Before Harold Camping, there Were Hal Lindsey and Chuck Smith
Before Harold Camping, there were Chuck Smith and Hal Lindsey. Lindsey is the author of widely and wildly popular The Late Great Planet Earth (1970). Smith has been the pastor of Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa, California, since 1965. He is a popular and well-respected Bible teacher. What many people don’t know or remember is that he set some very specific dates of his own in the 1970s. I wonder what he and Hal Lindsey, who predicted that Jesus would return before 1988, would say about Harold Camping since both men where poster children for end-time date setting. In fact, the 1970s and early 1980s were rife with evangelical soothsayers. And yet, Smith is still pastoring, and Lindsey is still considered to be an expert on Bible prophecy.
Camping has not given up on his prophetic date setting. He’s offering justifiable reasons why the “rapture” did not take place on May 21st as he predicted. Lindsey and Smith have done the same thing. They were both wrong about the 1988 end-point date, but this hasn’t stopped either of them from making a career out of prophetic speculation. As the 40-year time table was about to run out, like Camping, Lindsey tweaked his earlier prognostication. In an interview published in Christianity Today (April 15, 1977), Lindsey told W. Ward Gasque: “I don’t know how long a biblical generation is. [In 1970, according to Lindsey, it was 40 years.] Perhaps somewhere between sixty and eighty years. The state of Israel was established in 1948. There are a lot of world leaders who are pointing to the 1980s as being the time of some very momentous events. Perhaps it will be then. But I feel certain that it will take place before the year 2000.” He changed from a 1988 date to before 2000, and yet he’s still considered a “prophecy expert.”
In that same 1977 interview, Gasque asked Lindsey: “But what if you’re wrong?” Lindsey replied: “Well, there’s just a split second’s difference between a hero and a bum. I didn’t ask to be a hero, but I guess I have become one in the Christian community. So I accept it. But if I’m wrong about this, I guess I’ll become a bum.” He hasn’t become a bum. He hosts The Hal Lindsey Report, described as “A news site dedicated to news analysis of current events from the perspective of Bible prophecy with Hal Lindsey.”
Smith’s prophetic history is not much different. In his 1976 book The Soon to be Revealed Antichrist, Smith wrote, “we are living in the last generation which began with the rebirth of Israel in 1948 (see Matt. 24:32–34).” You will search in vain in the three verse’s Smith references to find any mention of “the rebirth of Israel.” He repeated the claim in his 1978 book End Times: “If I understand Scripture correctly, Jesus taught us that the generation which sees the ‘budding of the fig tree,’ the birth of the nation of Israel, will be the generation that sees the Lord’s return. I believe that the generation of 1948 is the last generation. Since a generation of judgment is forty years and the Tribulation period lasts seven years, I believe the Lord could come back for His Church any time before the Tribulation starts, which would mean any time before 1981. (1948 + 40 – 7 = 1981).” If this prophetic math sounds familiar, it’s because the same end-time logic was used by Hal Lindsey in The Late Great Planet Earth (1970).
In order to cover himself against charges of date setting, Smith wrote that “it is possible that Jesus is dating the beginning of the generation from 1967, when Jerusalem was again under Israeli control for the first time since 587 B.C. We don’t know for sure which year actually marks the beginning of the last generation.” A 1967 starting point to begin calculations and a 40-year generation would mean the rapture should have taken place before 2000 with the physical return of Jesus “with His saints” in 2007. While it sounds like Smith is simply engaging in conjecture, in his book Future Survival, which was first published in 1978 and updated in 1980, his prophetic dogmatism is retained:
We’re the generation that saw the fig tree bud forth, as Israel became a nation again in 1948. As a rule, a generation in the Bible lasts 40 years. . . . Forty years after 1948 would bring us to 1988.[
Smith wrote in 1980 that from his “understanding of biblical prophecies, he was “convinced that the Lord [would come] for His Church before the end of 1981.” He did add that he “could be wrong” but went on to say in the same sentence that “it’s a deep conviction in my heart, and all my plans are predicated upon that belief.” Notice the last statement. He may have voiced some doubts, but actions speak louder than words. He made plans based on his beliefs that were founded on his “understanding of biblical prophecies.”
On December 31, 1979, Smith told those who had gathered on the last day of that year that the rapture would take place before the end of 1981. He went on to say that because of ozone depletion Revelation 16:8 would be fulfilled during the tribulation period: “And the fourth angel poured out his bowl upon the sun; and it was given to it to scorch men with fire.” In addition, Halley’s Comet would pass near earth in 1986 and would wreak havoc on those left behind as debris from its million-mile-long tail pummeled the planet. Here’s how Smith explained the prophetic scenario in his book Future Survival which is nearly identical to what appears on the taped message:
The Lord said that towards the end of the Tribulation period the sun would scorch men who dwell upon the face of the earth (Rev. 16). The year 1986 would fit just about right! We’re getting close to the Tribulation and the return of Christ in glory. All the pieces of the puzzle are coming together.
