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Earthquakes: Are They Signs of the End?
by Gary DeMar
The Asian quake that hit off the Indonesian island of Sumatra on December 26, 2004, was the world's fifth-largest since 1900 and the biggest since a 9.2 quake hit Prince William Sound Alaska in 1964. The death toll of more than 11,000 in six countries will undoubtedly rise. Prophecy writers are sure to point to this mega-quake as the sign that the “rapture” is near. They will point to Jesus’ words in the Olivet Discourse that “in various places there will be famines and earthquakes” (Matt. 24:7). How can earthquakes be a sign of the end when devastating earthquakes, even greater than this most recent one, have been recorded for thousands of years? Today's prophecy “experts” will argue that it’s the increase and magnitude of modern earthquakes that make them significant for determining that we are living in the last days. “The Lord obviously meant earthquakes of unprecedented seismological dimension.”1
Jesus simply says that "in various places there will be famines and earthquakes" (24:7). He says nothing about an increase in their number. Luke writes, "there will be great earthquakes" (Luke 2:11). Jesus was describing signs that led up to the destruction of the temple that would take place before that first-century generation passed away (Matt. 24:33-34). Like famines (Acts 11:28), “great earthquakes” are part of the biblical historical record. Two earthquakes are mentioned in Matthew--when Jesus was crucified (27:54) and when the angel came down to roll the stone away from the tomb where Jesus was buried (28:2). This second earthquake is said to have been "severe." Acts records "a great earthquake" that shook "the foundations of the prison house" (Acts 16:26). These earthquakes occurred before the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70.
Secular writers describing the period support the biblical record: “And as to earthquakes, many are mentioned by writers during a period just previous to 70 A.D. There were earthquakes in Crete, Smyrna, Miletus, Chios, Samos, Laodicea, Hierapolis, Colosse, Campania, Rome, and Judea. It is interesting to note that the city of Pompeii was much damaged by an earthquake occurring on February 5, 63 A.D."2 The number of earthquakes that were recorded during that first-century generation is staggering given the shortness of the time period. Josephus describes an earthquake in Judea of such magnitude “that the constitution of the universe was confounded for the destruction of men,”3 the same language that is being used to describe this most recent earthquake. He goes on to write that this earthquake was "no common" calamity, indicating that God Himself had brought it about for a special purpose. One commentator writes: "Perhaps no period in the world's history has ever been so marked by these convulsions as that which intervenes between the Crucifixion and the destruction of Jerusalem."4 Since the generation between A.D. 30 and 70 is past, there is no reason to attach prophetic significance to earthquakes in our day as a fulfillment of Matthew 24:7. They are not signs of the imminency of Jesus' return in our generation. But they were a prelude to the coming of Jesus in judgment upon Jerusalem in the generation of the apostles.
Then there’s the record of recent history. On June 15, 1896, the Sanriku tsunami struck Japan without warning. A wave estimated at more than 70 feet high hit a crowd gathered to celebrate a religious festival, killing more than 26,000 people. On November 1, 1775, the great Lisbon earthquake generated a wave up to 20-feet high that struck coastal Portugal, Spain, and Morocco. With an estimated population of 275,000, Lisbon was, in 1755, one of the largest cities in Europe. It was one of the most destructive and deadly earthquakes in history, killing over 100,000 people. The quake was followed by a tsunami and fire, resulting in the near total destruction of Lisbon.
Today’s reported earthquakes are not unique, as proven by a thorough study of the Bible and the historical record outside the Bible. The greatest student of earthquakes was a Frenchman, Count F. Montessus de Ballore. From 1885 to 1922 he devoted his time to studying and cataloging earthquakes and came to an astonishing conclusion. He cataloged 171,434 earthquakes from the earliest historic times! “The manuscript is stored in the library of the Geographical Society in Paris, where it occupies 26 meters (over 84 feet) of bookshelves.”5 As much as we might want to believe that we are the “Rapture Generation,” there is no statistical or biblical evidence to support such a contention.
1. William T. James, “Daniel’s Last-Days Flood," Foreshadows of Wrath and Redemption, William T. James, gen. ed. (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 1999), 94.
2. Marcellus Kik, Matthew Twenty-Four: An Exposition (Philadelphia, PA: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1948), 35.
3. Quoted in Thomas Scott, The Holy Bible Containing the Old and New Testaments, According to the Authorized Version; with Explanatory Notes, Practical Observations, and Copious Marginal References, 3 vols. (New York: Collins and Hannay, 1832), 3:108.
4. Edward Hayes Plumptre, “The Gospel According to St. Matthew,” Ellicott’s Commentary on the Whole Bible, ed. Charles John Ellicott, 8 vols. (London: Cassell and Company, 1897), 6:146.
5. Carl Olof Jonsson and Wolfgang Herbst, The "Sign" of the Last Days.When? (Atlanta, GA: Commentary Press, 1987), 78.