02 November 2011

Gary Kent and the "Signs of Prophecy"

On Sunday, I went to the first two sessions of a series on Biblical interpretation and prophecy.  The speaker, Gary Kent, spoke for several hours about the nature of prophecy, why we should trust the Bible's vision of the future, and how he interpreted that vision.  It was, from first to last, a perfect iteration of mainstream Christian thinking.  Kent and his lectures were intelligent, pleasant, funny, and deeply flawed.  This is my (lengthy) exposition of what I saw and heard.

The lecture series was Gary Kent's "Secrets of Prophecy," produced in partnership with It Is Written Oceania television, where Kent is a presenter, and Signs of the Times Magazine, a Christian magazine to which he contributes.  Touring through three cities, Kent delivers the first two lectures in the series, while local affiliates meet to discuss the ten successive other lectures.  These first two lectures that I saw were called "2012: Countdown to Armageddon" and "Signs That Jesus Is Coming Soon."

The venue for the Dunedin lectures was an auditorium at Otago University's College of Education.  What looked to be nearly sixty people showed up for the talks - a smiling and polite mix of all sorts of folks.  Volunteers handed out pamphlets at the front and provided cool jugs of lemon water for refreshment.  And after a few screeching moments of technical difficulty with the wireless microphone, things got underway shortly after 2:30.

Malcom Eastwick, the pastor of Dunedin's Seventh Day Adventist church, introduced Gary Kent to the crowd.  Kent shook Eastwick's hand with one hand and fiddled with the knobs on his microphone with the other, smiling broadly.

A neat and charismatic preacher, Kent looks and sounds like a man accustomed to crowds and instruction.  As he would explain, he had an unusual background: born in Wellington, Kent moved with his parents at the age of seven to South Africa, and when he was just out of his teens went back to his parents' native Australia.  As he pleasantly joked, he had plenty of teams to root for in the Rugby World Cup.  These days he is based in Sydney, where he lives with his wife Robin and their four children.

Kent's expertise would soon become apparent.  He has a broad knowledge of history, and - more importantly for his purposes - was clever at finding narratives within the scattering of past events.  He was not angry or hateful at the elements of the world to which his faith opposes him.  I want to emphasize this: while I believe he is wrong, I also believe he is motivated only by the best intentions. But he is wrong.

2012: Countdown to Armageddon

The first lecture, "2012: Countdown to Armageddon," was focused on the validity of the Bible prophecies.  He began by talking about the benefits of prophecy itself, and a few items of recent history (such as Harold Camping's much-publicized predictions of doomsday).

A lot of people are talking about what's going on? What's happening? What does this mean? ...
Imagine how different life would be if you were able to know the future. ... Right down through history, ancient civilizations have endeavored to... discover what the future holds in store, in an effort to gain an edge over fate.
As Kent spoke, a slide presentation played behind him, prompted along by a clicker in his hand.  He paced and turned and gestured - a dynamic speaker.  While the slides were mostly unremarkable, a few of them were surprisingly misspelled.  One example I noted was, "in n iffort ot gain an edge."

After a few examples of recent prophecies that had failed to come true, Kent began a long series of other amusingly poor predictions.  There was a pattern: he'd present a contemporary quote that was obviously wrong, and then he'd quote a huge number to illustrate just how wrong the quote was.  For instance, his first example was a bank manager's skepticism of Henry Ford's efforts with the automobile, which the banker called "just a fad."  Then Kent told us with glee that there were now 600 million cars in the world.  The point, Kent said, was that "[p]redicting the future can be risky, even for experts."  Other examples were Lord Kelvin's disbelief in the possibility of flight, the president of IBM's conception of the future of computers, and so on with television, the Beatles, the iPod, and Twitter.

His point was well-taken, if a little lengthy.  His slow speech, repetition, and a preacher's emphatic pauses turned a five-minute assertion into a half-hour repetition.  But it made sense, and was correct.  It is very difficult to accurately and clearly tell the future.  Modern prognosticators are either spectacularly wrong, like Harold Camping, or spectacularly vague, like "trend forecaster" Gerald Celente.

After speaking about the Maya for a time, and their prediction about the end of the world in the Dresden Codex, Kent got to the point.

If you made a prediction, I'd check your credibility - what are your credentials?
I'd want evidence - proof - that you can accurately predict the future.
I'd want to see your track record. ...
What if we could find a string of prophecies that do have a track record? What if we could examine predictions that go back through centuries of history?
Now we'd get the real meat of his argument.  Gary Kent was going to prove to us that the Bible had made prophecies of the future, and those prophecies had come true.