Nothing significant happened in 1986 related to Halley’s Comet, and there is no reason why it should have since it’s been a predictable phenomenon for more than two millennia as it makes its way around the sun every 75 to 76 years. In fact, Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) was a better prophet than Smith. Clemens was born on November 30, 1835, two weeks after the comet’s appearance. In his biography, he said, “I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year (1910), and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.’” Clemens died on April 21, 1910, the day following the comet’s appearance.
In a March 30, 1989 interview with William Alnor, Smith admitted that he “was guilty of coming close” to “date setting,” and this was wrong. But when we look back over Smith’s statements about the timing of specific prophetic events, we can see that he did more than come close to date setting. He wrote, “We’re the generation that saw the fig tree bud forth, as Israel became a nation again in 1948.” We are now more than 40 years removed from the 1948 founding of Israel. The interpretive methodology used by Smith, Lindsey, Dave Hunt, and others making the 1948–1988 connection was fundamental to their claim that they were following a literal hermeneutic. If a literal hermeneutic results in near certainty of when prophetic events will take place but ends in a colossal miscalculation on a key element of their system, how should the interpretive methodology that brought them to that calculation be evaluated? To paraphrase Jesus, “An interpretive tree is known by its fruit, and the 1948–1988 timetable has turned out to be rotten fruit no matter how you slice it.”
In addition to some very specific prophetic predictions, Smith claims in the same book that criticized date setting that “the rapture is at hand.” His 1976 book on the antichrist states that he will be revealed “soon.” Early in Dateline Earth, Smith stated, “Very soon there are going to be some strange and terrible things happening on this planet of ours.” These “very soon” happenings are based on his reading of Revelation. He reinforces this claim when he argues emphatically, “Jesus is coming back, and He’s coming back soon.” In his book The End, he writes, “It is later than you think. It is time to wake up from your lethargy and realize that the coming of the Lord is at hand!”
What do you think Smith wants to convey to his readers when he used words like “soon,” “close,” and “at hand”? When the New Testament uses time words like “at hand,” “near,” and “shortly,” generally futurists like Smith claim that these words are non-specific and do not relate to the timing of prophetic events.
As I mentioned in yesterday’s article “Why Modern-Day Prophecy Theorists are More Dangerous than Harold Camping,” an article that mainstream evangelicalism won’t touch with a ten-foot pole, date setting or “generation setting,” is the mainstay of the church. Entire ministries, seminaries, churches, and publishing companies are built on it. Of course, we don’t find today’s popular prophecy teachers arguing for a particular day or hour, but we do find them assuring us that we are the terminal generation and Jesus is returning “soon.” Jesus predicted nearly 2000 years ago that he would return soon, that His coming in judgment against Jerusalem was “near,” “right at the door” (James 5:7–9). And like He promised, He came in judgment before the generation that heard His prophecy passed away (Matt. 24:34).
Chuck Smith continues to push end-time materials by claiming that the establishment of the modern State of Israel in 1948 is prophetically significant. He makes this claim on page 15 in The Final Act, a commentary on the book of Revelation published in 2007. That’s 23 years longer (so far) than the 40-year definition of a generation that he gave in 1978. Dave Hunt, another prophetic speculator of popular reputation, wrote the following in his endorsement of Smith’s The Final Act: “Although students of Bible prophecy (there are no ‘experts’) differ on some of the details (timing of certain events, etc.), there is general agreement that we are in the ‘last days’ and the rapture is very near.”
The “last days” were a reality prior to Jerusalem’s destruction. The writer of the Hebrews states: “God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, IN THESE LAST DAYS has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world” (1:1-2; also see 1 Cor. 10:11). Hunt says “the rapture is near.” Why does “near” mean soon to take place for Hunt when he uses the word, but “near” does not mean soon to take place when the Bible uses it?
There are numerous articles that criticize the fiasco that is Harold Camping. Good enough. But it’s time that the church gets consistent. For example, the folks at the ChristianPost have been the leaders in exposing Camping’s errors. Now it’s time for them to take on the more popular prophecy “experts” and their nearly 40 years of leading Christians astray.
Chuck Smith, End Times (Costa Mesa, CA: The Word for Today, 1978), 35. [↩]
“We’re getting close to the Tribulation and the return of Jesus Christ in glory!” (Smith, Future Survival, 21). Emphasis in original. [↩]
About the Author
Gary DeMar Gary is a graduate of Western Michigan University (1973) and earned his M.Div. at Reformed Theological Seminary in 1979. He is the author of countless essays, news articles, and more than 27 book titles, His most recent book is Exposing the Real Last Days Scoffers. Gary lives in Marietta, Georgia, with his wife, Carol. They have two married sons and four grandchildren, Gary and Carol are members of Midway Presbyterian Church (PCA).