SURVEY OF CHRISTIAN PROPHECY
1260; 1700; 1844; 1915;
1919; 1934; 1990; 2000.
(From: Investigator 20, 1991 September)
In his book THE END OF THE WORLD (1983) Bruce Milne counselled:
"Our conviction concerning Christ’s appearing ought not to be tied to a particular reading of the international political scene or the deep sense of crisis of our age… It is a plain fact of Christian history that Christians in a number of generations have become so persuaded that the political events of their day fitted so precisely into the biblical ‘signs of the times’ that the Lord was surely coming in their lifetime." (pp. 29-30)
Recently I browsed through a number of Christian books on prophecy. Most of them came my way unexpectedly and in that sense my choice of books was random. Brief reviews are presented below.
I looked particularly for date setting and other alleged alignments of Bible statements with current events. From my reviews it becomes obvious that Christians who set particular and precise dates and periods get proven wrong repeatedly. Such results are a sorry advertisement for the alleged "true prophecies" of the "Word of God".
To attach prophetic significance to recent political happenings is one way a writer can make his message seem relevant to the readers. However, as decades pass the recent significant happenings become, compared to newer events, distant and insignificant. The author who has exhausted Bible prophecies about, for example, war by applying them to World War I has no Bible statements left to account for WW II or III. His interpretations must then either be forgotten Or the Bible must be viewed as having nothing to predict about future wars.
Alternatively, if a writer on Bible prophecy refuses to equate at least some recent current events with direct Bible statements he risks having his book and Bible prophecy viewed as irrelevant.
He may argue that all or most of the prophecies were fulfilled in the first century Or that they all apply to some future century. These approaches are called respectively "Preterist" and "Futurist".
Another method is to make the Bible prophecies span the centuries. This approach in interpretation is called "Historicist". The interpreter may try to link the various "seals", "trumpets" and "bowls" in the Bible book of Revelation to events through the centuries. Foster (1977) whose book is reviewed below interprets the "locusts" associated with the "fifth trumpet" (Revelation 9) as the attacks of the Muslims from 612 AD to 762 AD.
Foster calls this "an amazing fulfillment". (p. 43) The problem with this Historicist approach is that the "locusts" and almost everything else in the book of Revelation has been given a great many different interpretations by Catholics, Protestants and sectarian groups. Whose do we accept? And why?
Some authors discuss all the major interpretations and present pros and cons of each. This is what Milne does. This method at least leaves the Christian reader informed and, hopefully, also flexible and non-dogmatic. But of course it leaves the general reader with no means of judging whether Bible prophecy is relevant to the future or whether it’s all based on wishful imagination of ancient dreamers.
Readers who are skeptical of the Bible in the first place completely reject the Futurist and Historicist interpretations.
After all, there can be no prophetic significance to the symbolic language of Revelation (or any other symbolic language) unless it’s first demonstrated that God inspired it or that the "prophet" who produced it has a relevant ESP ability. In other words proof of the Bible (or of a supposed prophet’s supernatural insight) comes logically prior to the symbolic language being assigned prophetic significance.
To make this plainer consider Hansel and Gretel a story most of us enjoyed as kids. Suppose I argue that Hansel and Gretel represent Britain and America and their two meetings with the wicked witch represent the two world wars against Germany. Next, suppose I present this interpretation as proof of God having "inspired" the author of Hansel and Gretel. Then I add: "If you don't believe it then refute it."
What do you think? A convincing argument? Or silly? The point is that any story and any symbol can be interpreted so as to fit any event. Therefore we cannot rationally make an obscure set of words our starting point and give it a prophetic interpretation and then argue from this interpretation to the original obscure words having a supernatural origin.
If, however, a set of prophecies were so plain as to require little or no interpretation then we might be reasonable in inferring a supernatural or paranormal origin.
Alternatively, we could still be reasonable in attempting a prophetic interpretation of Hansel & Gretel or of Revelation if we could show on other grounds that have nothing to do with the obscure words we’re interpreting that these books are of supernatural origin.
