One need only think of the founder of the Jehovah Witnesses, Charles Taze Russell, who predicted Christ's invisible return in 1874 and a much more noticeable appearance in 1914. Christ did not appear, but world carnage did in the form of WWI. Russell's successor, undeterred by the failure of Christ to appear on command, visibly or invisibly, determined the year 1925 was when Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the prophets would return to earth.
But before we break out into maniacal laughter at Reverend Camping's and others' notions concerning the Rapture, Second Coming, or Apocalypse, perhaps it might be a good idea to take a look at why Camping's ill-fated predictions arouse such intense interest and ridicule.
First, there is an interest among those on the left, particularly among left media types, in ratifying their contempt for religion and people of faith by selecting the most absurd examples of Christianity run amok. That way the hard intellectual endeavor of studying faith traditions is neatly avoided while one satisfies one's penchant for setting up paper tigers which may be shot down with one good cynical laugh. Isolated incidents and fringe doctrines are taken as the sum and substance of the whole of Christianity. Thus, any story of a televangelist's adultery, a priest's molestation of a child, an out-to-lunch interpretation of scripture, or a failed prophecy becomes fodder for an anti-Christian feeding frenzy. There go those embittered people with their religion and guns again. Bunch of crazies, perverts, and hypocrites. Why should we permit such deluded and hypocritical folk access to public discourse?
How easy is it to laugh at religious folk who believe and practice such insane and/or naive absurdities? Apparently, very easy.
But are enlightened secular sophisticates are so much more reasonable and, well, sane when it comes to Apocalypse Now? Are leftist secularists immune from attacks of apocalyptic craziness?
One has only to think of the range of End Time, apocalyptic scenarios cooked up by the extreme environmentalists, Gaia worshipers, and Pachamama devotees, along with other crazies who have left the realm of reality and rushed headlong into prophecies based on their ideas of what is infallible; be it "science" (actually pseudo-science) or a pantheistic "god." The End by asteroid; The End by violent explosions of the sun; The End by dried up energy sources; The End by global warming; The End by ice age; The End by evaporation of the ozone layer; The End by human predations. Or, even more colorful: The End by mutating viruses; alien invasions, human made robots run amok; or evil, conscienceless human clones rebelling against their creators.
Thus proving the religious impulse and the interest in how it all will end is not only ineradicable, but also not confined to overtly religious faith based entities such as Judaism and Christianity.
But there is yet more to the story of Mr. Camping and his ilk.
As formerly referred to, paying attention to and trashing Mr. Camping and other earnest believers whose prophetic instincts have proved erroneous is a way for the anti-religious to avoid intellectual and spiritual encounter with the deeper beliefs of a great faith which has its roots in a history some 4,000 years old, and which has played an irreducible role in the shaping and building of Western civilization.
It is a way of avoiding an encounter with some of the greatest minds and achievements of Western civilization. It is a cheap way of bypassing the immense and incalculable contributions of Christian thinkers like Augustine, Aquinas, St John of the Cross, Luther, Calvin, Barth, Niebuhr, Bonhoeffer, C.S. Lewis, and countless other theologians who have grappled with the spiritual and intellectual problems of their and our own age within the context of Christianity.
It is a way of discarding the Christian art, architecture, and music which has informed and elevated the mind, heart and soul of countless millions: Chartres, Notre Dame; Giotto, Cimabue, Van Eyck, Rembrandt, El Greco; Handel, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Dvorak, Stravinsky -- just a partial list.But most critically, the sarcastic and cynical focus on Mr. Camping's failed prophecies is a way to avoid the historic claims and person of Jesus Christ, whose example and work have transformed millions of followers whose depth of faith and loyalty increases over the years. It is also a way to avoid the profound idea that something is irreducibly wrong with this world and that the wrong needs expunging and the world needs redemption. Mr. Camping, though simplistic and naïve, is at least on to that.
And while Christ himself exhibited humility by refusing to predict the day and hour of his return, he did indeed speak of an Apocalypse, of a time when all wrongs will be addressed, all false prophets proved wrong, and all that is right, all that is good, true, and perfect re-established. In this respect, among others, he stood firmly in line with the visions of the Hebrew prophets, particularly the great visionary, Isaiah.
Christ and his disciples spoke of a time when scoffing and ridicule will fall away, every cynical and mocking tongue is silenced, every enemy of God destroyed, and every knee bowed in acknowledgment that he is Lord. Sounds a bit harsh to modern ears used to perennially non-judgmental "I'm Ok; you're OK" banalities, along with easy listening Kumbaya music -- even though millions sit through performances of Handel's Messiah and listen to odd-sounding numbers such as "Thou Shalt Dash them to Pieces" like a potter's vessel along with hair raising judgmental recitatives such as "He shall laugh them to scorn." Of course, the above is to say nothing of countless artistic depictions of the End, Michelangelo's chilling depiction of the Last Judgment probably providing the best tingle-up-the-leg vision, including a portrait of the artist himself skinned alive. Definitely an uncomfortable view of God and judgment, though such a view of "Dies Irae" has been ensconced in the Roman Catholic mass for centuries -- a particular favorite of the author's being Verdi's scalp tingling version.
Yes, even many Christians are unaccustomed to the idea of a God who laughs in derision at the follies and foibles of the human race and who will eventually judge the misdeeds of all mankind. But such a God has been depicted in biblical literature, Christian art, and music for millennia.
Cynics may scoff and people may imagine all kinds of vain things, including false prophecies, visions, and dreams. Cynical jokesters may imagine themselves both funnier and more knowledgeable than God himself, but "He that sits in the heavens shall laugh: the Lord shall have them in derision," as David, king of ancient Israel notes in Psalm 2. In other words,
God has the last laugh.