It’s hard not to get apocalyptic when the world is falling apart.
The Christian right takes doom its stride, however. In U.S. and across the world, believers in End Times prophecy are dug-in to the idea that the end of all things really is upon us – and they can point to verses in the Jewish and Christian Bibles in support of this view.
So is are they right?
One paragraph is not enough to summarise Christian thought on the end of the world or – to give it its technical name – eschatology. But typically, Christian apocalyptic views today hinge – at least in part – on the Book of Daniel chapter 2 (which identifies a succession of dominant world empires) and then broaden out to include at least some of the following:
Greedy pastors taking money from the faithful (2 Peter 2:1-3); earthquakes (Matthew 24:7); “wars and rumours of wars” (Matthew 24:6); a falling away from faith (Matthew 24:12); hypocritical religiosity (2 Timothy 3:5); deadly diseases (Matthew 24:7); deniers of a final judgment (2 Peter 3:5-6); an increase in famines (Matthew 24:7); an increase in knowledge and travel (Daniel 12:4); the “gospel of the kingdom” to be preached as a warning to all nations (Matthew 24:14); and the mark of the Beast (Revelation 13:16).
On first blush there seems to be a strong case.
To take Christian preachers first: men such as Creflo Dollar, Kenneth Copeland, Benny Hinn and Joel Osteen fleece the flock to the tune of many millions of dollars each year. Copeland openly boasts about being a billionaire. And unlike Jesus – who went before them to prepare mansions in Heaven – TV preachers such as these have multiple mansions right here on earth.
But this is nothing new. At Ezekiel 34 the prophet of that name bewailed a similar phenomenon over 2,500 years ago. The shepherds have always scammed the sheep.
Christian apologists often point to earthquakes as a sign of the End. Johnston’s Archive records 320,120 deaths from earthquakes for 2010 – a huge number indeed.
Yet when seen on a broader timeline, the number of deaths from earthquakes over the last century peaked around the mid-1970s and is now somewhere around the average of what it has been over the last 100 years. So on this metric, we cannot be at the End right now.
Wars (and rumours thereof) are prevalent as per Matthew 24:6. The last ten years have been spent in earnest expectation of an attack by the US or Israel upon Iran, for example. That would be a strong case for a rumour of war.
And at the same time, the US has warred against – and destroyed – a number of countries, while other miscellaneous real wars have gone on in the background.
But if we compare the figures of those recently killed in wars with the 50-80 million deaths in WWII, current wars are in decline – at least over the period since then.
We do see the religious hypocrisy of 2 Timothy 3:5 warns of: Christian pastors daily renege on the foundations of their faith. I personally struggle to understand what the Church of England, for example, believes in beyond fuzzy feelings.
But on the other hand Christ himself bemoaned the “whited sepulchres” among the scribes and Pharisees 2,000 years ago.
So while the scale may have increased, the form is not new.
Matthew 24:7 foresees deadly diseases – and immediately AIDS and Ebola come to mind.
Yet, depending on how you slice the numbers, one can argue that deaths by deadly disease – at least at the moment – are lower proportionately than at the time of Jesus.
What is beyond question is that things have been worse before today. Between 50 and 100 million died as a result of the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918, for example. Meanwhile, the WHO claims the total deaths for all time from AIDS to be 39 million.
The warning at 2 Peter 3:5-6 of deniers of a final Judgment suggests firmer ground – at least initially. Atheism is heavily promoted via media, and such priests of Unbelief as Richard Dawkins and Stephen Fry are given prominence and unquestioning support by them.
An atheist website called Patheos puts the number of outright atheists in 2015 at 11%.
Yet, when one considers that at the time at which Peter was writing, the notion of a single God was embraced by one tiny nation only – the Jews – the numbers of those who hold a position of faith are up immeasurably today on what they were then.
Matthew 24:7 warns of an increase in famines. Since famines are pumped into our consciousness by TV you would be excused for thinking they were on the increase. But they are not.
