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Scheduling the Second Advent


When we were traveling in Spain recently, my wife called my attention to a billboard on the roadside near Seville that said “21 Mayo 2011” and “Radio Familia.” We had known about, and on rare occasions listened to, Harold Camping’s Family Radio for many years—he was on in the San Francisco area when we lived there—but were surprised to find that he now reaches around the world.


Harold calls himself “The Bible Answer Man” and often you’ll hear him live on air taking phoned-in questions—the more remarkable for his being 90 years old. But now he has a new cause: he’s set a definite date for the rapture. Jesus, says Harold, will take his people away on May 21, 2011. Harold has bent the resources of Family Radio to telling the world of this prediction, and has apparently convinced others to join him.


Harold reaches this conclusion by a tortured numerology. Here it is, from an article from SFGate (via Wikipedia):


1.      According to Camping, the number five equals “atonement”, the number ten equals “completeness”, and the number seventeen equals “heaven”.

2.      Christ is said to have hung on the cross on April 1, 33 AD. The time between April 1, 33 AD and April 1, 2011 is 1,978 years.

3.      If 1,978 is multiplied by 365.2422 days (the number of days in a solar year, not to be confused with the lunar year), the result is 722,449.

4.      The time between April 1 and May 21st is 51 days.

5.      51 added to 722,449 is 722,500.

6.      (5 x 10 x 17)2 or (atonement x completeness x heaven)2 also equals 722,500.


            Thus, Camping concludes that 5 x 10 x 17 [squared] is telling us a “story from the time Christ made payment for our sins until we’re completely saved.”


Of the verse saying that “of that day and hour knoweth no man” (Matthew 24:36), Camping points out that the next verse compares our time to the days of Noah, and in fact Noah did know when the flood would begin (Genesis 7:4). As for Christ’s arrival as “a thief in the night,” (1 Thessalonians 5:2) Camping reads Paul to say that while some will be surprised, the faithful will have inside information—”But ye, brethren, are not in darkness, that that day should overtake you as a thief” (1 Thessalonians 5:4, emphasis supplied).


We Seventh-day Adventists have always had an uneasy relationship with the historical time line. Setting a date for Jesus to return was what initially got us into trouble in 1843 and 1844, though it was admitting that mistake and moving on with God’s guidance that launched our denomination and the marvelous worldwide ministry we have today. We’ve never again officially endorsed a date for Jesus to return, though sometimes we come about as close as we can, noting some current event or another that we speculate puts it within a decade or two.


Some independent Adventist ministries haven’t been as cautious. Lay eschatologist Larry Wilson set dates of 1994, 1997, 1998 and others for the tribulation and other end time events. (To my knowledge, Larry doesn’t say exactly when Jesus will appear in the clouds, although a general time period between now and 2017 has been mentioned.) Camping himself had earlier promised Jesus’ return in the late 90’s.


(The amazing thing is that these folks seem not to automatically lose their followers after a failed prediction—an example of what social psychologist Leon Festinger called “disconfirmed expectancy”, which came out of his studies of Chicago-based UFO cult in the mid-1950’s.)


I don’t find Camping’s interpretation of Matthew 24:36ff convincing: the intention of the passage is so clearly to say that we ought to live always ready. If even Jesus himself doesn’t know when he’ll be sent back for us, then the Advent is whenever God wants it to be, Noah’s knowledge of the earth’s first rainfall notwithstanding. For the same reason, I find no value in another theory I’ve also heard from date-setters, that Jesus only said you can’t know the day or hour, but he didn’t rule out our identifying the month or year.


Paul’s saying that the Advent shouldn’t be a surprise to the faithful opens another can of worms: we know from multiple New Testament passages that those dear believers clearly expected Jesus to return in their lifetimes. But if the Thessalonians did identify a precise time for Jesus’ return so as not to be surprised, then they were disappointed, because it didn’t happen.


While we haven’t set dates, the idea that something we can do—either become perfect people, which I’ve written about here, or spread the gospel to the world—will bring on the Second Advent, has a following. The latter idea generally draws on Matthew 24:14 which says that “this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” However the causative interpretation isn’t inevitable: there is no necessity, either in Greek or English, that the second thing happen because of the first. If one says, “We will eat dinner, and then the football game will start,” that doesn’t necessarily mean that our finishing dinner signals kickoff.


So what can we safely say about the timing of Jesus’ return?


First, it’s going to happen, because we can trust God’s promises.


Second, we Seventh-day Adventists believe we have been given a “heads up” through prophecy that we are to remind the world about Jesus’ return, and help people be ready for it at all times.


Third, we have no idea when it will happen. Time on this earth doesn’t match God’s time. To one who lives eternally, whose day is as a thousand years, “soon” doesn’t necessarily mean what it means to us.


Fourth, the only safe counsel is to live as if each day were one’s last on earth. For one of them will be.

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