Are You Ready For This Saturday’s Rapture?

What can we learn from Harold Camping and his misguided followers?

The Rapture is a funny thing. Not that I think the Second Coming of Christ is a laughing matter, mind you — far from it. Rather, it’s that the whole topic evokes such a jumble of thoughts and emotions for me that it becomes more than a “mere” theological event.

I was a child during the height of the Cold War, when “mutually assured destruction” was a frightening and very real possibility. I also attended a church with a strong dispensational premillennial bent. During this time, I read books like 666, watched movies like A Thief in the Night, and listened intently whenever someone in Sunday school began drawing parallels between the bizarre, fascinating, and frightening images in the Book of Revelation, and various countries (usually Communist ones), world leaders (again, usually Communist ones), and global events torn right from the newspaper headlines.

For several years, I was pretty sure that I was going to see either mushroom clouds and Communist hordes sweeping across the globe, or the return of Christ within my lifetime, and that the two would likely be related somehow. In other words, nuclear annihilation and the Second Coming are all jumbled together in my subconscious, and even though the Cold War has long since passed and I no longer subscribe to my old church’s eschatological views, it’s difficult for me to think of one without the other — and so talk about the end times often comes with a certain anxiety. When a friend recently posted this on Facebook, I knew exactly what he meant:

I know it’s ridiculous and embarrassing, but having grown up expecting Jesus to come back and/or nuclear war to break out ANY SECOND for my entire life until my late teens, there’s a part of me that will always panic when people make these “Judgment Day” announcements. I may try to laugh it off, but I’m going to be subconsciously freaking out until May 22nd.

My friend was, of course, referring to the prediction by Harold Camping — president of Family Radio, a Christian radio broadcasting network — that Judgment Day will occur on Saturday, May 21, 2011. Now, you can read Camping’s full rationale for his prediction here, but here’s a quick breakdown:

  1. In Genesis 7:4, God offers a warning that in seven days, He will destroy all life on the Earth.
  2. The flood occurred on the 17th day of the 2nd month of the year 4990 B.C.
  3. In 2 Peter 3:8, God states that a single day is like a thousand years to Him.
  4. The seven days of warning mentioned above equates to 7,000 subsequent years of warning.
  5. Since the flood occurred in 4990 B.C., jumping ahead 7,000 years brings us to the year 2011 A.D. (Though you must subtract one year for the B.C./A.D. changeover.)
  6. May 21, 2011 equates to the 17th day of the 2nd month of the Biblical calendar.
  7. Therefore, May 21, 2011 is Judgment Day.

Camping’s reasoning has been critiqued elsewhere (Jimmy Akin has written a pretty thorough analysis for the National Catholic Register), so I won’t go too far into it. Suffice to say that even a brief look reveals Camping’s reasoning to be rather specious. What’s more, I think the Bible has already made it pretty clear as to the hour of Christ’s return and our ability (or lack thereof) to predict it.

Nevertheless, Camping has convinced a number of people with his predictions, and they’ve spent the last few months traveling the country in caravans to warn the rest of us. Camping and his followers have handed out pamphlets, put up billboard signs, and even purchased a full-page ad in USA Today, all to spread the word that Judgment Day is coming soon… very soon.

It’s tempting to write off Camping as a crackpot and dismiss his followers as a bunch of deluded individuals. It’s tempting to crack jokes about the whole deal, such as sending out invitations to post-Rapture looting parties on Facebook — and perhaps even moreso if you’re a Christian. But, as with anything related to the Rapture, I find myself less inclined to laugh, and more inclined for concern.

I worry for Camping’s followers. I worry about how easily they were persuaded by such flimsy rationale and twisting of Scripture. What does this say about the Church, and its ability to promote careful, thoughtful Biblical interpretation? I find myself worrying for his followers come May 22. Many of these individuals have left everything — jobs, friends, families — because of their belief in Camping’s rightness. What will become of them afterwards, when faced with the post-May 21 reality? How many of them will feel betrayed by Camping and his predictions, and worse, feel betrayed by God and the Bible? Worse even still, how many of them will stick with Camping, even after he’s been proven wrong so clearly and obviously?

But even as I worry for his followers, I must also admit that I admire their conviction. The Bible tells us to be watchful for Christ’s return precisely because we don’t know when it will occur. It could very well happen on May 21, 2011 — or May 21, 3011, or some other date altogether. We simply don’t know, and in that sense, we are always to be living as if Christ’s return is right around the corner. And though I think that the actions of Camping and his followers are based on some weak reasoning, their actions raise questions about what Christians ought to be doing while awaiting Judgment Day. Put simply, if you think that sacrificing your job and/or your spouse and kids in order to travel in a caravan to hand out tracts about Judgment Day is nuts, then what is the right thing to do?

Finally, this whole affair reveals a certain glibness regarding the Return of Christ that I find troubling. It’s not a glibness that necessarily reveals itself in humor and dismissiveness, but rather, in the sense that we can somehow put a handle on the Second Coming. Folks like Camping, William Miller, and others do so perhaps more explicitly via specific dates and timetables. But even those who subscribe to a more “legitimate” approach to deciphering the end times (e.g., premillennialism, amillennialism) can be guilty of this as well if we believe that it gives us some insider knowledge concerning God’s timetable. Though my old church never espoused views as extreme as Camping’s, there was still a certain satisfaction and even security derived from the notion that, by drawing a parallel between this passage in Revelation and that headline in the news, we had figured out a bit more concerning how and when it was all going to go down.

Mind you, I don’t think that studying and thinking about the end times, and developing various eschatological views and theories, are necessarily wrong in and of themselves. If anything, they’re a logical progression from the Bible’s commands to be watchful for Christ’s return. But really, who can ever “get a handle on” the return of Christ? Who can even begin to fathom what it will mean when the Son of God finally establishes His reign? When the final deathblows begin to fall on sin and death? We may be given glimpses of that reality in the Bible’s pages, but I strongly suspect that the reality will reveal all of our predictions, forecasts, outlooks, and views to be far flimsier than we ever imagined them to be.

This entry was originally published on Christ and Pop Culture on .

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