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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Rev. Graham and the Signs of Armageddon

On ABC’s “This Week,” the Rev. Franklin Graham was wrong when he said that earthquakes, wars and famines are occurring “with more frequency and more intensity.”

The preacher, who is the son of the Rev. Billy Graham and president and CEO of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, discussed the prophecy of Armageddon with host Christiane Amanpour during a special Easter edition of the Sunday talk show.

Graham, April 24: I believe we are in the latter days of this age. When I say “latter days,” could it be the last hundred years or the last thousand years or the last six months? I don’t know.

But the Bible, the things that the Bible predicts, earthquakes and famines, nation rising against nation, we see this happening with more frequency and more intensity.

On all three counts, the preacher is wrong. Today’s famines and armed conflicts are fewer and relatively smaller than those in the last century, and the frequency of major earthquakes has remained about the same.

Recent Famines ‘Small by Historical Standards’

First, let’s look at famines. Cormac O’Grada, an economics professor at University College Dublin who authored “Famine: A Short History,” wrote that “the frequency of famines has been declining over time” and so has “famine mortality.” In his book, which was published in 2009, O’Grada said “the famines that have struck since 1960s have been small by historical standards,” which he attributed to improved economic conditions since 1950.

In a lecture he gave last year based on his research for the book, O’Grada said:

O’Grada, June 2010: A study published a decade ago claimed that famine was responsible for 70 million deaths during the twentieth century, or more than either world war. But the previous century was probably worse, at least relatively speaking. Thirty million is a lower-bound estimate of famine mortality in India and China alone between 1870 and 1902, while a figure of ‘fifty million dead might not be unrealistic’.

Recent famines, by contrast, have been ‘small’. Since the high-profile crises of Malawi in 2002 and of Niger in 2005 famine has not been front-page news.

We e-mailed O’Grada and asked him about Graham’s claim. He replied, “The Rev. Graham is incorrect.”

‘General Reduction’ in Armed Conflicts

It’s also not true that we are seeing “nation rising against nation” with “more frequency and more intensity.”

The Uppsala Conflict Data Program at Uppsala University in Sweden compiles data on “armed conflicts” — which it defines as wars that result in at least 1,000 deaths and minor conflicts that result in more than 25 but less than 1,000 deaths. Its data date only to 1946 but show the number of armed conflicts topped 50 in the early 1990s. As of 2009, the number stood at 36 — which represents a slight uptick in recent years, but it’s still not as high as the early 1990s.

In a March 2009 interview, Uppsala Conflict Data Program founder Peter Wallensteen said there has been a “general reduction in the number of armed conflicts” since that peak in the ’90s:

Wallensteen, March 2009: We have also seen a general reduction in the number of armed conflicts, and that created a lot of headlines. In 1991-1992, there were about 50 armed conflicts, but by 2003, there were 29. Now the number is up to 35 again, so it’s escalated — but many of them are smaller conflicts, of which very few have really become big wars. Again, this seems to identify some kind of ability to keep conflicts smaller at least.

Earthquakes ‘Fairly Constant’

The perception that earthquakes are on the rise is not new to the folks at the United States Geological Survey. In fact, the agency has a web page that asks the question, “Are Earthquakes Really on the Increase?”

The short answer is no. It may seem like it because there are many more monitoring stations than ever before, but major earthquakes “have remained fairly constant” since the beginning of the last century.

The long answer:

USGS: We continue to be asked by many people throughout the world if earthquakes are on the increase. Although it may seem that we are having more earthquakes, earthquakes of magnitude 7.0 or greater have remained fairly constant.

A partial explanation may lie in the fact that in the last twenty years, we have definitely had an increase in the number of earthquakes we have been able to locate each year. This is because of the tremendous increase in the number of seismograph stations in the world and the many improvements in global communications. In 1931, there were about 350 stations operating in the world; today, there are more than 8,000 stations and the data now comes in rapidly from these stations by electronic mail, internet and satellite. This increase in the number of stations and the more timely receipt of data has allowed us and other seismological centers to locate earthquakes more rapidly and to locate many small earthquakes which were undetected in earlier years. The NEIC now locates about 20,000 earthquakes each year or approximately 50 per day. Also, because of the improvements in communications and the increased interest in the environment and natural disasters, the public now learns about more earthquakes.

According to long-term records (since about 1900), we expect about 17 major earthquakes (7.0 – 7.9) and one great earthquake (8.0 or above) in any given year.

Of course, we take no position on whether there will be an Armageddon. But we can say that the frequency and intensity of famines, wars and earthquakes are either declining or at least not increasing.