In the early years of a new century and a new millennium, many of us wonder: What does the future hold? What will the next hundred years, or the next thousand years, be like?
Some futurists say we'll be establishing colonies on Mars, we'll have telephones that fit into a piece of jewelry, and we'll be swallowing microrobots that do surgery on internal organs. With predictions about various gizmos and gadgets, however, a more basic prediction of overall trends sees machines becoming more like people and people becoming more like machines.
Already robots have replaced humans in many jobs, and computers have become so skilled in strategy that they can defeat the human chess champion of the world. Some futurists predict a day when robotic computers will use artificial intelligence to improve themselves and perhaps think for themselves and even reproduce themselves. What will these machines be like? Well, optimists foresee machines that serve as expert assistants or even personal friends. Pessimists foresee machines that could turn against people and try to destroy us. But whether these thinking machines turn out to be good or bad, machines behaving like people will no longer be science fiction in books and movies. They will be reality, according to some futurists.
Ironically, as computers become more like people, the reverse will also be true: people will become more like computers. People will more and more be what they are programmed to be. Already giant research projects have mapped the genes that produce each inherited trait. As the genes are mapped out, and with advances in gene splicing, "designer babies" may become reality. Parents—or, if parenting became obsolete, the government—could program a child's gender, size, strength, eye color, intelligence level, and so forth, and make sure there is no genetic risk of cancer or alcoholism or mental defects.
Meanwhile, as research into the brain keeps advancing, it may be possible to read the way people think and feel, and even to control how they think. Scientists would then be able to program people the way they program computers. Would the result be a paradise of perfect humanity, or a hell of inhumanity?
Thinking about the future can be fascinating, but before we get too enthusiastic or too frightened about what lies ahead in this century and millennium, we need to realize that it's often misleading to base predictions about the future on current trends.
A trend that seems headed in a certain direction may well reach a barrier that can't be crossed. Attempts to give computers a personality may run into a wall. No matter how much technology advances, the best a robotic computer can ever do is to simulate personality, not actually become a person. Also, efforts to decode human behavior and reprogram it are bound to fail. No matter how much we learn about genetics or brain chemistry, we'll never be able to reduce people to machines. People will always be more than the sum of their DNA, brain waves, and environment. Creatures in God's image will always be more than mere machines.
Another problem with using current trends to predict the future is that the future is usually full of surprises that no one can predict in advance. Think back to the year 1900. Who could have predicted at the start of the last century all that has happened since? Back then there were no radios or TV's, no computers or internet or smart phones. Now we live in the information age. Back then there were no expressways, no mass production of cars, no airplanes, no birth control pill, no atomic bomb, no understanding of DNA or gene splicing. If someone 100 years ago had tried to predict the future based on what was happening at the time, he would have failed miserably.
And even if someone had managed to predict the inventions and innovations, who could have predicted the individual people who would shape the world? At the start of the 1900s, no one could anticipate the impact of Einstein or Lenin or Churchill or Hitler or Gandhi or Hugh Hefner or Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela or Osama bin Laden. Individual people can change the course of history in ways that none of us can predict in advance. And so as we look into the century ahead and the next thousand years, current trends may not tell us much.
The present doesn't always tell us much about the future. But, strange as it may seem, the future can sometimes tell us a lot about the present. How can that be? Well, with the help of the Bible, it's possible to know the future. The Bible doesn't tell us everything about the future, but it does show us the forces that will dominate at the end of history, and it shows us what the final outcome of history will be. The Bible tells us how the story ends, and that helps us to understand each chapter along the way, including the chapter we're living in right now.
Revelation 12 records a vision of a great red dragon, which is none other than Satan himself (12:9). In the vision, the dragon is waiting for a woman to give birth to her child, and he intends to devour the child. But instead, the child is delivered from the dragon’s clutches and caught up to heaven. Then there is a great war in heaven between the dragon's evil angels and the angels of heaven. The dragon's forces are defeated, and he is cast out of heaven. Somehow, the birth of the child and his ascension to heaven have empowered the forces of heaven to defeat and expel the dragon.
