One of the penalties of getting older is that history repeats. When as a young man in my final year of high school, (in 1962)I went across the road from my home to check out the local Jehovah’s Witness service at what was then the local kindergarten hall. There I heard a fiery young preacher assure us that even although he could not be absolutely certain of the date of the end of the world he could absolutely guarantee that it would not be worth building a new fence, so near was the end of the world. Five years at the outside he said. (Ever since that time, each time I am entreated to do fence repair I make good use of this gem.)
Intrigued by this and other failed predictions, I began to read and ask around and apparently right through history I discovered there have been many such failures. Since my first encounter with Jehovah Witness theology there have been many more contemporary warnings. We are currently awaiting, no doubt with a presumed sense of mounting excitement, a rapture in October 2011, another next year, when the Mayan calendar is fulfilled and we can look forward confidently to at least two asteroids heading our way in the next 10 years, presumably to finish off some of those in the “left behind” bracket. I have tried to keep an open mind but I must say that when time after time you hear the same theme of immanent grim warning – and note that each time nothing of significance materialises – it is hard to get into the mood. Strangely enough it always seems the number of anxious believers never diminishes and there is always another fiery end often worse than the one before just around the corner. After a while I caught myself becoming a touch sceptical about the need to panic and the following brief account of failed prophecy may help explain why I haven’t written my final farewell note to those left behind in the Rapture. Those who read through to the end might forgive the note of growing cynicism. With a careless disregard for copyright I have lifted much of the list of failed prophecies from the Religious Tolerance website and lightly edited and added in my own examples to get a more comprehensive list. And yes I know there are actually heaps more. If you wish to see a more objective version please go to the original.
So that the reader is not burdened with too many examples I have deliberately left out more than a passing reference to those who predict using Nostradamus, the Harmonic Convergence, pyramids, Tarot, psychic prediction, tyromancy, cephalomancy, tea leaves, channeling, astrology, Celestine prophecy, global warmism etc etc etc etc etc etc. However for those really interested in a light-hearted overview of such matters, can I recommend James Finn Garner and his book Apocalypse Wow.
Most of the prophecies connected with the history of Christian tradition seem to be centred around a number of predicted key events, many of which seem to be related to a literalist interpretation of the Bible including key verses from some of the more colourful yet ambiguous sections. The Book of Daniel and the so called Book of Revelation are two common sources, often supported by various claimed personal revelations to the various prophets (some self appointed?) Commonly mentioned are as likely harbingers of the end are:
• the arrival on Earth of an evil leader with political and military ambitions. This person is often called the Anti Christ. We should note that for the early Christians, this was usually thought to be Nero or one of the other anti Christian Roman Emperors, and there is a strong school of religious scholars who believe that indeed that was who the author of the Book of Revelation had in mind when he wrote of the Anti-Christ. Since then there have been a host of contenders. Napoleon, Rasputin, Hitler, Stalin, Gorbachev, Sadaam Hussein… the list goes on.
• Then there would of course be the Tribulation: a series of terrible disasters most often called a seven year period– often identified with natural and astronomical events. Ever since every time there has been a terrible series of events, plagues, volcanoes, strange astronomical observations, famine, tidal wave etc the talk of the Time of Tribulation re-emerges.
• Then, what everyone is really waiting for, we have The Rapture of the chosen true believers (often called born again Christians) who are supposed to be lifted up in the sky (both living and dead) to meet Jesus
• The second coming of Christ variously thought to be a) contemporary with the early disciples b) at the end of one millennium and more recently c) at the end of the second millennium d) some other date (usually soon)
• The final decisive battle – usually centred on Israel. And most often called Armageddon. Some people go so far as to encourage the unrest in the Middle East, believing that that might help the end approach.
In the perhaps vain hope that learning more about past failures might make us just a little more cautious about selling our possessions and heading for the nearest mountain top where we will get a slight start on the others in our trip up to meet Jesus, I list the following. And yes, you may notice a hint of ever so slight sarcasm in my reporting, but I have to admit watching the same re-run, with the same credulous responses time after time, seems to call for a touch of irony. Sorry in advance if I have offended too many.
