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Notes of a Fringe-Watcher: The Second Coming of Jesus

Martin Gardner

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 24.1, January / February 2000

As the year 2000 approached, Protestant fundamentalists (I include members of Pentecostal churches and such fringe sects as Seventh-day Adventism and Jehovah's Witnesses) became more and more persuaded that the Lord's Second Coming was close at hand. Scores of strident books were published, and are still being published, showing how a correct interpretation of the books of Daniel and Revelation proves that the rapture of believers, the Battle of Armageddon, and the end of the world as we know it will be occurring very, very soon. The books range from the many by Hal Lindsey, which have sold by the millions, to obscure volumes which identify the Antichrist and reveal the meaning of 666, his number.

You would think that believers in the imminence of Christ's return would be bothered by the fact that, ever since the gospels were written, huge numbers of Christians have interpreted Biblical signs of the end as applying to their generation. The sad history of these failed prophecies makes no impression on the mind-sets of today's fundamentalists. Even Billy Graham, who should know better, has for decades preached and written about the impending return of Jesus. He grants that no one knows the exact year, but all signs indicate, he believes, that the great event is almost upon us.

It is often said that current excitement over the Second Coming, centering on the year 2000, had its parallel in a panic over the end of the world that swept through Christian Europe as the year 1000 approached. But did such panic actually occur? As Stephen Jay Gould makes clear in his wise little book Questioning the Millennium (1997), the answer is far from clear. There is now, he tells us, an enormous literature on the topic that spans the full range of opinion from the claim that Europe did indeed experience "panic terror" to the claim that nothing of the sort took place.

Gould cites Richard Erdoes' AD 1000: Living on the Brink of the Apocalypse (1988) as a recent defense of the panic terror school. A German now living in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Erdoes is the author of two previous books, The Sundance Principle and American Indian Myths. "On the last day of the year 999," Erdoes begins his history, ". . . the old Basilica of St. Peter's at Rome was thronged with a mass of weeping and trembling worshippers awaiting the end of the world."

At the other end of the spectrum, Gould cites Century's End (1990), by Hillel Schwartz. Schwartz denies that any undue excitement over the Second Coming took place as 1000 loomed. An intermediate view, that there was some excitement but not much, is ably championed by French historian Henry Focillon in The Year 1000 (English translation, 1969).

Gould admits that he favored Schwartz's position until he attended an international conference devoted to "The Apocalyptic Year 1000," held at Boston University in 1996. The conference organizer, medieval historian Richard Landes, convinced Gould that there was considerable "millennial stirring" in the year 1000, especially among European peasants. One major drum beater for millennial terror was a monk named Raoul Glaber. Like almost all such failed prophets, Glaber found an error in his calculations when Christ did not appear. The thousand years, he proclaimed, should not be counted after Christ's birth, but after his death. This postponed the world's end, he said, until 1033.

Hundreds of predictions have been made around the world as the year 2000 approached, about the date of the Lord's return. Here are some recent examples that are especially comic.

In 1988 Edgar C. Whisenant, then fifty-six, a retired NASA rocket engineer living in Little Rock, Arkansas, published a paperback booklet titled 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will Be in 88. The publisher, a firm in Santa Rosa, California, claimed they sold or gave away over six million copies. The book predicted that the rapture would occur on September 11, 12, or 13, 1988. When the event failed to take place, Whisenant found a slight error in his calculations, and moved the date ahead to September 1, 1989. When that date also proved wrong, Whisenant decided henceforth to keep his mouth shut. He told a reporter he was under medication to control paranoid schizophrenia, but that his mental condition had no bearing on his calculations.

Robert W. Faid's Gorbachev! Has the Real Antichrist Come? was published in 1988 by Victory House, a fundamentalist firm in Tulsa. Faid is identified on the cover as a nuclear engineer, and author of A Scientific Approach to Christianity. He lives in Taylors, South Carolina. Using elaborate systems of numerology, Faid finds that in one system Gorbachev's full name yields 666, and in another system it produces 888, a number Faid identifies with Jesus. Gorbachev is thus shown to be both the Beast of Revelation and the counterfeit Christ. The Second Coming, Faid warns, will take place in 2000 or shortly thereafter. A portion of his crazy book was actually reprinted in Harper's Magazine (January 1989). I have no idea whether Faid today still thinks poor Gorby is the incarnation of Satan.

Gorbachev! Has the Real Antichrist Come?

Gorbachev! Has the Real Antichrist Come?

Correspondent John Earwood called my attention to a much funnier book. Titled 666: The Final Warning, the author is Gary D. Blevins, a former Prudential Life Insurance agent, now a financial consultant in Tennessee. This lavishly illustrated paperback was privately published in 1990 by Blevins's Visions of the End Ministries, and can be obtained by writing to P.O. Box 944, Kingston, TN 37662. The book has 494 pages and an introduction by Texe Marrs, another fundamentalist, and author of several bestselling books.

Blevins's book is based throughout on what he calls the Bible's Secret Code, a code concocted by other fundamentalists whose books he recommends. The code is simple. Each letter is assigned a number that is the product of 6 and the letter's position in the alphabet. Thus A = 136 = 6, B = 236 = 12, C = 336 = 18, and so on to Z = 6326=156.

Blevins must have labored long and hard at his calculations, applying the code to hundreds of names and phrases to produce relevant sums, and especially the sum of 666, Revelation's notorious "number of the Beast."

Blevins writes that he was surprised to find that Kissinger adds to 666, but he realized at once that Henry Kissinger couldn't be the Antichrist because he failed to fit "Scripture guidelines." He was also amazed that so many common words and phrases, such as New York, illusion, witchcraft, necromancy, Mark of Beast, and Santa Claus add to 666.

If not Kissinger, then who does Blevins think, or perhaps I had best say thought in 1990, is the primary suspect for being the Antichrist? You won't believe it, but the candidate is none other than Ronald Wilson Reagan!

Each of Reagan's three names has six letters, and the entire name has six syllables. This is suspicious enough, but Blevins is compelled to do more. Unfortunately Ronald Reagan is six short of 666, but Blevins remedies this by adding A in front of the name: A Ronald Reagan. That's not all. A tireless Blevins manages to find scores of other phrases about Reagan that add to 666. Here are some of them:

Office of Reagan, Rank of Reagan, A Mark of Reagan, Space of Reagan, Ray of Reagan, Vim of Reagan, Tact of Reagan, Talk of Reagan, Brain of Reagan, Mold of Reagan, Peer of Reagan, Karma of Reagan, Ranch of Reagan, Hope of Reagan, Faith of Reagan, Old Age of Reagan, Creme of Reagan, Reagan in Japan, and dozens of other phrases.

One might object that even in 1990, when Blevins's book was published, Reagan was no longer in power. This doesn't faze Blevins one bit. Does not Revelation 17:8 speak of "the beast that was, and is not, and yet is?" To Blevins this tells us that Reagan will regain power, but now on a global scale. He will rule the world by means of a supercomputer (Blevins's code gives to computer a sum of 666), and by keeping track of everybody with bar codes implanted in hands and foreheads. He will be assisted by the Masons (Blevins believes Freemasonry is a satanic cult), and by the present Pope. Blevins reminds us that Reagan is an honorary Mason, that he believes in astrology and lucky charms, and that 33 is his lucky number. (For more on number mysticism, see "Numerology: Comes the Revolution," by Underwood Dudley, SI 22[5].)

Blevins allows that he is not absolutely certain that Reagan is destined to become the Beast, he says he likes Reagan personally, and hopes Reagan will not turn out to be the Antichrist. However, "the alarm must be sounded." In Blevins's opinion the evidence is "overwhelming" that Reagan is the prime suspect.

Blevins provides a tentative outline of what the next few years have in store. In 1991-94 New York City will be destroyed and UFOs will land. In 1996 Reagan's mind, invaded by Satan, will be transformed into the Antichrist who will rule the world for a thousand years. In 1998 Reagan will be cast into the Lake of Fire, the faithful will be raptured, Jesus will come back, and Satan will be bound for a thousand years. In 3000 Satan will go into the Lake of Fire along with the resurrected unsaved, and Jesus will rule over a peaceful new Earth.

"Most real theologians in our day," Blevins writes, "flatly state that we will not see the year 2000 before the Lord returns! I strongly agree with that statement."

Now that 1998 has passed with no sign of the Lord, and Reagan surely is no longer capable of ruling the world, one would suppose that an embarrassed Blevins would apologize for his blunders and withdraw his book from the market. But no. In 1999 I sent him $16.50 for a copy. It arrived promptly with nary a hint of a disclaimer. Blevins's Vision of the End Ministries must need the money.

In Seoul, South Korea, in 1992, Lee Jang Rim, head of one of some 200 Protestant churches in that country, created nationwide hysteria by announcing that the rapture would take place on October 28, 1992. The prophecy was based on a vision that came to a 16-year-old boy. Twenty thousand Korean fundamentalists in South Korea, Los Angeles, and New York City took the prediction seriously. Hundreds quit jobs, left families, and had abortions to prepare for their trip to heaven. Rim's church paid for costly ads in the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times. They urged readers to prepare for their journey through the skies, and to refuse to allow 666 to be imprinted in bar code on their forehead or right hand.

Riot police, plainclothes officers, and reporters crowded outside Korean churches, flanked by fire engines, ambulances, and searchlights. Believers took the failure of the prophecy calmly, and there were no reported riots. Only sadness. In December 1992 Rim was arrested and sentenced to two years in prison for having bilked $4.4 million from his flock. He had invested the money in bonds that didn't mature until the following year!

In 1992 Harold Camping published, through a vanity press, his book 1994? It predicted that the Second Coming would occur in September of that year. This was followed in 1993 by a sequel titled Are You Ready? Together, the two books totaled 955 pages. Trained as a civil engineer, Camping made enough money running a construction company to found, in 1959, Family Stations, Inc. It soon came to control thirty-nine radio stations. A non-ordained Bible scholar, Camping conducted a nightly radio talk show from his headquarters in Oakland, California. After September passed with no sign of the Lord, Camping changed his date to October 2. When that passed uneventfully, he ran out of excuses and decided against any more date setting.

Among Protestant sects the Seventh-day Adventists continue to be the most vocal predictors of an impending Second Coming, though they no longer set a date for that event. The church had its origin in the teachings of a simple-minded farmer named William Miller. His study of the Bible convinced him that 1843 would be the year Jesus would return. When this didn't happen he moved the date to October 22, 1844. After that prediction also failed, Miller had the good sense to stop predicting, but the undaunted Millerites decided that October 22, 1845, was the correct date. This was later moved ahead to 1851. After that year Adventist leaders wisely realized that such date setting was giving the sect a bad reputation.

In Matthew 24 Jesus describes the darkening of the Sun and Moon, and a falling of stars from the sky, as signs of his approaching return. "Verily I say unto you, this generation shall not pass till all these things be fulfilled."

Liberal Bible scholars have long agreed that "this generation" refers to the generation of those listening to Jesus' words. Because he did not return in that generation, fundamentalists of all stripes have been forced to reinterpret Christ's remarks in less plausible ways. William Miller preached that the darkening of the Sun and Moon actually took place in 1780, and that the falling star prediction was fulfilled in 1833 by a dramatic shower of meteors. The generation witnessing these events, Miller maintained, would be the generation that would also see the Lord return in glory.

Until about 1933 Seventh-day Adventist literature defended these Millerite views. Adventist books included dramatic pictures of the dark day and the falling "stars." The church taught that Jesus would surely return within the lifetime of at least some who had witnessed the 1833 meteor shower. When it became embarrassingly obvious that this could not be, the church quietly dropped from its literature all references to the dark day and the falling stars.

I was therefore surprised when I read The Coming Great Calamity, by Adventist Marvin Moore, published by his church in 1997. Moore edits the Adventist periodical Signs of the Times, and has written three previous books: The Crisis of the End Times, The Antichrist and the New World, and Conquering the Dragon Within.

