The Prophecy Pit

 

By Kenneth Westby

 

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