It has taken me somewhat by surprise just how much media coverage 89-year-old Harold Camping has generated this week with his bold assertion that the ‘Rapture’ was due this Saturday at 6pm. On the one hand, it’s not that surprising as we all enjoy the occasional crackpot conspiracy theory and that’s especially true in the secular media when said crackpot is a religious nutjob to boot. When the prediction fails to materialise, cue the calls to steer clear of such ‘faith-headed’ thinking and stick to the safer waters of reason and science. Well, so tweeted Prof. Brian Cox earlier this evening anyway.
I’ve certainly enjoyed much of the rapture-related banter on Twitter over the last few days, from the many amusing #rapturesongs to various calls to place your clothes out on the street to make it look like you’ve been spirited away by the Lord (apparently clothes aren’t necessary when we ‘meet Him in the clouds’.) Incredibly, I also discovered that Cliff Richard had once done a cover of Larry Norman’s classic rapture-themed song ‘I Wish We’d All Been Ready’. You just can’t make that stuff up!
But as a Christian, I’ve realised that I need to be careful how far I go along with the banter. Undoubtedly there’s nothing intrinsically wrong in mocking the ridiculous predictions of Mr Camping (‘Carry on, Camping’ is one of the best rapture-related jokes of the last few days), indeed we see foolishness like this mocked time and again in the Bible, whether it’s Elijah taking the mickey out of the Prophets of Baal when their god fails to respond to their sacrifices (he suggests that Baal is perhaps attending to nature’s call) or Isaiah mocking those who make false idols. (For a good sermon on this, look here)
Top marks therefore to Peter Ould for starting up www.rapturefail.org, both for it’s sense of humour, innovative use of social media and for making a good point that Camping represents a very small fringe view in the Christian world and that Jesus basically said that this kind of thing is a non-starter anyway in Matthew 24:36: “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.” (See also Matt 25:13, Acts 1:7 and elsewhere).
However, we need to be careful here. I read a wise post from Denny Burk earlier that notes that while many Christians are laughing at the idea that Jesus was going to return at exactly 6pm today, there are many people who are actually laughing at the very idea that Jesus could ‘come back’ at all. This should give us pause for thought, as while the pursuit of working out the exact time of Jesus’ return is very much a fringe obsession (and a misguided one at that), the whole idea of a ‘Second Coming’ is a core Christian doctrine and one that is vitally important to our whole understanding of the Biblical narrative. While it’s often been misrepresented and has an apparent ability to turn those who get TOO obsessed with the exact details of it into crackpots, it is one that we are often guilty of overlooking and putting to the back of our minds as we go about our daily lives. Perhaps this is partly to do with the fact that it DOES seem very ‘otherworldly’ and makes huge claims about not just our individual lives as believers, but about the whole world. The claim is that at some point, Jesus will indeed return to this earth and bring about a radical change in world affairs, affecting politics, economics, military conflicts, humanitarian disasters, everything. While Christians don’t all agree on the exact details and I would caution a degree of open-mindedness as to how it will all play out, there is broad agreement on the main themes. However, this doctrine is utter foolishness to the secular mind!
For someone who finds the idea of Jesus’ resurrection on Easter Sunday far too big a pill to swallow, it’s hardly surprising that they would also find the idea that the same Jesus is coming back to blow the full-time whistle a little far-fetched. (Although conversely, if Jesus really did come back to life that day, then the idea that he could come back again might not seem so absurd.)
A relevant passage of Scripture here that Burk highlighted in his post is 2 Peter 3:3-4:
“you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. They will say, “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised? Ever since our fathers died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.””
It’s nearly 2,000 years since Peter wrote those words and a whole lot has happened since then and sure enough, there are many tonight who would not only be sceptical of the specific claims of Harold Camping, but about the more general point that Jesus will return at all. The challenge for me as a Christian living today is how do I communicate the fact that the whole concept of Jesus’ return is not just good news, but fantastic news.
Far too often in the past few decades (and many times before that as well), the issue of Jesus’ return has been hijacked by people who have failed to give a fully-orbed picture of what it means.
The most well-known example of this is the ‘Left Behind’ series of novels. I read these when I was a teenager and, while they are entertaining enough in themselves, I find it hard to accept the idea that in what would be the critical point of human history, when a community of people living out a Gospel witness to a world in need of it is most needed, God would whisk them all away and effectively ‘start from scratch’ from those ‘left behind’. As I read of the inspiring faith of many Christians around the world persevering in the face of great suffering, the idea of a ‘Pre-Tribulation Rapture’ smacked too much of a wimpish desire on the part of some Christians in the West who wanted to wuss out before the going got tough. This is a minority view even amongst evangelicals and it’s unfortunate that it’s the one that seems to be getting the most attention from the media.
The reality is, it’s about more than just the ‘good people’ floating off to the clouds leaving everyone else behind to rot on earth. In fact, it’s not about that at all! Jesus is coming back to make things right! To bring justice and peace to the earth, to bring His Kingdom of love and grace more fully on this physical earth. Yes, that absolutely includes judgment on those who reject Him and scorn His offer of a place at His side in the new community He has brought into being, leaving them outside as the party starts (see Matthew 25:1-13), but it also includes the realisation of those glorious verses from Revelation 21:
“Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4 He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
As we read the New Testament, we see that Jesus’ return was clearly very much at the forefront of the first Christians minds as they considered their place in a culture largely hostile to them and it was of great comfort to them to know that while Jesus had indeed ‘gone to prepare a place for them‘, He would return to make ‘all things new‘ and they would see Him again.
Too often today we allow the fog of 2,000 years of history to cloud our anticipation of that day, fearing that going on about it will make us look like kooks and clowns in the eyes of those around us. Perhaps it will. But it’s only as we come to more deeply appreciate the glorious future God has for us that our grip will be loosened on the worthless idols we hold so dear, enabling us to take great steps of faith as we live in the light of a future that is breaking in on the here and now.
A final point: one of my favourite jokes on this theme is: ‘Eschatology: hey, it’s not the end of the world.’ Cheesy, yes, but it’s witty enough by my admittedly low standards. However, today I realised for the first time that it’s really isn’t the end of this physical world. Jesus’ return, when it does eventually come, God knows when (I mean that literally, not flippantly), will herald the end of the world as we know it, but He will come to (in NT Wright’s phrase) ‘put the world to rights’, redeeming the world from it’s current ‘bondage to decay’ and liberating it, along with us, to enjoy the glorious freedom that He has always intended for us to enjoy.
So enough talk about Raptures spiriting us off to leave this world behind, let’s live in the light of the fact that one day He will indeed return to make ‘everything sad come untrue’.