Two Lessons Learned from the May 21 Judgment Day Predictions

I would feel remiss if I didn’t say a little something about Harold Camping’s Judgment Day prediction slated to happen today May 21, 2011. I’m formulating something to say around May 22, too, but in the mean time, I have two personal thoughts of lessons learned: 1) the incredible capacity for anyone to create worldwide hype and 2) my thankfulness for this experience.

Amazing Hype

I never would have dreamed that Harold Camping and Family Radio were capable of creating this much worldwide stir over a doomsday prediction that 99% of the world has laughed off as Christian kook-fringe nuttiness at its best (or worst). As a teenager, I remember laughing at this guy’s corny, eerily creepy radio shows that my friends and I would listen to once in a while for sheer entertainment.

But now this Christian Fundamentalist organization that no one has ever taken too seriously whose founder and president has been written off by many prominent Christian teachers/preachers as a heretic and fraud are now more popular and known than ever before! They are all over the news, widely discussed in the blogosphere and are the subject of more Facebook updates and events (like post rapture parties!) than I ever would have predicted. It just blows my mind.

I mean, consider this for a moment… They’ve got hopelessly campy radio shows. They’re using second-rate, blocky billboard signs, have kooks running around with t-shirts, tracts, and posters, and are running an archaic website. If for nothing else, Harold Camping and crew have proved that we can effectively throw slick, cool, hip advertizing schematics out the window. With enough money, intentionality, organization, and a catchy phrase, anyone can get the world’s attention. Of course, I seriously doubt Family Radio will keep all the attention much past May 21, but they don’t expect to anyway. That’s just brilliant!

A Reason to Be Thankful

It’s true that one can find something to be thankful for in even the most outlandish things. While I have substantial reasons to believe Harold Camping’s doomsday predictions are dangerously wrong (namely because of his false predictions from 1994 and the clever way he has sidestepped a clear warning from Jesus that no one knows the day or hour of Christ’s coming) I can’t deny that all the hubbub has gotten me to more deeply reflect on the essential Christian doctrine of Christ’s return, the Final Judgment, and God’s creation of the new heavens and the new earth. Part of me has come to hope that somehow all this May 21st stuff would actually be true, even though I think the predictions themselves are bunk.

(On a side note: I’ve thought it would be absolutely wonderful if Christ does return today, but not in the way or in the same spirit that Harold Camping has predicted! Maybe all of God’s people except Camping’s ilk would be raptured. Wouldn’t that be divine humor?? But I digress…)

In my experience, most Christians vastly undervalue, ignore, or are even embarrassed by belief and talk of the End Times. We affirm these things in classic affirmations of faith like the Apostles’ Creed: “[Christ] will come again to judge the living and the dead.” Our Eucharistic liturgy affirms it as part of the “mystery of faith”: “…Christ will come again.” And yet most of us have a hard time living in ready, joyful expectation for it.

No, it never helps that the Christian kooks have given the End Times a bad rap or that so many before have given apocalyptic predictions only to see another normal day come and go. It’s even clear that the New Testament writers expected Christ’s return to happen within their lifetimes. Obviously, we’re still here and still waiting… Well, maybe some of us are.

But I’ve been thinking to myself: Do I really live each day or even each hour as if this is my last here on earth, as if Christ would come at any moment? If  he were to come right now, would he find me awake and ready? That’s a question every Christian should be asking, especially if we take Christ’s promises of his return seriously. Paul wrote something along these lines to the church in Rome that is apropos for days like today:

[U]nderstand… the present time: The hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light.

Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh. (Romans 13:11-14)

So, while I have good reason to believe that May 21 will come and go just as May 20 has, I’m not going to poke fun or belittle the day either. If it’s wrong to predict that Judgment Day is May 21, it would be equally wrong to predict that it is not just because we think Harold Camping’s predictions are phony. After all, Christ could return at any time, and we Christians do hope and pray he will return sooner rather than later. I want to live with him forever in his resurrection. I want him to finally set the world aright and to once and for all put an end to the powers of sin and death. I want God’s kingdom of righteousness to reign without end, and I want to be a part of it with the rest of redeemed humanity and creation.

May 21 would be fine with me, and by God’s grace I would be ready. May 22 would work, too, or the day after that. One never knows when the world’s last night will be. But am fully confident that the new dawn is closer than we can imagine. I’m going to live as if it is!


Filed under Church Culture and Leadership, Cultural Quakes

12 Responses to Two Lessons Learned from the May 21 Judgment Day Predictions

  1. People also seem to forget, in day-to-day life, that our hour is always at end. From the day we are born we are at death’s door — and depending on where and when we are born, some are much closer than others. While thinking of a grand apocalypse, a divine rapture, a flashy extinction event may make for drama and hold our attention, we forget that every day we leave behind “last times.”
    The last time you see a friend from across the country, not knowing that never again will you two meet in person. The last time you ever see a favourite childhood toy before it is lost. The last time you ever go scuba diving before it just becomes too expensive and complicated and you just keep pushing it off to next year. The last time you have a fun time with your cousin before some silly family quarrel sunders the bond. And you almost never know until it’s too late to repair things, to have a do-over, to have one more hour together, to pick up again what you loved.
    Every day, we can be hit by a bus, we can catch necrotizing fasciitis, we can discover an odd lump that will kill us in six months. Every day is our last chance to do things right. There’s so much going on in a day that we are bound to forget this imminence, but we need to try to remember the essence of our being and our meaning and seed a little of it all the time, leaving it behind as our testimonial.
    We can’t do it all, but we can do our bit. You want to help your community, your friends and neighbours, your fellow humans; help them in their times of sadness and joy and provide them with hope and consolation. I want to leave the world a slightly better place than I found it, protect our environmental health, help communities get a better living, teach love and ethics of the profession to some young students. We all want to cherish our loved ones one more moment, keep the bond strong, and repair our rifts with old friends. The end of the world is *always* tomorrow — or today.