• About 30 CE to about 100CE: There is already a problem for those who believe Jesus’ words to be accurately recorded and literally interpreted since the words on the subject of the second coming appear unambiguous. They certainly suggest Jesus himself was predicting his immanent return along with the kingdom. Jesus is recorded as saying in Matthew 16:28: “…there shall be some standing here, who shall not taste death, till they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” In Matthew 24:34, Jesus is again suggesting the same thing is recorded as saying: “…This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled If this was literally what Jesus and his listeners appear to think referred to the second coming, the best we can say is that it didn’t happen. If as many think, Jesus himself doesn’t make mistakes, then it is always possible he was misreported or misunderstood in the apparent meaning of his words. In several places Paul also records in his letters that he believes the rapture will occur in the lifetime of those living in the first century CE
• Circa 90 CE: Saint Clement 1 predicts that the world end is immanent. It isn’t.
• 2nd Century CE: Prophets and Prophetesses of the Montanist movement predict Jesus’ return and establishment of the New Jerusalem. This was to be in the city of Pepuza (Asia Minor) sometime during theirs and their followers’ lifetime. Guess what……
• 365 CE: Hilary of Poitiers, announces the end would happen that year. One tiny glitch….. it didn’t.
• 375 to 400 CE: Saint Martin of Tours, a student of Hilary, said that the end would happen sometime before 400 CE. Well, given who his teacher was, what else would we expect?
• 500 CE: In the prediction business round numbers attract the most panic. The Anti-pope Hippolytus and an earlier Christian academic Sextus Julius Africanus are among those who predict Armageddon this year. Popes of course are infallible, but it is a bit on the nose to expect an Anti-pope to have the same high standards.
• 968 CE: An eclipse was interpreted as a clear sign of the end of the world by the army of the German emperor Otto III. It should be noted that in an age where few could read and write this interpretation of the meaning of an eclipse was surprisingly common, and for many they have continued to do so right up to the present.
Anne Tolley says proper teaching and more rigorous school science teaching may be called for.
• 992: Good Friday coincides with the Feast of the Annunciation; the co-incident event long expected to bring herald the Antichrist, not to mention the other end-times events foretold in Revelation. Records from Germany report that a new sun rose in the north and that as many as 3 suns and 3 moons were fighting. There does not appear to be independent verification of this remarkable event. (Nor for that matter who won! Perhaps this strange report was associated with the aftermath of an early beer fest)
• 1000-Jan-1: Many Christians in Europe had predicted the end of the world on this date. As the fateful time grew closer, Christian armies went to war against some of the Pagan countries in Northern Europe. The claimed motivation was to convert them all to Christianity, by force if necessary, before Christ returned in the year 1000. (Sounds a bit like international politics in the Middle East). Some Christians gave their possessions to the Church in anticipation of the end (as one does!). Fortunately, the level of education was so low that many citizens didn’t even know what year it was. They didn’t even know enough to panic. Unfortunately, when Jesus did not appear, the church ‘forgot’ to return the gifts. Serious criticism of the Church followed. The Church (predictably perhaps) reacted by labelling the critics as heretics and executing them. (Execution is actually quite a powerful disincentive to criticism.) Agitation settled down quickly, as it later did in the year 2000.
• 1000-May: The body of Charlemagne was disinterred at Pentecost. There was a legend that an emperor would rise from his sleep to fight the Antichrist. (Perhaps it was fortunate the Antichrist failed to materialise because the disinterred body did not appear in good fighting condition)
• 1005-1006: A terrible famine throughout Europe was seen as a clear sign of the nearness of the end. It was – but as it turned out, only for the ones who starved.
• 1033: Some believed this to be the 1000th anniversary of the death and resurrection of Jesus. His second coming was therefore quite logically anticipated. (Jesus’ actual date of execution is unknown, but is believed to be in the range of 27 to 33 CE.)
