Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Great Disappointment

   Today is May 22, 2011, and Christ did not return yesterday, as predicted by Harold Camping. How he will explain this failure, no one knows at this point, since he has thus far not made any public pronouncements about it.
   This is the second time he has failed to correctly predict the date of the rapture. The first time was in 1994. When Christ did not return on September 6 of that year, he explained that he had made a mistake in his calculations. He had earlier admitted that possibility, but his followers were nevertheless disappointed. Yesterday their disappointment must have been even greater. Some had sold all their belongings to prepare for that momentous event. Millions had been spent on advertisements announcing the event in newspapers all over the world. Imagine how these followers feel today. How will they react?
    All over the world other people have already responded by making fun of Camping and his followers by, for example, holding parties, as well as making countless tweets mocking this failure. While I do not share their schadenfreude,  I do not feel the least bit sorry for Camping and those whom he has misled again. Their great disappointment should not come completely as a surprise. There is historical precedent for this. Let me give one outstanding example.
   "The Great Disappointment" is the term that is still used today to describe the experience of William Miller and his followers who had predicted that Christ would return in 1844. Miller employed various biblical prophecies to calculate the date. Several proposed dates that year, however, did not turn out as predicted. Although Miller himself had not announced a precise date, he did confess his error and assured his followers that he still believed that Christ's return was imminent. One of his followers, Samuel Snow, on the basis of his own calculations, picked a new date, October 22, 1844. This new prophesy spread like wild fire through the Millerite movement.
    When that date passed uneventfully, the Millerites were very disappointed, hence the term, "Great Disappointment." In addition, they experienced widespread criticism, and there were even examples of violence perpetrated against some churches. Do these reactions not sound eerily familiar?
    Historians note that the Millerite movement soon split into three main groups, not counting those followers who returned to their previous denominations. These three groups became different churches, based on their interpretation of the failure of these predictions. The Seventh-Day Advent Church is perhaps the best known of these groups.
   What will happen in the aftermath of May 21, 2011, no one, not even Camping knows. Perhaps his cult will disband, or it might split into various groups, as the Millerites did. Probably many followers will return to their previous churches, as also happened after 1844.
   The damage that Camping and his followers are doing to the wider Christian church is incalculable. Many people today are mocking all Christians for the behavior of this fringe group. That is perhaps the saddest legacy of Camping. He is welcome to make any predictions he wants, but if he causes damage to the rest of those who call themselves Christians, then he will have much to answer for, especially to God. The Christian community should condemn him as well. He has hurt the entire body of Christ. That is unforgivable.
   Camping's followers may go back to their homes greatly disappointed and eventually disperse. No matter what explanations are given and whatever happens as a result, the effects will be with us for a long time. Like the boy who called wolf too often, no one will believe the message about Christ's return. But he will return one day--we just don't know when.

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