There are over 1000 predictions or prophecies in the Bible, and they were right every time.
According to Kent, Ezekiel 30:13 ("Thus says the Lord GOD: "I will destroy the idols and put an end to the images in Memphis; there shall no longer be a prince from the land of Egypt; so I will put fear in the land of Egypt.") makes two predictions about the future that came true: that there would be no more Egyptian sovereigns and that all the idols of Memphis would be smashed.  These predictions, he says, did come true.  The Ptolemies, a Greek dynasty, took power in Egypt after Ezekiel made this prediction, and Egypt has not had an Egyptian prince since then.  Further, the idols of Memphis are all smashed and their gods are overthrown.  Ezekiel's predictions, Kent said, wagging an emphatic finger, were correct.

Let's give credit where it is due: Kent is perfectly correct.  The Egyptian line of the pharaohs ended, and Macedonian Greeks ruled it as the last dynasty until its annexation by Rome.  Further, Memphis is very much a ruin these days - the idols are all smashed.

It's important, however, to have perspective.  Ezekiel was written around 600 B.C.E.  The rule of the pharaohs didn't end for three hundred years after Ezekiel's prediction, and the temple-city of Memphis didn't even begin to decline until that time. Ezekiel 30:3 says that the time is "soon" and the "day is near" - can the eventual decline of a civilization, hundreds of years later, really be said to be a fulfillment of prophecy?  If this is the case, then am I not just as good of a prophet when I now declare that Beijing will be burnt to a cinder - given sufficient time, something's going to happen to Beijing, even if takes billions of years for our planet to be swallowed up by the sun.

It's even more important to read Ezekiel!  That chapter doesn't just make these two predictions, it makes dozens of very specific predictions, many of which were completely wrong.  For example, Ezekiel 30:10-11 says "I will put an end to the wealth of Egypt, by the hand of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon. He and his people with him, the most ruthless of nations, shall be brought in to destroy the land."  And while it's true that Nebuchadnezzar went on a rampage across the ancient world in Ezekiel's time, his attack on Egypt was repulsed by the Pharaoh Amasis II.  The repeated promises that Babylon will conquer Egypt turned out to be completely wrong - it was Persia that would conquer Egypt.

This should not give us confidence in the Bible's prophetic powers.  By Gary Kent's own standards, we can look at Ezekiel's track record and conclude that it is not much more reliable than faulty predictions about the future of automobiles.

His next bit of evidence was Isaiah 19:7 ("The bulrushes by the Nile, by the edge of the Nile and all the sown fields by the Nile will become dry, be driven away, and be no more."), which Kent claims is a prophecy about the extinction of the papyrus reed from the banks of the Nile.  Here we run into immediate problems: the bulrushes and reeds of the Nile are still very much in evidence.  Kent didn't quote the part about the fields next to the Nile becoming dry - need I mention that's not the case, either?

At this point, Kent was 0 for 2.  Nonetheless, he was very persuasive in his selections and arguments.

He would go on to argue that Ezekiel 26:3-16 predicts the fall of Tyre.  This did occur, of course, but again it was not at Nebuchadnezzar's hands, as predicted in Ezekiel.  After a thirteen-year siege, Nebuchadnezzar accepted a truce and left Tyre, which would only fall when Alexander the Great attacked it, later.

It was at this point that the lecture ended, with Kent making a final grand summation of the evidence he had presented, and concluding with a pleasant smile that the Bible had made many such predictions that came true, and so we could trust it as a reliable guide to the future.

During the twenty-minute break, I waited until Pastor Kent had a moment.  We spoke briefly about Florida, where I'm from.  I wanted to push back against some of what he had been saying, but without being rude, so I phrased my question as an attempt to clarify, politely asking about the Tyre example and pointing out that the Biblical prediction seems to have clearly stated something different than what eventually occurred.  Kent listened and nodded, and said that he had limited time in which to make his argument, so he couldn't get too detailed on things like that.  "I'm just here to show people that this evidence exists and is out there," he said.  In response to my question, though, he pointed me to Evidence That Demands a Verdict by Josh McDowell.

Signs That Jesus Is Coming Soon

Having established - in the eyes of many of the audience, anyway - that the Bible is an accurate source of prophecy, Gary Kent turned now to the New Testament.  He began this second session by describing some of the problems in the world.
7 billion people on Earth now. ...  and each person has an impact on the planet's environment. ... To provide land and food for all of these people we are clearing our forests at the rate of one and a half football fields per second. ... The results [of this population growth]: widespread disease, the emergence of new strains of disease, food and water shortages, poor harvests, violent and destructive storms caused by climate change.
Again, he begins from a solid foundation.  Things are pretty screwed up.

In His Word the Bible, He clearly reveals that the world will not end in fire or ice, in a bang or a whimper, nor in terrorism or an asteroid collision.
If you really want to know about the future and the destiny of the world, look at what God says. The Bible contains a lot of information about the final destiny of our world. The Bible indicates that it will conclude with the return of Jesus Christ to this earth, and that His coming will bring an end to our world as we know it.
Whenever I hear a prediction like this, my immediate thought is, "Jesus is coming to kill us all!  We have to stop him before he destroys the world!"