At this point of the vision we're not yet looking into the future. Instead, the Bible is giving us a behind-the-scenes picture of events that have already happened. The birth of Jesus Christ, his victory over death, and his ascension to the throne of God have defeated Satan. The forces of God have already won a great and decisive triumph.
But that's not yet the end of the story. The dragon is defeated but not yet destroyed; he is wounded but not dead. And a wounded dragon is dangerous. Revelation says, "Woe to the earth and the sea, because the devil has gone down to you! He is filled with fury, because he knows that his time is short."
Sometimes, when you see horrible things happening, you might think that Satan is winning. But is he? Satan is ferocious, not because he's winning, but because he has already lost and he's furious about it. Jesus has already won the decisive battle through his death and resurrection, and all Satan can do is try to cause as much trouble as he can in the time he has left.
With that picture in mind, let's look at the forces of the future and see what they tell us about the present. After Satan's defeat in Revelation 12, the dragon himself stays mostly in the background, and he uses three other beings to do his dirty work.
Triple Trouble: Beast, False Prophet, Prostitute
The first part of Revelation 13 introduces us to a beast who rises up out of the sea. This beastly figure is the one described in other parts of the Bible as "the man of lawlessness" (2 Thessalonians 2:3) or "the antichrist" (1 John 2:18).
The antichrist will be a political ruler. He will take control of the world and establish one world government. His power will be an extension of the power of Satan himself, and most people will be unable to resist. Revelation says, "Men worshipped the dragon because he had given authority to the beast, and they also worshipped the beast and asked, "Who is like the beast? Who can make war against him?" Anyone who doesn't submit to the antichrist and worship him—and this includes all who belong to Jesus—will be hunted down and killed.
As if that weren't bad enough, the antichrist will have a henchman. Revelation says, "Then I saw another beast, coming out of the earth. He had two horns like a lamb, but he spoke like a dragon" (13:11). In other words, this second beast tries to appear like the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ, but he's a fake. He doesn't speak the word of God; his words are those of the dragon, the devil. Elsewhere the book of Revelation refers to this second beast as "the false prophet" (16:13, 19:20, 20:10). The false prophet has one aim: to deceive people and get them to worship the antichrist. Revelation 13 says the false prophet performed great and miraculous signs, even causing fire to come down from heaven to earth in full view of men. Because of the signs he was given power to do on behalf of the first beast, he deceived the inhabitants of the earth. He ordered them to set up an image in honor of the beast.... He was given power to give breath to the image of the first beast, so that it could speak and cause all who refused to worship the image of the first beast to be killed. He also forced everyone, small and great, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on his right hand or on his forehead, so that no one could buy or sell unless he had the mark of the beast or the number of his name.
This calls for wisdom. If anyone has insight, let him calculate the number of the beast, for it is man's number. His number is 666.
Now, some details of this vision are hard to understand, but one thing is clear: near the end of time, false religion will unite with a brutal global government. The false prophet will spearhead this effort. With his cunning words and flashy miracles, the false prophet will be the ultimate in religious deception. He will hook up with the first beast's powers of persecution, killing those who reject the beast and making it impossible to buy or sell without the code of the antichrist.
A bit later, Revelation introduces us to a third force of the future: a prostitute by the name of Babylon. This prostitute Babylon, says Revelation, "is the great city that rules over the kings of the earth" (17:18). At the time Revelation was written, the great ruling city was Rome. Going back to the Babylonian empire, and even further back to the tower of Babel, Babylon in the Bible represents human culture and civilization united in opposition to God. In Revelation the prostitute Babylon does not symbolize any one person, but an entire civilization with enormous powers of seduction. Revelation 17:4 says, "With her the kings of the earth committed adultery and the inhabitants of the earth were intoxicated with the wine of her adulteries."
