Final judgement: Real, certain, irreversible
You may be unaware, but if you’re reading this, you survive the apocalypse. Again.
American numerologist, David Meade, recently predicted that the rapture would take place on 23 April 2018. It was a complex prediction, involving Bible codes, astrological constellations, and newspaper exegesis.
On that fateful day last week, the prophecy of Revelation 12:1–2 was fulfilled: “And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pains and the agony of giving birth.” According to Meade, the woman in question was the constellation Virgo. Last week, the sun, the moon, and Jupiter (the child with which the woman was pregnant) were aligned in the constellation. Though this alignment occurs every twelve years, a simultaneous planetary alignment, representing the Lion of the Tribe of Judah, made this one unique and signalled an imminent rapture. To quote Meade directly:
During this time frame, on April 23, 2018 the moon appears under the feet of the Constellation Virgo. The Sun appears to precisely clothe Virgo…. Jupiter is birthed on April 8, 2018. The twelve stars at that date include the nine stars of Leo, and the three planetary alignments of Mercury, Venus and Mars—which combine to make a count of twelve stars on the head of Virgo. Thus the constellations Virgo, Leo and Serpens-Ophiuchus represent a unique once-in-a-century sign exactly as depicted in the twelfth chapter of Revelation. This is our time marker.
We’re still here, of course. The prediction failed. Meade responded by effectively denying that he ever made such a prophecy—because, he says, his predictions are just “best scenario” and not “absolute” predictions. Ironically, he issued another prophecy: that the rapture will, in fact, take place sometime between May and December 2018. Don’t hold your breath.
My point in this post is really not to mock Meade or other modern-day prophets. We do, of course, need to think biblically about failed prophecies. Deuteronomy 18:22 tells us that “when a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the LORD has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You need not be afraid of him.” A more literal translation of that last sentence is, “You shall notbe afraid of him” (NKJV).
God tells his people that when a self-appointed prophet makes a failed prediction—whether he is a lunatic-fringe numerologist or a friendly, pastoral farmer—he loses all credibility. We do not respond by suggesting that a lot of what that prophet says is good and we need not throw out the baby with the bathwater. By claiming (falsely) to have spoken on God’s behalf, he has effectively called God a liar. One failed prophecy removes all credibility and, according to God’s command, we should not heed his teaching any longer. It’s a command, not a suggestion.
Again, that is not the main point of this post. We could develop that further, but I want to talk here about the concept of prophetic certainty—that even the failed predictions of self-appointed prophets do not undermine the certainty of actual biblical prophecy.
False prophets like David Meade give sceptics of Christianity a great deal of ammunition. My own social media feeds on 24 April were filled with sarcastic comments by unbelieving friends about having “missed another rapture” and the like. The scorn was not directed at David Meade alone, but at him as representative of Christianity. These sceptics were suggesting that, because Meade’s predictions failed, the entire corpus of Christian prophecy falls into question. But while we should all share the sceptics’ aversion to self-appointed prophets, we must remain convinced that God’s word stands firm, regardless of the wickedness of false prophets.
I have been spending a bit of time in the oft-neglected book of Zephaniah, which is a prophecy that focuses heavily on the theme of judgement. Like many of the prophets, Zephaniah was careful to underscore the prophecies he made with a note of divine certainty, employing the phrase “declares the LORD.” The Christian Standard Bible closes the prophecy in this way: “The LORD has spoken.”
Zephaniah ministered to Judah during a time of relative prosperity. His relative, Josiah, was on the throne and was making sweeping reforms throughout Judah and Israel. King Josiah was committed to removing all vestiges of idolatry from the Promised Land. And yet the heart of the people was not really in his reforms. Many of God’s people seemingly paid lip service to Yahweh while secretly pledging allegiance to Milcom (1:5). While Josiah outwardly reformed the Jewish religion, Zephaniah spoke to the hearts of the people. And his message, largely, was one of judgement.
Zephaniah was also a contemporary of Jeremiah. We know from Jeremiah that, around this time, there was a range of false prophets predicting peace for Judah, while Yahweh’s faithful servants—Jeremiah and Zephaniah among them—prophesied destruction. The false prophets, no doubt, mocked the prophecies of Jeremiah and Zephaniah—until they actually came to pass. Zephaniah wrote to warn the people that, even though things seemed to be somewhat prosperous under Josiah, their prosperity could not save them from the judgement to come (see 1:18). He was persuaded of, and firmly preached, the veracity of God’s word. When Nebuchadnezzar finally came upon Judah, they learned the truth of those words.
We need to learn from Zephaniah’s prediction. We live in a day in which false prophets abound. A Wikipedia page dedicated to predictions of religious (mostly “Christian”) apocalyptic events lists (at the time of writing) more than 150 failed predictions, with a further eight upcoming between 2019 and 2280. Unsurprisingly, since the rise of dispensationalism in the 1830s, doomsday prophecies have increased exponentially. (Wikipedia lists sixty apocalyptic prophecies between 66 and 1814—a span of 1,748 years—and more than ninety between 1836 and 2018—a span of 182 years.) This gives sceptics plenty to deride. And yet a small prophecy like Zephaniah reminds us that God’s word always comes to pass. If Zephaniah’s temporal prophecy of judgement came to pass, we can be sure that the Bible’s prophecies of final judgement will come to pass—despite the failed predictions of a multitude of false prophets. Zephaniah points us to at least three truths.
First, Zephaniah reminds us of the reality of final judgement. He was used by God to predict a temporal judgement upon Judah in the sixth century BC, but as we consider the historical fulfilment of his prophecies, our minds must go to the very real prophecies of future judgement. Jesus spoke of a time when he will raise all the dead to stand before him. Some will be resurrected to life, and others to judgement (John 5:28–29). Paul wrote of a time when Jesus will be “revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus” (2 Thessalonians 1:5–10). Again, he wrote, “We must all appear before the judgement seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil” (2 Corinthians 5:10). Revelation 20:11–15 likewise speaks to the reality of final judgement and portrays the second death as a lake of fire.
Second, Zephaniah points us to the certainty of final judgement. The Bible’s prophecies of final judgement are certain and must be faced. “The LORD has spoken” (Zephaniah 3:20, CSB). Sceptics may mock failed predictions of false prophets, but they cannot change the certainty of the approaching day of judgement coming, in which everyone will give account to the God of the Bible. At that time, “every mouth [will] be stopped, and the whole world [will] be held accountable to God” (Romans 3:19).
Third, Zephaniah points us to the irreversibility of final judgement. Speaking of the Babylonian judgement against Judah, Yahweh said through Zephaniah, “I will utterly sweep everything from the face of the earth…. I will sweep away man and beast; I will sweep away the birds of the heavens and the fish of the sea, and the rubble with the wicked. I will cut off mankind from the face of the earth” (1:2–3). There would be no escape from the judgement to come. It would be final. Similarly, the final judgement of Jesus Christ is, well, final.Those who do not bow the knee to Christ face “eternal punishment” (Matthew 25:46) and “eternal destruction” (2 Thessalonians 1:9). Their fate is the second, irreversible death.
These are eternal realities with which we must come to grips. The world may mock the failed predictions of false prophets, but their mockery does not change the reality of what will one day happen. As Christians, even as we distance ourselves, in obedience to Deuteronomy 18, from self-appointed prophets, we must continue to affirm the reality of future, final judgement, and point people to Jesus Christ, who alone can redeem from God’s eternal punishment.