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)

8 thoughts on “Judgment Day not yesterday: a post-non-mortem

  1. Wow, what a great summary of posts and news surrounding this event. Thanks for the mention.

    I have been having some questions about the rapture anyway, and that article by NT Wright looks interesting.

    that picture with the dog is hilarious!

  2. A CNN blog post has second-hand news about Harold Camping from Tom Evans, spokesman for Family Radio (but speaking in a personal capacity):

    “I have not spoken to Mr. Camping about the issue of what to do next,” Evans said. “But he and his wife are fine, and our response will come in the early part of next week.” …

    Calls to Camping’s Alameda, California, home, went unanswered.

    Evans seems to have said this on Saturday evening after the predicted Rapture time. Apparently he had had some contact with the Campings after that time. But we still have to wait for the definitive answer to what will happen to Harold Camping.

  3. ABC News/Entertainment, as linked to by Joel, didn’t just telephone Camping but went looking for him. They report that

    There has been no sign of Camping since the supposed Rapture came and went, and his home in Alameda, Calif., has been deserted.

    They had to content themselves with talking to sceptical neighbours. This seems to confirm that the Campings have gone missing, but not that they have been raptured.

  4. More news from Tom Evans reported by the International Business Times this morning:

    Harold Camping is at his Oakland home, and his wife has said the preacher is healthy and safe. A board member of Camping’s Family Radio International cited Camping as saying that the preacher would issue a statement on the mother of all goof-ups.

    Camping’s wife said her husband was “somewhat bewildered” and “mystified” after his prediction proved a dud, said Tom Evans, who belongs to the inner circle of Camping followers. …

    Evans told ABC News that Camping owed at least an apology to the public.

    There is also a picture of Camping, taken yesterday, proving that he was neither raptured nor the sole victim of his predicted judgment day. I suppose he might try to point to the Iceland volcano eruption, now larger than predicted and threatening air travel, as a sign that judgment is beginning. But that would be clutching at straws.

  5. Peter, there are now reports that Camping has said that 21 May was a spiritual judgment and physical judgement is going to be on 21 October (a quick google will find them).

    This reminds me of what the Jehovah’s Witnesses did after their failed prediction of the second coming in 1914. They said it did actually happen, but it was a spiritual event.

    Camping is just a deranged lunatic who has sadly deceived himself and a lot of other people. The best way he can serve God is to tend his garden for the rest of his life on earth.

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