Apocalypse today: weighing in on doomsday

Published 12:00 am Friday, May 20, 2011

By Katie Scarvey
One wonders if Harold Camping knew how much buzz would be generated through social media when he predicted that Judgment Day would be May 21.
Camping’s prophecy has been around for a while, but it’s gained traction in recent months because of the billboards he and his followers have erected around the country.
“The Bible guarantees it!” trumpets the Web site of Camping’s Family Radio Worldwide.
Camping believes that earthquakes, starting at 6 p.m. around the world, will begin to rock the planet and the righteous will be raptured (if that can be used as a verb) — while the non-righteous (the vast majority) will be left behind in chaos, dying off until the final end of Oct. 21.
Camping’s prediction rests on some convoluted interpretations (“infallible proofs”) involving numbers that make the medieval philosophers who argued about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin seem positively logical.
While the wackiness of people like Camping undeniably has entertainment value, they’re not really as benign as they might seem. In fact, they can wreak quite a bit of havoc on the emotions and the finances of the credulous.
Camping, for example, has convinced some people that planning for tomorrow is no longer rational, to the point that they have divested themselves of all assets.
A retired transit worker from Staten Island, for example, has reportedly invested his life savings of $140,000 into warning others about Judgment Day. What happens when he he has to pay bills next week?
Camping made a similar prediction about the world ending back in 1994, so given his questionable track record, why are people still listening? Well, back then he wasn’t completely sure, he’s told reporters. That’s why his book title — “1994?” — ended with a question mark and not a period.
This time, Camping says he’s completely sure, so sure, in fact, that when asked about what he’ll do if he’s wrong, he refuses to even entertain the possibility. Maybe he’ll hang his head and disappear, but it’s more likely that he’ll do what he’s done in the past: blame the past.
Seeking the truth through anagrams seem about as scientific as the kind of “mathematical” calculations Camping was using, so I thought I might give rearrange the letters of “Harold Camping” to see what popped up.
“An old grim chap” about sums it up.
When I gave editorial page editor Chris Verner a heads up that I was using a story today about this topic, he sent me an email back asking if I thought we should go to press early.
Copy editor Paris Goodnight noted that Friday’s Pick 3 numbers of 3-2-1 suggested some kind of countdown to a major event.
Signs, signs, everywhere signs.
One of my FaceBook friends wondered if anyone would be around on Sunday, the day after his birthday, to offer felicitations.
“I realize we may all feel a little down knowing we’re doomed to eternal hellfire and damnation,” he wrote, “but hey, let’s try to make the best of a bad situation!”
Others worry that they should have taken vacation days earlier in the year.
Dr. Randy Kirby, the associate pastor at First Presbyterian, joked at the last session of a year-long Bible study on the book of Revelation that he would be preaching on May 22 to those who were left behind.
At the very least, one positive thing coming out of Camping’s lunacy is that a lot of Christians who normally don’t agree on much have found common ground in their assessment that Camping is a bit of a nut case.
Many point to the ludicrousness of the idea that Camping — an 89-year-old-old former civil engineer— would be privy to information that even Jesus didn’t have.
“I choose to side with Jesus over these who are predicting the return of Christ on the 21st of May,” said the Rev. Jim Dunkin of First Presbyterian Church in Salisbury.
“Jesus clearly had something to say about those who try to predict, and I cannot improve on his words: ‘But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour. (Matthew 24:36, 42-44)
“I say that if Jesus says he does not even know … why do we spend our energy trying to predict? We would be much better off if we simply spent our energy to live each day as if we are ready, being faithful disciples of Jesus.”
Marvin Lindsay, formerly pastor of John Calvin Presbytrian and now a student at Union Presbyterian Seminary, had this to say: “There are only a very few truths in the many chapters and verses of the Bible, namely, how to love God with your whole heart, soul, mind and strength; how to love your neighbor as yourself; how to live by faith, hope and love.
Those looking for specifics about dates and times, he says, would be better off “consulting a fortune-teller or a stock broker or other people who allegedly have the power to predict the future.”
Even if the information were in the Bible, possessing it, he argues, would “relieve us of the obligation of meeting the future in faith and in hope — which can’t be how believers are supposed to meet the future. It’s a pagan, almost occult-like misuse of the Bible.”
“In a world of 7 billion people, tens of thousands will surely die on Saturday, meaning that their world is over. And that’s a reminder that none of us are guaranteed another day. Regardless of predictions, perhaps we should live as if every day were our last. That beats living in the past or worrying about the future.”
The Rev. Ken Reed of Concordia Lutheran Church noted those past predictors of the day of Jesus’ return have fallen into obscurity.
“Instead of gambling their time, energy, resources and advertising skills on promoting an end date (which Jesus says we cannot predict) I would love to see them promoting the basics of Christianity: true repentance, forgiveness, grace, and discipleship.”
“Hopefully, all the fervor over Mr. Camping’s date of May 21 will move seekers to look beyond the creative billboards, newspaper ads and websites, and more toward the Bible itself. That’s where God’s truth is found.”
Keith Kannenburg, pastor of Blackwelder Park Baptist Church, said Thursday he hadn’t heard of Camping’s doomsday prediction — but he didn’t sound surprised when I filled him in on the details.
“This isn’t the first time that people have predicted stuff,” he said, citing the Jehovah’s Witnesses as an example.
Without knowing about the details of the prophecy, Kannenburg speculated that some people are just addicted to sensationalism and the attention that accompanies such a pronouncement.
“It’s absolute arrogance to say that you are the special person, that you can pick the date and the time.”
He mentioned what Paul had to say in 1 Thessalonians. I looked up the passage and found this:
“For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord.”
The “we” is important, Kannenburg says, because it indicates that Paul felt the Rapture would happen in his lifetime.
Kannenburg says the majority of conservative Baptists in this area likely believe in something called pretribulational Rapture and a pre-millenial return of Christ — but they don’t believe they can predict when it’s going to happen.
Kanneburg says he believes that at the Rapture, the spirits of those who have already died will come down to Jesus and their material bodies will be raised from the grave. Then, he says, “almost immediately after, those who are living Christians will be caught up to go with him in the air” — the “snatching away.”
The word rapture shares the same Latin root as the word “raptor” — hence the idea of a “snatching away.”
After certain other events take place, in this view, Christ will reign on earth for 1,000 years.
Kannenburg says he does believe that the Rapture will happen in his lifetime but realizes that he could be “seriously wrong,” as Paul was.
What’s important, he says, is that “as Christians we should live our lives in such a way that we believe we could be called home at any time. So if somebody is thinking the Rapture is going to happen in their lifetime…we all should be thinking it. If we did, we wouldn’t be living like a bunch of jerks.”
“We’re so worried about all of the little petty stuff that doesn’t mean anything that we totally forget there are people that are lost and going to hell and we’re too busy and fighting over stupid junk.
“We need to be loving our brothers and sisters and carrying each other ‘s crosses.”