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Why Americans love doomsday prophecies

A total eclipse of the sun at the location of the longest duration of 2 minutes and 40 seconds in Hopkinsville, Ky. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
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Here we are again. News reports are abuzz with a “Christian numerologist” suggesting that Sept. 23, 2017, is the fixed date for the end of the world.

It could be, of course. Any day could be Judgment Day.

But there are a couple of reasons we should pay no attention to this prediction. The first reason is summed up in the words “Christian numerologist.” The second, and more important, reason is that this sort of doomsday speculation has little to do with religion and everything to do with marketing.

The first market for this sort of prophecy-as-publicity is outside the Christian church. One would be hard-pressed to find a church or a significant gathering of Christians who buy into the Sept. 23 date-setting. I couldn’t give you the name of one person who holds the view, and I keep up to date on some of the craziest religious movements in the country. Those without a great deal of familiarity with actual lived religion tend to find this sort of thing exotic and interesting, the way they might find interesting the end-is-near cultists on an episode of “The Leftovers.”

Beyond that, though, there is the very real problem with doomsday hucksterism within American religion. While it is hard to find a nameable proponent of Sept. 23 prophecy, one can watch various Christian television evangelists and talk-show hosts and find a more general, but just as frantic, message: that the world is ending soon.

Usually proponents will just note how interesting it is that Bible prophecies about signs in the heavens and earthquakes just happen to sound like earthquakes and hurricanes and solar eclipses in the news right now. Many of them will then have books for sale about how to discern these times, and some even have for sale, conveniently enough, freeze-dried packets of lima beans one can purchase for one’s post-Armageddon bomb shelter.

This is not new. The 20th century saw much of this — especially in the 1970s and 1980s, which many promised would be the “terminal generation.” Those who propagated such talk could sometimes identify the Soviet Union as a key player in biblical prophecy and then pivot after the fall of the USSR right into identifying Saddam Hussein’s Iraq as a reconstituted Babylon.

Followers would wait, in vain, for these people to apologize for failed prophecies; they would just move right on to the next one — with books and videos and kits all available for a short time only at these low, low, rates.

None of this has anything to do with biblical Christianity. Jesus, and then his apostles, told us to expect a day of final judgment, to look for the return of Christ to our present reality of space and time.

But the key to all of this is the unexpected nature of it. Jesus said that life would go on, just as it always does, until, suddenly — like a thief in the night — the eastern skies explode into light. The Bible verses the prophecy-mavens use to fix their dates — wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes, and so on — are spoken of by Jesus as the exact opposite. When you see these things, Jesus said, “see that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet” (Matt. 24:6). Upheavals of this nature will happen in every generation, as “but the beginning of the birth pains” (Matt. 24:8).

There’s a high cost to those who would, contrary to Jesus’ explicit command, fix dates and seasons to the end. When many view the world as one constant marketing scheme, those who use the gospel for such ends leave in their wake cynicism and disillusionment. Sometimes people reject the good news of Christianity while never knowing that what they are turning aside isn’t, in fact, anything that Jesus or those he sent said at all.

Behind this, of course, is a human need for resolution, for, to use the psychological terms, “closure.” This is true not only of our individual lives but of the narrative of history itself. The Bible suggests that longing — regardless of how it can be exploited — is a good instinct, nudging us toward ultimate questions.

History could, of course, come to consummation on Sept. 23, or on Sept. 24 or 1 million years from now, on Feb. 29. I don’t know. Neither do you. And we’re in good company. Jesus said that he himself, in his human nature, did not know the timing of his return, but only the Father (Mark 13:32).

One thing is for sure. When that day does arrive, we will not need numerology to figure out if it’s here. Jesus will be visible and indisputable. And he will not be selling anything.

Russell Moore is president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.