Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Apocalypse When? A Brief History of the End of the World

While cleaning my office this past week I came across a piece of paper with a list of Bible passages that demonstrated when the end of the world would be. The calculations concluded that the meaning of all these texts added up to the Lord’s return in either 1984 or 2004, depending on how you calculate the years of Israel’s exile from their homeland.

It got me thinking about all the other predictions of apocalypse I’ve heard over the years.

I remember when David Berg, a.k.a. Moses David, predicted that the possible end of the world would when the the Comet Kahoutek was coming in 1974. I was at Ohio University at the time and a bus with a lot of young people arrived in Athens to recruit students to join them. They were called The Children of God, and I well recall the tract they handed out, which was an elaborate explanation of the lyrics for American Pie. I know at least one art student who left school and ended up in a barbed-wire enclosed Texas compound.
 
In 1975, while auditing a class on the Book of Revelations by Dr. Bruce Metzger at Princeton Seminary, I learned that end times predictions have been a recurring theme throughout church history. Pope Sylvester II predicted the Lord would return in the year 1000. Christians were so fearful of the end being at hand that on the last day of the year they lay on the faces in the churches till the stroke midnight on the last day of the year. Many pilgrims headed East to Jerusalem for the occasion. When the end didn't come, they probably celebrated or reflected, relieved. But then someone got the notion that the 1,000 years of the church must not have begun at Christ's birth, but rather His death. so 1033 was the new prediction for earth's end.

Christians aren't the only once making predictions. The Mayan calendar got it's fair share of publicity last year. In the late '90's the group Heaven's Gate also made a bit of news for themselves with their 39 suicides and castration ritual.

Here are some of the other dates that have been predicted to be the end.**

1186  John of Toledo predicts the world will end in 1186 based on the alignment of the planets.

1284  Pope Innocent III (d. 1216) predicted that the world would end 666 years after the rise of Islam

1356-61  During the Black Plague many Europeans believed it to be a sign of the end times.

Feb 1, 1524  A group of astrologers in London predicted the world would end by a flood starting in London based on calculations made the previous June. 20,000 Londoners left their homes and headed for higher ground in anticipation.

1533  Melchior Hoffman, an Anabaptist prophet, predicted Christ's Second Coming would take place this year in Strasbourg. He claimed that 144,000 people would be saved, while the rest of the world would be consumed by fire.

Other dates in the 1500s which were predicted as the end included, 1504, Feb. 24, 1524, May 2, 1528, Oct. 19, 1533, April 15, 1534, 1555, 1585 and 1588. Then came the 1600s in which the world was predicted to end in 1600, 1624 (by the same London astrologers who goofed in predicting 1524), 1648, 1654, 1656 (by Christopher Columbus in 1501), 1857, 1658, 1660, 1673, 1688, 1689 and 1697 by Cotton Mather.

In the 1700s we saw still more predictions of the end followed by countless more predictions and prophecies in the 1800s right up to our very own time so that almost anyone who is anyone has made declarations, from Martin Luther, Sir Isaac Newton and John Wesley to Pat Robertson, Tim LaHaye and Jerry Falwell.

As I deliberated on these things, I had a few thoughts on how to respond to these kinds of predictions, especially the very specific ones.

1. Sincerity is not truth.
Just because someone is earnest does not mean they are correct or to be followed. Many a cult leader has been earnest in the extreme, but sincerity can never be the measure of validity. Suppose a car is travelling north on Highway 61, and the driver believes he's headed south because he is on his way to Mexico. No matter how earnest he is, in a few hours time he will be in Thunder Bay, Canada.

2. Being wrong about one thing doesn't discredit everything else they said.
I think here of Martin Luther and Sir Isaac Newton most notably.

3. Let's practice humility when making pronouncements. 
I defer here to philosopher/theologian Jacques Ellul on this matter. "Incompetence is inadmissable on the part of Christians... when providing others with a sense of direction, speaking with authority and encouraging young people to become involved. ... But Christians allow themselves to be taken in by the prevailing vogue. They see everybody expressing his own ideas so why shouldn't they do the same? That's all right as far as I'm concerned... only let them be less pretentious about it, less authoritative, less inclined to expect everyone to follow in their wake. And let them not claim to be representing Jesus Christ." (False Presence of the Kingdom, p. 155-6)

For what it's worth, we live a broken world... It would be nice to be able to return home to the Paradise we lost.


** List of dates predicted for Apocalyptic events

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