UPDATE 2013: As we know, this event came and went without incident, except that several thousand people apparently sold or gave away all their belongings but were not raptured off the planet. Harold Camping, however, has gone since then to meet his Maker. RIP.
UPDATE: Be sure to join us for the live stream "May 21, 2011 Judgment Day Party."
The much-publicized "return of the Lord to rapture all righteous believers" predicted by an elderly man named Harold Camping is creating quite a ruckus in the United States. As some may recall, Camping, who runs an organization called "Family Radio," has made this prophecy before, most notoriously in 1994, which came and went uneventfully. Camping's recent prediction is that some 200 million people will be "raptured" on May 21, 2011, which means they will be taken up into the sky to meet with Jesus Christ, while the rest will be annihilated on October 21, 2011. Evidently this notion of mass global genocide appeals to many, as they prepare for the "Lord's return" or "Second Coming."
No First Coming
Firstly, there is little evidence that Jesus Christ was ever on Earth during a "First Coming," so a Second Coming is highly unlikely. (For those who wish for more information about that subject, please see my books and articles.) Secondly, although various of the many views of the "Rapture," "Tribulation" and "Second Coming" use different biblical verses, let us look more closely at some scripture used to create the Christian eschatology or end-of-the-world scenario.
One of the most common scriptures used for "proof" of "the Tribulation," which will supposedly accompany Jesus's return, is Matthew 24 (3, 29-34), the relevant parts of which are translated in the King James Bible, favored by evangelicals, as follows:
And as [Jesus] sat upon the mount of Olives, the disciples came unto him privately, saying, Tell us, when shall these things be? and what [shall be] the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world?... Immediately after the tribulation of those days shall the sun be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken: And then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven: and then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn, and they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And he shall send his angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they shall gather together his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other. Now learn a parable of the fig tree; When his branch is yet tender, and putteth forth leaves, ye know that summer [is] nigh: So likewise ye, when ye shall see all these things, know that it is near, [even] at the doors. Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled.
Exciting stuff, particularly for those who lead dull or traumatic lives and who may not wish to live any longer. However, let us look more closely at the most germane language here.
Coming or presence?
At Matthew 24:3, we read about the "coming" and "end of the world." But is that really what is meant by the writer(s) of these passages? The Greek word translated here as "coming," as in Jesus's "Second Coming," is παρουσία or parousia, which also denotes "presence." According to The Oxford Classical Greek Dictionary, ousia means: "being, essence, substance; property," while para means: "near; beside, along;...towards; during; beyond, except; contrary to, against, in comparison with;...from alongside of, from;...beside, near, in the presence of; according to."
As we can see, there is not necessarily a sense of future coming in this combined word, which could mean, among others, "in the presence of a being."
In reality, it may be that the original biblical writers meant parousia as a current and everlasting divine presence, not the purported future coming of a physical man.
Another question we may then ask is why Christians need Jesus in the physical form, in any event? The parousia is now, as believers demonstrate every time they speak of Jesus in the present tense and pray to him.
End of the world or completion of an age?
Furthermore, the Greek words for "end of the world," συντέλεια τοῦ αἰῶνος, could also be translated as "completion of the age." Hence, the phrase would refer to a period of time, rather than a physical destruction of the earth itself, although, of course, the passages that follow do depict a dramatic destruction. However, this sort of "apocalyptic" thought represents a genre fairly popular at the time this passage was written, as well as beforehand, as in the Old Testament book of Daniel, which contains similar thought, as do various Jewish intertestamental and apocryphal texts. Indeed, several other religions have their end-times scenarios also, including Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam and Zoroastrianism. Many of these concepts are pre-Christian and can be found in Egyptian, Greek and Roman mythology as well. Obviously, not all or even any of these notions may be true. Over the centuries and even in pre-Christian times, therefore, there have been countless "endtimes predictions," which have been as successful as palm reading.
There are many other such scriptures used by the biblically obsessed to determine the future, including some in the books of Isaiah and Daniel, at Matthew 25 and in the purportedly prophetic book of Revelation, as well as in the epistles to the Thessalonians, Timothy and Titus. Moreover, for hundreds of years people have been interpreting these "predictions" as referring to their own times. Indeed, some of the biblical verses (Mt 16:27-28; 1 Th 4:15-17) appear to be referring to Jesus's audience of the time, as if it he would appear "soon," within the time of their own "generation." Yet, he did not return, and "soon really seems to be a long time."
Prophecy or blueprint for disaster?
Exegesis of texts aside, it is unwise to base one's worldview on ancient scriptures that have been claimed to be predicting the events of the day in practically every generation since Jesus's alleged advent. It is likewise perilous to contribute to such unwarranted catastrophic thinking that may indeed exacerbate a situation that truly is degenerating, i.e., the general state of the planet. Then there is the enormous personal toll this sort of thinking has taken on thousands if not millions of people over the past couple of millennia.
If past experience is any indication, all those folks who have sold their belongings and are joining Camping for the Rapture will find themselves still on planet Earth with egg on their faces. Now for my prediction: Camping will then issue a statement that the Second Coming was "postponed" because of this or that, as if he is in communication with Jesus and God, who let him in on his/their plans. Let us not be too hard on them, as, it seems many already having a rough time, which is why they're gung-ho to get off the planet in the first place. Regardless of what happens, Harold Camping's business abilities and capacity to garner global attention are certainly impressive.
Family Radio's Announcement of May 21, 2011
Christian eschatological views
Second Coming of Christ
A Brief History of the Apocalypse
History of the King James Bible
The Meaning of Revelation
Comparing Abrahamic 'End Times' Prophecies
John Hagee: Jesus is Coming Soon!
May 21, 2011 Judgment Day Party!