Introduction

Millions of Christians think the Bible teaches that the world will soon end. Some are convinced the end will occur in just a few years. Others expect it to happen within the next 50 years. Either way, this world does not have long before being destroyed.

Throughout the entire history of Christianity, however, many have held similar views. All those generations of Christians were wrong in thinking they were living in the last days. So should credence be given to identical claims being made by Christians today?

Their belief would be unimportant if it were just a harmless notion held by otherwise normal people. Unfortunately, the doctrine can influence attitudes and behavior in destructive ways.

Bible Teachings About the World’s Imminent End

Jesus taught that the end was near

Beliefs about the world’s impending end are at the foundation of Christianity. Jesus himself taught the doctrine.

In the book of Mark, Jesus promised spectacular events will occur in the world’s last days. These include the sun being darkened, the moon not giving light, and the stars falling from heaven.[1] Jesus claimed he would then be seen coming in the clouds with great power and glory, and would send angels to gather his elect from throughout the earth.[2] As for when this would occur, he assured his listeners: “I tell you this: the present generation will live to see it all.”[3]

Although he also explained that God alone knows the exact day and hour of the world’s end,[4] Jesus clearly thought it would occur sometime during the lifetime of persons living in the first century C.E.

His belief is also evident in Mathew chapter 10. Jesus sent his disciples to preach the Gospel, heal the sick, raise the dead, and cast out demons. He directed them to “not enter any Samaritan town; but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”[5] He disclosed that “before you have gone through all the towns of Israel the Son of Man will have come.”[6]

A similar teaching is in Matthew chapter 16, where Jesus described to his disciples what will happen after he has been crucified and raised from the dead. He said “the Son of Man is to come in the glory of his Father with his angels, and . . . give each man the due reward for what he has done.”[7] He further asserted: “I tell you this: there are some of those standing here who will not taste death before they have seen the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”[8]

Jesus’ disciple Peter interpreted the teachings literally. According to the book of Acts, Peter preached that he and his listeners were living “in the last days.”[9]

In Matthew chapter 24, Jesus gave additional details about his return by saying: “Then there will be two men in the field; one will be taken, the other left; two women grinding at the mill; one will be taken, the other left.”[10] Many Christians construe these verses as meaning God will transport them to a place of safety before he inflicts his end-time punishments on the rest of humanity. This is the doctrine of the Rapture.

In his final days, Jesus continued thinking the world’s end was about to occur. After being arrested and brought before the high priest Caiaphas, Jesus told him, “You will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of God and coming on the clouds of heaven.”[11]

But neither Caiaphas nor anyone else saw the world end or Jesus return on the clouds.

Jesus’ ethical teachings presuppose an imminent end of the world

Many of Jesus’ ethical teachings are based on the idea that the world would soon end. This belief made his doctrines inconsistent with the long-term survival of individuals and society.

Because he thought God would soon intervene and set everything right, Jesus didn’t care if injustice triumphed during the interim. So he told people not to resist evil: “If someone slaps you on the right cheek, turn and offer him your left.”[12] He also promised rewards for such passivity: “Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.”[13]

Jesus likewise taught his followers to be unconcerned about possessions, which are not needed in an ending world. He told them: “Do not store up for yourselves treasure on earth.”[14]

As for the property they did have, they were not to care about losing it. Jesus said that “when a man takes what is yours, do not demand it back.”[15] His followers were to “Give when you are asked to give; and do not turn your back on a man who wants to borrow.”[16]  In fact, “Give to everyone who asks you.”[17] The same principle was to apply in the courts: “If a man wants to sue you for your shirt, let him have your coat as well.”[18]

After suffering physical abuse and losing their property, Christians were to make no judgments about the criminals who did it. God will be judging everyone shortly. So Jesus said: “Pass no judgment, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned.”[19]

If they still had any property that had not been stolen by criminals or mooched by beggars, Christians were to just give it away. When a young man asked how to gain eternal life, Jesus replied: “If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me.”[20] Then Jesus explained to his disciples: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.”[21]

Because Christians were about to receive a heavenly family, they did not need their families in this world. Jesus promised that if they left home, parents, brethren, wife, or children for the kingdom of God’s sake, they would “be repaid many times over in this age, and in the age to come have eternal life.”[22]

Christians would soon be provided with everything they need in God’s kingdom, so any planning for a different future was needless. Jesus taught: “Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. . . .  But seek ye first the kingdom of God . . . and all these things shall be added unto you. . . .  Take therefore no thought for the morrow.”[23]

Of course, a society could not exist long if criminals were allowed to attack honest citizens and steal their property with impunity. Nor could it last if people made no judgments about good and evil, gave away all their possessions, deserted their families, made no plans for the future, and refused to think about how they will obtain food and clothing. Society would quickly descend into chaos and insanity.

The only way Jesus’ ethical teachings can make any sense is if he thought God was about to destroy the world and replace it with a new one. In those circumstances, nothing was important except to be spiritually prepared for the arrival of God’s kingdom.

New Testament epistles of Paul and others

Paul and other authors of the New Testament letters also thought the world’s end was just around the corner.

Some of Paul’s eschatological beliefs are contained in his first letter to the Christians at Corinth. He noted that the Corinthians “wait expectantly for our Lord Jesus Christ to reveal himself.”[24]

Paul encouraged their expectations by teaching that many of them would be alive when Christ returned. He said “we shall not all die, but we shall all be changed in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet-call. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will rise immortal, and we shall be changed.”[25]

Paul gave a similar message to the Thessalonians: “For this we tell you as the Lord’s word: we who are left alive until the Lord comes shall not forestall those who have died; because at the word of command, at the sound of the archangel’s voice and God’s trumpet-call, the Lord himself will descend from heaven; first the Christian dead will rise, then we who are alive shall join them, caught up in clouds to meet the Lord in the air.”[26]

No wonder Paul observed that the Thessalonians too “wait expectantly for the appearance from heaven of . . . Jesus.”[27]

Paul promoted a lifestyle reflecting his beliefs about the world’s approaching end. Like Jesus, he saw little need to care about worldly matters.