Anyway, according to Kent, Jesus gave a list of signs to expect that would signal the end of the world.  These signs are found in Matthew 24.  Kent calls this chapter a "schedule of events," and proceeds to break it down.

Matthew 24:2 is the first sign.  Jesus, looking at all the temple buildings, tells the apostles, “Do you not see all these things? Assuredly, I say to you, not one stone shall be left here upon another, that shall not be thrown down.”  This occurrence would begin a time of tribulation and great sorrow on the earth.

Excitedly, Kent waved at the screen, where a painting of the sacking of Jerusalem by the Romans was displayed.  "Not a stone," he declared.  "Not one stone!"

I have to admit, I was surprised by this.  It beggared belief that Pastor Kent was not aware of the Wailing Wall, the original western wall of the Temple and its last remnant after the Romans.  Yet here he was, claiming that no stone remained on another of the Temple.  If you think Jesus was speaking literally, then aren't you forced to conclude he was wrong, since there's a wall still standing?

Regardless, in Kent's view, the "time of tribulation" began with the destruction of the Temple, ending only a few hundred years ago with another series of signs.  I won't get into those signs, except to note that they are all natural disasters, and Kent appears to have arbitrarily selected a few disasters that suit him.  The great earthquake, for example, that he says is predicted in Jesus' words in this chapter (it isn't; Jesus speaks of "earthquakes in various places") was the 1755 Lisbon earthquake.  It's arbitrary and silly.

Kent was starting to go off the rails.  But here's where it got weird.

Next, Kent, his thick mane of hair bobbing as he nodded at the crowd, explained that the "false Christs" that Jesus warns his apostles about indicate cult groups, the new age movement, and the occult.  He doesn't offer any real evidence or reasoning for this claim, but far more interesting was his selection of "occult" phenomena in our world today.

Kent clicked forward in his presentation, and the slide declared the list of "occult" television shows and movies: Charmed, Ghost Whisperer, Smallville, Vampire Diaries, Supernatural, Bones, X-Files, Harry Potter, Twilight, Ghost, City of Angels, The Sixth Sense, Meet Joe Black, I Am Legend, Avatar, and Super 8. All of these, the audience was told, "promote the occult and spiritualism."

A lot of these make sense, if you're thinking that way.  But Smallville?  That's about Superman!  Is any fantasy an example of the occult?  And Super 8?  I haven't seen it, but I'm pretty sure it's about a giant monster.  And the inclusion of Bones just plain does not make sense.  What does Jesus have against forensics?

Anyway, these are all evidence of the end times, because of the prevalence of the occult.  Additional evidence comes in the form of the numerous natural disasters and wars plaguing the world.  This last is not something that's arguable, because it's a fairly subjective argument: the world is worse than it was in ancient days.  That's hard to prove or disprove.  Does the existence of machine guns outweigh the existence of antibiotics?  Does global warming counterbalance a doubled life expectancy?

All of nature seems out of control. The earthquakes, storms, floods, cyclones, tsunamis, unusual weather patterns shout at us that something out of the ordinary is going on. ... Friends, we are living in the end times.
With time running out on this presentation, Gary Kent grew quiet, and finally mentioned the social evils of our sinful world.  Divorce, "devaluation of marriage" (a dog whistle for gay marriage), and homosexuality are all further evidence of the end times, and our urgent need for salvation.

Kent's final point was one of the most interesting.  He said that the spread of the Bible and the Gospel all around the world - to all the peoples of the planet - was to allow everyone to make their own choice before Jesus arrives.  No one, Kent explained, would be left uninformed.

I won't go into the problems posed by this statement (it seems to neglect the pagan dead) but I would note that this final assertion argues for action.  Christian evangelists, it seems, are trying to destroy the world by spreading the Gospel to all peoples.  They must be stopped.

Gary Kent, at least, wound down with another few jokes and chuckles.  They collected comment cards and distributed more pamphlets.  The pamphlets were standard fare - a fake health warning sponsored by the Seventh Day Adventists, who have their own dietary regime; a letter asking for money; a notice for a home study course on prayer.

My friends and I left the seminar feeling a little cheated - there was a lot of chaff for precious little wheat.  Gary Kent and his message was not offensive or crazy, it was just wrong.  The evidence was selective, flimsy, and nonsensical.  And yet, Kent was a great speaker with a slick set of arguments, and I don't doubt that many people walked out of there completely convinced and ready to come to the next set of lectures.  I am only comforted by the fact that Kent is not profiting by his message - he might be misleading the gullible, but it's not for personal gain.

So there you have it.  Gary Kent's "Secrets of Prophecy" is intelligent, pleasant, and funny.  And deeply flawed.

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