• 1147: Gerard of Poehlde decides that the millennium had actually started in 306 CE during Constantine’s reign. Thus, the world end is expected in 1306 CE. OK – it was an understandable and honest mistake! – but that’s just hindsight.
• 1179: John of Toledo predicted the end of the world as 1186. This estimate was based on the alignment of most of the planets. (Sounds like some of today’s astrologers!)
• 1205: Joachim of Fiore predicted in 1190 that the Antichrist was already in the world, and that King Richard of England would defeat him. The Millennium would then begin, sometime before 1205…..or not as it happened.
• 1284: Pope Innocent III worked out this date by adding 666 years onto the date the Islam was founded. ( A bit of a put down for the opposition when you stop to think about it.) Just a point of quick clarification. Can anyone out there remind me again about the puzzling meaning of this word this word “infallibility”?
• 1346 and later: The black plague spreads across Europe, killing one third of the population. Clearly the prelude to an immediate end of the world. Unfortunately, the Christians had previously killed many of the cats, fearing that they might be familiars of Witches. The fewer the cats, the more the rats. It was the rat fleas that spread the black plague. (looking at our two cats, I can see how the mistake could be made)
• 1496: This was approximately 1500 years after the birth of Jesus. Some mystics in the 15th century predicted that the millennium would begin during this year. Moving right on….
• 1524: Many astrologers predicted the imminent end of the world due to a world wide flood. Presumably they had not read the Genesis story of the rainbow. But be fair. The star signs author at the local paper was right that last Tuesday was going to be my worst day that week. And what is a world wide flood if it isn’t another worst day? (One out of two cant be that bad.)
• 1654 Archbishop Ussher of Armagh fixes the date of Creation as 4004 BC (26th October at 9 AM), and the End as 1997 AD (6 AM of the Great Week) when the Millennium begins… He meant well…
• 1669: The Old Believers in Russia believed that the end of the world would occur in this year. 20 thousand burned themselves to death between 1669 and 1690 to protect themselves from the AntiChrist. Well, it worked didn’t it…. no sign of the AntiChrist.
• 1719 The return of a comet was supposed to wipe out the Earth, thus said Jacques Bernoulli, progenitor of the mathematical Bernoulli family.
• 1736: British theologian and mathematician William Whitson predicts a great flood similar to Noah’s for 13 Oct. But remember he was working without a TV weather presenter and even now most of them still seem to get it wrong.
• 1774 Ann Lee (tongues-speaking Quaker) founds the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing (Shakers) as the Millennial church in America (with one theme promoting celibacy).Celibacy didn’t exactly encourage her Church growth. She modestly declares herself to be the reincarnation of Christ and female aspect of God’s dual nature. Remember the Shakers weren’t entirely stupid. They did after all go on to do some fairly impressive inventing (the circular saw, screw propeller, rotary harrow, etc) so if Ann Lee was right we should listen… if not….um….
• May 19, 1780 On that day in New England the skies turned unexpectedly dark for several hours in the afternoon, which I guess was why people believed that a biblical prophecy had come true and Judgement Day had arrived. In reality, the darkness was caused by smoke from large-scale forest fires to the west.
• 1792: This was the date of the end of the world calculated by some believers in the Shaker movement. So who’s to say it really may not have happened, …..well would you accept…. happened in a metaphorical sense?….
• 1794 Charles Wesley, brother of Methodist Church founder John Wesley, predicts Doomsday would be in 1794 (This is now seriously embarrassing. Did I happen to mention I was a Methodist?) John, who only got on with his brother some of the time, made a different prediction. Different prediction but same result.
• 1802 Prophetess Joanna Southcott in England begins ‘sealing’ the ‘144 000’ elect for the End (a seal colony?). Her thousands of followers include some Anglican clergy. The Anglicans are still to this day arguing about whether or not to listen to women…
• 1825 Britain’s Rev Edward Irving predicts that Christ will return in 1864 (the Irvingites are the origin of the Catholic Apostolic Church, and today’s New Apostolic Church. The Old Apostolic Church is a South African break-away from this group). Of course old should follow new. It did with my car anyway.
