Speaking of “the end” and his Second Coming, Jesus said, “No one knows about that day or hour…,” yet his warning has not dampened thousands of prophecy buffs who claim they do know. For over two thousand years there has not been a single generation void of predictors calling for “the end” and weaving elaborate scenarios full of numbers, scriptures, historical dates and current events to support their claims. Their accumulated predictions, however, resemble a junkyard full of old rusting crashed and mashed cars. How could so many sincere believers get it so wrong? Is there something about the nature of biblical prophecy they didn’t understand? Prophetic preachers fill the airwaves and their books crowd the shelves of Christian bookstores, yet they persist in following the same failed approach toward understanding biblical prophecy.

October 23, 1844

“This was to have been the first day in heaven. Instead,
the Advent believers found themselves still chained to earth, reeling in shock
and grief—the laughingstock of a jeering world. The Bible, they were utterly
certain, had said Jesus would return on October 22. He hadn’t.”[1]

            This event was called “The Great
Disappointment” and marked the collapse of William Miller’s (1782-1849) dynamic
advent movement. Miller had studied the Bible and calculated its codes and
concluded that the second coming would occur in the twelve months following
March 1843, then shifting the fateful date to October 22, 1844.

            Tens of thousands of Christians withdrew from
their churches to await the predicted Advent. Many abandoned homes, crops,
animals, given away their money, and closed their stores (one sign read, “This
shop is closed in honor of the King of Kings who will appear about the 20th
of October”), and were bitterly disappointed. “We wept and wept,” remembered one
of them, “till the day dawn.” The Seventh-day Adventist church was one of six
organizations that grew from what remained of Miller’s shattered movement.

            Although Miller’s failed prophecy is one of the
best known modern examples of gambling and losing by date-picking, he is just
one of many hundreds of leaders over centuries whose prophecies ended up in the
pit.

I’ve been a serious student of
prophecy for almost fifty years and I’ve seen predictions made and predictions
fail…including some of my own. Early on I believed we could know the actual date
the great tribulation would begin (1972) and when Christ would return (1975). I
was dead wrong as were other sincere folk following equally sincere but
misguided leaders.

My epiphany arrived about forty
years ago. I realized there was more to prophecy than interpreting symbols,
playing with numbers, looking at current events and coming up with a scenario.
Since that epiphany I have continued studying prophecy seeking to comprehend it
and learn why I and others so easily stumble in our understanding of biblical
prophecy.

It was some consolation to learn
that my errors in prophetical understanding were more common than rare. Fiascos
like that of William Miller’s Advent movement litter church history like leaves
in a fall windstorm. We will illustrate a few other examples of missed dates and
prophecies prior to Miller’s blunder. An exhaustive listing of failed
predictions would require several books.


When Is The End?     
      

There was a continual parade of would-be-Christs and
apocalyptic movements in the centuries preceding the birth of Jesus. The NT
mentions some of these and history completes the picture. In the first century
A.D. especially, there was great expectation of prophetical fulfillment and
Jesus became the focus of much of it.

The apostles were caught up in
the expectation that the Messianic Age would dawn in their lifetimes and Jesus
didn’t do much to discourage them. When pressed for specific times, however, he
gave parables about being spiritually ready lest one be caught by surprise and
unprepared. Near the end of his ministry he plainly stated “No one knows about
that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, or the Son, but only the
Father” (Mt 24:36). Amazingly, Jesus included himself as among those who did not
know the date of either his return or the end of the world.

            On the other hand, believers were supposed to
“watch” for it and be ready (Mt 36:42, 44; 25:13). That was an invitation to
endless speculation—but it also engendered a sense of expectation and urgency.
Jesus had offered signs to consider: wars, pestilence, the rise of evil, etc.
His “Little Apocalypse” of Mark 13 in conjunction with Daniel, Ezekiel, and
the Book of Revelation present a host of portents for the faithful to “watch.”

            “All ages are marked by perils, lawlessness,
social disorders and upheavals, breakdown of morality and family, perils,
turbulence and troubles that can serve as signs and stimulate expectations. They
are portents; and there are always portents, always apocalyptic apprehensions,
always fears and hopes to suggest millennial themes. Joining pessimism and
optimism together, the millenarian message is infinitely adaptable to the
circumstances of every age.”[2]

            In the decades following Jesus’ resurrection
and exaltation to the Father’s side, the apostles began to understand that the
End would not occur in their lifetimes. They encouraged the believer to remain
fast in the faith to the end of his life in the sure hope he would be raised to
meet his returning Savior in the air. But there is not a hint that they
understood the End to be at least 2000 years in the future. It may not come in
their lifetimes, but they believed it was still imminent.

