Fifty years ago today, on the third day of the Six Day War, Israel captured the Wailing Wall, the Temple Mount, and the Old City of Jerusalem, giving them complete control of Jerusalem (which they retain to this day). At the start of the war, Israel’s existence had been threatened, but they came out of the war with a much firmer control of the entire area.
This may have been the high point of Christadelphian apocalyptic expectation. A mere 19 years before, Israel had returned to their land, and now with Jerusalem captured the time of the Gentiles was fulfilled. Everything was in readiness for Christ’s return, which must surely happen soon. There was a sudden spike in numbers of baptisms as young people rushed to make sure they would not miss out.
However, all these events happened long before I was born, and fifty years on there is still no return.
The traditional Christadelphian interpretation
I came from a family and an ecclesia with much more skepticism of extravagant prophetic claims. While a few core events like the return of Israel were indisputably prophesied, we could see that the many detailed claims of “Signs of the Times” were inconsistent and shifting. Interpretation of Revelation, whether “continuous historic” or “future”, was a quagmire we just did not get into. But I’ll try and present what I know of prophecy interpretation, starting with the nation of Israel.
There are many prophecies before and during the Babylonian exile of Israel returning out of exile. These are considered fulfilled by the creation of the state of Israel in 1948.
In addition, there are two sections of Jesus’ “Olivet Prophecy” which are considered to apply to Israel:
- The so-called “Parable of the Fig Tree” (Luke 21:29 - 32). This is interpreted with Israel as the fig tree, and the other trees being the other Arab nations that came into being at similar times. I think now this would usually be applied to 1948, though I came across one reference in 1967 to this fulfilment beginning in 1917 (the end of the Ottoman Empire and commencement of the British Mandate of Palestine).
- The time of the Gentiles treading down Jerusalem being fulfilled (Luke 21:24). This is typically interpreted as being fulfilled in 1967 when Israel took control of all Jerusalem (though I believe that before 1967 it was taken to apply to 1948 when Israel captured half of Jerusalem).
The other tricky thing about the Olivet prophecy is that Jesus states that the current generation when he was speaking would see the fulfillment of all his signs. Since applying it to that generation would mean it didn’t apply to the return of Christ, traditional Christadelphian interpretation has stated that the generation that saw the start of its fulfillment would see it all happen, including the return of Jesus.
Traditionally the length of a generation has been taken to be 40 years (I think after the Israelite wanderings in the wilderness). If this time commenced in 1948, it concluded in 1988 (nearly 30 years ago). If it commenced in 1967, it concluded in 2007 (10 years ago). As the initial expected times have long passed the interpretation has become more flexible. One I heard growing in popularity in the last few years was that a generation is actually 70 years, taken rather questionably from Psalm 90:10. Starting from 1948 conveniently means that the final conclusion would be expected by next year, but I’m sure there are ways to make it more flexible as required.
Some other relevant traditional Christadelphian expectations:
- Other generic dangers included in the Olivet Prophecy: Earthquakes, famines, pestilences, signs from heaven, men’s hearts failing them for fear.
- A European super-state is to emerge as the restoration of the Holy Roman Empire. Rather than the separate countries in the EU, this super-state is to have political integration as well as social integration, and the Catholic church is to be in charge or at least highly influential.
- At the time of the end, Russia with various allies will invade and conquer Israel. This is the fulfilment of both the invasion of Gog (Ezekiel 38 & 39), and the King of the North (Daniel 11).
- Britain (hereafter called Tarshish and the King of the South), the US, and the other less rebellious Commonwealth nations (hereafter called the “young lions”), will be opposed to the Russian invader, but weakened in some way so they are unable to do more than verbally protest the invasion.
- Christ will return to defeat the Russian invader, save a (possibly devastated) Israel, and set up God’s kingdom on earth.
That’s a brief outline. I can’t guarantee to fit all the pieces together, because I never fully understood it myself. I’m sure Christadelphian expositors have more pieces than the ones I’ve included here, not to mention disagreement as to what order those pieces fit together in. Later in this article I include quotes on expectation and fulfilment of prophecy from the archives of the well-regarded Christadelphian magazine The Testimony.
A spirit of constant expectation
Many times in the Christadelphian world interpreters have stated a year that Christ was sure to return by. All of those predictions that have passed have been demonstrated wrong. However, the expectation continues.
