Internet Videos, The Second Coming, and Conspiracy Theory

Recently, a YouTube video called “7 Year Tribulation in the SEVENTH Seal Timeline” has become extremely popular. There’s no way to know whether most or all of its more than half million viewers are LDS or not, but it’s targeted directly at Church members. The video uses LDS scripture, cites Church leaders and publications, and makes a case for the Second Coming happening most likely in 2024 but no later than 2033.

Of course, there have been no shortage of millennial prophecies both inside and outside of the Church, but those willing to specify dates with the precision of this video producer are few and far between. There are a number of reasons why people might avoid being so bold as to offer precise dates.

First, theological reasons. One might call such attempts blasphemous because they defy Matthew 24:36, in which Christ says nobody knows when he will return. This video avoids offering a certain day, but it is not shy to offer specific predictions of the dates of other things (like when the Tribulation will end; April 8, 2024).

Second, there are hermeneutical reasons to avoid such specific predictions. By “hermeneutical” I mean how one reads something: I think that as it interprets scripture and the statements of Church leaders, this video is making a number of missteps.

I want to explore some of these problems. I’m going to avoid simply offering a point by point refutation of the various claims the video makes, and instead talk about why I think it’s interpreting scripture and Church leaders in bad ways.

I.

The video’s primary strategy is very common in the world of Second Coming prediction. It retrieves a number of scripture verses from all over the Bible and stitches them together, Frankenstein-like, into a story. Because the video is intended for LDS audiences it adds quotations from various General Authorities and the Doctrine and Covenants, but the effect is the same. This sort of story begins with an event in Revelation, then leaps to an event in Daniel, then leaps back to Revelation, then to Joel, then to Ezekiel, and so on. What we get is a chronology of precisely how the Second Coming will occur.

A major problem I see with the video is the assumption that you can do this. The notion that different visionaries and prophets, writing hundreds of years and in some cases hundreds of miles apart, scattered throughout their prophecies bits and pieces of a single long story about the Second Coming that would need to be lined up much, much later by people who finally had all these books in a single volume, is, I believe, an odd way to read scripture. I’ll give two reasons why.

First, this is what is often called “prooftexting.” I’m going to discuss the video’s discussion of Daniel as an example, but I could say many similar things about its use of Revelation or Joel or Ezekiel. So, for instance, if you’re reading Daniel 9:24-27 as this video does—that is, prooftexting it—it doesn’t matter what the rest of Daniel 9 or Daniel 8 or Daniel 10 are about. The first half of Daniel 9, for instance, specifies that the author understood the revelation he received to be about the desolation of the temple that Jeremiah spoke of – which happened during the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem in the 500s BC. Jeremiah is very clear about this (see Jeremiah 25:11), and so is Daniel 9. Daniel 8 and Daniel 10 are both explicitly about the ancient history of Israel, so it seems odd to say that the opening of Daniel 9 is a about Jeremiah’s prophecy of the Babylonian captivity while the second half of chapter 9 is actually about the Second Coming.

One might prooftext the Book of Mormon the same way. I could read Ether 3:15 and argue that the Book of Mormon says that Jesus has never showed himself to a human being; therefore, the four gospels in the New Testament are lies. You might point out that the story of Ether happens hundreds of years before the four gospels—and voila, we are no longer prooftexting. This video does similar things to Daniel as my bad reading does to Ether 3:15.

Second, reading scripture in this way treats it as though it’s a code. It assumes that the real meaning of Daniel can only be determined when you cut and paste Daniel together with Jeremiah and Ezekiel and Revelation, and if you don’t do this correctly you’re misunderstanding scripture. It encourages to neglect plain readings of scripture in favor of mysterious meanings only a special elite can discern.

These problems have two consequences.

