6:00 P.M. EST May 18, 2011
“The Great Day of His Wrath” by painter, John Martin, 1851-1853, depicts a
portion of Revelation 16. Image courtesy of Wikipedia Creative Commons.
View in Photo Gallery
With billboards across the United States proclaiming May 21 as Judgment Day, members of Temple United Methodist Church in San Francisco have one burning question.
Does this mean they won’t have to clean up after the church’s arts festival on Saturday?
“I don’t have anyone in my congregation who has taken it particularly seriously,” said the Rev. Schuyler Rhodes, pastor of the 325-member church. “And people who are biblically serious wouldn’t take it seriously.”
Indeed, people of varying faiths are using the May 21 campaign as an excuse to party and put R.E.M.’s 1987 hit “It’s the End of the World as We Know It” on repeat.
Still, end-times predictions are generally no laughing matter, say scholars and church leaders. When it’s not the end of the world as we know it, people often don’t feel fine.
“If end-of-the-world sentiment becomes wide enough spread, you can have problems,” said Richard A. Landes, a history professor at United Methodist-related Boston University who studies millennial movements. His book, “Heaven on Earth: The Varieties of Millennial Experience,” will be released later this year.
“People don’t think about the future, and they make decisions that can be self-destructive,” he said. Such thinking also can be very destructive.
Landes expects such movements will increase in the wake of natural disasters and world conflicts like the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, uprisings in the Arab world and the turmoil of a still-struggling global economy.
The Rapture Index, a measurement of the nearness of the biblically promised end of the world at RaptureReady.com, hit a record high in April.
A March 2011 poll by the Public Religion Research Institute also found 44 percent of Americans believe recent natural disasters are signs of the end times. Among white evangelicals, the number is 67 percent.
A billboard promotes May 21, 2011, as Judgment
Day, when the righteous will ascend to heaven.
A web-only photo courtesy of WeCanKnow.com.
Rhodes worries about the money people have spent to lease billboards, buy city-bus advertisements, mail pamphlets and caravan across the United States to promote the May 21 prediction.
“You can’t get away from it,” he said. “Everybody laughs, but underneath, it is a sad commentary. In desperate times, people look for some kind of certainty.”
‘Begging God for mercy’
The May 21 campaign is certainly no joke to followers of Family Radio founder Harold Camping, who calculated the date based on his reading of hundreds of Bible verses. The day of reckoning, by Camping’s estimation, falls 7,000 years after Noah’s flood in Genesis began.
Come May 21, Camping and his followers believe the Christian righteous will fly up to heaven at 6 p.m. in each time zone. A vast earthquake will occur, and five months of plagues, mass death and chaos will follow. Finally, on Oct. 21, they believe the world truly will end as Revelation says, with a bottomless pit, a lake of fire and “a new heaven and a new earth.”
Tom Holt, a former Presbyterian pastor who has volunteered for Family Radio for 18 years, told United Methodist News Service he plans to spend May 21 “begging God for mercy.” He has no plans after that day. He is certain he will be among the heaven-bound because he has assurance he is born again, he said.
“God’s elect will know the timing of the end,” Holt said. “God brought calamity dozens of times in Scripture. In each case, he first told his own about the coming event.”
No one knows
United Methodists agree that Christ will come again. However, they have varied interpretations of what the Second Coming will be like.
Asked about the date of Christ’s return, Rhodes and most United Methodist leaders point to Jesus’ words in Matthew 24:36 and Mark 13:32: “But nobody knows when the day or hour will come, not the heavenly angels and not the Son. Only the Father knows.”
Those words have not stopped generations of Christians from conjecture. Even Methodism’s founder took an interest in speculation. In John Wesley’s “Explanatory Notes upon the New Testament,” he tentatively lays out a timeline for the coming of the end in his comments on the Book of Revelation, said the Rev. Randy Maddox, a United Methodist elder and a professor of theology and Methodist studies at Duke Divinity School.
In those notes, Wesley states that he is reproducing a chart by another Christian thinker and while he is not firmly endorsing it, he believes it is possible.
“Significantly, this chart has two millennia built into it, so that the final end is not for at least another thousand years,” Maddox said. “So, John Wesley would certainly not be expecting an end on May 21, 2011.”
After the Lisbon earthquake and other disasters in the 1750s, Charles Wesley — John’s brother — wrote at least one hymn suggesting the end was near. Yet by the 1760s, Charles Wesley rejected similar predictions from some Methodist lay preachers.
The concept of the Rapture, popularized in the “Left Behind” books and countless low-budget church films, did not develop until a century after Methodism began. John Nelson Darby, a British evangelical preacher and founder of the Plymouth Brethren, introduced the teaching that Jesus would return twice.
The first time would be in secret to “Rapture” (or catch up) his church. Jesus would next come back after a seven-year tribulation to usher in a Jerusalem-based kingdom on earth. Darby’s idea of the Rapture is based on his interpretation of 1 Thessalonians 4:17: “Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever.” The Rapture is what Camping’s followers believe will happen on May 21.
While the idea of the Rapture has gained a following among many evangelicals, it’s not a part of United Methodist doctrine.
“Where I actually think the Wesley brothers (especially John) would want us to pay more attention is to what we ‘hope’ for in the end,” Maddox said.
“He became increasingly dissatisfied with those who hoped only to ‘escape’ this world and go as spirits to live in a purely spiritual realm with God. He increasingly emphasized the importance of realizing that God wants to redeem all that God has made, and that we should value all that God has made even now.”
Grains of sand adding up to an hour fall through an hourglass countdown of time. A UMNS photo by Kathleen Barry.
View in Photo Gallery
What really matters
Ultimately, many church leaders say the exact date of the Second Coming should not matter. Christians should follow the old adage to live as if Christ has risen today and will return tomorrow.
“The moment we die, the world has ended for us, and we’re all going to have an end-of-the-world experience at one point,” said the Rev. Miguel A. De La Torre, an ordained Baptist minister and professor of social ethics at United Methodist-related Iliff School of Theology. “Rather than trying to figure out what day that’s going to be, it seems to me that one is more faithful if one lives each day as if it will be the last.”
The way to do that is to do serve the least of these as Christ calls Christians to do, said De La Torre. He points out that the world ends every day for people who die of hunger or preventable diseases.
Rhodes, the San Francisco pastor, echoes that sentiment.
“We believe that Christ is risen and Christ will come again,” he said. “We’re called in this time in between to be faithful to God’s word and build communities of hope and healing. The end will come when it comes in God’s time, not ours.”
*Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service.
News media contact: Heather Hahn, Nashville, Tenn., 615-742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.