Everywhere you look this past week you've probably seen folks, from every part of the theological spectrum, speaking to the Harold Camping prediction that today is the end of days. Although this isn't the first time that Camping has prognosticated, nor the first time that high profile folks have done so, should we pay any attention to it? My sense is that most of the respondents treat this possibility with as much respect as they do to the suggestion that a Mayan calendar has picked 2012 as the end of days. Picking days and years of Christ's return (parousia in Greek) has often gotten headlines, but to this date none of the prognostications have come true -- not William Miller's nor that of the Jehovah's Witness founders, nor Pat Robertson. And of course, Camping tried this before.
What might be worth pondering in the light of the hoopla is the ongoing discussion among Christians about the end of days. Although the current dispensationalist/rapture theology dates only back to the 19th century, Christians have from the very earliest days pondered the return of Christ in glory. Jesus seems to have it as part of his message -- though there's lots of debate as to whether he was an eschatological preacher. This message is part of the Ascension story of Acts, where the angelic messengers tell the gathered disciples that Jesus will return in the same manner he left (Acts 1:11). You see this sense of urgency in Paul’s letters. He suggests that the current age might be short, and that Christ could return soon -- so be ready. So prominent was this idea in Paul’s teaching that he seems to have found it necessary to modify his instructions. If we can assume that Paul wrote 2 Thessalonians, it appears that some within the Thessalonian churches had decided to quit their jobs and wait it out. Paul told them to get on with their lives – including their jobs (1 Thess. 4:13ff; 2 Thess. 3:6ff).
The key theological term here is parousia, a Greek word that means presence or arrival, and it is used to refer to the return of Christ in glory at the end of the age. This is key, because it’s not simply that Christ will return, but Christ’s return will bring to an end the present historical age. The question that Christians have been struggling with since the first generation of Christians began to die off was why the delay? If, as Paul seems to suggest, the end is near, why hasn’t taken so long to reach this point? And yet, where there is a sense in the New Testament of an imminent return, there are also warnings about getting caught up in date setting (imminence: Mk 9:1; 13:30; Rom 13:11-12; unknown date: Mk. 13:32; Acts 1:7).
So, have fun with Harold Camping if you like, but I'm not sure it's worth giving it much attention! In fact, if we want to take this stuff with any seriousness, we might want to ask why so many Christians seem to take joy in the prospect that those who would be "left behind" in their scenarios would suffer. I fail to see anything Christian about such thoughts.