Signs of the Times?

This week, in an interview with ABC’s Christiane Amanpour, the Reverend Franklin Graham, son of the famous evangelistic preacher Billy Graham, proclaimed to a national television audience that signs of the nearness of the end times were abundantly apparent in an increase of wars, famines, and earthquakes. Graham asserted that, based on his understanding of Matthew chapter 24 where Jesus speaks of these very events occurring during a time of great tribulation (what he interprets to be the end times), the second coming of Christ is imminent. It is popular belief in evangelical and fundamentalist circles that the many armed conflicts and natural disasters that occur today are divine “birth pains” leading up to the main events of earth’s destruction via God’s judgment and the return of Jesus Christ physically to this world. The only problem with Graham’s assessment, besides what I believe to be a mistaken understanding of eschatology (study of last things), is that wars, famines, and earthquakes are most certainly not increasing in frequency.

The St. Petersburg Times’s political tracker Politifact did some research on these three specifically listed signs and found that, contrary to Graham’s claim, the number of wars and famines have decreased while the number of earthquakes has stayed relatively stable. For example, Cormac O’Grada, a professor of economics in Ireland gave a lecture last year in which he maintained that the number of people who died from famine to had decreased markedly between the nineteenth and twentieth century. He estimated that while nearly 70 million people died in famines in the twentieth century, nearly 50 million people died of famine in India and China alone between the years 1870 and 1902. Regarding the number of wars taking place globally, the Politifact article states, quoting the Uppsala Conflict Data Program in Sweden, that in the early 1990s there were 50 armed conflicts taking place around the world, while in 2009 there were only 35. According to my calculations, that’s a 30% decrease in the past twenty years. So much for the build-up to Armageddon. Finally, in reference to the number of earthquakes, Politifact reports the U.S. Geological Survey data to indicate that the number of earthquakes has remained steady since 1900. The difference nowadays is that we have thousands more reporting stations and technology that allows us to track earthquakes and report them with greater speed. In other words, while the total number of earthquakes reported over the past century has gone up, it is not because there are more earthquakes actually taking place, but because we have more of an ability to track them when and where they do occur.

With evidence that is demonstrably clear, why do conservatives continue to claim the data supports their end times theories? I think the answer to the earthquakes sign has already been adequately explained. They probably find support for the wars and rumors of wars sign in the number of people who died from armed conflict in the twentieth century compared with the previous centuries. Hundreds of millions of people were killed in the two world wars alone, nevertheless all the other wars of the twentieth century. However, this is not an increase in wars, but a testimony to the incredible destruction of advanced weaponry that was unveiled in the last century. If anything, the trend has reversed itself. Smarter weapons and better technology has allowed nations in recent decades to conduct wars with low casualty counts both among both civilians and military personnel. While I’d like to see that number be zero, there is something to be said for the decrease in destructiveness. However, you want to view it, there is not an increase in the number of wars. The claim about famine is baffling to me and I must admit that I don’t know where they’re getting that from. It’s possible that it’s just bad information.

This is yet another example of where evangelicals and fundamentalists are on the wrong side of the facts. They are on the wrong side of the facts when it comes to creation vs. evolution. They are on the wrong side of the facts on what causes sexual orientation and statistics relevant to the gay community and the gay “lifestyle.” And while I am morally opposed to abortion myself, they are on the wrong side of the facts as to the health consequences, frequency, and funding of abortion. Not only this, but in this post, a reproduction of an article about evangelicals and history, they have been on the wrong side of historical social debates going all the way back to the time of slavery.
The question must then be asked, “How can they so consistently get it wrong?” The answer is found in the erroneous doctrine of biblical inerrancy and the subconscious doctrine of infallible interpretation on the part of theologians, pastors, and laypersons. Biblical inerrancy is the doctrine that the scriptures are perfectly accurate in all that they affirm including scientific and historical details. This doctrine is not a historical teaching of the church, but evolved out of the modernist controversies of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries where science was beginning to step on the toes of some traditional Christian understandings of the world. Some Christians overreacted to these events and, instead of engaging the modernists in dialogue and reexamining their understanding of the Bible with humility and openness to the Spirit, proclaimed the Bible to be inerrant as an ultimate theological trump card over the facts as discovered in the real world. In other words, it doesn’t matter if science has provided convincing evidence of evolutionary progress. The Bible says God did it in six literal days and so that’s the way it is – end of discussion. It doesn’t matter that gay people didn’t choose their sexual orientation and that many loving couples devote themselves to each other for a lifetime. The Bible says it’s an abomination and so that’s the way it is – end of discussion. And so, it doesn’t matter that the evidence that the signs of the times are pointing in the wrong direction. The Bible says that wars will increase in the end of days along with earthquakes and famines and so that’s what’s happening – end of discussion. What this amounts to is a squeezing of data into a form that fits a preconceived theological belief. But the real problem is not even inerrancy so much as it is this subtle subconscious belief that one cannot be wrong in their interpretation of the Bible. Of course, they will all pay lip service to the fact that they could be wrong, but none of them honestly think they could be and so this endless cycle continues where Christians stick to outdated and erroneous interpretations of the Bible by disengaging their minds and refusing to deal with reality because they believe that their inerrant book, infallibly interpreted says it.