There appears to be divine wisdom
at work here in keeping the End unknown. For centuries belief in the Second
Coming—the end of evil, the resurrection, and the millennium—was the answer to
persecution. Belief that it was imminent brought hope and comfort in the midst
of danger, suffering and pain. For the persecuted and martyrs it was a vision of
encouragement like that experienced by Steven as he was being stoned to death
(Acts 7:56).

            In the centuries following the apostles
believers struggled with the same question, “How long O’ Lord?” They poured over
the same scriptures and tried to make sense of them in light of the world
conditions pressing upon them. There were, of course, fraudulent Christians
using prophecy to gain a private following (we have those today), but I suspect
most were sincere and able ministers, priests, scholars and lay leaders who
really believed in the prophetical schemes and time tables “revealed” to them.
They were products of their learning and of their times.

The purpose of Christian
chronology has ever been to date not the beginning but the End. As long
as the End could be placed on the temporal, near horizon, chronology could serve
the church, and from the second Christian century onward, the favored distant
date for the End was 6000 annus mundi (A.M.), the year of the world or
since creation.

 There were various dating
systems in use throughout the empire, from the Greek Olympiad dating, dating
from the founding of Rome in 753BC, dating in relation to the reign of
particular emperors, and others. The Jewish calendar measured the years from
creation. Christians began to use annus mundi calculations to look toward
the millennium and pegged its beginning date to what was thought at the time to
be the date of creation.

Anno Domini (A.D.), or “in
the year of the Lord”, is the chronological designation most commonly used today
to list years after the supposed birth year of Jesus (the actual birth year is
probably 2-4 B.C., or years “before Christ”). This numbering system was
introduced in the 500s by the monk Dionysius Exiguus, but didn’t come into
general use in Europe until about the eighth century.


Prophecies Shall Fail

Chronology has never been, and is not now, an exact science
as the track record of calendar adjustments and failed predictions attest. A
short list of prophecy blunders might include the following:

n A Phrygian
prophet named Montanus (about 172 A.D.) proclaimed himself the Holy Spirit
incarnate, said the Last Judgment was at hand, and asserted that John’s
prophesied New Jerusalem would soon descend in Phrygia (West-Central modern
Turkey). His teachings spread throughout much of the Roman world.

n Tertullian of
Carthage (160-220) looked favorably upon the Montanists until the teaching was
condemned later in the third century by various synods and by Pope Zephyrinus.

n The great
church father Origen (185-254) who headed theological schools at Alexandria and
Caesarea, while not a Gnostic (Gnostics rejected notions of an earthly Kingdom
of God), was a Neoplatonist who sought to synthesize Christian belief and Greek
philosophy. He attacked Montanism as heresy and taught that all prophecies
should be interpreted allegorically: Antichrist symbolized evil; the thousand
reign of righteousness was a spiritual reality achieved in the souls of
believers, etc. He ridiculed those who tried to take prophecy literally say they
were “refusing the labor of thinking.” Origen, however, took Matt 19:12
literally and castrated himself making himself “a eunuch for the Kingdom of
Heaven’s sake.”

n Augustine
attempted to lesson the effect of “end of the world” speculations by making the
apocalyptic a part of everyday life and belief by embedding it in liturgy and
preaching, thus distancing prophecy from a literalist reading and notions of an
earthly millennium. He discouraged those trying to count the years to the end of
the world, admonishing them to “relax your fingers and give them a little rest.”
The Council of Ephesus in 431 condemned millennialism and Bible translators from
Jerome to Erasmus expressed doubt that Revelation should even be retained in the
canon.

n Augustine’s
prohibitions could no more keep his generation from calculating the end than for
those who lived in the days of the apostles. In 410, when Alaric’s Goths sacked
Rome, too many Christians held that “from Adam all the years have passed…and now
come the Day of Judgment.” The mid-fifth century, Vandal invasions recalled
calculations that the world would end in the year 500 A.D., 6000 years after
Creation, and spurred new calculations to show that the name of the Vandal king
Genseric represented 666: the number of the Beast.[3]

n The
calculation of the year 666 inspired a host of apocalyptic speculation and dread
as did the year 800. For many Charlemagne’s coronation, by revised calculations,
occurred in 801 A.D. and corresponded to the year 6000 A.M. (from creation of
the world) signaling the beginning of the millennium.[4]

n End time
speculation reached it greatest fervor as the year 1000 approached. Apocalyptic
concerns dominated much of the thought in Christendom. Prophets and prophecies
abounded creating both expectation and dread. Recalculations stirred up new
apocalyptic fears in the years 1001, 1010, and 1033.  Once it became obvious
that the end was not yet, a Christian church and basilica building boom began.
Many of those great edifices remain to this day.

