As Americans approach , many eyes are upon the presidential elections and the scores of difficult political and economic challenges. While political pundits exchange views and posture their positions, another group of New Age thinkers and scientific doomsayers claim that December marks the end of the world as it is currently known. They portray the end of the world either through cataclysmic destruction or, more often, through a kind of corporate spiritual enlightenment.
Sri Ram Kaa and Kira Raa describe this spiritual enlightenment as a major inner human transformation resulting in greater spiritual awareness, spiritual activism, and global peace ( Awaking: Choosing Spiritual Enlightenment over Armageddon). But their idea is only one in a sea of voices that offer competing ideas about the end of the world.
Harold Camping, founder and president of Family Stations, Inc., strongly disagrees with these New Age enthusiasts. Camping told the San Francisco Chronicle that the “date has not one stitch of biblical authority. It’s like a fairy tale.” The real date for the end of time, he says, is in 2011. Camping insists that May 21, 2011, is the unquestionable, Scripturally predicted day of the Rapture and end of time. Camping uses his radio network and website to promote a free publication, “God Gives Another Infallible Proof That Assures the Rapture Will Occur May 21, 2011.”
America’s political and religious history is dominated by apocalyptic currents. As early as the late 1500s Puritan scholars involved in the America-colony experiment began positing a kind of Jewish restorationism based upon a common historicist understanding of the book of Revelation. This historicist view, an interpretative framework, presents the entire book of Revelation as giving symbolic presentations of God’s plan that occurs throughout church history—rather than referring to future events. Some influential colonial ministers (e.g., John Cotton, John Davenport, and Increase Mather) advocated a type of Jewish Zionism. However, they also applied events portrayed in Revelation to their own colonies; hence part of America’s DNA has to do with apocalypticism.
This historicist view of Revelation is counter to the current popular preterist view (or contemporary-historical view) that asserts Revelation primarily describes first-century experience with no or little prophetic futurism.
The futurist view of Revelation (advocated in this article) asserts that while Revelation 1—3 describes historical events, 4—22 describes future, progressive prophetic events yet to occur, and that this prophetic section was designed to assist the historical churches described in Revelation 2 and 3.
Clearly, end-time phenomena and forms of apocalypticism are not unique to Christianity. In a 2008 thesis for Bowling Green State University, Beckett Warren correctly observed that while “fundamentalist Christianity receives the most media attention, . . . apocalyptic currents run through much of contemporary discourse across the political spectrum. . . . Marxism and feminism have also been critiqued as apocalyptic, and much of environmentalist discourse at least engages in ‘end-of-the-world-ism.’ ”
Many groups today promote their ideology through their own version of apocalypticism. Believers should carefully evaluate end-of-the-world-isms prior to identifying or promoting a popular apocalyptic view.
Harold Camping’s most recent prediction is one in a long line of failed prophesies, his most infamous being a prediction of the Rapture in September 1994. Camping also continues to encourage Christians to disassociate themselves from all local churches and instead form informal fellowship-communities around his teachings. Further, Camping exhorts all Christians to not participate in the church ordinances (Lord’s Supper and baptism), since he believes Christians are now living in a post–Church Age, which, according to Camping, is the prophesied age of apostasy in Matthew and Revelation. According to Camping, God judged the church and brought an end to its visible, organized purpose and existence; thus the organized church is simply a hollow shell bereft of God’s purpose and presence. Camping argues that Satan has occupied the place of God in the organized church.
Here is why Camping’s claims are so dangerous. He claims to embrace the authority of the Bible, which sounds good on the surface, but he mixes this idea with an allegorical approach to interpretation. Camping claims that the Bible has an earthly story with a heavenly message (The Time Has Come, 224–227) and that Biblical words have spiritual meaning. Central to his allegorization is his practice of finding spiritual truth in numbers. Notably he focuses on the spiritual meaning of 17. In “God Gives Another Infallible Proof,” Camping writes, “The number 17 fits perfectly because, when it has spiritual meaning, it signifies Heaven. . . . The doubling of the numbers 5 x 10 x 17 like the doubling of the phrase ‘a day is as a thousand years’ assures us that the truth of these proofs is established by God.”
Rather than seeking to understand the Scripture writer’s meaning based upon the grammatical-historical-cultural method, Camping argues for a fuller moral and spiritual meaning. And this spiritual meaning is for the more enlightened ones (namely, him and his followers). Since he ignores the actual writer’s verbal meaning, his interpretation is beyond critique and validation. However, his method is also self-defeating, since he does expect his views to be literally and not allegorically understood.
The current round of predictions seems similar to the Y2K false predictions, only using the ancient Mayan calendar. According to the popular theory, the Maya (an ancient Meso-American civilization) are responsible for developing pre-Columbian written language, art, and incredible mathematical and astronomical dating systems. According to the purported ancient Mayan Long Count calendar, a cycle of more than 5,000 years will come to fruition in , ending a 13th cycle referred to as a baktun.
In conjunction with the end of the Long Count, some pop astronomers suggest that a unique astronomical alignment will occur in during a winter solstice, when the sun appears at its lowest point in the horizon. During this alignment, the sun will purportedly line up with the center of the Milky Way galaxy, an event that supposedly occurs only every 25,800 years. This will allegedly create a pole shift (or wobble effect), leading to magnetic disturbances, massive volcanoes, earthquakes, geomagnetic reversals, and massive shifts in the earth’s mantle.
Or, barring that, at least a renewed spiritual enlightenment, proponents say.
New Age enthusiasts are most adamant in promoting as the terminal date of the world as it is currently known, though not all agree on the nature of that ending. José Argüelles, a popular Mexican-American spiritual teacher, wrote The Mayan Factor: Path beyond Technology to suggest that a major shift in human enlightenment will occur in . His believers expect a mass inner transformation of humanity, directed by messages that Argüelles receives by channeling ancient Mayan spirits.
Stanislav Grof presented a New Age paper suggesting that the ancient Maya developed “technologies of the sacred” leading to “profound revelations concerning the master blueprint of the universe designed by cosmic intelligence.” Grof theorizes that the Maya obtained these revelations by creating a holotropic state by which they could “transcend narrow linear time and make it possible to see events in the universe on a cosmic astronomical scale.”
All of this could be dismissed as New Age gobbledygook except for the fact that the advocates regularly cite Scripture if it seems to have a remote similarity to their own views.
Of the two currently popular theories, there is a sense in which a Biblical critique of the Mayan phenomena is more difficult. Believers can easily address the 2011 Camping prediction. (His teachings are inconsistent and his interpretive approach is completely incoherent.) But the Mayan theory is more difficult to quantify, more difficult to explain, and often cites sources that are not easy to validate. And while in Hollywood Camping tends to get bad press, if any, the Mayan theory has been puffed by Hollywood into a full-fledged media force.
Still, there is simply no valid reason to defend a historical distortion of the ancient Maya. The Mayan calendar was not used to record events and track time as in our own Western culture. Rather, the calendar was used to personify deities, past events, and relationships between those events, deities, and astronomical occurrences. Many times events of the past were associated with later astronomical events to establish the legitimacy and lineage of a ruler.
The ancient Maya were both polytheistic and animistic in worshiping over 600 gods and goddesses, though little is known regarding their views of the end-time cosmology. Unlike Christians, the Aztecs and Maya did not view their gods and goddesses or their prophecies as infallible and absolute. Thus any prophecy or prediction of destructions might well be averted through various ceremonies. Neither the ancient Aztecs nor the Maya would ever have predicted an absolute terminal destruction of the world. The apocalypse is Hollywood science fiction, pure and simple.