• 1830: Margaret McDonald, a Christian prophetess, predicts Robert Owen would be the Antichrist. Owen helped found New Harmony, IN. A simple – and thinking about Owen – an understandable mistake.
• 1832?: Joseph Smith (1805-1844) was the founder of the Church of Christ, which became the Restorationist movement after many schisms. It now includes The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints – called by most people the Mormons, and also incidentally about a hundred other denominations and sects. (The ones that allow several wives are attractive to some). Anyway, he heard a voice while praying. He wrote, in Doctrines and Covenants section 130:
“I was once praying very earnestly to know the time of the coming of the Son of Man, when I heard a voice repeat the following: Joseph, my son, if thou livest until thou art eighty-five years old, thou shalt see the face of the Son of Man; therefore let this suffice, and trouble me no more on this matter.” (Doctrine & Covenants 130:14-15).
Joseph Smith declared: “I prophesy in the name of the Lord God, and let it be written–the Son of Man will not come in the clouds of heaven till I am eighty-five years old.” (History of the Church, Vol.5, pp.336-37).
As it happens I can relate to this. A disembodied voice, floating down the passage, telling you something important. You had better listen. You ask my wife.
• 1843-21March: William Miller, founder of the Millerite movement, predicts that Jesus’ arrival on this date. A very large number of Christians accepted his prophecy. (So who’s looking silly now!)
• 1844-22 October: When Jesus did not return, Miller predicts this new date. In an event which is now called “The Great Disappointment,” many Christians divested themselves of their property and possessions, quit their jobs and prepared themselves for the second coming. (Sounds like Enron Investors waiting for a bail-out) Nothing really happened (still sounds like post Enron).
• 1850: Ellen White, founder of the Seventh Day Adventists movement, makes many predictions about when the end would come. One has to be right eventually. On 1850 27June she prophesied that only a few months remained before the end. She wrote: “My accompanying angel said, ‘Time is almost finished. Get ready, get ready, get ready.’ …now time is almost finished…and what we have been years learning, they will have to learn in a few months.”
• 1856 or later: At Ellen White’s last prediction, she said that she was shown in a vision the fate of believers who attended the 1856 SDA conference. She wrote “I was shown the company present at the Conference. Said the angel: ‘Some food for worms, some subjects of the seven last plagues, some will be alive and remain upon the earth to be translated at the coming of Jesus.” That is, some of the attendees would die of normal diseases; some would die from plagues at the last days, others would still be alive when Jesus came. By the early 1900s all those who attended the conference had passed away, leaving the Church with the dilemma of trying to figure out how to explain away such a prominent prophetic failure. It obviously got sorted somehow because the SDAs are still with us.
• 1864 Rev. Edward Irving’s predicted Return of Christ fails. (See 1825). Of course they didn’t have Wikipedia in those days so something might have been overlooked . Oh darn… 1864 …missed again – But next time….you’ll see
• 1881: Mother Shipton, (1488 – 1561), a 16th century mystic predicted the end of the world: “…The world to an end shall come; in eighteen hundred and eighty-one.” (Have any of the readers begun to see the hidden pattern yet?)
1888 In France, General Boulanger is denounced by an un-named prophet from England as the Antichrist, claiming that his name in Greek has the numeric value of 666, and predicts that Christ will return at 3 PM on March 5 that year. Never did trust French Generals myself, especially those with the bar code on their foreheads. That is a dead give away.
• 1891 or before: On 1835-14 Feb, Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon church, attended a meeting of church leaders. He said that the meeting had been called because God had commanded it. He announced that Jesus would return within 56 years — i.e. before 1891-15 Feb. (History of the Church 2:182) 56 years can seem a long time…maybe if you don’t count the leap years….
