(This is the 10th installment of a series of blog entries. Be sure to start with Part 1.)
While many predictions of the end come from Biblical or other apocalyptic texts, at one point in 18th century England, actual events pushed people to believe the end had come. In the summer of 1783, a strange and horrible blight hit England. The skies darkened and a sulfurous fog spread through the country. In Gentleman’s Magazine, a visitor to Lincoln observed: “A thick hot vapour had for several days before filled up the valley, so that both the Sun and Moon appeared like heated brick-bars.” … By the end of the year, nearly 23,000 people had died from respiratory failure. In addition, the blight destroyed crops, creating famine and food riots. For the superstitious, the answer was obvious. Reverend John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, reported, “Those that were asleep in the town were waked and many thought the day of judgment had come…Men, women and children flocked out of their houses and kneeled down together in the streets.” (source)
Over 200 years later, we are still here. So the day of judgment hadn’t arrived, even though it sure looked that way to the people of England that summer. And once they actually discovered the source of the “strange and horrible blight,” and gradually found out the extent to which it was affecting not just England but virtually the whole Northern Hemisphere, it didn’t do anything to quell their fears… it just made them worse.
The truth, while just as lethal, was more geological than theological. These deadly events were the result of volcanic eruptions of the Laki Craters in Iceland in which an estimated 120 million tons of deadly gases were released into the atmosphere — 100 times more than were released in 2010 during the eruption of Eyjafjallajokull, also in Iceland. Clouds of sulfur dioxide and fluorine drifted across the Atlantic, and mixing with atmospheric moisture, produced sulfuric rain.
You remember those reports about that unpronounceable volcano in 2010… it caused a disruption in air traffic over parts of Europe for a few weeks, eventually messing up over 300 commercial flights.
That 2010 Icelandic event, and those widespread air traffic problems, seemed like a big deal at the time, I suppose. But let’s put it in perspective against some of the “fall out” of the 1783 Icelandic eruption:
The Laki volcanic fissure in southern Iceland erupted over an eight-month period from 8 June 1783 to February 1784, spewing lava and poisonous gases that devastated the island’s agriculture, killing much of the livestock. It is estimated that perhaps a quarter of Iceland’s population died through the ensuing famine.
… In Norway, the Netherlands, the British Isles, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, in North America and even Egypt, the Laki eruption had its consequences, as the haze of dust and sulphur particles thrown up by the volcano was carried over much of the northern hemisphere.
Ships moored up in many ports, effectively fogbound. Crops were affected as the fall-out from the continuing eruption coincided with an abnormally hot summer. …
The British naturalist Gilbert White described that summer in his classic Natural History of Selborne as “an amazing and portentous one … the peculiar haze, or smokey fog, that prevailed for many weeks in this island, and in every part of Europe, and even beyond its limits, was a most extraordinary appearance, unlike anything known within the memory of man.”
“The sun, at noon, looked as blank as a clouded moon, and shed a rust-coloured ferruginous light on the ground, and floors of rooms; but was particularly lurid and blood-coloured at rising and setting. At the same time the heat was so intense that butchers’ meat could hardly be eaten on the day after it was killed; and the flies swarmed so in the lanes and hedges that they rendered the horses half frantic …”
Across the Atlantic, Benjamin Franklin wrote of “a constant fog over all Europe, and a great part of North America”.
The disruption to weather patterns meant the ensuing winter was unusually harsh, with consequent spring flooding claiming more lives. [In North America, the winter of 1784 was the longest and one of the coldest on record. It was the longest period of below-zero temperatures in New England, with the largest accumulation of snow in New Jersey and the longest freezing over of the Chesapeake Bay. There was ice skating in Charleston Harbor, a huge snowstorm hit the south, the Mississippi River froze at New Orleans and there was ice in the Gulf of Mexico. (Wiki)]
The eruption is now thought to have disrupted the Asian monsoon cycle, prompting famine in Egypt. Environmental historians have also pointed to the disruption caused to the economies of northern Europe, where food poverty was a major factor in the build-up to the French revolution of 1789. (Source)
The upshot of ALL of the various types of results of the eruption? “The eruption has been estimated to have killed over six million people globally,making the eruption the deadliest in historical times.” (Wiki)
I hadn’t even ever HEARD of the Laki eruptions before this week! Most people probably haven’t… high school history books are much more intent on cataloging wars and politics than natural disasters. The only volcano event I ever remember studying from my school years was the one that destroyed Pompeii. Yet if you lived back at the time in 1783, those descriptions sure sound to me as if it would have been totally reasonable to consider that God was tired of putting up with all the corruption of mankind, and had decided to pull out all stops and get started toward The End of the World. Could Armageddon be far behind??
