The Rapture and the Spirit of the Antichrist

Joseph MatteraRobert Ricciardelli has posted an important article Identifying the Antichrist by Joseph Mattera. This seems to have been copied from Mattera’s own blog. Mattera is Overseeing Bishop of Resurrection Church in New York.

Mattera starts by clarifying the biblical definition of the antichrist, along the same lines that I took three years ago in my post Antichrists, Beasts, and the Man of Lawlessness (but Mattera might disagree with me about the Man of Lawlessness). Mattera rightly concludes that

The antichrist is a false spirit that brings false doctrine into the church; it is not a single person.

He identifies that false doctrine as Gnosticism, which he describes as

a heretical cult that did much damage to the church in the first few centuries, believed that the flesh was evil and that only the spiritual world was good. They even taught that the god of the Old Testament was evil (the god of the flesh who created the natural world and needed animal sacrifices to be appeased), and that the god of the New Testament was good; that true Christianity was really about attempting to get free from the flesh and to live in the spirit.

This is important because Mattera also argues that

A new kind of Gnosticism has crept into the church during the past 120 years. …

The ironic thing is, those preachers and authors focusing on the “last days,” identifying one man as the antichrist, the rapture, and the mark of the beast, have actually fallen prey to the spirit of antichrist because they take the practical application of the cross of Christ away from the realm of the flesh. … their teaching implies that the cross wasn’t for the reconciliation of the natural created order but just for our eternal spiritual life in heaven.

Mattera even manages to quote Jesus as praying against the Rapture!:

Best-selling books like the Left Behind series by Tim Lahaye are taking kingdom focus off the earth and into the next world, something totally foreign to the teachings of the apostles and Jesus, who actually prayed in John 17:15: “I pray not that you take them out of the world but that you keep them from the evil one.” Thus, praying against the rapture mentality!

In this article Mattera doesn’t mention the Harold Camping non-rapture debacle. He had given his view of this in an earlier article, before Camping’s date. But the new article is very timely. I’m sure many Christians are reconsidering the doctrine of the Rapture at the moment. This article offers a strong argument that it is fundamentally non-biblical, anti-Christian and wrong.

The Calvin Gene? Harold Camping and I don't have it

Archdruid Eileen writes an interesting, but as usual not too serious, post Calvin Shrine Genes, in which she speculates about genes which might predispose people to belief in God. John CalvinShe marks today as the anniversary of John Calvin’s death by writing:

if your genes decide whether you believe or not – then Calvin was right. And it is down to God whether or not you believe in God. And that strikes me as a bit unfair, although I’m sure Calvinists would be able to explain to me why it’s not. Some argument along the lines of “God’s gaff, God’s rules”, I would have thought.

I can’t help wondering if there is a gene which predisposes people to Calvinism. I suppose people who carried this gene would have a seriously compromised free will, but they would be predestined to believe in the God of Calvin and the other Reformers and so to be saved. Meanwhile the rest of us with an intact free will would be able to decide freely whether to accept or reject the gospel message of salvation.

This Calvin gene would seem to be especially common among certain ethnic groups such as the Dutch, and so their ethnic churches are strongly Calvinistic. But this leads to problems for members of those churches who do not have the gene. Among them, very likely, is Harold Camping, who was once an elder in a Reformed church which, according to Robert Godfrey, “was almost entirely Dutch in background”, but then exercised his free will to go off the theological rails, and very likely to lose his salvation.

Well, I too have left the more or less Calvinistic fold in which I was first established as an evangelical Christian. Probably some of my brothers and sisters from those days, as well as some of my blogging friends today, would say that I too have gone off the theological rails. After all, I have dared to criticise on this blog such giants as John Piper and Wayne Grudem. But through the Holy Spirit I have assurance of my salvation from the only direction that matters.

I’m glad I don’t have the Calvin gene.

