“The future’s uncertain and the end is always near.”
“I confess my error and acknowledge my disappointment, yet I still believe that the day of the Lord is near.”
—William Miller, leader of the Adventist movement (1844)
The Hidden Things
Originally, the word occult simply meant “hidden.” And as a verb, I guess it’s still used in astronomy to describe the process of one astronomical body eclipsing another, or something like that. But today the occult usually refers to a dimension of reality that lies beyond our normal means of knowing and understanding. It’s a synonym for the dark or hidden side of the supernatural, something not spelled out plainly in Scripture. For example, God is supernatural, but we wouldn’t call belief in God occult. The Bible tells us quite a lot about Him. The Bible mentions angels and demons, too, but it doesn’t say very much about them. They are fair candidates for the occult I suppose—demons, especially.
What’s On the Horizon
For us mortal folks, the future remains hidden. God knows it in exhaustive detail, but He’s told us precious little about it. He has given us general promises about the regularity of day and night, the recurring seasons, the crop cycles, even thermodynamic processes (Gen. 8:22). He has also issued pretty clear warnings about death and the judgment that follows (Heb. 9:27). But the details of the future seem to be hidden in the heart of God. Any attempt to pry into that future is what Scripture calls “divination.” And in the old days, before Harry Potter, we used to call it fortune telling. Divination has always been central to the magical arts of the pagan world. In the magician’s toolbox: bones, sticks, the livers of sacrificial animals, the flight of birds, a few crystal balls, some Tarot cards and of course, the cryptic words of seers and oracles. But the proper interpretation of biblical prophecy isn’t divination. It’s a matter of simple faith and obedience.
The Day and Hour
God has told us that redemptive history has an end and that one day Jesus Christ will return from heaven to raise the dead and judge the world (1 Cor. 15:23; 1 Thes. 4:16; 2 Tim 4:1). But the Bible also says that only God knows the timing the last days. Consider these passages:
But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only (Matt. 24:36).
And [Jesus] said unto them, It is not for you to know the times or the seasons, which the Father hath put in his own power (Acts 1:7).
For yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night (1 Thes. 5:2).
The day and hour of Christ’s Second Coming is something that only God knows. The Bible is clear. It’s hidden from us and in that sense is a mystery. Those who try to pry into it are not materially or morally different from diviners who read tealeaves or occultists who meddle in the demonic or the paranormal. The future is God’s gig.
Date-Setting in America
Nevertheless, setting a date for the Second Coming has a long history in the Christian Church. 1000, 1245, and 1300 were all candidates for the world’s last year. But prophetic speculation kicked into high gear in the United States in the wake of the Second Great Awakening. For reasons theological as well as sociological, a lot of scholars and popular writers were convinced that the End was near.
William Miller (b. 1782) was one such prophetic speculator. He had no theological training and no skills in Greek or Hebrew. Yet soon after his conversion, he was immediately drawn to the difficult prophetic passages in the Book of Daniel. Combining biblical chronology and his own take on Daniel 8, he came up with his date for Christ’s return (sometime between March 21, 1843 and March 21, 1844). Eventually Miller gained an audience and then a following—a large one. But the March of 1844 passed without event. Miller was surprised and disappointed. He saw that he was wrong, but he couldn’t understand why. When someone suggested October 22, 1844 as a fallback date (the Jewish Day of Atonement) Miller said sure, why not. Following a great deal of hype, many of the so-called Adventists gave up their jobs, sold their stores, and left their animals and crops untended in the fields. But Jesus didn’t make it back. William Miller gave up, went home, and died in December of 1849.
But others couldn’t leave well enough alone. One Adventist soon had a vision or revelation that explained away the failed prediction. True, Jesus hadn’t come to Earth, but He had moved into the heavenly sanctuary to finish His work. Now His coming was really imminent. The movement went on under new leadership, but with a lot less date setting.
This pattern seems to repeat itself over and over in Church history. First, a very certain prediction. Then, disappointment and a reinterpretation and or retrenching of the position. Charles Russell and his followers have a hundred and thirty year history of this sort of speculative cycle.
As a young man, Charles Taze Russell (1852-1916) was caught up in the Adventist movement like so many others. He immediately gave himself to the study of prophecy and, together with a fellow named Barbour, predicted the return of Christ in 1873 or 1874. When Jesus didn’t come, the two men agreed that His spiritual presence had come and that Armageddon lay a short time ahead. The men parted company in 1878, and the next year Russell launched a magazine to spread his predictions: Zion’s Watchtower. Russell set a new date for Armageddon: 1914. Wrong again, he pushed the end to 1918.
Russell died in 1916, and his successor, Joseph Rutherford (1869-1942) retro-conned the whole prophetic scheme in an amazing new direction. Christ had come spiritually in 1914 and now Armageddon was really close. It would come in 1925…or 1975…or 1984. Along the way Rutherford gave his followers a new name. He called them “Jehovah’s Witnesses.”
