Wednesday, May 25, 2011

What's Wrong With This Picture?


I used Jan Luyken’s illustration of the Rapture in connection with this post. It is meant to illustrate Matthew 24:40. That verse and the one that follows it are often used to support the doctrine of the Rapture, the idea that Jesus will take the righteous out of the world before subjecting the wicked to a time of tribulation.
40 Then two men shall be in the field, the one is received, and the one is left; 41 two women shall be grinding in the mill, one is received, and one is left.
Luyken’s illustration shows an angel taking a blessed field hand off to heaven while his unrighteous partner falls to his knees, covering his face in misery. So what is wrong with the picture?

These verses can only be used to support the doctrine of the Rapture if they are taken out of context.  Reading them in context, we find that it is not those taken who are blessed, but those who are left. Matthew 24:37-39, the verses immediately preceding these:
37 and as the days of Noah--so shall be also the presence of the Son of Man; 38 for as they were, in the days before the flood, eating, and drinking, marrying, and giving in marriage, till the day Noah entered into the ark, 39 and they did not know till the flood came and took all away; so shall be also the presence of the Son of Man.  (Emphasis added).
I have quoted these verses from Young’s Literal Translation, not because I have any great fondness for that version, but because, in this case, it preserves the fact that “taken” in verses 4-41 and “took...away” in verse 39 are forms of the same verb. In Noah’s case, those “taken” were the wicked who drowned. Only by reading verses 40-41 apart from their immediate context can one conclude that the ones “taken” are the blessed!

Historical context also argues against the idea that this passage describes a “rapture” of the righteous. In her excellent book The Rapture Exposed, Barbara Rossing reminds us that Jesus preached in Palestine during Roman occupation. When the Roman troops rode into town and took some people away, it was those “left behind” who were the fortunate ones.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Lessons Unlearned

In my last post, I reflected on some of the lessons that we all should have learned from Harold Camping's failed rapture prediction. The first lesson was that setting dates for Jesus' return is a waste of time. Harold Camping himself doesn't seem to have learned that lesson.

Camping's former claim was that the rapture would occur on May 21 and the end of the world would come on October 21, 2011. He now says that his math was right but his interpretation was wrong. The rapture and the end of the world will both take place on October 21. He has been wrong twice before. He is wrong again. I hope that no one is listening to him anymore.

Someone calling himself "Max" submitted a comment on that last post. I have chosen not to publish the comment largely because I think it constitutes spam for a website promoting a different end of the world scenario. Sorry, Max. My blog; my rules.

Max is another who did not learn that date-setting is a waste of time. He's promoting the notion that the world will end on December 21, 2012.


Among the proofs adduced for this date are the fact that an ancient Mayan calendar ends on 12/21/12. I have read that the Mayan calendar is cyclical. It does not end on 12/21/12. It starts over.

I have a calendar on my wall right now that ends on December 31, 2011. I don't for a second think that 12/31/11 will be the end of the world. It will just be time to get a new calendar.

The picture came from wiki. Where else?

Monday, May 23, 2011

Lessons from Harold Camping's Rapture Fiasco


May 21, 2011 has come and gone without apocalyptic event. This leaves Radio Preacher and Doomsday Prophet Harold Camping "flabbergasted." It affords the rest of us an opportunity to ask "What lessons do I take away from this?" Let me suggest a few:

We all ought to learn that Date-setting and speculating about the Apocalypse is a waste of time and money. Some of Camping's followers have apparently been left destitute because they took the man at his word. In the meantime the money and work-hours poured into spreading Camping's false message might have been used to do some real good in the world--feeding the hungry, healing the sick, comforting the afflicted. You know, the stuff Jesus' followers should be doing. And while I think that Camping's failed predictions should warn us all off of setting dates for the judgment day ever again, I doubt that we will learn this lesson. After all, we didn't learn it in 1844, 1992, 19941998, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

Judy Henske sings it: "You learn from history, you learn nothing from history."

We should also learn that saying "the Bible guarantees it" doesn't make a thing true. Camping assured us that the Bible said that there is a rapture, and that it would occur on May 21, 2011. Of course, the Bible says no such thing. It was Harold Camping's interpretation of the Bible that said this. In this case, the Bible was not wrong. Camping was.

