I’ve been following prophecy speculators for almost exactly 40 years. They all have one thing in common. They’ve been consistently wrong for nearly 2000 years. In the 1970s, Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth was a mega-best seller. It was the No. 1 non-fiction book of the decade. (Some would put it in the fiction category.)
Lindsey predicted that it would all fall apart by 1988 based on the premise that Israel becoming a nation again in 1948 was the key to determining when the “rapture” of the church would take place. He claimed that it would be no longer than 40 years from 1948. That was 25 years ago.
Even after so many failed predictions, there are still millions of Christians who claim that the end is near. California mega-church pastor Greg Laurie is one of them. He’s teaching a series to his large congregation on the book of Revelation called “Revelation: The Next Dimension.”
“We have never been closer to the end of the world than right now.”
Where have we heard that before? Logic alone tells us as much. I can say, “You and I have never been closer to death than right now, and now, and now.” Every tick of the clock puts us closer to every event.
What Pastor Laurie means is that the end is around the corner. Again, this is a common thread in the history of prophetic speculation.1 The history of prophetic speculation is the history of end-times claims. The black death, the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, World War I, World War II, the rise of the Soviet Union. Now it’s Islam, but Islam in the 15th century and earlier was said to be a sign that the end was near for them back then.
Samuel Elliott Morrison in his 1942 Admiral of the Ocean Sea, a biography of Christopher Columbus, wrote the following:
“At the end of the year 1492 most men in western Europe felt exceedingly gloomy about the future. Christian civilization appeared to be shrinking in area and dividing into hostile units as its sphere contracted. . . . Islam was now expanding at the expense of Christendom, the Ottoman Turks, after snuffing out all that remained of the Byzantine Empire, had overrun most of Greece, Albania and Serbia, presently they would be hammering at the gates of Vienna.”2
That was more than 500 years ago. Are we living in bad times? Yes we are. Are we living in impossible times? No we’re not.
You’ve heard of “whatever” as a statement of indifference. Pastor Laurie’s prophetic pronouncements produce an attitude of “What’s the use?” If it’s all going to come to an end, why bother trying to change anything. It can’t be done.
Too many Christians are disengaged because they believe that things are supposed to get worse. Couple their belief that the end times are upon us to claims that politics is dirty, Jesus didn’t get mixed up in politics, our citizenship is in heaven, we’re not supposed to judge, and there’s a separation between church and state, and you have a witches brew of prophetic inevitability that leads to cultural stagnation.
Pastor Laurie is a place in his series where he’s dealing with the “mark of the beast” and his number — “six hundred and sixty-six” (Rev. 13:17). He’s arguing that this passage refers to our time even though Revelation says the events revealed to John were to happen “soon” (1:1) because the time was near” for them (1:3; 22:10).
Pastor Laurie imputes more power to antichrist, of which there were many in John’s day that proved “it was the last hour” for that generation (1 John 2:18, 22; 4:2; 2 John 7) than he does to Jesus Christ:
“If you Google the number 666, you’ll receive 543 million results, the pastor said. ‘And you probably will find 543 million ideas about what it actually means. I don’t think anyone can answer this with complete certainly, but this much we do know… The antichrist is going to introduce a cashless society… The endgame of this is to cause people to engage in devil worship.”
We know the events in Revelation were on the horizon for those who first read Revelation (Rev. 1:1, 3). The book ends the same way it began: “Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is near” (22:10). Not near for us. Near for those who first read Revelation.
What about the number 666 (not 6-6-6). New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham writes:
“The solution to the riddle of 666 which has been most widely accepted since it was first suggested in 1831 is that 666 is the sum of the letters of Nero Caesar written in Hebrew characters as נרון קסר (נ = 50 + ר = 200 + ו = 6 + ן = 50 + ק = 100 + ס = 60 + ר = 200).3
The first readers of Revelation were told, “Here is wisdom. Let him who has understanding calculate the number of the beast. . .” (Rev. 13:17). When trying to match “six hundred and sixty-six” with a particular name, we need more than a plausible candidate from any time period; we need a relevant candidate from the time period when Revelation was written, otherwise why the statement about “wisdom” and “knowledge”?
The symbols in Revelation had to be relevant to the book’s first readers. Since Revelation was written to a first-century audience, we should expect the first-century readers to be able to calculate the number with relative ease and understand the result. They would have had few candidates from which to choose.
By all accounts, Nero had a reputation as a beast. “According to the emperor Marcus Aurelius [121–180], ‘To be violently drawn and moved by the lusts of the soul is proper to wild beasts and monsters, such as Phalaris and Nero were.’”4 Other histories of the period offer a similar description. But for Christians, Nero was a beast because “he was the first emperor to persecute the church.”5
While Pastor Laurie means well, he is off base when it comes to Bible prophecy. He needs to stop teaching on the subject until he does some further study.
- Francis X. Gumerlock, The Day and the Hour: Christianity’s Perennial Fascination with Predicting the End of the World (Powder Springs, GA: American Vision, 2000). [↩]
- Samuel Eliot Morison, Admiral of the Ocean Sea: A Life of Christopher Columbus (Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Co., 1942), 3. [↩]
- Richard Bauckham, The Climax of Prophecy: Studies on the Book of Revelation (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1993), 387. [↩]
- Bauckham, The Climax of Prophecy, 409. [↩]
- Bauckham, The Climax of Prophecy, 411. [↩]