There are, of course, some predicted dates coming up: most are related to the number 666, the number of the beast, as described in Revelation 13:18. In the past many plumped for 2000, because 2000 divided by 3 is 666, er, point 6 recurring, or, to zero decimal places, 667. Logic therefore would say they should have gone for 1999. But 2000 seemed a nicer number - some commentators (especially the wonderfully-named web site "If at first you don't succeed, fail fail fail again") have noted a tendency for failed prophets to foresee things that fit in nicely with their preconceptions.
But I was looking ahead to 666 events... These include the world's population reaching 6.66 billion (it currently stands at 6.475 billion); the book "The Bible Code 2" telling us that "atomic war" and "holocaust" are both encoded in the Bible together with the year 2006 (although "Bible Code 1" plumped for 2000, with an option on 2006); and the ominous date, 6/6/6 which occurs on the sixth of June next year. It's also one that reads the same in American and British date systems, so they won't be able to have an end of the world without us. Of course, more positive people are looking towards the perfect number 7/7/7, which occurs the following year.
All in all, the website www.religioustolerance.org lists 42 failed predictions that the world will end in 2000, 13 for 2001, 5 for 2002, 4 for 2003, 4 for 2004 and 3 for 2005 that have failed already. www.bible.ca lists over 200 predictions, ranging from 44AD (or CE as we're supposed to call it now) to 2047. So it's not a new thing, prophesying the end of the world. Pointless, you may think, except that it does generate an incredible amount of interest, an example of which are the "Left behind" series of novels, the first DVD of which has just been launched in the States.
On a smaller scale, there was recently an Indian astrologer, Kunjilal Malviya from just south of Bhopal, who predicted his own death to occur somewhere between 9:30 and 11:30 GMT on the 20th October 2005. Crowds gathered to watch and... he didn't. He spent the two hours meditating under the watchful gaze of some local police who were there to prevent him committing suicide. This is apparently a common thing in India - astrologers predicting their death and crowds gathering to see if they're right. When they're wrong, the crowd usually turns nasty and beats the astrologers up, something that didn't happen to Kunjilal due to a local ordinance outloawing stonings and public beheadings. For others, it can turn into a form of self-fulfilling prophecy.
When it comes to the end of the world, there are also groups that try to fulfil their own prophecy - witness the Tokyo sarin gas attacks, carried out by the Aum Shinrikyo cult in 1995. They believed the end of the world was nigh, and set about making it happen.
There have, as I've said, been rather a lot of wrong prophecies concerning the end of the world, so when I heard people wondering if the recent spate of natural disasters (the tsunami, the Pakistani earthquake, hurricane Wilma) heralded the end of the age, I didn't rush out and quit my job. Unlike many Jehovah's Witnesses in 1975, apparently. Now some people have been concerned, and I'm not wanting to belittle or ridicule their concern - I'm just saying that I'm not one of them.
The problem of false prophecy isn't new. The problem of false prophecy was present with Christianity at its start. Jesus, Paul and Peter all warned against it. St Augustine of Hippo (354-430) the "Doctor of the Church" wrote his famous work City of God after the fall of Rome in 410 AD. He warned:
It is in vain, therefore, that we try to reckon and put a limit to the number of years that remain for this world, since we hear from the mouth of Truth that it is not for us to know this. And yet some have asserted that 400, 500 or as much as 1,000 years may be completed between the Lord's ascension and his final coming.
A quick aside to a phrase I used there: "false and failed prophecy". I think that there are two types: false prophecy, in that it seeks to mislead, and failed prophecy, in that it doesn't intend to mislead, but does so anyway. The end result is the same, but the motives of the prophet (or the prophet's inspiration) are different. There is, of course, a third type: "true prophecy".
Which brings me rather nicely back to question 1. We should pay attention to this prophecy because of the author, Jesus. He has proved Himself faithful and true - so why should we doubt this one? As a mathematician and professional scientist, I'd add that it only takes one exception to disprove a rule (contrary to the proverb, but that's science for you) and to me the rule is that what Jesus said and did was important, honest, correct and of God. If one thing wasn't, then how can I trust the others?
So, the reason we should pay attention to this prophecy is because it was spoken by Jesus, the "mouth of truth" as St. Augustine put it, and therefore is true. Given then, that the world is going to end, and that we haven't the faintest idea when, we turn to question 2: how should this prophecy affect our lives.
At the turn of the millennium you might recall stories of the "millennium bug", a flaw in a lot of computer software and hardware that was going to cause all sorts of problems and cause the end of civilisation as we know it. As a computer scientist, I was well aware of the potential and was able to sift the scare stories from the possibles. That said, I do recall turning to a fellow techie at Credo's Millenium party and breathing a big sigh of relief when the lights didn't go out at midnight. I'd also spent a bit of time prior to that night making sure that I had full gas bottles for my camping cookers and plenty of canned food. Just in case.
History has proved me over-cautious, but I couldn't help feeling, in the run-up to the millennium, that I'd been well warned of the possible problems and if things did go pear-shaped, I'd be feeling very stupid for not being prepared.
Another story: there's a friend of mine, whose wife was diagnosed with liver cancer a couple of years back. She's had radiotherapy, chemotherapy and major surgery. And the cancer returned. They say, quite openly, that she won't be around in two years' time. They're living a very fine balancing act: living for today, yet also planning for tomorrow. They know that she probably won't survive the cancer - they just don't know when. They enjoy today and plan for tomorrow, whilst being aware that it might not arrive for her.
I think that these two stories give us a handle on this prophecy. True, it's not linked to a specific date like the millenium, but it does say to us: "be prepared, be ready". Just as my friends are having to be. In essence, live your lives as though they were at and end. I don't mean quit your job and rack up as much on your credit cards as they will allow, but be right with God, be right with each other. Stand firm to the end, as v.13 exhorted us to do. Don't wait to make your peace with God; don't say "tomorrow I'll pray/read my Bible/etc" but act as though there won't be a tomorrow to do it in.
But if we're to live like there's no tomorrow, what's the point in planning? After all, v.14 told us to preach the Gospel to all nations - which takes some planning, so some must be appropriate. I think that there's an eggs and baskets approach here: plan for the future, but don't let that be all that you do. If you're always living for tomorrow, and tomorrow doesn't come, you've wasted your life. If you live for today and then wake up and it's tomorrow, then you've been foolish.
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