Sunday, June 04, 2023

The Second Coming of Christ in 2060? Isaac Newton and the Obscurity of Biblical Eschatology

On February 22, 2003, the London Daily Telegraph published a front-page story entitled "Newton Set 2060 for End of the World."  It was reported that a Canadian academic, Stephen Snobelen, had studied the thousands of pages of Isaac Newton's unpublished papers on the Bible held by a library in Jerusalem, and Snobelen had discovered that Newton had read the biblical books of Daniel and Revelation as prophesizing the end of the world--or at least the Second Coming of Christ--in the year 2060.  This story created an international sensation as newspapers and television news organizations around the world reported that Newton had decoded from the Bible when the world would end--and it was only 57 years away.  

Snobelen has written a report on this incident as showing how surprised people were to discover that Newton the great modern scientist--perhaps even the founder of modern science--was also an apocalyptic reader of the Bible.  Snobelen has also explained the global interest in this story as aroused by its coming in the spring of 2003, when the United States and its allies were preparing to invade Iraq, which is the country that includes the area that was once ancient Babylon, which is prominent in Biblical Prophecy (the "Whore of Babylon").  Some people wondered whether the world was headed to the final battle--Armageddon. 

For me, this shows how Newton was one of the first of a long line of modern scientists who have been Biblical religious believers, who have seen their scientific study of the Book of Nature and their religious study of the Book of Scripture as two ways to study the One Truth of God as the Author of both books.  This includes Christian scientists such as Francis Collins, Deborah Haarsma, Owen Gingerich, and John Polkinghorne.  (I have written previously about this "two books" tradition.)   But Newton's reading of the Bible also shows the failure of Biblical Revelation to convey a message that is authoritative, clear, and reliable--particularly, in its eschatology.  And this renders the "two books" conception of truth implausible. 

Newton's theological writings that were never published in his lifetime were only recently made easily accessible through the online "Newton Project" website.  Of this massive material--over four million words--only Newton's Observations upon the Prophecies of Daniel and the Apocalypse of St. John had been published in 1733, five years after Newton's death in 1727.  As Robert Iliffe (the first General Editor of the "Newton Project" at Oxford University) has explained, Newton kept these theological writings secret during his lifetime because they show that he was a Christian heretic in denying the orthodox Christian doctrine of the Trinity:  he believed that while Jesus was divine, he was not God.  He thus took the side of Arius against Athanasius in denying the Athanasian Creed that the three persons of the Trinity--Father, Son, and Holy Spirit--are "the same substance" (homoousion), and that no one who denies this can win eternal salvation.  Since the Church of England embraced the Athanasian Creed, Newton could not have publicly denied it without persecution.  He could not have had a professional career at Cambridge University, the Mint, or the Royal Society.  Iliffe has elaborated his account of Newton's secret religious life in Priest of Nature: The Religious Worlds of Isaac Newton (Oxford University Press, 2017).

The importance of the Athanasian doctrine of the Trinity for orthodox Christianity is celebrated today--June 4, 2023--in all of the Western liturgical churches as Trinity Sunday, which is the Sunday following Pentecost and eight weeks after Easter Sunday.  This is one of the few days in the Christian liturgical calendar devoted to a doctrine.

Newton's scorn for the doctrine of the Trinity was crucial for his interpretation of Biblical eschatological prophecy in the books of Daniel and Revelation.  Newton believed that the true religion of the early Christians was not trinitarian because while they worshipped Jesus as the Messiah, they saw Jesus as subordinate to God, and God alone was to be worshipped as the supreme God.  But then when the Catholic Church adopted the Athanasian doctrine of the Trinity and imposed this false doctrine on all Christians, this began the apostasy of the Trinitarian Church that is identified in Biblical prophecy as "Babylon."  The time of the reign of Babylon is identified in the Bible as 1260 days (Daniel 12:11, Revelation 11:3, 12:6, 13:5).  But since Newton interprets this symbolically as one day equaling one year, then Babylon's reign will last 1260 years.  After the fall of Babylon and the battle of Armageddon, Christ will return to Earth to restore the true Christian Church and reign with the saints on Earth for a thousand years (the Millenium) (Revelation 20:1-6).  After that, will come the final Resurrection and Judgment of all humanity, with eternal bliss for the saved and eternal suffering for the condemned.

Consequently, once Newton has identified the first year of the Babylonian apostasy of the Church, determining the date of the Second Coming of Christ is a simple matter of arithmetic--adding 1260 years.  Newton decided on 800 A.D. as the beginning of the apostate Church, because that was the year Charlemagne was crowned emperor of Rome in the west by Pope Leo III in Rome, which established the supremacy of the corrupt Trinitarian Church.  Newton could then see that 2060 would be the date for Christ returning to Earth to establish his thousand-year reign.

The date 2060 appears twice in Newton's unpublished writings.  At the "Newton Project," you can find these two passages in the online "religious writings" at the "Miscellaneous Drafts and Fragments on Prophecy" (number 75), in the "Fragments on the Rise of the Papacy and Revelation" (number 32, 7.3g), and the "Miscellaneous Historical and Apocalyptic Jottings on Various Scraps of Paper" (number 40, 7.3o).  These passages are also quoted by Stephen Snobelen in his "Statement on the Date 2060."

When the newspapers in 2003 reported that Newton had predicted the "end of the world" coming in 2060, they were mistaken.  The Second Coming of Christ will not be the end of the world strictly speaking, but it will be a transformation of the world under the rule of Christ.  What we might consider the end of the world comes after the Millenium, with the judgment of the dead, and anyone whose name is not in the Book of Life is thrown into an eternally burning lake of fire, while the saved enter the New Jerusalem of Heaven that is a new Eden of perfection (Revelation 20:11-22:5).

