I’ve read stories this morning at Slate and in The New York Times about Harold Camping’s prediction that the rapture will occur tomorrow. Each one makes the same kind of reporting mistakes that drive our friends at GetReligion batty. But what’s really tragic about the mainstream reporting on this issue is the barely disguised, thinly veiled mockery that provides the undercurrent for each narrative. There’s been fantastic theological and exegetical reflection elsewhere (here and here, for starters), which I won’t repeat here. Instead, I want to think about how we should interact with our friends and neighbors who have been overtaken by Camping’s madness.
A few days ago, the local Los Angeles evening news program featured an interview with Michael Shermer, the former Christian turned skeptic that Mike Horton interviewed for the next episode of White Horse Inn coming up this Sunday. Shermer and the anchor sat across from one another and traded smirks, eye rolls, and knowing grins about all those deluded Christians who believed that Jesus was coming back on Saturday. At some level you probably expect this from people who have no concept of living between the ages; of praying with the apostle John at the end of Revelation, “even so, come Lord Jesus!”; of feeling the same missionary burden that propelled these otherwise normal Americans into the streets to warn of the judgment to come.
The real danger post-Saturday doesn’t come from the skeptics, however, it comes from people like you and me. Having lived through Camping’s failed prediction in 1994 and his 2002 rejection of the visible body of Christ on earth, many Reformational Christians feel the same desire to smirk, roll their eyes, and use the worst kind of language to describe fellow Christians who have been deluded by false teaching. We also probably feel a justified sense of outrage that Camping is making a mockery of Christ and his church, giving skeptics like Shermer a free shot at one of our cherished hopes.
We must be very careful about how we respond. Will we join our friends at the “Rapture Parties” that are planned for pubs and living rooms around the nation? Will we laugh at those who have spent the last several months of their lives dedicated to a true but untimely belief? What will we say on Saturday night or Sunday morning?
History teaches us that previous generations caught up in eschatological fervor often fell away from Christ when their deeply held beliefs about the end of the world didn’t pan out. While Camping must answer for his false teaching at the end of the age, Reformational Christians are facing a pastoral problem come Sunday morning: how can we apply the salve of the Gospel to the wounded sheep who will be wandering aimlessly, having discovered that what they thought was true (so true they were willing to upend their lives over it) was not? If this isn’t true, they might reason, then what other deeply held beliefs and convictions and doctrines and hopes might not be true?
It’s at this point that we need to be ready to provide a reasonable defense of our reasonable faith. Christianity is not founded upon some complex Bible code that needs years of analysis to reveal its secret. Christianity is about a man who claimed to be God, who died in full public view as a criminal, and was inexplicably raised from the dead three days later appearing to a multitude of witnesses. When his followers, who witnessed his resurrection, began speaking of it publicly, they connected the prophecies of the Old Testament to the life and death and resurrection of this man who claimed the power to forgive sins. This is the heart of the Christian faith, the message that deserves to be featured on billboards, sides of buses, and pamphlets all over the world. It is also the message that needs to be reinvested into the hearts and lives of those who found hope and meaning in Harold Camping’s latest bad idea.