Starting today, the Ticker will have entries which reproduce E-Block material that is at least 3 years old. In this we're imitating the practice of other ministries, like CRI, which do the same for their own publications.
This article is the first in what I call the Ghosts of End Times Past series, where we have a look back at end times speculators who were notable failures. This time we check out Edgar Whisenant, author of a 1988 book which gave 88 "reasons" why the Rapture would occur in 1988.
***One of the most poignant criticisms of Christianity I have ever seen came from an atheist who said that he had found an "end times" book among some possessions in the attic. This book gave detailed reasons, using world events and the Bible as a gauge, why the return of Second Coming was imminent, and implored readers to repent now while it was still not too late.
But the book had been written several decades before -- and the time of the reputed Second Coming had been long past.
Sadly, many Christians are so eager to see the fulfillment of eschatological promises that they are willing to dispense with a critical mindset when it comes to any work claiming that The End is Near. As an orthodox preterist, my own faith-view is not subject to that problem; and certainly, Christians with a standard dispensational view are perfectly capable of being cautious enough not to be taken in by false alarms. The purpose of this series will be to examine some of these "Ghosts of End Times Past" -- works that predicted the soon-coming end which ended up soon coming to failure. It is hoped that by taking a closer look at these, we and others might learn from past mistakes.
My subject this time is appropriate, as it has been exactly 20 years since it was published. 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will be in 1988 by Edgar Whisenant was quite a news item in its time; as a teenager that year, and a new Christian, I knew so little of eschatology and exegesis that I was completely unable to evaluate its claims. Based on the fact that some more experienced Christians seemed to be giving it credence, while others I respected did not, I didn't quite go so far as those who sold their houses or took the day off from work, but out of consideration for my family, I did turn off my Betamax VCR so that my favorite show wouldn't be recorded that day. (To this day, I still refer to the episode I didn't record as the "Rapture episode".)
Whisenant was reputedly no dummy; he had been an engineer at NASA. Yet after 1988, he showed a remarkable inability to admit to error, and published new predictions every year after 1988 for a while. You can see more on that here, and you can still read a companion volume to the book here. I was fortunate enough, here in 2008, that the original 88 Reasons book was still available at a seminary library near me -- one of only a handful of libraries that still have it in their possession.
Of course, Whisenant's efforts are not in need of refutation 20 years after the fact; he was obviously wrong. The question we will ask here is, should Christians have been so ready to believe he was right, before 1989, and without the benefit of hindsight?
Admittedly, given the small gap between Whisenant's release of his book, and the predicted Rapture date, it would have been difficult for any potential respondent to check his fact claims in time to offer an informed, timely response -- even more difficult considering Whisenant's penchant for impenetrable mathematical formulas. But in many cases, the flaws in argumentation and presentation are not too difficult to discern. Let's look at some of the "88 Reasons" given.
Reasons #1, 2 -- These "reasons" were not so much a reason why the Rapture would occur in 1988 as they were reasons given for justifying being able to discern a relative date, apart from Jesus' indication that no one would know the day or the hour. Whisenant explained in #1 that he wasn't predicting the day and hour -- just narrowing it down to year, month, and week. Of course, the words "day" and "hour" are not infrequently used to refer to longer spans of time (as in John 5:25, "the hour has come and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of God and they that shall hear shall live"), so the semantics here are more in the line of gymnastics. Reason #2 appealed to the work of a "Joe Civelli" answering the point that Jesus said that no one will "know" the day or hour (Matt. 24:36/Mark 13:32). Civelli crafted a dichotomy between two Greek words for "know" and arrived at the conclusion that the word used by Jesus allowed that the day and hour could be known with effort and was "there to obtain." (Civelli himself wrote a book called The Messiah's Return in 1987.)
Civelli's only resources for this argument were concordances -- he apparently did not consult an expert in Greek, or any commentaries, or any scholars. It remained after the fact for Dean Halverson to write an essay for the Fall 1988 Christian Research Journal (you can read it here) which pulled that claim apart. Though Halverson did not note the attribution of the point to Civelli, his rebuttal remains intact:
Three things can be said in response to Whisenant's interpretation of Matthew 24:36. First, concerning the connotation of oida, the meanings of ginosko and oida are not as distinct as Whisenant claims. Merrill Tenney, for example, makes a distinction between the two words, but he also cautions that one should not draw too sharp a line. Moreover, the connotations that Tenney sees in ginosko and oida are completely opposite to those of Whisenant. Tenney writes that oida "implies knowledge of facts or knowledge by intellectual process." It should also be noted that, while Whisenant has gleaned the meanings of ginosko and oida from Strong's Concordance and The Companion Bible, he goes far beyond these two sources when he talks about the meaning of oida in its negative sense...
I heartily recommend a full reading of Halverson's article, which goes on to address some of Whisenant's other attempts to validate his date-setting in spite of Jesus' warnings (such as Reason #14).
