What Signs of the Times? Part I

what_signs_3

Introdution

“For when they shall say, Peace and safety; then sudden destruction cometh upon them… and they shall not escape.”

1 Thessalonians 5:3 [1]

 Doomsday is big business. Go ask Hollywood. Go ask Messrs Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye of Left Behind fame. There is a dark fascination we have for all things final. Perhaps it’s our inner curiosity about not so much the end itself but what lies beyond it that lures us so unfailingly towards the edges and precipices of life as we know it.

You’ll no doubt recall that in recent times there have been a number of major end time predictions that have, obviously, all gone bust. We’re still here, I think, prophesying. If the following predictions had come true, that would not be:

Harold Camping – 2011

FILE - In this May 23, 2011 file photo, Harold Camping speaks during a taping of his show Open Forum in Oakland, Calif. Camping, who predicted predicted the rapture would take 200 million Christians to heaven on May 21, now says the cataclysmic event will destroy the globe on Friday, Oct. 21, 2011. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, file). Courtesy www.huffingtonpost.com
(AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, file). Courtesy www.huffingtonpost.com

You probably remember Mr. Harold Camping’s May 2011 end time prediction. The now late Camping was a radio evangelist for over fifty years. He made global waves when he announced through his ministry that the world was to end with the return of Jesus Christ on May 21, 2011. It is a testament to the wide circulation of this prediction that I first learned about it not from television or radio, but on large billboards in Kumasi and Accra. In addition to the prophecy, they proclaimed boldly, “Repent!”

Of course, once the date drew nearer, international media picked on the increasing hype and no doubt greatly improved their media ratings. Ministries like Amazing Facts engaged with the Camping team, and offered much more biblically sound eschatology. Of course, they were not to be dissuaded.

When the day arrived, Atheists threw “Rapture Parties” and mock countdowns around the world.[3][4]

Various – 2012

Complete with a movie to boot, this prophecy came to us all the way from an ancient calendar that appeared to end in 2012. The calendar came from the Mayans, an ancient civilization that dominated much of the mid-Americas from 2,600 BC into the 1500s AD. The Mayans are famed for their fully developed writing system, art, architecture and scientific endeavors.

Mystics and moviemakers alike rallied around the discovery or at least the popularization of this calendar. The result was a not-too-bad film, and a lot of global interest in this mysterious historical civilization. The calendar spanned a period of 5, 126 years, ending on December 21 2012. Many interpreted this to mean that the world would end on that date, by planetary catastrophe. Others said it would end by Rapture or some other way. It did not matter that scientists kept assuring the world that there was not impending planetary doom of any of the sorts predicted.

As it turned out, the calendar was cyclic rather than linear. Of course, the New Agers can contend that their version of the prediction actually occurred, as they predicted – no pun intended – a new age of positive spiritual transformation.[2]

Chris McCann, 2015

Rather interesting is the Telegraph’s “live coverage” of the doomsday event predicted for October 7 2015, complete with satirical updates and many tweets from around the world that mocked and quipped.

Predictions Still in the Future

And just in case you thought people would have learned their lessons by now and there would be no more predictions, here are a few predictions for the future to watch out for:

Kenton Beshore, 2028

Founder and President of the World Bible Society Dr. F. Kenton Beshore predicts that the world will end between 2012 and 2028 with the Rapture event. Rather than pin-point an exact date, Beshore argues for a “times and seasons” approach, arguing that it is possible to know approximately when the Rapture will happen. His prophecy is based on his interpretation of Bible prophecy.

 Sir Isaac Newton, 2060

According to the famous scientist, who was also an avid religious writer, Jesus will return in 2060 to deliver His church, one jubilee from the date of Israel’s re-annexation of Jerusalem.[6]

Various Scientists, 500m – 5b years

Cosmic Apocalypse
Cosmic Apocalypse

Even the scientists are in on this, no kidding. According to widely held scientific predictions, based on the current stage of growth of the Sun, the Earth will not he habitable in about 1 billion years, and will probably be consumed by the exploding sun in about 5 billion years from now.[7]

James Kasting is a renowned geologist at Pennsylvania State University who believes that the levels of Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will drop well below the threshold needed to support plant, and by extension animal – life on Earth. This will happen in about 500 million years according to his calculations. He also expects that the oceans would have fully dried up in after 1 billion years.[8]

Moving On…

As crazy, scary or ridiculous as any of the aforementioned scenarios sounds, people seriously believe that the world is heading towards an end, one way or another. Most Christians hold this view, even if mainstream Christian theologies tend to shy away from dates.

Pre-millennialists believe that Christ will come before the millennium of peace on Earth, and Postmillennialists believe that he will come after. All are basically agreed, however, that this present existence will end at a point, and that a new one will begin for a preserved remnant.

