We live in strange times. 41% of Americans say that Jesus will definitely or probably return by 2050, and 38% believe that natural disasters are signs from God. For white evangelicals, those fractions are 58% and 59%, respectively.
What accounts for this fascination with the end times? Dr. Robert Price commented on one element of popular culture, the Left Behind novels that wallow in the horror of a post-rapture world. Price likens this as Christian porn. Fans of the series can read in those novels what they’d like to read in the newspaper. They’re eager for Armageddon, and they see themselves as the good guy in the book.
A larger factor that fuels this anxiety is Christian personalities who point to every bit of bad news as evidence that things are going to hell and that Armageddon is around the corner. These guys never met a natural disaster they didn’t like. Jerry Falwell wondered “whether the crisis in the Middle East is actually a prelude to the end of the world.” Pat Robertson said that the 5.8 magnitude Virginia earthquake of 2011 was another sign. Oh, and security cameras, too. Glenn Beck said that the recent story of a Syrian rebel eating a human heart is a sign of the end times.
Jesus gave this advice about the end times:
When you hear of wars and uprisings, do not be frightened. … Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be great earthquakes, famines and pestilences in various places. (Luke 21:9–11)
The gospel of Mark adds that these signs are “the beginning of birth pains.”
Do you hear about wars and earthquakes in the news? the Pat Robertsons of the world will ask. Well there you go—what more evidence do you need? And if you say that there have always been wars and earthquakes, they quote 2 Peter 3:3, “In the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires.” John Hagee interpreted this immunity to the facts: “The very fact that you don’t believe [Jesus] is coming is proof positive he’s on the way!”
But let’s return to reason. For this prophecy to stand out, it can’t be referring simply to war, earthquake, famine, and pestilence. It’s about an increase of those things, and we’re not seeing that today.
War, earthquake, famine, and pestilence, oh my!
First, let’s put to rest worries about increasing pestilence. Science has made gains against disease that would have been inconceivable just a few centuries ago. Sewer and clean water systems, vaccines, and antibiotics have altered life dramatically in much of the world, no thanks to God. Smallpox, killer of half a billion people in the 20th century alone, is only a memory, and polio and guinea worm may soon be gone as well. While cancer and influenza still exist, we’ve made great progress against them. The trend is positive here.
Famines in India and China killed millions of people a century ago. Food distribution isn’t perfect today, but modern technology has increased crop yields so that widespread famine is almost impossible. (More on the relative value of magic vs. technology here.)
As for natural disasters like earthquakes, we can’t control them, but for many, we have advanced warning. The Galveston Hurricane of 1900, which caught the city off guard and killed perhaps 10,000 people, could not happen today. We also have warnings for tornadoes and tsunamis.
Famously wrong end-times prophet Hal Lindsey said, “To the skeptic who says that Christ is not coming soon, I would ask him to put the book of Revelation in one hand, and the daily newspaper in the other, and then sincerely ask God to show him where we are on His prophetic time-clock.”
If you want to keep yourself in a lather over how terrible things are, go to Rapture Report for the latest scary news. Or look at the statistics that argue that things are actually improving.
(What about war? I discuss Steven Pinker’s surprising conclusions about violence in Part 2.)
If you listen closely
you can hear the footstep of Messiah
shuffling through the clouds of heaven.
— John Hagee
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