There was probably no one on the planet Sunday who felt lousier than Harold Camping. The 89-year-old retired civil engineer had been “prophesying” for months in a nationwide, 100 million dollar plus campaign that the end of the world was going to be on May 21, 2011. His ministry proclaimed that when that Saturday arrived, 200 million Christians would be “raptured” to heaven as a result of Christ’s return. Obviously, since you’re here and I’m here and Camping is still here and not a single person on the planet went missing this weekend as the result of supernatural forces, Camping was clearly wrong. But how does someone who is so inaccurate get so sure of something so important? And more importantly, why is anyone willing to follow him?
The truth is, Harold Camping had been very wrong before. He had previously predicted judgment days on May 21, 1988, and September 7, 1994 (for which he wrote the book 1994?). Camping was and is and always will be wrong because he bases his calculations for the end of the world on a strange hybrid of pseudo-faith & pseudo-science called biblical numerology.
Biblical numerology began as a practice that was heavily influenced by foreign, pagan societies like the Babylonians and eventually found its way into faith traditions more closely associated with the Bible, like early Gnosticism, Christian mysticism, and Hebrew Kabbalah – you know, like Madonna (not the weird early years, but the even weirder later years). All of these belief systems sought “hidden answers” to knowing God because when Jesus said that he was the only way to know God, they didn’t fully believe him. Instead, they went rummaging through the Bible not to collect clear meaning and understanding, but to excavate hidden meaning – an approach that is sure to lead someone into confusion and ultimately away from faith.
Biblical numerology became such a dangerous and influential practice in the early church that in 325 A.D., following the First Council of Nicaea (the event from which we received the Nicene Creed), the practice was assigned to the field of unapproved beliefs along with astrology and other forms of divination and magic by the hundreds of orthodox Christian leaders who had gathered. This kind of anti-Christian interpretation of Scripture is the kind that Harold Camping was practicing.
But, you say, he’s just a sweet little old man. How can you dare call him anti-Christian? Simple. Because he willfully and overtly teaches doctrine that opposes Christ’s own teaching.
Like many today, Jesus’ own disciples were fascinated at the thought of the end of the world too, so they asked him about it, recorded for us in Matthew 24. And this is what Jesus replied: “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 37 As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. 38 For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; 39 and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. 40 Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. 41Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left. 42 “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come.” (Matthew 24:36-42)
Harold Camping sure thought he knew the day. In fact, he’s thought he’s known several times. But he ignored Christ’s words that no one will know. Rather, Jesus says that the end of the world will be a surprise to all, like a thief in the night.
Say a prayer for Mr. Camping. We all know what it feels like to look like an idiot. No one looked like a bigger one this weekend than he did. And frankly, he deserved it. Nonetheless, despite this and some other “out there” beliefs regarding God and the Bible and the Church, this is a man who seemingly has a very high regard for Scriptural authority and a high regard for God’s grace and the Lordship of Jesus Christ. So there obviously remains hope for him and I’d rather not spend the rest of the time talking about how crazy he is.
Rather, what struck me in the days and months leading up to the big May 21 date, is how many other people – young, employed, hard-working people – were willing to hop on Camping’s nutbag end-of-world ride. What it tells me is that there are a lot of Christians out there who are so scared of life, so desperate to get out of it, that they’re willing to follow a very old man who practices a very pagan approach to the Bible and has a poor track record of doing so, all because they’re just looking to have a little hope for some relief.
I get it. I’m not always crazy about life either. So much of it seems so pointless. So much of it and the people we encounter throughout it are so discouraging. At some point, I think every Christian stops in their tracks and thinks, “What am I even doing here?” New Testament writers, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, even write that way sometimes. Somewhat ironically, writing in what is called his “Letter of Joy” (Philippians), Paul talks about his desire to die and leave this world to be in heaven. He says, “I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far.” (Philippians 1:23) You see, some Christians struggle with dying, because they’re afraid of what they might leave behind or uncertain of what may be ahead. Others, like people desperate for the end of the world, struggle with living, because they know how good heaven is going to be and they feel like this lifetime is pointless.
If you tend to fall into that latter category (i.e. “life is pointless”), recognize the second half of the Apostle Paul’s statement. While acknowledging his excitement for heaven, at the same time he understands the responsibilities he has to carry out here on earth. He says in Philippians 1:24, “but it is more necessary for you (Philippian Christians) that I remain in the body.” In essence, what Paul is saying is that God is keeping him alive because he has a purpose for Paul, a plan to carry out, that involves ministering to those believers. Paul recognized that it was okay (even healthy) for a Christian to joyfully long for the days of heaven which Christ has earned for us. But Paul also understood that since God is the author of life, as long as he keeps Paul alive, he has a purpose for him, a very real “necessity” in Paul being there. To carry this out, Paul must continue to grow in Christ here on earth and continue to live out his faith.
God’s will for our lives as his redeemed children, as we continue on this planet, is also abundantly clear – to minister on his behalf. No, I’m not saying everyone should become a public minister or a travelling missionary like Paul. I’m saying that every Christian already is a Christian minister as part of the universal priesthood. Living out that priesthood means offering up my life as a living sacrifice – conforming myself to Christ’s likeness, loving God above all and loving others, spreading the gospel, caring for the ailing, comforting the worried, warning the unrepentant and laughing with the saved.
Ministering for Christ on earth involves understanding that there is really no difference between “secular” and “sacred” in our lives. Everything is sacred, since everything may be done to the glory of God. Therefore everything is also significant. Many Christians miss this point and wander through life somewhat directionless. As our king, Jesus is not only the ruler over all the nations on the earth, but he’s the ruler of every decision we make and every thought that we have. He rules over our jobs, our web browsers, our refrigerators, our debit cards, our car horns, our clothing choices, our words, the tone we use, what we communicate through our facial expressions and body language, etc. In short, Jesus rules EVERYTHING in the Christian’s life.
Everything we do, every thought we have, every decision we make, therefore is an act of worship. It is a reflection of what we prize most greatly. When we understand that, everything in life then becomes about giving glory to God. For a Christian, that means purpose. Christians who struggle with finding meaning here, who are desperate for Judgment Day or end of life, are without a doubt failing to see Jesus in every moment of their lives, failing to see how all they take part in is opportunity to “do it all for the glory of God.” (1 Corinthians 10:31) They are failing to recognize that they are here by necessity. They are failing to realize that God works through their obedience to generate something spectacular in this world and for this world, particularly for the people they encounter in life.
God created humans for worship. Whether we realize it or not, that’s what we’re all doing all the time: worshipping. What or whom we choose to worship is directly related to whether or not we understand our purpose in life. If you are lacking true hope or purpose or meaning in life, ask yourself this question: what/who am I worshipping? It could be something as trite as money or sex or pride. Then again, what you might be tempted to worship could be something a little more complex, like a relationship other than the one with Jesus, or a perception of who you think you’re supposed to be, or your sense of justice that’s leading you into bitterness toward God and others.
Whatever it may be (and we’ve all got something), it doesn’t deserve your worship. Only the one who gave you life and bought back your life with his own deserves such worship. That’s Jesus. And when you give him your worship, both your life and your future will have meaning and hope.