• 1914 was one of the most agreed estimates of the start of the war of Armageddon by the Jehovah’s Witnesses (Watchtower Bible and Tract Society). They based their prophecy of 1914 from prophecy in the book of Daniel, Chapter 4. The writings referred to “seven times”. The WT and BTS interpreted each “time” as equal to 360 days, giving a total of 2520 days. This was further interpreted as 2520 years, measured from the starting date of 607 BCE. This gives 1914 as the target date. When 1914 passed, they changed their prediction; 1914 became the year that Jesus invisibly began his rule. Go on admit it –they were right – it was pretty invisible.
• 1914(duh) , 1915, 1918, 1920, 1925, 1941, 1975, 1994, etc. were other dates that the Watchtower Society (WTS) or its members predicted. Notice it isn’t necessary to say you were wrong if you keep looking ahead to the next one.
• (mind you the World War One generals didn’t exactly stop end times for some from happening in 1914)
• Their (WTS) current estimate is that the end of the world as we know it will happen precisely 6000 years after the creation of Eve. They say there is no way of knowing when this happened. (Well I don’t want to get too picky but I thought Bishop Ussher had it sussed. Surely they are not implying he might have been wrong with his dates).
1917 May 13th: Three small children claim to have seen the Virgin Mary standing in an oak tree. On the 13th of each subsequent month until October crowds gather to see the vision but only the children claim to see her. I think we should always respect what children tell us. I always believed children in my classes when they told me why it was impossible to do their homework. Those in the know also claim that three prophecies are given, two revealed and a third kept secret – which turned out to be the end times one – which was sent to the Vatican. (See May 13, 2000). (Just a passing thought. My cousin Miles who also happened to be a Catholic priest and one of the organisers when the Pope came to Christchurch a few years ago, assured me that they were not using Port-a-loos for the visit. Being Catholic they were using Vati – cans. Just thought I’d mention it to fill in time until the next prophecy is fufilled.)
• 1919: Meteorologist Albert Porta predicted that the conjunction of 6 planets would generate a magnetic current that would cause the sun to explode and engulf the earth on 17 Dec. Some commit suicide (For heavens sake – a weather forecaster – and they listened! How gullible can you be)
• Friday Feb 13 1925 According to Margaret Rowan, the angel Gabriel came to her in a vision and told her that the world would end at midnight on this date. Well don’t blame her. It was Gabriel.
• J.B. Dimbleby calculated that the Millennium would begin in the spring of 1928, But, and here is the kicker, the true end of the world wouldn’t take pace until around the year 3000. See, that’s how to do it, you amateurs. Say a time well after you’ve gone. Anyway, he deserves respect because his date for the end of the world is one of the few still that hasn’t yet fallen by the wayside.
• 1931 Final apocalyptic battle is to begin in 1934 claims Chicago preacher Nathan Cohen Beskin a preacher from Chicago. At last…….when did he say it was……Oh…..well never mind.
• 1931 Wilbur Glen Voliva announces “the world is going to go ‘puff’ and disappear in September, 1935.” See already you can see he is a year closer than that guy from Chicago.
• Herbert W. Armstrong, founder of the Worldwide Church of God, tells members of his church that the Rapture is to be 1936, and that only they would be saved. After the prophecy failed, he changed the date three more times. (surely you wouldn’t condemn a prophet who is not only able to concede failure – but give it another go)
• 1956 April 22nd: hundreds of ‘Davidians’ (a break-away Seventh-day Adventist sect) at their 77 acre compound at Waco, Texas, gather for the Return of Christ, watched by a large crowd and the media. The expectation is broadcast across the United States – and fails. (See 1993, February 28th). We all know what happened then. Retrospective prophecy is much safer.
• 1965 July: self-styled prophet, William Branham, declares in response to California earthquake: “The Scripture reader or even a–a believer knows that we are now at the end of the history of the world. There will be no use of writing it, because there won’t be anybody to read it. It’s at the end of the time. …” Unfortunately he forgot to record enough to know how he knew and why there was a change of mind.
Now events quicken. A sure sign that this time the end is close.
