Saturday at six o’clock p.m. Standard Time, an earthquake will occur at the International Date Line, and will spread over the whole world. For the next five months, quakes and fires and suffering will rack what remains of humanity. The fantastic machinery of the cosmos will enter a new era as the “salvation program” ends and the “judgment program” begins. The final stroke comes on October 21, with the end of the world.

That is Harold Camping’s blueprint for the End of Days.

Camping’s reasoning comes about from cherry-picked passages stitched together into biblical mathematics, substituting verses the way mathematicians substitute variables. (See the run-down on his website)

Camping’s history as an engineer no doubt helped him in charting the apocalypse. D.T. Brown’s interview at Killing the Buddha quotes him as saying:

I was an engineer and that helped me enormously in studying the Bible, because, just like engineering, the Bible is very analytical. …I approached the Bible the same way I approached any engineering question, in a very analytical way.

This “analytical way” means a mapping out of the end times, something hardly new in eschatology. Many of Camping’s adversaries are quick point to 2 Peter 3.10: “But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night…” However, there is an enduring and perhaps innate desire to know exactly when the end will occur, and to identify and map out the signs of the times leading to it.

Micheael Shermer in the Wall Street Journal writes about “The Enduring Appeal of the Apocalypse,” suggesting that eschatology helps us to cope with a world we do not completely understand:

For human beings, it is much easier to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune when we believe that it is all part of a deeper, unfolding plan. We may feel like flotsam and jetsam on the vast rivers of history, but when the currents are directed toward a final destination, it gives us purpose and meaning. We want to feel that no matter how chaotic, oppressive or evil the world may be, all will be made right in the end.

Camping’s eschatology, like many other eschatologies, is based on a succession of eras. In these, there are one or more watershed moments that delineate between the old, sinful time, and the new time of salvation.

I remember the first time I was given a handout of the “Chart of Ages” by the Chicago Bible Students. A series of colored arcs intersect and overlap in a number of ages and dispensations. The timeline resembled a dome temple, and within it were pyramids and fragments of pyramids, all explaining events from the bible and those still to come in human history. What I held was a blueprint of all time, starting with the creation of the world and “ending” with a period of eternal perfection. At the time, I did not know what a “dispensation” was. That knowledge came later, with scholarly study.

The chart owed a lot to the evangelist John Nelson Darby (1800-1882), who popularized the idea of the rapture as well as dispensationalism. Darby’s dispensations organized history very neatly, making clear the evolution of God’s relationship with humankind through the past and as it extends into eternity. Though he takes Martin Luther’s idea of sola scriptura to an extreme, surely Camping draws something from Darby in the way he maps out the end times.

In fact, though, there is a man even further back that informs both of them. Joachim of Fiore (1135-1202) was a medieval theologian whose ornate diagrams (figurae) traced history from the beginning of the world through three distinct ages. Through these elaborate charts of interlocked rings and seven-headed dragons, the man attempted to chart God’s plan from creation to the eternal kingdom. Joachim saw order in biblical numbers, and relied on the trinity for his idea about the history of the world. The Age of the Father was explicated in the Hebrew Scriptures, and was typified by God’s revealed law. The Age of the Son was explicated in the Gospels, and was typified by the “good news” brought by Jesus Christ. The Age of the Spirit was foreshadowed by Revelation and other apocalyptic literature. Joachim believed the Age of the Son was coming to an end, and the Age of the Spirit was to begin at some point between 1200 and 1260. That span came and went, with a fair amount of terror and repentance, but the Age of the Spirit was never ushered in.

Camping has applied his own eras to history. The “Age of the Church” ended in 1988, nearly coinciding with his failed attempt at forming a congregation. The “Age of Salvation” will end with the rapture, and the age of judgment will begin Saturday.

These three men have in common something that we are very familiar with today: a desire to classify the world. I recall being frustrated as a child that my history book charted the history of specific areas, rather than plotting all history on a gigantic timeline. There it would be much easier to see cause and effect – and I realize now – even perceived effects without true causes. Camping is not searching for Gog or Magog or the Four Horseman, but he shares a similar desire with those who do. With the signs he offers, we are able to see where we are going. The bible becomes a guidebook, and Camping becomes our guide.

Camping believes that the world will end, and to a degree he is correct. Whether or not the rapture occurs, May 21, 2011 stands as a demarcation in the long history of expected doomsdays. If the faithful are not raptured, their beliefs will be shaken. They will have to deal with the consequences of decisions made in preparation for the end times, especially those who gave up their friends, family, possessions, and wealth in anticipation of the apocalypse. An old history will end, and a new one will begin, awaiting yet another blueprint for the future.

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Chris Lisee

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