As a result, various word clouds have developed within each denominational culture in Christianity to express the reality and imminence of this belief. Go into any eschatologically minded church congregation and you will hear such phrases as “The Great Hope”, “The end of days”, “The end of the age”, “The end time”, “The coming crisis”, “The final hour”, “The last days”, “These end times”, “The second Advent”, et cetera.

Not only these, but you will also hear language expressing something more immediately substantial and relevant: the putative present evidence of the future fact of the end. You’ll hear “Everything shows that the end is near”, “Antichrist is just at the corner”, “The heralds of the end”, and probably most frequently, “The signs of the times”.

As Christians, of course, we do not merely conjure such hopes and expressions. Rather they are rooted in our particular understanding of end time events as related in Scripture. Some of the central texts come from the Olivet discourse in Matthew 24 and Luke 17 where Christ outlined the manner and circumstances of His second coming. Others include 1 Thessalonians 4: 15 – 15, Revelation 13 and 20, and from the Old Testament, Daniel 2, 7 and 9. In these passages, and particularly in the Olivet discourse, we have determined a set of signs, that must precede His coming, and that will therefore indicate the nearness of the end.

The daily news gives us, it seems, chilling assurance that the times are indeed portentous. We hear of wars and rumours of them; the world seems more violent than ever, and bent on self-destruction. These days I can almost predict the opening lines of my favorite news programs: “Gunmen in Syria…”, “Rebels in Aleppo”, “There has been an explosion…” “A suicide bomber…”, “Violence has broken out…” “The Islamist group Boko Haram has carried out an attack in…” “People in… are fleeing for their lives, after war broke out between…” and on and on.

We hear of and experience earthquakes. Death tolls are often high, We hear of and are afflicted by new and strange pestilences: Zika, Ebola, SARS… We see strange signs in the sky: bloody moons and solar eclipses. We hear about and witness the implosion of societal morals… open sin, marketed sin, legalized sin… “Surely,” we sigh, “…the end is near.” But is it?

The Skeptic’s View

There are many, both on the religious and secular sides, who don’t think so. Even within Christianity there are those who are not convinced that the current hermeneutics on eschatology are at all correct, particularly in their presentation of the Second Coming as an imminent event.

But most of the criticism comes from the secular camp. Atheists, agnostics and other secularists of course maintain that God cannot come, since He does not exist, and that Christ cannot return, since – if He lived at all – He is dead.

Were their argument to stop there, it would be a simple question of religion versus non-religion, faith versus unbelief – an unresolvable, undebatable stalemate of ideas. But their argument does not end there. Many skeptics have readily met us on our own turf, arguing on historical, scientific and geo-political grounds that Christianity’s much-heralded end of days scenario is certainly not near, even if it is real.

Where then is the battle being waged? Well the ground is none other than the age-old looking glass of the Bible: the great complex of texts and interpretations collectively (and sometimes affectionately) known as “The signs of the times.”

The Good New Days

These skeptics argue that the so-called “signs of the times” are an illusion based on the dystopian selectivity of news in today’s media dominated information landscape. The headlines are all gloomy; disease, war and destruction, natural disasters and social unrest dominate the news and give a false picture of the true state of things.

Despite all the talk of doom and gloom, today’s world, they argue, actually offers the most enabling, protecting, liberating and enjoyable period of the world’s history. They would have us know that compared with ages gone by, we are much better off today than we have ever been as a race. No civilization of the past, however gloriously they might be painted in history books, was as great as the world’s current economic powers. No people of any century gone-by has ever been happier, healthier, richer or safer than we are today.

Like Steven Pinker and Andrew Mack have said in their famous article Not Falling Apart, “Never mind the headlines. We’ve never lived in such peaceful times.”

Is there any evidence to back up such optimism? You bet.

We are Wealthier than Ever

Yes, there are many economic crises in various places around the world. Ghana, Zimbabwe, Greece… a sluggish recovery in the United States, even an economic slowdown in China. There is austerity everywhere, it seems. But over the long view of time, things are looking up, we’re assured.

Bill and Melinda Gates report that there are half as many poor people in the world as there were in 1990. It’s also looking bright for Africa, where seven of the world’s top ten fastest-growing economies are changing the story of a continent once mired almost exclusively by bad news.

According to the Economist magazine, nearly a billion people have been lifted out of poverty over the past twenty years alone.[9] Many of these people are in Africa. The World Bank thinks the trend will continue, and forecasts that by the year 2030, for the first time in history global poverty would have fallen to under 10% of the world’s population.[10]

We are Healthier than Ever

Public health experts on the ground may bemoan a rise in local incidences of new disease outbreaks, but from a global and historical perspective, development experts assure us that things are actually getting better, not worse.

