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).