At church last Sunday several different people smiled at me and said something like, “I’m glad to see you’re here.”
At church last Sunday several different people smiled at me and said something like, “I’m glad to see you’re here.” It seemed an odd thing to say. I’m the pastor; I’m always there.
It wasn’t until the third or fourth person said the same thing that it dawned on me. They were alluding to doomsday evangelist Harold Camping’s widely-publicized prediction that Jesus Christ was going to return to Earth and take his followers to heaven on the previous day.
Like his prophetic forebears, Camping was forced to reinterpret his prophecy. In language reminiscent of the Jehovah’s Witnesses after their failed 1914 advent prediction, Camping now says that “it was to be understood spiritually, not physically.” He then restated his prediction that the world will end on Oct. 21.
I wonder how he’s going to reinterpret that one. Camping’s is the latest in a long history of failed advent predictions. In the 1830s, the Baptist preacher William Miller began predicting that Jesus Christ would return sometime between March 21, 1843, and March 21, 1844. When the prophecy failed, some in the advent movement predicted a new date: April 18, 1844. But that day also came and went.
Then at a camp meeting in August, yet another date was proposed, based on a complex interpretation of biblical data. Many members, including Miller himself, were convinced that this latest date, Oct. 22, 1844, was sure to be right.
But Oct. 22 passed, Christ did not return, and the advent watchers were left confused and disappointed. Like the failed predictions of the past, this recent one was recast to fit reality.
But the spiritual harm these misguided predictions cause cannot be glossed over. People get hurt. In the 1840s, many of William Miller’s followers sold or gave away all their earthly goods. Some of Camping’s followers are said to have done the same.
Such cases are tragic, but the harm caused is more than just personal. These predictions erode general confidence in the Christian message. People who don’t know better assume that Camping is representative of Bible-believing Christians generally. In their eyes, his failed prediction casts doubt on the Bible itself, and calls the integrity of the church into question.
In August 1988 I moved to Michigan to pastor a church. It wasn’t long before people brought to my attention a little booklet titled “Eighty-eight Reasons Jesus Will Return in 1988.” The author predicted a September date for Jesus’ return.
The end of the world came, in T. S. Eliot’s memorable line, “not with a bang, but a whimper.” “Eighty-eight Reasons” was repackaged and returned to shelves six months later as “Eight-nine Reasons Jesus Will Return in 1989.” Sales for the new volume slumped.
And yet the predictions kept coming. Camping himself went out on a limb to predict a 1994 return. The limb broke, but he soon scrambled back up the same tree. Before the turn of the millennium, would-be prophets came out of the woodwork to announce the end of the world.
Why do they keep coming, and why does anyone pay attention to them? One reason may be that both prophet and audience approach the Bible in the wrong way. They come to the text as if it were a secret code book that only an initiate into the hidden mysteries can understand.
When people approach the Bible in this way, they are sure to ignore a passage’s context. They will disregard genre and run roughshod over symbolism and figures of speech. They will overlook ancient perspectives and force an Enlightenment understanding on dates and numbers.
Using such tactics, interpreters can wring a date out of the text, the way a tea-leaf reader can find a portent in the bottom of the cup.
But tea is better drank than read. And the Bible is better regarded as the cherished word of a communicative God than as the coded message of “Our secret agent who art in heaven.”
Shayne Looper is the pastor at the Lockwood Community Church in Coldwater, Mich. He can be reached at email@example.com.