I've said several times in these blogposts that the most rigorous logic will yield false conclusions if it begins from false premises. Harold Camping's predictions had a sort of mathematical logic that may have seemed convincing, but he started with false notions about the Bible and how it works.

We ought to learn that there is a difference between believing and knowing. Let me quote Dr. James McGrath,

"The feeling of certainty is easy to acquire. Actually being right is much harder to accomplish, and having good reasons for feeling confident that you are right is harder still."

We are all well served by a healthy sense of doubt concerning even our own most closely cherished beliefs.

Finally, I have learned that using the right search terms in the title of a blog post can yield big results. This blog usually gets a dozen or so hits each day. On Friday, May 20, it was viewed 676 times. On Saturday, May 21, it scored 873 hits. Most of that traffic went to a post titled "The Rapture Will Not Happen May 21, 2011." For certain queries, that post was the first result for a Google search. Perhaps the more significant take-away from my sudden traffic surge would be: The apocalypse is big business.

The quote about learning from history was from the song "Master of Love" on Judy Henske's brilliant 1999 album Loose in the World. I think maybe God didn't end the world in 1998 so that the album could be made. The picture of the billboard came from this website.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

May 21, 2011


The cat woke me up at 2:30 a.m. I gave him a fistful of kibble and listened to the radio for about 3 minutes. There was no news of Judgment Day. I went back to sleep.

At 4:15 a.m. I heard a strange noise in the kitchen. Going to investigate, I found a "thief in the night" at work. The cat was on the counter trying to get into a bag of sandwich rolls. There were no other signs of apocalypse. I threw the cat off the counter, put the bread in a cupboard and went back to bed.

When I awoke this morning, there were birds singing outside my window. I checked the weather radar. It shows storms heading this way. Spring storms, not apocalyptic storms.

There was no worldwide earthquake last night. No rapture. The judgment is in: Harold Camping was wrong.

I wanted to see what Family Radio, Camping's outfit, had to say about this. As of this posting, their website is down.

Google  "Thief in the night" and you find all kinds of images, including the one I took from this website.

Friday, May 20, 2011

There Will Be No Rapture Tonight


I am writing this post on Friday, May 20, at about 8:00 p.m. local time which, if I'm not mistaken, makes it about 2:00 p.m. on Saturday, May 21 at the international date line. In a little less than 4 hours, according to Harold Camping, the rapture will begin. A huge earthquake will start moving east, crossing each time zone at 6:00 p.m. standard time, leaving open graves in its wake. The righteous dead will be raised and taken to heaven. The corpses of the unrighteous will be left exposed. The righteous living will be taken from this world directly into heaven. The rest of us will be "left behind" to face horrible tribulations.

I will be asleep.

I fully expect to wake up in the morning to find that none of Mr. Camping's predictions have come true. I don't believe in the rapture.

The doctrine of the rapture is based in a faulty reading of Scripture. Those who believe the doctrine live either in fear or false hope. It encourages speculations like those of Harold Camping. It distracts from the real and vital work that Christians should be about in this world.

I've mentioned the Scripture Principle ("Scripture interprets Scripture) several times in these blog posts. The Scripture Principle means that we should not be troubled by the difficult parts of the Bible. Rather we should cling to those that are clear.

If you, my reader, are worried by Harold Camping's strange interpretations of parts of the Bible that are not clear to you, cling instead to this:

 Psalm 46:1-11
1 God is our refuge and strength,
     a very present help in trouble.
2 Therefore we will not fear,
     though the earth should change,
     though the mountains shake
        in the heart of the sea;
3 though its waters roar and foam,
     though the mountains tremble with its tumult.
4 There is a river whose streams
      make glad the city of God,
        the holy habitation of the Most High.
5 God is in the midst of the city;
     it shall not be moved;
         God will help it when the morning dawns.
6 The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter;
        he utters his voice, the earth melts.
7 The Lord of hosts is with us;
     the God of Jacob is our refuge.
8 Come, behold the works of the Lord;
     see what desolations he has brought on the earth.
9 He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
     he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear;
    he burns the shields with fire.
10 "Be still, and know that I am God!
     I am exalted among the nations,
          I am exalted in the earth."
11 The Lord of hosts is with us;
      the God of Jacob is our refuge.

