The End Times and the Sorry State of Christian Prophecy

John R. Guthrie

When an Associated Press-AOL news poll tells me that 25% of adult Americans anticipate
the second coming of Jesus Christ in 2007, I find myself bewildered. What can that mean?
Are people spoofing the pollsters? Are they insane?
--John Turner, Harvard Square Commentary

Inspired by John Turner's comments in the Harvard Square Commentary (Incredible or Incredulous?, 01/01/07), this writer did a bit of research. This quickly revealed enough Christian predictions of the end of the world to fill a library. These date from the current time back to ca. 30 A.D. (See, for example, Matthew 16:28 and Matthew 24:34). Each and every one, of course, proved to be totally, miserably wrong. It is reasonable to expect that such predictions in the foreseeable future will fail also.

Christians have used prophecy, including apocalyptic prophecy as a recruiting tool since the time of Christ. Doubtless some, such as Martin Luther, were as sincere as they were wrong. Others, such as our self-seeking televangelist prognosticators, are felt by many to be visited by visions of Money-in-the-bank as much as Messiah-second coming for their efforts.

Leon Festinger’s landmark 1955 study, “When Prophecies Fail,” provides a telling commentary on such groups. This work could just as well be titled “Why do People Believe Goofy Things?”  This extensive research project is a well-written report of an apocalyptic saucer cult led by a certain Mrs. Marian Keech, a Chicago housewife. Keech claimed to receive messages from aliens on the planet “Clarion” through “automatic writing.” The message from the aliens involved the imminent end of the world. The elect few who attended Mrs. Keech with devotion would be picked up by a flying saucer on date certain. 

The group gathered on the appointed evening in Mrs. Keech’s parlor, waiting to be picked up at the last minute. Festinger’s theory of “cognitive dissonance,” essentially, explains the mental sleight of hand by which persons persist in their delusion even in the absence of the predicted meltdown. When the world didn’t end at midnight, the more dedicated members of the cult convinced themselves that God had spared the world due to their steadfastness and prayer. They then went out and proselytized all the more enthusiastically. The story has compelling parallels with Christian apocolyptists from 30A.D. to the present, including contemporary Christian Dominionists. “Cognitive dissonance” is applicable to political as well as religious groups. Festinger’s work is a classic, and well worth reading though more than half a century has passed since its publication. .

In May of 1986, Pat Robertson announced that God had told him to set up TV crews in the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem in order to broadcast the second coming of Christ live. Robertson has a record of hearing God speak to him at least since the 1960’s. God told him to run for president. He lost, big time, but then God intimated to him that he should run again in 1992 and that he would win. God also whispered in his ear that U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller would be elected president in 1996.

The problems of living in this world are complex. Thus when a telescoundrel such as Pat Robertson predicts the end of the world that relieves his followers of the necessity to do anything about such issues as the environment or the war in Iraq. They can imply sit back until God plunges those that aren’t members of the club into the much vaunted lake of fire. Yet who can resist some moment of joy, however fleeting, in contemplating all those with whom one has serious issues writhing in liquid fire for the foreseeable future? Visualizing such it is certainly easier and more satisfying than separating the garbage for recycling.

Dr. John R. Guthrie practiced family medicine in the Smokey Mountain foothills of Appalachia for years. As an adolescent he was a U.S. Marine infantry rifleman and later served as a physician in the U.S. Navy Reserve. He lives in Southern California and is a writer and social activist. His website is The Chickasaw Plum.

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Harvard Square Commentary, January 22, 2007