Stephen Hawking, the End of the World, and the Bible
This past Wednesday, March 14, one of the more brilliant scientists of our generation passed away. Stephen Hawking was 76 years old. In the immediate aftermath of his death numerous news services and blogs described his dire warnings to those of us who remain alive on Earth. Hawking believed that if certain changes aren’t made, the world as we know it will come to an end and life on earth will cease.
Among the many potential causes of the end of life on Earth noted by Hawking were such things as an asteroid strike and the emergence and eventual takeover by Artificial Intelligence. Hawking claimed that AI will soon reach a level where it will be a “new form of life that will outperform humans.” He even went so far as to say that AI may replace humans altogether, although he didn't specify a timeline for when his predictions might come to fruition.
Then, of course, there is the possibility of an alien invasion from another galaxy. Hawking also warned repeatedly that over-population could threaten human existence on Earth. To these many possibilities he added dramatic and destructive climate change brought on by unfettered global warming. Hawking was quoted as saying that unless some drastic steps are taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions “Earth will one day look like the 460°C (860°F) planet Venus.” His advice was that humans must begin to explore the possibility of “spreading out into space,” that is, seeking for possible ways to live on other planets.
I suppose one might add to Hawking’s list of potential catastrophic events a nuclear holocaust, perhaps instigated by North Korea or Russia or Iran.
What are we to make of this? Is Hawking correct in his predictions? As brilliant as the man obviously was, the answer is decidedly No.
Of course, there are others who insist that the world will never come to an end. Life on earth will simply continue to evolve and expand and develop with ever increasing technological sophistication. Life 10,000 years from now will be noticeably different, but human beings will still be here doing their thing, whatever that “thing” might be.
So, what does the Bible say? Does Scripture give us a hint as to whether the world will end, and if so, how? Yes, it does. Of course, as you already know, it doesn’t tell us what everyone really wants to know, namely, when will it end? That is a mystery that God has chosen to keep hidden within his own heart. But make no mistake about it: God, in Scripture, has very clearly told us how the world will end.
One more word of clarification about the so-called “end” of the world. In speaking this way neither the Scriptures nor I are suggesting that human existence on earth will ever end. What the Bible tells us is that human history in its present form or shape will come to an end. But God’s people will continue to live forever and ever on a new and redeemed earth, an earth that is free from pollution, free from corruption, free from natural disasters, free from the effects of sinful human beings, free from war and pestilence and disease, free from the presence of Satan and his demonic forces, an earth that will be glorified and transformed to serve as the habitation in eternity for those whom Jesus Christ has redeemed and saved by his cross and resurrection (for this, see Revelation 21-22).
So, if the Bible doesn’t tell us when this happen, what does it say about how it will happen? Aside from the wide variety of alternative beliefs about what will happen at the end of the age, I think I can sum up what most if not all Bible-believing followers of Jesus will agree on. Let me sum it up this way.
The Scriptures, and in particular the book of Revelation, tell us that there will be ever-increasing expressions of demonic activity, ever-increasing expressions of idolatry and immorality, and ever-increasing persecution of Christians by the world system that hates God and his truth. Eventually, at some point in the future, perhaps in our lifetime, perhaps not, Satan will orchestrate a global assault on the Church of Jesus Christ in one last-ditch attempt to crush the kingdom of Christ. But Jesus will return in the clouds of heaven and together with the angelic hosts and the multitudes of saved men and women will destroy his enemies and bring final and decisive judgment against those who have resisted, defied, and blasphemed his name.
As I said, Christians differ on a lot of other details about what will or will not happen in conjunction with the return of Christ, but most will agree on the basic truths that I just stated about how human history in its present expression will come to an end.
There are in the sixth and seventh bowl judgments in Revelation 16 two explicit portrayals of the end of the world. The text reads as follows:
The sixth angel poured out his bowl on the great river Euphrates, and its water was dried up, to prepare the way for the kings from the east. And I saw, coming out of the mouth of the dragon and out of the mouth of the beast and out of the mouth of the false prophet, three unclean spirits like frogs. For they are demonic spirits, performing signs, who go abroad to the kings of the whole world, to assemble them for battle on the great day of God the Almighty. (“Behold, I am coming like a thief! Blessed is the one who stays awake, keeping his garments on, that he may not go about naked and be seen exposed!”) And they assembled them at the place that in Hebrew is called Armageddon.
The seventh angel poured out his bowl into the air, and a loud voice came out of the temple, from the throne, saying, “It is done!” And there were flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, and a great earthquake such as there had never been since man was on the earth, so great was that earthquake. The great city was split into three parts, and the cities of the nations fell, and God remembered Babylon the great, to make her drain the cup of the wine of the fury of his wrath. And every island fled away, and no mountains were to be found. And great hailstones, about one hundred pounds each, fell from heaven on people; and they cursed God for the plague of the hail, because the plague was so severe.
