The End of the World and All That

It’s fairly common to hear somebody blathering about the End of the World these days.

And by “these days” I mean, well, whenever you happen to be reading this, because one of the few constants over the past couple thousand years has been folks’ certainty — absolute certainty — that the end is nigh.  And I don’t see that changing any time soon.

The end will still be a-comin' in the future, too.

The end is nigh.  Still.  The date just keeps getting moved a little further down the road, a can kicked from one decade to the next — mostly by fire and brimstone preachers who, by the way, will accept cash, check, or credit card to make you feel better about the whole impending doom business.

At the moment I’m writing this, in fact, there’s a bigger surge than usual about Doomnation given the all-too-horrifyingly-real tragedy unfolding in Japan. Here, for instance, is an interesting mix of fundamentalist responses. I generally consider this kind of ranting rather silly on principle, but in the present moment, trying to imagine the horror the people of Japan are living through, I also find it bordering on despicable (as an interesting counterpoint, here’s an atheist’s response to the fundamentalist response).

But back to the subject at hand: The End.

In the sense of the end of the Earth itself, scheduled demolition is in about 5 billion years, when the sun swells to a red giant that will swallow Mercury and Venus, for sure, and quite probably the Earth, too.  Not that we’ll care.  We only have a mere 1 billion years before the heat of the sun increases to the point that Earth is no longer within the habitable “goldilocks” zone of our star (so buy real estate on Ganymede now, folks!).

In the sense of “the end of the world as we know it” — often referred to in short-hand as TEOTWAWKI — well, that end could hit even before we all pack up for the satellites of Jupiter, though not due to the prophecies of some ancient, time-worn mythology.  No, I’m thinking of something like a gamma-ray burst of radiation. If a star explodes just right, it’ll release a jet of high-energy gamma-rays.  If that star happens to be within a radius of a kilo-parsec around the Earth (that’s about 3,262 light-years), and the jet happens to be aimed at the Earth … well, it’ll strip off most of what’s left of the Ozone layer and basically fry us all to tater-totitude. TEOTWAWKI indeed.

Come to think of it, though, we’ll probably have destroyed the Earth’s ecosystem beyond recovery even before the Vegas-odds of a GRB hit us. For all our cleverness, humans aren’t terribly smart when it comes to nature: we tend to foul the nest.  My dog knows not to do that, but I once had a hamster who was pretty comfortable sleeping amid its own pellets of feces.  So there you go.

Anyhow, it seems that most of the “end-is-nighers” are old-myth-believers of one kind or another. I’m not going to get into the church-goer strain here, except to say that it goes back to the roots of Christianity, for certain: In the Gospel of Matthew alone Jesus himself twice predicted to audiences that some of them would still be alive when the End of All Things arrived (Matthew 16:28, 24:34).

No, what I really want to talk about are those old mythological “predictions” that get dragged out from time to time to “prove” that TEOTWAWKI is coming.  It’d be amusing, except that so many people base life decisions on this kind of thing.

2012: Because the Mayans Knew So Much

Take the year 2012.  It’s all the current rage to say that the world will end on December 21, 2012. Why? Well, because that’s when the Mayan calendar “ends.”

First things first, the Mayan calendar doesn’t.  But even if it did, I can’t really get my head around why we’d take their word for such a thing. What exactly did the Mayans know that we don’t? I mean, sure, Tik’al is pretty awesome. But evidence that they somehow knew the fate of all things? ‘Tis lacking, I’m afraid. After all, if they had so much foresight don’t you think they would have been a bit more ready for that whole conquistadores thing? Just a thought.

That's about how scary it is, folks.

And as for that myth of their calendar ending on December 21, 2012? I have here, hanging on the wall by my desk, a calendar. It currently tells me that it is March 1, 2011. Skipping ahead a bit, I can see that — egads! — it ends on December 31! Woe! TEOTWAWKI! My calendar is ending, so the world will clearly suffer some horrible catastrophic cataclysm of existence-altering awfulness! Run for your lives!

Silly, right? The end of my yearly calendar is just the end of an individual calendar cycle. It means nothing but the fact that I need to get the next cycle’s calendar on my wall and remember to change the date when I sign checks.

