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COLUMN

Doomsday prophet turns out to be just snake-oil salesman

Hope should be built on repentance, faith, not wild speculation.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011 - 10:18 am

To tell the truth, I was hoping the world really would end over the weekend. I hate having to drag myself to work on Monday morning.

But since you're reading this, it's clear that neither of us was caught up in the Rapture. Which can mean only one of two things:

We're evil, godless people who were “left behind” so Satan could more easily send us straight to hell. Or:

Harold Camping and others like him are fools, liars or both.

The wealthy 89-year-old civil engineer-turned-preacher doesn't see it quite that way, of course. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Camping is merely “flabbergasted” that he and 200 million others who were supposed to have been whisked into the heavens still have to share the globe with the rest of us wretched sinners.

The days and hours preceding Camping's latest Armageddon (he blamed a similar prediction in 1994 on bad math) were amusing, if nothing else. As atheists held parties to mock or celebrate the coming apocalypse, gullible True Believers earned their ridicule by refusing to acknowledge that they had invested their faith in a man who had already proved himself a false prophet.

The question is: Why? Why do so many people find doomsday fascinating, or even attractive?

As a Christian, I look forward to Christ's second coming. But that doesn't mean I want or expect it to happen tomorrow. When Scripture assures us that not even Christ himself knows when the end will come like a thief in the night, all any of us can do is be prepared.

That hasn't stopped various millennialists from predicting the apocalypse, or their sheep-like followers from explaining away why the end never came. Nor is this syndrome unique to certain varieties of evangelical Christians. Some observers fear Iran's leaders are doing their best to hasten the coming of the Mahdi, a sort of Muslim messiah. And of course even some nonbelievers lapse into climatic eschatology every time the temperature fluctuates or a tornado strikes. And who doesn't remember how Y2K was going to ruin everything?

I suppose people like Camping find a following – and often get very rich – because they provide their followers a chance to claim some sort of special insight or privilege while promising the kind of certainty the world often fails to provide. But a false hope is worse than no hope at all. When Camping's supposed Zero Hour came and went, Robert Fitzpatrick stood in New York City's Times Square and wondered why he had spent his own money on end-of-the-world ads.

“I can't tell you what I feel right now,” he told The Associated Press. “Obviously, I haven't understood it correctly because we're still here.”

But he had understood Camping perfectly. He hadn't understood how Camping's certainty revealed his lie.

There is certainty and hope to be found in Christianity, of course, but it must be a hope built on the sure foundation of Scripture – a Scripture that encourages repentance and faith, not wild speculation about things that don't really matter. Faith demands no proof, but neither is it blind. If Christians are going to be mocked – and they will be – it should at least be for the sake of the true faith, not a cartoon version of it.

It would be nice to think that churches might use this as an opportunity to stress the importance of biblical literacy so members are prepared to challenge any error, especially the kind that can lead to dangerous decisions, such as quitting your job before Judgment Day or shaping America's foreign policy in the Middle East on the basis of perceived biblical prophecy. Unfortunately, the very churches most in need of biblical literacy will be the most eager to avoid it – paving the way for the next theological snake-oil salesman.

Turns out that could be Camping himself. He's said Judgment Day will actually be Oct. 21, not May 21 as originally thought. This time, he really, really means it.

With any luck, God will find me on my deck with a good cigar in one hand and a good drink in the other.

Now, that really is heaven on Earth. You might even call it rapturous.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel.
E-mail Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com, or call him at 461-8355.