The End is Not Near

On May 21, 2011, hundreds of people will wake up with the faithful and eager expectation that they will be taken up to heaven before the day is over. They have been purchasing advertising and traveling around the country to spread the word that the end is near. The prediction was made by radio broadcaster and religious leader Harold Camping. This brings up several questions, including

Should we take this prediction seriously?
What will Camping's followers do when the prediction is proved wrong?
Is this type of behavior a normal part of Christian belief or an aberration?

I'd like to approach these questions by looking at similar situations in history. This is an incomplete list. We can start with Camping himself. This isn't his first time predicting the end of the world.

Harold Camping

September, 1994

In the early 90s, he released a book called 1994? As the title suggests, he was not claiming to be absolutely certain of the date. But when his date came and went without any apparent end of the world, he maintained that his calculations were correct in pointing to it and he continued to have a strong following. He made excuses about mistaken interpretations and the followers who had been so certain that his date was correct were suddenly no longer concerned about 1994.

Wayne Bent

Michael Travesser

October 31, 2007

Wayne Bent, known to his followers as Michael Travesser, led a small religious sect in New Mexico. He claimed to be the Messiah and predicted that the world would and on October 31, 2007. A documentary film crew from the United Kingdom was on hand when the date arrived. When nothing happened, Bent changed the date to December, 2007 and there was no mass defection from his sect.

Edgar C. Whisenant

Septemember 1988

Edgar C. Whisenant wrote a book called 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will Be in 1988. He sold more than 4 million copies. When this prediction wasn't fulfilled he went on to set several more dates (1989, 1993, and 1994).

Hal Lindsey

1980s

Hal Lindsey, author of The Late, Great Planet Earth never named a specific date for the end of the world, but he did make several statements suggesting that it would happen during the 1980s. In the early 90s he release a new book called Planet Earth - 2000 A.D. It said that the world would probably and before the year 2000. Despite his failed predictions, Lindsay continued to be a popular author and host of a show on the Trinity Broadcasting Network.

Aimee Semple McPherson (1918 photo, public domain)

Assemblies of God

1934 or 1935

The Weekly Evangel, an official publication of the church, predicted that World War I would lead to Armageddon. Despite this failed prediction, the Assemblies of God have around 60 million members today.

Charles Taze Russell and the Jehovah's Witnesses

1874

Russell was an important figure in the earliest days of the Jehovah's Witnesses. He believed that 1874 was the date for the return of Jesus. After that date he didn't abandon it but rather claimed that Jesus had returned in 1874 and established an invisible kingdom. Jehovah's Witnesses went on to predict a whole series of dates for the end of the world.

William Miller

March 21, 1844

William Miller was a Baptist preacher who calculated that the return of Jesus would occur on or before March 21, 1884. When this date proved wrong, he pushed it back a month. When that also proved wrong one of his followers set the date as October 22, 1844. Thousands of followers eagerly expected to meet Jesus on this day. Many of them had even given away all of their belongings. The failure of Jesus to appear became known as the Great Disappointment. Many members left the movement, but others stayed and formed the Seventh-day Adventist church.

Joseph Smith

Mormonism

1830s

From the beginning of the church he established, Joseph Smith told his followers that the world would be ending soon. Though he didn't give specific dates, he did claim to know where it would happen. He directed his followers to build a city called Zion in Jackson County, Missouri. Though Smith prophesied in 1830 that the "hour is nigh and day soon at hand" when Jesus would return, Smith died in 1844 without seeing Jesus return and without his church establishing a city in Jackson County.

Martin Luther

Martin Luther

1540s

The founder of the Lutheran Church is said to have predicted, "The world runs and hastens so diligently to its end that it often occurs to me forcibly that the last day will break before we can completely turn the Holy Scripture into German. For it is certain from the Holy Scriptures that we have no more temporal things to expect. All is done and fulfilled." This sense of urgency was also present in other early Lutheran leaders, including Adam Nachenmoser who set the date as 1635.