But this trend toward false prophecy also hits closer to home. Jack Van Impe recently cited the year with ominous implications on his late-night cable television program. The evangelist, who was once popular in Regular Baptist circles, now cites Mayan prophecy, current news headlines, and a selection of Scriptures in support of his views. In many respects, Jack Van Impe’s comments are similar to his previous view that Y2K was a critical and important development for Biblical prophecy. Advertisements for his new DVD excite the television audience into considering yet another unguarded prediction: “In their exciting video teaching, Drs. Jack and Rexella Van Impe demonstrate the very real possibility that could be a year of culmination—could December 21st be history’s final day?”
Evangelicals generally agree on key eschatological truths such as the personal, visible, bodily, and sudden return of Jesus Christ to personally judge unbelievers and reward believers (Matthew 24:44; John 14:3; Acts 1:9, 11; 1 Thessalonians 4:16; Revelation 19:11–16). Though evangelicals do not agree on specific details of future events, they do agree that no one knows the date of Christ’s return, and that all believers should nonetheless anticipate His return.
The Scripture writers were emphatic that Jesus would physically return to this earth, and they were equally emphatic that no one knew the date of His return; thus any form of date-setting must be avoided.
The Biblical writers directed believers to focus on what was revealed and to avoid speculation and divination to acquire what was not revealed, as Deuteronomy 29:29 indicates. Further, the law itself contains sufficient clarity to test and evaluate other truth claims, even if those other truth assertions are accompanied by supernatural manifestations (Deuteronomy 13:1–5; 18:15–22).
Many times interpreters ask the wrong question about a particular subject matter, which then creates interpretive problems. However, in the case of date-setting, the Scripture writers were explicit about not knowing the date of Christ’s physical return. Jesus Himself said, “Of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone” (Matthew 24:36, NASB), and “You do not know the day nor the hour” (25:13, NASB). Luke quoted Christ as saying, “It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has put in His own authority” (Acts 1:7). Scripture clearly prohibits date-setting regarding Christ’s return. The phenomena and Camping predictions are in fundamental violation of Scripture regarding date-setting.
God’s plan is to glorify Himself as He extends His sovereignty throughout the universe (Isaiah 43:7; 1 Corinthians 6:20; 8:6; Ephesians 1:11). The Scripture writers were very aware of pagan cosmologies; many times the writers provided a counter-view to that of their more dominant neighbors. One central feature of the prophets’ message entails the Day of the Lord, which reveals that the one true Creator God will personally and directly intervene and act to judge humankind and preserve His people. Biblical writers did not present judgment (e.g., Edenic curse, the Flood curse, Sodom and Gomorrah, the Exodus) as a casual result of nature or a simple coincidence.
The phenomena depersonalize and disassociate God as intervening and acting in history. Thus the phenomena are in direct contradistinction to any canonical sense of prophetic judgment. The Camping prediction marginalizes the message of the prophets and discredits credible Christian witness.
The notion of futurism in prophecy is based on the idea of promise—a declaration or assurance made to a person stating what one will or will not do with respect to the future. The Scripture portrays an undeniable cohesion between words and intent of each prophet/apostle and God Himself. Thus God is the promisor.
Prophecy is a specific type of promise that entails either a foretelling of events (futurism) or a “forth-telling” of previous promises (application of previous promises in Scripture). Foretelling and forth-telling do not differ in authority. Events are foretold or forth-told in rich imagery designed to shock and convince the reader/hearer that the status quo will not continue because the meaning being foretold or forth-told is true—even if the event has not transpired. Prophecy reveals what is otherwise unknowable about God’s redemptive plan and His very character. Prophecy was not given simply to promote spiritual mysticism or to stir the imagination for the curious. Prophecy was given to show that God is real. He will do His work according to His Word.
Jesus used the story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19–31) to illustrate that the writings of Moses and the prophets possess clarity, authority, authorial intentionality, and truthfulness regarding eschatological judgment. When the rich man requested that Father Abraham send someone to warn his relatives about the very real, actual impending judgment and doom that occur after death (which the rich man was experiencing), Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them. . . . If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead.” In essence, Jesus said that Old Testament prophecy was just as real as seeing the miracle of Lazarus raised from the dead. The idea of prophetic realism permeates Christ’s explanation of His teaching.