Good night and God bless you.

Scripture quotation is from the New Revised Standard Version. I found the picture of the cross here.

Rachel Held Evans's Kind of Kookiness

Yesterday, I blogged about Harold Camping's kookiness and my own. Author, Speaker, Blogger Rachel Held Evans makes much the same point on her own blog, but she does so much more eloquently:

"Like it or not, Harold Camping and his followers make us laugh because we see a small piece of our faith in theirs. They are exaggerated caricatures of ourselves. 

We too are guilty of projecting onto God our expectations and desires.

We too can get overconfident in our interpretations of the Bible.

We too expect God to judge the way we think he should judge, act when we think he should act, be who we think he should be.

And, you gotta admit,  there’s a chance that we too might be absolutely, devastatingly, irrecoverably wrong."

Read the whole thing here.

The graphic came from Rachel Held Evans's website.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Harold Camping's Kind of Kookiness


I have a friend who was raised in the Roman Catholic faith. As an adult, he spent some time living among Mormons. He says, "Observing their kind of kookiness made me face up to my own kind of kookiness."

As May 21 has grown closer, I have been blogging about and critiquing Harold Camping. It has never been my intent to mock Mr. Camping and his followers. I hope that nothing I have written here has been taken that way. There are plenty of others willing to mock Camping. I don't see the point. Mockery only causes hard feelings and alienation.

Until I have convincing proof to the contrary, I will assume that Mr. Camping is sincere in his beliefs. I believe that he is mistaken, but I will concede that he is sincere. I do not want others mocking my sincere beliefs, so, in keeping with the "Golden Rule" I try to treat Camping as I wish to be treated by those who disagree with me.

Besides, I know well that my own kind of kookiness is just as easily mocked as Camping's.

Which brings me to a link: Amy Frykholm has a short blog post about feeling that she does not belong at a "post rapture party." Read it here.

And if you are interested in knowing more about Harold Camping's beliefs, Jason Boyett has a longer, but easy to read post: 21 Things You Should Know About Harold Camping.

I found both of these links at James McGrath's generally excellent blog Exploring Our Matrix.

If you would like a reference for the Golden Rule cited above, you can use Stephanus's verse numbers to find it at Luke 6:31.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Moby Dick, John Nelson Darby, Harold Camping


When I think about Harold Camping’s prediction that this Saturday, May 21, will be “Judgment Day,” I cannot help but wonder how anyone could be convinced of its truth. Of course, some people will believe anything, and having a media presence like Camping’s “Family Radio” somehow lends weight to one’s words. It may be more significant though, to notice that a lot of what Camping says sounds familiar. Camping takes ideas from the orthodox mainstream of Christianity and presses them to an extreme.
A friend of mine says that any truth taken to the extreme becomes heresy.

Robert Estienne gave us a handy way to navigate around the Bible when he added verse numbers to the New Testament. Harold Camping uses those numbers to mine the Scriptures for verses which, divorced from their meaningful context, can be made to mean what he believes.

Martin Luther, and his fellow reformers gave us a high view of the authority of Scripture. Camping makes hay of this claiming that “every Word” of the Bible “was from the mouth of God.” He can then go rooting around for coded messages hidden in the Scriptures.

That coded messages can be found in the text of Moby Dick does not deter Camping and his ilk.

Camping also builds on a thread of apocalypticism that all Christians have inherited from Jesus himself, from the Apostle Paul and, to a greater or lesser degree, from all the writers of the New Testament. Jesus was an apocalyptic preacher. Paul believed that Jesus’ return was imminent. Later in the New Testament period, writers began to back off on their end times fervor and in writings like 1 and 2 Timothy, we can see the nascent Church beginning to trench in for the long haul. This was the period of what Norman Perrin called “emergent catholicism.” Even in this later time, there was an expectation of the end.