Joachim of Fiore

1260

Joachim of Fiore, a mystical monk, predicted that 1260 would see the establishment of a Kingdom of the Holy Spirit. He died in 1202 and after his prediction proved false the Catholic Church condemned him as a heretic.

Thiota

847

Thiota predicted the end of the world would happen in 847. She had a large enough following to draw the attention of Catholic bishops, who had her publicly whipped.

Authors of the New Testament

50-120

Several passages in the New Testament claim that the world is about to end. Some examples:

"In just a little while, he who is coming will come and will not delay." (Hebrews 10:34)

"You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near." (James 5:8)

"The end of all things is near. Therefore be alert and of sober mind so that you may pray." (1 Peter 4:7)

"Dear children, this is the last hour; and as you have heard that the antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come. This is how we know it is the last hour." (1 John 2:18)

"He who testifies to these things says, 'Yes, I am coming soon.' Amen. Come, Lord Jesus." (Revelation 22:20)

Despite these failed predictions, some Christians continue to believe that the Bible is a flawless book and that the end of the world is still imminent.

Saint Paul - James Tissot

The apostle Paul

Within his own lifetime

Scholars tell us that 1 Thessalonians was the first book of the New Testament to be written. Chapters 4 and 5 show that both Paul and his audience expected Jesus to return during their lifetimes. The church in Thessalonica was concerned about the fate of members who were dying in the meantime, but Paul reassures them that these deceased believers will be included in the return of Jesus just as the living members would.

"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. 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." (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17)

The second epistle to the Thessalonians, though probably not written by Paul, describes the second coming as something that will happen further on into the future after some conditions are met.

Jesus

Jesus

Before the generation then living passed away

Jesus, like John the Baptist before him and millions of Christians after him, seems to have been convinced that he was living in the time just before the end of the world as he knew it.

"Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom." (Matthew 16:28)

"And he said to them,'Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.'" (Mark 9:1)

After detailing events leading up to end of world, Jesus says, "Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened." (Mark 13:30)

For centuries Christian theologians have tried to harmonize these passages with the fact that Jesus hasn't yet returned. Various conflicting theories have been proposed, but none has gained universal acceptance.

There's another explanation, though it may be difficult for some to accept: Jesus was wrong. If we assume for a moment that he actually existed and said these things, we can see him as yet another failed apocalyptic prophet. As we've seen, this is a common story. People who claim to know that the world is about to end are often able to attract followers. When the teacher turns out to be wrong, the followers may hang around and keep the group going, reinterpreting the teacher's words as necessary.

Conclusion

Let's return to our questions. Is this end-times mania a normal part of Christianity? Expecting the world to end has always been a significant part of the Christian religion, going all the way back to its two main founders, Jesus and Paul. Most people refrain from latching on to a specific date (often citing Matthew 24:36 where Jesus says no one knows the day or the hour). But eagerly expecting Jesus to return is a normal part of faith for millions.

What will Camping's followers do when the prediction is proved wrong? I suspect that some will be disappointed and leave the group. Some will remain convinced that the day was significant. Camping himself will probably "discover" a mistake in his calculations and set another date in the near future. But we can be fairly sure that he will maintain at least some followers, just as Christianity did even after Jesus' prediction proved false.

Should we take this prediction seriously? Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Most of the assertions of religion are structured to be too vague for falsification, but Camping's prediction gives us a rare chance to put a religious idea to the test. It will fail that test, as supernatural claims always have when they wander into the realm of cold, hard facts.

Religious Slogan in City Hall

A lawyer in Springfield, MO is sending out letters to several cities in Missouri, asking them to prominently display the motto "In God We Trust" in city halls. He even sends along a sample resolution so the councils can vote the display in. Our mayor decided to bring the resolution before the council during our regular April meeting on Monday. We engaged in a discussion for about 15 minutes and then voted 3-1 to place a 8.5" x 11" sign with the slogan in city hall. I read the following statement and had it entered into our minutes:

Questions of religious faith are not the business of this municipal government. As Thomas Jefferson said, "the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions." I support the right of everyone to express any belief or opinion they like and the government must protect those rights. As part of that protection, the government remains neutral on questions of religious opinion.

