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Tuesday, October 25, 2005

The Birth Pangs?

Last weekend we visited a church in Colorado Springs where the pastor was in the midst of preaching a series on the book of Revelation. Personally, I feel that there is so much mystery, symbolism, and ambiguity in the book, that the topic is better left alone from the pulpit unless it is to educate on the various eschatological positions out there. Be that as it may I always enjoy listening to a sermon on the topic.

In this case it became immediately clear (although he didn't make it explicitly so) that the pastor was preaching from a dispensational premilennialist and pre-tribulation position - that is - the position that there will be a "rapture" of Christians before a tribulation period in which the antichrist is revealed and conquered followed by a literal 1,000 year reign of Christ on earth and culminating in the final judgment. This view also takes literally many of the scenes painted in the book of Revelation including the "mark of the Beast" and the 144,000 witnesses. This view was popularized in the 1830s and is the dominant view of the evangelical community as evidenced by the popularity of the Left Behind series of books by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins.

He used as his text Revelation 6 which discusses the opening of the seven seals by the angel. What I found interesting was that he used the Olivet Discourse in Matthew 24, specifically verses 4-14, as general signs of the coming of the rapture and hence the tribulation. In that passage Jesus' disciples ask him what will be the signs of his second coming.

And Jesus answered and said to them, "See to it that no one misleads you. For many will come in My name, saying, 'I am the Christ,' and will mislead many. You will be hearing of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not frightened, for those things must take place, but that is not yet the end. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and in various places there will be famines and earthquakes. But all these things are merely the beginning of birth pangs." (Matt. 24:4-8)

The pastor then specifically focused on the "birth pangs" phrase and went on to provide evidence that we're fast approaching the beginning of that time in history with the expected and welcome call to repentance.

His "evidence" was in the form of increased earthquake activity and the increase in natural disasters in general. He put on the overhead a chart that looked as follows:

Magnitude 6+ Quakes
1900-1909 3
1910-1919 2
1920-1929 2
1930-1939 5
1940-1949 4
1950-1959 9
1960-1969 13
1970-1979 51
1980-1990 86
1991-1996 100

There was no source noted nor did he explain where these numbers came from.

Unfortunately, for the pastor this view that seismic activity is on the increase isn't really supported by good data. Back in 1999 the Christian young-earth creationist group ICR published an article on what they called this Christian "urban legend" and showed using data from 1900-1999 that large magnitude earthquakes are actually on the decline overall and that earthquakes tend to follow a periodic trend as shown in their graph below:

Since 1999 the trend hasn't changed and following table was published by the US Geological Survey in response to a question as to why we're having so many earthquakes.

Magnitude 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005

8.0 to 9.9 1 1 0 1 2 1
7.0 to 7.9 14 15 13 14 14 9
6.0 to 6.9 158 126 130 140 140 121
5.0 to 5.9 1345 1243 1218 1203 1509 1429
4.0 to 4.9 8045 8084 8584 8462 10894 11085
3.0 to 3.9 4784 6151 7005 7624 7937 6282
2.0 to 2.9 3758 4162 6419 7727 6317 3483
1.0 to 1.9 1026 944 1137 2506 1344 21
0.1 to 0.9 5 1 10 134 103 0

No Magnitude 3120 2938 2937 3608 2939 679

Total 22256 23534 27454 31419* 31199 * 23110

In answer to the question the USGS also noted that...

"Although it may seem that we are having more earthquakes, earthquakes of magnitude 7.0 or greater have remained fairly constant throughout this century and, according to our records, have actually seemed to decrease in recent years. A partial explanation may lie in the fact that in the last twenty years, we have definitely had an increase in the number of earthquakes we have been able to locate each year. This is because of the tremendous increase in the number of seismograph stations in the world and the many improvements in global communications. In 1931, there were about 350 stations operating in the world; today, there are more that 4,000 stations and the data now comes in rapidly from these stations by telex, computer and satellite. This increase in the number of stations and the more timely receipt of data has allowed us and other seismological centers to locate many small earthquakes which were undetected in earlier years, and we are able to locate earthquakes more rapidly."

So the perception that there are more earthquakes in these "last days" is just that - a perception - based on the fact that increasing technology allows for better detection and quicker reporting of the quakes that do occur. It is likely that the pastor got his data from either an antiquated or biased source that didn't take these factors into account.

Although I don't have a cool graph to support it, I did hear a report on NPR the other day on the seeming increase in hurricanes in this and recent years. The gist of the answer by the expert they had on was that while this is a big year there have been other years like this in the 20th century such as 1933. The point is that this also is cyclical phenomena as has been reported in the media recently driven by warmer currents in the Atlantic. The most recent cycle started around 1995 and if history is a guide, will last another 10 to 20 years.

In the final analysis I think it was not only a bit presumptuous on the part of the pastor to appear so sure he knows exactly what God has in mind, but also intellectually lazy to present so-called evidence that is easily refuted by 10 minutes of Googling.

1 comment:

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