[This piece was printed in our local paper, The Newberg Graphic, on July 2, 2011. It is reproduced here by permission.]
“May 21, much like May 20 and May 22, was notably free from apocalypse,” writes a friend, whose blog is called “The Presbyterian Curmudgeon.” He was referring to Harold Camping’s failed prophecy. If an event that happened more than a month ago is old news, why am I writing about a non-event, a prophecy of something that didn’t happen?
Camping’s failed prediction drew a few smiles. The headline of an article on the topic in the May 28 issue of The Newberg Graphic understated: “Camping’s end times prophecy falls a bit short.” You may remember a billboard on Highway 99W which, like others throughout the country, proclaimed that May 21 was the end of the world. Shortly after, another billboard appeared in Greensboro, North Carolina. With a touch of humor it read “That was awkward,” and quoted Matthew 24:36, “No one knows the day or the hour. . .”
As a Christian pastor, I cringe at that kind of date setting. The Bible does tell us that Jesus will return, but he warned that we do not know when. Prophecies that prove to be apocalypse-free make it more difficult for people to hear what Jesus did say about his return.
Perhaps a touch of humor, such as the headline or the billboard is the best way to handle that kind of prediction. I grieve for those who were taken in by the prophecy, some of whom may have sold homes and quit jobs in anticipation of a return on May 21. But I am also concerned that the attempted prophecy served to focus far more on dates than it did on the good news. That good news centers on Jesus Christ, who entered this sin-cursed, broken world to be the Savior. He took upon himself the guilt and punishment of the sins of his people. He rose triumphantly and ascended into heaven. His promised return is God’s assurance that he will set all things straight.
More serious than Camping’s prediction of Christ’s return is a teaching that is more than awkward. Although it received less publicity than the date setting, Camping taught: “Now the time has come when the era of the church age has come to an end.” He urged his followers to leave their churches.
Perhaps that teaching contributed to Camping and his followers going astray. I am deeply thankful for the oversight and accountability of the church, both on a local and broader level. Were I to begin teaching something contrary to the Bible, I know that there are those who would call me to account (gently, I hope) and correct me. It is a deep tragedy that Camping cut himself and his followers off from that kind of help.
Camping’s disparagement of the church, though more extreme than most, reflects a broader ambivalence towards the church in our culture. Certainly, the church alone does not save – Jesus saves. But Jesus himself emphasized the importance of the church. When Peter confessed, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” Jesus responded that he would build his church (Matthew 16:13-20). In the Book of Acts, as people believed in Jesus, they were baptized and were added to the church. Paul speaks of “the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth.”
Cyprian, a third century leader of the church in northern Africa at a time of serious persecution, grasped that emphasis of the Bible and wrote: “No man can have God as his Father who has not the church as his mother.” To turn one’s back on the church is more than awkward. It is dangerous.
John W. Mahaffy
Pastor, Trinity Presbyterian Church of the OPC