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Is the Chilean Earthquake a Sign of the End?

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For decades now, modern-day prophecy writers have been claiming that the increase and severity of earthquakes are sure indicators that the rapture is near. Carl G. Johnson wrote in 1972 that “the greatest earthquakes that have ever shaken this world have all come since the close of World War I. Several of them shook the whole earth.”[1] How does he know this since the development of modern-day earthquake measuring equipment didn’t get their start until 1880? The Richter Magnitude Scale wasn’t developed until 1935. Were there more severe earthquakes before 1880? The Lisbon earthquake of 1755 is estimated to have been 9.0 on the Richter scale. John Wesley (1703–1791) mentions a great earthquake that hit Sicily in 1692, describing it as

one of the most dreadful earthquakes in all history. It shook the whole island and not only that, but Naples and Malta shared in the shock. It was impossible for anyone to keep on their legs on the dancing earth: Nay, those who lay on the ground were tossed from side to side, as on a rolling billow. High walls leaped from their foundations several paces. The mischief it did is amazing: Fifty-four cities and towns, besides an incredible number of villages, were almost entirely destroyed. . . .

Also in 1692 an earthquake hit Jamaica. Wesley described it in similar terms.

It threw down most of the houses, churches, sugar-works, mills, and bridges throughout the island; tore the rocks and mountains, reducing some of them to plains; destroyed whole plantations, and threw them into the sea; and, in two minutes time, shook down and destroyed nine-tenths of the town of Port Royal; the houses sunk outright thirty or forty fathom deep! The earth, opening, swallowed up people; and they rose in other streets; some in the midst of the harbour, (being driven up again by the sea which rose in those breaches) and so wonderfully escaped.”[2]

Notice that these two earthquakes hit in the same year and did monumental damage far beyond their epicenters. The one that hit Chile is the fifth most powerful to hit the region in the last 110 years. Chile had a 9.5 earthquake in 1960.[3] This means that there were greater earthquakes.

Just like then, people believed that these earthquakes were sure signs of the end. Sure enough, prophecy writers are once again claiming that the earthquakes that hit Haiti (January 12, 2010), Japan (February 27), and Chile are signs that the rapture must be near.

Like clockwork, when news reports started coming in about the deep-sea earthquake that created a massive tsunami that killed more than 230,000 people in 2004, I “predicted” that prophecy writers would connect this tragic event to an end-of-the-world scenario. Hal Lindsey was one of the first to make the inevitable connection.[4] Lindsey concentrated on Luke’s account of Jesus’ prophecy in the Olivet Discourse: “And there will be great earthquakes, and in various places plagues and famines; and there will be terrors and great signs from heaven” (Luke 21:11). He claims that Jesus is referring to what will take place at a distant time, in a period just before the “rapture” and the great tribulation.

Lindsey has pulled the earthquake card before. He started in 1970 with the publication of The Late Great Planet Earth.[5] In 1997, he wrote, “Earthquakes continue to increase in frequency and intensity, just as the Bible predicts for the last days before the return of Christ.”[6] In 1994, he published similar statistics in the first edition of Planet Earth 2000 A.D. The source for Lindsey’s statistics is the authoritative United States Geological Survey in Boulder, Colorado. “But he does not give details of the report (report name, author, date, location, etc.).”[7] Those who consider earthquakes to be a sign of our end and the nearness of the rapture are missing some crucial biblical and historical data. First, the end of the age was a first-century event (1 Cor. 10:11; Heb. 1:1–2; 9:26; 10:24–25). Second, the sign of earthquakes only has meaning within the time context of the generation to whom Jesus was addressing (see my books Is Jesus Coming Soon? and Last Days Madness). Third, the statistics used by Lindsey and others cannot be substantiated by a study of the data.

 A majority of prophecy writers begin with Jesus’ longest prophetic statement most often referred to as the Olivet Discourse (Matt. 24; Mark 13; Luke 21). In fact, Jesus is describing what took place before that first-century generation passes away: “Even so you, too, when you see these things happening, recognize that the kingdom of God is near” (Luke 21:31). Notice the audience reference: “Even so you . . . when you see these things happening” (cf. Matt. 24:33). Jesus was informing His present audience what they would see and experience. If Jesus had a future generation in view, He would have said, “When they see these things happening.”