To make all this plainer still: The mere act or procedure of interpreting obscure words and applying them to the future already presumes and assumes that those words have a supernatural or paranormal origin. Since you have begun with a presumption or assumption everything built on that assumption must be hypothetical — that is unproven and itself still an assumption.
These, therefore, are reasons why people who don’t already believe the Bible usually ignore the conflicting interpretations of symbolic passages alleged to be prophetic.
Augustine (354 AD - 430 AD), an early Catholic theologian, opposed prophetic date-setting:
"And yet some have asserted that 400, 500 or as much as 1,000 years may be completed between the Lord’s ascension and his final coming. But to show how each of them supports his opinion would take too long; and in any case is unnecessary, for they make use of human conjectures, and quote no decisive evidence from the authority of canonical Scripture." (The City of God, Penguin Books, 1976, p. 838)
Yet, many people have set prophetic dates. The Italian Monk Joachim of Fiore (1132 - 1202) predicted the "age of the Spirit" for 1260 AD. John Napier (1550 - 1617) calculated the Second Coming for 1688 - 1700. The Seventh Day Adventists began in the failure of prophecies for 1843 and 1844. The Jehovah's Witness leaders have made false prophecies for about 20 dates since the 1870s.
The J W leaders, despite their record, still sum up their past teachings as "true worship", still label people who rejected the early dates "agents of Satan" and "false", still claim to be the only religious leaders to have "divine guidance", and still expel and label as being "puffed up with pride" any followers who question their truthfulness. One of the early J W books is included in the sample of reviews below.
Milne rightfully reasons: "it is wise to avoid undue dogmatism." (p. 72) This applies even to present-day Israel which many other authors regard as so prophetically significant: "it is to be doubted whether the present Israeli state has any thing particular to do with events leading up to the return of Christ." (p. 77)
Being as open minded as Milne, however, presents another problem. Jesus gave various prophetic "signs" and said: "So also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates."
If no historical events after the first century can be clearly linked to prophetic statements of the Bible then what did Jesus mean by "when you see all these things"?
BEHOLD THE BRIDEGROOM (1891) W.T.P. Wolston
The edition I consulted is from 1920. The author says: "But God is about to replace His ancient people in their land… (p. 145) Two tribes of Israel are restored before Christ returns and the ten tribes afterwards. (p. 148) Russia will attack Israel. (p.165) How close is the end? : "Perhaps this is the last Gospel call you will ever hear." (p. 171) On page 180 the author says that 1891 A.D. is 5891 years after Adam and that the Millennium will start 6000 years after Adam.
THE TIME IS AT HAND (1889) by Charles T. Russell
My edition is from 1915. According to this book 6000 years ended in 1872. (p. 54) The "Gospel Age" is 40 years long commencing in 1874. (pp. 15, 171, 234) Jesus returned in 1874. (pp. 235, 170) God "spewed out" the nominal church systems in 1878. (p. 235) Israel will rise again from 1878-1915. (p. 232) The "day of trouble" with all Gentile powers "ground to powder" and "utterly removed" ends in 1915. (pp. 140-141, 101, 234, 242)
God’s Kingdom will be in "full establishment" on Earth in 1915. (p. 99)
This was one of the crankiest books in my survey.
THE COMING KING (1906) by James E. White
A Seventh Day Adventist publication. The author claims that the "Great Tribulation" is the persecution of Christians by Catholics from 538 to 1798 AD (pp. 99-103), the sun was darkened in 1780 (pp. 115 - 122), and the stars fell in 1833. (pp. 123-128)
These signs, together with 19th century famines (pp. 131-132), 19th century wars (pp. 166, 297), 19th century capital/labour conflicts (pp. 189-206), business failures (p. 216, drunkenness and gambling (pp. 232-240), false prophets like spiritualists and Christian Science (pp. 243-244), and worldwide gospel preaching (p. 250) prove that, "Jesus is soon coming." (p. 235)
All these signs are given when: "the last generation of men had come into the world." (p. 247)
Those men must by now all be centenarians at least. Perhaps cornflakes and other health foods will keep some alive until Jesus comes.