In the OT God’s deliverance of his people was achieved by the drying up of the Red Sea which allowed them to escape Pharaoh’s armies. A similar phenomenon later occurred with the Jordan river, allowing Israel to enter the promised land. It may then be that “the drying up of the river Euphrates to allow the kings of the east to cross over it is the typological antithesis” of these earlier deliverances (David Aune, 2:891). The point is that whereas in these two OT cases the water is dried up to make possible the deliverance of God’s people from his enemies, in Revelation the water is dried up to facilitate the attack on God’s people by his enemies.
On yet another occasion, God’s judgment of historical Babylon in the 6th century b.c. was achieved by the diversion of the Euphrates River which allowed the armies of Cyrus to enter the city and defeat it (see Isa. 11:15; 44:24-28; Jer. 50:33-38; 51:13,36; an event corroborated by the secular historians Xenophon and Herodotus). God raised up Cyrus “from the east” (Isa. 41:2-4,25-27; 46:11-13), “from the rising of the sun” (41:25) and used him to destroy Babylon. It seems clear that the language of Rev. 16:12ff. is based on this familiar OT pattern which John now universalizes. That is to say, what happened to one nation (ancient Babylon) on a local and restricted geographical scale in the OT was a type or foreshadowing of what will happen to all nations on a global and universal scale at the end of history.
The imagery of kings coming from the east, from the vicinity of the Euphrates, was standard OT prophetic language for the enemies of Israel coming to invade and destroy. For those in the Roman Empire, the Euphrates River marked the boundary on the other side of which was their bitter enemy, the Parthians. But for the Jewish people the Euphrates served as the boundary across which their enemies would come, namely the Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian invaders On this see especially Isa. 5:26-29; 7:20; 8:7-8; 14:29-31; Jer. 1:14-15; 4:6-13; 6:1,22; 10:22; 13:20; Ezek. 38:6,15; 39:2; Joel 2:1-11,20-25; as well as Isa. 14:31; Jer. 25:9,26; 46-47 (esp. 46:4,22-23); 50:41-42; Ezek. 26:7-11.
The “kings from the east” therefore does not refer to the armies of Red China. It was a standard expression among the Jewish people for anyone that sought to invade and conquer Israel. You will notice that in v. 14 John refers to “the kings of the whole world” who assemble to wage war against God’s people. So, the “kings from the east” is simply his way of describing the global conspiracy just before Christ’s return in which Satan and his demons try to destroy the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Whereas v. 12 summarizes the sixth bowl, vv. 13-16 provide the details. Here again we see the unholy “trinity” of Satan, the beast, and the false-prophet (called that for the first time here). Their deceptive influence is portrayed through the imagery of three unclean, obviously demonic, spirits in the form or appearance of frogs, which obviously alludes to the frogs in the Exodus plague (8:1-15).
In ancient Jewish literature frogs were viewed not only as ceremonially unclean but also as agents of destruction. Beale suggests that “the frogs and their croaking represent the confusion brought about by deception” (832). That the frogs are metaphorical is seen from the fact that they “perform signs” (v. 14). In other words, these demonic spirits utilize supernatural phenomena to deceive and thereby influence humans to follow after the beast (cf. 13:11ff.). The primary target of their deception is the kings of the earth, i.e., political leaders and authorities who align themselves with the principles of the beast in opposition to God.
This is a clear and unmistakable reminder once again that the oppression and persecution of Christians all around the globe is energized and driven by Satan and his demonic hosts. But these demonic spirits do more than merely persecute the church. They work to orchestrate a conspiracy among the kings and leaders of all nations designed to utterly destroy the people of God.
In Revelation 16:14 they are described as gathering or assembling the kings and nations of the earth “for battle.” But that translation isn’t helpful. It is literally, “for the war” (cf. 19:19; 20:8). The use of the definite article (“the”) points to a well-known war, the final, end-of-history, eschatological war often prophesied in the OT between God and his enemies (cf. Joel 2:11; Zeph. 1:14; Zech. 14:2-14).
The place of this eschatological war is called Har-Magedon (v. 16). “Har” is the Hebrew word for “mountain.” This poses a problem for those who believe a literal battle at the literal site is in view, insofar as there is no such place as the Mountain of Megiddo.
Megiddo was itself an ancient city and Canaanite stronghold located on a plain in the southwest region of the Valley of Jezreel or Esdraelon. Although situated on a tell (an artificial mound about 70 ft. high), it can hardly be regarded as a mountain! The valley of Megiddo was the strategic site of several (200, according to Johnson, ) significant battles in history (see Judges 4:6-16; 5:19; Judges 7; 1 Samuel 29:1; 31:1-7; 2 Kings 23:29-30; 2 Chron. 35:22-24). It makes sense that the vicinity would become a lasting symbol for the cosmic eschatological battle between good and evil. As Robert Mounce accurately notes,
“geography is not the major concern. Wherever it takes place, Armageddon is symbolic of the final overthrow of all the forces of evil by the might and power of God. The great conflict between God and Satan, Christ and Antichrist, good and evil, that lies behind the perplexing course of history will in the end issue in a final struggle in which God will emerge victorious and take with him all who have placed their faith in him. This is Har-Megedon” (302).
