For Harold Camping, May 21st, 2011 was to be “Doomsday,” the end of the world. The radio evangelist spent millions of dollars advertising his unswerving conviction that May 21st would begin with a massive earthquake in New Zealand, followed by’ return.
Tweets went ballistic with speculation. Some people held “Rapture parties.” The media hysteria had many people wondering, “Could he be right? Could this be the end of the world?” Few believed it would be—except for his ardent followers.
Camping’s message of imminent doom was swallowed hook, line and sinker by many of his followers. Sadly, some went on buying binges, assuming they would never have to pay back their debts. “Tony Moise, a 47-year-old insurance underwriter from Silver Spring, Md., quit his job to prepare. ‘It will be hell on Earth,’ he said, taking a break from handing out material. ‘You won't want to be around on May 22. There will be no electricity, no power, no water."’1
Sixty-year-old Robert Fitzpatrick spent his entire life’s savings of $140,000 on 1,000 subway-car placards and ads at bus stops warning: “Global Earthquake: The Greatest Ever! Judgment Day May 21, 2011.” As he stood in Times Square in New York surrounded by onlookers, Fitzpatrick handed out leaflets waiting for Judgment Day to begin before 6 p.m. Eastern Time.2
But “Judgment Day” was a dud. On May 21st at 6 p.m., as he and others looked up, nothing happened. Fitzpatrick was left dumbfounded, broke, and muttering, “I do not understand why nothing has happened.”
This was Camping’s second failed attempt at picking the date of Jesus’ return. He was convinced in 1994 that Jesus would return then. The radio evangelist would have been wise to have listened to the words of Jesus himself, who clearly stated regarding the timing of his return, “No man knows the day or the hour.”3
But Camping thinks he knows better. For the second time, Camping admits an error. The correct date, he now tells his followers, is October 21, 2011, not May 21. Without apology, the 89-year-old evangelist clarifies, “Am I flip-flopping by changing the date of the Rapture from May 21 to October 21, 2011? No, I am simply updating the prediction as we learn more.”4
Camping is merely one of many who thought they had insider information for the date of Jesus’ return. William Miller predicted the world would end no later than March 21, 1844. Thousands of his followers, labeled Millerites, sold or gave away their possessions. After his prediction failed, Miller attempted two more predictions. When the third one failed on October 22, 1844, many Millerites drifted away. Charles Taze Russell, the founder of the Jehovah’s Witness movement, erroneously predicted that Jesus would return in 1914.
What motivates people like these to predict Jesus’ return when he clearly stated that “no one knows the day or hour”? As a retired engineer, perhaps Camping felt he could decipher the Bible like a computer code, while ignoring Jesus’ words. Whatever the reason, it has stirred up a hornet’s nest of questions about Jesus’ return. Many wonder if Jesus actually promised to return.
About 41 percent of Americans think that Jesus will return before 2050, according to a 2010 poll by the Pew Research Center.5 However, now that “Judgment Day” has become fodder for late night comedians, many are probably wondering if Jesus really will return. Did Jesus truly promise he would?
In spite of false predictions, the Bible says Jesus will return to earth someday.6In speaking of the end times, Jesus told his disciples that he was the Messiah who would fulfill the Old Testament prophecies, including his return.7
Isaiah the prophet had clearly written that the Messiah would first suffer and die for our sins.8 However, other prophecies spoke of him coming to earth as the Lord who would deliver Israel from its enemies. These two seemingly contradictory views of the Messiah were difficult for the Jews to reconcile.
Prior to his death on the cross, Jesus was beaten and mocked by the Jewish leaders. He looked totally powerless standing before Caiaphas, the high priest, who asked Jesus if he was truly the Christ9, the Son of God. Jesus answered by saying, “I am: and you shall see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven.”10
Imagine the high priest’s reaction! Caiaphas and other Jews expected the Messiah to come in great power and glory. In his bloody condition, Jesus certainly didn’t look like a powerful king. Noting the Jews’ rejection of him, the Apostle John writes of their missed opportunity: “He came to his own people, and even they rejected him. But to all who believed him and accepted him, he gave the right to become children of God.”11
After his resurrection, Jesus took his disciples to the Mount of Olives, where he was lifted up into the clouds out of their sight. While they were gazing up in bewilderment, two men in white apparel (angels) told them, “Men of Galilee, why are you standing here staring at the sky? Jesus has been taken away from you into heaven. And someday, just as you saw him go, he will return!”12
These angels weren’t saying anything new. They were merely confirming Jesus’ clear promise that he would return someday in power, glory and judgment.13Signs Of Jesus’ Return
It has been nearly 2,000 years since Jesus left earth, and many wonder why he has taken so long to return. In his book, Why I Am Not a Christian, atheist 14 So is it possible that Russell is right, and Jesus did break his promise?accused Jesus of breaking his promise to return.
The Apostle Peter predicted scoffers like Russell would point to Jesus’ delay as a broken promise. He writes, “First, I want to remind you that in the last days there will be scoffers who will laugh at the truth and do every evil thing they desire. This will be their argument: ‘Jesus promised to come back, did he? Then where is he? Why, as far back as anyone can remember, everything has remained exactly the same since the world was first created.!’”15
Perhaps Russell and other scoffers should have looked closer at Peter’s words, as well as what Jesus said about the timing of his return, and the events that would precede it. Jesus did say that, although no man would know the exact timing of his return, certain clues would tell us that it is drawing near.16
Additionally, the Old Testament prophets and Jesus’ apostles also provide insight about what the world scene will look like just prior to the return of Jesus Christ. Let’s look briefly at a few of these clues to the general timing of Jesus’ return:17
Earthquakes, famines, epidemics, and wars have occurred throughout human history, but Jesus said there would be a noticeable increase of such events prior to his return.18 Persecution of believers began with the apostles and is on the increase today. More Christians are being persecuted for their faith now than at any time in history. Jesus tells us that such persecution will continue until his return, as will the worldwide proclamation of the gospel.
According to Jesus, when all of these events capture the world scene, we are to “look up,” for his return will be soon.19 Although Bible scholars don’t agree on all the details regarding Jesus’ return, many believe that the time Jesus spoke of is rapidly approaching. Paul told believers to be ready and “watch for the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.”20
So we need to know if Jesus’ promise to return is still true. And if so, why is he delaying so long to fulfill his promise?
Peter explained the reason for Jesus’ delay, “But you should never lose sight of this fact, dear friends, that time is not the same with the Lord as it is with us---to him a day may be a thousand years, and a thousand years only a day. The Lord isn’t really being slow about his promise, as some people think. No, he is being patient for your sake. He does not want anyone to be destroyed, but wants everyone to repent.”21
Peter was writing to believers who were experiencing trials and persecution. They wanted Jesus to come sooner rather than later. However, Peter tells them that God’s first priority is to spread the gospel of Christ throughout the world, reaching as many people as possible. Jesus had already told his disciples that the gospel would be preached to all nations before he came.22