Harold Camping: once Reformed, now a heretic

Harold Camping: an old photoHarold Camping may be old news, at least until 21st October. But Matthew Malcolm has posted links to an interesting series about his background, written by Robert Godfrey:

There is a series of very enlightening posts about Harold Camping on the blog of Westminster Seminary California, written by someone who first met him (and churched with him) in the 1950s. The posts offer some insight into his background, education, and rather self-contradictory hermeneutical methods. Part one, part two, part three, part four, part five.

According to part 1, in the 1950s Camping

was a conservative, traditional adherent of the Christian Reformed Church and would remain so for many years. … The CRC was also still strictly Reformed, interpreting the Bible in light of the church’s confessional standards: the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dort. Camping strongly embraced and taught the doctrine and piety of the CRC in which he had been raised.

In other words, Camping started off as a Reformed Calvinist with a strong and “sound” basis of biblical teaching. Even after he started Family Radio he was

a most effective and influential promoter of Reformed theology and won many listeners to the Reformed cause.

So what went wrong? Part of the problem seems to have been with his education, as an engineer rather than a Bible teacher:

He knew no Greek or Hebrew. He was not formally introduced to the study of theology. His reading of the Bible, as it evolved over the decades, reflected his training in engineering. He reads the Bible like a mathematical or scientific textbook.

… his study of the Bible was undertaken in isolation from other Christians and theologians. He adopted a proud individualism. He did not really learn from Bible scholars. He studied the Bible in isolation from the church and the consensus of the faithful. As a result his understanding of the Bible became more and more idiosyncratic.

Reading on into part 2:

Camping’s literalism shows itself in his taking Bible verses out of context and reading into them a meaning that their authors and God never intended.

I see this as a key issue problem with all fundamentalist and many more broadly conservative or “Reformed” readings of the Bible. The approach of many creationists is similar in principle to Camping’s, in that they take Bible verses as teaching scientific truths which could never have been what their authors intended to teach. It is perhaps not coincidental that creationism also often appeals to those with an engineering background.

However, Camping did not always take the Bible literally:

While often taking a literalistic approach to numbers, he also takes a very allegorical approach to many texts. This approach seems to have developed gradually, driven in part by his eagerness to refute Pentecostals. … By turning everything literal into symbols, Camping can make the Bible say almost anything.

Part 3 discusses how Camping left the CRC and set up his own schismatic church. Then in part 4 we read that

Camping’s calculations and allegorical readings eventually led him to a truly heretical conclusion: that the age of the church was over and that all Christians were required to separate themselves from all churches. … Camping concluded that the organized church had become faithless and that individual Christians must leave the church and fellowship informally with other true believers.

Now on this issue I do not fully agree with Robert Godfrey in condemning Camping. There is no guarantee that any one denomination will remain faithful. There have been times, and may still be, when true believers are right to separate from apostate churches and set up their own fellowships. The Reformation was one such time. But Camping was wrong to declare all existing churches apostate and imply that his own informal fellowship was the only true one.

However, I am with Godfrey again in part 5, where he points out that Camping

seems also to have deserted Christ and his Gospel. …

The saddest and most distressing element of Camping’s latest theological statement is that it is Christless. He does not write about Christ’s return, but about judgment day. … Notice also that there is no mention of the cross and Christ’s saving work for sinners. …

Camping’s presentation of God’s mercy is from beginning to end unbiblical and unchristian. He has no Trinity, no cross, no faith alone in Jesus alone, and no assurance. His vision of God and mercy is more Muslim than Christian.

So what can we conclude from this? Here we have a man who could boast of his sound Reformed faith and doctrine, of whom others would no doubt say that he was surely one of the elect, but who then went so far astray in his faith that a writer like Godfrey can imply that now he is not a Christian at all:

Let us pray that Harold Camping and his followers will come to embrace the Gospel as Peter did.

So, it seems, being an elder in a sound Reformed church offers no assurance of salvation.

