Lydia Mallett, left, and John Junstrom spread the word in Tampa, Fla., on Thursday, May 19, 2011 about Saturday May 21st, the day they believe to be the beginning of the Rapture. They were handing out religious literature and preaching about the rapture on the Franklin Street Mall.
The Internet is alive with discussion of the Rapture, which Harold Camping’s most recent prediction says will occur this coming Saturday. Most people, and I think even most Christians, are at best skeptical.
As someone who came to a personal faith around the same time that the infamous pamphlet by Edgar Whisenant was getting attention, 88 Reasons
Why The Rapture Will Be in 1988
, I experienced the hype of such predictions first hand.
But that is not why I am confident that Harold Camping is wrong.
Many are confident that Camping is wrong because the Bible quotes Jesus as saying that “no one knows the day or the hour” (Matthew 24:36).
Others understand the Bible even better, and are aware that the passages appealed to in support of the doctrine of the Rapture (such as 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17) do not teach the idea of a Rapture followed by tribulation that is the mainstay of Dispensational Pre-Millennialist eschatology.
But rather than spend time discussing those passages (or explaining the last few words of the last paragraph), I’d like to suggest a more fundamental reason why the Rapture will not happen this Saturday, or any other day:
It does not make sense for Christians to continue to expect a literal “second coming” of Jesus.
To quote Anthony and Richard Hanson’s book
“An event that has been just around the corner for a thousand years is a non-event. Thinking Christians should not behave as if the Parousia was a genuine possibility” (p.196).
Jesus expected the arrival of the kingdom of God in the lifetime of his hearers (see Mark 9:1), and the earliest Christians shared that expectation. When it did not materialize as anticipated, they found a variety of ways of making sense of that. But today, quoting 2 Peter 3:8, which is itself part of a non-authentic letter attributed to Peter and is trying to address the disappointment of Christians that these expectations were not fulfilled, is simply to perpetuate the problem and not address it directly.
It isn’t just the timing that is the issue. The idea of a second coming with Jesus appearing in the sky is based on a view of the universe, which heaven literally “up there,” that is also hard if not impossible for anyone to accept today without serious cognitive dissonance.
Discussing the literal ascension Luke describes in Acts, Keith Ward writes in his book
The Big Questions in Science and Religion
(p.107): “We now know that, if [Jesus] began ascending two thousand years ago, he would not yet have left the Milky Way (unless he attained warp speed)”.
A time eventually comes when, instead of clinging to older beliefs, no matter how central they may have been historically, it is time to rethink them, and perhaps even set them aside in some cases.
The best antidote for preventing future frenzies of the sort that Harold Camping is generating, is to recognize that they are indeed trying to revitalize something that Christians have historically expected, namely a literal, physical, second coming of Jesus, and to explain why that expectation needs to be reinterpreted or set aside, since after some 2,000 years and in a universe much bigger and very different than anything the early Christians imagined, it no longer makes any more sense to take that literally than that the sun literally stood still at Joshua’s command.
This post first ran at Patheos, a site featuring a global dialogue about religion and spirituality and to explore and experience the world’s beliefs.
More On Faith and May 21, 2011
Photos, video: Scenes from the apocalypse
John Shelby Spong: Camping does not represent Christianity
Richard Dawkins: Science explains the end of the world
Matthew Paul Turner: The harm that ‘Judgment Day’ will do
Panel responds: How do end-times theologies impact real world behaviors?
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