In 2009, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association website tells us that it “will focus on the return of Jesus Christ—and how you can live a faithful life in the meantime.” This focus isn’t anything new. Graham has been preaching an end-time message since the 1950s. The articles on the BGEA website are recycled material:
2009: “We can’t go on much longer morally. We can’t go on much longer scientifically. The technology that was supposed to save us is ready to destroy us. New weapons are being made all the time, including chemical and biological weapons.”
1986: “If you look in any direction, whether it is technological or physiological, the world as we know it is coming to an end. Scientists predict it, sociologists talk about it. Whether you go to the Soviet Union or anywhere in the world, they are talking about it. The world is living in a state of shock.”
In Storm Warning, a 1992 revision of his 1983 The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Graham wrote that he does not “want to linger here on the who, what, why, how, or when of Armageddon.” He simply states that “it is near.” What does Graham mean by “near”? Revelation states that the time was “near” for those who first read the prophecy (Rev. 1:1, 3). Since Revelation was written during Nero’s reign, prior to the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, the prophetic events of Revelation were fulfilled during the lifetime of those who first read the prophecy.
Dip into any period of history and you will find prophets of all types, from any number of theological traditions, who claimed they knew when the next end-time event would occur. Some have pointed to the rise in apostasy, lawlessness, natural disasters, signs in the heavens, and an increase in rival religions in their day as unmistakable evidence that the end was near for them. Finding hidden meanings in biblical numbers was another favorite pastime that assured the faithful that the end had to be at hand.
In the second century, Tertullian, in Ad Nationes, wrote, “What terrible wars, both foreign and domestic! What pestilences, famines … and quakings of the earth has history recorded!” Evaluating current events and concluding that they offer “compelling evidence” that Jesus would return soon has been a common practice among prophecy writers. In the sixth century, Pope Gregory assured the world that the return of Christ could not be far off since he claimed that so many prophecies were being fulfilled in his day.
Of all the signs described by our Lord as presaging the end of the world some we see already accomplished…. For we now see that nation arises against nation and that they press and weigh upon the land in our own times as never before in the annals of the past. Earthquakes overwhelm countless cities, as we often hear from other parts of the world. Pestilence we endure without interruption. It is true that we do not behold signs in the sun and moon and stars but that these are not far off we may infer from the changes of the atmosphere.
Peculiar sectarian cults arose during periods of hype and hysteria, when end-time prophetic speculation was fueled by expected promises of imminent catastrophe and the hope of a future millennium. “At first sight, one could hardly imagine two more dissimilar ideas. The first suggests death and desolation; the second, salvation and fulfillment. Yet the two intertwine again and again. Those who regard the Millennium as imminent expect disasters to pave the way. The present order, evil and entrenched, can hardly be expected to give way of itself or dissolve overnight.”
Some took advantage of perilous times by heightening eschatological expectations to agitate the faithful, knowing that “men cleave to hopes of imminent worldly salvation only when the hammerblows of disaster destroy the world they have known and render them susceptible to ideas which they would earlier have cast aside.” Others stirred the revolutionary fires in those preoccupied with a coming apocalypse. The zealous were duped into joining a “vision of a new moral order, a world purified and freed from conflict and hatred,” a world based on socialistic and communistic ideals that proved tragic for those caught up in the frenzy.
As early as the second century, prophets were suggesting dates for the bodily return of Christ. The “prophet” Montanus was one of the first to propose such a date. He proclaimed the imminent appearance of the New Jerusalem, the signal for which was to be a new outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Montanus as a new convert to Christianity believed himself to be the appointed prophet of God. Two prophetesses, Prisca and Maximilla, soon joined him. They claimed to be mouthpieces of the Paraclete, the Greek title used in John’s Gospel for the Holy Spirit. The Montanists’ predictions failed. Their failures, however, did not deter other date setters:
In the third century, a prophet called Novatian gathered a huge following by crying, “Come, Lord Jesus!” Donatus, a fourth-century prophet, commanded attention when he stressed that only 144,000 people would be chosen by God. He found this magic figure in Revelation 14:1 (a verse which the Jehovah’s Witnesses use to proclaim their own version of this heresy). Both Novatian and Donatus were branded as heretics by the Church.
The sack of Rome by the Vandals (A.D. 410) was supposed to bring on the end; the birth of the Inquisition (1209–44) prompted many well-meaning saints to conclude that it was the beginning of the end; the Black Death that killed millions was viewed as the prelude to the demise of the world (1347–50). The plague disrupted society at all levels. Giovanni Boccaccio wrote a vivid description of how some people responded. For some,
debauchery was the road to salvation, or, if there was to be no salvation [from the plague], to happiness in the few days that remained. These profligates abandoned all work and drifted from house to house, drinking, stealing, fornicating. “People behaved as though their days were numbered,” Boccaccio wrote, “and treated their belongings and their own persons with equal abandon. Hence most houses had become common property, and any passing stranger could make himself at home…. In the face of so much affliction and misery, all respect for the laws of God and man had virtually broken down…. Those ministers and executors of the laws who were not either dead or ill were left with so few subordinates that they were unable to discharge any of their duties. Hence everyone was free to behave as he pleased.”