Although Newton is meticulously careful in his interpretation of this Biblical teaching, he cannot overcome the fundamental problem for all interpreters of the Bible--its obscurity.  Like all Protestant Christians, Newton assumes the doctrine of the clarity or perspicuity of the Bible.  The Bible is assumed to be clear enough so that any Christian, relying on the Holy Spirit for guidance, can determine the true meaning of the Bible, or at least what is necessary for salvation.  All individual Christians can act as their own priests in interpreting the Bible for themselves.  And yet Catholics recognize the falsity of this doctrine of Biblical perspicuity, because they see that the Bible is obscure, and that's why Catholics rely on their Church's clergy--exercising the teaching function of the Church (the Magisteria)--to maintain the traditional interpretations of the Bible by the Church.  This Catholic doctrine has been well developed by Casey Chalk in The Obscurity of Scripture: Disputing "Sola Scriptura" and the Protestant Notion of Biblical Perspicuity (Steubenville, Ohio: Emmaus Road Publishing, 2023).

Newton implicitly recognized this problem--that the Bible is not clear but obscure--when he admitted  that he was not completely confident about his date of 2060 for the Second Coming, and he saw the need "to put a stop to the rash conjectures of fanciful men who are frequently predicting the time of the end, and by doing so bring the sacred prophesies into discredit as often as their predictions fail."  Newton knew that there had been hundreds of prophetic predictions based on readings of Daniel and Revelation that had failed to come true.  In the Middle Ages, many people predicted the final Antichrist would come in the years 1000, 1184, 1186, 1229, 1345, and 1385.  In Renaissance Florence, Girolamo Savonarola, a Dominican monk, became so popular through his public lectures on the book of Revelation, in which he preached that Florence would become the New Jerusalem, that the people appointed him to become their ruler in 1494.  But then, in 1498, he lost the support of the people, and he was hanged and burned in the public square of Florence. Thomas Muntzer took part in the Peasant's Revolt of 1524 with this expectation that this would bring the Last Judgment.  But after 6,000 peasants were killed, he was captured and executed.  The early Baptist leader Thomas Helwys, persecuted by King James I, believed that he and his followers were experiencing the "great tribulation" predicted in Revelation.

After Newton's death, failed prophecies of the "end times" based on Revelation have continued for 300 years right up to the present.  Most recently, Hal Lindsey's book The Late Great Planet Earth, first published in 1970, told elaborate stories of how the Biblical prophecies of the Second Coming of Christ and the end of the world would be soon fulfilled.  By the end of the 1990s, twenty-eight million copies of Lindsey's book had been sold.

Beginning in 1995, Timothy LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins wrote a series of Left Behind novels based on the idea of "rapture"--that before the Antichrist became the despotic ruler of the world, all the true Christians would be "raptured" (taken up) into Heaven so that they would not suffer the age of tribulation predicted by Daniel and Revelation.  When LaHaye died in 2016, eighty million copies of his novels had been sold.  There had also been a series of popular movies based on his novels.

Beginning in 1992, prophecy scholar Harold Camping began predicting that the rapture would occur on September 6, 1994.  When it didn't happen, he moved the date to September 29, and then to October 11.  Eventually, he gave up on 1994, and confidently set the date at May 21, 2011.  When that day passed, he identified October 21 as the day.  Finally, on October 22, he quit and admitted that he had been wrong.  Many of the people who had believed his predictions sold all their property and left their homes to prepare to be raptured on the designated day. 

One good history of many of these prophecies based on the book of Revelation is Jonathan Kirsch's A History of the End of the World (HarperSanFrancisco, 2006).

Notice how all these prophets have differed from Newton.  They all predicted that the end was coming soon--during their lifetimes.  But Newton thought his predictions would not be fulfilled for a long time after his death--maybe 330 years in the future.  Once again, this indicates the obscurity of the Bible, which means that the Holy Spirit has failed to clearly convey the truth of Revelation.

The book of Revelation repeatedly declares that the prophecies in that book "must shortly come to pass" (1:1, 3; 3:11; 22:7, 12, 20).  Jesus' last words in the Bible are "I am coming soon" (22: 20).  

Here Revelation in the New Testament explicitly differs from Daniel in the Old Testament.  In Daniel (8:26), the angel says to "seal up the vision, for it concerns the distant future."  But in Revelation, the angel says: "Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this scroll, because the time is near" (22:10).

Newton offered no explanation as to why he rejected this expectation of the first Christians that Jesus' Second Coming would occur in their own lifetimes.  But then, of course, he had to do this if he was going to avoid interpreting the Bible's prophecies as falsified by their failure to be fulfilled.

There are other ways to interpret the book of Revelation so that its prophecies are not falsified by subsequent history.  For example, Augustine interpreted the thousand-year reign of Christ and the saints as having already begun with Christ's first coming, because from the first coming of Christ, he could be understood as ruling over a spiritual kingdom--the City of God on Earth--that could later become the City of God in Heaven.  This has been adopted by the Catholic Church as its favored interpretation of Revelation.

But still, the fact that Christians cannot come to any agreement on this shows the failure of the Bible as Revelation.  Either there has been no Revelation, or the Holy Spirit has failed to convey that message of Revelation clearly to all believers.

We must conclude that the Book of Scripture is too obscure to be understood by human beings--perhaps as obscure as the Book of Nature that can only be partially and fallibly understood.

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