The same thing is true of the Mayans and this 2012 business: it’s the end of a single calendar cycle. Would it have been a big deal for the Mayans? I reckon so. Heck, we make a big deal about New Years these days, and that occurs on only a 1-year cycle. The cycle that ends on December 21, 2012 according to the Mayan calendar? It’s a b’ak’tun cycle, and they are over 394 years long! You can bet your sweet milk-of-an-alpaca that they would have partied in Tik’al like it was 1618! (Or not, given the aforementioned conquistadores business.)

Indeed, if you’re looking for an equivalent to this 2012 business that’s a bit more familiar, try to recall all the Y2K craziness. You remember the parties, right? And maybe, just maybe, you also remember how so many folks thought all our computers were going to crash, and how far, far too many Christians were convinced Jesus was coming back and the End Times were here. (I’m still simultaneously amused and saddened that so many sat on hilltops waiting for the strike of midnight and the Rapture, as if Jesus were coming back on Central Standard Time or some such.)

Didn’t happen.

Indeed, I can say with supreme confidence that the year 2000 and year 2012 predictions about the End of the World (like the many similar predictions of the last 2000 years) will in the end have a single over-riding thing in common: they’ll be wrong.

Er... I meant 2002, um, I mean, 2012 ...

Still Waiting for TEOTWAWKI

I led off referencing how seemingly every generation of the past two millennia has thought they were living in the End Times. This time-span, by no coincidence, overlaps precisely with the history of Christianity, which is rooted in eschatological (a fancy word for TEOTWAWKI) thinking.

I was going to back that up with a brief list of failed TEOTWAWKI predictions here. In fact, I started to write one up from memory. When I couldn’t remember the name of the founder of the Watchtower Society and his first date for TEOTWAWKI, I did a Google search for the information I needed. I quickly found out that his name was Charles Taze Russell, and his first failed prediction was for October of 1914.

Far more exciting, though, I also stumbled on a couple of prediction lists that are much bigger than anything I was planning. So I’ve deleted my own and instead will here supply you with a far, far better resource: the incredibly detailed TEOTWAWKI pages of the Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance. There are lots of goodies there, but the lists of predictions are priceless. Note that there are so many they have to divide them up by categories.

For random fun, you can get something in a less “listing” fashion by picking a year for The End (and seeing how someone predicted it) on this awesome little website.

And just in case you thought listing such things is nothing but anti-Christian bias, here’s a list of over 200 Christian predictive failures (and predictions whose outcome is still unknown) put together by a professed Christian. This individual is quite certain that TEOTWAWKI will indeed come since the Bible said it would, but he or she also notes that the Bible says that Jesus said nobody can know the date for certain (Matthew 24:35-36). So therefore all predictions have been (and will continue to be) wrong.

12 Comments

  1. Charles Taze Russell was not expecting either the “end of the world” or the return of Christ in 1914. Russell was expecting the end of the times of the Gentiles in 1914, and, at least from 1904 onward, he was expecting the time of trouble to begin in 1914. If indeed the “time of trouble” did begin in 1914, then his expectation in this regard did not fail. Russell, however, disclaimed that his expectations were to be considered prophecy.

  2. As it happens, if you read what I wrote you’ll note that I used the word “prediction” rather than “prophecy,” since I recall that Russell at more than one point claimed his views were not so much prophecy, but predictive interpretations from the Bible. It’s an issue of semantics, but I’ve given him the benefit of the doubt here.

    As for Russell’s expectations for 1914, in 1889 he said this: “we consider it an established truth that the final end of the kingdoms of this world and the full establishment of the Kingdom of God will be accomplished by the end of A.D. 1914” (qtd. in March 15, 1955 Watchtower, WTB&TS). If that’s not TEOTWAWKI, I’m not sure what is!

    You are correct, though, that after this apparently failed to happen Russell’s followers determined that although it might look like he was utterly wrong, he was really totally right. After 1914 God is totally in charge — just like Russell said — but He just keeps it plus-plus-not-visible except to the loyal followers in the “correct” club.

    Fair enough. Folks have long been doing the same kind of revisionist reading to Jesus’ statements in Matthew. At that point it seems we pass from the realm of reason to one of faith.

  3. Brilliant post, Mike. Thanks.

  4. @CathyB You’re welcome, Cathy. Glad you liked it!

