This Weekend: The End of the World

I came home from work to find a letter for me. No return address. My name on a label, clearly one of many culled from some commercial mailing list (the same one that has me in the wrong apartment four floors down). Inside were two brochures: a folded sheet of 8½ x 14″ paper printed in intensely serious 10-point Times New Roman type, all the more serious because much of it is in boldface, packed together between the fully justified margins.

There are a few words that are not in that small and manic body text. They scream out from the top of the brochure for all the world to see:

MAY 21, 2011

Oh.  Those folks.

You have probably heard by now of the Family Radio ministries led by one Harold Camping who has spent much of his life trying to determine the precise date of the end of the world.  He has attracted a number of followers who have gone around the country using billboards, vans, flyers, and other media in a last-ditch effort to warn the world about the impending apocalypse.  In a very last ditch effort they sent me the aforementioned brochure informing me that the Rapture will begin this coming Saturday, May 21, 2011.  I hope you didn’t have plans for the weekend or weren’t planning on having at least until December 21, 2012 when the Mayans say we’re all toast.

I have reflected on what my response to this should be.  My focus in seminary was on Biblical Interpretation and I studied under Dr. Craig Hill who is something of an expert in eschatology. (His wonderful book In God’s Time is a must-read for anyone interested in the End Times.)  And so, I could talk at length about the bad Biblical scholarship that goes into this man’s ludicrous claim that he has computed the end times to begin this coming weekend.  I could talk about his hermeneutical fallacies where he uses scripture to interpret scripture, imagining that each and every verse can shed light on all the others. I could challenge the theological presumptions of his argument that human sinfulness necessitates the destruction of the entire world. I could debunk the idea of the Rapture altogether and point out that it was an 19th Century concoction by an Irish clergyman in his effort to harmonize diverse scriptural accounts. There are a lot of ways I could respond to this nonsense.  But none of them is how I am feeling called to respond.

No, I am called to respond pastorally.

I suppose the world might end this Saturday.  If it does it will have nothing to do with Mr. Camping’s meticulous calculations and will demonstrate only that God has a wry sense of humor.  But what if the world does not end this weekend?  What if there is no rapture this Saturday? No period of great tribulation and turmoil, with millions dying every day until the world is finally destroyed in October?  What if none of that happens?

There are a fair number of people who are following Camping around the country proclaiming this message.  They, like the Millerites more than a century and a half ago, who stood on a hill in 1844 waiting for Christ’s return, are likely going to experience a Great Disappointment.  What will become of their faith then?  Will it collapse altogether like a house of cards? Camping, who made a previous inaccurate prediction in 1994, insists that he is not in error this time.  His brochures proclaim that “The Holy Bible gives several additional astounding proofs that May 21, 2011 is very accurate as the time for the Day of Judgment.”  When asked directly about whether he thinks he might be mistaken this time around (as he was in 1994) he replies that there are no mistakes.  The word of God is true and he’s studied it all.  He is sure.  Many of his followers are likewise sure.  What happens to a faith of that kind of blind certainty when one aspect of it is demonstrated to be wrong?  When the Rapture does not come on Saturday, how will his followers process that? Will they suspect they’d been scammed?  Will they imagine their trusted teacher had erred?  Will they imagine that the whole enterprise of Christian faith is an error?  Will they, because of this failing, chuck the whole thing?

What’s more, many of them have given their livelihoods, sold their property, given up all they own to be a part of this witness.  If the world should, inconveniently, fail to end this weekend, where will they go?  Where will they live? How will they support themselves?  Let us give Mr. Camping the benefit of the doubt and assume that he is not simply trying to fleece these poor people; how will he help to meet their sudden long-term material need?

My initial reaction to receiving this brochure was one of annoyance.  Annoyance at yet another misrepresentation of Christian faith with a very large megaphone (didn’t we have enough of that with the Westboro Baptist Church?). But over time, that reaction has morphed into one of sadness.  Yes, sadness that it is so hard to proclaim a message of Christianity that doesn’t have to deal with these kinds of sideshows and distractions.  But more a sadness at the loss of time, at the loss of creative energy of Camping’s followers that might have been spent doing something more constructive.  Something that would have testified even more powerfully to the inbreaking reign of God than any billboard could ever hope to do.  Imagine how those resources spent on those billboards and vans and flyers might have actually made a difference in the lives of people looking for work, or a home, or something to eat.  Imagine how instead of filling people’s heads with vain thoughts about the End of the World, Camping had led his followers to a deeper, more thoughtful reflection on the wonder that is scripture.  Imagine what good an entire radio network of Christian stations could have accomplished in working for justice, peace, and reconciliation.  No, my friends, if the world does not end on Saturday, there will be enough tragedy to tide us over, only it will not be tragedy of events, but of what might have been.

I don’t know how we can reach out to those who are wrapped up in this.  I am not sure they’d even be responsive (before or after Saturday).  But as one who does believe that the Kingdom of God will someday come, and that our task in the here and now is to live out what that Kingdom will be like, I sense that there is an opportunity for the Church to witness to some healing here for those who have given all for a hope at escape from this world only to find themselves having to live in it a while longer.  There has to be a way for us to help them to see that it is in this world that they will encounter the Christ who became incarnate among us, who gave us here ordinary bread and wine to eat and drink in remembrance, who was raised to new life here, and who will return not to destroy the world, but to renew and redeem it.

That kind of Gospel can’t be shared on a brochure.  It has to be lived.  I hope, for their sakes and for ours, that the Church can do just that.

Rev. Mark Schaefer
United Methodist Chaplain
American University

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author alone and are not necessarily the opinions of the AU United Methodist Community or The United Methodist Church.