Joined: 31 Dec 1969
Location: Dallas, Texas
|Posted: Fri Aug 12, 2011 11:04 am Post subject: When Prophets Don’t Pass the Test
|THERE ARE SOME MYSTERIES MATHEMATICS WON’T SOLVE
When Prophets Don’t Pass the Test
July-August 2011By William F.E. Mahoney
William F.E. Mahoney is a doctoral candidate at the University of Adam Mickiewicz in Poznan, Poland. He earned an M.A. in philosophy at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, as well as an S.T.L. in biblical theology and an S.T.L. in dogmatic theology at the Angelicum in Rome. He has taught at the high school and college levels and has worked in translation, editing, and writing.
It was around 5:30 PM. I was sitting in a Japanese restaurant anxiously awaiting a plate of sushi. A sense of urgency overcame me as there were only thirty minutes remaining to enjoy this farewell meal, since — if doomsayer Harold Camping’s biblical calculations were correct — the world was quickly approaching its cataclysmic end at 6 PM. By 9:30 PM I had to face the fact that Camping had made an error in his calculations. One thing, however, was unmistakable: the sushi was delicious.
This was not the first time that Camping, an evangelical preacher with a radio station based in Oakland, California, was wrong about the presumed end of the world. He had made a similar prediction for the year 1994, which also passed into the annals of past moments in which the world might have ended. Prior to the passing of 6 PM the evening of May 21 — the predicted “Judgment Day” — Camping was questioned about his failed 1994 prediction, to which he responded: “I am not embarrassed about it. It was just the fact that it was premature.” In the same interview, he reassured us of the accuracy of his latest calculations: “There is…no possibility that it will not happen.” Of course, now there is no possibility that it will happen. Camping’s second failed attempt at haphazardly using the Bible to calculate the end of the world must now be added to the rather lengthy list of other such failed predictions.
This type of fallacious forecasting is nothing new. For example, William Miller, a Baptist preacher, predicted that Jesus Christ would return sometime in the year 1844, while Samuel S. Snow specified the day as October 22 of that year. These predictions were based on an obvious misinterpretation of the Old Testament prophet Daniel, and the event became known in history books as “the Great Disappointment” after many had sold all their belongings in anticipation of a day that passed uneventfully into the next one.
The End Is Certain
That this world will come to a definitive conclusion and mankind will face divine judgment is a biblically grounded and authentic article of the Christian faith. It is confirmed in the Apostles’ Creed: “He [Jesus] ascended into Heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again to judge the living and the dead.” This is supported by multiple passages from Scripture — for example, in the Acts of the Apostles, after Jesus ascended into Heaven, an angel says to the onlookers: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11).
This second coming of Christ, which is typically called the parousia in theological literature, constitutes the end of this passing world, the final judgment, and the consummation of Christ’s everlasting reign in glory with the angels and saints. In his Dictionary of the Bible, John L. McKenzie, S.J., states: “A belief that history tends to a term in which judgment will be final, God vindicated, and evil definitely overcome, is basic to biblical and Christian faith and cannot be renounced or ‘demythologized’ without reducing that faith to zero.” Thus, that there will be an end of this world is unquestionably sound Christian doctrine, but when that end will come is another question altogether.
In what is known as the Olivet Discourse, the disciples once asked Christ in private about the end of the world and its accompanying signs. Before addressing the disciples’ inquiries, Jesus responded with a warning: “Take heed that no one leads you astray. For many will come in my name, saying ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will lead many astray.” That this warning is recorded in all the Synoptic Gospels — Matthew 24:4-5, Mark 13:5-6, and Luke 21:8 — is a strong indication of how seriously the early Church regarded the warning and thus how seriously we should regard it today. In The Gospel of Matthew (Pillar New Testament Commentary series), Leon Morris states the following about Jesus’ caveat: “When we survey the history of the church, we are reminded that eschatology is certainly a subject on which it is easy to err. Throughout the centuries people have held the utmost tenacity to a wide range of views on this subject. In our own day there are doughty exponents of pre-, post-, and a-millenarianism to remind us that all the mysteries have not yet been solved and that differing views are still strongly held.”
Morris refers primarily to different scholarly views on the topic, but his commentary can be extended to include those who attempt to forecast precise years, months, days, and, recently, even the hour — namely, 6 PM — of the Lord’s return. It is indeed a subject on which it is easy to err, and not one attempt at discovering the precise moment of Christ’s return has been proven right.
All such erroneous forecasts are ultimately false prophecies. Similar to Jesus’ warning to take heed lest we be led astray, John exhorts us in his first letter to “test the spirits to see whether they are of God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 Jn. 4:1). John penned these words in the first century, which was clearly already exposed to the presence of “many false prophets.” We should not, therefore, be surprised that there are still many false prophets who have gone out into the world today with specious messages and false forecasts regarding the second coming. It has been so since the age of the Apostles.
