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Prophetic Pronouncements Under the Microscope

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Chuck Smith, founder of Calvary Chapel and senior pastor of Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa, California, has authored another prophecy book: The Final Act: Setting the Stage of the End Times Drama. The book carries the ringing endorsement of Tim LaHaye, co-author with Jerry Jenkins of the widely popular Left Behind series of prophetic novels. LaHaye offers the following complimentary words: “This unique dramatic treatment is both true to the Scripture and practical—both hallmarks of all Pastor Chuck’s teaching! I found it very interesting.” In addition to his new prophecy book, Smith has written the Foreword to Breaking the Apocalypse Code co-authored by Mark Hitchcock and Thomas Ice. Breaking the Apocalypse Code is said to be a “point-by-point” critique of Hank Hanegraaff’s The Apocalypse Code (2007).

I found it ironic that LaHaye would write that Smith’s teaching is “true to the Scripture” on the subject of prophecy when Smith has been so wrong on the subject for more than 30 years. I was surprised that Ice would want Smith to publish[1] and write the Foreword to a book on prophecy when Ice has written “Why the Bible Still Prohibits Date Setting.”[2] Has Smith read Ice’s paper, and has Ice read Smith’s prophecy books? Norman Geisler’s claim that Breaking the Apocalypse Code is “an excellent point-by-point critique of the fallacious claims . . . [of the] preterist interpolation of the End Times” stunned me since Smith has had a long history of making “fallacious claims” in his “interpolation of the end times.” Dr. Geisler is the dean of Southern Evangelical Seminary and the founder and president of the International Society of Christian Apologetics. He is applying a hermeneutical double standard, critiquing the interpretive methodology of Hanegraaff’s Apocalypse Code (a legitimate academic exercise) but saying nothing of the date-setting methodology of Chuck Smith.

In his 1978 book End Times, Chuck Smith wrote the following: “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).”[3] 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.”[4] A 1967 starting point to begin calculations and a 40-year generation would mean the rapture should have taken place before 2000. 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.”[5]

Keep in mind that it’s not only important to show where Smith was wrong in his predictions, it’s crucial that we understand that he is using an interpretive model that leads him to make these predictions. We could easily turn Geisler’s criticism around and point it at Smith and much of the date-setting rhetoric of futurists: “This is an excellent point-by-point critique of the fallacious claims . . . [of the] futurist interpolation of the End Times”.

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.”[6] 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.” Remember, LaHaye wrote that Smith’s teaching is “true to the Scripture” which is a hallmark “of all of Pastor Chuck’s teaching.” On these and other prophetic claims, the test of time has proved Smith to be wrong.

On December 31, 1979, Smith told his church audience 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 the Earth in 1986 and would wreak havoc on the earth for those left behind as debris from its million-mile-long tail pummeled the earth.[7] 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.”[8]

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 that can be seen 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.[9]

To be fair, 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.[10] 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 nearly 60 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.

Footnotes:
[1]
The books are published by The Word for Today, the publishing arm of Calvary Chapel and The Word for Today Ministries.
[2]
Thomas Ice, “Why the Bible Still Prohibits Date Setting”
[3]
Chuck Smith, End Times (Costa Mesa, CA: The Word for Today, 1978), 35.
[4]Chuck Smith, End Times, 36.
[5]
Chuck Smith, Future Survival (Costa Mesa, CA: The Word for Today, [1978] 1980), 17.
[6]
Chuck Smith, Future Survival, 20.
[7] Halley’s Comet also appeared in A.D. 66 and passed over Jerusalem, four years before the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem by the Romans.
[8]
Chuck Smith, Future Survival, 21.
[9] Twain Quotes - Haley's Comet
[10] Chuck Smith’s interview with William M. Alnor in Soothsayers of the Second Advent (Old Tappan, NJ: Revell, 1989.

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