Harold Camping‘s latest failed prediction has given atheists plenty to poke fun at. Heck, I cracked my fair share of rapture jokes. However, some of what I saw on the internet was “guilt by association” type of arguments made at Christians. In a nutshell, they went like this:
- Camping and his followers are barking mad.
- Camping and his followers are Christians.
- Therefore, Christians must all be barking mad.
I don’t think I have to point out that this argument simply doesn’t follow. Most Christians do not try to divine specific times and dates of the return of Christ. In fact, based on the teachings of Jesus found in the New Testament, they are told that they cannot. (Mk. 13:32)
As far as the nature of the second coming goes, there are diverse views within the pale of orthodoxy and there is plenty of room for debate. What we do see from the New Testament — building on ancient Old Testament prophecy — is a view that God will remake the earth and cosmos entirely. This both affirms the goodness of the old creation, but a defeat and removal of its mortality and corruption. This is a great and purifying hope for Christian believer. (Titus 2:11-13, 1 John 3:1-3) However, I think it is this hope that the atheist finds most implausible, thus the jokes.
What are the grounds for believing such a wild story? The Christian faith is based not on a revelation some man claimed to have had while sitting in a cave, but rather on the historical event of . The early disciples claimed that Jesus’ tomb was empty and that He had appeared to them on various occasions, individually and in groups. Jesus’ resurrection vindicated his claim to be the Messiah. When the church at Corinth asked about the nature of the resurrection of the dead, St. Paul started by quoting an early Christian creed. It’s found in 1 Corinthians 15, and it says:
3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles… (1 Corinthians 15:3-7, New International Version)
Critical scholars believe that Paul received this creed sometime within 1-3 years of the crucifixion of Jesus — so this material comes early from the event itself. Later in the same chapter, Paul speaks of a time where Jesus will return in power and put all his enemies “under his feet”, including death, which is called the “last enemy”. (1 Cor. 15:20-28) This wasn’t something Paul invented; those who followed Christ before his crucifixion confirmed that what Paul was teaching was indeed the gospel. (Gal. 1:18-2:9) This vision of Christ’s coming again and renewing the universe was part of the early message of the church.
Prior to Paul’s description of the end times, Paul makes a modus tollens argument for the resurrection of the dead at the end of the world. (see verses 12-19)
- If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised
- Christ has been raised
- Therefore, there is a resurrection of the dead.
In his letter to the Thessalonians, Paul capsulizes the Christian belief of the resurrection nicely:
13 Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. 14 For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. 15 According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words. (1 Thess. 4:13-18, NIV)
So while such a thing seems far out to the naturalistic mind, these are traditions come from those who saw him after his resurrection. Where did they get it? The think the answer is obvious. In anticipating the return of their Lord, these early disciples spread their message throughout the known world within a few decades, despite facing enormous persecution, making it difficult to charge them with not being sincere in what they believed.
On atheism, there is a different eschatology, one without such hope. Scientists tell us that the universe is expanding, and everything in it is growing farther apart. As it does, it grows colder and colder, and its energy is used up. Eventually all the stars will burn out and all matter will collapse into dead stars and black holes. One day there will be no light at all; not to mention no life. All that will remain is a universe in ruins — dead galaxies expanding into never-ending darkness. There is no hope for any escape.
On this view, man is a doomed race in a lost and dying universe. If there is no immortality, our end is little different from the bug we step on. All the long hours we use in play, study, friendships, work, etc. in the final analysis is utterly meaningless. This is why Friedrich Nietzsche looked at the death of God as the ushering in of an age of nihilism. For without God and immortality, everything becomes meaningless, other than the meaning that you make up for yourself. There is no ultimate significance or objective meaning to man or the universe. I bet this wasn’t a topic of much discussion at post-rapture parties.
That itself is not an argument for God, but my explanation where the belief in Christ’s second coming came from — historical events — was. Considering the existential significance of the matter, it would be foolish to shrug off Christianity because of some of his more flaky followers. If there is even a chance that the immortality can be found through Christ, then it is worth the time in putting Christianity’s truth claims to the test; really looking into them with an open mind and heart. Yeah, I know I’m getting a little Blaise Pascal here, but Pascal had a point. Yes, Camping and his bunch sadly are probably a bit crazy with their mathematical divining and comic book-like interpretation of the end times, but that doesn’t mean the gospel itself isn’t credible. Just think about it.