To help you understand this, think about how we have come to use the words Gettysburg or Waterloo or Dunkirk to refer not simply to those specific battles but to any major time or event of great conflict, perhaps even a global war. Be it also noted that the plain around Megiddo was barely large enough for one army to occupy. It could hardly accommodate all the armies of the entire earth.
To put it simply, Armageddon is prophetic symbolism for the whole world in its collective defeat and judgment by Christ at his second coming. The imagery of war, of kings and nations doing battle on an all-too-familiar battlefield (Megiddo), is used as a metaphor of the consummate, cosmic, and decisive defeat by Christ of all his enemies (Satan, beast, false prophet, and all who bear the mark of the beast) on that final day. That, by the way, is how human history as we now know it will come to an end. It won’t be due to environmental catastrophes or a large meteorite or alien invasions but by the decisive and dramatic re-entrance into history of the King of the Universe, Jesus Christ!
Thus we see that demonic spirits will be unleashed in an unprecedented way at the end of the age to stir up and mobilize the leaders of all nations to unite their forces in an effort to crush the Church and to wipe Christianity from the face of the earth. But to no avail, as we shall see.
In the seventh bowl judgment (16:17-21) we see the imagery of “lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, and a great earthquake,” all of which points to the final, consummate judgment at the end of the age (see 8:5 and 11:19). Whether or not there will be literal, physical lightning, thunder, and an earthquake is basically irrelevant and unrelated to John’s point. After all, how could these natural phenomena cause the downfall and judgment of principles and ideas and unholy opposition in the souls of men to the things of God? John is describing the final judgment that will come against both individual and collective resistance to the kingdom of God and his Lamb. Typical of OT prophetic literature, he uses the imagery of geographical and astronomical upheaval to make the point.
The “great city” (v. 19) is neither historical Jerusalem nor Rome, but trans-historical “Babylon the great,” the trans-cultural, trans-temporal collective embodiment of all cities of the earth, together with every political, economic, philosophical, moral, religious, and sociological power-base that opposes Christ and his kingdom (cf. 17:18; 18:10,16,18,19,21).
Additional dissolution of the cosmos is described in v. 20, a passage that is strikingly similar to Revelation 6:14 and 20:11. Is this displacement of islands and mountains physically literal, or is it another example of prophetic hyperbole? Probably the latter. “Mountains” are often symbolic of evil forces and/or earthly kingdoms (cf. Jer. 51:25-26; Zech. 4:7) and “islands” often represent Gentile nations or kings (Pss. 72:10; 97:1; Isa. 41:1; 45:16; 49:1,22; 51:5; 60:9; Jer. 31:10; Ezek. 26:18; Zech. 2:11).
I should also point out, however, that “mountains” and “islands” here may be symbolic simply of the most stable features of the world, all of which are portrayed in the OT as being displaced, cast aside, shaken, moved, etc., as a result of the presence of the Lord and especially the manifestation of his judgments. See Judges 5:5; Pss. 18:7; 46:2-3; Isa. 5:25; 54:10; 64:1; Jer. 4:24; Ezek. 26:18; 38:20; Micah 1:4; Nahum 1:5; Hab. 1:6; Zech. 14:4. Few, if any, commentators would suggest that these OT texts describe literal or physical displacement or movement of mountains and islands. Why, then, would they insist on it here in Revelation?
In v. 21 the Exodus plague of hail is replicated, but with two significant changes: first, not merely one nation (Egypt) but the whole earth suffers from the plague, and second, the size of the hailstones is now said to be “one hundred pounds” (lit., “the weight of a talent”). Is this “hailstorm” (and the size of the stones) physically literal, as it was in ancient Egypt, or should it be interpreted symbolically as is the case in vv. 18-20?
In conclusion, it’s important that we consider the parenthetical declaration in Revelation 16:15 –
“Behold, I am coming like a thief! Blessed is the one who stays awake, keeping his garments on, that he may not go about naked and be seen exposed!”
One day you will stand in the presence of your Creator, the Triune God of Scripture: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. With what will you be clothed? Your righteousness? Your good works? Your good intentions? Do you honestly believe that anything you do in this life is sufficient to secure your place in God’s eternal kingdom? Do you honestly believe that the forgiveness of your sins will come based on your collective “good deeds”? No. Christians will stand in God’s presence then, even as we do now, clothed in the righteousness of Jesus Christ.
That can be yours today! Today, before you finish reading this article, you can be finally and forever clothed in the only righteousness that will avail in the presence of an infinitely holy God. Hear the words of the Apostle Paul, who spoke of his desire to “be found in him [that is, in Christ], not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness of God that depends on faith” (Phil. 3:9). I pray that would be your desire as well.
I don’t know whether Stephen Hawking ever availed himself of the righteousness of Jesus Christ that comes through faith to otherwise hell-deserving people. Most who knew him said he was not a believer in the existence of God. But as brilliant as he was, he was most assuredly wrong about how the world will end. It will end (or at least pass into its eternal phase with a new heavens and new earth) when Jesus Christ returns in the clouds of heaven to destroy his enemies and deliver his people. When he does, with what will you be clothed?