Amidst the buzz of tomorrow’s predicted “Day of Judgment,” I feel it necessary to take a sober look at what is being brought to light by this peculiar religious sect (which I refuse to call Christian). A situation that has grabbed such public spotlight will undoubtedly be discarded by newspapers and blogs come Monday. The world will move on, and in a month the Rapture will be remembered merely as comic relief in a season marked by great unrest all over the Middle East and North Africa, failing economies, and tragic weather events. That is, until we read on an obscure news site that a faithful follower of Harold Camping has committed suicide in the wake of coming to grips with the reality of a sadly misplaced faith. And then maybe another one in 6 months. In those articles, we’ll read about the families of other disciples who are seeking counseling or undergoing therapy while trying to understand why God would do this to them.
It is so easy to mock the pending doomsday prophets, but we are terrible Christians if we don’t feel a profound sense of sadness for these creatures made in God’s image. The whole situation feels ridiculous, but to the people who are truly hoping for God to rescue them on Saturday, this is not a simple matter; we are talking about people’s core beliefs about who God is and how God acts in the world, beliefs that will be ruptured, not raptured, come Saturday. Friends familiar with the emerging church movement should recognize that this is (on a smaller scale) what has happened to many an evangelical over the last two decades; ruptured belief is why the church is losing both numbers and relevance.This is no laughing matter.
The mockery I observe in all of this is fraught with contradiction. While most Christians would decry Harold Camping’s exact predictions that seem to be in direct contradiction to Jesus’ words, I would propose that those same Christians hold an eschatology that is not a far cry from Camping’s. What is being mocked and dismissed is not Camping’s belief in “the rapture” but rather his profound stubbornness in declaring a date on which it will happen. I don’t think many people who call themselves Christian could articulate why the Rapture is bad theology (in which case I would direct them here). Left Behind should be left behind. It should be the mission of every pastor to re-direct its flock toward healthier readings of apocalyptic texts, which means they need to be exposed to the helpful, pastoral books on the subject like Eugene Peterson’s Reversed Thunder, or the link above to Michael Gorman’s new book, Reading Revelation Responsibly.
Family Radio has declared that salvation is no longer found in the church because God has left the church (read more reflection on that dangerous thinking here). That is not getting talked about as much, but again, I think many of the mockers aren’t far from a similar theology, even if it’s more subconscious. When you get down to it, popular theology says that all that really matters is if you believe in a few certain things. Church is a good thing to learn how to live as God wants you to, but ultimately only the whipped topping–you get to worship with other believers once you’re in, but church participation is not a pre-req for getting into heaven (to claim otherwise puts you dangerously close to Catholic theology, and everyone knows the Catholics are not getting raptured, whether it’s on May 21st 2011 or May 21st 3011).
Family Radio is popular theology taken just beyond the realm of tolerable, and I really do mean just beyond. If there was no exact date, Camping would be considered just another perspective in the reeking pile of cow manure eschatology (the esteemed Tim LaHaye condemns him for naming a day, though he himself thinks the rapture is near since “many signs of our times certainly indicate so”–you can read his captivating response to Camping here).The church must be better about articulating and living a more faithful way. And honestly, I don’t think hosting rapture parties in spite is the best first step towards that. Many so-called “progressive” Christians are taking the theological high road but the moral low road here, and since those two roads are actually one, they’re sunk. I say this not to be harsh but to hold a mirror up; bad eschatology and bad ecclesiology are dangerous, joining in the crowd of mockers is equally so (I wonder which hurt Jesus more, the crowd of familiar faces or the whip of the unknown Roman soldier).The point here is that we are no better than these folks, we just secretly (or maybe not so secretly?) enjoy being able to join the majority for once in making fun of people who call themselves true Christians.
The appropriate Christian response is not to condemn or mock the followers of this skewed religion, but to live an articulation of God’s current and impending restoration of all that was declared good. We can declare in word and deed that we are not hoping for a rapture to deliver us to some distant world while leaving the rest behind, but for an in-breaking of God’s space into ours, that we may be enraptured by God’s presence amid this place. This is the dream of Scripture so beautifully breathed by God. Its haunting truth can make us quake in awe, not terror, of a God who invites us to join in by being joined to the church, Christ’s body on earth. May the purifying fire reign down and rain down on us through a fascination with the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection, a fire that consumes what is evil and broken and leaves us cleansed vessels. May our lives be a burning bush, animated by this fire yet not destroyed, illuminating a dark world.