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Making Bad Prophecy Predictions Vanish

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Ehrich Weiss (1874–1926), best known as the master magician Harry Houdini, lived in Appleton, Wisconsin, as a young boy where his father served as rabbi of the Zion Reform Jewish Congregation. Over the years, Houdini astounded audiences with his artful showmanship and his ability to escape from any contrivance. One of Houdini’s most famous non-escape stage illusions was performed at New York’s Hippodrome Theater when he made a full-grown elephant (with its trainer) disappear from the stage. The act was called “The Vanishing Elephant.”[1]

There’s going to be another vanishing act held, this time appropriately in Houdini’s hometown of Appleton, Wisconsin, at the 2009 Great Lakes Prophecy Conference. Some of the speakers include David Hocking, T.A. McMahon, Dave Hunt, and Chuck Smith of Calvary Chapter, Costa Mesa, California. What will disappear are the many false predictions made by Smith over the years. I suspect that very few people in attendance at this conference and the other Calvary Chapel prophecy conferences that are scheduled are aware of Smith’s long history of date setting.

arWhile cleaning up my office (a never ending task), I came across a cassette tape of a sermon Smith preached on December 31, 1979. He told his very accepting audience on that day that the rapture would take place in 1981. The former Soviet Republic going into Afghanistan in August of 1978 was the prelude to what Smith considered to be a full-force invasion of the Middle East. It would not be long before “Russia” would invade Israel, Smith told his audience. All of this was said to have been “predicted” by Ezekiel 2600 years ago.

Smith went on to claim in his end-of-the-year message of 30 years ago that because of ozone depletion Revelation 16:8 would be fulfilled during the soon-coming Great Tribulation: “And the fourth angel poured out his bowl upon the sun; and it was given to it to scorch men with fire.” According to Smith, Halley’s Comet would pass near the Earth in 1986 and would wreck atmospheric havoc for those left behind as debris from its million-mile tail pummeled the earth. Halley’s Comet did appear in 1986 with no damage done to our planet. (A similar prelude to the end had been predicted based on the so-called Jupiter Effect.[2]) If Halley’s Comet has had any prophetic import, it was in A.D. 66 when it passed over Jerusalem “just a few years before the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in A.D. 70 (see Storms from the Sun, 37). And just in case you haven’t noticed, contrary to Smith, the rapture did not take place in 1981 as he and others (e.g., Hal Lindsey in The Late Great Planet Earth).

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 verses Smith references to find any mention of “the rebirth of Israel.” He repeats 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).”[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 in 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 plus a 40-year generation would mean the rapture should have taken place around the year 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.

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] On these and other prophetic claims, the test of time has proved Smith to be wrong over and over again. This has not stopped him and others from dogmatizing that the end is near. Mark Hitchcock, following in the footsteps of Hal Lindsey, has written The Late Great United States: What the Bible Reveals about America’s Last Days (2009). Like Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth, Hitchcock’s new prophecy book is another exercise in newspaper exegesis.[7]

In the book Dateline Earth: Countdown to Eternity, Smith criticized Edgar Whisenant for predicting Jesus would return in September 1988: “He was certainly well-intentioned — including about his revised prediction of September 1989, when September 1988 came and went — but he was also dead wrong.”[8] This would have been a perfect opportunity for Smith to admit his own mistaken foray into predicting the end-point of “this generation,” but he did not take it.

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.[9] 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 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.”

In addition to some very specific prophetic predictions, Smith claimed that “the rapture is at hand.”[10] 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.”[11] These “very soon” happenings are based on his futuristic reading of Revelation. He reinforces this argument when he states, “Jesus is coming back, and He’s coming back soon.[12] 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!”[13]

What do you think Smith wants to convey to his readers when he uses words like “soon,” “close,”[14] and “at hand”? When the New Testament uses time words like “at hand,” “near,” and “shortly,” generally futurists like Smith argue that these words are non-specific and do not relate to the timing of prophetic events.