Still, neither Jesus nor any of the writers of the New Testament dared to set a date for “Judgment Day”

Other influences on Camping include John Nelson Darby (1800-1882) “the father of dispensationalism” who preached that history was divided into a series of time periods called “dispensations.” In each dispensation God related to creation in a different way. When Camping says that “the Church age” has ended. He is using language borrowed from Darby. Darby either invented or popularized the idea of the “rapture” which is, of course, the event that Camping predicts for May 21. Darby’s ideas, though outside the historic mainstream of Christian thought, have seeped into our American cultural consciousness.

These are just some of the precedents that give Camping’s message an aura of familiarity and, I think, make his strange biblical interpretations and outlandish predictions seem more credible to some people. In every instance--even in the case of John Nelson Darby’s teaching--Camping has taken his forebear’s ideas to eccentric extremes.

 The picture of Moby Dick came from this website and I found the photo of John Nelson Darby here.
I have heard that, as the day approaches, some of Camping’s followers are backing off on their claim that the rapture will be May 21. Apparently they are claiming that it will be sometime between May 21 and October 21, and may be even further delayed because of their prayers for the “unsaved church.”  So much for “the Bible guarantees it.” Can anyone confirm this?

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Rapture Will Not Happen May 21, 2011


We shook hands as we were introduced. “And this is Pastor Brant.” His big fist engulfed my hand. “Pastor,” he said, not letting go, “do you believe in the Rapture of the Church?” It was a test. I was about to fail.

The Rapture is that strange doctrine, which, in its most widely held variation, says that before the end of the ages Jesus will come partway down from heaven. Hovering above the earth, he will call all true believers to himself. They will caught up together in the air with Jesus who will take them back up into heaven. The rest of humanity will be “left behind” to suffer a period--usually seven years--of horrible tribulation.

In some sectors of Christianity, belief in the Rapture is considered a mark of orthodoxy.

Radio preacher Harold Camping has made the news by claiming that the Rapture will occur next Saturday, May 21, 2011 at 6:00 p.m. In Camping’s version Jesus will apparently hover in earth orbit rapturing the faithful to himself in each successive time zone as  intense earthquakes follow in his wake. The subsequent tribulation will be briefer than in most Apocalyptic systems: a mere five months. On October 21, 2011, as Camping tells it, the earth will cease to exist.

While Camping is convinced that the Rapture will occur on May 21 (“The Bible guarantees it,” he says.) I am equally convinced that it will not. You see, I don’t believe in the Rapture.

The doctrine of the Rapture is not a part of the historic teaching of the Church. It is an innovation, thought up some time in the late 18th or early 19th century. It is patchwork doctrine stitched together from disparate Bible verses combined in ways that their original authors would not recognize. Those verses, each taken in its own context, can be interpreted in other ways and for most of Christian history, they were. Some Christians today make belief in the Rapture a test of orthodoxy, but it was not a part of the faith of Jesus, his disciples, the Apostle Paul, the Church Fathers, the Reformers or anyone else before about the year 1800.

Most of all, I do not believe in the Rapture because it is directly counter to what Jesus taught. He never said that he would spare his followers from tribulation. On the contrary, he warned his would-be disciples to count the cost of following him. He told them to take up crosses. He promised them persecutions, not escapism.

I found Jan Luyken's illustration of the Rapture at wikipedia.

Monday, May 16, 2011

I Will Never Own A Harold Camping Bobble Head


I’m a big Martin Luther fanboy. I admit it. I even have a Martin Luther bobblehead and a Martin Luther beer stein. Dr. Luther was a history-changing spiritual genius.

He was also a rather problematic personality and a product of his times. When Luther got things wrong, he got things spectacularly wrong. His stance in the Peasants’ War, for instance, or his advice to would-be polygamist Philip of Hesse. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Then there were the hateful, hurtful things that Luther said about the Jews. Every responsible Lutheran church body has publicly repudiated Luther’s statements about the Jews.

Luther, however, never claimed to be anything other than “saint and sinner.” In that way, I relate to him. Sometimes I, too, get things spectacularly wrong. So in spite of his clay feet, I can admire Martin Luther for his theological and spiritual brilliance, and for the courage of his conscience. Luther’s understanding of justification by grace through faith is the cornerstone of Lutheran theology and the bedrock of my own understanding of God.

