agents.

In February 1998, two men were arrested in a Nevada medical laboratory and charged with possessing a biological agent-in this case, anthrax-for use as a deadly weapon. According to law enforcement authorities, the pair may have planned to release the substance in the New York City subway system. One of the men allegedly had bragged about having enough anthrax to wipe out much of the population of New York City.

Experts say the threat of biological terrorism is very real. Somewhere, sooner or later, it will happen, and we are not ready: "A monumental task lies before us," Dr. D.A. Henderson told the International Conference on Emerging Infectious Diseases.

Biological agents are the ultimate "stealth" weapons-invisible and virtually undetectable. Scientists said easily obtained materials could be used to unleash pandemics of ebola, anthrax and smallpox, and the world's nations, including the United States, are not fully prepared for such an event.

"The specter of the biological weapon's use is an ugly one, every bit as grim and foreboding as the picture that has been painted of a nuclear winter," said Henderson, of the Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health. "It is not 'if' but 'when'... and I hope we're going to be prepared.

Needed: A Man with a Plan

Occasionally, we hear someone say, "We don't need a Messiah. Humankind can pull itself up by its own bootstraps. We haven't done all that badly so far." Tell that to a child in Africa who has lost his entire family to AIDS, lives on the streets, and whose belly is swollen from malnutrition. Tell it to a mother and father in the former Soviet Union who have lost their factory jobs and cannot buy food or clothing for their kids. Tell it to the young children of a mayor in South America who was gunned down, along with his wife, by drug smugglers while corrupt law enforcement officials looked the other way. Tell it to Palestinians and Israelis in the Middle East who are tired of living in the cross fire of hostile factions on both sides.

The evidence is clear: This old world is in trouble. (See the following chart, "Prelude to the Tribulation.") Increasingly there is a sense of desperation and frustration among the nations as one political scheme after another is doomed to failure. Any leader who can offer substantive solutions to the world's many problems will be enthusiastically received and hailed as a great deliverer or messiah. This is what the prophets said long ago, and it could happen in our generation.