Franklin Graham may believe that he sees the signs of the second coming appearing all around him, but, unfortunately for him, that is factually inaccurate. I too hope the coming of the Lord is soon and I believe in the physical resurrection of the dead and Christ’s physical return to earth. However, I also know when to reexamine my beliefs when they don’t match up with the data, history, tradition, or the experiences of many faithful people who live and believe very differently than me. I also believe strongly that God is not going to destroy this world in an angry tirade, but, in keeping with the thinking of the early church, I believe that God loves this world and His entire creation so much that instead of annihilate it, He is going to redeem it. That may piss off the hell, fire, and brimstone fundamentalist who can’t wait to see the neighbor that laughs at him for being a Christian be engulfed in the flames of God’s coming wrath and be tossed into a literal lake of fire, but that is just evidence of an ugly heart that fails to reflect the redeeming love of our Creator. So, while I look forward to the return of Christ, I don’t think there is any evidence that the time we’re living in is much different than any other. Even so, “[c]ome, Lord Jesus” (Rev. 22:20b).

5 thoughts on “Signs of the Times?

  1. There are signs to watch for in Matthew 24. Many of them are the beginning signs to watch for: false saviors, wars and rumors of wars, famines, earthquakes, persecution, execution, turning away from God, betrayal within the church, false prophets, deception, increase of wickedness, and the gospel will be preached to the whole world before the end comes.

    There are also major signs to watch for: The “Anti-Christ” will stand in the holy place (and claim to be God). Great distress “unequaled from the beginning of the world” “if those days had not been cut short, no one would survive”, the sun will be darkened, the moon will not give its light, “stars” will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.

    If you examine Revelation, many of the same signs are given in the 7 seals, 7 trumpets, and 7 vials.

    It’s debatable on whether or not current events are fulfillment of these signs, because the beginning signs aren’t conclusive. So, it’s more important to keep watch for the major signs because they are.

    Matthew 24:27 For as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.

    • Sheffer, thanks for responding. It is highly debatable, though likely more probable, that Jesus’ signs in Matthew 24 are related to the conquest of Jerusalem in 70 CE. I haven’t fully formulated my views on the “end times”, but my point in this article was that the claims that we are in the last days due to an increase in earthquakes, famines, and wars is not accurate according to the facts of the data we have available to us. Every generation thinks the signs are in their generation and that theirs is the last. We need to just be about the work of the kingdom and let Christ return whenever He will and stop being obsessed with it. It’s one thing to look forward to it, as I do, but it is another thing to have apocalyptic OCD.

  2. I noticed that you said “They are on the wrong side of the facts when it comes to creation vs. evolution.”. Could you please clarify what those facts are? I was also wondering, if creation is wrong, then how is evolution consistent with your belief in God?

    • I like to speak of evolutionary creation. God uses the process of evolution to slowly make the world. This is not quite theistic evolution as I don’t believe God started the process and then did not superintend it. I believe God had made creation with a certain quality of learning as it goes and evolving/developing into what it will according to the boundaries God has set in the laws of nature. As far as clarifying what those facts are, I would simply point you to any science textbook, the numerous Christian evolutionary sites on the internet including http://www.biologos.org and that of the American Scientific Affiliation. There are also a number of books by prominent Christians, both conservative and liberal who recognize the overwhelming evidence from the natural sciences for evolution. It is God’s creative mechanism and the belief in evolution works better within an Eastern Orthodox creation theology than in a Protestant one. Protestantism’s idea of a former age of glory that was destroyed because of a fall into sin doesn’t fit the facts of nature, isn’t required by the text, and is not supported by numerous voices in church history. I encourage you to research the subject from these various resources as the topic is way too deep to go into in one response post. Thanks again for your comments and I hope I was able to answer your question to some level :)

  3. Thanks for the reply Mr. Independent. I was looking around on your blog to find a way to send you a direct message, but I couldn’t find one. Please send me an email: thecrownedjester a t yahoo d o t com. I have a few questions that aren’t really related to the topic of this post.

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