Most Americans dread Monday mornings, but it’s safe to say that no one is languishing more this morning than Harold Camping. The 89-year-old Christian radio broadcaster told the San Francisco Chronicle yesterday that he had “a really tough weekend.” Camping created a media firestorm with his prediction Jesus would return and the world would end last Saturday. The “Rapture,” as it’s known among Christians, didn’t happen, as both Camping and the world are still very much here. But the whole debacle leaves us wondering what, if anything, we can learn from this.
If you grew up in evangelical homes like we did, rapture-talk isn’t new to you. Evangelical pastors preach sensational end times sermon series, while their churches put on fear-inducing apocalyptic experiences during Halloween. The sense of urgency generated by this trend in American Christianity has created armies of evangelizers and hordes of Christian teens rushing to get that magical first kiss. They need to beat Jesus to the punch.
In such a context, so-called “prophets” thrive. Who could forget Hal Lindsey’s 1970 best-selling book The Late, Great Planet Earth or his follow-up, The 1980s: Countdown to Armageddon, that predicted, “The decade of the 1980s could very well be the last decade of history as we know it”?
Of course, California mega-church pastor Chuck Smith also predicted Jesus would return “before the end of 1981”? And what about controversy-prone Pat Robertson’s rock-solid “guarantee” that the end of the world was coming in October or November 1982? None of their predictions panned out, and for a time it seemed that Christians had learned their lesson.
Harold Camping apparently did not. He first predicted that the end would come in 1994, but when Jesus stood him up, he changed his calculations to May 21, 2011. Laughable as it seems, Camping’s “prophecy” drew a following much like the predictions of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Stories of believers who made devastating financial sacrifices to get the word out about the impending May 21 rapture have flooded the Internet. The Colorado Springs Gazette reported on an unemployed woman who paid $1,200 to buy advertising space on bus benches to help get the message out. New York Daily News tells of Robert Fitzpatrick, who spent $140,000 of his life savings on an ad campaign warning the world of the prediction.
Stories like these make the comical Camping situation terribly saddening. Saturday came and went, but Jesus didn’t. Now thousands of apocolypt-o-philes have to return to their jobs to face the ridicule of friends and co-workers. Camping will likely recalibrate and move forward like he did in 1994, but we can only wonder how many of his disciples’ faiths are in a shambles today.
Is this merely another slow news media blip that wasted our collective time or can we learn from such an embarrassment and tragedy?
It seems this charade provides both Christians and the watching world with a teachable moment. Christians need to recognize that fear-based conversion tactics may work on young children, but they rarely resolve rational thinkers’ long-term concerns about faith. Those who went running for the rapture must now sit to wrestle with the serious questions that plagued them before. We must learn that it’s easy to rile people up with future headlines of destruction, but it’s better to inspire people with God’s will for our lives in the present.
When Christians succumb to thinking that sees escape as the answer to the world’s brokenness, we know we’ve taken a wrong turn. Jesus didn’t shrink from talking about future realities, but it’s hard to ignore that he spent the majority of his life restoring brokenness, rather than running from it. Christians often become so focused on the afterlife that they stop investing in their current life. Harold Camping will have done us all a favor if this serves as a wake-up call to Christian escapists and fear-peddlers.
The often-skeptical watching world must also understand that most Christians thought this was a crock, too. As the reports of the rapture scare rolled in, we too shook our heads in embarrassment. On Saturday, most believers didn’t dress up in white robes and wait for Jesus in their front lawns. We ran errands, bathed our children and laughed with friends. The hysteria generated by this fringe group shouldn’t distort non-believers’ understandings of the Christian faith.
Fortunately, a new generation of Christians are shedding the end times obsession for a faith that focuses more on Christ’s calling on our lives in the here and now. They still hope for a day when Jesus will fully restore this broken world, but they are working to promote human flourishing and the common good in the meantime. As these Christians come of age, we can only hope this rapture scare will be the last one we’ll see.
Harold Camping told the Chronicle he was “flabbergasted” that Jesus was a no-show, but we weren’t. We’ve seen predictions like this many times before. Now that we’ve all been left behind by another ordinary weekend that didn’t turn out to be the last days, let’s reconsider how to make meaning out of our present ones.
Gabe Lyons is founder of Q and author of The Next Christians: The Good News About the End of Christian America (Doubleday). As a keen cultural observer of American Christianity, he has been interviewed by Good Morning America, ABC World News, and The New York Times.
Jonathan Merritt is author of the forthcoming Beyond Politics: Following Jesus Without Fighting the Cutlure Wars (both with Faithwords) and a religion writer whose columns appear regularly in publications such as USA Today, The Christian Science Monitor, and CNN.com.
More On Faith and May 21, 2011
Photos, video: Scenes from the apocalypse
John Shelby Spong: Camping does not represent Christianity
Richard Dawkins: Science explains the end of the world
Matthew Paul Turner: The harm that ‘Judgment Day’ will do
Panel responds: How do end-times theologies impact real world behaviors?
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