Here is the balance one must strike when speaking about the end of the world: no, I do not think that the world will end tomorrow, but, yes, as a Christian the hope that Christ will return and establish the Kingdom of God is a hope that Christians today (and Christians before us) cherish as a ground of our faith. No, I do not read the Revelation, or Apocalypse, of John literally, but, yes, I believe that Jesus’ return is a future reality. When speaking publicly about the predictions of Harold Camping that May 21, 2011 will be the Rapture, itself a 19th century American Christian creation of John Nelson Darby, one walks a fine line in dismissing precise end time calculations as foolish and dismissing the ground of our hope, namely, “that he will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead and his Kingdom will have no end,” as millions of Christians recite from the Nicene-Constantinopolitan creed on at least a weekly basis. We do not want to be seen as crazy like those folks who predict the end, but our beliefs are signs of craziness to many people in and of themselves. This is why predictions of the end are so damaging: when the world goes on, as it will, on May 22, 2011, Christian faith and hope will be held up to ridicule or dismissed by many people.
There seems to be, though, an incurable itch for some people to predict the end and it has been thus almost from the beginning of Christian history. St. Augustine dealt with this in The City of God Book XVIII, Chapter 53:
Truly Jesus Himself shall extinguish by His presence that last persecution which is to be made by Antichrist. For so it is written, that "He shall slay him with the breath of His mouth, and empty him with the brightness of His presence." It is customary to ask, when shall that be? But this is quite unreasonable. For had it been profitable for us to know this, by whom could it better have been told than by God Himself, the Master, when the disciples questioned Him? For they were not silent when with Him, but inquired of Him, saying, "Lord, wilt Thou at this time present the kingdom to Israel, or when?" But He said, "It is not for you to know the times, which the Father hath put in His own power." When they got that answer, they had not at all questioned Him about the hour, or day, or year, but about the time. In vain, then, do we attempt to compute definitely the years that may remain to this world, when we may hear from the mouth of the Truth that it is not for us to know this. Yet some have said that four hundred, some five hundred, others a thousand years, may be completed from the ascension of the Lord up to His final coming. But to point out how each of them supports his own opinion would take too long, and is not necessary; for indeed they use human conjectures, and bring forward nothing certain from the authority of the canonical Scriptures. But on this subject He puts aside the figures of the calculators, and orders silence, who says, "It is not for you to know the times, which the Father hath put in His own power."
Note, however, that for Augustine, the issue on which many have gone astray is in calculating the end, not that it will take place as promised. For all who believe it, even today, there is a measure of ridicule and disdain that one might face for holding these views generally not simply in light of particular, arcane and obscure calculations. Many others will argue that all such hopes, whether accompanied by predictions or not, are foolish, childish, a form of projection, a type of wish-fulfillment or fear of death and inability to accept one's own mortality. Some might simply say, “After about 2,000 years are you folks going to own up to the fact that Jesus was wrong?”
What’s the answer to this? Ben F. Meyer wrote of what is at the ground of this hope: not childishness or unwillingness to accept reality, but a profound desire for life in its fullness:
But the Church across the centuries –utterly disinclined (unlike modern scholars) to reduce to fiction the objects of future hope – succeeded without strain…The “reign of God” was the object of that all but indestructible longing which comes alive when the last wisp of ordinary hope for the present life disappears. Josef Pieper called it “fundamental hope.” It was not bent on anything that one could “have,” but only on “being” and “selfness,” the salvation of the person. Christians of all eras, beginning with Paul in 1 Cor 15, have correlated their fundamental hope with the real future signified by “the reign of God.” (Christus Faber, “Jesus’ Scenario of the Future, “55-56)
But was not Jesus simply wrong about this fundamental hope as a future reality?
A reasonable answer, one that cuts the ground out from under the prematurely triumphant question of the deists, may encourage some to confront the data of the Gospel literature undistracted by the simplistic and irrelevant thesis – a bogey, but one that has been repeated over and over again by scholars who, perhaps, should have known better – that Jesus was mistaken. All prophecy speaks in the idiom of symbol. There is an irreducible disparity between this idiom and the actuality of events. This disparity is not well described as error. None of the prophets were mistaken, least of all the greatest of them.” (Christus Faber, “Jesus’ Scenario of the Future, “55-56)
This is why Christians after two millennia in hope still pray, though we do not know the time or the day, Maranatha, as foolish as it seems to some.
John W. Martens
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