The first is that they force us to assume that the Book of Daniel (or at least this part of it) would have been irrelevant to the people reading it at the time. After all, if we assume Daniel 9 is about the Second Coming, and it can only be understood if you put it in the context of the Book of Revelation, which would not be written for another few hundred years, then Daniel is meaningless to the people living at the time of the Book of Daniel. This would be equivalent to assuming that much of what is said in the Church’s General Conferences today is actually a coded message for people living in 3120 AD, which will only be comprehensible once they are able to combine the talks of Quentin L. Cook with those given by a member of the First Presidency living in 2265.

The second is that these problems drag members of the Church toward Protestant fundamentalism. All of these techniques I’ve described are characteristic of Protestant fundamentalist modes of reading the Bible. Indeed, it was Protestant fundamentalists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century who picked up all of the puzzle pieces the video uses—from the seven seals that are identified in the fourth chapter of Revelation to Daniel 9 to Joel 2—and clicked them together to tell a single story about what’s going to happen right before Christ’s second coming, event by event, moon turning to blood to the invasion of Israel to the rise of the anti-Christ.

And as I watched this video, fundamentalist ideas, jargon, and language kept coming up.  It seems weird to me that Latter-day Saints should be leaning on Protestant fundamentalists for how to read scripture, but it happens far more than one might think.

This is evident in the way the video treats the Book of Revelation. There are a lot of ways that one might read the Book of Revelation. There is no certainty that the whole book is in fact about the Second Coming, for one thing – a number of Christians throughout history believed that it was about all of human history and the persecution of the Church, and only the last chapter or so was about the future. Many other Christians believed that it is about the persecution of early Christians at the time it was written – around 100 AD or so. We don’t know for sure exactly what it’s about, and D&C 77 doesn’t help us much there. I write more about that here.

The video is pretty staunchly in the camp that it’s mostly about the future, but a bit about the past too. In Revelation 4, John sees a great scroll with seven seals. As the seals are opened, various things happen. The video maintains that the seals are about all of human history, and the last two are about our time and the future.

II.

But that leads me to the second problem with the video: the problem of prooftexting not simply scripture but Church leaders. If one were only to watch this video, one might conclude that all leaders of the Church believe and have believed that what’s going to happen leading up to the Second Coming is clear and well-known. But this is not, of course, the case.

The video quotes a number of Church authorities and manuals and various Ensign articles. That, I think, is actually a weakness, because the video is picking and choosing, as it does with scripture. Just as I offered a bad reading of Ether 3:15 earlier, I could very easily pick and choose my way through Church manuals and General Conferences and construct an argument that the Word of Wisdom is not actually a commandment or that the Church should still be practicing polygamy. And of course many people do actually construct arguments like this; many of them end up in schismatic groups.

Here are two examples. As we noted a moment ago, this video argues that the seven seals encompass all of human history and that most have already been opened. But Wilford Woodruff, to take one example out of dozens, said this:

Tremendous events await this generation. You can read an account of them in the revelations of St. John; the opening of the seals; the blowing of the trumpets; the pouring out of the plagues; the judgments of God which will overtake the wicked when Great Babylon comes in remembrance before God, and when the sword that is bathed in heaven shall fall on Idumea, or the world, who shall be able to abide these things? Here we are living in the midst of these tremendous events.  

(Journal of Discourses 25:10)

Note that Woodruff believes the following: 1) that the seals are about what will happen at the end of times, not about all of human history; and 2) that the end of times is already beginning to happen in 1884, when Woodruff gave this speech. But the video (pretty explicitly) makes the case that the end of times started with the year 2000.

Another example. The video discusses the woman clothed with the sun in Revelation 12. She is driven into the wilderness for 1,260 days. According to the video, this woman is a representation of the Church and what it will endure during the seven years of tribulation.  But here is a church manual that says the woman being driven into the wilderness is actually a symbol of the Great Apostasy.

The woman fleeing into the wilderness is symbolic of Satan driving the ancient Church into the period of the Great Apostasy, when the authority of the priesthood was taken from the earth following the deaths of Jesus Christ and His Apostles.

I do not point out Woodruff and this manual to simply say that the video is wrong and my sources are correct; rather I point them out to show that the video’s presumption that it is merely pointing out self-evidently clear interpretations of scripture and Church leaders is incorrect. There is simply little clarity in scripture or in church history or in General Authority statements or Church manuals about the story that this video wants to tell.

