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The Christadelphian | June 2011

In the magazine this month:

  • Editorial Judgement day
  • Letters to the Editor
  • Sunday morning “Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground” | John Budden
  • Our preaching focus | John Owen
  • “What then shall we do?” | D. C.
  • Suffering and faith | Paul Cresswell
  • “He showed himself alive” | Allan Harvey
  • Moabite daughter of Abraham 2 – Leaving Bethlehem | Michael Ashton
  • A son of old age 2 – A wife and twins | Mark Sheppard
  • Day after day after day | Trevor A. Pritchard
  • Walking with Luke | Ken Clark
  • Signs of the times A century of natural disasters?
  • Israel and their land The Arab Spring
  • The brotherhood near and far

A sample article from this edition:

Editorial

Judgement day

IN various parts of the world, but particularly in North America, groups of individuals, some large and some small, prepared themselves to expect the cataclysmic final judgement of the world on May 21. They were convinced by the predictions of one man, an 89-year old engineer-turned-evangelical preacher called Harold Camping, that starting in New Zealand and rolling around the world at 6.00 pm in each time zone would occur a great destructive earthquake, while the faithful would be caught up to be with Jesus in heaven. He has been preaching this message for fifty years, but admits that an earlier calculation about the world coming to an end in 1994, was mathematically incorrect. As part of the publicity, Camping persuaded listeners to his Family Radio Worldwide to sell up and prepare for Jesus’ return.

Some did just that, giving up their jobs and donating to the cause money they assumed would no longer be needed. Some of this money was used to fund an enormous advertising campaign, designed to encourage others to do the same, claiming that there is no doubt now about the calculations, because “The Bible guarantees it!”

The claimed guarantees were three-fold:

  • A chronological calculation based on an alleged date for the Genesis Flood, and an unusual interpretation of 2 Peter 3:6-8.
  • The return of Jews to the land and the establishment of the State of Israel.
  • Widespread forsaking of biblical morality, and acceptance of the homosexual lifestyle.

The publicity produced by Camping and his adherents brushes aside the very clear Bible teaching about Christ’s return, “of that day and hour no man knows, no, not even the angels of heaven, but my Father only” (Matthew 24:36), by saying, “No man knows? Actually, the Bible reveals we can know at this time!” No justification whatsoever is given for this statement, directly contradicting the Lord Jesus’ own words.

The result of all the media attention that focussed on these claims is that the suggestion of the Lord Jesus’ promised return has been made to look ridiculous, and anyone who quotes Bible prophecies in support of their views is now regarded as a figure of fun and the butt for all kinds of jokes. As we know, the reality is that –

“(God) has appointed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by the man whom he has ordained.” (Acts 17:31)

For sincere Bible believers, there is no doubt about Jesus’ return, or that it will fulfil exactly all the inspired prophecies. But we do not believe that prophecies were given to predict detailed timing. The object is more to encourage believers to prepare themselves and to be in a state of readiness at all times.

Signs of the times

Prominent among the signs given in scripture that indicate the general period when Jesus will return are the same as those mentioned by Camping: the breakdown of family life with the discarding of biblical morality, and the return of Jews to the land promised to their forefather Abraham. As we regularly preach these things, we must not be surprised if we too are treated as religious fanatics, only fit to be categorised alongside eccentrics like Camping.

But if the return of the Jews to the land and disregard for biblical morality are dependable and biblically authentic signs pointing to Christ’s soon return, other scriptural exposition in Camping’s publicity is highly suspect. Showing where this is clearly wrong should indicate to any fair-minded critic that Christadelphians do not align themselves with his predictions despite certain similarities in other areas. We need therefore to know his teaching and where it is wrong.

As already indicated, the teaching focuses on 2 Peter 3:6-8:

“The world that then existed perished, being flooded with water. But the heavens and the earth which are now preserved by the same word, are reserved for fire until the day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men. But, beloved, do not forget this one thing, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.” (2 Peter 3:6-8)

Camping’s assessment of these verses is that the description of Noah’s flood is associated with a warning not to overlook the fact that with God a day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. This comment is followed immediately by “a very vivid description of the end of the present world by fire” (publicity leaflet). He therefore looks at the Genesis account of the Flood, where we read, “For after seven more days I will cause it to rain on the earth forty days and forty nights, and I will destroy from the face of the earth all living things that I have made” (Genesis 7:4). Camping reckons that the seven days following Noah entering into the Ark relate spiritually to a period of 7,000 years – the time God will allow men and women to enter into the safety of His covenant. From an assumed date for the Flood of 4990 BC, [1] he calculates that this period ends in 2011.