I spoke in favor of the separation between church and state when I was a pastor and I continue to do so today as a non-believer. 35 million American citizens are non-religious and there are almost a million in Missouri. I've spoken with several people in Adrian, both religious and non-religious, who oppose the posting of this motto in city hall.

We have gotten along just fine without a motto on the wall of our council chambers. If we were going to add one, we should choose one that's more inclusive such as the original motto of the United States, "E Pluribus Unum (Out of many, one)" or the motto of Missouri "Salus populi suprema lex esto (Let the good of the people be the supreme law)."

Regardless of your religious perspective, I hope you'll recognize that this entanglement between religion and government is good for neither the church nor the state. Our fourth President, James Madison, said it well, "I have no doubt that every new example will succeed, as every past one has done, in showing that religion & Govt will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together."

This sign will be a minor annoyance and discouragement to me when I see it. And it may serve as justification for further government endorsements of religion, just as "But it's on our money" was repeatedly presented as evidence in favor of posting the motto. But will it have any substantial effect on the business we conduct on the city council? No. I also trust that this episode won't prevent the council from continuing to work for the good of our city. I have no doubt that the aldermen who voted for this had the very best intentions. I hope that they also understand that I, too, was doing what I thought was best for the city. If you'd like to see what was said during the discussion, take a look at this transcript I prepared.

iOS to Get More Voice Control

MacRumors (via TechCrunch) is reporting that the next major version of Apple's iOS will include more deeply integrated voice controls. I've been hoping for something like this for a while. Voice control is the inevitable direction for interacting with machines, especially mobile devices lacking a full-sized keyboard. Google's mobile OS, Android, is currently ahead on this. It allows you to enter text with your voice in any application. iOS has some basic voice controls for making phone calls and playing music, but I've long hoped that they would extend this to more applications, including 3rd party apps. There are some very useful (and free) iOS apps that you can control with your voice, including Dragon Dictation, Dragon Search, Vlingo and Siri. Apple acquired Siri about a year ago.

If you haven't seen Siri in action yet, check out this video:

It's impressive, but I'm excited to see what Apple could do with this after 1.5 years of development integrating it into iOS. Currently I can hold my phone's home button and then say, "Call Sara" or "Play songs by Phoenix," but I'd love to be able to say, "Listen to NPR newscast," "Start 10 minute timer," "Search Amazon for books about programming" or even "Hulu Plus: Play last night's Daily Show." If Apple provides a voice API to 3rd party developers we'll see stuff like that and much more.

The new features of iOS are expected to be revealed at Apple's developer conference, WWDC, this June. They'll also be discussing their new version of the desktop operating system, OS X Lion (10.7). Developers with early releases of that have already discovered that it contains some new text-to-speech voices. Perhaps that's a clue that Lion will be getting some voice control features, too. I've been using voice control and dictation software on my Mac for years (currently Dragon Dictate), but it suffers from the same lack of OS integration as Siri. It only makes sense for Apple to include these features in both iOS and OS X.

What do you think? Do you like talking to machines? Or are you frustrated by inaccuracies? When a machine responds to a voice command, do you say "Thank you"?

Update (July 25, 2011):
More info has come out about this new feature. It's rumored to be called "Assistant."

Update 2 (October 4, 2011):
Apple has officially announced the new feature and they're calling it Siri.

The Longest Night

Axial tilt is the reason for the seasonLast night was the Winter Solstice, a natural holiday that humans have celebrated for millennia. It's the point in our orbit around the sun when the northern hemisphere is tilted away from the sun at its highest angle (23° 26'). Winter Solstice marks the longest night of the year. Days have been getting shorter and nights have been getting longer since the Summer Solstice, but now that trend is reversed. Tomorrow night will be shorter than last night. We've turned the corner. Spring is coming!