He proclaimed: “What I mean, my friends, is this. The time we live in will not last long. While it lasts, married men should be as if they had no wives; mourners should be as if they had nothing to grieve them, the joyful as if they did not rejoice, buyers must not count on keeping what they buy, nor those who use the world’s wealth on using it to the full. For the whole frame of this world is passing away.”[28]

In other words, Christians should be apathetic about everything in this dying world – including families, friends, love, possessions, happiness, and sadness.

Other writers of the New Testament similarly expected a quick end to the world. The book of Hebrews states that “in this the final age [God] has spoken to us in the Son.”[29] It also says Christ “has appeared once and for all at the climax of history.”[30]

James informed his readers they were “in an age that is near its close.”[31] He assured them “the coming of the Lord is near.”[32]

The author of I John exclaimed, “My children, this is the last hour!”[33] And he was excited that the Antichrist, who would appear in the last days and oppose Jesus, was “in the world already!”[34]

Jude told his readers they were “in the final age.”[35] The author of I Peter agreed by saying the “end of all things is upon us.”[36]

Thus, the earliest Christian preachers thought the world was almost over and taught people to conduct their lives accordingly.[37]

Specific signs of the end

Although the New Testament does not predict an exact time for the world to end, it gives signs people can watch for to know the end is near.[38]

In Mark chapter 13, Jesus described events that will immediately precede his return. These include wars and rumors of wars, nations rising up against nations, kingdoms rising up against kingdoms, earthquakes and famines in various places, and persecution of Christians.[39]

Moreover, family members will turn against each other and betray one another to death. False prophets and imposters claiming to be Christ will perform great signs and wonders, leading many astray. And there will be greater afflictions than have ever occurred.[40]

The book of Matthew adds that many will fall away from the faith, and they will hate and betray one another. Lawlessness will spread, and men’s love for one another will grow cold.[41]

Additional signs are given in Paul’s letters to Timothy. In I Timothy, he said some will desert the faith and follow subversive doctrines inspired by devils.[42]

Paul added in II Timothy that “the final age of this world is to be a time of troubles. Men will love nothing but money and self; they will be arrogant, boastful, and abusive; with no respect for parents, no gratitude, no piety, no natural affection; they will be implacable in their hatreds, scandal-mongers, intemperate and fierce, strangers to all goodness, traitors, adventurers, swollen with self-importance.”[43]

Paul went on to describe them as “men who put pleasure in the place of God, men who preserve the outward form of religion, but are a standing denial of its reality.”[44]

Unfortunately, these signs do not narrow down the end times to a particular period, but instead do the opposite. For with enough imagination and creative interpretation – which religionists usually have plenty of – the signs can apply to virtually any period since Christianity began.

Vague signs of the end

The New Testament contains a number of vague and metaphorical statements concerning the last days. These too can be interpreted as applying to numerous times and circumstances.

The problem occurs especially in the book of Revelation. For example, it says God will appoint “two witnesses” to prophesy in the end times.[45] They are described as “the two olive-trees and the two lamps that stand in the presence of the Lord. . . .”[46] This description hardly clarifies their identity.

Additionally, Revelation speaks of a beast having seven heads and ten horns.[47] The beast’s seven heads represent both seven hills and seven kings. Five of the kings have fallen, one is reigning, and the last is yet to come.[48] The beast is an eighth king, but is also one of the seven.[49] The ten horns are ten kings who have not yet begun to reign.[50]

A second beast will come out of the earth. Working miracles, this beast will delude the earth’s inhabitants into worshiping the first beast and cause them to erect an image in its honor. The second beast will give this image the ability to speak and to kill those who refuse to worship it.[51]

The second beast is actually a man, and the numerical value of the letters in his name is 666.[52] He is also referred to as the “false prophet.”[53]

The first beast, the false prophet, and the dragon (Satan)[54] will assemble the kings of the earth for the great “battle of God” at Armageddon.[55] The city of “Babylon the great” will then receive God’s vengeance.[56] This city, the mother of “every obscenity on earth,” will be drunk with the blood of God’s people.[57] They are urged to “come out of her . . . lest you take part in her sins and share in her plagues.”[58] God’s people will exult over Babylon’s destruction, which avenges the blood of God’s servants and vindicates their cause.[59]

The beast and the false prophet, along with their followers, will be thrown into a lake of fire and tormented forever.[60] Christian martyrs who refused to worship the beast and its image, and were killed because of their loyalty to Christ, will come back to life and reign with Christ during the Millennium.[61] Satan will be imprisoned during these thousand years, but afterwards will be released and defeated a final time, and then thrown into the lake of fire.[62]

Based on the vague images and symbols in Revelation, there is no end to the number of conclusions people can reach about the identities of the two witnesses, the first beast, the second beast/false prophet, and the various kings. The same is true for claims about what city “Babylon the great” symbolizes, what persecution of Christians is being referred to, and who the persecutors are.

As a result, Christians for centuries have mistakenly interpreted the symbols in Revelation as applying to their own times – and thus thought they were living in the end times. They misinterpreted the verses because they did not understand the book’s purpose and the context in which it was written.

