The end of the world?

Kevin Moss

It must be testimony to something that Harold Camping has, in so swift a time become a household name and face. The media have gleefully circulated images of this gentleman that entirely support everyone‘s mental picture of the archetypal fundamentalist. That insane gleam, the focus on destruction and judgement, the threatening way in which a large, black KJV bible is brandished - these things are the hallmarks of the fundamentalist, are they not?

And, of course, we mustn‘t forget the failed prophecy. For Saturday May 21st came and went. No 'rapture‘ was observed, unless the benefi-ciaries received return tickets. The only magical disappearance was Mr. Camping himself, as he went to ground: his followers lurked around, disappointed, mystified, incoherent loci of thwarted eschatology.

It would be unfair to blame the secular media for their obvious relish over this example of evangelical ignominy, for Camping and his followers courted media attention in spades. His organisation, Family Radio, a California-based  'broadcasting ministry‘ spent extremely large sums of money getting its message out there. However, for most other Christians, seeking to articulate Christ‘s message in an increasingly disengaged, dysfunctional culture, this exercise in asinine apocalyptic could not be more damaging, for it hands to the new atheists the perfect weapon to attack orthodoxy – gift-wrapped, and on a lovely shiny plate.

It does not take long for those of a sceptical persuasion to join the dots – indeed, most Christians who know their bibles have probably already done so. The webforums are throbbing with amused and derisory comment on the subject, much of which is certainly justified. It starts with the ludicrous contention at the heart of Camping‘s prophecy – that the date of the End is the product of simple arithmetic and some dubious mental jiggery-pokery. Here we have a model for how =Christians‘ are supposed to use their Bibles to pretty much justify any whacky idea they might dream up.

It progresses through the obvious satisfaction that the predictions were wrong. Well, there you are then. That‘s just typical of Christians – a whole bunch of rhetoric and dogma, and nothing works out, does it? Not at all like science where you can test your predictions on some kind of reality.
But the damage goes much further than that. There is the more pervasive suggestion that Camping is bound to be typical of Bible-believing Christians – that he represents, in microcosm, a kind of carping, vengeful mindset which actually rejoices in the suffering of the damned.

which actually rejoices in the suffering of the damned. Christians are already being portrayed as ‘anti-gay‘, and now the well -oiled marketing machine for the secular humanist worldview has some powerful new caricatures it can trot out to erode the credibility of those it seeks to denigrate. Camping and his kind do a very effective job in undermining intelligent, thoughtful Christians seeking to be heard within the public space on issues such as medical ethics or social care.

There are other aspects to this sorry saga that one has to anticipate in terms of negative impact, because Camping has been wrong before. There is, on YouTube, the video of an interview between him and a very youthful Louis Theroux, who seems drawn to such individuals like a moth to a lantern. In that, Camping asserts, with great dogmatism, that the world will end in 1994, and even now he appears to be returning to the fray with renewed confidence, suggesting a revised October 2011 date. If the man had simply apologised, and retracted the whole sorry debacle, perhaps even the more committed secularists would let the matter go, but of course other than some mildly-expressed regret about an error in his calculations, Camping continues to pursue his path.

One makes an error when balancing the household budget at the end of the month, apologises to one‘s spouse and moves on. There is no crisis. This is a human error one is allowed to make without significant repercussions. One does not make that kind of error, assuming the prediction is even possible, when calculating the date for Armageddon. In this respect, Camping demonstrates the utter moral and intellectual bankruptcy of this kind of treatment of the biblical narrative – if there were any dependable factual basis to what he is up to, he has spent long enough doing it to get the answer right.

It does not, of course, take the committed sceptic very long to draw the line between this kind of monumental intellectual dishonesty and the genuinely credible propositions at the heart of biblical Christianity. If it is right to be sceptical about Camping‘s teachings, which are derived from the Bible, then (so the argument goes) it is equally right to be sceptical about the claims of other Christians, insofar as they may be derived from the same ‘dubious‘ source. And further, by way of extension, there is the implied criticism of the way that God has chosen to reveal his plan to mankind – surely he would have made himself clearer, surely an important date like Armageddon would not be so comprehensively buried in complex arithmetic that one could keep getting it so wrong?

It is difficult to identify how Christians should respond to these events. After all, we read the same Bible as Mr Camping, perhaps even the same translation. We believe that God speaks to us through it, and we also believe that at some point the Lord Christ will return to wrap up this sick and suffering creation, and usher in a new heavens and earth. And, whilst we don‘t engage in those rather sick thought experiments, trying to imagine how awful things will be for the unconverted, the reality is that we do long for our Lord. It matters. Judgement matters. The renewing of creation matters. The ending of sickness and death and hate and tears matters.

I do not think that we have any option other than to face error such as this head on. There is no point in doing anything else than naming it, and seeking to demonstrate why it is so wrong. The fact that Jesus himself tells us in Matthew 24 that no man can know the date of his second coming supplies us with grounds to be quite categorical about the issue. And there is something else ‘fundamental‘ here.

I have noticed, over time, just how similar the new atheists are to the fundamentalists that they attack, when it comes to their treatment of the Bible. Both groups grab for convenient bits of the text, usually wrenched mercilessly out of context in order to support their own agendas. Indeed, it seems as if many of the more militant sceptics are in fact recovering fundamentalists— one can almost spot where they learned their poor textual habits. This being the case, it is even more vital that Christians not only know their Bibles well, but also know how to use them.

Kevin Moss, 05/07/2011