• Hal Lindsey publishes in his best-selling book ‘Late Great Planet Earth’ that there will be only one generation between Israel’s new statehood and the End Time. Although he does not state the date he provides many of the arguments upon which the date 1988 is based
April: Rev. David Wilkerson claims a supernatural vision of imminent world-wide disaster of unprecedented proportions, economic collapse, famine, earthquakes, etc., in ‘this generation’, leading to Christ’s sudden evacuation of Christians and the rise of Antichrist. ‘More than one-third of the United States will be designated a disaster area within the next few years’. Well he was right about the disaster areas. San Francisco even before an Earthquake would probably qualify…or Des Moines.
• Roman Catholic Sister Agnes Katsuko at Akito, Japan, hears a message from the Virgin Mary, telling her ‘Father God will inflict a punishment greater than the Deluge … Fire will fall from the sky and will wipe out a great part of humanity, sparing neither priests nor the faithful. The survivors will find themselves so desolate that they will envy the dead.’ (Sounds like a Grateful Dead concert.) In anticipation of the year 2000. (TW Petrisko, Call of the Ages, Queenship, 1995, p.xxi)
Because it is interesting – well if you are going to be picky, interesting to me – and it is my site – so indulge me here. I am breaking into my list with an extended aside which I have lifted out of an essay called Shaping God which you will find elsewhere on this site. So here we go:
“I have on my bookshelf at home a once popular American best seller with the now embarrassing title 88 Reasons Why the Rapture could be in 1988. The author Edgar Whisenant wrote an accompanying volume On Borrowed Time with a similar theme. The Rapture of the faithful was to occur on the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hoshana, in 1988, sometime between Sept. 11 and Sept. 13. The 88 “proofs” of this were based on a collection of dates and calculations from Biblical and historical factors.
Whisenant was totally convinced about his date, stating: : “[I]f there were a king in this country and I could gamble with my life, I would stake my life on Rosh Hashana 88.”
He also wrote “Only if the Bible is in error am I wrong; and I say that to every preacher in town.” While many religious leaders in the US were highly sceptical of Whisenant’s predictions, a number accepted his assertions uncritically. Paul and Jan Crouch, and their Trinity Broadcast Network (TBN) ministry were among those who used their ministry to publicise his predictions and even included advice to non Christian listeners as to how to cope with the unexpected disappearance of Christian family members and friends.
According to Whisenant, 300,000 copies of 88 Reasons were mailed free of charge to ministers across America, and reportedly 4.5 million copies were sold in bookstores and elsewhere. After his book was widely circulated, even in my hometown in New Zealand, I encountered a number who had read and believed his predictions
When nothing happened by the end of September 13, Whisenant revised his prediction, suggesting the rapture would come at 10:55 AM on September 15. When that failed, he revised it to October 3. When that date passed, Whisenant remained undaunted: “The evidence is all over the place that it is going to be in a few weeks anyway,” he told Christianity Today.
After his “few weeks” had passed without discernable disruption to the world population or the firmament, Whisenant finally saw his “error”. He claimed that he had made a slight miscalculation of one year because of a fluke in the Gregorian calendar. Jesus was actually going to return during Rosh Hashanah of 1989! Whisenant published his discovery in The Final Shout–Rapture Report 1989 but alas his public were now beginning to lose faith. However there were others prepared to take up a similar cause. A segment of the Jehovah’s Witnesses claimed evidence for a 1994 date. I also understand that that the respected fundamentalist Pat Robertson subsequently recalculated the figure and decided the true believers would be raptured up to heaven in 2007. The fact that I am still here would not surprise some of my critics.” Don’t smile. Aren’t you still here too?
Sorry I am running out of time. My list is only half done. Sermons to write, people to visit, coffee to drink. I’ll complete this later.
But here is a thought to finish. Since I am assured that this time it is serious, the end is nigh. You can read about in News of the World. Accordingly I will start throwing out all my possessions and head up to the top of nearby One Tree Hill to await the rapture. One small catch. My wife is not a true believer and she says I have to help with the dishes before I do anything. I ask you. Is that any way to approach such a serious prediction?