Apocalypse Now or Later?

Harold Camping and his fervent followers in Oakland, California believe that the world will end this Saturday, May 21. (Read about the prediction here.) It’s rather easy to ridicule such beliefs and dismiss this group as just bizarre. But have you read any church history lately?  The whole history of Christianity, from the very beginning, brims over with peculiarities, with one bizarre moment after another.

And what about the Bible? Are those ancient texts really less strange than Camping’s sermons? This Sunday, many Christians will hear a portion of John’s Gospel from the Easter lectionary, including this promise from Jesus: “if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also” (14:3). To me, that sounds only just a little less peculiar than what Harold Camping is preaching. (Read my take on the queerness of the Bible here.)

Given the trendy enthusiasm for atheism these days, some would insist that just believing in God at all is really peculiar if not downright queer.

So I’m not troubled by the oddity of Camping’s predictions. If you’re not odd in some fashion, then you’re really not Christian. I do worry, however, about those among his multiracial, multi-generational community who have forked over their life savings to bankroll the multi-million dollar media campaign that has brought all of this to our attention.  For the sake of argument, let’s say the world does not come to an end on Saturday. Well, who’s going to manage all those really angry, newly-poor people?

But there’s something else I worry about even more: the severe division of humanity between those who will escape the catastrophe and those who are left behind. That’s the core of Camping’s message and why we see his billboards along Bay Area highways.

Philosopher of religion Edith Wyschogrod identified the root of this problem as the “great sorting myths” of Western culture. She means those grand narratives that divide the saved from the damned, or the sheep from the goats (Mt. 25:32-33). Those myths, Wyschogrod argues, have inspired some of the most distressing moments in Western history, fiercely punctuated by Nazi Germany’s concentration camps and gas chambers.

To be sure, one can read the Bible as supporting those sorting myths, just as Harold Camping is doing right now. But there are just as many, if not more ways to read the Bible quite differently.

In that same portion of John’s Gospel for this coming Sunday, Jesus declares that in God’s house there are many mansions (14:2). Don’t skip over the queerness of that image too quickly. (Think of Dr. Who’s phone booth that’s bigger on the inside than it is on the outside.) That Gospel image ought to stretch our credulity far enough to imagine that there really is enough divine grace to go around for everyone and not just a select few.

(For you theology geeks out there: I do subscribe to the “doctrine of election,” but it’s Karl Barth’s version – everyone belongs to the elect. And if that isn’t queer, I don’t know what is.)

I find it helpful to recall that the original meaning of the word “apocalypse” does not demand some kind of doomsday catastrophe. That Greek word just means “revelation” or “unveiling.” In that sense, what we read in John’s Gospel is thoroughly apocalyptic: the unveiling of God’s wildly generous hospitality that will make room for everyone, no exceptions.

Queerly enough, I consider myself an “apocalyptic Christian.” Worlds actually do come to an end, and quite regularly – the world of one’s personal relationships, the world of professional work, the world of economic stability, the world of thriving ecosystems. All of these “worlds” and many more do on occasion come to an end.

The question all those world-ending moments pose is not how to find the “escape hatch” where we can scramble out with our friends and loved ones and let everyone else go to hell. The question is rather how to live in and through world-ending moments with others, and to do so with faith, with hope, and most especially with love (1 Cor. 13:13).

I pray for Brother Harold and his community, just like I pray for all of us. In this Easter season, may we find the faith and the hope to live into that love that is stronger than our many divisions and disagreements; stronger than any world-ending moment; stronger than death itself.

Author: The Rev. Dr. Jay

I'm an Episcopal priest, parish pastor, and Christian theologian as well as a writer, teacher, and occasionally, a poet. I'm committed to the transforming energy of the Christian gospel and its potential to change the world -- even today. Now that's peculiar, thank God!

5 thoughts on “Apocalypse Now or Later?”

  1. What a wonderful reflection, Jay. Your words remind us that apocalyptic thinking belongs not just to the “crazy” elements of culture, but is in fact an invitation to grace. With environmental “world-endings” in particular, I find it hard to wrap my mind around this mindset of grace, but you remind me to try. And that doing so is, in fact, transformative. Thank you.

  2. Thank you for this very helpful and faithful response to the most recent end of the world scenario in the news.

    In any community that embraces human diversity the plurality of religious views can be such a powerful wedge between us. What you’ve offered here encourages deeper engagement rather than dismissal of the issues that could divide us.

    I appreciate that , and it’s the kind of ministry I hope to grow into and with the people I serve.

  3. this beautiful comment was posted by Zoe Brain in Canberra, Australia in response to another of today’s NYTimes articles on this topic… she also agrees with Jay’s assessment:

    “No snark. No mockery.

    Just concern about what they’ll do on Sunday. Will *their* world end? Will they lapse into despair now they know they’ve made such fools of themselves? Or just make excuses, a small mistake in calculations, next date is For Real, Honest.

    I won’t ask them to think about this at this time, lest it be seen as an attack on their Faith.

    I do want them to know that it’s OK, there are people out there who won’t make fun of them, will help them rebuild after they experience the consequences of their folly. Their situation is not irredeemable. They’re not the first who have been gulled, and won’t be the last. It’s in the nature of Religion and Religious belief to have faith in the most bizarre notions.

    And as for atheists and ahnostics – we too have faith, in concepts like “compassion”, “decency”, “empathy”. In Good, if not God. And we’ll be there to help you, whether you believe it or not. Belief is not required, just love for one’s fellows, no matter how foolish they’ve been. Abandoning your faith isn’t required either, though we might suggest a bit of fine tuning, since the world has not in fact ended.”

  4. Thanks for the wonderful words. I’m just hearing about this today, so I’m wondering if they spent enough on advertising…

    But when I did hear of it, it made me think and wonder what I believe in with regards to this phenomenon of apocalypse. I like the revelation or unveiling approach mentioned, and I like the notion of doing my best to be as ready as possible, for myself and my neighbor, as we experience each and every apocalypse, each and every revelation, each unveiling.

    It doesn’t seem so important to believe in the specificity of some particular apocalypse. I hope that Campings followers weather tomorrows revelations well.

  5. Jay – I loved reading your words of reflection and they caused me to pause as so many conversations and jokes have been made about the “end of world” predictions. Personally, I used it as a way to get out of having to do difficult chores and tasks (not really, but in jest). I love thinking about “what else” apocalyptic might mean, given that we are not living in the same landscape as in ancient times. It is comforting to think that the terrain is difficult for so many, and that resurrection comes to all of us. I am ready for unvelling, hospitality and the always generous nature of God.

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