We’re still here, despite the fact that dozens of predictions have told us that the world would have ended by now. John Hagee, Jack Van Impe, Joseph Smith, Jehovah’s Witnesses, John Wesley, Harold Camping and so many others have made bogus predictions. What should we think about this? How do people of faith look when we are clearly wrong in such public ways? In this episode of the Truce podcast, we examine some of the reasons behind these predictions and discuss a better way forward.
Truce is the Christian podcast that uses journalistic tools to look inside the Christian church. We press pause on the culture wars to explore how we got here and how we can do better.
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CS: Chris Staron (host)
RM: Ray McDaniel – pastor of First Baptist Church
CS: August 21, 2017. My friend and I woke up in our tent, cleaned up our gear, and started out early.
CS: (on location) That’s what 6 o’clock in the morning looks like. We’re going to have four hours from now to get there. Let’s go.
CS: We’d hiked most of the day before and only had a few miles left to go. Most of them were pretty easy.
CS: (on location) Summitted the peak with an hour and forty minutes to spare, now we just gotta wait.
CS: A couple dozen people were up there with us, enjoying snacks, adding a layer to keep warm. Waiting for the right moment. It looked like a dark storm cloud was coming over the distant mountain pass right at us. And then the world got weird.
CROWD: There’s the ring. There’s the ring! (cheering)
CS: It felt like night time, but it was nearly noon. People looked up… at… the sun. Which was eclipsed.
CS: One of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.
CS: (on location) I love you all right now.
CS: This was the total solar eclipse of the sun. We got to see it from the top of a mountain right in the path of totality, where the sun is most covered by the moon. You know what we didn’t see that day though? The end of the world.
You see, there was this rumor going around that the world was going to end that day1. For a lot of reasons. One of which was this: that if you took that loooooong arc that the eclipse made over the US and laid it over a map. And then you took the looooong arc that the next eclipse will make in 2024 and put that on a map, they intersect. In a lazy looking x shape, crossing over Missouri.
To those who love this kind of thing, that x looked suspiciously like the last letter in the Hebrew alphabet, which can be taken to mean “mark, sign, or covenant”. And it would be 7 years until the next eclipse, the same amount of time the tribulation is supposed to take place. There was also a complicated theory about how the temperature of the sun was the same as the year 2017 in the Hebrew calendar.
All signs, for sure, that the world was going to end. Except, it didn’t.
You’re listening to the show that uses journalistic tools to look inside the Christian church. We press pause on the culture wars to explore how we got here and how we can do better. I’m Chris Staron. This is Truce.
My friend and pastor, Ray McDaniel has this list…
CS: (on location) Can you tell me about the list you have.
RM: So… I have a list.
CSL It’s about the end of the world. Or people who think they know the time of the end of the world.
RM: It’s actually a list that I got really from childhood. I knew some of these things, not all of these things. But I grew up, I was born in 71, so I grew up in the 70’s and the Jesus Freak movement and some of those early, maybe not early, Christian films like A Thief in the Night and things like that. We had The Late Great Planet Earth Songbook. (laughing off mic) We really did. The Late Great Planet Earth Song Book. And one of the songs, it might not have been in that book, but one of them was Lift Up Your Head Your Redemption Draweth Nigh. And it was Keep Your Eyes on the Eastern Skies and it was very much anticipating the return of Christ, which I do anticipate the second coming of Jesus.
CS: Growing up in that environment had him thinking about the end times. When Jesus will return and the world goes through judgment. Ray grew up, became a missionary, and then a pastor.
RM: I started going through the list in my head before I was preparing a sermon on Sunday of all these people who made predictions just in my lifetime. And then it got to be interesting so when I studied it I kinda started keeping up with a list.
CS: He’s preached on the topic a few times. Sharing this list he has of people who claimed that they knew when the end of the world was coming.
RM: When that eclipse was coming through I started getting from the congregation and from other people around losts of question and lost of suggestions and lots of predictions, end times predictions.
CS: Yet, the eclipse of 2017 was not the end of the world. The truth is that predictions of the end of the world are not rare. They aren’t even new. They’ve been going on really since the days of the early church. Since shortly after Jesus ascended. People want to know the day. Not all of them are Christians, either.
Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, guessed the date at least twice. For example, in 1835 he said it would happen within 56 years. You can find it in volume two, chapter thirteen of their official church history. 1835 + 56 = 18912. Did the world end in 1891? No.
Jehovah’s Witnesses have changed their minds a couple of times, but once believed that the world would end in 19143. What about evangelical Christians? John Wesley, founder of the Methodist church, said it would happen in 1836.4
Remember 1995? That’s when Left Behind fever started, based on books written by Jerry Jenkins and Tim Lahaye. They were fictionalized accounts of what it might look like in the end times. Complete, of course, with a corresponding kids version. They didn’t predict a date, but they did reignite rapture… rapture.
Back when I made Christian films there were two guys you had to impress if you wanted to make a lot of sales.. Jack Van Impe and John Hagee. They were the kingmakers. If you got their endorsement, you’d sell thousands of copies.
We didn’t… we didn’t get the endorsement.
Jack Van Impe set the date as 2012. Didn’t happen. John Hagee wrote a book on the Blood Moon Prophesy which also predicted the end. He shied away from the day… but you know.