The reason for the book’s abundance of symbolic and cryptic language is that it was produced near the end of the 1st century, when the Roman emperor Domitian was persecuting the church.[63] The author was exhorting Christians to keep the faith in the face of their tribulations. He was assuring them that everything was happening according to the divine plan, that God would soon intervene to defeat their enemies, and they would be exalted in glory to rule the world with Christ.

Because this was subversive literature – which denounced the governing authorities and encouraged continuing opposition to them – the author shrouded his message in metaphors and secret language to protect both himself and the recipients. The initiated would understand his meaning, but not their Roman persecutors.

The author was not, however, prophesying about what was to happen many centuries later. Like other New Testament writers, he fully expected the events to occur soon after he had written.

In both the first and last chapters of Revelation, the author said he was describing “what must shortly happen.”[64] He also stated in the first chapter that “the hour of fulfillment is near.”[65] Elsewhere he depicted Jesus as promising, “I am coming soon.”[66] Finally, in the next-to-last verse of the book, he quoted Jesus as saying, “Yes, I am coming soon!” – to which the author implored, “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!”[67]

This is not the language of someone who thought more than 1,900 years would pass with Christ still not having returned.

The Old Testament adds to the confusion

The author of Revelation borrowed many of his images, symbols, and ideas from a number of Old Testament books. He was particularly fond of Daniel, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Joel, and Zechariah.[68]

In fact, apocalyptic passages are contained in the writings of all the major prophets and virtually all the minor prophets of the Old Testament.[69]

Not surprisingly, then, the Old Testament is additional grist for the mill of those wanting to interpret ancient scriptures as referring to people and events of their own time. As is the case with the New Testament, the Old Testament prophecies can be viewed as applying to an endless number of situations.[70]

Robert Ingersoll observed: “The prophecies of the Old Testament can be made to fit anything that may happen, or that may not happen. They will apply to the death of a king, or to the destruction of a people – to the loss of commerce, or the discovery of a continent. Each prophecy is a jugglery of words, of figures, of symbols, so put together, so used, so interpreted, that they can mean anything, everything, or nothing.”[71]

The Old Testament prophets were often writing in times of great national danger or crisis. Thus, like the author of Revelation, they sometimes wrote symbolically and in secret language to hide the meaning from their enemies and communicate only to the initiated.

Stephen L. Harris explains: “All apocalyptic books are written in highly symbolic language, using sometimes bizarre images of beasts, birds, idols, dragons or other monsters, usually to depict pagan kings or nations. This secret code, understood by the believer but not by his or her oppressors, protected the writer from charges of treason or sedition.”[72]

The prophets of the Old Testament certainly had dangers to worry about. For instance, the author of Daniel wrote when the Jews were being severely persecuted by the Macedonian-Syrian ruler Antiochus IV Epiphanes in the 2nd century B.C.E.

Ezekiel was active during the period shortly before the fall of Judah and the destruction of Jerusalem in the 6th century B.C.E. He also wrote during the resulting Babylonian captivity of the Jews.

Much of Isaiah was written in the 8th century B.C.E. when Israel and Judah were threatened by the Assyrians, who eventually conquered Israel, deported its people, and made Judah a vassal state. Other parts of Isaiah were written during the Babylonian captivity in the 6th century B.C.E.

In those extreme circumstances, few things could be of less interest to the authors than events that would not occur until many centuries later. Their societies were being decimated – or threatened with decimation – all around them. The end of their world seemed to be unfolding before their very eyes.[73] There was no need to wait centuries for catastrophic events.

In their view, God was just and must have used these afflictions to punish his people for their faithlessness and disobedience. But justice also required that God would soon intervene to save them from destruction at the hands of their wicked enemies. In doing so, he would surely punish those enemies and bring about an ideal society for his chastened but now wiser – and more faithful and obedient – people.[74] This new society would be ruled by an ideal king – the Messiah – from the family of King David.[75] These beliefs and hopes inspired many of the Old Testament prophets.

But as for applying their writings to later ages, Thomas Paine observed that “scarcely anything, I say, can be more absurd than to suppose that such men should find nothing to do but that of employing their time and their thoughts about what was to happen to other nations a thousand or two thousand years after they were dead. . . .”[76]

Paine also said “the flights and metaphors of those poets, many of which have become obscure by the lapse of time and the change of circumstances, have been ridiculously erected into things called prophecies, and applied to purposes the writers never thought of.”[77]

More than 200 years after Paine wrote, many Christians continue the ridiculous practice.[78]

Explaining a no-show Armageddon

Because the earliest Christians died without seeing Jesus return, later Christians had to reinterpret the teachings.

An example is in II Peter, which was the last New Testament book written. It dates from well into the 2nd century, probably about 140 C.E.[79] At the time, Christians were wondering why Christ had not returned as expected.

The author of II Peter, who obviously was not Christ’s disciple Peter, addressed their concerns. He said “in the last days there will come men who scoff at religion and live self-indulgent lives, and they will say: ‘Where now is the promise of his coming?  Our fathers have been laid to their rest, but still everything continues exactly as it has always been since the world began.’”[80]

The author explained that “with the Lord one day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like one day. It is not that the Lord is slow in fulfilling his promise, as some suppose, but that he is very patient with you, because it is not his will for any to be lost, but for all to come to repentance. But the Day of the Lord will come; it will come, unexpected as a thief.”[81]

Under his view, if the Lord promises to do something soon, the act will not necessarily occur within a time that humans view as soon, such as days, months, or even years. Because a day is like a thousand years to the Lord, the promise to do something soon could actually mean within hundreds or thousands of years.