1948 and 1988
Date setting got a real boost when Israel was reborn as a nation in 1948. Prophetic writers, especially those in the premillennial camp, were sure the End was near. In The Late Great Planet Earth (1970), Hal Lindsey set very specific parameters. Based on a wild misreading of Matthew 24:32-34, Lindsey suggested (rather strongly), that the generation that saw Israel reborn would be the “Terminal Generation,” the one that would not pass away until Jesus returned. In Scripture, the only generic number associated with a generation is 40. So, the math is easy right? 1948 + 40 = 1988. (If you want to, you can always subtract seven years for the Great Tribulation and end up with an earlier year like 1981.) As the ‘80s drew to an end, a great many Christians were convinced that Jesus would be coming back any day. Of course, He didn’t. But there’s a lot of money in pop books saying… “Soon!”
Ideas Have Consequences
In 1970 Lindsey wrote, “We should be living like persons who don’t expect to around much longer.” But in a chapter titled “Polishing the Crystal Ball,” Lindsey did warn his readers not to “drop out of school… or stop working, or rush marriage” just yet. Back then however, not everyone listened to Hal’s disclaimer. In the ‘70s many Christian young people did give up on college and marriage. Jesus was coming back any day after all. It’s all pointless, right? Today, some Jehovah Witnesses have similar reservations: “We’re waiting to have children till after Armageddon,” some say. Then there are the followers of Harold Camping who have recently abandoned their jobs, sold their houses, given away their possessions, and emptied their family bank accounts to promote a false message.
The epistemological and sociological damage caused by prophetic date setting is beyond calculation. Certainly, it includes tremendous damage to the reputation of the Church. But the devastation of individual lives ought to be our more immediate and pressing concern. It’s easy to mock Camping and his false prophecies. It’s a lot harder to be kind and useful.
So What To Do When the World Doesn’t End?
This cycle is bound to happen again and again. So what do we do when predictions fail and Mathew 24 isn’t knocking at the door? There are several possibilities.
In extreme cases, those folks caught up in the prophetic fervor could become so depressed and disillusioned that they turn their backs on God, their leaders, and one another. They could even give up on life.
Leaders and follower alike could admit that they were deeply and seriously wrong—that, in fact, they were all theological fools. They could then have a good laugh at themselves and perhaps get back to a more orthodox church.
The leaders of the movement will likely rethink their timetable. Maybe they mistranslated a key passage, misdated a key event in ancient history, or simply forgot that there is no year 0. (From the end of 4 BC to AD 4 there are seven years, not eight.) As long as the leaders haven’t claimed infallibility, this is the easiest option for them. Prophetic calculations are difficult anyway. And who can keep track of all the alterations that have taken place in the Western calendar in the last three millennia? Then there’s the whole issue of the Jewish calendar and the length of a prophetic day. Everyone will understand a simple math error—everyone seriously dedicated to the movement, that is. Sure, it’s embarrassing, but it’s hardly fatal.
But what if the leaders have claimed infallibility? Or maybe they’ve cried, “Wolf!’ once too often. Now it’s time to rationalize. The End did come! Or an End of many Ends. There are two possibilities here. First, for these folks, the world really ended. Jesus came. The dead arose. But it was all spiritual and invisible. Only initiated, “true believers” know what really happened. Or, second, maybe something really important did happen. No, it wasn’t the end of the world exactly… we were wrong about that. But it was something, something really, really big. And now all that’s left is the End itself. And it’s near. Really near. Trust us. Send more money.
Finally, everyone can simply blame God. Maybe God was merciful and so went back on His promised timing. Jonah and Nineveh are precedents, aren’t they? (Well, wait a minute, Nineveh actually repented.) Or perhaps God is in the process of becoming something else. Or maybe He’s just capricious, arbitrary and does as He pleases. Kierkegaard’s writings might be helpful again to those seeking after a wacky, irrational God.
Conclusion: How Then Shall We Live With False Prophets?
So what do the rest of us do the day after? And the day after that?
First, we gently remind the world that date-setting prophetic speculators don’t speak for God. (Newspaper and radio ads may be useful.)
Second, we gently invite any misguided (or deluded) friends back to fellowship. We show them real love and compassion. Where necessary, we help them put their financial lives back together. And we set up Bible studies to ground them more thoroughly in what God’s word actually says.
Third, we call the leaders of the movement to repent and admit their mistakes. We insist that they abandon their poor hermeneutics and repent of their spiritual pride. We challenge them to be more concerned about the lives they’ve destroyed than about their own reputations and agendas. We call on them to renounce publicly any kind of spiritual leadership for a long time to come—maybe for the rest of their lives. And, we actually insist on financial restitution for those defrauded.
For Further Reading:
Richard Kyle, The Last Days are Here Again, A History of the End Times (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998).
Robert Clouse et al., The New Millennium Manual, A Once and Future Guide (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999),
Timothy P. Weber, Living in the Shadow of the Second Coming, American Premillennialism 1875-1982 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983).
Dwight Wilson, Armageddon Now!, The Premillenarian Response to Russia and Israel Since 1917 (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1977).
Gary DeMar, Last Days Madness, The Folly of Trying to Predict When Christ Will Return (Brentwood, TN: Wolgemuth & Hyatt, Publishers, Inc.)