WHEN WILL OUR LORD RETURN? Published in 1915.
The author, Harold Norris, claims that the 2300 days mentioned in the Bible (Daniel 8:44) ended in 1844. (p. 19) He calculates "seven times" which he says is 2,520 years and makes them run from 606-598 BC to 1915-1923 AD. (pp. 31-35)
6000 years from Adam supposedly ends in 1919. (p. 95) So do 120 years as measured from 1799 (pp. 56-58) and 40 years measured from 1877-1879. (p. 65)
What all this means is this:
"Our Lord's return will be approximately within the epoch of October, 1917 to April 1919 A.D., and probably about the spring of the year 1918, and also that the final time of tribulation preceding this will commence in the epoch of May, 1914 to October, 1915…" (p. 53)
The book is dedicated to: "my esteemed Friend And Spiritual Guide, Dr. H. Grattan Guiness." The dates, however, are so close to what Charles T Russell (founder of JWs) taught that one suspects some connection there too.
LIGHT FOR THE LAST DAYS (1917)
This is a revision by E P Cachemaille of a book of the same name by Dr. and Mrs H. G. Guinness last appearing in 1893.
The author measures 2520 years using both solar and lunar scales and offers:
747 BC to 1699 AD Lunar
587 BC to 1860 AD 1 Lunar
747 BC to 1774 AD Solar
587 BC to 1934 AD I Solar
The date 1934 is the "latest close" of the "Gentile Times" i.e. of the 2520 years supposedly indicated in the Bible. (pp. 243, 183, 88)
The author tries, in some chapters, to be non-specific as to what should happen by 1934. In other places, however, he suggests the restoration of Israel (p. 35), the end of the "time of the End" (p. 261), the end of the Catholic Church (p.242), the removal "Mohammedan power from Syria" (p.243), and the return of Jesus (p. 242).
THE APPROACHING END OF THE AGE (1918) by E. H Horne
This is a revision of a book from 1878 by H. G. Guinness. The Gentile Times, says Horne, end 1919-1923. (pp. 267-269, 285) This may not be the date of Christ’s return, however, since a: "concluding seventy-five years may possibly be added to that date." (p. 328) Horne admits that the original 1879 book terminated the 75 years in 1923. (pp. 367-368) Horne adds (on p. 351) that Christ could come any year and that the 75 years "may be already far advanced".
THE PROPHETIC OUTLOOK TODAY (1918) E. P. Cachemaille.
Unrest and strikes in 1911 plus the First World War are suggested as being "the commencement of the Seventh Vial, the last of the series, the closing section of the Seventh Trumpet." (p. 118) Also: "The next great event to look for...is the mighty European Revolution foretold as the ‘great earthquake’…" (p. 120)
Since no specific dates are set this book has little we can directly refute. Israel will be restored the author says. He calls the Pope "Antichrist". He also attacks two systems of prophetic interpretation invented by Jesuits:
Ribera (1580) developed the Futurist system that places most of the prophecies in the remote future and Alcasar (1614) applied most of the prophecies to the period around the siege of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. (p.110)
SIGNS (1929) by Rev. W. Lamb.
A long book of 405 pages about numerous so-called "signs" of Christ’s return visible by the 1920s. The Preface (p.3) says: "The second coming of our Lord and Saviour is now so actually near, that the mighty event may happen at any time, even before the present generation has passed from the earth..." Russia will attack, Israel after its restoration and after the "rapture of the church". (pp. 59, 291)
The author himself goes into raptures over the achievements of the British who are: "under the protective care of the Almighty." (pp. 82, 309)
He says: "Christ is coming soon." (p. 87) Also: "If He is coming soon, then the person who is to be ultimately revealed as the Antichrist is somewhere on the earth now." (p. 242) He says that Antichrist couldn’t yet be identified (p. 241) and yet Rev. Lamb spends a chapter on Italian dictator Mussolini and comes close to calling him the Antichrist — repeatedly. (pp. 243-250) "Yes, Mussolini is surely a portent, a very mighty sign of the nearness of the end." (p. 250)
PROPPECY’S LAST WORD AN EXPOSITION OF THE REVELATION (1947) by F. A. Tatford.