The author was resorting to a technique always used by religionists when indisputable facts contradict their dogmas. If the literal meaning turns out to be wrong, they say the teaching was never intended to be taken literally. This claim is made regardless of how long the teaching was previously promoted as literally true by religious leaders and their followers.

A problem with going down such a path, as Walter Kaufmann notes, is that “there is no nonsense whatever which may not be said to be symbolically true.”[82] Moreover, once the literal meaning of a statement is discarded, an endless number of symbolic meanings can replace it. And if an infinite number of meanings can be given to the statement, it actually means nothing.

The explanation given by the author of II Peter, however, is unpersuasive regardless of whether day means a day or a thousand years. The fact remains that Christ taught that his generation would witness the world’s end; Paul expected to be alive and lifted up into the clouds when Christ returned; and other New Testament authors expressed similar beliefs. Those teachings remain just a wrong no matter how long a day is stretched to last.

Further, by saying the end would come “unexpected as a thief,” the author of II Peter seemed to contradict Jesus and Paul’s teachings about signs of the approaching end.[83]

Even though the author attempted to reinterpret the original prophecies, he continued to think the end could be imminent. He said the scoffers, whose arguments he was answering, would appear in the “last days.” And he exhorted his readers: “Look eagerly for the coming of the Day of God and work to hasten it on; that day will set the heavens ablaze until they fall apart, and will melt the elements in flames. But we have his promise, and look forward to new heavens and a new earth.”[84]

Thus, 2nd-century Christians were taught that despite the delay in Christ’s return, they could continue to hope for the world’s fiery destruction, watch for it, and even work to hurry it along. These macabre teachings apparently gave them consolation – but not without lessening their entitlement to being considered humane and decent.

Bible Teachings Led Many in History to Mistakenly Think the End Was Near

With its specific signs occurring in every generation, and its vague signs that can be interpreted as applying to innumerable situations, the Bible has caused many in the last 2,000 years to think they were living in the last days.

After the death of the early Christians, who thought they were living in the final century rather than the 1st, similar beliefs carried on into the 2nd and 3rd centuries. William E.H. Lecky reports that Christians during those two centuries were “looking forward continually to the immediate advent of their Master, and the destruction of the empire in which they dwelt. . . .”[85] Sometimes the belief would subside, but the Roman persecutions of Christians helped revive it.[86]

The belief continued during the subsequent two centuries. Martin A. Larson writes: “The conviction that Christ’s second appearance was imminent and that His precursor Antichrist was already loose in the world was common during the fourth and fifth centuries, as the light of Greek culture flickered and died.”[87] The depredations inflicted on the Roman Empire by the Huns and Germanic tribes helped reinforce the belief.[88]

Larson also notes: “Almost anyone whom the writer hated or abhorred with particular venom could qualify as Antichrist. It is probable that several hundred human menaces have been definitely identified with this fearful personage.”[89]

Larson states that many in the 6th century, too, thought the world’s end was impending. He says the 4th-century Christian writer Lactantius calculated that Jesus would return in the year 520.[90] This date differed only slightly from the one predicted by Irenaeus, a Christian apologist in the 2nd century.[91]

The belief persisted into the 7th century. Larson relates that Gregory the Great, who was pope until 604, “was convinced that the tribulations of his day must be the apocalyptic woes. . . .”[92]

Eventually, the conviction became widespread in Christendom that the world would end in the year 1000. In the 10th century, numerous charters began by stating: “As the world is now drawing to its close. . . .”[93] Annie Besant states that as a result of this belief, “fields were left untilled, all the concerns of life were neglected, and famine punished those who were foolish enough to look for the return of a dead man.”[94]

And as the great day approached, panic spread throughout Europe.[95] Larson describes what happened when it finally arrived: “On the first night of the second millennium, millions kept the wake, fully persuaded that at the stroke of midnight a great light would suddenly illuminate the sky, and Christ would appear, surrounded by myriads of angels, to call His own, and then to judge the quick and the dead.”[96]

Despite the many disappointments, belief in the world’s imminent end continually arose throughout the rest of the Middle Ages, particularly at times of catastrophe or social upheaval.[97] During the entire period, people watched anxiously for signs of the approaching apocalypse.[98]

Not surprisingly, then, many of the Christian Crusaders in the 11th and 12th centuries thought they were living in the end times. They viewed their military slaughters as the beginning of the battles that would ultimately result in the smiting of Antichrist and Satan.[99]

In the 13th century, the belief in an approaching end was held by those involved in the mass flagellant movements in Europe. Some thought 1260 would be the apocalyptic year when a new age would begin.[100] The same year was pointed to by Joachim of Fiore, whose writings influenced the early Dominicans and Franciscans.[101]

The 14th century brought the great bubonic plague – the Black Death – which killed about a third of Europe’s population.[102] Many were certain this catastrophe signaled the coming end of the world.[103]

In the 15th century, the Taborite movement preached that the world’s culmination was about to occur. They thought the final struggle against Antichrist and his hosts was beginning.[104]

The advent of Protestantism in the 16th century did nothing to stop the inaccurate predictions. Martin Luther, who began the Protestant Reformation, thought the pope was the Antichrist.[105] And he said: “I believe that we are the last trump that sounds before Christ is coming.”[106]

Also in the 16th century, some Anabaptists claimed that Christ’s reign on earth would begin in 1533, which they thought was exactly 1,500 years after his death.[107] And in 1552, the Catholic Bishop Latimer pointed to eclipses, rings about the sun, and similar phenomena as signs of the approaching end.[108]