There have been numerous other historical periods in which it indeed would have seemed to those alive at the time as if the End was Nigh and things were lining up with the Book of Revelation. Consider the Black Death of the 1300s.
The Black Death is estimated to have killed 30–60 percent of Europe’s population and reduced the world population from an estimated 450 million to between 350 and 375 million in the 14th century. The aftermath of the plague created a series of religious, social and economic upheavals, which had profound effects on the course of European history. It took 150 years for Europe’s population to recover.
Again, it is certainly understandable that folks might think this situation was a sign of God’s displeasure with all mankind, and that He was about to step into history and end the age of mankind’s evildoing. A common sight during this period was the groups all across Europe called Flagellants, who seemed to feel that if they did enough “penance” by beating themselves in public they could either stay God’s hand … or at least make Him more favorable to seeing that their personal destiny was Heaven rather than Hell when The End came!
The peak of the activity was during the Black Death, then called the Great Death, which began around 1347. Spontaneously Flagellant groups arose across Northern and Central Europe in 1349, except in England. The German and Low Countries movement, the Brothers of the Cross, is particularly well documented – they wore white robes and marched across Germany in 33.5 day campaigns (each day referred to a year of Jesus’ earthly life) of penance, only stopping in any one place for no more than a day. They established their camps in fields near towns and held their rituals twice a day. The ritual began with the reading of a letter, claimed to have been delivered by an angel and justifying the Flagellants’ activities. Next the followers would fall to their knees and scourge themselves, gesturing with their free hands to indicate their sin and striking themselves rhythmically to songs, known as Geisslerlieder, until blood flowed. Sometimes the blood was soaked up in rags and treated as a holy relic. [From the Wikipedia.org Flagellant article]
These people really took their conviction about the Imminent and Inevitable reality of The End seriously! As have others since the time of Christ in every era when horrible natural and political and religious disasters (such as the Inquisition) have occurred. The prophetic Bible passages that speak of “wars and rumors of wars” and “pestilences” and “famines” are general enough to SEEM to fit many times in history.
Who could blame people during the Great Depression … and its Dustbowl… for thinking the End was Nigh?
Who could blame people in the midst of the Holocaust of World War 2 for thinking the End was Nigh?
Also throughout history, there have been men (and a few women) who have preached that The End was imminent and inevitable even though no specific horrible signs and conditions were prevalent right at the moment. They instead based their conviction on “scholarship” … or at least pseudo-scholarship. They declared that they had found irrefutable evidence in the Bible itself, mixed in with mathematics and secular history, that “revealed” a specific date—or time frame, such as “within this generation” or “before the next decade”—for “The Return of Christ” and/or the End of the World (as we know it.) Sometimes this meant a destruction of the physical world, sometimes it meant an end to man’s rule and the beginning of an earthly millennium under the rule of Christ and “the Saints.”
It is odd that many people could become just as adamantly convinced of The End under the influence of a persuasive teacher and his “theories” as in the presence of something tangible like the Black Death. But indeed they could, to the point of giving up everything to dedicate their life to “the cause” of spreading the theory of their chosen guru.
One of the most effective such gurus in the past couple of centuries was William Miller.
From the profile of Miller on my Field Guide to the Wild World of Religion website:
William Miller was a Baptist “lay leader” in New York state who began studying Biblical prophecy in earnest around 1820, and developed elaborate theories about the timing of the Second Coming. He attempted at first to present his theories to the ordained ministers in his area, hoping that they would preach them to the public. But his attempts to convince others to spread his ideas were mostly ineffective. So in 1831 he reluctantly started preaching about them himself. In 1833 he published his first official pamphlet on end-time prophecy. And in 1836 his book Evidences from Scripture and History of the Second Coming of Christ about the Year 1843 was published.
Miller based his prophetic scenario in particular on Daniel 8, in which the prophet Daniel, in vision, hears two “saints” talking about some of the events he saw earlier in the vision:
13 Then I heard one saint speaking, and another saint said unto that certain saint which spake, How long shall be the vision concerning the daily sacrifice, and the transgression of desolation, to give both the sanctuary and the host to be trodden under foot?
14 And he said unto me, Unto two thousand and three hundred days; then shall the sanctuary be cleansed.
Miller accepted a popular theory proposed by many Bible students of his time (and still popular in many circles today) that a day in prophetic passages is almost always intended to stand for a year in fulfillment. (This theory is based on passages such as Ezekiel 4:6.) And thus he taught that this prophecy would be 2300 years in fulfillment. He believed that the 2300 years started in 457 BCE with a decree from Babylonian monarch Artaxerxes allowing those Israelites who had been in captivity in Babylon who wished to, to return to the land of Israel and rebuild the Temple. Thus Miller was convinced that the “cleansing of the temple” (which he believed to be symbolic of the Second Coming– the second “Advent of Christ” when He would “cleanse the earth”) would occur at some point between two spring equinoxes: March 21,1843, and March 21, 1844.
