May 21, 2011 (and I feel fine)

Octogenarian radio host Harold Camping has predicted the end of the world. Again.

I would’ve thought one botched prediction was enough to earn a lifetime ban on apocalyptic prognostication. But alas, end times enthusiasts are not so easily deterred, as Jason Boyett’s Pocket Guide to the Apocalypse reminds us.

Harold Camping predicted the world would end in 1994. He now chalks that little boo-boo up to a mathematical error. Now he’s at it again. The good news: he’s double checked his calculations this time.

So how did he arrive at this Saturday? Well, it all starts with the flood, which took place on May 21, 4900 BC — a date he “learned years ago from the Bible.” Factor into the equation Genesis 7:4, where God tells Noah it’s going to flood in seven days. Then jump waaay over to 2 Peter, which says “a day is like a thousand years” to God. Ignore the word “like” (the Greek adverb os) and read 2 Peter as saying one day = 1,000 years exactly.

Then jump back to Genesis 7:4 and reinterpret in light of 2 Peter 3:8, being careful to ignore the little voice in your head that says this is not a good way to read the Bible. If one day equals a thousand years, then seven days must equal 7,000 years!

Seven thousand years from May 21, 4900 BC… why, that’s this Saturday!

Now… behind all this enraptured frenzy lies the assumption that God has revealed the mysteries of the universe to just one man who alone knows the truth. He alone has the code needed to unlock the secrets of the Bible.

Conveniently, Harold Camping long ago denounced the church (as in every single church), saying the so-called “age of the church” has come and gone — thus securing his exclusive role as arbiter of the truth.

It’s also worth noting that Camping’s quirky theology bears a lot in common with an influential religious movement from the first century AD.

No, not that one.

Mystery cults were incredibly popular in the ancient Roman world. There were several varieties, but the common denominator was this: the gods have revealed the deeper truths of life, the universe, and everything to a select and privileged few. Initiates had to jump through elaborate hoops in order to gain access to the musterion — a secret knowledge possessed only by the “elect,” i.e. those on the inside. The vast majority of people — those on the outside — were just plain out of luck.

The earliest Christians claimed access to a great “mystery” as well. Only… they were obsessed with letting the cat out of the bag.

To the ancient church, a divine mystery was something to be made known, proclaimed, shouted from the rooftops. It was something anyone could experience.

God’s plan was not some closely guarded secret, available only to a privileged few. You didn’t need a magic decoder ring to unlock its hidden meaning. There were no gimmicks, tricks, or secret codes to be cracked. To suggest otherwise is the exact opposite of incarnation. In other words, the exact opposite of Jesus.

So when I call Harold Camping a cult leader, I don’t just mean he’s jumped off the deep end. (He has.) I mean that his obscure, self-aggrandizing theology has more in common with the ancient mystery cults than anything remotely Christian.

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