  5. All Bible prophecies have come true. I am not going to number them here due to time and space, but I will tell you that all mankind has the option to believe or not. We have the option to choose between error and truth. These type of false prophets and false christs are a fulfillment of Bible prophecy. If you really want to know about fulfilled prophecies from the Bible, let me know. I can show you one by one, with historical evidence, that indeed they have been fulfilled.
    laser

  6. There is no doubt the world will end some time for believers and non-believers… and it is important to take care of our souls now, by doing good to people and learning and practicing the teachings of the God’s word, the Bible. However many will try to come up with a date and their own ideas… but its all fake, cuz only the LORD know when this world will end… its up to HIM.
    laser

  7. @kamil “All Bible prophecies have come true,” eh? Met a two-thousand-year-old man who was at the sermon on the mount? (That’s a prophecy from Matthew 24:34.) Has the Nile ever stopped flowing? (That’s a prophecy from Isaiah 19:4-5.)

    As for your lack of doubt about the end of the world … I’m obviously in agreement with you. Belief or non-belief won’t matter a lick when the sun expands and torches Earth to a cinder.

  8. Michael Livingston :
    As for Russell’s expectations for 1914, in 1889 he said this: “we consider it an established truth that the final end of the kingdoms of this world and the full establishment of the Kingdom of God will be accomplished by the end of A.D. 1914” (qtd. in March 15, 1955 Watchtower, WTB&TS). If that’s not TEOTWAWKI, I’m not sure what is!

    This was his expectation before 1904; from 1904 onward he was expecting, not that all kingdoms of this world would be removed in 1914, but that the time of trouble was to begin.

    See quotes from Russell:
    http://ctr.reslight.net/?p=1301

    Michael Livingston :
    You are correct, though, that after this apparently failed to happen Russell’s followers determined that although it might look like he was utterly wrong, he was really totally right. After 1914 God is totally in charge — just like Russell said — but He just keeps it plus-plus-not-visible except to the loyal followers in the “correct” club.

    I am not sure what the above is meant to say. After 1914, Russell continued to believe that the time of trouble had indeed begun in 1914, just as he had expected from 1904 onward. Russell did admit that his expectations of the glorification of the remaining members of the church did not happen, but he stated this expectation could wrong several years before 1914 had come.

  9. Michael Livingston :
    @kamil “All Bible prophecies have come true,” eh? Met a two-thousand-year-old man who was at the sermon on the mount? (That’s a prophecy from Matthew 24:34.) Has the Nile ever stopped flowing? (That’s a prophecy from Isaiah 19:4-5.)
    As for your lack of doubt about the end of the world … I’m obviously in agreement with you. Belief or non-belief won’t matter a lick when the sun expands and torches Earth to a cinder.

    In the word recorded at Matthew 24:34, Jesus said nothing about a man living for 2,000 years. Matthew 24:34 should be viewed in light of the words following, in Matthew 24:35. Evidently, this generation, as he spoke of in Matthew 24:34, is the generation of the heavens and the earth, the world that became corrupted through the sin of Adam. This is in contrast with the regeneration of the world as a new heavens and new earth in the age to come. This regeneration is counted in this age to the new creature in Christ.
    http://prophecy.reslight.net/archives/82.html

    The visions of Isaiah contain much figurative language. The drying up of the Nile appears to be related to the spirit of perversion that Yahweh had given to Egypt. (Isaiah 19:13,14) Egypt became famished as far as the words of Yahweh — the waters of truth — are concerned.

    If the prophecy is to have a physical fulfillment on the physical Nile River, such a fulfillment would probably have to be yet future, which may yet be, although it is possible that it did have a physical fulfillment sometime in the past.

    Regardless, the condition is temporary. Isaiah 19:20-22 shows that Yahweh will heal Egypt, and they will come to know Yahweh. This takes place in the age to come, after Satan is abyssed, so that the nations — including Egypt — will then not be under Satan’s deceptions. — Revelation 20:1-3.

  10. @ ResLight Sorry it took a bit for your comments to come through. They got put in the spam filter (probably due to your links).

    I’m glad you’re willing to fight the fight for your guy, but I’m just not seeing it. Russell was wrong before 1904 (as you wisely admit), but there’s also nothing to substantiate the claim he was right with his new set of new predictions afterwards, either. People who follow Russell may take it on faith that he was essentially correct and that the new kingdom exists as a sort of invisible entity identifiable based on the pre-supposition that Russell cannot have been wrong, but there is no way to support this with reason. Indeed, it’s a bit of a circular argument: Russell is right because Russell can’t be wrong.