Martin Luther “frequently expressed the opinion that the End was very near, though he felt it was unwise to predict an exact date. Christians, he said, no more know the exact time of Christ’s return than ‘little babies in their mothers’ bodies know about their arrival.’” This, however, did not stop him from concluding that the end was not a distant event. In January 1532, he wrote, “The last day is at hand. My calendar has run out. I know nothing more in my Scriptures.” As it turned out, there was a lot more time to follow. Many other disasters, natural and political, gave rise to the same speculation, century after century.
Contemporary events like the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 were interpreted as evidence of the fulfillment of biblical prophecies. Above all, the French Revolution excited a spate of interpretations on both sides of the Atlantic designed to show that the world was entering upon the last days. Millennialism was widely espoused by leading scholars and divines. In America the names of Timothy Dwight (President of Yale), John H. Livingston (President of Rutgers), and Joseph Priestly come to mind: in Britain, George Stanley Faber, Edward King, and Edward Irving. A spate of pamphlets and sermons by Church of England clergy and orthodox American ministers poured forth from the 1790s; and there was a constant reference back to the prophetical studies of Sir Isaac Newton, Joseph Mede, and William Whiston. The usual method of interpretation was some variant of the year–day theory, by which days mentioned in the prophecies were counted as years, weeks as seven–year periods, and months as thirty years. There was general agreement in the late eighteenth century that the 1,260 days mentioned in Revelation 12:6 were to be interpreted as 1,260 years, and that this period was now ended. An alternative theory, which became increasingly popular after 1800, emphasized the importance of the 2,300-year period of Daniel 8:14 and the ‘cleansing of the sanctuary’ which would fall due some time in the 1840s. The fulfillment of the time prophecies meant that mankind was living in the last days, that the ‘midnight cry’ might soon be heard, and that the coming of the messiah might be expected shortly. Such beliefs had an influence far beyond the members of explicitly adventist sects. They were part and parcel of everyday evangelical religion.
Sure, these guys were wrong, today’s prophecy “experts” tell us, but it’s different with us. My fear is that the gospel is going to be discredited by the prophetic wolf criers. If you want to gain a historical perspective on the long and troubled history of prophecy rumoring, I suggest that you read Francis X. Gumerlock’s The Day and the Hour, a 2000-year record of prophetic speculation. Does the good news of Jesus Christ have to be tied to speculation about the end times? Can’t the transforming power of the gospel rest on the promise of a new life in Christ on this side of the grave that results in the transformation of individuals, families, and nations? Must there always be fear of an imminent apocalypse to get the attention of sinners?
 Endnotes:Billy Graham, “The Second Coming of Christ,” Decision Magazine (January 2009).
 Quoted in Mike Evans, The Return (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1986), 22.  Billy Graham, Storm Warning (Dallas, TX: Word, 1992), 294.  For a defense of this position, see Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., Before Jerusalem Fell: Dating the Book of Revelation, 2nd ed. (Powder Springs, GA: American Vision, 1999). “Indeed, it is becoming an increasingly persuasive argument that all the New Testament books were written before 70 A.D.—within a single generation of the death of Christ.” (John Ankerberg and John Weldon, Handbook of Biblical Evidences: The Facts on Jesus, Creation, the Bible [Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 2008], 364–265). Josh McDowell follows a similar line of argument: “Most liberal scholars are being forced to consider earlier dates for the New Testament. Dr. John A.T. Robinson, no conservative himself, comes to some startling conclusions in his groundbreaking book Redating the New Testament. His research has led to his conviction that the whole of the New Testament was written before the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 (Robinson, RNT).” (Josh McDowell, Evidence for Christianity: Historical Evidences for the Christian Faith [Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2006], 80). Also see Norman L. Geisler and Frank Turek, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 204), 237.  Quoted in Carl Olof Jonsson and Wolfgang Herbst, The “Sign” of the Last Days—When? (Atlanta, GA: Commentary Press, 1987), ix.
 Quoted in T. Francis Glasson, His Appearing and His Kingdom (London: Epworth, 1953), 45.  Michael Barkun, Disaster and the Millennium (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1974), 1.  Barkun, Disaster and the Millennium, 1.Clarke Garrett, Respectable Folly: Millenarians and the French Revolution in France and England (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1975), 2.  Igor Shafarevich, The Socialist Phenomenon, trans. William Tjalsma (New York: Harper and Row,  1980). Also see Norman Cohn’s The Pursuit of the Millennium (New York: Oxford University Press,  1970).
 John C. Souter, “The Sky is Falling,” in Future (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 1984), 6.  Otto Friedrich, The End of the World: A History (New York: Coward, McCann and Geoghegan, 1982), 116.Mark Noll, “Misreading the Signs of the Times,” Christianity Today (6 February 1987), 10–11. Also see Mark U. Edwards, Jr., “Apocalyptic Expectations: The Scourge of God” in Luther’s Last Battles: Politics and Polemics, 1531–46 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1983), 97–114.J.E.C. Harrison, The Second Coming: Popular Millenarianism, 1780–1850 (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1979), 5.  Mark Noll, “Misreading the Signs of the Times,” Christianity Today (6 February 1987), 10–11. Also see Mark U. Edwards, Jr., “Apocalyptic Expectations: The Scourge of God” in Luther’s Last Battles: Politics and Polemics, 1531–46 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1983), 97–114.  J.E.C. Harrison, The Second Coming: Popular Millenarianism, 1780–1850 (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1979), 5.