So, it chagrins me to say that, like Robertus Stephanus, Martin Luther (and his fellow reformers) in some ways set precedent for the bizarre apocalyptic speculations of Harold Camping.

Luther’s doctrine of Sola Scriptura (“Scripture Alone”) meant that the Bible was the sole source and norm of Christian doctrine. This effectively got Luther out from under the thumb of the Pope. Harold Camping has taken the idea of biblical authority to an extreme that Luther would never have recognized or countenanced:

“At Family Radio,” according to Camping’s website, “we emphatically teach that the whole Bible is the Word of God. We believe that, in the original languages in which the Bible was written, every Word was from the mouth of God, and consequently, is never to be altered and must be obeyed. The Bible alone, and in its entirety, is the Word of God.”
Luther’s vernacular translation of the Bible took the Scriptures out of the hands of ecclesiastical “experts” and made them the possession of every Christian. This is a good thing. I think that Luther fully expected the people to read their Bibles with an understanding of sound, historic Christian doctrine as taught in the community of the Church. An unfortunate consequence of all this is that someone like Camping can take the Bible, unmoor it from good doctrine, and claim its authority for the most outlandish and idiosyncratic ideas.

Then there is the Scripture principle, “Scripture interprets Scripture.” By this Luther meant that the troubling parts of the Bible are to be understood in light of the parts that are clear. The story of Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac should be understood in the light of the cross of Christ. The accounts of genocide in the Old Testament should be tempered by 1 John’s statement that “God is love.” Camping and company have taken the idea that “Scripture interprets Scripture” to mean that odd bits of the Bible can be grafted together to create new meanings that the original writers never intended.

I hardly have to say that Luther would not have approved of the strange lengths to which Camping has taken some of his teachings. In fact, I believe the good doctor would have had some intemperate words for Camping’s brand of biblical interpretation.

If you would like to be a Martin Luther fanboy or fangirl, you can get your own Luther bobblehead from

The beer stein, which I also purchased from Old Lutheran is based on this anecdote from Roland Bainton’s classic Luther biography
Here I Stand:

“A word may be said at this point also about Luther's drinking. He imbibed and took some pride in his capacity. He had a mug around  which were three rings. The first he said represented the Ten Commandments, the second the Apostles' Creed, and the third the Lord's Prayer Luther was highly amused that he was able to drain the glass of wine through the Lord's Prayer, whereas his friend Agricola could not get beyond the Ten Commandments. But Luther is not recorded ever to have exceeded a state of hilarity.”

Sunday, May 15, 2011

A Rabbi, A French Printer and Harold Camping....


Harold Camping is the radio preacher who has predicted that all true Christians will be raptured out of the world next Saturday, May 21, 2011. His interpretations of the Bible are idiosyncratic to say the least, but they are not unprecedented. Guys like Camping don’t arise out of nowhere.

The elaborately bearded gentleman pictured here is one Robert Estienne  (1503-1559) whose name is often latinized to Robertus Stephanus. Stephanus was a classical scholar and printer of books. He published four editions of the Greek New Testament. The fourth of which, published in 1551, contained an innovation that concerns us here: verse numbers.

Stephanus was not actually the first person to divide the New Testament into numbered verses, but his system of numbering was the one that caught on. It is still used in our modern New Testaments. The Hebrew Bible (the Christian Old Testament) uses an even older numbering system which is attributed to Rabbi Isaac Nathan ben Kolonymus, who employed  it in a concordance published in 1523.

Verse numbers are immensely helpful for students of the Bible. They give us an easy way to navigate through the Scriptures. They make it possible for persons using different versions of the Bible to find the same spot in reading. For this we owe Stephanus and Rabbi b. Kolonymus a debt of gratitude.

Useful as they are, Stephanus’s verse numbers are sometimes strange. For example, he occasionally divided sentences at odd places. Legend (well, joke really) has it that he marked out his verse numbers while riding on horseback. Occasionally the horse would stumble and Stephanus would drop the pen at a random spot on the page. My Greek New Testament reading group has cursed Stephanus’ horse more than once.