In addition, notice how Jesus says, “this generation will not pass away until all these things take place” (Luke 21:32).  Each and every time “this generation” is used in the gospels, it refers to the generation to whom Jesus is speaking (Matt. 11:16; 12:41–42; 23:36; Mark 8:12; Luke 7:31; 11:30–32, 50–51; 17:25; cf. Gen. 7:1; Ps. 12:7; Heb. 3:10). “This generation” is never used as a reference to a future generation. Again, if Jesus had a future generation in mind, He would have said, “that generation will not pass away.”

A great deal of attention had been focused on the number of hurricanes that struck the United States in 2005. Many believe that these were signs of the end based on Luke’s account of the Olivet Discourse where he writes about the “perplexity at the roaring of the sea and the waves” (Luke 21:25). The Mediterranean Sea floor is littered with ships that broke apart and sank because of storms. We read of one such incident in Acts 27. The storm is described as a “Euraquilo,” that is, “a northeaster” (27:14). Luke writes that they did not see the sun or stars “for many days” (27:20). The ship finally ran aground where it was “broken up by the force of the waves” (27:41). The Roman historian Tacitus describes a series of similar events in A.D. 65:

The gods also marked by storms and diseases a year made shameful by so many crimes. Campania was devastated by a hurricane. . . the fury of which extended to the vicinity of the City, in which a violent pestilence was carrying away every class of human beings . . . houses were filled with dead bodies, the streets with funerals.[8]

The natural disasters described by Matthew, Mark, and Luke, common to every age, pointed specifically to the coming of Jesus in judgment upon Jerusalem before that first-century generation passed away.

 The August 27th, 1883 eruption of Krakatoa resulted in the deaths of 40,000 people, almost all of whom died from 100-foot tsunamis generated by the shock waves. Through eyewitness accounts, we learned that the explosion was heard thousands of miles away, and the eruption’s shock wave traveled around the world. The effects of the disaster were far-reaching and long-lasting:

Beyond the purely physical horrors of an event that has only very recently been properly understood, the eruption changed the world in more ways than could possibly be imagined. Dust swirled round the planet for years, causing temperatures to plummet and sunsets to turn vivid with lurid and unsettling displays of light. The effects of the immense waves were felt as far away as France. Barometers in Bogotá and Washington, D.C., went haywire. Bodies were washed up in Zanzibar. The sound of the island’s destruction was heard in Australia and India and on islands thousands of miles away. Most significant of all—in view of today’s new political climate—the eruption helped to trigger in Java a wave of murderous anti-Western militancy among fundamentalist Muslims: one of the first outbreaks of Islamic-inspired killings anywhere (see here).

If, as Lindsey himself states, the December 26, 2004 “catastrophic tsunami was caused by the fourth most powerful undersea earthquake on record,” then there were three that were more powerful that we know about and many more that we don’t know about.  It seems that there are more earthquakes today because of several factors:

A partial explanation may lie in the fact that in the last twenty years, we have definitely had an increase in the number of earthquakes we have been able to locate each year. This is because of the tremendous increase in the number of seismograph stations in the world and the many improvements in global communications. In 1931, there were about 350 stations operating in the world; today, there are more that 4,000 stations and the data now comes in rapidly from these stations by telex, computer and satellite. This increase in the number of stations and the more timely receipt of data has allowed us and other seismological centers to locate many small earthquakes which were undetected in earlier years, and we are able to locate earthquakes more rapidly. The NEIC now locates about 12,000 to 14,000 earthquakes each year or approximately 35 per day. Also, because of the improvements in communications and the increased interest in natural disasters, the public now learns about more earthquakes. According to long-term records (since about 1900), we expect about 18 major earthquakes (7.0–7.9) and one great earthquake (8.0 or above) in any given year (see here).

As history attests, devastating earthquakes are not new.

Lindsey continues: “Jesus indicates that all the natural disasters will begin to increase in frequency and intensity in concert with each other shortly before His return. And it is as these ‘birth pains’ begin to take place that believers in Jesus are to know that their deliverance is near.” There is no mention of an increase in the frequency or intensity of earthquakes in what Jesus says, only that they will occur “in various places” before “this generation,” that is, the generation of Jesus’ day, passed away.

