Well, the rapture hasn’t come, after all. Not that it was any surprise. Harold Camping’s predictions of the coming of judgment day were never anything more than the ravings of a deluded man. Some comments are almost too easy here. For example, one might wonder how someone who claimed to have studied the Bible’s text in excruciating detail to divine the supposed date of the second coming could have missed something as straightforward as the text from Mark 13: “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” But apparently Harald Camping is cleverer than the angels and even the Son of God. A bit less easy (rather uneasy, actually) and significantly more infuriating is the tragic aspect for those who have bought into the claims and gave up jobs, spent their life savings, and so forth. There is much that could be said on the evils of this sort of prediction because of what it does to the people who actually believe such ravings.
It’s too easy, though, to get caught up on the date fixing and the ridiculousness of claims of rapture and earthquakes happening in each time zone and obeying the international date line. It’s all easy to ridicule, but it misses something actually worth noting. Perhaps it is the only thing really worth noting here. When Harold Camping and others talked about the supposedly coming rapture and judgement day, it was clear that it wasn’t something that ought to be feared, by everyone. It wasn’t something that just non-Christians should fear, while Christians welcomed it as a day of joy. No, it was to be a day of God’s terrible wrath, a day that would lead (apparently sometime this fall) to the violent destruction of the earth, of God’s creation. The picture of God and the consummation of all things was one of judgement, wrath, destruction, violence, and so on. It wasn’t the picture of a benevolent deity, one whose primary nature is love. (There’s another couple of verses that this Camping fellow apparently missed: “For God so loved the world…” and “Beloved, let us love on another, because love is from God; everyone who loves if born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.”) At best, it seems, the select few (a small percentage of the world’s Christians, it is noted) who believe just so or are appropriately moral people, or some such, would get to escape all this by physically flying up into the sky.
You see, the God of Harold Camping and others who share a similar outlook (had they been believers in the May 21 rapture or not) is not the God of the Bible. The God the Bible bears witness to is one of love and grace. God is the one who took Israel out of the land of Egypt, not because the people of Israel had earned it or because they had kept the law (which was a covenant yet to be given), but because they God had heard their cries. Sure, God also displays wrath and anger at times, but that is not the deepest nature of God. God is repeatedly described in the Hebrew Bible as one who is faithful, merciful, slow to anger and whose steadfast love endures forever. Indeed, the steadfast love of God is one of the major themes and descriptions of God’s character in the Psalms, with that phrase occurring no fewer than 120 times in the NRSV translation of the Psalter. And the Good News of the New Testament is that Christ came for us, because of that love, while we were still sinners. He came not to demand that thus and so must be done or believed before he would deign to extend the promise of escape from God’s wrath, but with a promise of death defeated and the gift of new and abundant life. And none of this even touches a reading of Revelation that dwells on terrible images while largely ignoring that the book is one of hope, compassion, and promise in the midst of troubles, one that brings a vision of joy, light, life, and a (non-literal) New Jerusalem whose gates never shut and needs no sun and moon for the glory of God is its light.
The Gospel of Mark begins with these words: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” That good news is the gospel. But something is missing in Camping’s prediction for the end of the world, and it is perhaps the most basic thing to any supposedly Christian teaching. Somewhere, amidst all the concern about wrath, judgement, destruction, raptures, sin and evil, and gay people being part of the cause of the end of the world, the gospel has disappeared. I don’t come away from any of this with a sense that there is any good news being proclaimed. Oh, he and his followers might be calling on people to follow some demand so that one isn’t included amongst the annihilated, but that isn’t good news, either. It isn’t the offer of God’s love and grace, of God’s unearned mercy. It’s decidedly unlike the deliverance of Israel from Egypt. And it certainly isn’t the wide open arms and promise of Christ.
The spectacle, ridiculousness, and hubris of Camping’s claims certainly got attention. But the problems here are only magnified by Camping’s particular predictions and proclaimed certainty that the Bible “guarantees” that this is the end. Dispensationalism, and thus the continued influence of Darby and Scofield, continues to have a massive sway and something that captures the imagination of many. Just think the Left Behind series. Not all who embrace dispensationalism go to the extremes of Harold Camping, to be sure. But the whole scheme is based on faulty readings of certain books of the Bible (especially Revelation) and a view of the “end times” that is just as filled with wrath, violence, and a need to conform to some standard to get God’s approval to escape it all, a view that leaves quite a bit less room for the God of steadfast love that the Bible and the church bear witness to.