One of the most popular justifications is this command of Jesus: “What I say to you, I say to all: Watch!” Some dedicate their lives to hunting the news for the next “Sign of the Times”, and relating it to scripture (or, more accurately, to their interpretation of prophecies written down more than 2,000 years ago in a different language for a different audience). Apparently they are able to forget all the previous predictions and signs that haven’t led anywhere.
There are some time that are considered particular crises: for example, the Six Day War was one. As I’ve said, it led to a large number of baptisms (the next young people’s magazine in Melbourne reported 17 baptisms). I can remember talking to someone who was baptised then, and at the time he was afraid of missing out. As far as I know he is still a committed believer, but in that case the expectation certainly didn’t meet the reality.
Once at our CYC we were told about the spirit of that time: such uncertainty that on Monday night no-one was really sure whether the Wednesday night Bible Class would be on, or whether Christ would have returned. We were told that the faith and belief was so strong that it bubbled out, providing a desperate opportunity to share with work colleagues, friends, and anyone else who would care to listen. I almost felt we were being criticised for not showing the same level of faith. But how did that faith help? They were sincere, but WRONG. And I have to wonder, what did those work colleagues feel weeks and months later as nothing happened? False alarm? Derision? A determination never to listen to the Bible again?
Maybe it is possible to maintain that level of expectation for a few days or even weeks. But I find it hard to believe that it could last 50 years of continual trials and disappointment.
Another time, we had another well-regarded speaker tell us:
If you’re not on the edge of your seat with all the signs of the times we’ve been having, you’ll never be on the edge of your seat. We have had all sorts of signs, particularly in the last 60 years.
I may have misunderstood, but I can’t see this level of expectation as healthy. Sixty years is a long time to be “on the edge of your seat”. Some were able to stay in constant expectation, leaping from sign to sign and seemingly not recognising the previous signs that didn’t happen. However, even as a believer I was unable to do that, because I couldn’t avoid seeing the problems with it.
If this attitude were taken to its extreme, I think it fair to say I would not have a university degree, a professional job, or a house (in fact, if the expectations in 1967 were correct I would not even have been born). Each of these are things I achieved while a believer, and I don’t think my life would have been healthy without those goals to achieve. Waiting for Christ’s return may be motivating for a while, but I don’t think it should be a full-time job and it doesn’t put bread on the table.
However, it is very difficult to get any believer to agree that Christ’s return is not around the corner, in spite of the many hundreds of years proving previous predictions false. Similarly, there is the common assumption that the world continues to go down hill, ignoring any evidence to the contrary. I can state with confidence that the Western world was going through much more trouble during World War 2 than it is now, and that the signs in Israel were much more exciting in 1948 and 1967 than they are now.
I have heard it said that “God in his wisdom has made it so that every generation will see the signs and think their generation is when Christ’s return will come”. This is supposed to be a good thing: It is supposed to give you urgency, so you don’t put off your decision to serve God. Those seeing all the clear signs in front of them surely won’t stray from the straight and narrow for fear of the coming judgement. Even if the signs don’t actually lead to anything happening, the believer will surely be ready for judgement when they die. But again, I don’t think it’s healthy. What it actually shows is how generic the signs are. Things like earthquakes and wars have been happening since before Christ came, and they continue to happen. When believers already know that Christ’s return is near, such events can easily confirm their beliefs.
It’s easy to say “The prophecies haven’t failed - they just haven’t been fulfilled yet”. But surely it has to get to a point where the evidence is against it? I can’t prove that this year’s predictions will be as false as those of last year and the year before, but I think the probabilities are on my side. And I don’t understand how more sign-watching believers don’t get despondent and give up their watch.
The nation of Israel - return from exile
Since I quit, I think my most common question from believers has been “How do you explain the return of Israel?” And it is true that it is something Brother John Thomas predicted 100 years before it happened. From childhood I’ve heard the thrilling story of the Valley of Dry Bones, and how it predicted Israel’s return to the land in unbelief, unknowingly waiting for Christ to return and bring them properly into the fold.