The biblical record shows that earthquakes occurred before Jerusalem was destroyed in A.D. 70. Two earthquakes are mentioned in Matthew: When Jesus was crucified (27:54) and when the angel came down to roll the stone away from the tomb where Jesus was buried (28:2). This second earthquake is said to have been "severe." Luke records in Acts that “a great earthquake” that shook “the foundations of the prison house” (Acts 16:26). “And as to earthquakes, many are mentioned by writers during a period just previous to 70 A.D. There were earthquakes in Crete, Smyrna, Miletus, Chios, Samos, Laodicea, Hierapolis, Colosse, Campania, Rome, and Judea. It is interesting to note that the city of Pompeii was much damaged by an earthquake occurring on February 5, 63 A.D.”[9] Henry Alford compiled the following list:

The principal earthquakes occurring between this prophecy and the destruction of Jerusalem [in A.D. 70] were, (1) a great earthquake in Crete, A.D. 46 or 47; (2) one at Rome on the day when Nero assumed the manly toga, A.D. 51; (3) one at Apamaea in Phrygia, mentioned by Tacitus, A.D. 53; (4) one tat Laodicea in Phrygia, A.D. 60; (5) one in Campania. Seneca, in the year, A.D. 58, writes:—“How often have cities of Asia and Achaea fallen with one fatal shock! How many cities have been swallowed up in Syria, how many in Macedonia! How often has Cyprus been wasted by this calamity! How often has Paphos become a ruin! News has often been brought us of the demolition of whole cities at once.”[10]

Notice the tight geographical area of these earthquakes within a period of just 12 years. Their severity and frequency have not been eclipsed in modern times.

Flavius Josephus, an eyewitness to the events surrounding Jerusalem’s destruction, describes an earthquake in Judea of such magnitude “that the constitution of the universe was confounded for the destruction of men.”[11] Of course, he was speaking metaphorically, because of the devastation brought to the holy city and sanctuary that were the identity of the Jewish people. Josephus goes on to write that the Judean earthquake was “no common” calamity, indicating that God Himself had brought it about for a special purpose. One commentator writes: “Perhaps no period in the world’s history has ever been so marked by these convulsions as that which intervenes between the Crucifixion and the destruction of Jerusalem.”[12] Since the generation between A.D. 30 and 70 is past, there is no reason to attach prophetic significance to earthquakes in our day as a fulfillment of Matthew 24:7. They are not signs of the imminency of Jesus’ return in our generation, but they were a prelude to the coming of Jesus in judgment upon Jerusalem in the generation of the apostles.


[1] Carl G. Johnson, Prophecy Made Plain for Times Like These (Chicago: Moody Press, 1972), 86.
John Wesley, “The Cause and Cure of Earthquakes.” First published in 1750 as Sermon 129:
[3] Tony Hake, “Largest earthquake in history-Magnitude 9.5 near Chile,” May 22, 1960.”
[4] Hal Lindsey, “Stingy Sam” (Dec. 30, 2004).
[5] Hal Lindsey, The Late Great Planet Earth (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1970), 52.
[6] Hal Lindsey, Apocalypse Code (Palos Verdes, CA: Western Front Ltd., 1997), 296.
[7] Steven A. Austin and Mark L. Strauss, “Are Earthquakes Signs of the End Times?: A Geological and Biblical Response to an Urban Legend,” Christian Research Journal, 21:4, 32. Through careful analysis, the authors refute the claim that there has been an increase of earthquakes in the periods stated by the above prophecy writers. In fact, the authors conclude, “Graphical plots of global earthquake frequency indicate overall a decreasing frequency of earthquakes” (38).
[8] George Edmundson, The Church in Rome in the First Century (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1913), 143.
J. Marcellus Kik, Matthew Twenty-Four: An Exposition (Philadelphia, PA: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1948), 93.
Henry Alford, The New Testament for English Readers (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, n.d.), 163.
Quoted in Thomas Scott, The Holy Bible Containing the Old and New Testaments, According to the Authorized Version; with Explanatory Notes, Practical Observations, and Copious Marginal References, 3 vols. (New York: Collins and Hannay, 1832), 3:108.
[12] Edward Hayes Plumptre, “The Gospel According to St. Matthew,” Ellicott’s Commentary on the Whole Bible, ed. Charles John Ellicott, 8 vols. (London: Cassell and Company, 1897), 6:146.

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