I’ve never understood the desire to publicly predict the end of the world. What’s the payoff? Either you’re wrong and look ridiculous, or you’re right and no one is around to offer their congratulations.
Last year, Harold Camping put himself in the wrong and ridiculous category. Twice. You remember Mr. Camping, the Family Radio host, who insisted the rapture would occur on May 21. He offered a summer blockbuster-worthy scenario in which each time zone would experience a great earthquake at 6pm local time, starting at the International Date Line then shaking its way around the world hour by hour. He said the earthquakes would agitate the dead out of their graves, much to their “disgrace.” You may remember that Mr. Camping retired to his home on the evening of the 20th, watching TV news so he could see the disaster unfold until he was raptured along with the other 3% of mankind who he said would be saved. It must have been a long night. The next day he said – in that voice that sounds like the sonic offspring of James Earl Jones and Lurch, recorded at 45 RPM and played back at 33-1/3 – that he was “flabbergasted.”
After further review (like an NFL referee reviewing a play), he decided that what had happened was the end of “God’s salvation program.” (Is it just me or does that sound like the expiration of a special offer for a fitness club membership?) Nobody else would be saved, and the world was really going to end on October 21:
Thus we can be sure that the whole world, with the exception of those who are presently saved (the elect), are under the judgment of God, and will be annihilated together with the whole physical world on October 21, 2011, on the last day of the present five months period.
We’re still here. And so, remarkably, is the 90-year old Mr. Camping, despite having survived both the failure of his prophecies and a stroke.
Even more remarkably – perhaps inspired by that other famous radio host named Rush – Mr. Camping this week apologized. Sort of.
In a statement on Family Radio’s website, he writes “Events within the last year have proven that no man can be fully trusted.” You can say that again!
Some of what he writes is sincere, and solid:
God has humbled us through the events of May 21, to continue to even more fervently search the Scriptures (the Bible), not to find dates, but to be more faithful in our understanding. We have learned the very painful lesson that all of creation is in God’s hands and He will end time in His time, not ours! We humbly recognize that God may not tell His people the date when Christ will return, any more than He tells anyone the date they will die physically.
But . . . he spends a great deal of his apology insisting that what happened (or didn’t) on May 21 was actually a good thing. He celebrates that he caused people to pay attention to the Bible who maybe wouldn’t have:
In the months following May 21 the Bible has, in some ways, come out from under the shadows and is now being discussed by all kinds of people who never before paid any attention to the Bible.”
What a bunch of self-justifying hooey! Camping’s May 21 circus was anti-evangelism. People only paid attention to him – and to the Bible – who wouldn’t have only to laugh at him – and at the Bible. Do you think a single atheist heard about Harold Camping’s failed predictions and said, “Wow, I oughta check out the Christianity thing a little more.”
Back in high school, some of my friends and I would watch The PTL Club after school. We found it funnier than the Gilligan’s Island reruns on at the same time – Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker spinning records backward in search of satanic messages and trying to sell timeshares in their amusement park village and so on. Do you think that kind of foolishness (even without the inevitable scandal) may have contributed to my increasing cynicism about, and eventual departure from, the church? Of course.
And what about the people who bought into Mr. Camping’s fantasies and sold everything they had because the world was going to end and they wanted to help pay for the billboards and bus signs and advertisements to warn everyone? His “apology” says nothing to them. Nothing about financial assistance from the Family Radio “ministry” that continued to accept donations right up until May 21 even though they really, really believed that the world was going to end.
The root of all this is a problem that extends beyond Mr. Camping and Family Radio and May 21, 2011. We Christians can spend too much time focused on the End of the World, and especially fussing about its mechanics. There is way too much written, read, and discussed about raptures and pre-tribs and post-tribs and millenialism and on and on.
Hypothetical Christian readers, let’s get our noses out of the Left Behind books and spend our time and energy letting the world know how much God loves each person, that Jesus came not to condemn the world but to save it (John 3:17).
And hypothetical non-Christian readers, please don’t judge us by Mr. Camping and his ilk. That would be like judging all rock bands by Hanson. We’re really not that bad.
Well, actually we are that bad. Worse, even. That’s why we need a Savior.
And that’s why we need to forgive even Mr. Camping, no matter how shoddy his apology. Because God in His infinite mercy already has. Just like he forgave us despite our shoddy apologies and our ever-falling-short lives.