Thursday, May 26, 2011

Why Doomsday Predictions Fail the Gospel

by Rev. Laura Barclay

Many of you saw, or rather couldn’t help but see, billboards for the past six months guaranteeing the rapture on May 21. I admit that I rolled my eyes at yet another self-proclaimed prophet who swears they know the hour and day of the Apocalypse (see a list of some of the failed predictions at This particular “prophet” has now predicted the end of the world four times (May 21, 1988; September 7, 1994; May 21st, 2011; and now he's rescheduled it for October 21, 2011), and happened to rake in $80 million from contributors between 2005 & 2009.

NPR did before and after stories of the May 21st followers. Many of these people and families had quit their jobs and budgeted only to live to that date. Some choose to believe the date was off by a few days or weeks. Others claim it must have been a spiritual rapture, and that salvation is no longer possible. One more level-headed man said, “we obviously don’t understand the Scriptures the way that we should.”

The humility exhibited in the last statement might be the healthiest approach, and one that we could incorporate into our lives. The danger of a premillenialist eschatological view is that people believe they can escape the problems of the world, being sucked up into heaven. The non-chosen are left to deal with catastrophes while the chosen look down from the clouds. This begs the question: Why care for your neighbor, work for peace and reconciliation, and care of creation if God’s just going to snatch you up before destroying the world? Doesn’t this view negate the work Jesus asked us to do—loving our neighbor, healing the sick, caring for the poor and oppressed? Maybe, after countless failed predictions throughout Christian history, we might just realize that there is not a magic get out of jail free card. As followers of Christ, we must do the hard kingdom work he describes in the gospels through parables and examples.

While there is apocalyptic language, much of it refers to events that have already occurred (like the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE). Some passages talk about Christ returning, but the writer of the Gospel of Matthew cautions in Matthew 24, “about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (NRSV). Wouldn’t it be far more beneficial to spend time meditating on the parables and actions of Jesus rather than obsessing over and potentially misusing the more obscure and puzzling literature of the Bible, especially if we take it out of context and misunderstand the meaning? Jesus’ words and actions are timeless because they address real problems that require a response of hard work and an open heart. To lose sight of this for recycled, failed prophesies doesn’t do the gospel justice.

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