Miller also established to his own satisfaction a number of other alleged “proofs” of this chronology from comparing other Biblical passages and historical events.
By the early 1830s, he was circuit-riding small-town New England with an illustrated series of lectures, and within a decade he was preaching in the major cities of the Northeast and leading the most popular millenarian movement America has seen. (The Disappointed, p. xv)
Conservative estimates indicate Miller and his associates presented his theories ultimately to hundreds of thousands of people in America (Miller himself claimed to have spoken to over 500,000 people, in over 4,500 meetings), along with large numbers overseas, particularly in English-speaking countries. Many main-stream church leaders strongly criticized his teachings. Many newspapers ridiculed his ideas as fanaticism and his supporters as fanatics, while at the same time appreciating the fact that sensational stories about his meetings increased the sales of their papers.
When Jesus didn’t come by March 1844, Miller “adjusted” his theory to add a few months, aiming at October 22. That, obviously, didn’t pan out either. This led, among his supporters, to what has since been dubbed “The Great Disappointment.” In part they were disappointed that Jesus didn’t return as promised. But many were also disappointed because they had made some foolish, irreversible choices—such as giving away all their possessions, or giving up jobs, or not planting crops for the 1844 season, because they were SO convinced that The End was imminent and inevitable.
But True Believers are hard to keep down. Retaining the label “Adventists,” indicating their belief that the second “advent”—”coming”—of Christ was surely going to be very, very soon, many kept “playing the numbers,” trying to come up with a new date.
From Brief History of Jehovah’s Witnesses on the Field Guide website:
In spite of the 1844 debacle, by the early 1870s, a number of Adventists had begun speculating on a date again, this time 1874. Although most abandoned that notion when the date came and went with no noticeable event, one small group came up with an ingenious way around the problem. They declared that He had, indeed, “Come again,” but that it wasn’t a “Second Coming,” but rather an invisible second “presence.” One of the primary publications promoting this unique perspective was The Herald of the Morning, published by Adventist Nelson Barbour.
In 1876, Charles Taze Russell joined forces with Barbour and became chief financial backer of the magazine, as well as assistant editor. Barbour and Russell declared that Christ’s invisible presence of 1874 was to be followed by the literal rapture of the Saints to heaven in 1878.
When this date too passed, Barbour and Russell had a falling-out, and Russell left to start his own rival magazine, taking Barbour’s mailing list from which to gather subscribers. Thus in 1879 Russell first published Zion’s Watchtower and Herald of Christ’s Presence, the forerunner of today’s Watchtower magazine. And there were shortly a number of Bible study groups forming around the teachings in this new magazine, with members viewing Russell ultimately as their “pastor.” However, Russell did not at the time advocate a central organization to govern these groups. Each was autonomous, and referred to as merely an “ecclesia” (congregation) with the members calling themselves merely “Bible Students.” Although all the Bible Students looked to Russell as a spiritual leader, he was not the “head of a denomination.”
In 1881, Russell formed the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society as the official sponsor of his public ministry. Although it had a board of directors and such, the actual power in the organization was totally Russell’s. This Society published the Watchtower magazine and Russell’s other writings and books. And it eventually sponsored his public lectures around the world, and paid for his sermons to be published … as paid advertisements … in papers all over the world.
Russell continued to make date-connected predictions, including dogmatically stating in print in 1889 that the absolute farthest date possible for the continuance of the world’s society before Jesus’ direct intervention to bring it down would be 1914. When WWI started that year, Russell’s followers were ecstatic, believing it to be the beginning of the fulfillment of his predictions. But as the war drug on, and finally ended, it became obvious that this was just one more Great Disappointment. And once again excuses had to be made and explanations invented that would maintain the integrity of the rest of Russell’s teachings in the eyes of his followers in spite of this utter failure in the realm of dogmatic speculative prophetic pronouncements.
After his death, Russell’s successor, Joseph Rutherford, dubbed the Watchtower followers “Jehovah’s Witnesses.” The JWs eventually ended up insisting that The End would surely come in 1975, a year they decided was “6,000 years after Creation.” They were joined by Herbert Armstrong’s Radio Church of God in settling on this date (although the number-crunching done by Armstrong to come to that date was different). By the 1960s, the two groups had hundreds of thousands of readers of their literature convinced that The End was imminent and inevitable by 1975. And when that date passed, there was more great disappointment—because once again many folks made foolish, at some times irrevocable, life choices based on their convictions.
And the beat goes on. As mentioned in the last entry in this series, Hal Lindsey settled on the date 1988 because it was “a generation” of forty years from the founding of the state of Israel.
