Jesus sat alone on the Mount of Olives; His gaze wandered over the ancient olive trees and burial sites. Then He stopped and looked toward Jerusalem, where earlier in the day He had pronounced—with great pain—seven woes on the religious leaders in the city. In a few moments, His inner circle arrived, cautiously arranging themselves around Him; their eyes darting back and forth to one another, each waiting to see who would ask the questions they had been arguing about.
Recently, Jesus had mentioned some catastrophic event that was coming. Would it come soon? Later? Was He predicting His own death? The end of the world? And what signs were they to look for in order to recognize these harbingers of a coming crisis?
Finally, one of them blurted out their questions: Jesus, tell us, “when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” (Matthew 24:3).
Before telling them what the specific signs would be, He gave them a blunt and unambiguous warning: “Watch out that no one deceives you. For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am the Messiah,’ and will deceive many” (verses 4, 5).
He said they would hear of wars, famines, and earthquakes but “see to it that you are not alarmed” because “the end is still to come” (verse 6); “many false prophets will appear and deceive many people” (verse 11). “So if anyone tells you, ‘There he is, out in the wilderness,’ do not go out; or, ‘Here he is, in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it” (verse 26).
You’ve probably heard the cliché “seeing is believing!” Jesus made it clear that false prophets and His impersonators would “appear and perform great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect” (verse 24).
Paul explained that these end-time deceivers won’t be harmless cranks. Rather, Satan and his demons will “use all sorts of displays of power through signs and wonders that serve the lie, and all the ways that wickedness deceives those who are perishing. They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie and so that all will be condemned who have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness” (2 Thessalonians 2:9–12).
Seeing is obviously not a reliable test of truth!
But surely, you protest, people who aren’t Christians may be deceived, but not Christian believers. They love the Bible, believe in its reliability, and lead their lives by the plain teaching of God’s Word.
That’s true of many, to be sure, but George Gallup and Jim Castelli say their research shows self-identifying Christians actually don’t read their Bibles much anymore and thus have become biblical illiterates!
You might wonder, “How bad is it?” According to one survey, less than half of adult Christians can name all four of the Gospels. Many can’t name more than two or three of Jesus’ disciples or half of the Ten Commandments.
In another survey, 12 percent reported that Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife. More than half of graduating high school seniors surveyed thought that Sodom and Gomorrah were a married couple. In one survey, a large number said they believed the Sermon on the Mount was preached by Billy Graham.
Eighty-two percent of Americans believe that the saying “God helps those who help themselves” is found in the Bible.
ignorance isn’t bliss; it’s deadly!
In spite of Jesus’ specific warning, the long road of Christian history is littered with human wreckage from people claiming to be Christ, who had thousands of followers—most of them sincere people—and many of these people followed their “messiahs” to their deaths! To be sure, many of these false christs were (and are) clearly psychotic, but that doesn’t account for all of them—or even most of them.
So why have countless numbers of people, both today and throughout history, been led to believe these charismatic Christ impersonators and false prophets, proclaiming themselves as Christ bringing on the end of the world?
First is the passage of time. It’s been almost 2,000 years since Jesus promised to return to earth, which may explain why He asked, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:8). And false messiahs play on this desire for Jesus to come by claiming, “I am he!”
Second, criticism of the Bible has demolished confidence in the authority and reliability of the Bible’s claims for many who used to be believers. Increasingly, as many surveys have disclosed, we live in a world of people who are ignorant about basic Christian knowledge.
Join the toxic effects of criticism of the Bible with the contemporary media’s portrayal of end-of-the-world dramas, and you come up with a poisonous brew that has all the magical special effects that lead people who believe in nothing to believe everything, including false messiahs!
Third, there’s a willful ignorance that can be corrected only by diligent thought and study, especially about critically important existential questions, such as Who am I? Where did I come from? What is my purpose in life? Does God exist, and if so, what does He expect from me? Is there life after death?
Every human being has heard the question that God put to Elijah: “What are you doing here?” (1 Kings 19:13). Refusing to confront these challenging questions and adopting an “eat, drink, and be merry” escapism is willful ignorance because at its core it’s a willful, intentional, and sometimes militantly aggressive kind of ignorance. It’s insidious when thrown in the face of believers because it comes packaged with clever evasions and rationalizations.
Paul makes no attempt to soften his harsh words when he explains why people are ignorant and easily deceived: “The coming of the lawless one will be in accordance with how Satan works. He will use all sorts of displays of power through signs and wonders that serve the lie, and all the ways that wickedness deceives those who are perishing. They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved” (2 Thessalonians 2:9, 10).
signs of Christ’s real coming
The texts already referred to point out the danger that false christs and false prophets present to believers and nonbelievers alike. But there are ways to avoid being condemned with those who worship Satan and his demons in disguise:
First, the Bible leaves no room for anybody to believe that Jesus will come secretly or quietly to a select few or to a specific location on Earth. Instead, He will make a profoundly dramatic appearance: “as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man” (Matthew 24:27).
Paul wrote that “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” (1 Thessalonians 4:16).
Second, we won’t have to rely on reports of Jesus appearing to a select few in isolated places, for the apostle John wrote, “ ‘Look, he is coming with the clouds,’ and ‘every eye will see him, even those who pierced him’ ” (Revelation 1:7; emphasis added). His coming will be so spectacular that “every eye” around the world will see Him at the same time.
Third, we need a personal relationship with Jesus. Only that personal relationship, built on prayer, Bible study, and worship with fellow believers, can hold everything else together. Jesus used the metaphor of sheep and a shepherd for clarity: “He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. . . . He goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. But they will never follow a stranger . . . because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice” (John 10:3–5).
We will be safe when Jesus comes as long as we follow His example in the wilderness, especially when we’re tempted to believe what some demonic and charismatic character claims. “It is written,” Jesus said, “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4; emphasis added).