Great Controversy Errors Investigated: Signs of the End
By Dirk Anderson
The Bible describes several distinct signs that will appear prior to Christ's return:
The sun shall be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars of heaven shall fall, and the powers that are in heaven shall be shaken. And then shall they see the Son of man coming in the clouds with great power and glory (Mark 13:24-26).
Ellen White: These signs fulfilled in 1755, 1780, 1833
Ellen White claimed these signs have already been fulfilled:
"These signs were witnessed before the opening of the nineteenth century. In fulfillment of this prophecy there occurred, in the year 1755, the most terrible earthquake that has ever been recorded." (Great Controversy, p. 304)
Were these three events really a fulfillment of prophecy? Or were they just naturally occurring events with no special significance? Let us examine the evidence below.
The Lisbon Earthquake of 1755
Mrs. White claimed this earthquake was "the most terrible earthquake that has ever been recorded."
In terms of destructive power, the Lisbon earthquake was neither the strongest nor the most destructive earthquake in history. Following is a list of the most destructive earthquakes in history:
It is obvious that the Lisbon earthquake was not "the most terrible earthquake that has ever been recorded." The most terrible earthquake was in China in 1556, which killed nearly twelve times as many people as the Lisbon earthquake. If one were to pick any earthquake on the above list as a sign of the end, the most likely candidate might be the 2004 earthquake and tsunami in Sumatra, Indonesia, which killed nearly 300,000 people. Not only did the Sumatra earthquake kill four times as many as the Lisbon earthquake, but it occurred 249 years closer to the return of Christ!
Not only was the Lisbon earthquake not as destructive as other earthquakes, it was also less powerful. The Lisbon earthquake has been estimated to be magnitude 8.7. Following is a list of eight earthquakes of equal or greater magnitude since 1900:
The 1960 earthquake in Chile was more than seven times more powerful than the Lisbon earthquake. This is yet another evidence that the Lisbon earthquake was neither the most powerful nor the most destructive earthquake in history.
How could an earthquake that occurred over a quarter of a millennium ago be a sign of Christ's soon return? Not only is it too far in the past to be a sign of the end, but it was less powerful and less devastating than many other earthquakes.
The Dark Day of 1780
Mrs. White makes the following claim about the dark day on May 19, 1780: "No period of darkness of equal density, extent, and duration, has ever been recorded".
Unlike earthquakes, dark days have not been measured for intensity, extent and duration throughout history. It is difficult to ascertain the accuracy of Mrs. White's claim that there has not been a darker day since the supernatural darkness God brought upon the Egyptians during the time of Moses. However, we do know what caused the dark day of 1780. It was caused by smoke from huge forest fires burning in the New England states combined with a dark storm front passing through the area. The darkness was limited primarily to the north-eastern area of the United States. Some within Adventism have raised the question as to whether this localized event was actually a fulfillment of the global prophecy of Revelation 6.
There have been a number of "dark days" throughout history caused by smoke, storms, fog, sand or volcanic ash in the air. A few historical examples from The Gallery of Natural Phenomena:
Any or all of these events were just as impressive as the smoke event in New England in 1780, and most of them occurred much sooner to the return of Christ.
The Meteor Shower of 1833
Mrs. White describes the meteor shower of November 13, 1833 as "the most extensive and wonderful display of falling stars which has ever been recorded".
The 1833 meteor shower was an impressive event. In 1878 the historian R. M. Devens wrote:
"During the three hours of its continuance the day of judgment was believed to be only waiting for sunrise, and, long after the shower had ceased, the morbid and superstitious still were impressed with the idea that the final day was at least only a week ahead. Impromptu meetings for prayer were held in many places, and many other scenes of religious devotion, or terror, or abandonment of worldly affairs, transpired, under the influence of fear occasioned by so sudden and awful a display."
There is no denying that the 1833 shower was intense, and it had an effect upon some people. The question is whether the claim that the 1833 shower was the most extensive ever recorded is valid.
In 1863, a Yale professor named Hubert Anson Newton identified the 1833 shower as being part of a recurring pattern of meteor showers that visited the earth about every 33 to 34 years. Newton discovered that the Leonid showers began as early as 585 AD. He succeeded in tracing accounts of the Leonids for almost a thousand years. Particularly impressive displays were found to have taken place in 1533, 1366, 1202, 1037, 967, 934, and 902.
34 years prior to 1833, on November 12, 1799, Prussian scientist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt from his camp in Cumanã, Venezuela described the Leonid shower:
"no part of the sky so large as twice the Moon's diameter not filled each instant by meteors."
An observer in Florida that same night noted that the meteors were "at any one instant as numerous as the stars," while at Iserstadt, Germany, "bright streaks and flashes" were seen even though day had already broken.
Humboldt inquired among the South American natives and discovered that in 1766 a similar "rain of stars" had also been seen.
In 1966 the Leonids returned with a display that rivaled the displays of 1799 and 1833. On the night of November 17th, 1966, observers in Arizona reported rates as high as 2400 per minute, or 144,000 per hour! These reported rates surpass the highest reported rates observed in 1833 (100,000/hour).
If the Leonid meteor showers are indeed a fulfillment of Bible prophecy, then one would have to conclude that it was the 1966 shower--not the 1833 shower--that fulfilled prophecy. Not only was the 1966 shower of equal or greater intensity, but it was also 133 years closer to the return of Christ.
If the events of 1755, 1780, and 1833 were indeed fulfillments of prophecy, several questions are raised:
1. Why didn't the signs produce the effect described in the Bible?
Revelation 6:15-16 describes the people who witness the signs as being panic-stricken. These people, including kings and leaders of nations, are described as running to the mountains, hiding in dens, and asking for the mountains to fall on them. There is no evidence that the signs of 1755, 1780, and 1833 produced this effect.
2. Why were the signs localized when the Bible seems to indicate a global scale?
While the signs described in the Bible appear to be global events, the three signs pointed out by Ellen White were on a seemingly smaller, localized scale. The Lisbon earthquake was limited to the Iberian peninsula and Northern Africa. The dark day was seen primarily in the north-eastern United States. The Leonid meteor shower was perhaps the most widespread event, yet even it was seen only in the Western Hemisphere.
3. Why didn't those who witnessed the signs see the return of Christ?
Mark 13:24-26 seems to indicate that those who see the signs of Christ's return will also witness His return:
Then shall they [the ones who witnessed the signs] see the Son of man coming in the clouds with great power and glory. Mark. 13:26
None of those who witnessed any of the signs mentioned by Ellen White are alive today. The 1755 earthquake occurred over 260 years ago. How could it be a sign of Christ's imminent return? Furthermore, Revelation 6:12-14 seems to indicate the signs will follow each other in fairly rapid succession. It appears that the same people who witness the earthquake, also witness the darkness and the stars falling. Given the life expectancies of the era, it is unlikely that anyone old enough to have witnessed and remembered the Lisbon earthquake in Portugal in 1755 was still alive 78 years later in 1833 to witness the Leonid meteor shower in North America. Furthermore, everyone who witnessed these "signs" died long ago. What good are "signs of the end" if those signs are not witnessed by the people living near the time of the end?
These unanswered questions lead to the conclusion that the events of 1755, 1780, and 1833 could not possibly be the signs of the end described in Revelation 6:12-14.
Truth or Fables, "Signs in Heaven" by Robert K. Sanders
Sky and Telescope Magazine "The Leonids, King of the Meteor Showers", by Joe Rao, 1998.