Prophetic realism illustrates that God provides prophetic promises that are both true and clear; these take precedent over and adjudicate any competing truth assertions. Here is another reason false teaching is so dangerous. Some Christians are tempted to promote false predictions because they mistakenly believe these (false) teachings may be valuable for evangelism. In reality, the false teachings deny the authority of Scripture.
Advocates of the 2011 and predictions violate all these prophetic nuances, since they ignore the broader Biblical context and allegorize Scripture. In the process, these false prophets ignore the distinctions between prophetic fulfillment, prophetic typology, and prophetic significance.
Prophetic fulfillment occurs when all the commitments and provisions in a promise have been realized. The original promise or prophecy should not be reinterpreted apart from the intention of the initial writer. At times a prophecy may have reference to more than one single future event (what scholars call double fulfillment), but this does not signify double meaning. The original prophetic promise remains the determiner of what governs its fulfillment.
Prophetic typology occurs when “points of commonality between Old Testament events and symbols illustrate or foreshadow New Testament truths” (definition by contributor H. Wayne House in Dictionary of Premillennial Theology). Again the original meaning (or pattern of meaning) controls what constitutes the antitype.
“Prophetic significance” refers to events occurring that appear to set the stage for actual prophetic fulfillment. Many current events could be interpreted as having prophetic significance, but this does not mean they are prophetic fulfillment.
The pretribulational Rapture is the view that Christ will appear in the clouds to instantly catch (take away) the church before the 70th week of Daniel’s prophecy begins, in which God will pour out His wrath upon the world. The Rapture is the instantaneous gathering up of the whole church by resurrection and direct translation (of those alive) from the earth and transformation into new spiritual bodies to meet Christ in the air and be with Him forever (1 Thessalonians 4:13–18).
Other things may happen before Christ’s rapture of the church, but nothing else must take place. A theological building block from pretribulationalism centers on imminence. This concept of imminence flows out of how the New Testament writers described the return of Christ. On the one hand, Scripture teaches that certain prophetic signs and events necessarily precede the second personal, visible return of Christ to this earth in judgment to establish His earthly Kingdom (Matthew 24; 1 Thessalonians 5; 2 Thessalonians 2). However, Scripture also teaches that Jesus could appear at any time in a “signless” manner to rapture the church; hence the Rapture is viewed as a signless event prior to the prophesied Tribulation (John 14:2, 3; 1 Corinthians 1:7; Philippians 3:20, 21; 1 Thessalonians 1:9, 10; 4:16, 17; 5:5–9; Titus 2:13; James 5:8, 9). Both the Camping and predictions deny this view of pretribulationalism.
Christians should not misrepresent any people or cosmology, even if a misrepresentation may serve their own ends. The current movement simply has no historical antecedent to the Mayan culture or cosmology. To promote these end-time phenomena is dishonest and will distort the Mayan culture as well as lead to a lack of credible Christian witness.
Believers in Jesus Christ should not align themselves or promote these end-time errant teachings. We should seek to understand these movements so we can offer answers for the deep thirst our world has for hope, security, and significance. We must be ready to use this popular interest to point seekers to our Lord Jesus, for these movements will give us opportunity to promote the reality of Who God is, how He has acted in history, and how He will yet act to conclude His plan of redemption.
David Mappes (PhD, Dallas Theological Seminary) is an associate professor of theology and Bible exposition at Baptist Bible Seminary, Clarks Summit, Pa. For a full review addressing the phenomena, please see “An Overview and Analysis of Apocalyptic Views Relating to the Year as the End of the World” in The Journal of Ministry and Theology (Spring 2011). For a free copy of this article by Dr. Mappes, please e-mail Paul Golden at firstname.lastname@example.org.