Ellen White, the Adventist-inspired visionary and one of the faith's founders, defends Miller's views about the dark day and falling stars in her masterpiece The Great Controversy Between Christ and Satan. This is very painful now to conservative Adventists who are unable to admit that Mrs. White could be wrong about anything. How does Moore manage to defend Mrs. White? He argues that she was correct in seeing the dark day and the 1833 shower as fulfillments of Matthew 24, but they were only partial fulfillments. They tell us "that the time of the end had begun, not that it was about to end."

The complete fulfillments of Matthew 24, Moore reasons, will be soon, with Earth's destruction caused by "comets, asteroids, and/or meteors." He admits he could be wrong, nevertheless he is convinced that the new millennium will undoubtedly be the century in which stars will seem to fall, the Sun and Moon will be obscured, and the Lord will return. Before he returns, Earth will experience a terrible destruction not seen since the great flood in the days of Noah.

Jehovah's Witnesses have an even worse record of failed predictions than the Adventists. They teach that Jesus returned in 1914, but it was an invisible, spiritual return. However, they also once taught that 1914 would see the beginning of Armageddon, followed by the destruction of all nations and the establishment of God's Kingdom on Earth. When this didn't happen, the date was moved to 1915. After that year passed, the date was pushed ahead again to 1918. Unfazed by the 1918 failure, 1975 was the next selection.

As far as I know, since then the group has stopped proposing dates, although it still preaches that the end times are near and millions now living will never die. It's useless to bring all this up when a Witness knocks on your door because most Witnesses today are ignorant of their faith's bizarre history, or about the errors and sins of Charles Taze Russell, who founded their sect. A good reference on the history of Jehovah's Witnesses is an article in the Dictionary of Cults, Sects, Religions, and the Occult (1993), by George A. Mather and Larry A. Nichols, and the many references they cite.

In my next column I will turn from this vast dreary literature about the Second Coming of Jesus to the 2,000-year hope of orthodox Jews for the first coming of the Messiah, an event promised in Hebrew Scriptures.

"This Bible Code," moaned Reverend Dix
"Puts my name in a terrible fix."
He was fit to be tied
When the code was applied,
And his name totaled six sixty six.
- Armand T. Ringer

Finding 666 in the names of famous people is a number-twiddling pastime that has obsessed numerologists ever since the Book of Revelation was written. With patience and ingenuity it is not difficult to extract 666 from almost any person's name. For example, using Blevins's Bible code I discovered that sun, moon and Pat J. Buchanan each adds to 666. The same code yields 666 if you apply it to Hal Lindsey B, the B standing, of course, for Beast.

My favorite candidate for the Antichrist is Jesse Ventura, former wrestling beast and now governor of Minnesota. Apply Blevins's code to J. Ventura. Bingo! 666.

Satan and Beast each have five letters. So let's start Blevins's code with A = 5, B = 6, and so on. Applied to Blevins, the code gives 666. Could Charlton Heston, chief spokesman for the gun lobby, be preparing the forces of evil for the Battle of Armageddon? Heston has six letters. If we number the alphabet A = 6, B = 7, and so on, then apply Blevins's technique of multiplying each value by six, Heston adds to 666.

With more effort I found a way to apply 666 to Jerry Falwell. Number the alphabet backward, starting with Z = 0, Y = 1, X = 2, and so on. I call this the Devil's Code. Take the values of the letters in Falwell, multiply each by 6, add, and you get 666. The Devil's Code also turns Billy Graham into the Antichrist if you write his name W. Graham.

Could President Clinton be the Antichrist? Add the normal position values of W.J.C., the initials of William Jefferson Clinton, and you get 36. The sum of all numbers 1 through 36 is 666. A few years ago mathematician Monte Zerger found a subtler way to identify Clinton with the Beast. He is our forty-second president. Jot down the integers 1 through 42, then strike out all the primes. The remaining numbers total 666.

Martin Gardner

Martin Gardner is author of more than seventy books, most recently The Jinn from Hyperspace and When You Were a Tadpole and I was a Fish, and Other Speculations About This and That.