And the reason why he started on this path? I see two: his unscholarly and fundamentalist way of reading the Bible; and his apparent opposition to the work of the Holy Spirit amongst Pentecostals. Sadly both of these attitudes are still strong today among a generation much younger than 89-year-old Camping.

One more lesson for all of us, from the Bible:

if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!

1 Corinthians 10:12 (NIV 2011)

N.T. Wright on Bell's hell and God's love

T.C. Robinson quotes a passage from N.T. Wright (taken from a post by Trevin Wax) in which the bishop emeritus (not I think his formal title) starts by considering the question “Why are Americans so fixated on hell?”, then moves on to discuss Rob Bell’s teaching, presumably taken from his book Love Wins. Here is part of what Wright writes (emphasis added by TCR):

And it seems to be part of [Americans’] faith, often a central part of their faith that a certain number of people are simply going to go to hell and we know who these people are. I think Rob is saying, “Hey wait a minute! Start reading the Bible differently. God is not a horrible ogre who is just determined to fry as many people as He can forever. God is actually incredibly generous and gracious and wonderful and loving and caring. And if you paint a picture of God which is other than that, then you’re producing a monster and that has long-lasting effects in Christian lives and in the church.”

Rob BellIndeed. Wright accepts, as I do but Bell seems not to, that ultimately some people do reject God, and so God rejects them. That means that hell, whatever it is, is not completely empty. It doesn’t mean that we know who is going there, or how many they will be.

But Bell’s main point is one which Wright and I would agree with, that God’s love is more powerful than his wrath. Wherever the church paints a different picture from that, of God as “a horrible ogre”, then the good news, the gospel of Christ, is seriously distorted if not lost completely.

No Rapture: Camping apologises, points to 21st October

Harold CampingThanks to Joel for linking to the live blog at Huffington Post of Harold Camping’s broadcast on Family Radio yesterday evening, two days after the failure of his prediction of the Rapture. It must have taken him a lot of courage to face a crowd of hostile journalists in this way, rather than disappearing as I predicted.

When pushed, Camping offered some kind of apology:

After being asked again and again if he will apologize for being wrong about May 21, Camping finally does.

“If people want me to apologize, I will apologize…I did not have all that worked out as accurately as I should have had it. That doesn’t bother me at all.”

Camping reiterates that he still believes Judgment Day came — just quietly.

So now he is predicting that the end will come all at once on 21st October this year:

“It won’t be a five-month terrible difficulty…that we have learned,” said Camping. Instead, he says, the world will end quickly on Oct. 21 without any build up.

As for the predicted earthquakes,

“the great earthquake didn’t happen on May 21 because no one would be able to survive it for a few days or let alone five months to suffer God’s wrath.”

Well, we will see what happens on 21st October, but my prediction is: nothing special.

Judgment Day not yesterday: a post-non-mortem

For yesterday, 21st May, Harold Camping and his associates were predicting not just the Rapture but also worldwide earthquakes and Judgment Day. But nothing special seems to have happened. Yes, there was a landslide in Malaysia, which I mentioned in an earlier post, and a small volcanic eruption in Iceland. But these kinds of disasters, sad though they are for those involved, are everyday occurrences.

"We just went for a short walk and then ... poof ... gone ... um ... what's that smell? ... yikes! ... brimstone."

"We just went for a short walk and then ... poof ... gone ... um ... what's that smell? ... yikes! ... brimstone."

As far as I can tell from the news, no one has died from anything which could remotely be called an act of God’s judgment, and, despite some apparent photographic evidence, no one has been raptured either. I suppose somewhere in the world someone might have been trampled underfoot or suffered a heart attack because of rapture fever, but I hope not.

Meanwhile the BBC reports this morning that

the evangelist at the centre of the claim, Harold Camping, has not been seen since before the deadline.

This could mean that he has been raptured, or has died at age 89, but more likely that he is keeping a deliberately low profile. The BBC seems to have missed the news item I posted last night, that Camping’s Family Radio colleagues were conceding in advance that they might be wrong.