Reason #6 -- this one is an example of another "reason that is no reason." It is, rather, one of several entries in which Whisenant assumes that his predictions are correct, and then goes on to use what he supposes will happen as a validation. In this case, having assumed that the Rapture is to be timed with the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashannah, he goes on to equate the next feast on the calendar, Yom Kippur, with the day "Antichrist signs the Seven-Year peace pact with Israel" and the Jewish feast after that, the Feast of Tabernacles, with the time 5 days after Armageddon when "Israel recognizes Jesus as their Messiah..." Another such entry: Reason #60, where Whisenant midrashically uses the Biblical 70-year calculation of a human lifespan to argue that Soviet Communism will "die" on October 3, 1988 when World War 3 starts, exactly 70 years after Lenin's Bolsheviks voted to take Russia by force. (There, Whisenant also says that Communism never reaches its 70th birthday, apparently unconcerned for its manifestations in places like Cuba and China that would not be touched by this supposed war.)
Reason #8 -- reminiscent of Skeptical arguments concerning the alleged overuse of the number 40 in the Bible, Whisenant argues for a 40 year period between the founding of Israel (1948) and the Rapture (1988). To this end it is said: "God never stopped short of 40 years or days, and God never reached a 41st day or year -- therefore the Rapture must occur after Israel's 40th birthday and before Israel's 41st birthday..." But Whisenant refutes himself in later noting the 70 year exile of Judah in Babylon -- and the even longer exile of the Northern Kingdom stands in the way of his overbroad claim as well. True, "forty" can be found programatically as a number of judgment more than once (it is so in my own view as a preterist), for this fits in with the pattern of typological thinking (see here) used in the ancient world. But a host of other questions need to be resolved before that can be applied to specific cases such as the modern state of Israel.
Reason #18 -- Whisenant attempts to validate a near Rapture by supposing that 1 Thess. 5:3 was being fulfilled in our present: "...while they are saying peace and safety! Then shall destruction come upon them suddenly..." He saw this fulfilled in a "peace (and safety) movement" expressed through such events as Hands Across America and worldwide peace rallies held July 1, 1987.
The difficulty here is that 1 Thess. 5:3 has people declaring peace and safety has occurred. Peace rallies demonstrate for peace because of its perceived lack, not because peace currently exists. If anything, Whisenant should have seen these as disconfirmation of his thesis of an imminent Rapture. (Using Hands Across America was also dicey; that was an effort for combating hunger and homelessness, not war!)
Reasons #31-34 -- These are typical of several entries that are also "reasons that are not reasons." They present mathematical calculations showing a signifying number of "Sabbaticals" between a Biblical event (such as David being crowned king of Israel) and 1988. In that case, it is alleged to be "430 Sabbaticals" between the two events. (The appeal to Lenin is similar to this as well.)
Entries like these are too easily subject to a confirmation bias -- one in which events not chosen are ignored while events are sought to match. Why select David's crowning, or Abraham's death? Why not David's death, or Abraham's first meeting with God? Whisenant had literally thousands of significant Biblical events to choose from, as well as a few chronological periods (calendar years, lunar months, Sabbaticals, etc.) from which to erect a profitable combination.
Reason #39 -- Regrettably, Whisenant appeals to the testimony of the non-credible Ron Wyatt, and his claim to have found the Ark of the Covenant beneath Golgotha (see here). Similarly, he even appeals to Jeane Dixon's prediction of a world leader (Reason #56) and uses her claim of the birth date in "reasons" following.
Reason #64 -- we are told that America is "already judged financially" because it was the "largest debtor nation" in 1988. One can only imagine what Whisenant would make of the current credit crisis.
Reason #67 -- Another example of selectivity bias, as Whisenant designates May 14 important as the founding day of modern Israel (1948) and "spiritual Israel" (America -- 1787). The argumentation here is very much like that of those who advance "pagan copycat" theories about Jesus, or the "Bible Wheel", as terms are defined as loosely as possible to get a match. May 14, 1948 saw Israel declared an independent state; but May 14, 1787 was not the equivalent event for America; it was rather the first meeting of the Constitutional Congress, as Whisenant admits. July 4, 1776, was closer to what would match; but for Whisenant's purposes, he refers to Israel as "born" and America as "conceived (born in the mind of God)" on the respective dates in order to get a match. Why not also appeal to May 14, 1955, when the Warsaw Pact was "born"? Or May 14, 1973, when Skylab was launched and the American space program "conceived" of a plan which would lead to the space shuttle? Indeed, why not appeal to May 14, 1944 as the day George Lucas (producer of New Age Star Wars movies) was born? Similar arguments can be found elsewhere (such as Reason #70, which matches Allenby's 12/17/1917 conquest of Jerusalem to the 12/8/1987 signing of the INF Treaty).
Reason #79 -- Standard appeal is made to the alleged increase in things like famine and earthquakes. The last point in particular has been debunked and the documentation offered by Whisenant's source, one Virginia Galli, is not much better than those criticized in the article. It refers to "data from the Strasbourge [sic] Observatory in France" saying that earthquakes have increased, but that is as specific as the citation gets.And so we return to the operative question: Is this something we can now say, with perfect hindsight, Christians should have not been fooled by? I'd have to say, with regrets, that the answer to that is no, because we have seen that some of the same sort of argumentation is being used today to fool people (per my comparison to the logic of the "pagan copycat" myth, for example). The lesson of Edgar Whisenant is that humanity as a whole never learns its lessons well, especially when it comes to seeking confirming patterns in the world around them.