“What Is the Sign of Thy Coming?”
Joseph Smith—Matthew [Matthew 24]
LDS manual: here
To explain why Jesus’ return is a failed prophecy, and to show the foolishness of waiting and hoping for the end of the world
This lesson is about the end of the world. As we all know, Jesus is coming back to kill billions of people (but more of this in the lesson on the Revelation) and usher in his earthly kingdom. Everyone’s been waiting for it for quite a while.
Of course, as we’ve already seen, Jesus taught that he was coming back during the lifetimes of people who were still alive then. And later on, we’ll see how Paul had to hose down the end-of-the-world stuff. “Oh, boy! He’s coming soon!” they said. Two thousand years later, and they’re still saying “Oh, boy! He’s coming soon!”
Still, people wait for the end of the world — in some cases, with an eagerness that any normal person would find unseemly. I guess a lot of people are waiting for Jesus to come back and tell everybody that they had the right religion and everyone else was wrong. Kind of like in this South Park clip.
As for me and my generation, we got told that we were the final generation, held in reserve for the end times, and how valiant we must have been!
Little did we know, we were actually a group of mammals who were born like groups of mammals before us. Which is still pretty great, you know, because mammals.
Still, we thought the end was going to come any day! When you don’t expect it! (Surely someone is expecting it every day.) If God was saying back in Joseph Smith’s time that the day was at the doors, then surely by now we must be in the latter days! It’s even in the name of the church, right? Latter-day Saints?
Then Boyd Packer came and said, “Actually…”
The end is not near, senior LDS apostle Boyd K. Packer said Saturday.
Today’s youths can look forward to “getting married, having a family, seeing your children and grandchildren, maybe even great-grandchildren,” Packer told more than 20,000 Mormons gathered in the giant LDS Conference Center in downtown Salt Lake City.
Well, now what do I do with all this food storage?
On the other hand, maybe Jesus has already returned.
Teaching tip of the day
A helpful tip from the LDS Gospel Doctrine manual: Don’t just make up a crap answer when you get a question about the made-up crap in the Bible!
Suggestion for teaching: A call to teach does not require that you know everything about the gospel, so you should not feel embarrassed if a class member asks a question that you cannot answer. Instead of making up an answer, admit that you do not know and offer to try to find an answer.
…that someone else has made up. But it will be a correlated someone. Leave it to the professional apologists, kid.
Try to find an answer? There isn’t just one answer to lots of gospel questions because the whole thing is made up from top to bottom.
Why shouldn’t you make up an answer? When has that not been what everyone does? That’s all Joseph Smith did. That’s all any prophet or apologist does — come up with some kind of answer that will satisfy the believing and save the story.
Seriously, when you bring up a discrepancy with a believer, what’s the first thing they try to do? Quick, come up with an answer — whether it’s scriptural or not! Anything that comes to hand will do, and if it sounds right, then it must be right, because the gospel is right. Right?
Look, it’s all very well that the Church try to rein in the impulse to conduct on-the-spot apologetics, but they’re fighting a very strong and well-trained urge — and one that for many people is the quickest way they have of resolving the conflict and putting cognitive dissonance back to sleep.
Main ideas for this lesson
Are the number of earthquakes increasing?
For signs of the end times, Jesus names things that are going on more or less constantly. Smart move, Jesus.
Matthew 24:7 For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes, in divers places.
In church, I sometimes heard about how earthquakes were increasing exponentially as we approached the Last Days. Are they? Not really.
No, the number of earthquakes is not increasing compared with the recorded history, according to data from the US Geological Survey National Earthquake Information Center.
The USGS estimates that several million earthquakes occur in the world each year. Many go undetected because they hit remote areas or have very small magnitudes. There are more seismographs installed worldwide every year, so more earthquakes can be detected. However, the number of large earthquakes (magnitude 6.0 and greater) has stayed relatively constant.
Cecil Adams, in this Straight Dope column, points out that natural disasters — earthquakes aside — may be increasing because of climate change, and because we count the ones that affect humans. Urbanisation means more of those.
You see where it gets tricky — the definition of natural disaster is unavoidably tied to the number of people affected and/or the value of the damage done, both of which will naturally increase as the earth’s population and wealth do, and of course wealth and population aren’t evenly distributed worldwide. And that brings us to the other big part of our growing vulnerability to disasters: urban migration in developing countries means denser populations, which often goes hand in hand with quickly-assembled, not overly sturdy housing. The parts of the world where this is most common tend to have largely informal economies, in which the enforcement of building-code regulations may not be a top priority. All this makes it much more likely that a serious meteorological or seismic event will meet the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance’s criteria for a disaster: ten or more people killed and at least 100 injured, evacuated, displaced, or left homeless. By that organization’s count we now have twice the number of disasters per year that we did 20 years ago.
Matthew 24:11 And many false prophets shall rise, and shall deceive many.
Well, just don’t believe any prophets. That was easy.
Stars falling from heaven?
