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Will the world end on May 21?

Billboards like these have cropped up all over the place.

Will Judgment Day arrive on May 21? My part of the country is blanketed with billboards confidently predicting the end of the world this weekend—warnings courtesy of Harold Camping and his followers. “The Bible guarantees it,” the signs proclaim. But does the Bible really guarantee this—or any—prediction about the end of the world?

Camping is certainly not the first self-appointed prophet to predict the return of Jesus on a specific date. Most of us, if we’re honest, would probably confess that there’s something strangely compelling about even the most crackpot predictions of the end of the world.

At the most basic level, Judgment Day predictors are attempting to figure out when Jesus will fulfill his promise to return again to Earth. Jesus’ expected return is mentioned many times in Scripture; here are Christ’s own words:

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going.”

It’s human nature to ask the obvious follow-up question: when will this happen? The great challenge here, and the reason people still struggle to predict the date of Jesus’ return two thousand years later, is that the Bible simply doesn’t say when it will happen. On the contrary, Jesus plainly explained that nobody except God the Father knows the date:

“But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come.”

Other descriptions of Jesus’ return stress that it will be both sudden and unpredictable: it will come unexpectedly, “like a thief.” Although some verses suggest that there are prerequisite events that will occur before Christ’s return (the spread of the Gospel across the world, for example, and wars and natural disasters), that Jesus pointedly never provides specifics suggests that he wanted his followers to focus on obeying his commands, not speculating about the date of his return.

Christians throughout history have tried to make educated guesses about Christ’s return, often scrutinizing the striking imagery of the books of Daniel and Revelation for clues. But we’re wise to raise red flags when earnest guesses are replaced by specific predictions. Such predictions are usually obscure and complex, calculated by plugging numbers from throughout the Bible and world history into arcane formulas.

These efforts are problematic for several reasons. First, they’re in tension with Jesus’ own words about “no one” knowing “that day or hour.” Second, claims about hidden formulas and codes in the Bible contradict the long-held Christian understanding of Scripture as plain, clear, and accessible to all. The reformer Martin Luther articulated the Christian confidence that when we read the Bible with God’s guidance, Scripture is clear and open:

The clearness of the Scripture is twofold; even as the obscurity is twofold also. The one is external, placed in the ministry of the word; the other internal, placed in the understanding of the heart…. For the Spirit is required to understand the whole of the Scripture and every part of it. If you speak of the external clearness, nothing whatever is left obscure or ambiguous; but all things that are in the Scriptures, are by the Word brought forth into the clearest light, and proclaimed to the whole world.

Finally, there’s the simple fact that none of the long line of confident predictions—from William Miller’s Great Disappointment to Harold Camping’s 1994 prediction—have ever been correct. That historical context should at the very least inspire extreme humility about the exercise of prediction.

Will the end of the world begin tomorrow, as Harold Camping claims? We don’t know—according to the Bible, we can’t know. When confronted by human prophecies and predictions, our best course of action, as always, is to listen to Jesus’ own words: “Be on guard! Be alert!” We don’t know when Jesus is coming back, but we can strive to live righteously until he does.

Image by Flickr user gsloan.

Filed under Bible Study