As a futurist, Smith “believes that Revelation says what it means and means what it says, and he or she does not need to twist its words to make them fit any particular doctrine. The futurist believes this book is to be taken at face value. . . .”[15] Earlier in Dateline Earth Smith argues that much of Revelation is “symbolic in nature,” so “the seven churches are used to signify that the message is for the complete Church — for all of God’s people, in every country and in every age.[16] If Revelation says what it means and means what it says, then why don’t the seven churches mean seven literal named churches in Asia Minor (Rev. 2–3) that were in existence in John’s day in the first century? Where does Revelation say, as Smith tells it, that “these churches are representative of the universal church,” each representing “a particular period of Church history”?[17] How does he know, for example, that the church at Pergamum “represents the beginning of the church-state system that developed under Constantine”[18] or the church at Sardis is the church of the Protestant Reformation?[19] Revelation doesn’t say any such thing. Smith is reading his interpretive system into the Bible.

Jim Steinmeyer, Hiding the Elephant: How Magicians Invented the Impossible and Learned to Disappear (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2003), 269–272 
Astronomers John Gribben and Setphen Plagemann predicted the “Jupiter Effect” in 1974 in their book The Jupiter Effect: A Scientific Exploration of the Plants as Triggers of Major Earthquakes. They wrote that when various planets were aligned on the same side of the sun in 1982, tidal forces would create solar flares, radio interruptions, rainfall and temperature disturbances and massive earthquakes. The planets did align as seen from earth, as they do regularly. Nothing unusual happened. In his 1999 book The Little Book of Science, Gribbin wrote that he was sorry he “ever had anything to do with it.” 
Chuck Smith, End Times (Costa Mesa, CA: The Word for Today, 1978), 35. Dispensationalists like Smith, Hocking, and Hunt believe that the rapture takes place seven years before the return of Christ. 
End Times, 36.
[5] Chuck Smith, Future Survival (Costa Mesa, CA: The Word for Today, [1978] 1980), 17. 
Smith, Smith, Future Survival, 20. 
Here’s what one reviewer wrote about the book: “Years ago, I used to read Dr. Hitchcock’s books with great eagerness. As his new books continued to roll off the presses, I began to see a repeated theme emerging. Hitchcock no longer writes to teach the Body of Christ but rather to fleece them and make a buck off of the booming prophecy industry. There are many excellent books out there on the subject, but they are often not published by the mainstream book publishers. After Hitchcock’s last book which as a transparent effort to jump on the Iranian President’s prominence in the news, I was disappointed to say the least. But I still chose to give him the benefit of the doubt and I purchased this book as well. My worst fears were realized. With the United States in a serious financial and moral crisis, Hitchcock has proven to me that he is simply capitalizing on the latest events in the news and the anxieties of the sheep for the purpose of making a quick buck. Mr. Hitchcock and the Christian publishing world should be greatly ashamed. It is not about growing one’s own little empire, but about proclaiming the coming Kingdom of Christ. This will be the last book written by Mr. Hitchcock that I will ever purchase or read.” 
Chuck Smith with David Wimbish, Dateline Earth: Countdown to Eternity (Old Tappan, NJ: Chosen Books, 1989), 26.
[9] Chuck Smith’s interview with William M. Alnor in Soothsayers of the Second Advent (Old Tappan, NJ: Revell, 1989. 
Smith, Dateline Earth, 38. 
Smith, Dateline Earth, 21. 
Smith, Dateline Earth, 25. Emphasis in original.
[13] Smith, The End, 46.
“We’re getting close to the Tribulation and the return of Jesus Christ in glory!” (Smith, Future Survival, 21). Emphasis in original.
Smith, Dateline Earth, 20.
[16] Smith, Dateline Earth, 20 
Smith, Dateline Earth, 28.
[18] Smith, Dateline Earth, 28–29.
[19] Smith, Dateline Earth, 33.

Article posted August 4, 2009

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