Along these lines, and perhaps most problematically: this video makes misleading claims about a Vaughn J. Featherstone letter. In this letter, which Featherstone placed into a time capsule in the cornerstone of the Atlanta temple in 1983, Featherstone congratulates Saints fifty years in the future for living in the time of Christ’s millennial reign. The video calls this letter a “prophecy” directly and suggests that the Church has embraced and endorsed and posted it—implying that its claims have been endorsed by Church leadership.

Here is a long explanation of that letter by the scholar Christopher Blythe, who works at BYU. The “Church” has not posted the letter. Rather, it is available in Church Archives and on the Church Archives website, like a lot of other documents from the Church are. Featherstone himself backpedaled on the claims in the letter several times later in his life, as you can learn about from the link. The video won’t tell you that.

III.

This is not to neglect a number of frankly bizarre claims the video makes. To take one example, the video tries to draw a link between the constellation Virgo and the woman described in Revelation 12 as having been crowned with twelve stars.  The argument here is that the movement of the constellation Virgo through the sky signals the timing of the Second Coming. But the woman is not the constellation Virgo; there’s no reason to assume she is. The constellation was not named after this Biblical figure, and thus the connection seems obscure. The video seems to want to draw this link because of the reference to stars, but that allusion is not to literal stars but to Genesis 37:9, where twelve stars in Joseph’s dream are described as the tribes of Israel.

IV.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly: I find this video very disturbing because it is trying to persuade us to think of the world in conspiratorial terms. A conspiratorial reading of the Church is dangerous to the life of the Church because it implies that there is ‘secret knowledge’ that we can glean if we stitch together various clues that God or leaders of the Church have secretly scattered throughout the Bible and other scripture, throughout their decision to close various temples at certain times (there’s also a bit in the video about how the schedule of temple closures is sending messages to those with ears to hear), throughout even the way constellation move in the sky. The video seems to take for granted that a stunningly clear and precise prediction about the Second Coming—the most direct statement on the question any Church leader has advanced in a hundred years or more—was issued by a member of the Quorum of the Seventy and hidden in a letter in a temple cornerstone. And only those who know where to look are blessed with this information.

That’s treacherous. A theory like that leads us to distrust what Church leaders say in General Conferences or press releases, because people like the maker of this video will be elbowing us and saying, I know what they really mean.[1]  It splinters us as the body of Christ.

It’s a short step from that to simply distrusting people – to wondering why Church leaders aren’t telling us what the conspiracy has taught us must be true, to presuming that people who make videos on the Internet know that the government is trying to dupe us. This video is not so different from the terrifying QAnon conspiracy theory spreading across the Internet, alleging that there are all sorts of dangerous plots afoot in American life and that nearly every major figure in government save for Donald Trump is actively trying to destroy the country.

And, again, that’s how churches fragment. That’s how we stop trusting our fellow citizens. That’s how democracy fails.

When we start embracing conspiracy theory, then, we grow distrustful. We start to doubt what people are telling us in good faith. We start to be suspicious, thinking that we’re always being lied to. We start ignoring the principles that incompetence is as common as malice and that our leaders—in church, state, and media—are usually simply what they appear to be.

We have to—we absolutely have to—presume that these things are true if our society is going to hang together at all.

It seems to me far better to simply take Jesus at his word and try our best to love one another.

 

 

[1] Of course, Church leaders did in fact engage in this sort of doublespeak in order to hide polygamy from the federal government at the turn of the twentieth century. Some might argue Church leaders also conspired to hide elements of Church history from its membership. There’s far more evidence that the first of these was an actual conspiracy than the second. The propagation of a faith-promoting narrative of Church history seems far more the product of thesis-driven manuals, collective ignorance, and the desire for warm fuzzies than organized conspiracy.