The rapture

Judgement Day in the scheme Camping put together is the fulfilment of 1 Thessalonians 4:16,17, which he describes as the Rapture. When true believers are caught up to be with Jesus in heaven, he expects the rest of mankind to suffer “a horrible period of five months of torment upon earth”. Those five months of torment are found, he claims, in Revelation 9:3-5: “Then out of the smoke locusts came upon the earth. And to them was given power … They were commanded to harm … only those men who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads. And they were not given authority to kill them, but to torment them for five months”. Believing that a period of five months’ torment will follow Judgement Day, Camping also predicts the End of the World on October 21, 2011.

There could hardly be a clearer example of the dangers of treating the early chapters of Genesis as symbolic and the book of Revelation as literal – an increasingly common phenomenon in many churches. Why are the seven days in Genesis 7 spiritualised, and the five months in Revelation accepted at face value? If the five months are literal, we should surely also expect that the torments will involve literal locusts with powers like those of scorpions! As if the misleading chronologies were not enough, the fact that the predictions all turn on misreading the apostle’s words in 1 Thessalonians 4 is the most serious failure to divide the word of truth correctly. Camping’s conclusion is that heaven is the destination and place of reward for faithful believers; that during the period following the Day of Judgement the earth will be covered by the dead bodies of the “unsaved”; and that at the end of five months of judgement, the whole earth will be destroyed by fire.

A straightforward message

These teachings directly contradict the simple Bible message. Jesus promised to return to earth, to restore on earth the kingdom to Israel. That kingdom will involve replacing human rule by divine rule, so that the world fulfils the promise inherent within it ever since Creation. Rather than the men and women who are living at Christ’s return facing torment and death, they will be given wonderful opportunities to learn God’s ways and appreciate His government. The true Gospel is good news about hope for a hopeless world. Even if we are not able to convince people today to forsake lives directed only towards passing pleasures, we may provide them with the means of recognising the Lord when he returns, and thus a tangible hope of accepting him at his coming.

Teaching about the Rapture (believers being caught up to Jesus in heaven) is a comparatively recent phenomenon appearing first in the mid-eighteenth century and blossoming during the period in the nineteenth century known as the Great Awakening when groups like the Seventh-day Adventists, Church of Christ, and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) were founded. It gained extensive popularity, especially in America, from books by the author Hal Lindsey (e.g., The Late Great Planet Earth), and more recently from the Left Behind series, by Tim LaHaye. As a doctrine it is now accepted (with various modifications) by most American fundamentalist Christian groups, many of them with complex beliefs about end-time prophecies.

Teaching the hope of life

The problem is that, in a world which is daily more sceptical about religious belief in any form, eccentrics like Harold Camping undermine the cause they claim to support. This latest failure to predict the end of the world ought to cause us to review our own preaching about Jesus’ return. Predictions that tie future prophecies to a date on the calendar are likely to make Christadelphians look as foolish as Harold Camping. However much we might feel the return of Christ is at the door – and we do – we will not be true to the scriptures by trying to establish in advance a date for his return.

Nor shall we help men and women learn the Gospel of salvation if we try to scare them into believing that complete destruction is about to occur. One point that we often make about wrong teaching or difficult passages is, “Read the verses in context”. Noting the emphasis placed by Camping on 2 Peter 3:6-8, the message in the verse that follows the passage is very telling: “The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.” His message is not about destruction, but about salvation. We do not preach a God bent on the annihilation of His Creation, but on its rescue.

While there will, sadly, be those who refuse to hear, God will continue to do as He has ever done – extend to men and women the opportunity to live for ever in His kingdom when it is established on earth.

[1] The calculation of this date can be found in Harold Camping’s own book, The Biblical Calendar of History (1970), in which he dates Creation at 11,013 BC and the Flood at 4,990 BC. By way of comparison, Bishop Ussher’s chronology gives the alternatives 4,004 BC and 2,348 BC respectively.

 

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