However, once I dropped my pre-conceptions I came to realise how surprising these claims were. Prophecies like those in Ezekiel 37 were written while Israel were in exile. The northern tribes had been removed by Assyria, the southern kingdom by Babylon, and both were looking for hope. Why would we expect prophets then to be writing about a future exile 500 years later and a future return 2,500 years later? Surely it is much more likely they were addressing their own time?
A friend then pointed me to Zechariah 10, which is usually considered to be written after the return from exile. However, I think the same applies here. The prophet talks about return from Egypt and Assyria (areas included in the first exile), not return from the wider world. I think it much more likely that this passage too talks about the first exile and the prophet’s immediate time period. Looking forward 2,000 years just isn’t on the cards.
However, even if those predictions were meant to apply to 1948, I think it important to realise that the very existence of these scriptures contributed to their “fulfillment”. The Jews remained a separate nation for thousands of years of exile, and that was partly due to their shared culture. An important part of that shared culture was their holy books and their distinctive interpretations of those books. Because they retained a cultural link to the land of promise, Zionists were able to reuse these prophecies of a return from exile to encourage the Jews to return to the Holy Land. It also seems that some of those who supported the Jews, particularly in Britain, were also influenced by these Jewish scriptures which had become part of the Christian canon. It is still difficult to determine how likely these events were, but given the number of years of exile and the burning desire to return to the land, I think it was much more likely that it would happen at some point than most believers credit.
Finally, even if you accept Christianity, it is open to question whether God remains interested in the Jews as a nation. Most Christadelphians make a big thing of “the Hope of Israel”, but I think there are good scriptural grounds to argue that Christianity claimed to replace the Jews as God’s chosen people. Since my ecclesia was more open-minded than many I’ve even exhorted on this. It’s out of scope for this post, but I may discuss it in a later post.
The much-abused fig tree
There are some scriptures where I have always been baffled how other believers fail to see the simple message in the scripture, and the sign of the fig tree in the Olivet Prophecy is one of these. To me it seems like a very simple comparison: Just like leaves appearing on a fig tree show summer is near, so will the signs given in the Olivet Prophecy show Jesus’ return is near.
However, the standard interpretation goes something like this: Here, the “fig tree” is the nation of Israel, and “all the trees” is other nations. We know the fig tree is Israel because the fig tree always represents Israel in the few cherry-picked passages presented. So, when the nation of Israel forms, Christ’s return will be within a generation.
The main problem with this is that the fig tree doesn’t represent the nation of Israel. The idea of a single image meaning the same thing throughout a collection of books written by different writers at different times to different audiences is questionable. But even if we accept that, the cherry-picked verses used refer to Israel as a grapevine as well as a fig tree. Which is it?
When looking for other verses I found the fig tree image is also used to refer to Nineveh. Other verses through scripture refer to Israel as a vineyard, as an olive tree, and as a lily. And in the New Testament Paul talks of Israel as an olive tree, and how Christians are replacing Jews on this olive tree.
These different trees were presumably used because they were common across the Middle East and thus made for handy images. I can’t see any reason to take the fig tree of the Olivet Prophecy as anything other than a simple picture of being ready for Christ’s return.
Some testimony from The Testimony
In retrospect, the capture of Jerusalem in the Six Day War marks the best fulfillment of the “Times of the Gentiles” in the Olivet Prophecy. However, was it clear beforehand that there would be a coming war to gain complete control of Jerusalem? Since I have access to the archives of The Testimony, I decided to look through all the issues from January 1967 to August 1967 to find how the prophecies had been interpreted. I expected to find interesting things, but I was still surprised by some of what had been written, and the confidence expressed in conclusions we now consider wrong.
In January 1967, there was no sign of concern that Israel held West Jerusalem only. The generation back then was going to see all the signs of Jesus fulfilled. Israel had recently completed the Knesset building in West Jerusalem, and the magazine commented “Do we not have here the Sign of the Coming of the Lord, and the end of the Gentile age?” Seemingly, the Gentiles in East Jerusalem holding the Temple Mount were unimportant.
But there were bigger issues in play: The Gogian invasion was coming.
The student of the Scriptures, however, with Bible in hand is enabled to view events experienced in the kingdoms of men with all of their calamities and achievements, in prophetic perspective.
