Prophetic Speculation and Its Enthusiastic Followers
For decades Christians have been enamored with prophetic speculation. The 1970s saw a rise in the genre with the publication of Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth that sold tens of millions of copies. It was named the most popular non-fiction book of the 1970s. The speculation died down a bit after 1988 when the “rapture” did not take place like Lindsey, Chuck Smith, and other prophecy writers predicted that 40 years from the return of the Jews to their homeland in 1948 it would take place. Then Tim LaHaye’s multi-volume Left Behind series hit, and prophetic speculation was on the rise again.
Prophetic speculation did not begin in the 1970s. Every time there has been a major war, an earthquake, or a weather system, prophecy writers started speculating and their followers enthusiastically got caught up in the prophetic moment. There’s such a long history of this type of hysteria that it’s embarrassing to read modern-day prophecy writers claim that our generation is the “terminal generation,” as Lindsey called it, which was the previous generation. Most Americans have no sense of history or geography.
Prophetic speculation creates a numbing effect as Christians view life through the lens of current events. The following appeared on The Bible and Prophecy website (9/12/2017):
BLOCKING/BANNING OF CHRISTIAN SITES: Rapture Ready site is being blocked by the Worldwide Web…. Also, to some who try to access the Rapture Ready Bulletin Board site (depending on device they use & what malware alert they have), a screen pops up telling them it’s a dangerous site. Soon any mention of Christianity will be banned from the … internet, another reason why it is so important to have biblical materials in a central location in your home. Those left behind after the rapture will need to realize what’s happened & what to do.
There was one comment: “Can’t say we weren’t warned. BUT … on the plus side … Jesus [is] coming soon!”
So being blocked on the internet is now a sign of the coming apocalypse!
And that’s the problem. Millions of Christians start talking about how the end is near and Jesus is coming soon while secularists continue to plot, strategize, and work to promote and implement their worldview. They’ve been doing this for centuries at the same time Christians have been predicting an end that does not take place. I know … I know. This time it’s different.
A recent article written by Britt Gillette that appears on the Prophecy News Watch website says as much:
“The signs of the Second Coming are all around us. When His disciples asked Jesus to describe the signs, He gave them several. The Jewish people back in possession of Jerusalem (Luke 21:24-28) … the Gospel preached throughout the world (Matthew 24:14) … the arrival of the exponential curve (Matthew 24:3-8) … and more.
“The Old Testament prophets also pointed to a number of signs. An increase in travel and knowledge (Daniel 12:4) … the rise of a united Europe (Daniel 2:42) … the rise of the Gog of Magog alliance (Ezekiel 38-39) … and more.
“Today, all these signs are either present or in the process of being fulfilled. Yet for 1,800+ years, none of these signs were present. Think about that. None of the signs. But today? Today, they’re all around us.”
Keep in mind that the passages referenced above have been used for centuries to prove that the end was near for their time.
End-time speculation is not new. It has a long and failed history going back centuries and has led to a form of prophetic inevitability resulting in Christian passivity.
“If Jesus is coming back in my generation, then why expend time and effort to fix what can’t be fixed. Why rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic? It’s all going down.”
As Christians waited for the soon return of Jesus, humanists, secularists, and materialists have infiltrated every part of society. Instead of fighting against the invasion, an end-time escapist eschatology was invented with disastrous results. In the book, The 1980’s: Countdown to Armageddon, Hal Lindsey wrote, “The decade of the 1980’s could very well be the last decade of history as we know it.” In addition to his questionable interpretive claims, consider these comments from Lindsey:
- “What a way to live! With optimism, with anticipation, with excitement. We should be living like persons who don’t expect to be around much longer.”1
- “I don’t like clichés but I’ve heard it said, ‘God didn’t send me to clean the fish bowl, he sent me to fish.’ In a way there’s a truth to that.”2
If the end is always just around the corner based on certain prophetic texts linked to current events, then why bother or even hope to rebuild a failing and collapsing world?
