Since today is the 100th anniversary of the great San Francisco earthquake…
“There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are but the beginning of the birth pains.” Matthew 24:7,8 ESV
A common “fact” proclaimed in Bible end-times prophecy books (Hal Lindsey and others), radio broadcasts, and on numerous web sites is that the number of severe earthquakes is increasing, and that this is a sign that Christ will soon return.
Now, I believe that Christ is returning, and that it could be at any time. However, as a geologist I always questioned the validity of these reports, but never had the time to look into it for myself. Fortunately, others have done the research for me. Steven Austin, of the Institute for Creation Research, and Mark Strauss, of Bethel Seminary San Diego, wrote an article for the Christian Research Journal in 1999 called “Are Earthquakes Signs of the End Times?: A Geological and Biblical Response to an Urban Legend” (CRJ, vol. 21, no. 4, pp. 30-39). I don’t think that article is available online, but a longer version is on the internet: Earthquakes and the End Times: A Geological and Biblical Perspective.
To summarize their arguments:
- The prominent end-times authors have been very sloppy in referencing their data sources. They will often make broad statements like, “According to the USGS…” rather than citing specific sources.
- Since 1898, there has been a worldwide network of seismographs capable of detecting any earthquake with a magnitude of 7.0 or greater. According to earthquake data from the USGS, there were more large earthquakes in the first half of the 20th century than in the last half. There has been no increase in the frequency of large earthquakes.
- Christ’s prediction in Matthew 24 can be interpreted in more than one way. Many premillenialists interpret the passage as referring to a period of time within the seven-year tribulation, and therefore not applicable to the present time. Others, and I favor this view, look at the passage as referring to events that occur throughout the time from Christ’s ascension to his return. We will have wars, rumors of wars, famines and earthquakes throughout history until Christ returns in glory.
Grace and Peace
Today is the centennial of the great San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906, which killed at least 700 (perhaps many more), and was one of the first earthquakes to be the subject of intense scientific study. The San Andreas fault had displacement along 477 km of its length, compared to the 40 km displacement zone that caused the 1989 Loma Prieta “World Series” earthquake. The magnitude of the earthquake is estimated to have been between 7.7 and 8.3.
2.5 m horizontal displacement along the San Andreas fault in April, 1906. How this magnitude of horizontal displacement could have occurred was not understood until the advent of the theory of plate tectonics in the 1960s. Image from the USGS.
Map comparing the portion of the San Andreas fault affected by the 1906 and 1989 earthquakes, also from the USGS. The portion of the San Andreas fault extending southward past Los Angeles to the Gulf of California was unaffected by these earthquakes.
Louis Agassiz was the founder of the science of glacial geology, but his statue at Stanford University did not fare too well in the earthquake.