I have a small collection of books from the 20th Century proclaiming the imminent return of Christ. One assumed that Hitler was the anti-Christ, another taught that Soviet Russia was Magog. And of course, I have a copy of “The Late Great Planet Earth.” These are some of the predictions stimulated by the Dispensationalist movement that built up steam in the middle to late 1800’s. Dispensationalists believe that “the Last Days” refer only to a short period of tribulation just before the return of Christ. Since, like every Christian, they long for Christ to return, they try very hard to prove that Revelation’s description of the end times describes the world scene of their own day.
Harold Camping is different. In his recent prediction, his previous prediction of 1994 and his latest prediction of next October, he didn’t prophesy Christ’s return by trying to prove that Osama Bin Laden was the anti-Christ. Instead, he used a bizarre concoction of symbolism and numerology. (It’s obvious, is it not, that 5 is the number for atonement and 17 is the number for heaven???)
I leave the absurdity of Mr. Camping’s work to others. What struck me this time around was not how the mainstream media put Camping in a bad light – it was how ludicrous the Christian notion of the end of the world seemed to them. Most had little idea of how Mr. Camping came to his conclusion (can’t blame them for that), but it really didn’t matter. What people felt was silly was the biblical teaching that the world as we know it will end in divine judgment.
Apocalyptic visions of the future abound. The idea that mankind will one day be destroyed is regularly assumed in scientific journals and respected TV programs. Asteroids, depletion of resources, nuclear war – a dozen or more scenarios prophesy our demise, and all are taken seriously.
This time around, however, it seemed to me that public and media reaction to a Christian warning about the end of the world was taken as nonsense. Yes, Camping’s calculations are nonsense. But it wasn’t the calculations that commentators derided; it was the idea that God would intentionally bring mankind to judgment. Prophesy that an asteroid will destroy the earth, and that’s OK. Prophesy that God will do it as an act of judgment, and it’s not OK.
The notion that there is no final judgment is making serious inroads into our culture. The consequences are enormous.
Quite apart from the spiritual issue of people’s individual salvation, our culture is severely impacted as more and more share the belief that there is no divine retribution, and life is whatever I can get away with. For example, the Presbyterian Church in America, in a judicial case, will not accept a witness who does not “believe in the existence of God, or a future state of rewards and punishments.” Without such belief, why should people tell the truth under oath?
Simply believing in a future state of rewards and punishments is a far cry from full-blown Christian faith, but it was one biblical doctrine that permeated the formation of our democracy. Free people live without fear of constant government intervention. But if they do not have consciences bound by a sense of higher accountability, how can a free people survive? The idealist answer is “people will honor their word.” But why would they do that if their personal ends were served otherwise?
I do not suggest that only Christians have moral principles. Atheists have moral principles. The inborn consciences of all people are largely the same. The point is that the attention we give our consciences is directly related to our sense of accountability. Perhaps this is what our second President, John Adams, was thinking when he wrote,”Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
Harold Camping is an embarrassment. But no Christian should be embarrassed by believing our world’s history will end in judgment. Biblical doctrine would not hang together without it. God’s character would be flawed without it. And incidentally, a free society may prove to be impossible without it.