The point is: in both those cases, the conspiracy collapsed because conspiracies usually collapse; people always talk and the truth gets out. This video presumes, strangely, that there’s a conspiracy, that this conspiracy is perfect, and that the people designing it want us to figure it out. It fails Occam’s razor from the very beginning.

Comments

  1. Truckers Atlas says:

    So, Matt, are you telling me the dream I had the other night in which I was instructed to convert my 401k into gold and move my family to Idaho wasn’t legit?

  2. Carolyn says:

    Conspiracy theories terrify me. Not because of what they predict, but because of how they infect the minds of people I love.

  3. C. Keen says:

    I don’t know if there’s any connection, but introducing astrological signs to LDS end-time speculation is highly unusual. The only example I know of someone doing that is John Pratt, who at one time published articles in Meridian Magazine, but the last I heard was on the way toward Snufferism. The video producer is anonymous, but maybe picked up some ideas from Pratt.

  4. Hopeful says:

    My family shared this video and absolutely loved the “warning!”
    An especially memorable part for me was her explanation that although the two eclipse’s “x marks the spot” was a little far away (200 miles) from Adam-ondi-Ahman, you know, big earthquakes could shift that over a bit.

  5. larryco_ says:

    A very enjoyable read is entitled “When Time Shall Be No More”, written by Paul Boyer of the University of Wisconsin and published by Harvard University Press. It chronicles apocalyptic
    predictions and fervor throughout the centuries, and particularly in American modern culture.
    It’s overriding premise is pretty simple: every single eschatological prediction up to right…now,
    has failed.

  6. Geoff - Aus says:

    Havent yet heard of this. Have had the one with Bedinar, and Benson on government.
    If the world is going to end in a few years we don’t need to fix problems like poverty, inequality, healthcare, or racism. Is it saying we need to do anything?
    Recently on Times and seasons the responders to a blog seemed to think there were secret combinations going on all around, and you need to know about them. I thought what the conservatives see as secret combinations are probably different from the ones that concern me.
    Is this based on something similar going round in other conservative religions? Or is it original?

  7. Hegelian says:

    Thank you for this.

    Out if interest, an I the only one who believes Christ’s coming will be like the rising of the sun in the East, meaning a gradual increase in light and glory (and conversely, a gradual DECREASE in darkness, ignorance, poverty, racism, abuse, selfishness) etc? It’s a thing to be looked forward to, non? And one we need to be actively engaged in bringing about?

    Loved what one commenter here said about an apocalyptical event being rather too convenient. If Christ comes and magically heals the world, then we can just keep exploiting earth and must not worry about how we can fix our relations and the environment, then we must not stop mindlessly consuming in a rush for ever more growth.

    I feel like we are only at the very beginning of the renewal of things things.

  8. I really appreciate this one Matt. You’ve done a great job of addressing the real problems without getting caught up in the less productive practice of refuting the wild claims.

    I know some conspiracy “enthusiast” myself and I often wonder what fuels them. I used to believe it was sort of a dumpster fire of fear and that anxieties and paranoia were at the heart of it. I’m starting to see it more as you have put here “something only the special elite can discern”. Maybe they just want their knowledge to be superior to others.

    The serious dangers you bring up of distrusting leaders and plain scripture is possibly a byproduct of just trying to lift oneself up through secret, privileged knowledge. Then you see how quickly it all comes crashing down. Like you say “conspiracies usually collapse” and you’re left looking to the empty sources that are often anonymous, inflammatory, and disturbing.

  9. I disagree with the slant behind many of the posts on this site, but this one is spot on. I wouldn’t say that author of the video lacked inspiration, but rather made the wrong conclusions from the light they had.

    Case in point with revelation and why it’s not for us to share unless we’re in an authorized position:
    Once upon a time, I was asked to visit with someone and convey a request to meet with the bishop. It was a friendly visit and I initially thought nothing of it in a judgemental sense, but I suddenly had the feeling that this was related to sexual abuse. Knowing what I know about humanity, I internally wondered if this brother might be abusing his daughter. I thought nothing of it beyond that, as it’s not a charitable thing to think with any evidence to go on.

