I’m pretty sure everyone’s heard by now that the Rapture is happening tomorrow.
Or, you know, maybe not.
There’s a lot of derision and merriment floating around directed at Harold Camping and his followers — and given the extreme likelihood that we’ll all still be here Sunday morning (except for anyone unlucky enough to hit a moose while driving out of St. John’s for the long weekend) that’s understandable. I’ve been very interested, though, to see the responses of my fellow Seventh-day Adventists. Given that our church had its roots over 160 years ago in just such a failed attempt to predict the Lord’s return, you’d think we’d have, at the least, a little compassion for Camping and those who believe him.
In fact, in many ways Camping’s movement seems to be a twenty-first century version of the Millerite movement. It’s not affiliated with any official denomination (and in fact condemned by most if not all); it’s led by a man who is not a trained minister or Bible scholar but has devoted many years to developing his own arcane system of understanding Bible prophecy; and it’s spreading rapidly by word of mouth even while being mocked and derided by most of society. And, of course, it’s heading straight for a Great Disappointment.
One key difference is doctrinal: while Miller preached a visible return of Jesus, the end of the earth and Judgement Day in 1844, Camping preaches a secret rapture of the saved in 2011 (to be followed by the judgement of the wicked and the end of days in October of this year, apparently). But both men, when confronted with the uncomfortable fact that Jesus told us no-one would know the day nor the hour of his return, managed to talk their way around that text.
Given these uneasy parallels, it’s interesting to look at Adventist response to the May 21 rapture theory. While other Christians are practically stumbling over each other in their eagerness to back away and put as much distance as possible between themselves and the rapture whackjobs, it might be nice to think that Seventh-day Adventists would be willing to say, “Hey, our ancestors made a mistake like that once — here’s what we learned from it.”
I’ve argued before that a denomination that was essentially rooted in a misunderstanding on Biblical prophecy, might perhaps have developed a more humble attitude towards our subsequent attempts to understand the Bible — that you might expect Adventists to be a people whose denominational motto might be, “After all, we might be wrong about this.” Nothing could be farther from the truth. After a beginning that essentially demonstrates how wrong humans can be when trying to understand God’s purposes, we have gone on to build up a church culture that celebrates certainty and rightness. I have no serious theological quibbles with the front page article on the Adventist Review website this week (which essentially says that Camping and his followers are wrong about date-setting and the rapture, but that Jesus is coming soon and we should be ready) but I wish it contained some acknowledgement of our own fallibility in this area.
I’m even less impressed with Doug Batchelor, speaker for the Adventist-affiliated Amazing Facts ministry, who has basically challenged Harold Camping to put his money where his mouth is and sell his ministry to Amazing Facts if he really believes he won’t be here to run it after May 21. I mean, that’s funny and makes a good headline, but nothing in the Amazing Facts coverage even hints at their Millerite roots or the fact that we as Adventists understand all too well what it feels like to make a bold prophecy and then be publicly disappointed and derided.
Cheap laughs and good headlines seem to be the order of the day for the rest of the world, as people plan “Rapture Pranks” such as leaving little piles of clothes and shoes by the roadside on May 21 to make it look like people have been raptured. I guess what troubles me about this is not just that, as an Adventist, it hits a little too close to home (or that many other Adventists don’t seem to acknowledge just how close to home it hits). It’s that much of the derision, both from the “world” and from more liberal Christians, seems to be directed not just at Camping’s date-setting or at the idea of a secret rapture, but at the idea that the world is ever going to end, that Jesus will ever come back.
And the thing is, I believe he will. I struggle to hold onto that belief sometimes because it does seem incredible, but it’s more than just my Adventist heritage — it’s my faith in God and my knowledge of human nature and human history, that makes it impossible to believe either that we can save ourselves and create paradise on earth, or that God will abandon us and let us destroy ourselves. So, by default, I believe what I’ve been taught since childhood — that there must be a plan for God to intervene. And that puts me, however uneasily, much closer theologically to Harold Camping and all those people who are going to be greatly disappointed on May 22 — and to William Miller and my own Millerite forbears — than to those who are merrily planning Rapture Pranks.
I can’t dictate what the world, or other Christians, or even other Adventists, ought to be saying about the latest Rapture theory, nor can I tell Harold Camping’s followers what they ought to do after May 21 passes and they haven’t been raptured. But here’s what I say: awkward and ridicule-inducing as it seems, I do believe Scripture teaches there will be a Second Coming, that the Kingdom will be established and the world made new with justice and righteousness for all. But I also know that we humans are never more weak, fallible, and prone to error than when we boldly pronounce that we know exactly when and how this will happen. So let’s hold onto faith and hope, but not forget to have a little charity too — especially for those who end up disappointed.