Britain and the US were distracted and unable to help Israel. And so, the prognostication was clear, delivered with all the authority of God’s word (and man’s interpretation):
When one has a Bible to hand which is “read with understanding”, there is little need to study newspaper feature articles and commentaries to discover the answers to the above questions. There is a Great Planner Who rules in the kingdom of men, and He has so arranged the present dilemma in the politics of the Merchants of Tarshish. With their attention distracted by immediate personal problems of pressing moment, that “evil thought” must be instilled into the mind of the Prince of Rosh, and allowed to unravel into military temporary advantage in the Middle East.
It was a decisive moment, and the weakening of British power in the Middle East, the Vietnam War, the race riots in the US, and other home problems were all providentially there just so the two Tarshish powers would “have their attention so distracted at the present decisive moment from Middle East affairs”. There did not appear to be any consideration of the amount of collateral damage God requires to complete his plan. Doesn’t that have moral concerns?
In February 1967, a plan for the remaining third of the century was presented. Just about everything predicted did not happen, and I’m not even sure which scriptures all of these prophecies were derived from. The one thing that has happened (Israel capturing East Jerusalem four months later) was not predicted:
The final one-third of the current 100-year epoch dates from September 1967, and is to be heralded by the Jewish ‘Feast of Trumpets’. History will be still more dramatic and dreadful than the events of the first two-thirds, as we know from Bible prophecy. Gog and his confederates will invade the Holy Land and perish there. Russia may grapple with Red China in death combat; the Third World War will explode in scorching heat; Papal Western- Germanic Europe will revive as the ‘Beast of the Earth’, only to be exterminated at Armageddon; Great Babylon will meet her hour of judgment.
In March 1967, it was made quite clear that any attack from the surrounding Arab nations would be a trigger for involving the Soviet Union:
Russian economic and military involvement in the United Arab Republic has grown to the extent that only the most naive of observers would deny that Syria, Iraq and Egypt are virtual pawns of the Kremlin. The unstable Moslem League has been cleverly exploited by Gog to the point where any political or military crisis involving the Arab confederacy must also involve the Communist bloc.
It appears from my reading that the Soviet Union had been involved, though the war was triggered by Egypt without Soviet authorisation. Since their involvement didn’t fulfil any useful prophetic purpose, I had never heard of it before. Near the end of the war (with Damascus under threat) Russia did threaten invasion to pressure the US into making Israel agree a ceasefire. There are claims that a misstep at any point of the war could have led to one of Israel, Russia, or the US triggering a devastating nuclear war. I’m very glad to say that that didn’t happen.
I think by March I got bored of collecting these quotes, so let’s skip forward to June 1967. Firstly, the editor claimed that Israel’s armies had been led by the Archangel Michael, not by Moshe Dyan. Then, he went on to state:
Undoubtedly we are now living on the eve of Divine open manifestation, when the age long silence of God will be broken at last.
Blazing before our eyes in the prophetic skies is the great, final Sign of the return of the Lord Jesus Christ to this earth.
I guess he was excited, and had good reason to be excited, but fifty years on I find it much harder to accept it as the “final sign”. A later article reminded believers they were still waiting for Gog:
the nations of the world face an uneasy future darkened by renewed Soviet aggression through other channels to attain their Middle Eastern objectives.
July 1967 had presumably given a bit of time to consider, and there was jeering at the Soviet Republic because “She backed a loser”, though a few months earlier they had expected Gog to sweep in and be a winner (at least until Christ got involved).
The analysis gave me a definite impression of a “Schrödinger’s War”: a war which Israel would both win with God’s help and lose at the hands of Russia at the same time. But with prophecies pointing both ways, interpreters were able to state prophecy had been fulfilled, no matter what the outcome was. It just could not be predicted in advance. Never mind, though:
the one true Compass is the Bible, and a correct understanding of what is transpiring in the Middle East can be understood only by knowing what is written in the Word of God.
August 1967 was the first comment I saw which related the events of the war back to the Olivet Prophecy. Only two months after the event, I guess:
As from June 7th, 1967, Jerusalem is no longer “trodden down of the Gentiles”. Readers should ponder well the Lord’s directive (Luke 21:24), and then decide whether a pivotal turning-point in prophetic fulfilment concerning the kingdoms of Man has now been reached, namely, as to whether the “Times of the Gentiles” are actually fulfilled.