    As for your attempt to defend biblical prophecy in specific instances … I find it hard to address any “argument” that fundamentally avoids dealing with facts. Your position is that when Jesus prophesied (for instance) that the generation before him would not pass away before the end of the world, he “evidently” meant something different. This is “evident” to you, of course, because we both agree that it is impossible for Jesus to have spoken the literal truth (that would mean a 2,000-year-old man walking around). Alas, though, there’s no actual evidence to support your proposed reading (especially if we look back to the original languages here). It is an after-the-fact construction meant only to preserve, through whatever convoluted means, the idea that Jesus was right. It is far more simple, indeed far more logical, however, to accept what the words in the manuscripts actually say, which makes this a failed biblical prophecy.

    Some things simply are what they are, not what we want them to be.

  11. @ Michael Livingston

    Regarding 1904, Russell was never expecting anything for that date. It was in 1904 that he came to realize that the time of trouble begins — not ends — in 1914.
    I believe Russell was right in that the time of trouble (Armageddon) did indeed begin in 1914, and we are still in that time of trouble. He presented several times between 1904 and 1914 about his expectations that the time of trouble was to begin in 1914. One of those times was in 1910:

    I believe October, 1914, is the time when we may expect that great time of trouble, because it seems to our judgment, as far as we can understand the Scriptures, that is the time when the Gentile period of lease, or tenure, will expire, and when, therefore, we may expect that the time of trouble shall be ushered in; and that time of trouble we understand is the one the Scriptures tell about–a time of trouble such as never was since there was a nation, a time of trouble which shall overwhelm all sorts of government, and every institution of the present time; and a time of trouble which thus will make ready and prepare mankind for the glorious reign of Christ and his Church, for the blessing and uplifting of all the families of the earth. — What Pastor Russell Said, Question 555:4 (1910).

    Brother Russell here stated that he was expecting (not prophesying) that 1914 will be when the great time of trouble would be “ushered in”. This is in contradiction to his earlier statements (before 1904) that the time of trouble was to end, not begin, in 1914. Also in this quote, Russell shows that he did not believe, as Rutherford later claimed, that the time of trouble (Armageddon) would eternally destroy all who opposed him, but rather that this time of trouble would “make ready and prepare mankind… for the blessing and uplifting of all families of the earth.”

    In 1911, answering the question, How long after the end of time of the Gentiles will it be before the first of the dead are awakened from the tomb?:

    Guessing would not be very satisfactory, but our guess would be that after the times of the Gentiles come to a conclusion there will be a great time of trouble as the Scriptures clearly point out — trouble as never was since there was a nation. Then, following that trouble would come the reign of righteousness, blessings, increase of knowledge, God’s favor among men, and the living nations would all be more or less brought to a knowledge of the Lord. How long that would require I do not know. — What Pastor Russell Said, Q589:3.

    Again, Brother Russell states that he was expecting that the time of trouble was to come after the end of the times of Gentiles (1914). Also we should note that he was not expecting that the time of trouble (Armageddon) was to bring eternal destruction on the masses of the people, but that after the trouble the nations would be brought to a knowledge of the Lord. Again, he states that he does not know how long after 1914 that this will require.

    In 1912, Russell stated:
    In 1912:

    We are not at liberty to guess when the end of the trouble will be. Whether all of the trouble will come in the next two or three years we do not know. But we think that the most serious part of the trouble will occupy a very short time. — “Spared in the Day of Trouble”, ZWT, October 1, 1912, page 326, Reprints 5119;

    Two years later from the date of the above would be 1914, three years would be 1915. Brother Russell continues to show his expectation that in 1914 the time of trouble was to begin; he also states he was not at liberty to guess when the end of that trouble would be. Many of the Bible students were expecting it to last for one year, from October of 1914 to October of 1915 (according to the parallels as presented by John Edgar). Others presented other dates, 1918, 1920, 1921, 1925, etc. While Russell allowed the possibility for many of these dates, he never actually condoned any.

  12. Michael Livingston :
    People who follow Russell may take it on faith that he was essentially correct and that the new kingdom exists as a sort of invisible entity identifiable based on the pre-supposition that Russell cannot have been wrong, but there is no way to support this with reason. Indeed, it’s a bit of a circular argument: Russell is right because Russell can’t be wrong.

    No Bible Student should be following Russell except that Russell may help the Bible Student to a clearer understanding scripture. If anyone is following Russell with a “pre-supposition that Russell cannot have been wrong,” he is in contradiction to Russell, since Russell himself taught against this kind of mentality.

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