Hans Rosling, Professor of Global Health at the Karolinska Institutet and superstar statistician argues that the world is getting healthier. In an article for the BBC entitled Viewpoint: Five ways the world is doing better than you think, he asserts that between the 1960’s and the present we have added an average 10 years to the lifespan of the average person. In the same period infant mortality has improved from one death in every five births to one in twenty.

Bill and Melinda Gates add that the average life span for women in sub-Saharan Africa has increased by 16 years since 1960. Infectious diseases are in decline; measles is down 90%, malaria deaths are down 60% and deaths from AIDS are also generally in decline.[11]

We are Safer

We are assured that the world is statistically less violent now than at any other time in the past. In their landmark article, The World is Not Falling Apart, Steven Pinker and Andrew Mack,

“The world is not falling apart. The kinds of violence to which most people are vulnerable—homicide, rape, battering, child abuse—have been in steady decline in most of the world. Autocracy is giving way to democracy. Wars between states—by far the most destructive of all conflicts—are all but obsolete. The increase in the number and deadliness of civil wars since 2010 is circumscribed, puny in comparison with the decline that preceded it, and unlikely to escalate.”

[12]

Pinker, who is a respected professor of psychology at Harvard University, also asserts in a 2007 TED talk, that

“Our ancestors were far more violent than we are, violence has been in decline for long stretches of time, and that we are probably living in the most peaceful time in our species’ existence.”

Scores of statistical studies are backing up the assertion. OurWorldInData, a website put together by Max Roser, an economist at the Institute for New Economic Thinking at Oxford University, presents the following supporting data that shows that death from war has steadily declined since World War II:

Number of annual war battle deaths by world region, 1946-2007

war_deaths

 

What about natural disasters like earthquakes, landslides and typhoons? The prevailing narrative is that no one can prove statistically that they happen more frequently today than in the distant past. If anything, it is argued, the fatality of such events is lower today owing to improved building technology, emergency response, medical care and humanitarian support.

 

Barack Obama
Courtesy www.nytimes.com

Barack Obama only last month added his voice to the beat of positivism in an interview with actor Bryan Cranston:

“…if you had to choose a moment in human history to live — even if you didn’t know what gender or race, what nationality or sexual orientation you’d be — you’d choose now. There’s power in nostalgia, but the fact is the world is wealthier, healthier, better educated, less violent, more tolerant, more socially conscious and more attentive to the vulnerable than it has ever been.”

[13]

So from all accounts – I should say most accounts – it’s a great time to be alive! And yet the Christians are talking doomishly about “the signs of the times…” The world is scratching its head with a pensive frown and asking rather honestly, “Really? Signs of the end? What signs?”

These questions and objections cannot be brushed aside; the Gospel will be done an irreparable injury if they are. Rather, thinking, searching, praying people of God must face them with the enlightened views of natural and scriptural revelation. But are there good answers – any answers – to be given?

Stay tuned for Part II: Yes, Signs – Answering the Skeptics


References:

[1] Truncated

[2] http://ksuweb.kennesaw.edu/~tkeene/apwhAnastasThe%20%28Mayan%29%20Final%20Days.htm

[3] http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-13468131

[4] http://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/May-21-2011-rapture-or-party-time-2370872.php

[5] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/howaboutthat/11916179/end-of-the-world-live.html

[6] https://archive.org/stream/sirisaacnewtonsd00newtiala/sirisaacnewtonsd00newtiala_djvu.txt

[7] https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn13369-hope-dims-that-earth-will-survive-suns-death/?feedId=online-news_rss20

[8] http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/sci/tech/specials/washington_2000/649913.stm

[9] Towards the end of poverty, The Economist. http://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21578665-nearly-1-billion-people-have-been-taken-out-extreme-poverty-20-years-world-should-aim

[10] http://www.worldbank.org/en/news/press-release/2015/10/04/world-bank-forecasts-global-poverty-to-fall-below-10-for-first-time-major-hurdles-remain-in-goal-to-end-poverty-by-2030

[11] http://www.thevocal.com.au/world-not-fukd-we-are-safer-healthier-and-richer-than-ever-before/

[12] http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/foreigners/2014/12/the_world_is_not_falling_apart_the_trend_lines_reveal_an_increasingly_peaceful.html

[13] http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/08/fashion/barack-obama-bryan-cranston-table-for-three.html

 


 

 

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Agana-Nsiire Agana is a theologian, communicator and writer. His passion is for communicating eternal truth in a contemporary context which is influenced by postmodern, secular thought. The gospel, though unchanging, can and should be expressed in terms of the challenges, philosophy and language of the present day.