It was a time for “all hands on deck”:
Of all signs prophesied by the Lord Jesus which inaugurate his Second Coming, none is more final than the ending of Jerusalem’s “treading down”. Christ’s disciples rejoice that the Kingdom of God is now nigh at hand, and that this current generation will not pass away till all be fulfilled. “Blessed are your eyes, for they see . . . Many prophets and righteous men have desired to see those things which ye see” (Matt. 13:16-17).
I’m sure there are many more quotes to consider, but by that point I had reached my tolerance limit and found what I wanted, so I stopped. I don’t think the people I’ve quoted are deliberately setting out to deceive (instead, they deceive themselves before they deceive others). However, when I look back through archives I see things written 20, 30, 40, or 50 years ago that could just as easily have been written now. If we couldn’t believe them then, why should we believe them now?
I find reading these kinds of articles slightly fascinating, but I’m also disgusted by the false confidence on show. I see people making spot predictions based on scriptural interpretation that change from month to month. These predictions are made with all the authority of scripture and “with Bible in hand”. And when they are wrong no-one even notices because they have jumped to the next spot interpretation. They generally haven’t predicted what is coming, and yet they continue to make predictions with complete confidence.
Any incorrect predictions can be deferred or fitted post-hoc to a different prophecy. The interpreter is then able to claim credit for those prophecies coming true (like the capture of Jerusalem). How can you lose if you already know that whatever happens has been prophesied by God (somewhere)? If interpreters were a little more humble about it I might give them a little more leeway, but I’m concerned that there is a massive disconnect between confidence and results, and no-one seems to be noticing.
Speaking “with Bible in hand”, Christadelphians have prophesied the Gogian invasion of Israel by Russia since long before the establishment of the state of Israel or even of the Soviet Union (now defunct). They continue to predict it today. When can we say “Enough is enough”?
The last fifty years
Israel has remained a powerful but isolated player in the Middle East. Usually they have had the US on their side, which has been particularly handy in the UN Security Council. There have been wars with their neighbours, the most threatening one probably being the Yom Kippur War. But apart from that, I doubt anything has raised Christadelphian expectations to the same heights as 1967.
Speaking as a software developer, they have also been an important technological player (I was interested to see the suggestion that Israel’s dominance in technologies like silicon is partially due to France’s decision to stop supplying them with arms after the Six Day War).
Many leaders have talked about “peace and security”, as suggested in 1 Thessalonians 5, but no lasting peace with the Palestinians has been achieved. There have been many attempts at partition that haven’t quite worked, and the stock Christadelphian quote on this has been Joel 3: “dividing my land”.
Outside of Israel, believers continue to talk about earthquakes, famines, wars, and “men’s hearts failing them for fear” (today, this clearly means terrorism, though it wasn’t so clear when they used it in 1967). Last year many Christadelphians were happy to have predicted Brexit correctly. But there was no mention of the fact that back in 1967 the same scriptural interpretation was being used to predict that Britain probably wouldn’t enter the European Common Market. The last substantive prediction I heard was that Damascus would fall at the same time as Aleppo, in a war between Syria and Israel that would weaken Israel sufficiently for Putin (Gog) to swoop in. Not quite there yet, though.
In 2007, the Testimony published a 40th anniversary article which I remember being unconvinced by (at that stage, as a firm believer - just not in prophetic speculations). A few quotes from it:
This month is the fortieth anniversary of the Six-Day War. Current events in Jerusalem, Hebron and Gaza have their roots in the outcomes of that war. Moreover, these events show that prophecies relating to the time of the end, such as Luke 21, Zechariah 12, Joel 3 and Ezekiel 38, are nearing fulfilment.
The capture of the Old City of Jerusalem during the Six-Day War, forty years ago this month, was a key event in relation to this prophecy.
For brethren and sisters in 1967, the events of the Six- Day War certainly were a wake-up call, and there was a surge of enthusiasm through the Brotherhood. Our salvation is forty years nearer than it was then. Truly, “it is high time to awake”.
The failure of the second leg of the “length of a generation” problem is completely ignored: the author is confident that there’s a fulfillment just round the corner. As I mentioned, some interpreters have upped a generation to 70 years, and there’s still room for it to grow. I’m sure there will be articles about the 50th anniversary this year, and I suspect the 40th anniverary article could be reused with minimal changes. How many more decades is that going to be true for?
