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A Biblical and Historical Perspective on Earthquakes

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lisbon-earthquake-1755-grangerFor decades now, modern-day prophecy writers have been claiming that the increase and severity of earthquakes are sure indicators that we’re living in the “last days” and the “rapture” is near. It happened again when an earthquake hit Haiti January 12, 2010 and also the March 11, 2011 earthquake that sent a tsunami to Japan has already revved up current end-time speculation. Tim LaHaye, the best-selling co-author of the Left Behind series of Bible prophecy novels had this to say about the Japanese earthquake:

“The Bible tells us in Matthew 24 that one of the signs of the last days – one of the birth pangs to occur – is an increase in earthquake activity and intensity. We’re seeing that happen here. It’s not just earthquakes, but hurricanes and all kinds of natural disasters.”

This type of comment is not uncommon. (Notice his use of “increase.”) 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] Peter LaLonde claimed that the number of earthquakes per decade “has roughly doubled since the 1950’s.” David Allen Lewis offered a similar statistic: “There have been more earthquakes in the last 50 years than in the previous 1,500 years.” Michael D. Evans, whose book The American Prophecies is touted as an end-time tour de force by a number of dispensational advocates, wrote in an earlier prophecy work that “[T]he magnitude and frequency of earthquakes sets [the decade of the 1990s] apart from any other time in spiritual history.”

LaHaye also mentions hurricanes as signs of the last days. A great deal of attention was paid to the number of hurricanes that struck the United States in 2005. Climatologists argued that 2005 was a trend and prophecy writers like LaHaye assured their readers that such storms are a fulfillment of Luke 21:25: “There will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth dismay among nations, in perplexity at the roaring of the sea and the waves.” The spate of hurricanes turned out not to be a trend. In context, the prophecy in Luke 21 is a reference to what was going to take place before the generation to whom Jesus was speaking passed away (Luke 21:32). As history attests, Jesus, of course, was right. There were huge storms prior to Jerusalem’s destruction in A.D. 70.

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:

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. [2]

The natural disasters described by Matthew, Mark, and Luke in the Olivet Discourse pointed specifically to the coming of Jesus in judgment upon Jerusalem before that first-century generation passed away in A.D. 70. The Mediterranean Sea floor is littered with ships that broke apart and sank because of “the roaring of the sea and the waves.”

Are tsunamis something new? Not at all. 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 it was reported 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. [3]

It’s been reported that the December 26, 2004 “catastrophic tsunami was caused by the fourth most powerful undersea earthquake on record.” This means there were three others that were more powerful that we know about and possibly others 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. [4]

Hal Lindsey writes that “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.” LaHaye said the same thing about an “increase” in earthquakes. 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: “For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and in various places there will be famines and earthquakes” (Matt. 24:7; Mark 13:8; Luke 21:11). Notice that the word “increase” is not in the text.

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” or “great” (megas). Luke records in Acts that “a great [megas] earthquake” shook “the foundations of the prison house” (Acts 16:26).

Secular historians of the time support the biblical record. “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.” [5] 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 at 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! Show 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.” [6]

Notice the tight geographical area of these earthquakes within a period of just 12 years.

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.” [7] 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.” [8] 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.

What, then, should we think of these disasters? Is God telling us anything? John Wesley wrote of “The Cause and Cure of Earthquakes” in 1750:

Of all the judgments which the righteous God inflicts on sinners here, the most dreadful and destructive is an earthquake. This he has lately brought on our part of the earth, and thereby alarmed our fears, and bid us “prepare to meet our God!” The shocks which have been felt in divers places, since that which made this city tremble, may convince us that the danger is not over, and ought to keep us still in awe; seeing “his anger is not turned away, but his hand is stretched out still,” Isa. x, 4. [9]

Wesley’s assessment of earthquakes as an immediate judgment of God is quite different from saying that such events should be tied to texts that indicate the timing of a so-called rapture or even the second coming.

In 1756, Gilbert Tennent observed that earthquakes were “extraordinary in respect of number and dreadful Effects” [10] in his day. He saw them as indicators that “some extraordinary Revolutions [might] be near at Hand,” not as signs of the soon coming of Jesus. Historian James West Davidson writes:

Ministers in 1755 [when the Lisbon [11]) earthquake struck] as well as 1727 [when the New England earthquake hit], New Light as well as Old, accepted the prevailing assumptions that earthquakes were naturally caused, that they were inescapably meant as moral judgments, and that (most important) they were compatible with other moral judgments which God accomplished by using human instruments. They saw natural disasters as one proper part of the climax of history, not because of a preference for any specific millennial chronologies (once again a wide range of opinion appeared on that subject), but because catastrophes fell under the more general category of moral judgment, which was a necessary part of ultimate deliverance. [12]

News of earthquakes in our day hold prophetic significance for many Christians “because we are to such an extent ‘strangers to the past,’ [thus] we easily read into the events and circumstances of our own day a distinctiveness and uniqueness that may not actually be there.” [13] Much of the speculative nature of today’s Bible prophecy hysteria can be linked to “generational provincialism,” that is, the belief that nothing has prophetic significance unless it happens to our generation. Many who take this approach seem to be unaware that wars, earthquakes, famines, and plagues have been a part of the human condition since the fall. At various crucial periods in human history, God used these phenomena as warnings of impending judgment or as retribution for covenantal unfaithfulness (Num. 16:30, 32, 34; 26:10; Deut. 11:6). Of course, not every earthquake or famine has such a special meaning. Each occurrence, however, ought to serve as a reminder that we are sinners and our world has been ravaged by the effects of rebellion (John 9:1–3).

