Monday, July 4, 2016

Are earthquakes signalling the end of the world?

After a recent major earthquake Bob Holdsworth, a tectonics expert at Durham University, was quoted as saying, "I can definitely tell you that the world is not coming to an end." 
Really, Bob? "Definitely"?

In Bob’s defense, I’m sure what he meant was that the devastation seen recently in Haiti, Chile, Turkey and other places does not signify that the planet is falling apart. But the people asking questions about the end of the world do have reason to be concerned.

If you look up earthquakes on the internet you’ll find an argument raging, between those who believe earthquakes are on the rise, and those who do not. For example, the National Earthquake Information Center, a division of the U.S. Geological Survey office, issued a statement back in the 1990s that said, in part: 
“We continue to hear from many people throughout the world that earthquakes are on the increase. Although it may seem that we are having more earthquakes, earthquakes of magnitude 7.0 or greater have remained fairly constant throughout this century.”
However, if you look at their own data, there does seem to be a definite rise. NEIC/USGS explains the rise simply: 
"There are more seismographs today than there were 100 years ago, and there are more people living in earthquake-prone areas."
Remember the old saw about ‘if a tree falls in the forest, and no one hears it…’ A great earthquake 500 years ago in the Los Angeles area would have been noticed by no one but a few squirrels. And even today, an earthquake below magnitude 6 is not likely to be reported in the media.
So why do people attach so much prophetic significance to earthquakes? Because Jesus did.
In Matthew chapter 24 verse 3, Jesus’ disciples asked for a sign foretelling “the end of the world,” and in his answer he mentioned earthquakes, and that’s why Bob keeps getting all these questions. But we can let Bob off the hook; “end of the world” is actually a mis-translation. Jesus' disciples did not ask about “the end of the world.”  
Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Greek Words says about the passage, 
“The rendering "the end of the world" is misleading; the marginal reading in the Revised Standard Version, ‘the consummation of the age,’ is correct. The word does not denote a termination, but the heading up of events to the appointed climax. [The Greek word] aion is not the world, but a period or epoch or era in which events take place.”

So then, is there any significance to earthquakes? Yes!

Jesus' disciples asked ‘what will be the sign…’, singular, NOT ‘what will be the signs…’ Jesus answered their question exactly: he gave a composite “sign,” made up of several details, one of which was earthquakes. His answer as recorded by Luke reads, “Nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; and there shall be great earthquakes, and in divers places famines and pestilences; and there shall be terror…” (Luke 21:10, 11) 
He also gave a parable, or illustration, in the same chapter of Luke. “Then he taught them a lesson thus—‘Look at the fig tree and all the other trees. When they are already budding, you see it and know by your own selves that the summer is already near. And so may you, as soon as you see these things happening, know that the Kingdom of God is near.’”

Jesus never said that an earthquake was a sign of the end. Nor did he say that earthquakes would increase, either in number or size, as the end approached. He simply said the sign would include earthquakes. How would his followers know that any particular earthquake was significant? By the presence of all the other parts of the sign at the same time.

For example, during what are called the Peninsular Wars, the wars between Napoleon and Wellington at the beginning of the 1800s, many people believed they were seeing the end of the world. Nation rose against nation and kingdom against kingdom. That war involved England, France, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Austria and Russia, as well as smaller countries. It has been called the first true world war.

The Peninsular wars were also plagued by food shortages and epidemics. “The Guadiana epidemic at its highest,” says author Andrew Bramford, was one of the worst epidemics to strike during that war. Furthermore, he says, “it went on over a period of four months, during which the death rate, though peaking in November, remained continually in excess of five hundred men per month.”

According to, there were even several earthquakes during that time period. An earthquake in Italy in 1783 had killed 30,000 people; In 1797 an earthquake in Peru killed forty thousand; And an earthquake in Naples in 1805 killed several thousand.

Clearly, since this world system is still going, those tragedies did not fulfill the sign Jesus gave. What was lacking? First, the casualties of the Peninsular Wars were almost exclusively British and French soldiers. Many of the battles were observed by civilians standing safely on a nearby hilltop. 
World War I and World War II are properly called world wars… few people anywhere on earth were exempt or immune from the effects. Likewise the food shortages during the Napoleonic period were temporary and localized. In fact, a macabre footnote of those wars is that food crops grew more abundantly in fields where battles had taken place, likely because of the churned up soil and the spilled blood. But today, when we speak of food shortages, we are talking in terms of a billion or more people who don’t have enough to eat. According to some reports over a million kids in the United States are malnourished.

What about pestilences, or epidemics? Most of the epidemics in the Peninsular Wars were localized, and in fact affected mainly the fighting men. In the last hundred years, however, despite amazing scientific advances, the human race is sicker than at any time in its history. Plagues such as the so-called Spanish flu – which is estimated to have killed from 20 million to 100 million people – AIDS, heart disease, and diabetes, were virtually unknown in Napoleon’s day.

And the widespread nature of all these is significant. Look again at that phrase, “in divers places.” In Greek it would be understood as, ‘in one place after another.’ That is a very apt description of the wars, food shortages, pandemics and other terrors we face today. And it surely is an appropriate descriptor for all these earthquakes we've been seeing. 
If you still don’t believe that now we really are approaching the end of our current world system, I have a question for you: How bad do things have to get before you would say they, finally, fulfill the prophecy Jesus gave?

 Please feel free to leave a polite comment. To read another column about the sign of the times, click here.
 Bill K. Underwood is the author of several novels and one non-fiction self-help book, all available at You can help support this site by purchasing a book.

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