Five Minutes to Twelve
Harry Whittaker was a respected but contrarian Christadelphian interpreter. While I often disagreed with him, I valued the fact that he thought things through and never felt compelled to just stick to the party line. In response to disappointment when Christ did not return in 1988, he wrote “Five Minutes to Twelve” in 1989. It seems to have been to encourage Christadelphians to return to the study of prophecy. The final chapter has some interesting comments on the generation question:
Thus strong Bible evidence, combined with the stark facts of modern history point emphatically to 1988 as the crisis year.
And that conclusion proved to be wrong. Why?
The short answer, not too clear until explained (sorry!) is this:
There is no Bible evidence that God’s purpose with his ancient people and with His elect is tied to a rigid unbudgeable chronology. Our forefathers bequeathed to us the big unwarranted assumption that it is. Hence a century of wrecked expectations.
On the other hand there is a vast amount of Bible evidence that significant developments in God’s Purpose depend on contingencies — upon the disposition and attitudes of those with whom God is dealing.
He also rejected reinterpreting it to mean 2007, in part because “It is difficult to believe that our crazy modern civilisation can continue all the way to 2007 without blowing Israel and itself to bits long before that date is reached.”
So, what’s the real reason why Jesus hasn’t returned?
It is suggested that here is another well-documented example of a dramatic change in the time-fulfilment of God’s purpose because of the unworthiness of Israel and the New Israel in whom it centres — stubborn rejection of Christ by the former, and spiritual decadence of the latter.
In short, it’s all our fault. We haven’t been focused enough as believers, and we haven’t created enough Messianic Jews.
It’s an interesting explanation, but my problem with it is that it’s too glib a dismissal of unfulfilled prophecy. It’s also inconsistent with other scriptural interpretations: I imagine many Christadelphians would look at the above “spiritual decadence” and approvingly quote “In the last days, perilous times will come” and “Will the Son of Man find faith on the earth?”.
But really, I think unfalsifiability is par for the course when talking about fulfillment of prophecy. It’s just too easy to say “The prophecy wasn’t wrong, just the interpretation of the prophecy”, or “Yes, it hasn’t been fulfilled yet, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be fulfilled”.
The soon return of Christ?
There are many indications in the New Testament that the New Testament writers expected Jesus to return in their lifetime. Even before he ascended to heaven in Acts disciples were asking whether he was going to restore the kingdom then. Harry Whittaker acknowledged this:
It is not to be gainsaid that the NT writers looked for an early return of their Lord and they were inspired to write thus. At least 35 NT passages of this kind are available. These expectations were not fulfilled.
I can remember when I first came across this argument and rejected it. Now I view it as a strong indication that the New Testament was not inspired by God, and reflected the general but incorrect expectation of the church at large that Christ was going to return in their generation. It is an expectation that continues to this day, in spite of nearly 2,000 years of people expecting that return and being disappointed.
One particularly interesting New Testament passage is 2 Peter 3:4:
[Scoffers] will say, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation.”
2 Peter is usually considered by scholars to be a later epistle which was not written by the apostle Peter. This passage is one indication of a later date (the other indication being its nomination of Paul’s letters as scripture). It seems by this point that outsiders (and perhaps even insiders) had started to call Christians on their continual claim that Christ was returning soon. The author’s response is that God is not being slow - he’s just being patient and giving more people the opportunity to be saved. Believers need to wait patiently too, though it also suggests their actions can hasten Christ’s return (perhaps in Harry Whittaker style?). However, judgement will come unexpectedly and will be devastating, so believers should still focus on heavenly things rather than transient earthly things. Don’t give up!
1,900 years later, and God is still being patient, and believers are still not giving up. Significant signs have been seen from Israel. Some of these have been predicted in advance, but many of them were only recognised after the fact. Expectations have been raised time and again, but still no return of Christ.
Many years ago, I checked out of the prophecy game because I saw its weaknesses and I hadn’t really been brought up with it anyway. Now I have rejected the Bible as God’s inspired word because I see its weaknesses, both in prophecy and in other areas. The return of Israel and their success in many wars (including 1967) makes a fascinating story of a nation’s will to continue in spite of the odds. However, it does not require their god to have acted, and I don’t think the story matches all the predictions in the Bible anyway.