Modern date setters do acknowledge past great earthquakes. But to make our generation unique in the annals of Bible prophecy, those engaged in predicting the time of the end assert that we should calculate the frequency of earthquakes. Again, the present must be seen as unusual to make the prophetic system work. Hal Lindsey wrote: “There have been many great earthquakes throughout history, but, according to surprisingly well-kept records, in the past they did not occur very frequently. The 20th century, however, has experienced an unprecedented increase in the frequency of these calamities. In fact, the number of earthquakes per decade has roughly doubled in each of the 10-year periods since 1950.” [14] 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.” [15] 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.).” Steven A. Austin and Mark L. Strauss, in “Earthquakes and the End Times: A Geological and Biblical Perspective,” refute the claim that there has been an increase in the number 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.” [16]

The way some prophecy analysts talk, only a dozen or so major earthquakes have been recorded over the centuries. This is far from the truth. The Roman writer Seneca, before his death in A.D. 65, stated that frequent earthquakes had been a characteristic of the ancient world: “How often have cities in Asia, how often in Achaia, been laid low by a single shock of earthquake! How many towns in Syria, how many in Macedonia, have been swallowed up! How often has this kind of devastation laid Cyprus in ruins! How often has Paphos collapsed! Not infrequently are tidings brought to us of the utter destruction of entire cities.” [17] Notice the date of Seneca’s writing—A.D. 65—just five years before the destruction of Jerusalem and thirty-five years after Jesus’ prophecy about earthquakes. After A.D. 70, earthquakes no longer have the same prophetic significance.

Today’s reported earthquakes are not unique, as proven by a thorough study of history. The greatest student of earthquakes was a Frenchman, Count F. Montessus de Ballore. From 1885 to 1922, he devoted his time to studying and cataloging earthquakes and came to an astonishing conclusion. He cataloged 171,434 earthquakes from the earliest historic times! “The manuscript is stored in the library of the Geographical Society in Paris, where it occupies 26 meters (over 84 feet) of bookshelves.” [18]

As much as we might want to believe that we are the “rapture generation” or the “terminal generation” there is no statistical or biblical evidence to support such a contention.

  1. Carl G. Johnson, Prophecy Made Plain for Times Like These (Chicago: Moody Press, 1972), 86.[]
  2. George Edmundson, The Church in Rome in the First Century (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1913), 143.[]
  3. http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0066212855/qid=1104773777/sr=1-1/ref=sr_1_1/103-5583319-4472647?v=glance&s=books[]
  4. http://earthquake.usgs.gov/faq/myths.html#8[]
  5. J. Marcellus Kik, Matthew Twenty-Four: An Exposition (Philadelphia, PA: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1948), 93.[]
  6. Henry Alford, The New Testament for English Readers (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, n.d.), 163.[]
  7. 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.[]
  8. 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.[]
  9. John Wesley, “The Cause and Cure of Earthquakes” (1750), Sermons on Several Occasions, 2 vols. (New York: Carlton & Phillips, 1853), 1:506.[]
  10. Gilbert Tennent (1703–1764) quoted in James West Davidson, The Logic of Millennial Thought: Eighteenth-Century New England (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1977), 102.[]
  11. “The estimates of the death toll range from about 15,000 to more than 75,000. Modern historians incline to believe that the correct figure is probably about 30,000, which would be more than ten percent of the city’s population, the equivalent of nearly a million in contemporary New York.” (Otto Friedrich, The End of the World: A History (New York: Coward, McCann and Geoghegan, 1982), 188.[]
  12. Davidson, Logic of Millennial Thought, 97.[]
  13. Carl Olof Jonsson and Wolfgang Herbst, The “Sign” of the Last Days—When? (Atlanta, GA: Commentary Press, 1987), x. This book is filled with statistical and historical information that easily refutes the notion that our era is unique when it comes to earthquakes, wars, and famines.[]
  14. Lindsey, The 1980s, 30.[]
  15. Hal Lindsey, Apocalypse Code (Palos Verdes, CA: Western Front Ltd., 1997), 296.[]
  16. Austin and Strauss published a less technical version of this paper in 1999 under the title “Are Earthquakes Signs of the End Times?: A Geological and Biblical Response to an Urban Legend,” Christian Research Journal, 21:4, 30–39.[]
  17. Seneca Ad Lucilium Epistulae Morales, trans. Richard M. Gummere, vol. 2 (London: 1920), 437. Quoted in Jonsson and Herbst, The “Sign” of the Last Days—When?, 75.[]
  18. Jonsson and Herbst, The “Sign” of the Last Days—When?, 78.[]
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