In the 17th century, Archbishop Ussher predicted Christ would return in 1644, and even gave an exact day and hour. But he ignored the prediction during the 12 years he outlived the date.[109] Moreover, Quakers in the 1650s thought the apocalypse would occur within their lifetime.[110] Some Puritan groups in England held similar beliefs during the same century.[111] And in New England in 1680, the Puritan minister Increase Mather cited the book of Revelation to argue that judgment day was approaching.[112]

The 18th century brought the “Great Awakening,” a religious revival that occurred in America from the 1720s through the 1740s. A leading Puritan preacher at the time was Jonathan Edwards, who taught that Jesus would return “soon.”[113]

During the 19th century, William Miller caused the “Great Disappointment” by successively predicting four wrong dates – two in 1843 and two in 1844 – for the end of the world.[114] But his other religious teachings still became the basis for Seventh-day Adventism.[115] The years picked by other religious groups included 1864,[116] 1874,[117] 1878,[118] 1881,[119] and 1897.[120]

The 20th century produced many end-time expectations. Jehovah’s Witnesses predicted Armageddon would occur in 1914. They revised the date to 1975,[121] and continue to consider the end as impending.[122] In the 1940s, Aimee Semple McPherson’s International Church of the Foursquare Gospel preached as its dominant theme “the Lord is coming soon.”[123] In the 1950s, Billy Graham thought Armageddon and Christ’s Second Coming were imminent.[124] He preached in 1950: “Two years and it’s all going to be over.”[125] The Davidian Seventh-day Adventists said the end would occur on Easter Day 1959.[126]

The trend continued in subsequent decades. The Jesus People of the late 1960s and early 1970s were expecting Jesus’ swift return.[127] Rev. Jim Jones, who eventually led hundreds of his followers in a mass suicide in 1978, constantly preached about the approach of Armageddon and a nuclear war that would end the world.[128] Worldwide Church of God founder Herbert W. Armstrong indicated the end would come in the early 1970s.[129] Evangelist William Braham assured his followers the Rapture would occur no later than 1977.[130]

In the 1980s, the World Bible Society distributed about 4 million copies of a $2 pamphlet titled “88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will Begin in 1988.”[131] Radio preacher Harold Camping predicted the end would come in 1994, and admitted to being “slightly disappointed” when it didn’t happen.[132]

The people identified as or suspected of being the Antichrist during the 20th century included Adolf Hitler,[133] Benito Mussolini,[134] Franklin D. Roosevelt,[135] Henry Kissinger,[136] Ronald Reagan,[137] and Saddam Hussein.[138]

Certain groups were expecting the end to occur in 2000. Tim Callahan explains: “One of the reasons that the year 2000 C.E. attained such eschatological status is that the survivors of the non-apocalypse of 1000 C.E. decided that divine mercy had intervened to allow Christians another thousand years in which to convert the world.”[139]

Today, Pat Robertson and many other fundamentalists view current events as fulfilling biblical end-time prophecies, although they disagree about the details.[140] According to Edmund D. Cohen, Robertson had at one time expected Armageddon to occur in about 1982, with Jesus returning before 1990.[141] Dozens of major sects and hundreds of small religious groups continue to wait expectantly for the end.[142]

Isaac Asimov summarizes this entire history by reporting that during the last 2,000 years, there have been many in each generation who thought the Millennium was at hand.[143] Or as former preacher and now freethought activist Dan Barker puts it, for Christians the world is always ending.[144]

David Mills explains a reason for their persistent belief: “Individuals in the church community, clearly because of their great desire to get raptured into heaven, incorporated events of their period into their interpretation of these vague prophecies. This means simply that . . . the church’s interpretations of these prophecies have gotten tailored by each generation to fit the events of its particular period.”[145]

Similar errors will continue to be made as long as the Bible is considered God’s word.

Harms of the Belief

As a result of interpreting the Bible to mean the world is ending, Christians can develop irrational attitudes and engage in harmful behavior. Charles Kimball says “their brains often appear to stop working properly; they no longer rely on their judgment and common sense.”[146]

Reduces efforts to protect and improve society

Christians have little reason to work to improve a world that will soon be destroyed and supernaturally replaced by a better one.

Because they think Jesus is about to return and set everything right, they see no need to protect the environment, oppose corruption in business and government, work for a fairer economic system, or end other injustices in this dying world. The important thing is to be spiritually ready, and convert others to be ready, to enter the coming kingdom of God.

Similar thinking was displayed by James Watt when he was U.S. Secretary of the Interior in the 1980s. His duty under the law was to enforce environmental regulations. According to Watt’s Pentecostal religious beliefs, though, Jesus would return within a generation or two and establish a new world.[147]

Watt therefore conducted his office with scant regard for the long-term protection of natural resources.[148] He explained: “God gave us these things to use. After the last tree is felled, Christ will come back.”[149]

People holding those beliefs sometimes display an interest in world events and social problems. But their purpose is often to detect signs of the end rather than seek solutions to the problems.

Unfortunately, Watt’s attitude is shared by a significant percentage of Americans. As ex-fundamentalist Austin Miles writes, the same “end of the world is near, so just use everything” mentality is echoed by “Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, among others, on the forefront of the Christian right.”[150] Their followers number in the tens of millions.

Discourages education and work

Schools run by fundamentalist Christians sometimes imbue Watt-like attitudes in the young. In his book Visions of Reality: What Fundamentalist Schools Teach, Al Menendez describes a textbook displaying “little or no concern . . .  for the stewardship of creation.”[151] He says this unconcern results from the fundamentalist belief that the world is on a fast track to destruction.[152]

Another textbook ridicules all efforts to bring about world peace, and tells students that lasting peace on earth cannot occur until Christ returns.[153] According to Menendez, such teachings promote the idea that little can be done about social problems “except to convert the poor to fundamentalism.”[154]

When young people view this world as hopelessly doomed and almost over, they can also be discouraged from setting long-term goals in their personal lives. Thus they neither pursue education nor develop occupational skills. And their career potential is never realized.[155] Some see little need for education except for studying the Bible and other religious materials.

