May 21: The Beginning of the Day of Judgment?

Harold Camping, the 89-year-old founder of Family Radio, has warned the world that Saturday, May 21, 2011 is when the rapture will occur and God’s Day of Judgment will begin. Camping made a similar prediction in 1994, but now claims that the Bible guarantees this new date.

If you think Camping may be right, you probably will want to postpone dental work until next week. And if you’re a writer, like me, there’s no point working hard to meet your deadline, is there? Some Sunday sermons will likely suffer because any pastor convinced that Christ is returning Saturday probably won’t be well prepared on Sunday. Apparently Max Lucado doesn’t believe Saturday is the day, since he asked me a couple of weeks ago to be on his radio program this Saturday night, May 21. Either that, or Max handpicked me because he wanted a guest he figured wouldn’t be raptured. 

Some years ago a brother in Portland prophesied, “God told me an earthquake is going to destroy Portland next year,” and a number of Christians made sure they vacated the city the day he predicted it would happen. The Oregonian newspaper, of course, was quick to mock this when there was no earthquake. The man, who I think was sincere, apologized saying, “I really believed God had spoken to me.”

Fortunately, we aren’t under the Old Covenant or he would have been put to death—that’s how serious it was to say you were speaking God’s words when in fact they are simply your own. One of the pastors of the church made a public apology. But the result was that a large number of Christians looked extremely foolish. But looking foolish wasn’t the worst thing. It was looking foolish for the particular reason of believing a “word from the Lord” which, in fact, was not a word from the Lord.

This is not a new problem, it’s an ancient one. Deuteronomy 18: 20-22 says, “But the prophet who presumes to speak a word in my name that I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that same prophet shall die.’ And if you say in your heart, ‘How may we know the word that the Lord has not spoken?’— when a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the Lord has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You need not be afraid of him.”

It’s worth pondering that if Harold Camping had made his prophecy for 1994 in ancient Israel, when the time came and went, he would have been put to death. (Capital punishment has a way of discouraging false prophecy; certainly the self-proclaimed prophet who is put to death will not repeat his error and mislead people ever again.) Similarly, we’re told in the books of the prophets that there is an objective way to recognize whether someone is truly speaking God’s words:

“But the prophet who prophesies peace will be recognized as one truly sent by the Lord only if his prediction comes true” (Jeremiah 28:9).

“When all this comes true—and it surely will—then they will know that a prophet has been among them.” (Ezekiel 33:33).

1 Thessalonians 5:19-21 says, “Quench not the Spirit. Despise not prophesyings. Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.” This is a beautiful balance in appreciating prophecies, while using discernment to determine what’s good and what isn’t, and embrace the good while filtering out the bad.

Because so many believers do not know Scripture, they aren’t inclined nor equipped to do what God’s word says the Bereans did and match up what is being said with what Scripture says (Acts 17:11). They aren’t even studying the Scriptures daily in the first place. They’re watching television and listening to talk radio and reading the newspaper daily, but this does not equip them to discern whether what they’re told from so-called prophets is actually true.

Albert Mohler says much that is helpful about this in an article on Harold Camping:

Albert MohlerFirst, Christ specifically admonished his disciples not to claim such knowledge. In Acts 1:7, Jesus said, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority.” In Matthew 24:36, Christ taught similarly: “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.”

To state the case plainly, these two verses explicitly forbid Christians to claim the knowledge of such dates and times. Jesus clearly taught that the Father has not revealed such dates and timing, but has reserved that knowledge for himself. It is an act of incredible presumptuousness to claim that a human knows such a date, or has determined God’s timing by any means.

Second, the Bible does not contain hidden codes that we are to find and decipher. The Bible has been given to us in order that we might know the truth, and the truth is clearly revealed in its pages. We are not to look for hidden patterns of words, numbers, dates, or anything else. The Bible’s message is plain and requires no mathematical computation for its understanding. The claim that one has found a hidden code or system in the Bible is an insult to the Bible as the Word of God.

Third, Christians are indeed to be looking for Christ to return and seeking to be found faithful when Christ comes. We are not to draw a line in history and set a date, but we are to be about the Father’s business, sharing the Gospel and living faithful Christian lives. We are not to sit on rooftops like the Millerites, waiting for Christ’s return. We are to be busy doing what Christ has commanded us to do.

In Hebrews 9:28, we are taught that Christ will come a second time “to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.” That is the faithful Christian response to the New Testament teachings about Christ’s coming. The church is not to be arrogantly setting dates, but instead to be eagerly waiting for him. Of that we can be truly certain.

The Late Great Planet EarthSome Christians are obsessed with prophecy literature. I myself was as a young Christian in the 1970’s when all of us were reading The Late Great Planet Earth and proving to each other that Christ had to return by 1980. Our youth group leaders taught us that this was an absolute certainty, confirmed by God’s Word. Obviously they were wrong. Ever since then, it’s been hard for me to get excited about popular evangelical interpretations of current events as related to the Bible. I’ve heard a string of dozens of “men who must be the Anti-Christ” during the forty years since I became a Christian as a teenager. You will pardon me if I don’t have much interest in the latest theories.

When believers put too much emphasis on issues such as the timing of the rapture or the identity of the Anti-Christ, it distracts us from our more important callings, such as loving God with all our hearts and loving our neighbors as ourselves, and living lives characterized by justice, mercy and humility. The primary focus of each day should be, “God, as I seek your face in prayer and through your Word, and as I yield my life to you, please use me for your eternal purposes and for your glory,” not, “Here’s why I believe the rapture/second coming/judgment will happen on this day, and never mind that Jesus said that can’t be known.”

2 Peter 3:10-14 says,

“But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. …the earth and everything in it will be laid bare. Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. … But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness. So then, dear friends, since you are looking forward to this, make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him.”

The important thing is that we believe in the return of Christ, and that we live lives of eternal perspective and godliness in light of our imminent deaths and His imminent return.

Photo by Bart Everson [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of over sixty books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries