If you think you dodged the eschatological bullet last week, think again. To paraphrase William Gibson, judgment day is already here—it’s just not very evenly distributed. At least that’s the latest word from radio evangelist and advocate of the imminent eschaton Harold Camping. In a radio broadcast on Monday, Camping explained that the world is still ending, it’s just been delayed a few months.
“Were not changing a date at all; we’re just learning that we have to be a little more spiritual about this,” said Camping in his radio address, “But on October 21, the world will be destroyed. It won’t be five months of destruction. It will come at once.”
Through chatting with a friend over what he acknowledged was a very difficult weekend, it dawned on him that instead of the biblical Rapture in which the faithful would be swept up to the heavens, May 21 had instead been a “spiritual” Judgment Day, which places the entire world under Christ’s judgment, he said.
The globe will be completely destroyed in five months, he said, when the apocalypse comes. But because God’s judgment and salvation were completed on Saturday, there’s no point in continuing to warn people about it, so his network will now just play Christian music and programs until the final end on October 21.
“We’ve always said May 21 was the day, but we didn’t understand altogether the spiritual meaning,” he said. “The fact is there is only one kind of people who will ascend into heaven ... if God has saved them they’re going to be caught up.”
Get ready for the next round of mockery and derision that will follow this latest revision of Camping’s prophecy. His foolishness will continue to make Christians around the world wince in embarrassment. As well it should. However, the problem is not that Camping is a fool, but that he’s the wrong kind of fool.
Camping and his followers are often described as a sect of evangelical Christians. But it’s not true. Whatever evangelical family resemblance might have existed in Camping’s cult has long since faded. For example, evangelicals believe in the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church”; Camping does not. According to the radio preacher, the age of the church is over and all Christians—from Mass-attending Catholics to back-pew Baptists—are required to separate themselves from their church. Because we refuse to do that, he believes we are the heretics.
Unfortunately, Camping’s heterodox theology isn’t limited to ecclesiology. In his peculiar view of salvation, those who believe in Christ aren’t necessarily saved. He thinks God will choose from among those who beg him for mercy on Judgment Day. According to Camping, “God plans to rescue about 200 million people (that is about 3% of today’s population).” With an estimated 2.1 billion Christians in the world, it’s obvious that some of us won’t be joining Camping on the ride to heaven.
Like the tares that grow with the wheat, such dysfunctional theological ideas inevitably grow alongside orthodox doctrine. Combine such aberrant beliefs with the natural sinful nature of man and it’s not surprising to see fresh heresies sprout anew with each generation. It’s a frustrating situation for Christians, as we must continually identify these false doctrines and clarify how they subvert the true Word.
But while we should distance ourselves from perverted doctrine, we must be careful not to step away from pure orthodoxy. While much of the derision aimed at Camping focuses on his prognostications about specific calendar dates, other detractors mock the very idea of a literal Judgment Day—a belief held by almost all Christians since the Ascension of Christ. Many who are laughing at Camping are laughing at us, too.
This puts us in an uncomfortable situation. In explaining how we don’t share Camping’s nutty beliefs, we may be tempted to gloss over nutty beliefs similar to those of the wacky numerologist. While some of us may not believe in the “rapture” (I don’t think the concept is biblical), we do believe—whether we are pre-, post-, or amillenialist—that Christ will return and judge the world.
So how do we mow down the heretical weeds without running over the wheat of orthodoxy? It’s a trickier situation than we might imagine. By trying to our make beliefs palatable to reasonable people, we run the risk of downplaying important doctrines of our faith. One of the most noticeable ways this has occurred during the past few years is in the way some Christians have accepted the legitimacy of homosexual behavior. Many fear the disapproval of their peers more than they fear the rebuke of their Creator. In running the good race they can’t get over the hurdle of being called a “bigot” and so sit on the sidelines with the secular spectators.
But such obstacles are to be expected in the Christian life. Our belief is founded on such ideas considered absurd by the spirit of our age. A crucified God, as St. Paul told the church at Corinth, is a “stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” Paul didn't sugarcoat the problems we face. We should expect unbelievers to find Christianity dangerous, strange, and subversive, because true Christianity is dangerous, strange, and subversive. Attempting to water down our beliefs in order to make them palatable to the broader culture is a recipe for creating lukewarm Jesus-spit (Revelation 3:15-17). While we must constantly strive to gain a hearing in the public square, we should not suffer delusions about how the gospel will be received. We are called to proclaim the evangelion to the world, not to be a PR firm for the Kingdom. God doesn’t need us to apologize for his embarrassing claims about homosexuality or judgment day.
We must not make ourselves fools when we should be wise. Loving God with our whole mind requires developing the intellectual gifts he’s given us and using them in his service. Yet we must be careful not to tailor the Gospel any more to our age than is warranted to make it more intelligible to the sophisticated and worldly wise. “Everything should be made as simple as possible,” said Einstein, “but not simpler.” The same could be said about the message of the Christian faith. The gospel should be presented as reasonably as possible, but not so reasonably that it excludes faith. After all, God has not recruited us to be spin-doctors for the church; he calls us to be fools for Christ. As Camping continually proves, we are likely to be fools anyway. We might as well strive to become the right kind of fools.
Joe Carter is Web Editor of First Things and the co-author of How to Argue Like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator. His previous articles for “On the Square” can be found here.
San Francisco Chronicle, Harold Camping now says end is coming Oct. 21