The story is sad more than anything else, even though the headline is “World NOT Wracked by Cataclysmic Earthquakes.” As doomsday cultists go, the believers in the May 21st Rapture and Judgment Day prediction always seemed to come across as nice people. I’ll leave out Harold Camping — the instigator of it all — because I don’t know enough to say how nice he may be, and he certainly has caused a lot of damage to some people’s material well-being with his preaching, and has likely damaged their faith as well.
However, the average believers-in-the-street seemed sincere and well-meaning. They believed it was going to happen, and they wanted to alert the ignorant among us. They didn’t seem filled with hatred or even judgmentalism. They gave no hint of any inclination towards violence or suicide. They seemed to be, well, all-American types. I feel bad for them today; worst of all for the retired MTA worker in New York City named Robert Fitzpatrick who spent his life savings on advertising to promote the news, and then stood in Times Square at the appointed hour, looking confusedly at his watch, with a mob of genuine fools mocking him. Despite the collapse of that which he’d so fervently believed, and the failure of his Lord to appear, he managed to say at least one very good thing: “Use this opportunity to keep asking God for mercy.”
And would it have been such a bad thing if it had happened? The Lord’s Prayer has Christians perpetually pleading, “Thy kingdom come,” and that is exactly what we wait for with hope. Often it seems that before that happens the world is doomed to a slow but inexorable decline; the idea of wrapping things up quickly instead with some gigantic earthquakes and technicolor fire storms seems not such an unattractive one to me.
But where does the belief that the end of this world can be so firmly predicted come from? Jesus says in Matthew that:
Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But know this, that if the master 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 hour you do not expect.
Wouldn’t that seem to clinch it? We can’t know the time of the end, or even the date that our own personal number will come up. Yet, obviously, Scripture can be distorted in an attempt to convince people of many things, and Harold Camping would not be the first to succeed in doing this — whether he believed his own particular patter or not.
It seems to me however that Christians, of whatever stripe, have a built-in reason to be highly dubious of those who predict with certainty how biblical prophecy will manifest itself and come true. Christianity is in a sense founded on the notion that God is full of surprises. Christians believe that Hebrew Scripture is full of predictions of and reflections of Jesus. It is a matter of no real dispute among the various Christian denominations that Jesus is foreseen not only in the words of the prophets (especially Isaiah) but in books which were not even written for the overt purpose of prophecy; in Psalms, in Genesis, and elsewhere. Yet these things are only appreciable by Christian believers in hindsight. They could not have been intended to alert the people of the time to the specifics of what would take place. Understood now, however, they strengthen faith, as they are believed to attest to the glory of God and the truth and oneness of His word.
Christians have to deal with the fact that no one, in advance of Jesus’ arrival, could reasonably have connected the dots and anticipated the way in which the Messiah would arrive. A king, supposed to come in glory, turned out to be a child born in a stable, with farm animals surrounding him. The angel told the shepherds of his arrival, and well did he need to do so, because otherwise the great presence of the Divine would not have been perceived in such a humble context. To Christians this is a very moving thing — this kind of understated arrival of God’s greatest gift. “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” But if this, the biggest thing of all, could not have been clear in advance to people reading Scripture, then why should we believe that that we truly understand how other scriptural prophecies will actually look as they are unfolding?
I do believe that everything predicted in the Bible will come to pass. I just don’t believe that I can know what it will look like to human eyes when it does. With the gift of hindsight, I have no doubt that it will an astounding and beautiful thing for everyone to see how perfectly it all has always fit together in God’s plan. But anyone who claims today that he can already see that is, in my opinion, precisely the wrong person to look to for guidance.