Edgar Whisenant, predicting that same year but for varying reasons, sent 300,000 copies of his book 88 Reasons Why the Rapture will be in 1988 free of charge to ministers across America, and sold 4.5 million copies in bookstores.
Those predictions failed miserably too, but that didn’t stop Monte Judah from predicting, in 1996, that the Great Tribulation would definitely start in February or March of 1997. Monte had this to say:
Because I teach people to look for specific things, I am criticized as a “datesetter.” But in defense of the argument, I remind people that I didn’t make the Middle East Peace Accord of 1993 happen, nor did I select the Feast of Booths by the mouth of Zechariah. I am drawing a conclusion based on a Scriptural understanding. Further, I have openly called all men to examine my words and scrutinize them. If what I say does not happen, then brand me as a false prophet, listen to me no more, and heap the ridicule on to prevent others from making the same mistake. But I would remind you in accordance with the Scripture not to despise a prophetic utterance until it has been proven false.
The irony of this whole situation is stunning. I call for the testing of all prophets. I have made my message and its measurement clear. If the altar is not stopped in Feb/Mar of 1997 in Jerusalem, then throw me on the trash heap. But if the altar service is stopped 3 1/2 years after the peace agreement, will you then trust God to deliver you? Will you believe the other prophecies that follow? [from the Field Guide profile of Monte Judah.]
Actually, Monte changed his mind after the prophecy failed, and to this day wants people to still look to him for “prophetic insight.”
The same is true of Michael John Rood, who decided in the early 1990s that the JWs were wrong… the 6000 years “of man’s rule” weren’t up in 1975—they would be up on May 5, 2000. And the Great Tribulation would start immediately, with Christ returning to set up His Kingdom in 2007. And … whaddaya know!… even though HIS elaborate predictions didn’t pan out either, he still persists to this day attempting to gather followers for his “prophetic ministry” and presenting himself as having an inside track on the Plan of God. [See the Field Guide Profile of Michael John Rood.]
The supporters and followers of all these men, and hundreds more … no, probably thousands more since the time of Christ… keep being convinced generation after generation that they have “cracked the Bible Code” and can be absolutely certain that the Second Coming and/or the End of the World is imminent and inevitable in their own lifetime. And thus they are ready and willing to believe that horrible, formerly unthinkable conditions will soon be on the earth, “worse” than any other time in history. They are willing to give time and resources sacrificially to spread this message and convince others to get prepared for these now “thinkable” horrors that are surely, definitely, positively right around the corner.
But I am convinced that they have it all wrong. I am convinced that they should go back to preaching that people should be preparing for the now unthinkable. Because what is now unthinkable for many “prophetic speculation” addicts as the possibility for the near future is what you see in the vivid illustration in the frame below:
No, that isn’t an “error” in the frame above. It’s a … “picture of NOTHING!”
WHAT IF the reality is that … NOTHING of big End Times prophetic import may happen for years, decades, or even generations to come? WHAT IF really, really bad economic times happen in America … just as they did in the Great Depression… but this doesn’t bring on the End of the World? What if a variety of natural disasters occur, such as the 1783 eruption of Laki, but life goes on—just as it did after that disaster? What if even persecution comes on Christians from various sources—just as it did in the Inquisition—but this doesn’t bring on the End of the World?
I am concerned that Christians are not prepared for THAT! What if the Plan of God isn’t to bring a swift end to things in our generation, but is to commission Christians to be Salt and Light in a dark world for a long time to come? It is, in one way, relatively easy to hunker down and read your Bible and stay huddled in your own little Religious Ghetto with others, waiting for 3.5 or 7 years for The End. “Preparing the Bride,” as some prophetic prognosticators refer to it.
It is quite another thing to pick up the Gospel with the love of Jesus, walk out the door, and take it to the world. If any whole generation of Christians since the resurrection of Jesus had TOTALLY bought into the idea that the end was inevitably imminent, and absorbed itself in just hunkering down, if no one was out being that salt and light to the world and sharing the Gospel “as if” the End might not come for a long, long time—the Faith would have died out on the Earth.
I’d hate to see my generation of Christians being that totally self-absorbed, hermit group that hunkers down because they insist that Jesus MUST come on their schedule. And it must be soon. Very soon. Because being Salt and Light is just too much work. It is now unthinkable to many people that the end could be maybe NOT “almost upon us.” THIS is the “New Unthinkable.”
If my words have been able to persuade you to at least consider “what if” The End isn’t as inevitably imminent as many are proclaiming, if you are willing to consider that God just may have a lot more for you to do in service to Him for the rest of your life other than hunker down and wait, then check out the next installment of this series.
If you are willing to at least consider preparing for the possibility that this new kind of “unthinkable future” may be ahead of us, I have some suggestions where and how to start your preparations. Continue on to Disneyfied Nostalgia.