The Bad Record Of Date-Setters

It is written:

“But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night, in which the heavens will pass away with a great noise, and the elements will melt with fervent heat; both the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up.” (2 Peter 3:10)

Just as a thief does not leave signs advertising when he will rob a home, so Jesus has not left clues or signs as to when He will return. He reminds us that no one will know the day or hour when He returns, which is why we must be ready at ALL times (Matthew 24:36-25:46).

Unfortunately, many through the ages have not heeded His Word.

“Popular readers sometimes put too much stock in prophecy “experts.” Prophecy teachers have been setting dates for a long time. Nearly eighteen centuries ago, Martin of Tours was certain that the Antichrist had already been born by his day. Martin died in 397, so if he was right, the Antichrist is by now rather old. The honorable third-century Church father and apologist Hippolytus gave himself more room for error, expecting the world to end in the year 500. He was not around for anyone to criticize his math when the world survived his prediction. Although Luther believed that he was in the end time, he was dismayed by many prophecy teachers of his day. Melchior Hoffmann expected Strassburg to become the New Jerusalem, but he died in prison there ten years later. Thomas Müntzer expected the Peasants’ Revolt of 1524 to precipitate the final Judgment; it ended up precipitating only death for him and thousands of peasants. Back then, end-time speculations frequently “died hard, unfortunately quite literally.” 7 Thomas Helwys, one of the early Baptist leaders, concluded that Baptists were now in the final Tribulation. Why? Any Baptists today who still use the King James Version might be unhappy to learn that it was because King James was persecuting Baptists. In the 1700s, English-speaking Christians divided over the moral status of King George III. John Wesley supported him, but many Americans considered him the final Antichrist. Not surprisingly, end-time interpretations of the nineteenth-century U.S. Civil War divided along geographic lines. Many ministers in both the North and the South expected this war to establish God’s Kingdom on earth; they merely differed as to which side in the war was God’s. Anyone who still remembers the prophetic fanfare of some popular teachers surrounding the year 2000 will not be too surprised to learn that something similar happened just before the year 1900. On the last day of 1899, Christians sponsored newspaper ads warning that Jesus was about to return. In the twentieth century, many prophecy teachers wrongly interpreted Jesus as saying that He would return within a forty-year generation of 1948, hence by 1988. (In context, the prophecy actually predicts the destruction of the Temple within forty years. Jesus’ prophecy was fulfilled right on schedule in the year 70.) In 1988, Edgar Whisenant’s book, 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will Be in 1988, sold three million copies. A friend who worked in a Christian bookstore told me (Craig) that the owner urged her to sell as many copies of that book as possible by December 31, because in 1989 no one would buy it. The owner’s prediction proved more accurate than Whisenant’s, whose revised edition in 1989 did not sell well. As scholars have since pointed out, this sales debacle illustrates that Christians in the United States are not always deceived two years in a row by the same author. Prophecy teaching has been a major pastime since the late 1800s, with interpretations changing regularly as newspaper headlines change. Like newspaper headlines, they sometimes fail to anticipate some major events, such as the collapse of the Soviet Union. (Like horoscopes, though, they are right sometimes.) It is one thing to say, “Current events might fit God’s plans,” or, “This fits the ways that God works in history,” and quite another to try to match them point-for-point as if biblical texts were predicting our generation’s newspaper headlines. So far every other generation that has used this technique of interpreting Scripture by news headlines has proved mistaken. One may take as an example what Revelation says about the kings of the east. Because the Allied Western powers considered the Turkish Ottoman Empire a threat, many Western interpreters in the 1800s viewed the “kings of the east” in Revelation 16: 12 as the Turks. (That this view could never have occurred to the seven churches of Asia Minor, located in what is now Turkey, seems to have escaped their notice.) The close of World War I, however, led to the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire, so interpreters shifted their focus to imperial Japan, which remained a threat until the end of World War II. After World War II, the West became friends with Japan but mistrusted Communist China. Prophecy teachers were now sure they understood the kings of the east: They were related to the great “red dragon” (Revelation 12: 3), which surely meant China. Even though China is to the west of the United States, it is to the east of the seven churches of Asia Minor. Many Western interpreters remained convinced that it meant China until 1972, when U.S. relations with China began to thaw. Did Revelation ever envision the “kings of the east” as specifically the Turks, Japan and China? Or were at least two-thirds of these interpretations wrong? The only consistency in Western interpretation was to assign this group to Asia, possibly as an expression of anti-Asian ethnocentrism. (These interpreters overlooked the fact that by ancient definitions even the Holy Land was in Asia.)….When the anti-Jewish Protocols of the Elders of Zion circulated in the 1920s, some prophecy teachers hailed the work as confirming their views. Unfortunately for them, it turned out to be a forgery written by the Russian secret police. In the 1980s, prophecy teacher Colin Deal warned about a computer in Belgium known as the Beast, apparently oblivious to the fact that the source for this information was a novel. (Talk about novel interpretations!) Prophecy teacher Jack Van Impe predicted that the Soviet flag would be flying over Independence Hall in Philadelphia by 1976. I joyfully lived in Philadelphia from 1996–2011, and my students who grew up there assured me that this never happened, by or since 1976. Unless President Putin has some unexpected plans beyond the Soviet Union’s former boundaries, it is probably too late to expect it in Philadelphia now.” (Michael L. Brown & Craig S. Keener, Not Afraid Of The Antichrist: Why We Don’t Believe In A Pre-Tribulation Rapture, 63-67 (Kindle Edition); Minneapolis, Minnesota; Chosen)

Just because history is filled with foolish date-setters, don’t be deceived: Jesus will return one Day. Please prepare for His Return (Acts 2:37-47; 1 John 1:8-2:2).

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