My local farm supply store still has a sign out front that reads, “Sales of all power generators are final.” The sign has been there since the fall of 1999, a reminder to me of human fallibility. The last years of the twentieth century were one of those times when millennial fever became epidemic, and a great many people began to believe that the world would soon come to an end. Looking back, it all seems a little quaint now, but in 1999, a lot of people speculated that when the year 2000 arrived, the world might in fact end. Of course, just the nice round number 2000, signaling the end of one millennium and the beginning of another, planted the thought that something momentous might occur. After all, no one living had even seen the end of a millennium before.
Many preachers on religious television programs claimed to detect indications in obscure passages of the world’s holy books that pointed to great catastrophes commencing on that fateful date. These, we were told, would be followed rapidly by persecution, which would culminate in the end of all things.
And it wasn’t just the religious people who caught this millennial fever. Secular people called it “Y2K,” which—for those who were too young back then to be aware of the term— stands for Year 2000. Computer experts worried that software that allowed only two digits for dating years—and there were a lot of them back then—might crash when 99 turned to 00; the resulting computer malfunctions might shut down power grids, cause airplanes to fall from the sky, and even occasion an unintentional launch of missiles with nuclear warheads! As the year 2000 approached, the potential for power grids to fail prompted many people to stock up on canned goods and bottled water, and, yes, to purchase electric generators. Which is what prompted the local farm store to post that sign. They didn’t want all those generators returned if the power failure did not occur.
Popular culture capitalized on the outbreak of millennial fever, churning out scores of articles, books, and several motion pictures with doomsday themes. Deep Impact in 1998 portrayed the collision of earth with a giant meteor that ended up destroying virtually all life on the planet. Perhaps, thinking that title too subtle, two other films left no doubt they intended to portray the end of all things: Armageddon (1998) and End of Days (1999). Armageddon also depicted an impending meteor collision that was averted by an act of self-sacrifice on the part of a blue-collar astronaut. In End of Days, Satan arrived in New York City seeking his bride, while a policeman played by Arnold Schwarzenegger attempted to thwart his plan.
Outbreaks of this doomsday thinking have occurred in the past. In the Middle Ages, the fall of the Roman Empire, the continual conquests by Islamic armies, and the frightful death and destruction brought on by Viking raiders caused many people to fear that the end was near. Despite the prominence of hostile armies, they looked not for a movement but for an individual, who embodied all evil—the antichrist. Using different calculations, would-be prophets proposed no fewer than 11 dates for the coming of the antichrist between 1184 and 1400.
One prediction for the coming of the antichrist focused on the year 1346. Although he did not come in 1346, the plague did, and over the next four years more than 200 million people perished. The Plague, known as the Black Death, did indeed bring painful and sudden death. A victim might die in a matter of days after exhibiting the initial symptoms. In southern France and Italy between 75 and 80 percent of the population perished. Europe lost half of its inhabitants to the Plague; Egypt lost four out of ten; in the Middle East, today’s countries of Iraq, Iran, and Syria, lost nearly a third of their populations. Bodies piled up in houses and on the streets. And plagues repeatedly swept through Europe in succeeding centuries.
Since then, there have been many other predictions of the end, all of which have proven false. But then our predictions of good times don’t fare much better. On September 30, 1938, the British prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, returned from negotiations with Adolf Hitler and predicted that there would be “peace for our time.” Less than a year later, the German invasion of Poland plunged Britain and the rest of the world into World War II—the most catastrophic military conflict in history. In the 1990s, Francis Fukuyama wrote a book titled The End of History and the Last Man, which theorized that with the end of the Cold War, a new era of Western style democracy and free markets would reduce conflict. And then the Twin Towers fell.
Perhaps we’re going about this in the wrong way. Science uses a wide array of methods for dating objects from the past. Maybe we could adapt those techniques to dating the end.
Relative versus absolute
A quick survey of scientific methods for dating ancient objects reveals that even dating past objects or events involves unexpected complexity. For many years, and still in some cases, scientists had to rely solely on “relative dating,” which cannot give a specific date or calculate age in years but rather distinguishes between the older and the younger. Although this may sound as though the dates arrived at are highly subjective, the method can be quite effective. We can tell which things are closer to or farther from us in time. Animal bones, layers of pollen, rock strata, and pottery fragments have been used to determine relative dates.
The alternative to relative dating, although often called “absolute dating,” usually provides only an approximate date or a range of possible dates. Most of these dates are based upon decay rates of atomic isotopes. The best known of these systems is probably carbon-14 dating.
Surprisingly, relative dating can be very accurate. For example, specific styles of pottery can be linked to documents or artifacts of a known time, and approximate dates can be determined. Famed archaeologist William F. Albright was an expert in the study of pottery styles to establish relative dating. Upon seeing photos of fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls, Albright dated them from about 150 b.c. to about A.D. 70. Eventually, the carbon dating of linen found at the site confirmed Albright’s conclusion.
However, when it comes to dating the end of the world, the Bible tells us two things. First, it says that we cannot come up with an absolute date. In Matthew 24:36, Jesus said, “ ‘No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.’ ” This tells us that every attempt to put an absolute date on the end will fail. Worse than that, it will distract us, so that “ ‘the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him’ ” (verse 44).
This does not mean, however, that we must be totally unprepared. Absolute dating may be out of the question, but the Bible repeatedly encourages us to use relative dating. Paul used this method in his letter to the Romans, telling his readers that “our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed” (Romans 13:11). And Jesus advised His disciples to “ ‘learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. Even so, when you see all these things, you know that [the end] is near, right at the door’ ” (Matthew 24:32, 33).
Of course, nothing will stop false prophets and deluded mystics from setting dates. Jesus warned about them too. “ ‘Watch out that you are not deceived. For many will come in my name, claiming, “I am he,” and, “The time is near.” Do not follow them. When you hear of wars and revolutions, do not be frightened. These things must happen first, but the end will not come right away’ ” (Luke 21:8, 9). On the other hand, Jesus also said that “ ‘men will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken. . . . When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near’ ” (verses 26, 28; emphasis added).
The Black Death, World War II, the 9/11 attacks and similar calamities that we did not expect and could not have predicted nevertheless fell on us, and sometimes they came at the very time when we were focused on a future that did not materialize. The psalmist reminds us that we have only a short time to live (Psalm 90:10), and thus we should live wisely now. Regardless of when the end comes, our personal end may come much sooner.
From this we can derive several important lessons. First, we cannot know the day nor the hour—the absolute date—for Christ’s second return. Second, we can know its relative date, that the end is near. Third, we need to remember that even if we knew the date for the end of all things, the end of our own lives may come sooner— much sooner. Thus, the most important thing is for us to be ready every day and every moment. Then we can say, with John, “Even so, come, Lord Jesus” (Revelation 22:20, KJV).