One way to follow John’s inspired instruction to test every spirit is to consider what type of fruits those spirits bear. Jesus said, “You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles?” (Mt. 7:16). What types of fruit do false prophecy and erroneous forecasting bear? In his Theology of the New Testament: A Canonical and Synthetic Approach, Frank Thielman states: “Not only can such overheated eschatological fervor lead Christians to follow false messianic claimants, but also to stop working, sponge off the Christian community, and create a public scandal.” Most, if not all, false eschatological forecasts to date have entailed at least one of the negative fruits Thielman highlights. The most recent, by Harold Camping, involved at least a public scandal: The media had a field day guffawing over the fiasco, with Camping serving as an extremely poor witness to the message and person of Jesus Christ.
Fueling the Fire of Unpopularity
Christianity has never been universally accepted and practiced, and it never will be here on earth. Already in the first century, Paul addressed the following observation to Timothy: “Indeed all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil men and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceivers and deceived” (2 Tim. 3:12-13). This state of affairs is as true today as it was in the age of the Apostles — and its veracity is becoming more and more noticeable all the time. One need not search far to find a movie that derides, mocks, or attempts to cast doubts on some aspect of Christianity and often on Jesus Himself, some subtly, others overtly. Indeed, most of the media are busy stoking the fire of Christianity’s unpopularity. Naturally, not everyone claiming to be a Christian actually embraces the true faith or practices it meticulously, and so Jesus warned that not all who say “Lord, Lord” will enter the Kingdom of Heaven (Mt. 7:21). It is these types of nominal Christians who often do the most damage to Christ’s honor and to the Gospel’s message of salvation and who make easy targets for public mockery and ridicule.
False prophecies about the end of the world are a source of abundant fuel the media use to feed the fire of Christianity’s unpopularity in the minds and hearts of many. In his second letter, Peter writes, “First of all you must understand this, that scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own passions and saying, ‘Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things have continued as they were from the beginning of creation’” (2 Pet. 3:3-4). Today’s false prophets provide much fodder for modern-day scoffers and inspire questions like “Where is the promise of his coming?” God clearly did not appoint any of these men to deliver a message based on some direct revelation or an inspired interpretation of the Scriptures. These men not only lack an authentic vocation to herald such tidings — as if they were the Paul Revere for the Apocalypse — they do far more harm than good to authentic Christian faith.
The End is Enshrined in Mystery
In the Olivet Discourse and after providing certain signs, Jesus said, “When you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates” (Mt. 24:36). It is debated whether Christ referred here to the destruction of Jerusalem, which occurred in A.D. 70, or to the end of the world. Nevertheless, it would seem that as the end of the world approaches, there will be some indications that the second coming is near. The exact moment, however, is not for anybody to know, since Jesus further states at the end of this discourse that “of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only” (Mt. 24:36). The false prophets of doomsday not only lead people astray and add fuel to the fire of mockery, they contradict the very words of Jesus whom they purport to serve! Thus Jesus’ warning that such persons will lead many astray “highlights the need for vigilance and careful discernment of those who claim to speak or act in the name of Jesus,” writes Mary Healy in The Gospel of Mark (Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture series).
In the end — and I do not mean of the world — we know what we need to know in order to follow the Lord and choose good over evil with His grace and assistance. Though our understanding can increase with prayer, devotion, and acts of charity, we are not meant to know every aspect of every mystery during this earthly sojourn. As Paul notes, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood” (1 Cor. 13:12). Mystery is not mathematics — a divinely revealed truth is not an equation like the quadratic formula that can be solved by human reasoning. God has revealed many awesome mysteries to us and we can spend our entire lives contemplating them while increasing our understanding with the gifts of the Holy Spirit, but we will never fully understand them in this life. The end of the world is no exception. This is noted well in The Navarre Bible’s commentary on Matthew 24:36. It states: “Every revelation about the end of the world is clothed in mystery; Jesus, being God, knows every detail of the plan of salvation but he refrains from revealing the date of the Last Judgment. Why? To ensure that his Apostles and disciples stay on the alert, and to underline the transcendence of this mysterious design.”
If we knew all things right now, especially about the end of the world, we would have no way to demonstrate our love for God. Love and trust are intimately connected, and faith is more than just an intellectual assent to truth. It also encompasses an act of enduring trust in a loving Father that, no matter what happens, when it happens, or how it happens, He has our best interests in mind even more than we do.
I will end with a prediction of my own, and it’s one that you can take to the bank: I predict that we have not reached the end of the end-of-the-world predictors. Harold Camping will not be the last of them. In fact, after two failed predictions, he still hasn’t learned his lesson. In an attempt to explain away his erroneous “calculations,” he said that on May 21 God made a “spiritual judgment” of the world. The “physical judgment” has been rescheduled for October 21, 2011. While the followers he still has left will undoubtedly be running around in a frenzy, selling off their possessions to pay for billboard advertisements of the next “Judgment Day,” I will be seated in my favorite Japanese restaurant, joyfully awaiting a plateful of sushi.
The closer one gets to God, the simpler one becomes. St. Therese