The images of sex and drunkenness have a literal dimension—all big cities wallow in such things, the Roman Empire did, and the ultimate evil civilization will, too—but the Bible says that the prostitute's main method of seduction is money. She is the center of world trade and finance and commerce and culture, and people are willing to do almost anything with her if only she will give them a piece of her wealth. The prostitute Babylon is the capital of a worldwide civilization that is obsessed with money. Under the spell of Babylon, the people and leaders of the world care about just one thing: the economy. Everything has a price. Everything is for sale, even the bodies and souls of people (Revelation 18:13). This seductive, money-oriented civilization will eventually come under the control of the antichrist and serve his purposes.
So then, Revelation shows us three evil forces of the future who are in league with the devil. The beast, or antichrist, is the ultimate in political persecution. The false prophet is the ultimate in religious deception. The prostitute is the ultimate in cultural seduction.
Is the End Near?
When we think about these forces of evil that will dominate the last chapter of human history, many of us can't help wondering whether the world we're living in is ripe for the end. It's not hard to imagine a scenario where one person would rule the world in the near future. We already see more and more globalization in world economics and politics. All it would take to bring us to a single world government would be a military crisis involving nuclear weapons, or a worldwide environmental crisis, or a collapse of currencies and a global depression, in which one man seemed to have all the answers.
It's not hard to imagine the rise of the false prophet in our current setting, either. Imagine a smooth talking religious leader with the power to make fire fall from heaven and do other dazzling signs and wonders that had no scientific explanation—and imagine all of this broadcast on live television to viewers around the world. Secularists would be so shocked at a genuine miracle that they'd fall down and worship without bothering to ask whether the miracles and teaching were from God or from Satan. Meanwhile, New Agers and spiritists would hail the false prophet as a source of spiritual power and self-realization.
And what about the power to control buying and selling? Well, it's easy enough to see how that could happen. Most of the technology is already in place. We already have electronic scanning systems and computerized credit checks. There is already information about each of us in all sorts of different computers owned by governments and business, and that information is becoming more and more connected by means of the Internet. Now imagine a future where all that data is merged into one computer network, where all payments are made electronically after a credit check by one central computer, and where if a credit check identified you as a Christian, you would be denied the right to buy or sell anything. Imagine a computer scanner which would respond only to a certain code, and the only way to be marked with that code would be to serve the antichrist. Not hard to imagine, is it? We already have the technology.
The rise of a global antichrist and false prophet seem all too possible, and as for the prostitute Babylon, the final corrupt civilization, it's already most of the way here. How could the final world civilization get any more sex-crazed, drug-and-alcohol infested, or money hungry than the society we're in right now? The world seems ripe for the evil forces of the future described in the Bible.
Future Forces Acting Now
It's interesting—and frightening—to speculate and to wonder how long it will be until these visions come true. But the Bible doesn't tell us these things just to fuel our speculation. Many times in the past there have been people who felt sure that the end was near or that a particular person was the antichrist, but they were mistaken and the end of the world did not come. In the same way, we may think that the times are ripe for the end, but we could very well be mistaken. It may turn out to be many years, even many centuries, before history reaches its final chapter. But even if the forces of the future don't reach their final and most frightening form for a long time, we need to know about them because they are at work in our world right now.
A final antichrist will appear at some point, says the Bible, but Scripture also says that there are many antichrists at work in the world already (1 John 2:18). So don't get so busy wondering about the final antichrist, or the final false prophet, or the final seductive civilization, that you don't see the antichrists, false prophets, and seductions all around you.
Satan's methods are much the same now as they will be in the future: persecution, deception, seduction. The only difference is that those forces will be more intense at the end of history when all restraints are briefly taken away. The Bible isn't just fueling our speculation about the end time when it shows us what Satan will do in the future. It shows us the future so that we'll have a much clearer idea of the methods Satan is using right now.
Satan's first method, persecution, isn't just a future possibility. It's present reality. Whether or not the final antichrist appears in our lifetime, it's a fact that in many different parts of the world, there are already martyrs dying for Christ each year. And even where faith won't cost you your life, Satan uses peer pressure, disadvantages in finance and business, and other forms of persecution and intimidation to keep you from following Jesus.
Satan's second method of attack, religious deception, is also very much present. Even if we haven't yet encountered the ultimate false prophet, there are plenty of false prophets with us, people who deny the truth of the Bible, reject the claims of Jesus Christ, promote corrupt moral teaching, and plunge people into ruin and destruction.
Satan's third method, cultural seduction, is also at work right now. Whether or not our civilization qualifies as the ultimate Babylon, the forces of seduction are all around us. It's almost impossible to pass through your teenage years without being offering drugs or liquor; casual sex is the order of the day; magazines, movies, and music are saturated with sex. We're surrounded by a consumer culture which sucks us into an obsession with making money and finding new ways to spend it. Even if we're not living in the final Babylon, we need to be alert to the ways in which we are being seduced right now by this corrupt society.
Ultimate Force of the Future
Evil forces of the future are at work in the present. So how can you resist? Only by being in touch with the ultimate force of the future. The book of Revelation says that just when the antichrist, the false prophet, and the prostitute society seem irresistible, just when it appears Satan has won, the ultimate force of the future will ride onto the scene. Revelation 19 says,
I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and makes war... The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean... On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written: KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS.
This is a vision of the Lord Jesus Christ himself, returning to destroy his enemies and establish his eternal kingdom on earth.
Earlier we saw that Jesus decisively defeated Satan by dying for our sins and rising again from the dead and ascending to heaven, and we saw that Satan is just a wounded dragon living on borrowed time. Now, in Revelation 19, we see Jesus returning to earth to finish off the devil and his cronies.
As Jesus and his armies ride forth, the beast and the false prophet and the people who follow them gather to fight back, but their end is swift and terrible. The beast and the false prophet are captured and thrown into the fires of hell. All the people who followed the antichrist and the false prophet and gave in to the seductions of Babylon, are condemned. Finally, Satan himself is crushed. He and all his demons are cast into the lake of fire. There, says the Bible, "They will be tormented day and night forever and ever." So much for the power of evil.
That's why it's important to know the end of the story. You may look around you and think that it makes more sense to give in to evil than to follow Jesus, but when the forces of the future clash, evil is the loser, and Christ is the winner. The evil forces of the future will melt away before the vast, unimaginable force of the rider on the white horse. Jesus Christ will reign supreme. Those who put their faith in Jesus and resist the powers of evil will be delivered by God and will enjoy forever the splendor of the Lord's new creation.
I've said that the evil forces of the future are already at work in the present, even if the final evil and tribulation isn't yet upon us. But let me emphasize something far more important: the holy and divine force of the future, the saving power of Jesus, is also at work right now, even if his Second Coming isn't yet upon us. The Holy Spirit of Jesus is at work today, drawing his people toward their final destiny. The gospel of salvation through faith in Jesus continues to spread throughout the world, rescuing millions from the clutches of Satan, guarding their souls and giving them strength to resist the forces of intimidation and deception and seduction. The gospel of Christ is riding forth constantly, and when it has reached all nations and the Lord has brought all his chosen ones to faith, the end will come and Jesus will return and complete his victory.
Meanwhile, the Lord calls us to live our present lives in light of what we know about the future. He shows us Satan's strategies, not so that we'll be frightened or overwhelmed, but so that we'll be alert to what the devil is doing, and so that we will trust in the Lord Jesus Christ and take sides with him. There's a lot we don't know about the future. We don't know which trends or what people will have the greatest impact. But we do know this: a battle is brewing, the final battle between the forces of evil and the power of the Lord. That future battle is simply the last conflict in a war that is going on right now, a war in which the forces of the future are already exercising their power. Which forces are controlling you? Which side are you on? Are you giving in to the sidekicks of a fierce but doomed dragon? Or are you marching in the armies of the victorious Christ? Don't let another day go by before you trust Jesus as your rescuer and obey him as your commander.