Jumble sales of the apocalypse: What’s the drill for the day of judgement?
One of the questions that isn’t ever quite covered in the Alpha Course is: What do you do when the Second Coming is scheduled for next Wednesday? It’s a good question, and I think it ought to be included the next time Nicky Gumbel tinkers with Alpha, because it’s coming up quite frequently these days.
It was a question I was pondering just a few weeks ago, before 7 October – the date which a Christian group had trumpeted would be the end of the world. But I also pondered it on 21 May 2011, when Harold Camping, a 90-year-old Californian radio show host, put the world on red alert that the rapture would definitely happen that day, just around tea time.
Mr Camping was so confident in his maths – which was reliably based on the Book of Revelation – that he spent over $100 million advertising the date as judgment day. Despite the big budget, Jesus failed to keep the appointment. He (Mr Camping, not Jesus) then announced a new date, 21 October 2011, but when that didn’t work out either, the radio show host retired in some disgrace from public life, and, a couple of years later, went to meet the Lord in the conventional way.
That might have been that, but the man who did the PR for the failed predictions, Chris McCann, decided it was worth a third shot. He took the “1,600 furlongs” mentioned in a verse in the Book of Revelation, turned them into days, added them to 21 May 2011, and – bingo! – he had a new date for the apocalypse. He told the world: “The Bible indicates that there is a strong likelihood that October 7 2015 will be the end of the world.” He expounded his reasoning in a dense tract of 6,003 words which makes best sense read backwards after several large gin and tonics.
On the day itself, he had support in the unlikely figure of Jim Bakker, the televangelist who spent part of the 1990s in prison for fraud. Speaking on his own TV show, Mr Bakker told viewers that the end must be nigh, because God had instructed him to wear black: “Even my shoes are black. My underwear is black. My socks are black.” This prompted his wife and co-host Lori to inject a note of caution: “That’s too much information,” she observed.
John Donne has a sonnet in which he wonders: “What if this present were the world’s last night?” On the morning of 7 October, I had the a similar thought. What’s the drill for the day of judgment? Assemble at your nearest church? Make sure you’ve got clean underwear on – as when going to hospital? Confess those last sins? Pack a bottle of Evian? Ring the church bells? Send some goodbye texts to unbelieving friends? Take paracetamol in case the rapture gives you the bends? No book I’ve read by an archbishop or theologian has ever issued practical instructions for what to do on the day.
So, I thought, I’d better get down to London’s beautiful Brompton Cemetery – with its 40 acres of Victorian graves – because if the second coming was about to kick off, it would surely start there with the general resurrection of the dead. St Paul is pretty straightforward about that: “The dead in Christ shall rise first,” he said, and after that: “We will all meet the Lord in the air.”
However, as I strolled between the ancient graves in the rain, the resurrection seemed to be on hold. No tombstone was toppling, no granite angel was flapping its wings, no newly-raised Victorians were legging it down the cemetery paths. Instead, the crows perched on the tombstones, the rain fell on the flowers and the mighty kingdom of the dead simply kept calm and carried on.
Walking out of the cemetery, I was left with another nagging question not covered by Alpha: How do I try to look reasonably sane as a Christian, when my faith is being turned into a circus act by fellow believers? It’s like being in a crowded restaurant and a family member at your table has just contrived to upend a giant bowl of raspberry trifle all over themselves. Do you laugh along with the restaurant, or loyally try to assist your be-trifled relative? Laughing along seems the best option, as a way of telling the restaurant: “We’re not all crazy!” But there’s no getting away from the fact that you’re well inside the splash zone, with raspberry trifle dripping from your nose.
Christians have always prayed: “Come quickly, Lord Jesus.” Hopefully it’ll be quicker than the next failed apocalypse.
This article was published in the November 2015 edition of Reform.