This item is a bit far afield from what I usually post here, but with the thought that it may be of general interest, I'm sending it along.
The other day, Christine Scheller, a reporter from Jersey Shore Patch, an online local news site, asked me to comment on the current news story about Family Radio owner Harold Camping's prediction that Jesus Christ will return this Saturday. Here's what I sent to her, some of which she excerpts in her article:
When Jesus’ own disciples ask him to slip them some insider information on when he will return, his first response is to sternly warn them about false prophets who traffic in just that sort of hot tip: “Beware that no one leads you astray” (Matthew 24:4). Rather astoundingly to our ears, Jesus goes on to admit that not even he is privy to that information (“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” - v. 36).
In light of Jesus’ firm and unequivocal instruction to lay off the end-times prognosticating, it continues to amaze me how many Christian leaders down through the centuries cave in to the temptation to do precisely that.
Harold Camping is but one in a long line of hopeful aspirants to the position of person-who-knows-more-than-Jesus-and-the-angels. He’s a civil engineer and religious-broadcasting entrepreneur who’s lacking any formal theological training. In recent years, Mr. Camping has distanced himself from any denominational affiliation, which means he’s also shed all accountability to any religious authority larger than himself, who might restrain his wild imaginings.
A self-taught Bible “expert,” Mr. Camping specializes in the obscure interpretative method known as numerology – a field without standards or discipline, that sets aside the main message of the scriptures to concentrate on otherwise-insignificant peripheral details, such as numbers. It’s rather like throwing away the popsicle to chew on the stick. Did God inspire ancient authors of scripture to embed within their message a nearly-invisible trail of numerical breadcrumbs, for the sole purpose of warning people yet unborn – and who wouldn’t be born for thousands of years – that Jesus is coming soon? What sort of God would do that, anyway: burying the good news of salvation, instead of proclaiming it (as Jesus himself instructs his disciples to do)?
We’ve seen false prophets like Mr. Camping before. Christian history is rife with sad stories of magnetic but narcissistic personalities, who gather a crowd of hopeful believers around themselves to await the Lord’s coming. It always ends badly. When the sun rises not only on the appointed day, but on the following day as well, their followers shrink away in embarrassment. Mr. Camping can deploy some additional marketing assets that would have been the envy of his predecessors in the questionable trade of end-time prediction: a chain of radio stations and plenty of cash to rent billboards. How else could he continue to command headlines, when this is in fact not the first, but the second time he has attempted such a stunt (he last predicted Christ would return in September, 1994)?
Could Mr. Camping be right in seeing the 21st of May as the day of Jesus Christ’s return? Of course he could. Jesus says no one knows the day or the hour. If I claimed to know otherwise, I’d be just as guilty of narcissism as he.
I prefer to take my stand with Martin Luther. When asked by a student what he would do, were he to learn the world was going to end the next day, the great Reformer and Bible scholar is said to have replied with a smile: “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.”
The PCUS General Assembly (the Southern Presbyterian church that reunited with us Yankees to form the PCUSA in 1983) adopted a study paper on eschatology (the doctrine of the last things) in 1978. It's a great resource, for anyone who'd like to delve deeper into this subject.
This statement, one of 12 "Theses" on eschatology included on the paper, pretty well sums up the Presbyterian take on attempts to predict the date of Christ's return:
"Following the Westminster Standards, we insist that God holds the time of the Consummation unknown in order to preserve in us a sense of immediacy and urgent watchfulness, and we refuse to tame that hope into a set of speculative predictions."
So, let's not "tame our hope." I like that turn of phrase.