How will we know when we're living in the end times? There have been 'wars and rumors of wars' for a long time now. Will something on tomorrow's evening news tip the scales and usher in the apocalypse?
Greg Beale would say 'no!' From his perspective, Christians misread the Bible when they think that predictions about the 'last days' are exclusively future. He goes to great lengths to show that the 'end times' started a long, long time ago. It was a mere 40 days after Jesus' ascension that Peter announced to those witnessing the outpouring of the Holy Spirit that they were seeing the fulfillment of Joel's prophecy about the "last days" (Acts 2:17). Paul announced to the Corinthian church that they were those "upon whom the ends of the ages have come" (1 Cor 10:11). The New Testament writers clearly saw themselves as already living in the last days. From their perspective the coming of Christ was the great hinge of history that ushered in the kingdom of God. Beale points to 2 Corinthians 1:20 as one example of this line of thinking: "no matter how many promises God has made, they are 'Yes' in Christ" (NIV). Theologians have a fancy term for this - inaugurated eschatology. That simply means that because of Jesus the last days (eschaton in Greek) have already begun, but they are not yet complete. If we look around we can see evidence of all sorts of things that were expected at the end of time: wars, persecution, deception, people turning from the faith. There will be more to come, but it won't be substantially different from what we are already seeing.
So what difference does this make? If we understand ourselves to be living in the end-time kingdom of God our behavior takes on new significance. How we choose to live will determine how quickly His reign will extend to all nations! If these are the last days, then we need to be careful not to be deceived by doctrines that are attractive but dangerously false. The 'lawless one' predicted by Daniel was already at work in Paul's day (see 2 Thess 2:7), and we can be sure that those who want to undermine God's authority are operating in our own day as well.
This is just a taste of what I've learned in Dr. Beale's New Testament Theology course this semester (available for distance study through Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary's Semlink program). It's been a tremendously helpful class for me, providing a thoroughly biblical framework by which to understand the whole Bible. I highly recommend it! If you'd like to dive further into this subject without taking the course, I'd recommend the following two books: The Temple and the Church's Mission (Greg Beale, which I reviewed here) and The End of the Age Has Come (Marvin Pate). Both are very readable and together provide a great overview of biblical theology.