“The Bible guarantees it,” the billboards boasted.
“It is absolutely going to happen,” insisted the civil engineer / amateur Bible scholar.
No surprise to most Christians — and to the delight of many avowed non-Christians — May 21 came and went without so much as a bang (except in Iceland). It was most definitely a rapture-free weekend.
Harold Camping was left standing in his doorway, visibly shell-shocked when confronted by reporters. His followers — many of whom quit jobs, quit saving for their kids’ college, or burned through their savings — had to pick up the pieces of a life they had long since given up on.
As the designated hour passed in New York City, one of Camping’s followers could only stammer, “I do not understand why nothing has happened.” Robert Fitzpatrick had crunched the numbers for himself; then he sank $140,000 into promoting Camping’s prediction. In the midst of crushing disappointment, Robert wasn’t prepared to face the possibility that more than just his numbers were off.
There are lessons to be learned in the aftermath of May 21 — for all of us, not just those who got sucked into all the date-setting hysteria.
(1) It’s time we stopped turning the Bible into something it’s not.
The Bible is not a reference book. It’s not a handbook. And it’s definitely NOT a secret codebook.
It’s a story. It’s a collection of books written by various people over hundreds of years. It contains history, poetry, personal correspondence, oracles, apocalyptic visions, and more. But no secret codes.
Yes, numbers sometimes carry symbolic significance in the Bible. The number 7 often indicates perfection or completion. The number 12 and various multiples of it sometimes represent the people of God in one form or another… 12 tribes, 12 disciples, the 144,000 (12 x 12 x 1000) faithful in Revelation, etc.
But people like Camping go much farther, determined to unearth a hidden meaning that isn’t there. Numbers in the Bible are, at most, symbols or metaphors — nothing more. And sometimes numbers are just… numbers.
So when the writer of Genesis wrote that it was going to flood in seven day’s time (Genesis 7:4), it might’ve been his way of hinting at the totality of God’s judgment, as represented by the flood. Or maybe he just meant it was going to flood in seven days.
When Harold Camping says Genesis 7:4 secretly means the world’s going to end 7,000 years after the flood, he’s making stuff up. He’s turning the Bible into something it’s not.
But let’s be honest. We all do that to varying degrees. Every time we treat the Bible like a magic answer book. Every time we (mis)use it to advance our own agenda. Every time we forget that the Bible is, first and foremost, a story to be experienced and lived — not a code to be cracked.
(2) It’s time we all said farewell to escapism.
The May 21st crowd shares at least one belief in common with the majority of evangelicals: they’re convinced God is going to evacuate his followers from this world, just before burning it to a crisp.
Jerry Jenkins, co-author of the Left Behind series, complained about Camping’s date-setting, saying “it makes us look worse.” Well, yeah. For good reason. In the final analysis, Jenkins’ notion of the apocalypse is nearly as flawed as Camping’s.
The Bible NEVER characterizes Christ’s return in terms of evacuation or escape. Just the opposite. Christ came to earth once, and he’s coming again — not to evacuate a lucky few, but to make his dwelling among us. For good.
Back in the day, Caesar liked to pay the occasional visit to his colonial outposts. As the royal procession approached, a trumpet blast would signal his appearance — his parousia. The people of the city would march out to meet Caesar (quickly, if they knew what was good for them). This meeting was called the apantesis, and it ended with the people escorting their king BACK to the city.
This is the picture Paul uses to describe the coming of Christ:
At the parousia… the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to apantesin the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.
Yes, Christ will come back. Christians have believed this from the earliest days. And yes, we will be with God always — pantote. The question is, where?
And the answer is… here.
Those who give up on this life in anticipation of a disembodied existence in another world miss the point entirely. God is in the business of redeeming and restoring this world. He is coming back to this world.
Rapture theology is a direct descendant of first-century Gnosticism — the belief that everything physical (i.e. this world) is bad and only that which is spiritual is worth preserving. The New Testament writers and the early church fathers rejected Gnosticism as heresy.
Why? Because Gnosticism worships a lesser god who offers a lesser salvation. The Bible introduces us to a much bigger God who isn’t the least bit interested in giving up on the world he made — a world he called “good” not once but seven times.
Harold Camping’s god is way too small. His vision of eternity is too puny. He could’ve spent his 89 years (and counting) partnering with God to redeem and restore his good creation. Instead, Camping leveraged his considerable influence to entice the gullible and misguided — himself included — with an escapist fantasy.
May we not waste our lives by teaching other people to waste theirs.