    A few weeks later a learn a teenage boy, not the father, was being charged with sexual assault. Revelation is real, and we can gain insight but we need to be very careful with how we interpret it, and if course how or if we share it. A feeling that I might have dwelled on compassionately – this man’s daughter is the victim of abuse (whether by the father or friend, my heart should have turned to the daughter) turned into a fleeting wonder at the perpetrator of that abuse than the victim.

    That’s a personal story but illustrates how we can have real revelation – but we need to be careful how we interpret it and certainly how or what we share, because we might get it spectacularly wrong, even if the original source was inspiration.

    That leads to the final thought here, it’s very possible, likely even, that all inspiration is given solely for us to consider who is suffering and see if we can offer help in some way.

    Not to put us on a pedestal and call out the peeps. Unless you have evidence, leave it to the prophets. And if they aren’t doing it, neither should we.

  10. Unfortunately, I was introduced to this video by…my bishop.

  11. I assume that 2020 is the kind of year in which materials like this video have a strong appeal. At times 2020 has felt like the end of times and I guess that opens the door for doomsday mentality. I remember feeling this way after 9-11 as well. I’m too young to have experienced the 1960s but I imagine there were people feeling like we were near the end back then as well. The thing is, every generation looks around and feels like “the good old days” are a thing of the past. And Church leaders reinforce this by telling us that we are living in the most evil of times and that we were placed here, now, because we are the most righteous. Meanwhile in the real world, life goes on.

  12. No More says:

    Yep, isn’t it funny how every single generation is the chosen generation? Every single period of time is the most wicked and evil. The second coming is imminent. Yes, it has been imminent for 2,000 years. People look and find meaning where there is none. This means people make up meaning anywhere and everywhere to satisfy and justify their own preconceived, biased, and personal beliefs. The Bible is no objective guide. No, the Bible allows people to believe whatever they want to believe and it is used as a scapegoat to justify whatever craziness originated in their heads. It is just another Ouija board.

  13. Observer says:

    What about WWII? I can only think that seemed like the end of times to those who lived during that time. 50+ million people dead, A-bombs, genocide, etc. Today’s tribulations seem like a cake walk.

  14. Some prophecies like the destruction of Ninevah are conditional. Other prophecies may fail regardless. As Paul taught:

    Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. (1 Corinthians 13:8)

  15. While it is true that no man knows the day nor the hour when Christ shall come again, through my careful studying of ancient texts, I have narrowed it down to the month and the year.

  16. rickpowers says:

    So, I went and watched the video. Surprise! (he says smirkingly), ain’t nothin’ new to see here, folks. The pitch is always the same: the narrator spends the first 20 minutes or so sticking to the scriptures and modern-day prophets, so his viewers will go “ooo, this guy’s really on-the-level and knows his stuff”. Then, casually, he makes his break; in this case, first with the poor, abused Daniel prophecy. Every, single end-times prognosticator has used the Daniel number of “70 weeks” in a convoluted manner to come up with the date they want to predict. People really need to study the story of William Miller, the 19th century preacher who made an art-form of using numbers from the Bible to form his end-times guesses. He had a huge following also.

    The all-time master of LDS millennium speculation is Duane Crowther and his Prophecy: Key To The Future, an author so brazenly self-assured that he had put all the puzzle pieces together correctly that he laid out a map of the eschatological “future” on both inside covers.

    As the phrase associated with P.T. Barnum points out – and this goes for all of the preppers being lured into cultic groups – there’s a sucker born every minute.

  17. I’m going to make an eschatological prediction that will not fail, guaranteed:

    And it shall come to pass that the sun will turn red as blood, and the whole face of the earth will burn as with fire, and the inhabitants thereof shall be destroyed. And the morning star shall no more appear, for it shall be swallowed up. And five billion years pass not away but that these things shall all be fulfilled, and the sun be converted into a red giant, if the world hasn’t already ended before then.

  18. As for the problem with doomsday conspirators, one need look no farther than Chad Daybell and Lori Vallows.