Adults sometimes explicitly encourage these attitudes. For example, the prophet of a Mormon fundamentalist splinter group told high-school graduates in 1993 not to attend college because the world would end before they could finish.[156] Despite the failure of his prediction, hundreds of members of the same sect were pulling their children out of public schools in 2000, apparently because they again felt the end was imminent.[157]

In his book The Gospel Time Bomb, Lowell D. Streiker mentions a young Jesus freak he met in 1971. In response to Streiker’s questions about plans for college or a job, the youth replied: “Hey, man, what’s wrong with you? Don’t you know the Lord is coming?”[158] The person would now be in his fifties, and may regret shunning education and work to wait for the Lord.

Fundamentalist teachings continue to cause some of the young to make the same mistake – which they too will likely rue someday.[159]

Destroys families, careers, and friendships

Streiker points out another problem with the teachings. While working in the mental health field in California, he treated several clients whose spouses or children had deserted their families to run off with one or another of various religious groups awaiting the world’s end.

As Streiker explains, this “abandonment of all human duties – business obligations, the rearing of one’s children, the needs of elderly parents, the commitment to one’s husband or wife – are justified by the . . . assurance that Jesus is returning in a few weeks.”[160]

And after Jesus fails – as always – to return, there often is no way to regain the jobs that were quit, the property sold, the friendships destroyed, and other social ties cut.

Opposes physical fitness

Fundamentalists expect to receive a new body when Christ returns and lifts them into the sky. This belief may cause them to lack concern about maintaining and improving the physical health of their present bodies.[161]

There is little need to take care of a body that will soon be traded-in for an upgraded model having the additional capabilities of levitating and flying.

Promotes violence

Because the Bible describes the end as including great military battles between good and evil, some groups have tried to start the war by attacking those they deemed as biblically prophesied to be destroyed in the final age.

In his book The Pursuit of the Millennium, Norman Cohn discusses a number of religious groups who, in the Middle Ages, violently attacked others in attempts to live out their interpretation of the Bible’s end-time teachings.[162]

The history of those groups leaves no doubt that when religionists view others as Satan’s followers who are prophesied to soon be slaughtered, it can be a very short step to starting the killing as a means of eliminating their opponents and hastening the arrival of God’s kingdom.

In our own time, the same mindset was displayed by some religious groups who thought Armageddon would occur in 2000. In 1998, about 80 members of a group called the Concerned Christians moved from Denver, Colorado, to Jerusalem with the intent of attacking Muslims. They wanted to instigate the final battles they thought were biblically prophesied to occur in the last days.

Fortunately, Israeli intelligence discovered the plot, arrested the members, and sent them back to Denver. The Israelis also deported other groups believed to have similar goals.[163]

Threatens humanity’s continued existence

Even if fundamentalists do not resort to violence to hasten Armageddon, their doctrines may lead them to be unconcerned about issues such as arms control, nuclear war, and efforts to bring peace to the Middle East. They think a worldwide cataclysmic war – in which the Middle East will figure prominently – is inevitable regardless of human efforts to prevent it.[164]

Additionally, their beliefs often provide support for those wanting to substantially increase military spending instead of devote more resources to improve social conditions, protect the environment, and find cures for diseases and disabilities.

Even worse, some seem to welcome a nuclear war – and might even approve of starting one – because they consider it as the final battle that will usher in Christ’s return and a new world. They are usually the ones who think the divine wrath is to be inflicted solely on God’s enemies, while the Rapture will enable them to escape it.

Thus, the teachings literally threaten to bring about a nuclear war and the annihilation of humanity.

Conclusion

By using the Bible to promote the belief that the world will soon end, fundamentalist Christians produce antisocial attitudes and behaviors. Their doctrines cause people’s talents and lives to be wasted, society’s problems to remain unsolved, the world’s condition to get worse, and humanity’s survival to be endangered.

Christians have been wrong for centuries in believing the end was near. Although different sects have given various reasons for the belief, the mistake they all made was to base their views on the writings of 1st- and 2nd-century Christians. Those earliest Christians were themselves wrong in believing the world was about to end. So it’s been the blind leading the blind.

No matter how logically a philosophy’s conclusions follow from its premises, the entire belief system is going to be wrong if the premises are incorrect. Christians have always based their end-time doctrines on incorrect premises obtained from the first Christians, who were ignorant and mistaken about the subject.

Fundamentalist Christians today are following an identical route. And it will surely lead to the same destinations as in the past: unrealistic views, incorrect predictions and expectations, irrational choices and lifestyles, and dangerous and harmful acts.

In contrast, science tells us the world has operated according to natural laws for about 4.5 billion years and will continue to do so for approximately 5 billion more.[165] With such a long future, the earth needs to be taken care of for the benefit of those alive today and the coming generations.

Furthermore, there is no reason to think a supernatural being will intervene and set the world right. This has never happened in the earth’s previous billions of years. No evidence exists for believing it will happen in the future.

The only logical conclusion is that people have to take care of the world and solve its problems on their own. To do so, they need to plan for the long-term, learn as much as they can about how the world operates, and apply scientific knowledge for the benefit of their individual lives and all of humanity – including the coming generations.

But those actions won’t be taken by people who think the world will soon be destroyed and supernaturally replaced by a better one in which their problems have been solved for them. Their belief is a nonsensical and harmful pipedream.