n For a few
years in the 1530s, the little town of Münster in Germany, with its ten thousand
citizens, was heralded the New Jerusalem of a Thousand-Year Reich, ruled by a
prophet in his twenties: John of Leiden. Like other true believers of his time,
John was a millenarian (chiliast) who was convinced that the world was about to
end in terrible torments, followed by the millennial rule of the saints. He
proclaimed himself King of Zion, instituted a theocratic reign of terror and
polygamy, abolished private ownership of money and goods, banned all books but
the Bible. He and his New Jerusalem were besieged by unconvinced countrymen,
John was captured, tortured, put to death and hung up with his companions as an
object lesson to millenarians to come.[5]
History testifies that the lesson has not been learned as we witnessed with
David Koresh and the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas.

n “The index of
Mgr. Ronald Knox’s study of religious Enthusiasm (1950) lists ten dates
between 1260 and 1834 when a Second Coming was expected; and any diligent
researcher could easily add ten hundred more.” (Apocalypses by Eugen
Weber, p. 28)

n Labeling
various political and religious leaders “Antichrist” became common. In 1239 Pope
Gregory IX attacked Emperor Frederick as the “Beast arising from the sea”, one
of the traditional symbols of the Antichrist. Frederick responded calling the
pope the angel from the abyss. The apocalyptic insults continued labeling pope
Innocent IV the “true Antichrist!” since Innocencius papa equaled the
numerical total of 666.[6]

n The Black
Death that killed off half the population of Europe was seen by many as a
fearsome sign of the End generating additional apocalyptic speculations.

n The centuries
following the Reformation spawned renewed apocalyptic forecasts and an army of
doomsday sects arose.

n Readers of
Nostradamus know that he expected the end of the world in 1886, give or take a
few decades.

n Both the year
1900 and the year 2000, the dreaded Y2K, were targets for date-setters and
prophecy speculators. Charles Taze Russell founder of the Jehovah’s witnesses
picked 1914 for “the end of the world. All dates have come and gone, but the end
is not yet.

            This brief list shines but a flickering light
on an almost bottomless pit of failed prophecies. Those of us above age 30 can
easily recall the Hal Lindseys, Saleem Kirbans, Herbert Armstrongs and their
failed prophecies. We remember the doomsday cults like Heavens Gate, Koresh’s
Mt. Carmel, and the mass suicide at Jim Jones’ Jonestown. An old acquaintance of
mine gave me his prophecy flash at the beginning of the 1990 Gulf War began
declaring Saddam Hussein “The Beast.” The tribulation had begun and I was
assured that this time (he’d had been other failed predictions) it was the real
thing. Nary a month passes but some other prophecy buff shares a new prophecy
flash, one sure to end up in the pit.

The Nature of Biblical
Prophecy

A frequently overlooked fact of biblical prophecy is its
conditional nature. Prophecy is not a video tape of future events, a blueprint
that is fixed in all details, an inflexible pronouncement of what will happen
regardless of changing circumstances. Virtually all prophecies are conditional
whether stipulated so or assumed.

The prophet Isaiah was sent by
Yahweh to the sick bed of King Hezekiah to tell him: “Put your house in order,
because you are going to die; you will not recover” (2Kings 20:1-11); apparently
a straight-forward prophecy from Yahweh of the king’s imminent death. Hezekiah
wept after hearing that prophecy repenting bitterly and appealing to God for
mercy. As Isaiah was walking out of the palace God stopped him saying, “Go back
and tell Hezekiah…I have heard your prayer and have seen your tears; I will heal
you!”

God then promised him fifteen
additional years of life. Some years later Jeremiah encouraged the fatalistic
Israelites by reminding them of this great reversal. “Did [Hezekiah] not fear
the Lord and entreat the favor of the Lord, and did not the Lord change his mind
about the disaster that he had pronounced?” (Jer 26:19).

Human action changed God’s mind
and hence changed the outcome of the pronouncement. Hezekiah did not die on his
sick bed. The prophecy was conditional even though it was not so stated when
given to Hezekiah.

   Jonah was sent on a mission by
Yahweh to warn the nation of Nineveh that in forty days it would be destroyed.
Then, surprise, surprise, the Ninevites believed the warning and repented from
the king on down. This was not what Jonah expected and apparently it
disappointed him. But he knew in his heart that “you are a gracious and
compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from
sending calamity” (Jonah 4:2). God prophesied one outcome, but he changed
because the people responded. God’s threats were conditional. Prophecy is not
set in stone.

  The blessings and cursings that
God prophesied are always of an “if” nature; obey me and these blessing will be
yours; disobey and these curses will follow. He could promise the Israelites
that they would take the land of Canaan, rout its pagan inhabitants causing them
to flee in fear before them. Well, that wasn’t the case with the fortified city
of Ai where it was the Israelites who fled before the men of Ai. Why? Read the
story in Joshua 7 where sin
interrupted what God intended to be a victory march through Canaan.