This is reason to celebrate. There are still many cold nights before spring, but we've made it this far together. It's natural to feel down during these darkest weeks of the year, so we fight against that. My family will be cheering ourselves by basking in the warmth of a fireplace, lighting up the house, displaying that resilient creature, the evergreen tree, in our home, exchanging gifts, telling stories, eating sweets, singing songs, sipping intoxicating beverages, taking a break from work and school, visiting family and sharing extravagant meals.

Whatever you're celebrating this time of year, I wish you the best. From my family to yours: Merry Christmas, happy Solstice, happy holidays and a happy and prosperous New Year!

WBC is Not Welcome Here

A family in our area is suffering through the tragedy of losing a loved one who was in the military and the hateful Westboro Baptist Church is coming from Witicha to Harrisonville to rub salt in their wounds by protesting the funeral. I think everyone in the area can agree that these people are not welcome. Regardless of our opinions about gay rights, we can all recognize that this stunt is just mean. Here's what they had to say when announcing the protest on their website:

Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church in Harrisonville, MO November 23, 2010 9:15 AM - 10:00 AM

WBC will picket a respectful distance from Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Whorehouse where they will take a break from raping the children long enough to worship the corpse of Cpl. Jacob R. Carver whom God blew up with an IED, dispatching his soul to hell forever. He is not a hero! He fought for the fags' rights to eat each other's feces and the whore's right to murder her unborn child. Our message is for the living, and we remind you Missouri brutes again that you have made God your #1 enemy by your refusal to obey. Because I have called, and ye refused; I have stretched out my hand, and no man regarded; But ye have set at nought all my counsel, and would none of my reproof: I also will laugh at your calamity; I will mock when your fear cometh; When your fear cometh as desolation, and your destruction cometh as a whirlwind; when distress and anguish cometh upon you. Then shall they call upon me, but I will not answer; they shall seek me early, but they shall not find me: For that they hated knowledge, and did not choose the fear of the LORD: They would none of my counsel: they despised all my reproof. (Pr. 1:24-30.) It's too late for Doomed america and Doomed missouri! If there be any among you that has an ear to hear, come out from among them and be separate, and do not partake of their wickedness -- DO NOT WORSHIP THAT DEAD BODY! Fear God and keep His commandments -- that is the whole duty of man. (Ec. 12:13.) Amen!

As hateful and nonsensical as that is, it's still mild compared to this law, supposedly from the mouth of God:

If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads. Leviticus 20:13

Though the WBC only uses words, this verse promotes commands actual physical violence and murder. It's good that so many of us can agree that the WBC is wrong and unwelcome. Will you also join me in condemning and rejecting the Bible verses that fuel their hate?

Priorities

I just heard a story on the radio that mentioned the cost of the Human Genome Project. I was amazed at how cheap it sounded compared to some other things our country spends money on. I thought it sounded like less than we spent on war over any given weekend. Sequencing the human genome will have a lasting impact on the well-being of humanity from here on out. In a few years getting your DNA sequenced will probably be a regular part of visiting the doctor and will provide insights into your health that we can barely imagine now. I'm proud of our country for leading this groundbreaking effort.

I also thought about another of my favorite scientific endeavors, the Hubble Space Telescope. It is one of the most powerful scientific instruments that humanity has created. With it we've seen back in time to the infancy of the universe. Hubble has shown us how vast and full our universe is. It's opened up new areas for us to discover and, like the genome project, its cost is minor compared to what we spend on killing people and breaking things:

Charting Software

How much could we learn and how much could we improve the lives of all humanity if we spent that money on science rather than war?

Sources:
Cost of War
Hubble Space Telescope
Human Genome Project

Give Change a Chance

In 2008 Barack Obama was elected by a sizable majority of voters. Now, just over a year and a half into his term, he has accomplished about as many of his campaign promises as you would expect a president to be able to do in such a short time and during a recession.

If anything, he has been more of a centrist than many of us hoped. Don't ask don't tell has yet to be repealed. The American military detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba is still open. We still have troops in Iraq (though it's much fewer than when he took office). Last year's health insurance reform bill did not include a public option, and we're still waiting for energy reforms and reforms on Wall Street to ban or regulate some of the risky practices that contributed to our current economic troubles. But on each of these issues, Republicans would be much worse.

