Church history is replete with examples of failed predictions of the return of Christ and the end of the world, from Montanus of Phrygia (second century) to William Miller in the nineteenth century to the failed prediction of Judgment Day on October 21, 2011 by radio preacher Harold Camping (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harold_Camping). So far the failure rate for popular doomsayers has been and remains 100%. This track record should cause anyone to hesitate before swallowing the latest prediction of an imminent end.
The newest, and perhaps so far most “successful” prediction of the End in terms of popularity, is the claim based on the Mayan calendar that the present age will come to an end on December 21, 2012. Unlike most past apocalyptic movements this one originated outside Christianity and is more secular than religious in nature. It is widespread in pop culture having spawned significant numbers of television programs, “documentaries,” Hollywood movies and thousands of websites propagating a host of different and often conflicting theories about how events will play out on December 21.
“Experts” have materialized seemingly from the woodwork to warn people of the impending global calamity, many of whom attempt to integrate the Mayan doomsday predictions with similar “prophecies” gleaned from other ancient cultures and literary sources, including the Hopi Indians, the Sumerians of Mesopotamia and the Great Pyramid of Giza, all of which it is claimed warn of catastrophic events to occur in 2012. It seems the vastly disparate civilizations of the ancient world were all singing out of the same apocalyptic hymnbook.
But contrary to today’s Mayan “experts,” the Bible tells a very different story and provides several reasons why the “End” will not come on December 21 of this year, including:
1) In contrast to the appeal of the precision of the Mayan calendar based on astronomical observation skills, Jesus warned: “no one knows the day or hour, not even the angels in heaven nor the Son” (Mark 13:32). This statement was made in response to a question from his disciples: “what will be sign of your coming and the end of the age?” Not even God’s own Son possesses this information. From a biblical perspective the very idea that a pagan, polytheistic and human-sacrificing society knew what Jesus did not know is absurd.
2) Jesus was quite explicit: only God knows the precise date and timing of the End. No one knows the day, the hour, the “times or the seasons,” except for “the Father alone” (Matthew 24:36, Mark 13:32, Acts 1:7).
3) Disciples of Jesus need to “watch and pray” at all times precisely because “they do not know when the season is” (Mark 13:33).
4) Jesus will arrive suddenly at “an hour you do not expect” (Matthew 24:44). This declaration is at odds with the widespread apocalyptic expectations about December 21, 2012. Millions expect something to occur on December 21, yet Jesus said the end is to come when people least expect it.
5) The coming of Jesus will arrive “like a thief in the night.” That is, the date when a “thief” will strike cannot be known or accurately predicted. Thieves do not preannounce targets and timetables therefore one must always be prepared. This warning is repeated numerous times in the New Testament (Matthew 24:43, Luke 12:39-40, 1 Thessalonians 5:2-3, 2 Peter 3:10, Revelation 16:15).
6) Proponents of the Mayan prophecy often point to increasing natural and manmade catastrophes, potential and actual, as evidence that something apocalyptic is just around the corner; wars, famines, earthquakes, tsunamis and so on. Many are therefore preparing by storing food, building underground shelters, stockpiling weapons, etc. But Jesus compared the days prior to his coming to the “days of Noah” when people routinely went about their everyday business as if nothing untoward would happen, “eating, drinking, marrying, giving in marriage, buying, selling, planting, building,” until the Flood arrived suddenly “and destroyed them all” (Luke 17:26-29). Similarly, the Apostle Paul warned that “the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night. When they are saying, ‘Peace and security,’ then comes unexpected destruction…and they will certainly not escape” (1 Thessalonians 5:2-3).
7) Similarly and just like many Christian prophecy “experts,” proponents of the Mayan prophecy point to increases in the frequency and intensity of wars, famines and earthquakes as evidence of the rapidly approaching doomsday. In contrast, Jesus warned of coming “deceivers” who would point to “wars and rumors of wars, famines and earthquakes” as evidence of his soon arrival. However, disciples of Jesus are not to be “alarmed” at reports of this kind. Though such events “must occur,” they are characteristic of every period of human and natural history but “the end is not yet.” Contrary to much popular preaching, such catastrophes are NOT signs of the imminent “end” and at most amount to a “beginning of birth pains” (Matthew 24:5-8). The New Testament also warns of coming deceivers that will propagate false expectations about the “end” (e.g., Matthew 24:23-26, 2 Peter 2:1-3, 1 Timothy 4:1).
8) The “end” cannot come until the global mission of Gospel proclamation is completed: “this Gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed in all the inhabited earth for a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (Matthew 24:14). This involves more than simply acquainting the world with the name ‘Jesus,’ distributing tracts or building churches in every country. Christ’s statement uses the Greek demonstrative pronoun or “this” and describes “this” Gospel as the message “about the kingdom of God.” In other words, not just any but the same Gospel announced by Jesus must be proclaimed in all nations before the “end” can come, and arguably this task if far from complete.
9) The Apostle Paul gave very few specific prophecies or “signs” that will signal the soon return of Jesus, but he did specify two. First, there will be a final “apostasy,” a falling of many away from the true faith (2 Thessalonians 2:3), and—
10) Second, an individual Paul labels “the man of lawlessness, the son of destruction,” must first be revealed (2 Thessalonians 2:3-4). The Apostle describes this individual’s use of religious deception to deceive many. This man will “oppose and exalt himself over every so-called god.” Already the “mystery of lawlessness” is at work in the world preparing the way for this malevolent individual until the proper time for his arrival on the world scene (2 Thessalonians 2:3-4, 1 John 4:1-3). This man will work “all manner of mighty work and signs and false wonders, and with all manner of deceit of unrighteousness in them who are destroying themselves, because they did not welcome the love of the truth that they might be saved.”
In none of the preceding is it argued that the coming of Jesus is unimportant. His return is vital to the Christian faith and its promise firm. Christians can rest assured Jesus will come, the dead will be raised, the ungodly judged and all accounts settled. The question is not, “when” is he coming, but can we even discern and know this?
The appeal of prognosticators who claim to know when future pivotal events will occur and how they will play out is perfectly understandable. Human curiosity about such things is only natural, as is the desire of men and women living in a tumultuous world for certainty about the future.
We should remember just twelve years ago many were caught up in similar fears about the so-called ‘Y2K’ computer virus that was expected to bring down the world’s computer systems on January 2, 2000, causing worldwide economic and social upheaval. This was despite widely reported public statements from computer industry experts that such a catastrophic scenario would not occur. The details vary in each case but every few years this pattern repeats itself.
Christians who take the Bible seriously need to come to grips with the clear teachings of Jesus. God alone knows the timing of the end; this knowledge is beyond human competence. Accept this fact and deal with it, otherwise prepare to be fooled by the next prophetic charlatan. If not even the “angels of heaven” or the Son of Man possess this knowledge, it is foolish if not presumptuous to think mortal men and women can ascertain it.
What matters is not knowing the timing of that day, but rather that one lives faithfully in the here and now. How one fares on that day is dependent on how one responds to Jesus now, not on accurate knowledge about future events and chronologies. The Christian who is found busy about the Master’s business will stand in good stead on that day regardless of his or her lack of knowledge about its timing.
Luke 12:37, “Blessed are those servants whom the Master shall find on the alert when he comes.”