SKEPTIC: I guess it's a good news / bad news kind of thing. The good news is that Jesus is coming back to Earth on May 21 - just a matter of weeks from now. The bad news is that apparently he's not all that happy - because he's going to destroy the world on October 21. You may have seen the news plastered on a giant billboard near you and become either alarmed or amused.
The man behind all the hoopla is Harold Camping. He has made these bold predictions based on some sort of mathematical formula based on numbers in the Bible. He and his followers at eBible Fellowship are preparing themselves for the big day in May and warning the rest of us to get our act together. The fact that Harold had previously predicted that the world would end back in 1994 doesn't faze them. Just a slight miscalculation, we are told. But now, apparently the technology has improved to the point that we are able to pinpoint the big day exactly. In fact, Harold has even managed to figure out that The Rapture will occur on May 21 at sunset, Jerusalem time (check your newspaper for local times).
PREACHER: The first question we need to ask ourselves is: How does Harold come up with an exact dates for the rapture and the end of the world? His calculations are probably fine if you accept his assumptions. He even in some sense seems to accept the Bible as authoritative. His problem though, lies in how he erroneously chooses to interpret and apply Scripture. One example suffices to point that out: 2 Peter 3:8 says, "With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day." From the context we can understand that the writer is pointing out that God is eternal and that His timetable is different than ours. What may seem like a long time to us isn't for Him. Harold makes the mistake of assuming that this sentence is a formula for calculating the length of history, which was never intended by the writer. Once you do away with Harold's assumption about this verse alone, his eschatological theory falls apart. (I could go on and on about his misinterpretations and misapplications, but that would get too long for this post.)
A comment about salvation: Harold seems to assume that only those who believe his theory about the end of the world are the "true believers", and only the "true believers" get to go up in the rapture. That being the case, his requirement for salvation now is believing in his view of the end times. Scripture is very clear that the requirement of salvation is accepting by faith that Christ died for your sins. Believing something to be true (i.e. the existence of God) cannot save you anymore than not believing it. If you have by faith accepted Jesus Christ as your Savior and Lord, not having your eschatology down right won't disqualify you from attaining salvation. Harold Camping's teaching is so far off that most of the Christian community don't even take him seriously.
SKEPTIC: Well, good, we can both agree that Harold Camping is nuts. I do find it odd that he insists that if you don't buy into his prediction, you're not really a Christian. But he has also preached that everybody should stop going to church, so he clearly appears to be out of the mainstream. But here's the thing - if you, as a Christian, look at Harold and think he's deluded, then perhaps you have an idea of how the rest of the world views Christians who believe in the rapture. I mean, both you and Harold believe in the idea of the rapture - you just disagree about whether or not the precise time can be known.
The fact is, the word "rapture" appears nowhere in the Bible, and wasn't really articulated as a doctrine until the early 1700's, when Philip Doddridge and John Gill developed the idea in their New Testament commentaries. Jesus, however, did say that he would return within the lifetime of his apostles. In Matthew 24:34, he said, "Verily I say unto you, this generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled." Whoops! Just missed it!
PREACHER: Although the word "rapture" isn't in the Bible, the event is clearly predicted both by Christ (e. i. John 14:1~3) and the apostle Paul (e. i. I Thessalonians 4:13~18) In the Old Testament such an event happened to Enoch and Elijah. Theologians and church leaders have referred to the "blessed hope of His appearing" more or less all through history. So, yes the use of the word "rapture" may have started in the early 1700's, but to say that the doctrine wasn't really articulated before then is incorrect.
Although you can make a case that the apostles expected Jesus to return during their lifetimes, the "this generation" in Matthew 24:34 could hardly refer to them. Looking back at verse 4 Jesus says that first the Gospel would be preached to the whole world before the end came. The apostles made a great effort, but they didn't begin to reach the whole world. In fact, most of the world was not reached with the Gospel until the end of the 20th century. And, even now there may be a few places that might need to hear still. Verse 32 may be of some insight. The fig tree is thought to be a symbol for Israel. Since 1948, Israel has become a nation again. So some of us Christians believe that "this generation" refers to the generation (ours) that has seen Israel become a nation again. We are the generation that "shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled." We haven't missed it, it is very soon!
SKEPTIC: Well, if you're going to change the definition of "this generation," I guess you can make any point you want. It's interesting, though, that even someone like C.S. Lewis called Matthew 24:34 "the most embarrassing verse in the Bible," because it had Jesus wrongly predicting his own second coming (perhaps he just forgot to mark it on his calendar). Of course, there are those Christians (preterists) who believe Jesus DID come back in the first century, just like he said he would - except he came back spiritually, not physically. They find themselves at odds with futurists, who believe Jesus is coming back in the future. To me, if you've got Christians in different camps (preterists vs. futurists, premillennialists vs. postmillennialists) debating each other, each one believing something different, it indicates that nobody really knows what the heck they're talking about. Does God enjoy watching believers fighting it out and playing these kinds of guessing games - looking at the Bible as some big puzzle? If Jesus really is coming back, couldn't God just make some sort of cosmic announcement to the universe? That way everyone could make the appropriate preparations, and we could stop playing all these parlor games.
In any event, for the last 2000 years, people have predicted the end of the world, but we still seem to be hanging on - even though each generation of Christians has managed to see "signs" of the return of Christ in the news - the latest example of such hysteria being the dead birds and dead fish that have been cropping up in various places. Christians, of course, look to the Book of Revelations as their blueprint for the end of the world. But is it really realistic to believe that Revelations lays out an actual scenario of the end times - or does it make more sense to look at it as an elaborate revenge fantasy written at a time when Christians were being severely persecuted by the Romans? When you read about "a woman sitting on a beast with seven heads and ten horns drinking the blood of the saints," that should be your first clue that what you're reading is science-fiction. L. Ron Hubbard couldn't have done a better job.
PREACHER: So, you are intrigued that Christians keep believing in the rapture/the second coming of Christ. I am not surprised. You probably also wonder why we keep believing in the Biblical account of creation, Noah's flood, the tower of Babel, all the miraculous events that occurred as Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, the virgin birth, and the resurrection of Christ. We believe these things because they are recorded in an account that is much more trustworthy than the opinions of elite secularists.
SKEPTIC: Well, firstly, thank you for acknowledging that secularists are elite. We'll try to remain humble, however. And yes, I do kind of wonder how anyone can take the Old Testament stories literally, when it's been pretty clearly shown that they are the stuff of mythology.
PREACHER: Your secularist bias is showing. If anything is pretty clear, it would be that the Old Testament stories are true history. Secularism has trouble with events recorded in the Old Testament simply because the unproven assumptions of secularism say those events could have never happened.
SKEPTIC: But to get back to our friends who insist that the rapture is coming on May 21 - I hope they have enough integrity to issue some sort of apology on their website on May 22 for getting people all excited and freaking them out. But I'm guessing they won't - they'll probably just say they miscalculated - again!
PREACHER: It would be nice if they apologized, but people don't like to admit it when they are wrong. Secularists should apologize too for making grandiose statements like, "it's been clearly shown" when they really have no way of knowing. I won't hold my breath for that, though. Of course the apology should really be directed towards their Creator. And, someday that will be what they have to do.
SKEPTIC: Okay, allow me to apologize for all secularists everywhere for saying, "It's been clearly shown." What I should have said is, "No viable archaeological evidence has ever been dug up to prove that O.T. stories like Moses actually occurred in history. Furthermore, most Biblical scholars accept the O.T. stories as legend and mythology." I hope that clears things up.
PREACHER: Apology accepted. Actually, it is quite amazing how much of Old Testament history is verified by archaeological evidence. Furthermore, those Biblical scholars who think that the O. T. stories are legend and mythology, accept the unproven assumptions of secularism without question.