We’ve seen such speculation with the French Revolution, World War I, World War II, and nearly every dramatic event throughout two millennia of history. If you want to read a chronicle of end-time speculation, get a copy of Francis X. Gumerlock’s The Day and the Hour: Christianity’s Perennial Fascination with Predicting the End of the World. Send a copy to your end-time speculating friends.
Charles Wesley Ewing puts prophetic speculation in historical perspective for people who have a limited knowledge of history:
“In 1934, Benito Mussolini sent his black-shirted Fascists down into defenseless Ethiopia and preachers all over the country got up in their pulpits and preached spellbinding sermons that had their congregations bulging at the eyes in astonishment about ‘Mussolini, the Anti-Christ,’ and to prove their point they quoted from Daniel 11:43, which says, ‘And the Ethiopians shall be at his steps.’ Later, Benito, whimpering, was hung by his own countrymen, and preachers all over America had to toss their sermons into the scrap basket as unscriptural.”3
Ewing goes on to mention how Hitler’s storm troopers took Czechoslovakia, Poland, France, North Africa, and set up concentration camps where millions of Jews were killed in what has become the modern-day definition of “holocaust.” Once again, preachers ascended their pulpits and linked these events to Bible prophecy and assured the church-going public that Hitler was the antichrist. When the allies routed the Nazis and drove them out, sermons were once again tossed out or filed away to be revised at some future date hoping people’s memories would fade.
The next end-time-antichrist candidate was Joseph Stalin, the leader of godless Communism, a movement hell-bent on conquering the world. “But on March 5, 1953, Stalin had a brain hemorrhage and preachers all over America had to make another trip to the waste basket.”4
Let’s take the above prophetic claims one at a time. First, the prophetic discourse found in Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21 describes events leading up to and including the destruction of the temple and the judgment on Jerusalem that took place in AD 70. Jesus made this clear when He told His first-century audience, “This generation will not pass away until all these things take place” (Matt. 24:34; Mark 13:320; Luke 21:31). Every time “this generation” is used in the gospels it always refers to the generation to whom Jesus is speaking (Matt. 11:16; 12:39; 41, 42, 45; 17:17; 23:36; Mark 8:12; 13:30; Luke 7:31; 11:29, 30, 31, 32, 50, 51; 17:25; 21:32). There are no exceptions. You can read my verse-by-verse explanation of this view in my book Wars and Rumors of Wars.
Second, the New Testament does not say anything about Israel becoming a nation again. Israel did become a nation again after the Jews returned to their land from the Babylonian exile (Dan. 9:2; 2 Chron. 36:21; Ezra 1:1; Jer. 25:11-12; 29:10; Zech. 7:5; Neh. 1). The temple was rebuilt and the nation was reestablished. The fact that Jews were living in Israel during Jesus’ day proves that this is true. Nothing is said in the NT about the Jews being displaced and then returning sometime in the distant future. The fig tree of Matthew 24:32 is not about Israel becoming a nation again. If Israel is the fig tree, then what do we do with Jesus’ statement, “No longer shall there ever be any fruit from you” (21:19)? Let’s not forget Luke’s version: “Behold the fig tree, and all the trees; as soon as they put forth leaves, you see it and know for yourselves that the summer is now near” (21:29-30). Jesus was describing what was going to happen in their generation (21:32).
Third, what about “the Gospel preached throughout the world (Matthew 24:14)”? The Greek word translated “world” is not kosmos (“world”) but oikoumenē and means “inhabited earth” or “empire boundary.” It is often translated “Roman Empire.” The same Greek word is used in Luke 2:1: “Now in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, that a census be taken of all the inhabited earth [oikoumenē].” Rome could only tax those within the boundaries of its own empire, not the whole wide world. Study these passages, and you will see that Matthew 24:14 was fulfilled before their generation passed away (Rom. 1:8; Col. 1:6, 23; 1 Tim. 3:16; Rom 16:25-27).
