“The house I was in shook with such violence that the upper stories immediately fell . . . Everything was thrown out of its place. . . I expected nothing less than to be soon crushed to death, as the walls continued rocking. . . Large stones fell on every side from the cracks.” A description of the Oklahoma earthquake that hit last weekend? Not at all. The above eye‑witness account is a description of the Lisbon earthquake of 1755. Estimates of the death toll from that disaster range from about 15,000 to more than 75,000.
As you might guess, prophetic prognosticators in 1755 claimed that the end was near. Some even predicted that the first anniversary of the earthquake would bring a new catastrophe.
The claim is being made by some that the Oklahoma earthquake is a record breaker and that makes it unique. How do they know? Statistics only go back 200 years. Today we have sophisticated seismic measuring devices that can measure even the slightest tremor. Actually, the region is pretty earthquake prone, beginning with “the great earthquakes in the New Madrid, Mo., region in 1811–1812.”
Worldwide earthquakes have a long history. Persia experienced an earthquake in 806 that killed 300,000. An earthquake devastated China’s densely populated Shenshi Province in 1556, killing an estimated 830,000 people in one of the worst quake disasters ever recorded. In 1703 an earthquake killed nearly 200,000 people in Tokyo, Japan. Three hundred thousand were killed in an earthquake in Calcutta, India, in 1737. Many more accounts of earthquakes could be given.
The greatest student of earthquakes was Frenchman Count F. de Montessus de Ballore (1851–1923). From 1885 to 1922 he devoted his time to studying and cataloging earthquakes. He was able to substantiate 171,434 earthquakes in his published work La Géographie Séismologique: Les Tremblements De Terre ((F. de Montessus de Ballore, La Géographie Séismologique: Les Tremblements De Terre (Paris: Armand Colin, 1906).)). A large catalogue of his findings is “stored in the library of the Geographical Society in Paris, occupies 26 metres of bookshelves and contains about 140,000 entries.”1
Some maintain that the frequency of earthquakes has increased. According to the Global Seismology and Geomagnetism On‑line Information System, 9,150 earthquakes of 4.9 or less on the Richter scale occur every day world‑wide. Russell Chandler writes in Doomsday that “four of the eleven strongest quakes in the United States this century occurred in a single year — 1992. According to the United States Geological Survey of the Department of Interior, six — more than half — happened in the last three years (October 1989–July 1992). Further, ten out of the eleven were in California (Anchorage being the exception).” While these statistics might seem significant, in terms of history they offer nothing that is unique. For example, a series of earthquakes that shattered the Eastern Roman Empire began on January 26, 447, and lasted for four months. Historian E.A. Thompson writes that they were “the worst in its history. Entire villages were swallowed up and countless disasters occurred both on land and sea.”
John Milne, the inventor of the first proper seismograph in 1880 and described as “the father of seismology,” compiled a list of 4,151 destructive earthquakes between the years A.D. 7 and A.D. 1899. Earthquakes cease to be meaningful as signs when they are not confined to a particular period of time relevant to prophecy. Moreover, the words of Jesus in Matthew 24:7 say nothing about an increase in their magnitude or frequency. The text simply states that “in various places there will be famines and earthquakes,” a prophecy that was fulfilled in the first century. Luke writes in the twenty-first chapter of his gospel that will be “great earthquakes” (Luke 21:11). He later records one in the sixteenth chapter of the book of Acts: “suddenly there came a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison house were shaken” (Acts 16:26). The gospel accounts tell a similar story (Matt. 27:51; 28:2).
The first-century historian Tacitus describes conditions in Rome around AD 50: “This year witnessed many prodigies signs or omens . . . including repeated earthquakes.” Josephus recounts that a mega earthquake in Judea was so powerful that “the constitution of the universe was confounded for the destruction of men.” He also wrote that earthquakes were “a common calamity” and pointed out that God Himself had brought them about for a special purpose. A severe earthquake hit the Roman city of Pompeii on February 5 in AD 62. You can visit the remnants of the city today.
Maybe God is sending middle-America a message. There is work to be done in this nation. We can’t sit back and hope things will get better. We must act. In 1750, John Wesley wrote of “The Cause and Cure of Earthquakes”:
Of all the judgments which the righteous God inflicts on sinners here, the most dreadful and destructive is an earthquake. This he has lately brought on our part of the earth, and thereby alarmed our fears, and bid us “prepare to meet our God!” The shocks which have been felt in divers places, since that which made this city tremble, may convince us that the danger is not over, and ought to keep us still in awe; seeing “his anger is not turned away, but his hand is stretched out still,” Isa. x, 4.2
Wesley’s assessment of earthquakes as a warning is quite different from saying that such events should be tied to texts that indicate that the end is near. We finally got Harold Camping to be quiet. Now it’s time that other prophecy pundits do the same.
In 1756, Gilbert Tennent observed that earthquakes were indicators that “some extraordinary Revolutions [might] be near at Hand.” Historian James West Davidson writes:
Ministers in 1755 [when the Lisbon earthquake struck] as well as 1727 [when the New England earthquake hit], New Light as well as Old, accepted the prevailing assumptions that earthquakes were naturally caused, that they were inescapably meant as moral judgments, and that (most important) they were compatible with other moral judgments which God accomplished by using human instruments. They saw natural disasters as one proper part of the climax of history, not because of a preference for any specific millennial chronologies (once again a wide range of opinion appeared on that subject), but because catastrophes fell under the more general category of moral judgment, which was a necessary part of ultimate deliverance.3
Pastors need to use their pulpits to rally their people to apply their Christian faith to all of life before it is too late, before we encounter an earthquake of tyranny and oppression.
- See Carl Olof Jonsson and Wolfgang Herbst, The “Sign” of the Last Days. When? (Atlanta, GA: Commentary Press, 1987), 78. [↩]
- John Wesley, “The Cause and Cure of Earthquakes” (1750), Sermons on Several Occasions, 2 vols. (New York: Carlton & Phillips, 1853), 1:506. [↩]
- Davidson, Logic of Millennial Thought, 97. [↩]
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