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.