    • Beautifully, elegantly put, Sophie. You’ve captured the essence of how I think Jesus taught us about time. He taught us a very much “in the day” kind of perspective, even as we have promises in the future to hold on to that he gave us. I take those promises as fuel to make the most of each moment of each day, not as a way to escape from them. And that’s the error way too many Christians make!
      Thank you again for your warm reflection, Sophie…

  2. Edmund Metheny

    “The place to be happy is here.
    The time to be happy is now.
    The way to be happy is to make others so.”
    – R.G. Ingersoll

  3. Edmund Metheny

    It is interesting that Christianity and atheism share the idea that any day might be our last, so we must make the most of it.

  4. Nan

    With all due respect, the bible teachings about “Christ’s return” at some future date are no more valid than Camping’s predictions of the end-of-the-world/rapture on May 21, 2011.
    From the first century forward, believers have been led astray by teachers who interpret the bible according to their own personal agendas. Sadly, few (including many pastors) take the time and effort to study the history behind many Christian beliefs. If they did, they would discover how many doctrines have no biblical basis but were developed for theologically political reasons.
    I am not speaking off the top of my head. For the past several years, I have been doing extensive research into the more common Christian beliefs for a book I am writing. One of the most striking things I’ve learned is that many of the beliefs Christians cling to today and (often vehemently) defend come from the vivid imagination of the apocalyptic writers of the second temple era. They are not based on scripture.
    For the sake of their faith, I encourage each and every believer to follow Steve Jobs’ advice: “Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.”

    • Nan, thanks for reading and leaving a comment. Dogma alone is always dangerous. In my Wesleyan background, I’ve learned that the theological process is based on four things: Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. Each informs the other. “Dogma” is popularly used with a negative tone, but really all it means is “beliefs” or a system of those beliefs. And if you’re a student of church history, you see that those beliefs have modified, reformed, or even very much changed over time. That’s healthy. After all, since we’re dealing with God, we can’t very well systematize all of God into one static system!
      I disagree with you that Christ’s final return is dogmatics gone bad with no biblical basis. To think that is to do away with much of the New Testament. Maybe that’s what you’re doing. In that case, then it ceases to be truly Christian. However, our understanding of Christ’s return can and should modify and develop over time. And I think it has, often in some helpful ways, excluding Harold Camping and his Dispensationalist views, but that’s fodder for another discussion…

      • Edmund Metheny

        “I disagree with you that Christ’s final return is dogmatics gone bad with no biblical basis. To think that is to do away with much of the New Testament. ”
        No – to think that is to view the New Testament in a different light, with a different emphasis.
        Not my intention to pass judgement here on which interpretation is right, just to point out that people can an do utilize the New Testament while largely rejecting the idea of the apocalypse.

    • There’s good evidence that Jesus himself was an apocalyptic prophet in his day, truly believing that the world would end within a few years. There were a lot of those running around in the area, but clearly he also brought something different that resonated far more with people. He was wrong about the world ending within a generation, but he brought compassion, solidarity and kindness to an otherwise pretty grim call.

      • Nan

        Sophie: On what evidence do you base your comment: “He was wrong about the world ending within a generation”?
        Pastor Owens: I appreciate your open-mindedness about the scriptures and the Christian faith — and your recognition that things have changed. I guess that’s part of my point. Things HAVE changed. For example, science has shown us that earth is a planet located in a galaxy within a vase universe — and yet many Christians continue to believe that God sits on a throne somewhere “up there” … in “heaven.” And this is only one example.
        IMO, you are only partially correct in your analysis of the theological process — reason is sorely lacking.

  5. Edmund Metheny

    Nan – um, on the fact that Jesus died more than a generation ago and the world hasn’t ended???
    (rimshot) ^_^

    • Edmund Metheny

      For a serious answer, see Bart Eherman’s “Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium” which covers the subject in depth.

    • Nan

      Jesus had much to say about the coming of the Kingdom and the return of the “Son of Man” in the book of Matthew. But was he talking about the end of the world? While not every bible scholar agrees, many believe he was talking about the end of the age (aion); that is, the end of Judaism and the Old Covenant, which culminated in the destruction of the temple and the city of Jerusalem in 70 CE. All of which happened within the generation of his listeners. Notice also that his disciples asked him “what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” (not the end of the world).
      As Bart Ehrman indicates in the referenced book, Jesus was a man convinced that the world would end dramatically within his lifetime. Keywords: “within his lifetime.”
      It was a common theme among the apocalyptic writers that preceded Jesus that the world was going to end in a cosmic cataclysm. I can’t help but believe both Jesus and his listeners were influenced by these imaginative storytellers.
      IMO, if believers would learn to read the scriptures through the lens of the times and cultures in which they were written and stop trying to project into them later developments, the core premise of Christianity might be greatly altered … perhaps even improved.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *