If you were watching the news last week you might have heard that the world was supposed to end on Saturday. It didn’t. An errant radio preacher in California, Harold Camping, had calculated that Judgement Day was to begin on May 21 with massive earthquakes around the world. I was surprised that so many news organizations picked up the story. Since his apocalyptic prediction didn’t happen he is now being mocked in the media without mercy - and rightful so. Not only did he show himself to be careless with the words of Scripture but he set himself up as an authority. He is what the Bible calls a ‘false prophet’. The Old Testament had a way of dealing with false prophets. However, the State of California doesn’t allow people to be stoned. (At least not with real stones.)
The sad thing is that many critics of the gospel use Camping’s bad theology as evidence that the Biblical teachings about the second coming of Christ and end of the world are untrue. Furthermore, many sincere but uninformed people who want real answers are left feeling more confused than ever. Just because Jesus didn’t return on the day Camping predicted doesn’t mean he won’t be coming back. The problem with these kinds of date-setting predictions is they undermine the truth we find in scripture and cause people to doubt the word of God.
The return of Christ was one of the first and most certain doctrines of the early church. Long before all the books of the New Testament were written, before the Church Fathers could articulate the Trinity or the nature of Christ as fully human and fully divine – their faith was based on Jesus – born of a virgin, crucified, resurrected, ascended into heaven and returning soon. The early church was energized by a passion that expected Jesus to return within their life time. The pages of the New Testament are brimming with this expectation. It was clear however that no one knew when that would be. Jesus himself is the source of this teaching: “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.” (Matthew 24:36)
One of Paul’s first letters was to the church in Thessalonica. These new Christians were so excited about the return of Christ they could hardly wait. There were so many questions and misunderstandings about it that Paul devotes a good part of his letter to dealing with the issue. He assures them that Jesus will return and they will get in on it whether it happens now or much later.
Human nature is such that we find waiting hard. If Jesus is coming back why has he waited so long? Peter dealt with that same question almost 2000 years ago.
He quotes ‘scoffers’ who say “Where is the promise of his coming? All things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation.” (2 Peter 3:3-4) So it’s nothing new to question the timing of Jesus’ return. But all the New Testament authors agree that just as surely as Jesus came to earth the first time he will come again.
Since this was such a central truth and doctrine to the New Testament church maybe we should be talking about it more. At least Camping’s predictions have got people talking and thinking. Maybe we should be using this occasion to engage people in dialogue about the end of the age and what’s going to happen. The Apostle Peter goes on to say that God has not forgotten about the end of the world but he is patient, “not wishing that any should perish, but all should reach repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9)
As I read the news accounts this past weekend I was reminded that Jesus is indeed coming back (we don’t know when) and that we have a job to let people know about it. Yes, there may be ‘scoffers’ out there who mock and make fun of any Christian doctrines. But I also believe that there are many that long to know of Jesus’ love for them and would welcome some good news in their lives. Let’s be prepared to offer our reasons for hope when someone asks.