In the absence of any bodies I can’t really conduct a post-mortem. But I can offer a sort of post-non-mortem on this whole affair. What lessons can it offer for us, as Christians or as interested outsiders?

Firstly, I would say, we should never trust people like Harold Camping who set themselves up as teachers apart from the church as a whole. I’m not saying that such people are always wrong. Sometimes individuals, even ones without formal training like Camping, find truths in the Bible which have been ignored by the church as a whole. That is one reason why the doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture is important. But this happens rather rarely. So others should treat any such claims with a lot of caution until they have broader confirmation. I’m sorry to say it, but the man who, according to the BBC report, “spent more than $140,000 (£86,000) of his savings on advertisements in the run-up to 21 May” was simply being foolish.

Secondly, we need to remember that Jesus clearly told us that the end would come unexpectedly, like a thief in the night. He warned that false prophets and apparent signs would mislead people, as indeed they have repeatedly for 2000 years. It is amazing that so many people who call themselves Christians don’t pay attention to this part of his teaching. Rather, as Jeremy Myers writes, while we should “Live like the world will end tomorrow”, we should also “Ignore all future predictions” and “Plan for the future”.

Thirdly, we need to understand better what the Bible really has to say about the future and the return of Jesus. I don’t want to go into details here. But as I have argued here in the past, I don’t believe that Christians will be raptured in the way that people like Camping teach, before the return of Jesus. Tim Chesterton has helpfully linked to a 2001 essay by N.T. Wright Farewell to the Rapture, in which the former Bishop of Durham explains convincingly why the Second Coming “won’t in any way resemble the Left Behind account”: in 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17

Paul’s mixed metaphors of trumpets blowing and the living being snatched into heaven to meet the Lord are not to be understood as literal truth, as the Left Behind series suggests, but as a vivid and biblically allusive description of the great transformation of the present world of which he speaks elsewhere.

Finally, there are lessons for the church on marketing. The well known secular expert in this field Seth Godin has today offered his marketing lesson from the affair, on his blog which I don’t usually read (thanks to my friend tweeting at Adbolts for the link):

Here’s the simple lesson:

Sell a story that some people want to believe. In fact, sell a story they already believe.

I hope you can dream up something more productive than the end of the world, though.

Yes, Camping and friends have done their marketing well to spread their Rapture fever worldwide. I hope that Christians who have a truly biblical message to proclaim can learn better from this how to proclaim that message, not so much of God’s judgment as of his love, of how

God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

John 3:16 (NIV 2011)

Rapture update 5: Joel was left behind

Joel L. WattsThe Rapture Wave is supposed to have hit the US east coast now, but Joel who claims to have invented that phrase has, despite his own confident predictions, been left behind! How do I know? He is still tweeting, although 6 pm local time has passed in Charleston, West Virginia – but oddly enough no one else I follow has tweeted in the last half hour. The end of Joel’s live video stream looked like he was trying to launch himself into heaven on a swing, but somehow I don’t think that will work. So either Joel was not one of the chosen ones, or else we were all left behind to carry on God’s work, as we should all have wanted.

So, with Joel still with is and even Harold Camping’s closest associates disowning his predictions, we can put this whole sorry story behind us. Normal programmes will resume shortly.

Rapture update 4: Family Radio ready to concede

I hadn’t expected this development, reported by Kyle Munson of the Des Moines Register and linked to by Joel, at least not this early. Apparently the staff of Harold Camping’s radio station Family Radio are already accepting that things are not going as planned. Their spokesman Tom Evans has said that

once we reach midnight local time in the holy city of Jerusalem … he will be ready to concede that today’s rapture is a bust.

“If it’s not going to happen then, it’s obviously not going to happen today,” Evans said, “and we were wrong.”