Then there was Harold Camping. Camping was the host of a show called Open Forum for 50 years. He was the Bible answer guy. 5 People called in with their questions about the Bible and he tried to answer them. He was a proponent of something called numerology, or the idea that the Bible speaks in code through numbers. If we can interpret them, we’re let into mysteries… like the date of the apocalypse.
He started predicting the end in the 1970s, without causing much hoopla. Then he predicted that the world would end May 21, 1988. It didn’t.
He then published a book titled “1994?” which set the date for September of 1994.
Then there was the one in 2011. Camping and his followers got 5,000 billboards and had materials printed in 75 different languages. There is a risk of these sounding funny, and maybe it is a little bit. We have to remember that this stuff doesn’t stay inside of the bubble of those easily convinced of nutty ideas. When a person of authority says the end of the world is coming, people are going to change their habits. Rack of credit card bills. Avoid important medical care. Or take their own lives.
The New York Times reported on a man who tried to “reach God” across a lake and drowned. And a woman who tried to kill herself and her two daughters rather than face the end of the world6.
Did Harold Camping apologize for his claims? Yes. But only to change his date to October 21st, 2011.
It makes us look ridiculous when these predictions don’t come true. And yet they keep coming. There are whole conferences based on the end times. They draw people in, entice them with details of coming destruction. Fear, mostly. And fear usually finds you an audience.
When these predictions don’t come through it gives non-Christians good reason to be suspicious. So, to my non-Christian friends who are listening, let me say: these guys were wrong. They were wrong. Those who said they were Christians dragged the name of Christ through the mud. Sometimes very publicly, like, say on 5,000 billboards. The founders of some of those other religions proved what they were. What do you call a person who prophesies and it doesn’t come true?
A false prophet.
Jesus specifically told us we would not know the day of His return. He said that. Matthew 24:36.
“But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone.” (NASB)
We won’t know the day. We can’t know the day.
Matthew 24:36 is a dead giveaway. The Bible states obviously that Christ will return. There will be a judgement and it’s going to be ugly. It says there will be signs of it’s coming. But it can’t be any clearer than this… we won’t know the date.
And about all those signs of Jesus returning. They can be somewhat vague. 2 Thessalonans 2 has some of them. Let’s go back to my talk with Ray McDaniel. He reads commentaries while planning his sermons and came across some interesting comments on this passage.
RM: So as I was looking through, saw what Augustine, St. Augustine had to say about it. He’s a theologian, philosopher, author, you know, churchman, song writer. Anyway, speaking of this interesting passage he said, “I confess that I am entirely ignorant of what he means to say. I confess that I am entirely ignorant of what he means to say.” (laughing) And I thought, ‘wow, that’s a statement of humility’. But there are other respected commentators like Martin Vincent said, ‘I attempt no interpretation of this passage as a whole which I do not understand.” But everyone’s got an opinion on it and when they’re writing these books it comes up over and over again. And, like Hal Lindsay’s Late Great Planet Earth or those, they bring this to it. F.F. Bruce is another one of my favorites, and he says, “there are few New Testament passages which can boast such a variety of interpretations as this.”
CS: These are respected theologians. And what do they say about 2 Thessalonians? They admit that they don’t fully understand it. The Bible does this in multiple places: it tell us a truth but keeps some of it kinda vague. We don’t know when Jesus is returning. We know He will, just not when. That kind of open endedness is hard for a lot of us. We don’t want God to surprise us with something. So, some of us invent ways to fill in the gaps ourselves.
RM: So I think a ripe place for heresy is when we have scant scriptural information or vague in some ways it is vague scriptural information and we try to put too fine a point on it. In my opinion, if scripture is vague, we can stand to be vague.
CS: (on location) Well, there’s that thing you’ve mentioned a couple of times when preaching that there is always a temptation when you preach the gospel day after day after day, there’s a temptation to be clever.
RM: Yeah, absolutely. Novelty is not to be sought. I was an art student before I became a pastor and I had a professor who said that pretty often. He said, “novelty, or being clever is not what you’re going for. What we’re after is a search for truth and beauty.” Yeah, it does get to be tempting after you’ve said the same thing over and over again and it comes back to the message of the cross, basically that Jesus lived a perfect life and died a perfect sacrificial death, and that clear clean account is available for anyone who would put their faith and trust in Him. That’s a simple, succinct statement of the Christian gospel. And after you’ve said that so many times, I think there is a temptation to want to just spice it up a little bit, and maybe add something to it or maybe take something away. There is that temptation, but sticking to what it says I think is really really important and not adding to it, and not being so convinced of your own opinion that you start sharing that as if it were actual holy writ.
CS: (on location) And that is tempting. Even having done ten episodes of this podcast I feel like I need to be clever with the eleventh.
RM: Yeah. Yeah.
Truce is a listener supported podcast. You can find us on Patreon.com where you can set up monthly installments to help me out a little if you like what you hear. We’re on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, all those, where you’ll find links to bonus materials that relate to this episode. Our website is trucepodcast.com where you can find our fascinating and unobtrusive email list, and links to my novel Cradle Robber and my movies Bringing up Bobby and Between the Walls which are now streaming on Amazon and Pureflix. While on the site, check out the show notes for this episode for some handy reference materials. Our logo is by Andy Huff, our website is by the amazing Roy Browning of the Business Acumen podcast, and thanks to Nick Staron for acting as a sounding board. And, finally, thanks to pastor Ray McDaniel for his help.
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I’m Chris Staron. This is Truce.