Most famines in recent history are the result of war or genocidal policies. The Bolsheviks in Russia and Ukraine and the British in India together murdered tens of millions by that means.
But if we are interested in classical famine (i.e. wholesale death arising without the agency of humans) what stand out are the five famines in China between 1811–1873 in which 105 million died, or the Chalisa (1783-84) or Doji Bara famine (1789-92) in which a total of 22 million died.
Christian eschatology has it that Daniel 12:4 indicates an increase in travel. Certainly, world travel has increased, as has technological knowledge. But the jury is still out for many scholars on what “many shall run to and fro and knowledge shall be increased” means.
On top of that, modern liberal scholars place the writing of the Book of Daniel in the 2nd century BCE which – if true – undoes its position as a central pillar in the edifice of much of the rest of common Christian eschatology.
Next we have Jesus’ prediction that “this gospel of the kingdom” will be preached as a warning to all nations immediately prior to the End (Matthew 24:14).
Leaving the question of what that gospel might be, the fact is that the Christian Bible is available now to all. The Economist, for example, notes that translations of the Bible cover 95% of the world’s population.
So either this point can be firmly checked off as completed – in which case the End should have come – or the Christian Bible does not contain what Christ meant by “gospel of the kingdom”, or the Christians have failed to preach whatever that gospel might have been.
None of these options is attractive to the Christian right.
This leaves us with the Mark of the Beast. Certainly, technology now exists – such as VeriChip – to bring to pass those events Christians and others warn about: the inability to buy or sell without an implanted microchip.
Is this evil and creepy? Certainly.
But that is a different question to whether or not this is what is meant in the Book of Revelation.
And that is not even the Christian right’s main problem here. Its main problem is that the originator of Protestantism – whence derive the vast majority of such denominations which advance end-of-the-world scenarios come – was Martin Luther, and Luther threw Revelations out of his Bible altogether.
Luther also went on record as stating that the world would end no later than 1600.
But Luther was not alone in wrongly identifying the End. That occupation has a long and somewhat comical history.
I was born in 1967. This means that according to Bible.ca I have lived through 107 predicted ends of the world. The Jehovah’s Witnesses alone have been wrong in 1914, 1915, 1918, 1920, 1925, 1941, 1975 and 1994.
There are also at least 130 recorded predictions between the time of Christ and when I was born.
Admittedly, not all the end-of-the-world predictions were made by Christians. But the vast majority were – and they were reading materially the same Bible we have today.
Now the secularists and atheists have jumped in with their Global Warming eschatology and are busy predicting the end of all things with the zeal of the convert.
I have two main issues with time-specific eschatology – no matter the creed.
Firstly, it increases passivity: if you accept a prophet as a model then your business should be doing what that prophet told you to do, not guessing when he’s coming back to see if you did it.
Secondly, it gives those whose treasure is in this world rather than the next a rod for your back: as long as what they are doing can be bent into a shape approaching your expectations of prophecy, you will put up with it – even welcome it.
This ploy has worked remarkably well in the case of generating support for Israel among Christians in the U.S., for example.
I’m not saying the end of the world isn’t upon us. Given how things are going, I’m hard pressed to see how it can’t be. I just don’t think the facts on the ground bear out the claims commonly made by Christians in support of their eschatology.
The facts may change to fit better those prognostications. But we are not there yet.
I saw a documentary about 15 years ago which featured a man who made nuclear fallout shelters. He sold them for a living and lived all year round in one himself. At the time of filming he was in his late 70s. He was clearly going to die from old age and was pretty miffed about that fact.
His entire life had been spent in preparation for a calamity which had never come
We are all definitely going to die one day and – from where I’m standing at least – give account of ourselves to God. That fact held true for Luther. It held true for Charles Taze Russell, the founder of the Watchtower Society. It has presumably held true for nuclear-fallout-shelter guy by now.
If you proceed from the baseline of that hard fact you will arrive in better shape no matter if the End occurs on your watch or not.
Published by Russia Today.