Many of us have seen the recent flurry billboards with the message of Judgment Day on May 21st. This is an idea that is being promoted by a man named Harold Camping. Is anyone being persuaded by this? It seems that some are, although anyone I have talked to seems to think he is simply a nutcase.
This generally negative reaction is good in one sense because Harold Camping is not actually giving an accurate Christian message and it appears that most people are seeing him for what he is. The Bible does not make the claims about a particular date for Christ’s return that Camping does. In fact, it teaches the opposite. We do not know when the Lord will come back. For instance:
“But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only…Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour that you do not expect.” (Matthew 24:36, 44)
“But know this, that if the master of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have left his house to be broken into. You also must be ready for the Son of Man is coming at an hour that you do not expect.” (Luke 12:39-40)
“But the Day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.” (2 Peter 3:10)
The repeated teaching of Scripture is that there will be a judgment day when Christ returns. But the date is not revealed to us. God has not given Harold Camping any secret knowledge that would trump what he already said in the Scripture. Jesus could return at any time…today, tomorrow, May 21st 2011, May 21st 3011. God simply hasn’t told us.
But this brings up two more points of concern that I have with the way Camping is talking about Judgment Day.
- The Lord can come whenever he wants, but assuming God does not select the same date as Harold Camping, May 21st will pass without any fanfare. (Our church as scheduled a seminar on the 21st on the topic of preparing for a future marriage so you know how much stock we are putting into this date!) For non-Christians who have heard his message, and wrongfully associated him with the biblical teaching, this may have the effect of diminishing the credibility of any teaching that God will judge humanity. It will just sound like another religious eccentric droning on with a gloom and doom message. The tendency to say “we’ve heard that before” will be understandable. So let’s distinguish between date-setting eccentrics and those who patiently live in spiritual readiness for the return of Christ.
- It is good to talk about the return of Christ to judge and save. But the way Camping talks about judgment seems to be missing something significant: the judgment that already happened. The irony is that the judgment of Christ on the cross of Calvary 2000 years ago is sort of left behind in all of this. But we can’t really understand the judgment to come without understanding the judgment that already happened. And we certainly can’t be spiritually ready and watchful without understanding this. At the cross, our sins were judged. God has judged the sins of his people in the wrath that he poured out on his Son as our substitute. The sinless Son of God was our sin-bearer at the cross and all who repent of their sins and put their faith in him will find mercy from God. They are forgiven of their sins and given the free gift of eternal life. Camping’s billboards and radio programs say that people should cry mightily unto God, but why bother if all they hear is that God is angry and they are going to be toast anyway? Without the good news of the judgment that happened 2,000 years ago, there would be no hope for people preparing for a future judgment. But there is hope and that hope is in Christ.
What should the church do at this point? Well, we should distinguish between the teaching of the Bible and unorthodox teachers like Camping. And we should be ready to minister the good news of the gospel to a group of very disillusioned people on the 22nd of May.
James White has put together a nice list of resources for those who are interested in further study.