Based on the above biblical evidence, it is untrue to say, “yet for 1,800+ years, none of these signs were present.” These signs were present in the first century as the Bible makes clear and as many Bible expositors have pointed.
What about Gillette’s claim that an “an increase in travel and knowledge (Daniel 12:4) … the rise of a united Europe (Daniel 2:42) … the rise of the Gog of Magog alliance (Ezekiel 38-39) … and more” are signs of the end?
Like the above passages, these verses also have been used repeatedly to “prove” the end was near for people in past generations. For example, John Cumming (1807-1881) considered “railway traveling”5 to be a reference to “many shall run to and fro” (Dan. 12:4). Current prophecy writers like Hal Lindsey are just as ingenious when they see modern transportation systems and computer technology as a fulfillment of Daniel 12:4. This is such a discredited interpretation that it’s embarrassing to read that anyone still believes and teaches it. Even many die-hard dispensationalists reject the idea that the “increase in knowledge” refers to “the recent explosion in knowledge.”6
What does “knowledge will increase” mean?
The Hebrew word for “knowledge” in Daniel 12:4 is not a reference to a mass collection of information or a library of data. Knowledge is used as knowledge about God and His works. It’s most likely that the knowledge described in Daniel 12:4 is related to the new covenant and the coming of the promised Redeemer. Since the focus of the Bible is on Jesus (Luke 24:25-27), we should expect that this is what God had in mind when the angel told Daniel that “the knowledge” will increase. What redemptive significance does a Google search have to do with God’s redemptive plan for His people? Zacharias and Elizabeth (1:5-25), Joseph and Mary (1:26-56), Simeon (Luke 2:25-32) and Anna (2:36-38) had an increase in knowledge as the realities of the old covenant were unfolding in their day. The Scriptures “testify” about Jesus (John 5:39). Jesus uses Daniel 7:13 as the defining event in His ministry (Matt. 24:30), something His accusers should have understood (26:64). This is the “increase in knowledge” that the angel was describing.
It could be argued that the New Testament itself is the increase of knowledge: “For God, who said, ‘Light shall shine out of darkness,’ is the One who has shone in our hearts to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6). Then there is the negative side to the promise of an increase in revelational knowledge: “Woe to you lawyers! For you have taken away the key of knowledge; you yourselves did not enter, and you hindered those who were entering” (Luke 11:52).
Oswald J. Smith said something similar about a revived Roman Empire in 1927. Smith was emphatic that “Ten nations, no more, no less, are to become allied and known as the Roman empire because Rome will be the centre, the capital, and it will be in Rome that the Emperor will reign.” He was also emphatic that Mussolini was the antichrist. He was wrong.
What about the Gog and Magog prophecy found in Ezekiel 38-39? The prophecy was fulfilled long ago during the time Haman the Agagite tried to kill all the Jews (Esther 3). See my book The Gog and Magog End-Time Alliance for a detailed study of Ezekiel 38-39.
If you are caught up in end-time speculation, take a deep breath and study the issue like I did more than 40 years ago. Like so many in the 1970s, I heard the predictions of the end times and found them out of synch with what the Bible actually taught. You can hear my story in some audio presentations I did for the release of my new book Wars and Rumors of Wars.
- The Late Great Planet Earth (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1970), 145. [↩]
- “The Great Cosmic Countdown,” Eternity (January 1977), 21. [↩]
- Charles Wesley Ewing, “The Comedy of Errors,” The Kingdom Digest (July 1983), 45. [↩]
- Ewing, “The Comedy of Errors,” 45-46. [↩]
- Robert H. Ellison, “John Cumming and His Critics: Some Victorian Perspectives on the End Times,” Leeds, Centre Working Papers in Victorian Studies: Platform Pulpit Rhetoric, ed. Martin Hewitt, vol. 3 (Horsforth, Leeds: Leeds Centre for Victorian Studies, 2000), 79. [↩]
- Mark Hitchcock, The Complete Book of Bible Prophecy (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1999), 176-177. [↩]