All things considered, I think the Obama administration is doing an excellent job. He passed health insurance reform that will rein in some of the most abusive practices of insurance companies and help more people get coverage. The Obama administration has increased funding for our veterans. He passed consumer protections for credit cards. Scientific research is getting more funding. Lobbyists are getting less access to executive branch officials. And he hasn't started any new wars.

The economic stimulus bill has created jobs and helped to start our recovery. Forty percent of it was tax cuts. It also provided $1,500,000 to the Adrian community for education and infrastructure improvements, protecting jobs in our area and preparing us for the future.

Obviously many people disagree with my assessment. It's typical for the party in power to lose some congressional seats in a midterm election during an economically tough period (Clinton lost 52 House seats in 1994), but I don't know of any good reasons to give control of Congress back to the Republican Party.

Many of the complaints I'm hearing are related to budget deficits, and it's true that the deficits have increased under Obama. But again, this is typical for recession. And he certainly doesn't deserve all the blame. The previous administration made the unprecedented move of cutting taxes during wartime. Bush also signed into law an expensive and unfunded Medicare drug program. With two extremely expensive wars, tax cuts for the richest Americans and many other spending increases, Bush took the budget surplus given to him by the Clinton Administration and turned it into the deficit that he handed off to Obama.

There are two ways to reduce the deficit: increase revenue or decrease expenditures. Though there is a lot of noise from the right about the deficit, I'm not hearing many concrete and feasible ideas for reducing it. The GOP and the Tea Party want to cut taxes. That will make the deficit worse, not better. They do talk about cutting spending, but they are rarely specific. For example, the Republican running for the house in my district was pressed for suggestions on spending cuts and she named the federal highway beautification funds, a budget item only slightly larger than the subsidies paid to her own farm.

Only two years after America voted to put the GOP out of power and give the Democrats a chance to fix the mess, people are getting impatient. But giving control back to the Republican party is a mistake. Missouri is poised to elect Roy Blunt (R) to the Senate. He's consistently rated as one of the most corrupt members of the House. Do we really want him representing us in Washington? I'll be voting for Robin Carnahan. I would be proud to have her serve alongside our other Senator, Claire McCaskill.

I'd like to speak to the people who supported the Democrats in 2008 who are thinking about switching or just not voting. Get out and vote Tuesday. Obama is accomplishing what we sent him to DC to do and I'm proud to continue to support him. Let's keep the change going.

Prayer and Cancer

I have some honest questions for my Christian readers. If I am misunderstanding what you believe, please correct me.

Do you believe that your god knows about a cure for cancer and yet refuses to share that information with humans? If he knows everything and is capable of communicating with humans (two ideas most Christians would agree with), then why is he holding out on us? Millions of people have prayed fervently for the god's help in the fight against cancer. There are any number of ways he could communicate this vital information: A full-page ad in a major newspaper, a half-hour special on network television, a semester long class at a university, a press conference at the Mayo Clinic, or if subtlety were important he could anonymously scribble the some hints on a whiteboard in a cancer research facility.

What would you think of a team of researchers who discovered a cure for cancer and then refused to share it? I think it would be a vile thing to do and I don't see how it's any better if the perpetrator were a deity. Of course, a cure for cancer is just one of the many pieces of information that humans are desperately seeking. An omniscient deity could have revealed all kinds of information throughout human history and saved millions of lives. But so far those answers have come from the painstaking work of scientists and inventors, not from religious texts or traditions.

How do you reconcile the idea of praying for someone who has cancer with the idea that your god is withholding the information that would answer your prayers?

Muslim Community Center

If Muslims shouldn't build a community center in lower Manhattan because a few nutjobs from one sect of their religion committed grave crimes near there, then we shouldn't allow any churches to be built near schools because a few nutjobs from one sect of that religion have raped children.

Or maybe the psychopath killers in al-Qaeda don't represent all Muslims any more than the psychopath rapist priests represent all Christians.

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