The end of the world - but not as we know it!

The rock band, REM, sang casually about it, Twitter was trending wildly on it, and the Lord Jesus taught clearly about it. However, despite Harold Camping's bold prediction that the end of the world would begin on Saturday 21 May 2011, rather like REM, we all feel fine and carry on much as before. Yet another end time prediction has come and gone with fanfare and failure.

89 yr old Camping, a controversial radio host in the US, predicted that Saturday 21 May would witness Jesus' return to earth for the day of judgement, heralded by powerful earthquakes and accompanied by the ‘rapture' - a premillennial view that God's chosen people will be taken up into heaven while the rest of the world suffer tribulations. Camping argued (by picking Genesis 7:4 and 2 Peter 3:8 out of context and mixing them together) that the world would end 7,000 years after Noah's flood. However, as I write on Sunday 22 May, there have been no such earthquakes or rapture. The sun rose and the sun set yesterday and the Lord did not return. There was only disillusionment for those deceived and ridicule for the wider Christian community.

How has the world reacted to such predictions? Sadly, despite Camping's previous failed claim that the world would end in 1994, some were taken in by him. Many left churches, jobs and families to prepare for the rapture and thousands of members of the Hmong ethnic minority in Vietnam gathered near the Laos border earlier this month to mark the event. Unsurprisingly, many atheists and humanists whooped with delight at such a great own goal and have used it to mock Christians. One twitter user posted: ‘Saturday May 21 forecast: Doomy with a chance of rapture' and another asked why, if the rapture was due on Saturday, was Camping still soliciting donations on his website. In the US, atheists planned events such as the ‘Rapture After Party' and the ‘Countdown to Back-Pedalling Party'. Entrepreneurs spotted a business opportunity, with a boost in business for Eternal Earth-Bound Pets, set up to look after the pets of those who have been raptured. Bart Centre, its founder and an atheist, told The Wall Street Journal that customers, who each pay up to $135, will be doubly disappointed: "once because they weren't raptured and again because I don't do refunds."

How should Christians respond?

First, by understanding the longing for Jesus' return not mocking those who have been deceived. Many of Camping's devotees will be crestfallen, wondering why they were misled when they prayerfully sought the truth and, perhaps, also wondering if the whole Christian message and, in particular, the promise of the return of the Lord Jesus is also simply a delusion. However, it is surely right to thirst for God and to look forward to the day of Jesus' return. It is also right that, if we are convinced that Jesus will return, to alert people to be prepared for it. Psalm 84 sounds the right note for those longing to be in God's glorious dwelling place: ‘For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere' (84:10). Who does not yearn to see God face to face in a perfect new world? Which of us does not hope for the end of self-centredness and sickness and suffering? Which of us does not ache for the day when justice will be done and there will be an end to evil and Jesus will be seen to be Lord of all?

Secondly, we should respond by humbly trusting God's word not depending on human leaders. The most subtle deceptions are always those closest to the truth. Although only a small number of people were misled into believing that Judgment Day was going to occur yesterday, the majority of Christians around the world and throughout church history have believed that Jesus Christ will return one day to judge his enemies and to save his people. The Bible is clear that Jesus will return but that no-one can know when he will do so apart from God (Matthew 25:46). Indeed, when his disciples came to Jesus and asked him about the end of the age (Matt 24:3), he began with a strong warning not to be deceived into thinking that false Messiahs, international conflict or natural disasters were signs of the end. Instead, Jesus expressly declared: ‘the end is not yet ... All these are but the beginning of the birth pains' (24:4-8). Although many are right to highlight the folly of placing our faith in a charismatic leader, they will be wrong to assume that therefore we should not have confidence in the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. Indeed, not only has it withstood the test of 2,000 years but it has also survived the most rigorous historical, philosophical and theological examination. Camping should have been more teachable and humble, not assuming he had God all figured out and had worked out hidden truths in scripture that the wider church had not. His followers should have been more discerning, quicker to test his views against the word of God. However, while false teachers come and go, the word of the Lord stands forever.

Thirdly, we should respond by being ready today for Jesus' return not seeking to know the day or hour. You've no doubt seen the bumper sticker that reads: ‘Jesus is coming! Look Busy.' But busy doing what? Christians will want to be busy serving the King and engaged in advancing his kingdom before he returns to consummate his reign (Matthew 24:43-25:30). It does sometimes seem as if those most exercised about when Jesus will return have forgotten that his kingdom is already inaugurated and are not currently engaged in kingdom work. To such people, when the king looks like he may be returning, suddenly they feel the need to ‘look busy'. Well, there is real urgency in the gospel but not because we are seeking a countdown to the rapture. As Robert Murray McCheyne said: "an inch of time remains, and then eternal ages roll on for ever - but an inch on which we can stand and preach the way of salvation to a perishing world."

In contrast to the current confusion, back in May 1780, the sky above New England suddenly turned so dark that it seemed that the sun was blotted out at noon and so surely the end must be imminent. Leaving aside the later historical explanation that a combination of Canadian forest fires, cloud cover and fog caused the darkness, it is instructive to note how people reacted. Some were shocked and scared and even the Connecticut legislature discussed whether they should suspend their sitting and return to be with their loved ones before the Lord's imminent return. However, Abraham Davenport, rose to his feet and proclaimed:
‘I choose, for one, to meet Him face to face, no faithless servant frightened by my task, but ready when the Lord of the harvest calls; and therefore, with all reverence, I would say, let God do His work, we will see to ours. Bring in the candles!'
Do you see? Davenport was not embarrassed if the King should suddenly return. He was eagerly waiting and ready. And so should we be, living and speaking for Jesus today in the knowledge that he could return at any time. In one sense, we do want to carry on as before, continuing to advance the gospel in the City of London because that is what Jesus wants us to do.

In other words, Christians live by faith not by sight; we expect Jesus to return and hope for his return but we are not in the habit of trying to predict that date. Instead, we are seeking to live in the light of Jesus' return each and every day. There will be a day when Jesus returns to judge the world. God has given proof of this to all men by raising Jesus from the dead (Acts 17:30). People's eternal destinies depend on their response to Jesus. Hundreds of thousands of people die every day without Jesus. This fact alone should motivate us to avoid foolish distractions and false predictions and dedicate ourselves afresh to getting the gospel out across London and across the world. Where people have not responded to Jesus in repentance and faith, they should not treat his return as a laughing matter. Jesus has warned us to expect atheists to stick their heads in the sand and those within the church to predict the end of the world. He has also told us that both attempts are, literally, doomed to failure.