The two theological principles
that under girded the Kingdom of Judah’s life for four centuries rested on two
prophetic promises: Yahweh had sworn a commitment to David regarding the
permanency of his dynasty—one of his sons would always reign in Jerusalem; the
other is that Yahweh had chosen Zion as a permanent abode (see Psalm 132). Both
of these promises were aborted when the Babylonians walked through the front
gate of Jerusalem in 587 B.C. Nebuchadnezzar killed King Zedekiah’s two sons,
terminating the prospect of his family ever reigning in Jerusalem. He then
blinded Zedekiah taking him to Babylon with along with the thousands of Jewish
captives marching into exile. Nebuchadnezzar burned and demolished Jerusalem
leaving it a ghost town. Psalm 137 and Lamentations picture the heart-sick and
rejected exiles weeping by the “rivers of Babylon” (Tigris and Euphrates)
knowing that God had abandoned them.

Both of these two great prophetic
promises stood on either side of a massive ”if”: “if your sons keep my covenant”
(Psalm 132:12). Human action will influence what God chooses to do. Judah’s slip
into idolatry caused Yahweh to march at the head of the armies of Babylon and
bring disaster upon the southern kingdom. Jeremiah warned Judah to submit to the
Babylonians or the suffering would be intensified.

God had abandoned the people,
almost as radically as had been threatened. But that is not all the story. Exile
worked to bring about their repentance and God responded: “For a brief moment I
abandoned you, but with deep compassion I will bring you back [from exile]. In a
surge of anger I hid my face from you for a moment, but with everlasting
kindness I will have compassion on you” (Isaiah 54:7-8). God can forgive sins
with or without a temple, with or without Jerusalem. What a forgiving and
merciful God! He is sovereign and free to act as he wills in the affairs of man,
his mercy, love, justice, and righteous always trumping all other
considerations.

Prophecies can have several
possible outcomes depending on what people do. Prophecy, when carefully
examined, is much more general than people might expect and this has led some to
fill in the blanks with private interpretations and details, and to speak where
God has not spoken. The truth is that biblical prophecies are not usually stated
with a great degree of specificity in order to allow God the flexibility he
demands in their fulfillment.

God is abundantly able to work
out his plan in the face of the Adversary’s continual resistance, man’s
vacillation and rebellion, and constant presence of time and chance. The
pressures upon Yahweh are complex and too complicated for us to fully
comprehend. The pressures upon the human family are likewise complex and
complicated. We can only see through a glass darkly. Our faith must be in God,
not in whether we have prophecy and chronology thoroughly doped out. The chances
of knowing details of the prophetic future are nil, except in the most basic
sense.

Most prophecies involved Israel
and the divided kingdoms and have been fulfilled in history. They were time
sensitive and while originally understood as prophetic oracles they can now be
properly called history. There may be, in a few cases, some interpretive reason
to appeal to the duality of a yet future fulfillment of a bygone prophecy. But
to regard all prophecies as dual, as some have done, is to make vital sections
of scripture into a parlor game, an exercise of reading tea leaves. Of the 27%
of the Bible that contains prophetic material about 80% of that has already been
fulfilled and is history.  Some prophecies, such as those given to Abraham in
the form of promises, are still being fulfilled. The prophetical warnings from
the Garden of Eden are being realized daily. The prophesied reign of God on
earth awaits and each day draws us closer to the Great Fulfillment.

All prophecy, fulfilled or yet
future, contain lessons that translate well to how we should live before the God
of Heaven. Prophecy is profitable if properly, respectfully, and intelligently
handled. Beware of the prophecy pit into which many have fallen.

Next Time in Part 2: We will investigate the genre
of biblical literature called “apocalyptic.” We will attempt to answer the
questions: What is the reality behind the symbols of evil and benign beasts,
numbers, and why the Book of Revelation seems to be in code language? Why is the
future partly set and party open? How can God prophesy events and bring them
about without abridging the freedom of either men or angels? What is the prime
purpose of prophecy and the two-word answer to how it all finally ends?

 




[1]

Knight, George R., Millennial Fever and the End of the World,
Pacific Press, 1993, from the book’s back cover.



[2]

Weber, Eugen, Apocalypses—Prophesies, Cults, and Millennial Beliefs
through the Ages
, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1999, p. 33.



[3]

Weber, p. 34



[4]

Landes, Richard, Relics, Apocalypse, and the Deceits of History, Harvard
University Press, 1995, p.290



[5]

Weber, p. 28-29



[6]

McGinn, Bernard, Antichrist—Two Thousand Years of the Human
Fascination with Evil
, Harper Collins, 1994, p. 152-156