Doomsday prophets are nothing new. We have seen dozens of people who have discovered when the world will end come and go. The most recent to gain publicity is Harold Camping of Oakland, CA. He is a radio personality that claims to have “decoded” in Scripture when the end of the world will be upon us. According to Camping the date has been set: May 21, 2011.
Justin Berton of the San Francisco Chronicle has set up a blog on SFGate.com where he will be following Camping and his followers until that date. You can find it here. In case you think this is suspect journalism he has clarified that this is something he (Berton) is doing on his own time.
This is just another person with an excessively elaborate eschatology. It is one thing to read the imagery of Scripture in order to reach some conclusions in regards to what the biblical authors believed about the destiny of our world. It is something altogether different to mark calendars with predictions based on awkward numerology. I know the evangelists write about Jesus speaking of “signs of the times”, but it seems safe to say that for whatever reason we have no idea what we are to be seeking. Every generation has that sign that the world is coming to an end–from the fall of Rome to the Bubonic plague to second World War to Y2K and 9/11–yet we are still here today like we were yesterday.
This does not mean that we should not always be anticipating the return of our Lord Jesus Christ. It does mean we should be careful in regards to how we go about doing this. Awkward predictions and date setting are useless. Even Jesus is said to have told his followers that he did not know the day and hour of his Father’s plans (using the “criteria of embarrassment” the sayings recorded in Mt. 24.36 and Mk. 13.32 are two that should be easily agreed upon as most authentic). Even if the Apostle Paul gave further signs in his two correspondences with the church in Thessaloniki this was a far cry from date setting.
Many interpreters of Paul himself have gone much further than he. For instance, Camping speaks in “rapture” language. I know what people may be trying to say with a basic use of the world but there are few doctrines that have become as overblown as rapture eschatology. Paul writes that we will be ἁρπαγησόμεθα in the clouds in 1 Thessalonians 4.17. In all likelihood he is applying imagery from Daniel 7.13-15 to indicate Christ is the returning son of man figure. If you read the Pauline corpus holistically we have the return of Christ to reign and rule,the resurrection, a judgment, and the renewal of the cosmos. There is nothing about years in heaven during some elaborate tribulation and so forth and so on. Yet I have heard people outline how this whole thing will go down tying Paul with some statements of Jesus in the gospels to the apocalyptic imagery of Revelation creating a beast much uglier than anything depicted in Daniel or Revelation!
While I understand we ought to give ourselves to the interpretation of our holy text in all areas including those that speak of how God intends on wrapping up the current age there ought to be more caution. We should say only as much as we feel that Jewish eschatological hopes, the Jesus event’s reformatting of those hopes, and brief glimpses of exposition by the early church allow us to say. This is plenty and it should be enough. We do not need to (as one of my former professors has said) read the Bible in one hand with the New York Times in the other.
As one commenter on this blog has rightly noted it is likely that there will be aspects of the Second Coming that surprised us as much as the first coming surprised the Jewish experts of Scripture in those days. We should be thankful for what glimpses we have been given (i.e. “through a glass, darkly”) while respecting that this is all we have been given. We have been called to have faith when the son of man returns (Lk. 18.18) not a chart telling him how he should do so.