Matthew 24:29 Immediately after the tribulation of those days shall the sun be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken:
Astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson points out the obvious flaw in this prophecy.
“You know, one of the signs that the second coming, is that the stars will fall out of the sky and land on Earth. To even write that means you don’t know what those things are. You have no concept of what the actual universe is. So everybody who tried to make proclamations about the physical universe based on Bible passages got the wrong answer.
Again, Jesus says that the end of the world is coming within his generation.
Matthew 24:34 Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled.
I’ve had Christians tell me that this statement is only meant to apply to the destruction of Jerusalem, which happened in 70 CE. Could that explanation work?
No, not really. It’s true that Jesus talks a lot about the destruction of the temple — and I take this as evidence that it had already happened by the time this was written. But let’s go back a few verses.
Matthew 24:30 And then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven: and then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn, and they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.
24:31 And he shall send his angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they shall gather together his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.
24:32 Now learn a parable of the fig tree; When his branch is yet tender, and putteth forth leaves, ye know that summer is nigh:
24:33 So likewise ye, when ye shall see all these things, know that it is near, even at the doors.
Jesus talks about a lot of amazing public events: everyone seeing him in the clouds, angels and trumpets — things that haven’t happened. Then note that he says that “all these things” will be fulfilled in this generation — not just the one thing. Good try, Christians, but I don’t see any reason to limit the scope like that.
Function of this belief
From time to time, it’s good to ask: What’s the function of a belief like this one?
Matthew 24:21 For then shall be great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be.
I can see a couple of reasons why this works for Christianity.
- When things go wrong, it provides a handy reason: the world is getting worse!
- It provides a “scary external world” narrative that keeps people frightened. Frightened people aren’t good critical thinkers. So this meme keeps them in the group, for the perceived safety it gives.
But this “hell in a handbasket” meme is unhelpful. People with the attitude that the world is in an irretrievable and divinely-predicted decline aren’t good at trying to find solutions to the world’s problems. They ooze a kind of cynicism and contempt regarding the “world”. This is what I’ve found when I’ve run across them.
But as I explain to these Jehovah’s Witnesses — who have been wrong many times on this issue — things aren’t actually getting worse. They’re getting better. Steven Pinker explains.
On the day this article appears, you will read about a shocking act of violence. Somewhere in the world there will be a terrorist bombing, a senseless murder, a bloody insurrection. It’s impossible to learn about these catastrophes without thinking, “What is the world coming to?”
But a better question may be, “How bad was the world in the past?”
Believe it or not, the world of the past was much worse. Violence has been in decline for thousands of years, and today we may be living in the most peaceable era in the existence of our species.
This is very difficult for people to get their head around when they’re been hearing the “hell in a handbasket” narrative for the whole of their lives. I try to bring up this theme whenever possible with a certain believer — we’re at the lowest point in violent crime for forty years, etc. — and every time I do, it’s like it’s the first time she’s heard it. It just bounces off. How could reality compete, when all they have to do — they suppose — is watch the news?
Failed prophecy — and thank goodness
After all these years, one thing should be clear: Jesus is not coming back. This is a failed prophecy, but people don’t realise it’s a failed prophecy because of the rolling deadline.
So was Harold Camping.
Harold Camping told us the date on which the world would end. Of course, the date passed without incident. Camping was wrong. According to the Christian bible, the Jesus character told his contemporaries that the world would end during their lifetimes. Jesus was wrong too. Like Camping, the Jesus character was a failed prophet.
So were all these people who made failed end-of-the-world predictions, dating from 2800 BCE to today.
Anthropologists who study the Melanesian tribes speculate that Frum might have actually been a real person – most likely a generous sentry, engineer or aircraft mechanic who handed out goods, Hershey bars or medicine to the locals during the occupation. Perhaps he even identified himself as “John, from America”. Others speculate that Frum may instead be a composite of several personnel from the airbase or even a hodge-podge of American icons and archetypes including Uncle Sam, Popeye and Santa Claus. Some suggest that the Melanesian veneration of John Frum actually pre-dates the Second World War and may be based on some unknown charitable westerner that visited the island by ship in the decades before World War Two.
Regardless, Frum-worshipers still herald their god as the almighty “King of America”. Each year on Feb. 15, devotees mark their bodies with the letters U.S.A. and march in hopes that Frum will return. The entire religion, which is now more of a kitschy tourist attraction than anything else, also formed the basis of a homegrown nationalist political party that celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2007.
At this point, it begins to look like the “hero’s return” is a bit of a theme in human belief.
Here’s a really sad story: These parents were so freaked out by the End of Days that they killed themselves and their kids.
Springville • In the Springville home where Benjamin and Kristi Strack and three of their children were found dead on Sept. 27, no note was found to explain the murder-suicide.
In a notebook, a “to-do list” had been scribbled on the pages, Springville police revealed at a press conference Tuesday. The list looked as if the parents were readying to go on vacation — items such as “feed the pets” and “find someone to watch after the house” were written.
