Reflecting on the End that Didn’t Come

Harold Camping’s much publicized prediction that judgment day would occur on May 21st has obviously proven false. Here’s hoping that while this unfortunate situation failed accurately to herald Christ’s coming, it will provide Christians with an opportunity to think through a whole host of questions and issues.

First, we’d all do well to dwell a bit on the fact that predictions of this sort do a great disservice to the cause of Christ. We might protest it as unfair, but when his followers prove untrustworthy, people outside the church are more likely to see Jesus himself as not credible. What’s done in his name inevitably reflects on him. Additionally, situations like this encourage a type of Chicken Little syndrome. When false predictions abound, people are much more likely to tune out sound biblical teaching on the subject of Christ’s return and its implications.

But the damage of this kind of false teaching isn’t limited to those outside of the Christian faith. Think of those Christians who sincerely if erroneously bought into the predictions of Camping and others. For example, this NPR story mentions a young couple who quit their jobs and spent their savings, as well as another man who admitted to a rift with his wife—all because of a fervent belief that May 21st would be their last day on earth. What kind of disillusionment will these and others be dealing with in the days ahead?

This certainly has implications for those of us who aren’t inclined to buy into predictions of this nature. Eric Landry explains:

[M]any Reformational Christians feel the same desire to smirk, roll their eyes, and use the worst kind of language to describe fellow Christians who have been deluded by false teaching. We also probably feel a justified sense of outrage that Camping is making a mockery of Christ and his church, giving skeptics…a free shot at one of our cherished hopes.

We must be very careful about how we respond….

History teaches us that previous generations caught up in eschatological fervor often fell away from Christ when their deeply held beliefs about the end of the world didn’t pan out. While Camping must answer for his false teaching at the end of the age, Reformational Christians are facing a pastoral problem come Sunday morning: how can we apply the salve of the Gospel to the wounded sheep who will be wandering aimlessly, having discovered that what they thought was true (so true they were willing to upend their lives over it) was not? If this isn’t true, they might reason, then what other deeply held beliefs and convictions and doctrines and hopes might not be true?

It’s at this point that we need to be ready to provide a reasonable defense of our reasonable faith.

Perhaps the most tragic aspect of all this damage is that it’s completely avoidable…if one pays attention to the clear teaching of the Scriptures. Some questions of doctrine are difficult, and even Christians of goodwill who believe in the Bible’s trustworthiness and authority will disagree concerning them. But whether we’ll be able to predict the day of Jesus’ coming is not one of these questions. Consider:

Acts 1:6 So when they met together, they asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7 He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority.

Matt. 24:36 “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son*, but only the Father.

As these passages indicate, anyone claiming to know “the day or hour” is advocating something directly counter to Jesus’ own teaching.

Two more points should give pause to anyone tempted to suggest the Bible contains cleverly hidden codes and clues pertaining to the date of Christ’s coming. First, such thinking smacks more of the secret knowledge common in ancient Gnostic heresies than it does with Christianity. Second, the idea that we can “solve” God so easily, particularly when he’s expressly taught us that such knowledge is beyond us, is frankly absurd. It’s as if we view God as a parent who has absentmindedly hid the Christmas presents somewhere in the house. If only we can search in the right place….

None of this changes the truth that the church has confessed since the risen Christ ascended into heaven: “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, 
and his kingdom will have no end” (Nicene Creed). As those who believe in and follow Jesus, we aren’t to depend on false predictions to prepare us for his coming. Not knowing when he’ll return means we’re to be ready every day: “So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.” (Mat. 24:44).

Finally, let me point to two other authors who’ve made valuable contributions regarding some of the issues surrounding Camping’s prediction:

1. Examining some of the biblical teaching related to Christ’s return, Christianity Today’s Matthew Dickerson asks, Who Gets Left Behind? The answer may surprise you.

2. We’d all do well to consider Robert E. Sager’s wise words. The gist:

Insofar as such a prediction about the end of the world requires a response, Christians should respond—and respond biblically, theologically. But the church’s proper response to the May-21-rapture-hoopla isn’t, I’m confident, to hope Jesus doesn’t return on Saturday.

Some years ago while sitting in a preaching class the professor made mention of the sensational, now (then?) laughable, 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will Be in 1988. …

And yet, the professor then asked: were we disappointed that Jesus didn’t return in 1988? He wasn’t referring to those who, say, didn’t know Christ at that point, but to those who did—might we, in our lives and attitudes, be subtly sending the signal: this life is better than the fullness of the reign of our Lord, the conquering and victorious king Jesus?

* Christian theologians have long maintained that Jesus was here referring to the knowledge he possessed in his human nature. While this passage certainly points to the profound mystery involving the relationship of Christ’s dual natures as both man and God, it certainly shouldn’t be construed as an argument that he is not fully God or is in some way inferior to the Father.

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