The worst thing about verse numbers is that they make the Bible seem to be a collection of verses. Verse numbers break up sustained thoughts. Verse numbers make it seem that every verse is of equal weight and importance. They make it possible to take a fragment of a thought from Jeremiah and combine it with a completely unrelated verse from James as if it made sense to do so.

And this is the stock in trade of Harold Camping and others of his ilk.

There is an old joke about a woman who opened her Bible to a random verse each day to learn God’s will for her life. One day she opened to Matthew 27:5, “ [Judas] went out and hanged himself.” Thinking there must be a mistake she tried again and found Luke 10:37, “Go and do likewise.”

I found the picture of Robert Estienne here.

My favorite Bible verse to read out of context is 1 Chronicles 1:25. Know it from memory? Anyone?

Monday, May 9, 2011

Reading Someone Else’s Mail


If you found this letter tucked away in the pages of an old Bible, what would you make of it?


Dear Pat,

Do you remember that place by the lake--the one we visited back when Sam was in so much trouble? I visited it again last week. It hasn’t changed a bit, except that the old German woman is gone, of course.

Being there made me think of you. The place seemed smaller, somehow, and lonelier.

As ever,


Is Pat male or female? What is Pat’s relationship to Jim? What kind of trouble was Sam in? Was it legal, financial, medical? When was this letter written? Where was Jim when he wrote it? Where was Pat? What clues does the letter furnish that might help answer any of these questions? What more information might you need?

This letter is what scholars call a “high context” document. It assumes a great deal of shared knowledge between author and reader. Outsiders can speculate about the letter’s meaning, but, without more information, they can not draw many firm conclusions.

There are high context letters like this one tucked away in the pages of every Christian Bible. They are the Epistles of Paul. When we read Paul’s letters we are outsiders. Paul and his intended audience had a pre-established relationship. They shared some common history and common knowledge that are not spelled out in detail. Sometimes Paul’s meaning may be clear to us, but very often we are left to speculate.

When we read the letters of Paul, we are reading someone else’s mail. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t read Paul’s letters. Nor does it mean that we can draw no meaning from them. It does mean, however, that we should recognize that we are often left to speculate about the Apostle's meaning, and we should always be a little hesitant to draw firm conclusions.

A  "low context" document is one that provides a lot of the information required to understand it. Think of a newspaper story. The 16th c. painting of St. Paul writing a letter to someone else was found here.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Happy Birthday, King James Bible


Today marks the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Version of the Bible. The KJV was not the first English translation of the Bible, nor is it the best, but it is, beyond question, the most influential.

Not the First. Large portions of the Bible had been translated into Old English as early as the 7th century. John Wycliffe published two different versions of the complete Bible in English in the 14th century. When King James I ascended to the throne of England in 1603, he authorized the translation that is now commonly called after his name. Published in 1611, the KJV was intended to replace the Bishops’ Bible, then in use in the Church of England. It was also hoped that the new translation would supplant the Geneva Bible, then popular among English Protestants. The Geneva Bible, so-called for the city in which it was printed, featured footnotes of a Calvinist, Puritan, anti-ecclesial and anti-monarchical bent. The King James Version was authorized for largely political reasons.

Not the Best. Despite the extravagant claims made for the KJV from some quarters, the fact is that it is not the best English translation. In the 19th century many ancient New Testament manuscripts were discovered. These have made possible better critical editions of the Greek New Testament than what was available to the KJV’s translators. Also, the English language has changed significantly in the last 400 years. I have a copy of The King James Bible Word Book by Ronald Bridges and Luther Weigle (Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1994) which defines, in 400 pages, many of the “curious and archaic” words used in the KJV. Newer translations are rendered into the English that we speak today.

The Most Influential. For 300 of its 400 years, the King James Bible reigned as the English Bible. It was often the only book a household owned. Many generations of English speakers learned to read from the KJV. It has left its stamp on the way we use English and has contributed many idioms and phrases to our everyday speech. So strong has its influence been that even the latest and newest translations are measured against the KJV’s standard. Most importantly, it was through the KJV that countless people were introduced to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Though I prefer more modern translations of the Bible for everyday reading, I think that I will always hear the Lord’s Prayer and the Twenty-third Psalm in the lyrical cadences of Jacobean English.

Happy birthday, KJV!