But there was no clear explanation for why on that September day, the five family members ingested a fatal mixture of drugs.
In the weeks and months after the family’s deaths, Police Chief J. Scott Finlayson said investigators talked with their family and friends, who told them that Benjamin and Kristi Strack spoke frequently of “leaving this world.” Friends said the couple believed there was a looming apocalypse and that they desired to escape from the evil in the world.
We can see that this is a tragic waste of life, but it’s just as true that putting your life on hold for an imaginary saviour’s return is a waste of your life.
People who work in science already have a pretty good idea of how the world will end. Richard Dawkins tells more.
In about five billion years the sun will run out of hydrogen, which will upset its self-regulating equilibrium; in its death-throes it will swell, and this planet will vaporise. Before that, we can expect, at unpredictable intervals measured in tens of millions of years, bombardment by dangerously large meteors or comets. Any one of these impacts could be catastrophic enough to destroy all life, as the one that killed the dinosaurs 65 million years ago nearly did. In the nearer future, it is pretty likely that human life will become extinct – the fate of almost all species that have ever lived.
In our case, as the distinguished astronomer and former president of the Royal Society Martin Rees has conjectured, extinction is likely to be self-inflicted. Destructive technology becomes more powerful by the decade, and there is an ever-increasing danger that it will fall into the hands of some holy fool (Ian McEwan’s memorable phrase) whose ‘tradition’ glorifies death and longs for the hereafter: a ‘tradition’ which, not content with forecasting the end of the world, actively seeks to bring it about.
On that theme, Christopher Hitchens explains more ably than most — and off-the-cuff, as well — how this hope for an apocalypse really evinces a kind of contempt for life.
I think maybe I will take a few moments to say something I find repulsive about especially Monotheistic, Messianic religion, with a large part of itself it quite clearly wants us all to die, it wants this world to come to an end you can tell the yearning for things to be over, whenever you read any of its real texts, or listen to any of its real authentic spokesman, not the pathetic apologists who sometimes masquerade for it. Those who talk, there was a famous spokesman for this in Virginia until recently, about the Rapture, saying that those of us who have chosen rightly will be gathered to the arms of Jesus, leaving all of the rest of you behind: if we’re in a car it’s your lookout, that car won’t have a driver anymore; if we’re a pilot that’s your lookout, that plane will crash; we will be with Jesus and the rest of you can go straight to Hell.
The eschatological element that is inseparable from Christianity, if you don’t believe that there is going to be an Apocalypse, there is going to be an end, a separation of the sheep and the goats, a condemnation, a final one, then you’re not really a Believer and the contempt for the things of this world shows through all of them. It’s well put in an old rhyme from an English exclusive Brethren sect: “We are the pure and chosen few, and all the rest are damned. There’s room enough in hell for you, we don’t want Heaven crammed!” You can tell it when you see the extreme Muslims talk, they cannot wait for death and destruction to overtake and overwhelm the World, they can’t wait for what I would call without ambiguity a Final Solution. When you look at the Israeli settlers — paid for often by American tax dollars — deciding if they can steal enough land from other people and get all the Jews into the promised land and all the non-Jews out of it then finally the Jewish people will be worthy of the return of the Messiah, and there are Christians in this country who consider it their job to help this happen so that Armageddon can occur, so that the painful business of living as humans, and studying civilization, and trying to acquire learning, and knowledge, and health, and medicine, and to push back the frontiers can all be scrapped and the cult of death can take over.
That to me is a hideous thing in eschatological terms, in End Times terms. On its own a hateful idea, a hateful practice, and a hateful theory but very much to be opposed in our daily lives where there are people who sincerely mean it, who want to ruin the good relations that could exist between different peoples, nations, races, countries, tribes, ethnicities; who openly say they love death more than we love life and who are betting that with God on their side that they’re right about that.
So when I say as a subtitle of my book that “Religion poisons everything”, I’m not just doing what publishers like and coming up with a provocative subtitle. I mean to say it infects us in our most basic integrity, it says we can’t be moral without Big Brother, without a totalitarian permission, it means we can’t be good to one other, it means we can’t think without this, we must be afraid, we must also be forced to love someone who we fear – the essence of sadomasochism, the essence of abjection, the essence of the master-slave relationship – and that knows that death is coming and can’t wait to bring it on. I say that this is evil.
So what do we do with our lives, if things will continue as they are until the Big Blast?
Enjoy it. We are born without asking. We are helplessly alive. And we are doomed to die.
Even so, it seems to me that doing something is a higher-quality decision than doing nothing. Here are some ideas.
- Enjoy life responsibly. You only get one.
- Help make things better for others. They only get one life, too
- Learn as much as you can about the world and the universe, since the sharing of knowledge is a very good way to help make things better for everyone.
- Try to leave something good for the next generation.
And I might add: Interplanetary travel seems like a good idea, if we want to get off this rock.
Now for a closing hymn.