By Ed Neumann, November 25, 2012
Published in the La Crosse Tribune.
More than 40 percent of Americans believe a biblical apocalypse — where Christ returns and wages a battle with the antichrist — will happen one day, and over half of those folks think it will occur within their own lifetime. A look at the historical record should shed light on this unlikely prognostication.
For thousands of years, people have been predicting a catastrophic end of the world or, for those who saw time as cyclical, the end of an age. Many also expected a glorious return of their gods or saviors to repair what they considered a fallen world and to judge the quick and the dead.
The Hindu god Vishnu is to come back in the last cycle of time as Kalki riding a white horse. The Persian prophet Zoroaster promised to resurrect his followers and vanquish the powers of darkness in some final struggle. The Book of Setna speaks of the “Day of Awakening,” when the Egyptian god Osiris will return in judgment. Similar second-comings were expected for Krishna, Buddha and Quetzalcoatl.
In the centuries prior to the rise of Christianity, apocalyptic Jews also prepared for a coming kingdom of God. Such sentiment, expressing Yahweh’s timetable in cryptic language, can be seen in the literature of the time.
During the Babylonian captivity in the sixth century B.C., the prophet Jeremiah spoke of the restoration of Israel in 70 years. When this didn’t pan out, the Book of Daniel reinterpreted Jeremiah to mean “70 weeks of years,” or 490 years. Wrong again. The apocalyptic fever continued as the Essenes, Pharisees and John the Baptist predicted an imminent eschaton, or End of Days, when Yahweh would exalt Israel to reign over nations.
Later, in Mark’s “little apocalypse” (Mark 13), Daniel’s failed prophecy was altered to foretell the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. Jesus instructed his disciples about the destruction of the temple and Daniel’s coming Son of Man — specifically stating that their generation would not pass away before all these things happen. Clearly, the Son of Man was a no-show.
Despite this, the devout held on to their expectations, and there have been hundreds of failed predictions made over the 2,000 years since.
The following are the most widely known:
Year 60: Paul expected the Day of the Lord would occur in his lifetime.
90: Clement of Rome said the end would come any moment now.
375: Martin of Tours claimed the antichrist was already born and there would be Armageddon before year 400.
992: Good Friday coincided with Feast of Annunciation, surely heralding the end.
1000: Pope Sylvester II said the Rapture was imminent. Many starved as farmers saw no reason to plant, and thousands gave away possessions. A legend arose that a king would waken from his slumber to battle the antichrist, so the bones of Charlemagne were disinterred.
1186: Alignment of planets thought to signal the end.
1600: Martin Luther said this was the end.
1666: “Fifth Monarchy Men” of England claimed the 666 in this year indicated presence of antichrist.
1697, 1716, 1736: Various failures and revisions of Puritan Cotton Mather.
1844: Followers of William Miller gave away all possessions because the rapture was near. Successive disappointments gave rise to new interpretations. Moving the goal posts farther ahead, deluded doomsday-ers would rationalize, “With the Lord, a thousand years is as a day.”
1975: Jehovah’s Witnesses thought the world was now 6,000 years old — it must be time.
1987: Hal Lindsey’s “The Late Great Planet Earth” said this was the year. His book sales were second only to the Bible. When this failed, he set his sights on 2000.
2000: Jerry Falwell and the “Left Behind” authors, Tim Lahaye and Jerry Jenkins, also chose 2000.
2007: Pat Robertson was strangely sure it was this year.
2011: Pastor Harold Camping said the rapture would occur May 21; later he revised the date to Oct. 21. His followers gave him their life savings.
If Jesus really meant he’d be back in a couple thousand years, wouldn’t he have just said so? It’s time stop fooling ourselves and admit these failed prophecies were a product of an apocalyptic fever from a less enlightened era.
Let’s face it, the chances are slim that Zoroaster, Quetzalcoatl or Jesus are coming back. More likely, the idea of their return is just part of the savior mythos.
A few doom-and-gloomers are even tying the arrival of Christ and antichrist to the end of the Mayan long-count next month. When December 21, 2012 passes by with the world still intact, on what date will they next set their sights for the final holocaust? Some claim 2020 — a perfect year for seers.
Ed Neumann is a member of the La Crosse Area Freethought Society