Endnotes:

1   Mark 13:24-25

2   Mark 13:26-27

3   Mark 13:30

4   Mark 13:32

5   Matthew 10:5-8

6   Matthew 10:23

7   Matthew 16:27

8   Matthew 16:28

9   Acts 2:17

10   Matthew 24:40-41

11   Matthew 26:64

12   Matthew 5:39

13   Matthew 5:5

14   Matthew 6:19

15   Luke 6:30

16   Matthew 5:42

17   Luke 6:30

18   Matthew 5:40

19   Luke 6:37

20   Matthew 19:21; see also Luke 14.23

21   Matthew 19:24

22   Luke 18:29

23   Matthew 6:25,33-34

24   I Corinthians 1:7

25   I Corinthians 15:51-52

26   I Thessalonians 4:15-17

27  I Thessalonians 1:10

28   I Corinthians 7:29-31

29   Hebrews 1:2

30   Hebrews 9:26

31   James 5:3

32   James 5:8

33   I John 2:18

34   I John 4:3

35   Jude 18

36   I Peter 4:7

37   The belief in an imminent end of the world has also been given as the reason Christ never wrote anything for posterity, and as the explanation for the Gospels not being written until more than a generation after Christ’s death. A.J. Mattill Jr., Ingersoll Attacks the Bible (Gordo, AL: The Flatwoods Free Press, 1987), p. 34

38   Matthew 24:32-33; Mark 13:28-29

39   Mark 13:3-9

40   Mark 13:12-23

41   Matthew 24:10-12

42   I Timothy 4:1-2

43   II Timothy 3:1

44   II Timothy 3:4-5

45   Revelation 11:3

46   Revelation 11:4

47   Revelation 13:1-8

48   Revelation 17:9-10

49   Revelation 17:11

50   Revelation 17:12-13

51   Revelation 13:11-15

52   Revelation 13:18

53   Revelation 19:20

54   Satan is identified as the dragon at Revelation 12:9

55   Revelation 16:13-16

56   Revelation 16:18-19

57   Revelation 17:5-6

58   Revelation 18:4

59   Revelation 18:20; 19:1-3

60   Revelation 14:9-1; 19:20

61   Revelation 20:4-5

62   Revelation 20:1-3,7-10

63   Steven L. Harris, Understanding the Bible (Palo Alto, CA: Mayfield Publishing Company, 1980), p. 359

64   Revelation 1:1; 22:6

65   Revelation 1:3

66   Revelation 3:11; 22:7

67   Revelation 22:20

68   Harris, p. 359

69   Tim Callahan, Bible Prophecy (Altadena, CA: Millennium Press, 1997), pp. 42-43

70    For example, Daniel 12:4 states that in the end times: “Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall increase.” Regarding the nations and rulers of that period, Daniel describes them by using symbols, including four beasts (7:2-7,17); the ten horns of one the beasts (7:7-8,23-24); a ram with two horns (8:3,20); and a goat with a great horn that snaps and is replaced by four prominent horns (8:5,8,21-22). Daniel also makes cryptic references to other people and things, including “one anointed, a prince” (9:25); the “horde of an invading prince” (9:26); an “author of desolation” (9:27); a “warrior king” (11:3); the kings of the “south” and “north” (11:5-6); an “officer with a royal escort” (11:20); a “contemptible creature” who seizes a kingdom (11:21); the “Prince of the Covenant” (11:22); and the setting up of “the abominable thing that causes desolation” (11:31). As is the case with many Bible verses in both the Old and New Testaments, these verses can be thought to symbolize an endless number of circumstances that have arisen throughout the centuries and can arise in the future.

71   Robert G. Ingersoll, The Works of Ingersoll, Vol. V (New York: The Dresden Publishing Company, 1901), p. 285

72   Harris, p. 180

73   Callahan, p. 177

74    See, e.g., Isaiah 10-13; 25-27; 60-66; Jeremiah 33; 46:27-28; Ezekiel 34; 39:8-29; Daniel 9-12; Joel 1-3; Zechariah 10-14; Zephaniah 3:11-20

75   See, e.g., Isaiah 11; Jeremiah 23:1-8; Ezekiel 34:22-31; 37:21-28. See also C. Dennis McKinsey, The Encyclopedia of Biblical Errancy (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1995), pp. 151-152 for an extensive list of Old Testament verses describing the world of peace and happiness the Messiah was to rule. Incidentally, McKinsey also shows on those pages that the Old Testament says nothing about a “Second Coming” of the Messiah, and Jesus did not meet the Old Testament’s descriptions of the Messiah.

76   Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason (Secaucus, NJ: Citadel Press, Reprinted 1974), p. 152

77   Paine, p. 155

78   See also Harris, p. 254, for an explanation of why Jews do not use Old Testament verses in this way. He states that apocalyptic beliefs helped inspire two unsuccessful revolts by the Jews against the Romans. The first occurred from 66 to 70 C.E. and the other from 132 to 135 C.E. Harris indicates that after those revolts ended in defeat and catastrophe for the Jews: “Both armed revolution and end-of-the-world predictions were henceforth repudiated by orthodox Judaism.”

79   Norman Perrin, The New Testament: An Introduction (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1974), p. 39

80   II Peter 3:3-4

81   II Peter 3:8-10

82   A.J. Mattill Jr., The Art of Reading the Bible (Gordo, AL: The Flatwoods Free Press, 1988), p. 16

83   II Peter 3:10. Paul also seemed to contradict the teachings about signs when he wrote at I Thessalonians 5:2 that “the day of the Lord comes like a thief in the night.” And at Luke 12:40, Jesus appeared to contradict his own teachings about signs when he said “the Son of Man will come at the time you least expect him.”