Jerusalem by nightNow midnight in Jerusalem is just over 90 minutes away as I write, and an hour before Camping’s predicted Rapture wave is expected to hit the US east coast. So it seems that Family Radio is prepared to call off their Rapture prediction in advance, as far as North Americans are concerned.

Well, perhaps that is a clever move to preserve at least something of their own credibility, and I suppose their business. But does Harold Camping agree with their position, or are they abandoning him?

Rapture update 3: I'm still here in England

Clock Tower - Palace of Westminster, LondonThe time has now passed for the Rapture, as predicted by Harold Camping, here in England. No earthquakes, no tornadoes, just a normal quiet Saturday, and my wife and I are still here.

I must say I wasn’t too worried that I would be raptured today, against my will, after the non-events in New Zealand, Japan and indeed anywhere to the east of this green and pleasant land.

The only reported event in the Orient today which could even remotely be considered a sign of the Rapture or the allegedly coming Tribulation was a landslide in Malaysia which killed at least eight children and perhaps quite a lot more. This was of course a tragic event of course for those involved. But it was caused by heavy rain, not an earthquake, and it “took place at about 1430 local time” so ahead of Camping’s predicted schedule.

So as the hours move on towards 6 pm in America, first on the East Coast and only later in Camping’s California, my advice to Americans is simple: “Don’t panic!” But just in case you might also want to avoid taking a bath at 6 pm, to avoid embarrassment.

Meanwhile atheist John Loftus has started a meme on My Predictions of the Excuses Harold Camping May Make, and Joel has tagged me, and everyone else who read his post. So here is my prediction: Harold Camping and a small number of his followers will simply disappear, and let the word get out that these few were raptured and no one else was considered worthy. This could actually mean suicide, as I suggested before, but more likely they will find somewhere to hide away and lick their wounds. Most likely Camping, 89, will start an overdue retirement and, once the fuss has died down, never be heard of again.

These kinds of false prophets will be with us until Jesus really comes again, as he predicted. But hopefully it will be some time before any are taken as seriously as Harold Camping seems to have been.

Rapture update 2: Not another Japan earthquake

This is number 2 in my series of updates for Camping’s predicted Rapture Day, to follow on after Rapture update 1: New Zealand untouched. Don’t worry, I won’t be posting these updates every hour through the day, but just when significant times have passed.

Mount Fuji, JapanIt is now past 6 pm in Japan. They don’t have daylight saving, so we don’t have to worry about that factor. And we can thank God that he has not allowed another major earthquake today in that country already suffering so much from the March earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster.

If any of the small Christian minority there have been raptured, we might not know about it yet. But we would surely have heard if masses of Christians had disappeared from Sydney, Australia, where it is now after 7 pm.

I don’t have a lot of pity for most of the Christians who will probably find out by tonight that they have been deluded by Harold Camping. I think in fact there are rather few of them, mostly in the USA. They really have only themselves to blame if they put their trust in someone as unqualified as Camping, who has already shown himself untrustworthy.

But there is one group of deluded Christians for whom I have a lot of pity. As reported by the BBC no less,

In Vietnam, thousands of members of the Hmong ethnic minority gathered near the border with Laos earlier this month to await the 21 May event.

These poor people, if they are disappointed when the Rapture is supposed to come to them in just over an hour, may be left with no homes to go back to. That would be really sad. If that happens, Camping and friends ought to be held responsible.

Archdruid Eileen is right: the Christian proclamation should not be bad news for the poor, but good news. If it is bad news for anyone, it ought to be for the complacently rich, including those in churches, who don’t show any concern for the physical or spiritual state of poorer people around the world. Well, this whole Rapture scenario do some good, even if no Rapture happens, if it shakes some Christians out of their complacency into understanding that the end will come, at least for each individual at death, and that God will have something to say about how they have spent their lives which is nothing to do with how much wealth they have stored up.

Meanwhile Matthew Malcolm is liveblogging from Perth, Australia, where the Rapture is due in a few minutes …