Friday, May 20, 2011
The World's Last Night (Again)
G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy.
So, here's a little more cannon fodder to commemorate May 22nd. Read. Aim. Fire. At center ring of this week's Armageddon menagerie is Mr. Harold Camping. That's right: he's baaaaack! After a failed attempt to correctly predict the end of the world in 1994, Camping has been hitting the airwaves on Family Radio, billboards, and other media outlets announcing that the end of the world (again) is actually going to occur on May 21, 2011. It's rapture redux or eschatological déjà vu—only, drop the "e" and the "h" to decode the hidden message (it's really not funny if I have to explain it; so, go look it up). Add this to an already infamous list: Mayan calendars, really, really, really (to the nth power) bad Kirk Cameron movies, books, T-shirts, even bumper stickers. So, what happened to that bestseller “1994?”? Mr. Camping, by his own admission, doesn't know why God led him to write that book. Perhaps it wasn't God that had him to write it at all. What do you think, Church Lady? Well, it could have been, hmmm, Satan?! With friends like these, who needs enemies?
It’s true, Christians no longer need to be parodied; many (tragically) do a terribly good job on their own, something even atheists have picked up on. For a modest fee, you too can purchase rapture pet insurance just in case you leave behind your house or car and don't believe that all dogs go to heaven (sorry, Fido).
But all of this is peripheral. Forget that Mr. Camping sounds a little bit like Emperor Palpatine (May 21st is your destiny), forget the Jesus junk and all the ad hominem (as fun as it is); this is a serious problem, an obsession or worse. And it's not just Harold Camping and Family Radio. Last week it was the Left Behind series; next week it will be someone else. These apocalyptic predictions are an inherently perennial part of a particular theological (and perhaps psychological) disposition. If the Historical-Critical Method is guilty of a hermeneutic of suspicion (the Elvis hermeneutic)—and it is—then Camping is guilty of attempting to decipher and distribute a hermeneutic of conspiracy (the JFK hermeneutic). It appears that no one can translate his enigmatic statements but himself, which present both logical and theological dilemmas.
At first glance, that's the most noticeable problem with Camping's predictions: they make Christians look utterly foolish and silly, not to mention idiotic in the classic (and Flying Circus) definition of the word. He’s the theological boy who cried, “wolf.”
To paraphrase C.S. Lewis’s warning about devils in The Screwtape Letters: There are two equal but opposite errors into which our Church can fall regarding the Last Day. One is to disbelieve in its existence. The other is to believe, and feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in it. Satan is equally pleased by both errors.
See if you can follow the eisegetical shell game: According to Camping, the year of the flood was 4990 B.C.; Genesis notes that God gave seven days’ warning to Noah before boarding his gopher-wood life raft; the Psalms say that a day with the Lord is like a thousand years and a thousand years is like a day; therefore, according to Camping Math, a seven-day tsunami warning for Noah means seven millennia for us; add 7,000 years to 4990 B.C. (BCE for you PCs)—don’t forget to eliminate the zero since there is no year zero—put it together and what’ve you got? Bippity, boppity, 2011. Camping also says, “Amazingly, May 21, 2011 is the 17th day of the 2nd month of the biblical calendar of our day . . . and the flood waters also began on the 17th day of the 2nd month in the year 4990 B.C.” “It's a biblical guarantee,” he alleges.
The question is not: Are my numbers right; is Camping crazy; how do I feel about the end times; but, is it true? After all, there are many numbers in the Bible, and not all are symbolic; and just because some words or numbers are doesn’t make every word a symbolic code in need of decryption (for more on this read Luther below).
At least I agree with Camping on this point: the world will end. Jesus will return. The Scriptures are abundantly clear. If, in the words of C.S. Lewis in The World’s Last Night, we are to take Jesus’ Word seriously on the matter, "It seems to me impossible to retain in any recognizable form our belief in the Divinity of Christ and the truth of the Christian revelation while abandoning, or even persistently neglecting, the promised, and threatened, Return. . .If this is not an integral part of the faith once given to the saints, I do not know what is.”
Furthermore, Camping claims to speak for God as a Christian in the Christian Church. His prophecy ought to be evaluated on the criteria of true/false prophets. (By the way, I’m not running for the president of the Spanish Inquisition). Hopefully, most people will realize that Camping is not in any way representative of historic, orthodox Christianity any more than the Real Housewives of Orange County actually represent normal women in Orange County, CA. Sadly, some will follow the whims of their itching ears and chase after false teaching. In this manner, Camping harms the Church’s teaching and preaching of the Gospel and in the process, exposes himself as a false teacher (one for whom we should pray for mercy, repentance and forgiveness) revealing the way many view the Scriptures, and by extension, Christ Himself.
But, for the sake of argument, let’s assume his math is correct (unlike 1994); you can’t do a Kessel run around the clarity of Scripture. The theological buzzword for this is: perspicuity. And there’s no one better than Luther:
I certainly grant that many passages in the Scriptures are obscure and hard to elucidate, but that is due, not to the exalted nature of their subject, but to our own linguistic and grammatical ignorance; and it does not in any way prevent our knowing the contents of Scripture. For what solemn truth can the Scriptures still be concealing, now that the seals are broken, the stone rolled away from the door of the tomb, and the greatest of all mysteries brought to light—that Christ, God’s Son, became man, that God is Three in One, that Christ suffered for us, and will reign forever? (Bondage of the Will, 71)
Scripture is lucid and knowable—not equipped with a cloaking device or in need of decoding. That’s always a red flag for cult-like activity. “Trust us, you'll love the kool-aid—oh yea!” Instead, when we speak about the Last Day, as Lewis superbly suggests:
We must never speak to simple, excitable people about ‘the Day’ without emphasizing again and again the utter impossibility of prediction. We must try and show them that that impossibility is an essential part of the doctrine. If you do not believe our Lord’s words, why do you believe in his return at all? And if you do believe them must you not put away from you, utterly and forever, any hope of dating that return? His teaching on the subject is quite clearly consisted of three propositions. 1) That he will certainly return. 2) That we cannot possibly find out when. 3) And that therefore we must always be ready. (The World’s Last Night, 107)
"Therefore" is the key word. Keep watch. Be sober-minded. The Church keeps her lamps trimmed and burning. She is gathered around Christ’s clear and faithful Word, to receive His body and blood, to bathe daily in the waters of Baptism. And she works while it is still daylight, especially for those who yet remain in darkness.
For this is no doctrine of shock and awe. Its purpose is not found in exasperating fear in the hearts of Christians, but repentance, forgiveness and comfort in these gray and latter days.
A prophet is only as good as his word: Does the prediction come true? In the case of Harold Camping we must say, based on his prior record, no. There is no evidence that he will be vindicated this time around either. However, when it comes to Jesus, the prophet par excellence, we must answer unequivocally, yes. He is no ordinary prophet, no conjurer of cheap tricks, but the Word made flesh. He predicted that He would be delivered into the hands of sinful men, crucified, dead and buried, and on the third day rise again. And. He. Is. Risen.
Comfort, confidence and consolation are found in Christ and in His promise: “Lo, I am with you even to the very end of the age. I do not leave you as orphans.” Even now, the verdict of the Last Day slips out early: “You are forgiven all of your sins in the absolution, in the body and the blood, in the water and the Spirit, in the Name of Jesus.” As for me and my household we will plant a tree and sing along: “it’s the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine.”
And now for something completely different. Today’s E-nkling post is brought to you by the letters: Lutheran Satire and the number My 4 Apocalyptic Ponies.