Like the title says this is an explanation of the Bible book of Revelation. The author tries to make Revelation span the centuries by allowing two fulfilments of some of the symbolic language. No dates are set for Israel’s rebuilding of the temple, the Antichrist’s new Roman Empire, the attack of 200 million Asians on Israel (pp. 251-252, 181) or Christ’s coming. However, it "cannot much longer be delayed" (p.241) and there’s a "6,000 years’ struggle between ...good and evil…"
PROPHECY - WHAT LIES AHEAD? (1952)
This book avoids date-setting and also avoids linking the interpretations to specific current events — except for the rebirth of Israel.
Consequently this book remains unrefuted by events since its publication. However, the author informs us:
"Even now he (Antichrist) may be alive." (p. 21)
"True, the Millennium is near…" (p. 27)
"Christ is coming. Soon we shall see him." (p. 35)
"we are already living in the closing days of the present dispensation." (p. 49)
"we are on the eve of what the Bible predicts." (p. 55)
Oswald Smith forecasts a revived Roman Empire of 10 nations including Germany, Russia, Italy, Persia, Ethiopia with "perhaps Great Britain in the place of leadership." (p. 45) The Jewish Temple in Jerusalem will be rebuilt (p. 77), the Jews will make a "covenant" with Antichrist which he’ll break after 3 ½ years. (p. 88)
All nations then attack Israel and the Great Tribulation, also 3 ½ years long, follows. (pp. 29, 79, 81, 90). Then Jesus returns. (p. 81)
VISTAS OF THE COMING GLORY (c. 1965)
This book avoids specifying particular dates. The author is concerned with refuting interpretations that "spiritualize" Bible prophecies. He attacks the beliefs that the Millennium began "at the cross" and ends at the Second Coming, and that the Antichrist is the Pope or Papacy, and that the "Great Tribulation" started in 70 A.D., etc.
IN THE DAYS TO COME (1966)
This book discusses Israel, Christ’s Second Coming (this being "imminent"), Armageddon, etc. Pages 24-25 suggest that Jesus will return while the orange trees planted in the late 1940s in Israel are still bearing fruit which orange trees do for about 50 years.
THE BOOK OF REVELATION UNVEILED AT LAST (1959) by H.W. Armstrong.
This booklet predicted false Christs, war, famine, epidemics and the "Great Tribulation" followed by God’s "seven last plagues" and the return of Christ all to occur in: "these immediate years just ahead." (p. 8) How soon this meant was revealed in a magazine of which Mr Armstrong was editor: "twenty years from now your Creator will have established a world government…" (The Plain Truth, 1965, August, p. 48)
WHAT ON EARTH’S GOING TO HAPPEN (1970) by R.C. Stedman.
The temple will be rebuilt (p. 42); there will be a 7-year "end of the age" period (p. 43) during the start of which Christians are removed from Earth (pp. 60-61) and in the middle of which Antichrist enters the temple (p. 43).
The second half of the 7 years is the Great Tribulation (p. 52) during which 144,000 Jews preach and convert a "great multitude" of gentiles. (pp. 72-76) The Second Coming is in two stages. The first is invisible when Jesus takes Christians off the Earth and the second stage is visible and occurs just after the 7-year period. (pp. 63-65, 112)
No dates at all are set in this book. The nearest is: "We are now nearing the end of two thousand years of history and each man can judge for himself whether or not the world is approaching these events." (p. 129) The author even allows for the possibility that something other than Communism will rule Russia at the time it attacks Israel. (p. 84)
THE POPE COMMUNISM AND THE COMING NEW WORLD (1977) by T. Foster.
The author is of the sect called Christian Revival Crusade and his scenario resembles most of the preceding ones. He links the various "seals", "trumpets" and "vials" of Revelation to events through the centuries and then proceeds to Antichrist, etc.
How much longer? :
"From Adam to Christ was 4000 years, and from then to the year 2000 A.D. will make a total of 6000 years; the 7th millennia is the ‘millennium’." (pp. 123-124)