What do Harold Camping, Hal Lindsay, John Wesley, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Saint Augustine have in common? They all made failed predictions regarding the nature and timing of Christ’s return.
As a child of the seventies, I remember hearing speculation that Christ would return by the eighties. I read “The Late Great Planet Earth” by Hal Lindsay. That book gave me nightmares – I took his predictions as literal truth. But most of his speculations have now been proven wrong.
While it’s easy to set aside the quirky views of the likes of Camping or Lindsay, it’s not as easy to blow off more respected defenders of the faith. Their failures on this point are a reminder to us all. We are to be ready for Christ’s return, but we do not know the day or the hour. They also remind us that we as Christians ourselves could be proven wrong in the future on some matter that seems important to us now.
John Wesley: Wesley speculated that Christ would return by 1836. He laid out the view in his commentary on Revelation 12.(1) Wesley’s prediction was based on the writings of Johann Albrecht Bengel, a contemporary Lutheran Pietist. Bengel argued for the 1836 date in his New Testament commentary Gnomon Novi Testamenti. Wesley found Bengel’s eschatology compelling. At Wesley’s time, 1836 was a ways out. It would be comparable to us predicting that Christ will return in 2100.
The Protestant Reformers: Luther, Wycliffe, Knox and Calvin all made failed predictions. Luther wrote: “I hope the last Day of Judgment is not far, I persuade myself verily it will not be absent full three hundred years longer.”(2) Luther made the prediction around 1540, which placed Christ’s return no later than 1840. Many of the reformers were convinced that the end of the world was near. Of pressing concern to them was the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church, and the impending Islamic take over of Europe (Sound familiar?) Wycliffe taught that the Catholic mass was the abomination of desolation spoken of in Revelation. John Knox proposed that Daniel 7:24-25 was a reference to the papacy. John Calvin wrote that the papacy and Islam were “the two horns of Antichrist.” The Dutch Dort Bible of 1637 proposed that Muhammad was Apollyon – the “destroyer” of Revelation 9.(3)
Augustine of Hippo: Augustine held to a symbolic millennial reign of Christ, but to a literal time period of 1000 years. He did not set a definite date, but generally believed that Christ would return by 650 AD. Of course in his day, that was 250+ years in the future. it would be comparable to us speculating that Christ will return by 2250.(4)
The Thessalonians: Failed predictions have been a part of the church since the beginning. In 2 Thessalonians 2, Paul warns the Thessalonians not to believe reports they were hearing that Christ had already returned. “Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him, we ask you, brothers and sisters, not to become easily unsettled or alarmed by the teaching allegedly from us—whether by a prophecy or by word of mouth or by letter—asserting that the day of the Lord has already come.”
1 – Wesley Commentary on Revelation 12, Bible Study Tools, see Revelation 12:14
2 – The Familiar Discourses of Martin Luther, translated by H Bell, 1818, last paragraph of page 7
4 – Amillenniallism from Augustine to Modern Times. bible.org