An advertisement for a writer's retreat.

Not many readers of The Baptist Times will have lost any sleep over the predictions of the 89-year-old U.S. radio show host Harold Camping that the elect would be snatched up to heaven on May 21, and that everyone else would be in deep trouble.

It cannot be denied that all of this has its comical side, but there is more to it than that.

It has also given ammunition to atheists eager to believe that all Christians are nutters, but there is a genuine sadness about the effects of Camping’s delusions.

Having succeeded in convincing not just himself but several thousand followers that he knew the exact date and time of the return of Christ, they spent millions of dollars advertising the fact in the U.S. and around the world.

Some lost their life savings; all will have been bitterly disillusioned.

We can interpret this fiasco in different ways. At one level it is just bad theology. The particular eschatology espoused by those of Camping’s school of thought is not, of course, the only way of thinking about this sort of thing.

But if it is to have any credibility, it must at least take account of Jesus’ warning that “no one knows the day or the hour.”

Throughout Christian history, there have been those who have ignored this inconvenient verse, and they have always lived to regret it.

At a more fundamental level, though, it was only possible for Camping to sustain his fantasy because he and his followers detached themselves from the wider currents of social and intellectual life.

Because they were not open to a critique from outside their own narrow world, they were able to sustain a belief that made sense only in terms of its own internal logic.

In his short story, “The Sign of the Broken Sword,” G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown says, “When will people understand that it is useless for a man to read his Bible unless he also reads everybody else’s Bible as well?”

Camping’s is an extreme case. But all of us need to be willing to be open to the world and to engage in genuine dialogue, or we too will find ourselves reduced to a foolish or tragic irrelevance.

Mark Woods is editor of The Baptist Times, where this column first appeared.

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