84   II Peter 3:12-13

85   William E.H. Lecky, History of European Morals, Vol. II (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1869), p. 12

86   Lecky, p. 215, n1

87   Martin A. Larson, The Religion of the Occident (New York: Philosophical Library, 1959), p. 486

88   Callahan, p. 204

89   Larson, p. 486

90   Larson, p. 485

91   Ibid.

92   Larson, p. 487

93   Annie Besant, “Is Christianity a Success?” Annie Laurie Gaylor, ed., Women Without Superstition (Madison, WI: Freedom From Religion Foundation, 1997), p. 277

94   Ibid.

95   Callahan, pp. 204-205

96   Larson,  p. 488

97   Callahan, p. 205

98   Maurice Keen, Medieval Europe (New York: Penguin Books, 1968), p. 20

99   Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970), pp. 74-75

100   Cohn, p. 129

101   Callahan, p. 205

102   Cohn, p. 131

103   Callahan, p. 205

104   Cohn, pp. 212-213

105   Salomon Reinach, Orpheus: A History of Religions (New York: Liveright, Inc., 1932), p. 265

106   Peter F. Wiener, Martin Luther: Hitler’s Spiritual Ancestor (Austin, TX: Gustav Broukal Press, 1985), p. 25

107   Cohn, p. 258

108   Andrew D. White, A History of the Warfare of Science With Theology in Christendom, Vol. I, (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1910), p. 179

109   Larson, p. 480

110   Leonard W. Levy, Blasphemy (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993), p. 185

111   Richard S. Dunn, The Age of Religious Wars, 1559-1715  (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1978), p. 175

112   White, Vol. I, p. 195

113   Edward T. Babinski, “Fundamentalism’s Grotesque Past,” Babinski, ed., Leaving the Fold (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1995), p. 51

114   Callahan, p. 206

115    Larson, p. 480

116    Larson, pp. 480-481

117    Harris, p. 180

118    Harold Bloom, The American Religion (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992), p. 163

119   Ibid.

120   Upton Sinclair, The Profits of Religion (Pasadena, CA: Upton Sinclair, 1918), p. 246

121   Joseph L. Daleiden, The Final Superstition (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1994),  pp. 18-19

122   Bloom, pp. 159-160

123   Howard M. Teeple, “I Started to Be a Minister,” Edward T. Babinski, ed., Leaving the Fold (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1995), p. 350

124   Bloom, p. 74

125   Jeffery L. Sheler, “The Christmas Covenant,” U.S. News & World Report, 19 Dec. 1994: 66-67

126   James A. Haught, Holy Hatred (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1995), p. 212

127   Lowell D. Streiker, The Gospel Time Bomb (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1984), pp. 101-102

128   Charles Kimball, When Religion Becomes Evil (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 2002) pp. 76-77

129   Joseph M. Hopkins, The Armstrong Empire (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1974), pp. 66, 234

130   Robert Moore, “From Pentecostal Christianity to Agnosticism,” Edward T. Babinski, ed., Leaving the Fold (Amherst, NY: Prometheus, Books, 1995), p. 277

131   Elaine Witt, “After false alarm in ’88, Rapture is awaited again,” The Columbus Dispatch, 12 Aug. 1989

132   Sheler, p. 71

133   Sam Keen, “To a Dancing God,” Edward T. Babinski, ed., Leaving the Fold (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1995), p. 256

134   Ibid.

135   Ibid.

136   Mike and Karla Yaconelli, “Behind the Wittenburg Door,” Edward T. Babinski, ed., Leaving the Fold (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1995), p. 172

137   Sheler, p. 67

138   Callahan, p. 227

139   Callahan, p. 205

140   Frederick Clarkson, Eternal Hostility (Monroe, ME: Common Courage Press, 1997), p. 128

141   Edmund D. Cohen, The Mind of the Bible-Believer (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1998), p. 410

142   Streiker, p. 111

143   Isaac Asimov, Asimov’s Guide to the Bible (New York: Avenel Books, 1981), p. 1182

144   Dan Barker, Losing Faith in Faith (Madison, WI: Freedom From Religion Foundation, 1992), p. 190

145   David Mills, Holy Hypnosis (Huntington, WV: David Mills, 1979), pp. 42-43

146   Kimball, p. 88

147   Bloom, p. 177

148   Daleiden, p. 416

149   Austin Miles, Setting the Captives Free (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1990), p. 229

150   Ibid.

151   Albert J. Menendez, Visions of Reality: What Fundamentalist Schools Teach (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1993), p. 119

152   Ibid.

153   Menendez, p. 68

154   Menendez, p. 71

155   See Moore, pp. 277-278

156   Robert Gehrke, “Polygamists pull kids from school,” The Columbus Dispatch, 13 Sept. 2000

157   Ibid.

158   Streiker, p. 111

159   Those attitudes are nothing new: “Christians in the first and second centuries believed that the end of the world was near. Christ had promised to return, and Christians expected to witness that return. Therefore they considered knowledge useless and learning a waste of time. The important duty of the Christian was to prepare for the Second Coming of the Lord.” John P. McKay, Bennett D. Hill, and John Buckler, A History of Western Society, Vol. I (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1983), p. 230

160   Streiker, pp. 110-111

161   See Moore, p. 278

162   Cohn, pp. 203-204, 211-213, 238-239, 254-255, 260-261, 274, 280. See also Callahan, p. 205, and Kimball, p. 103

163   John F. Murphy Jr., Sword of Islam (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2002), pp. 219-220

164   See Kimball, p. 104

165   See Ursula Goodenough, The Sacred Depths of Nature (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 8