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James L. Evans: The church’s prophetic role

Harold Camping, a 90-year old radio evangelist based in North Carolina, created a bit of a controversy for himself lately by attempting to predict the future. According to a variety of sources, Camping predicted that the world would end on May 21, 2011.

In case you were out that day, the world did not end.

Not to be deterred, Camping revised his prediction. Apparently his math was off slightly and instead of May as the terminus for the universe, the actual date was October.

So much for math and theology.

Now, Camping is saying he is repentant. According to a story in the L.A. Times, Camping wrote a letter to his Family Radio constituents repenting of his efforts to predict the second coming of Jesus and the impending end of the world.

He wrote, “Family Radio has no interest in even considering another date. We have learned the very painful lesson that all of creation is in God’s hands and he will end time in his time, not ours.”

Fair enough. And to be perfectly fair, Camping is not the first preacher/prognosticator to venture into the wasteland of end time predictions only to come up short, so to speak. There have been many before him, and there are likely to be many to come. It is probably innate within the human species, being uniquely aware of our own limited time in this life, to want to know exactly how much time we might have.

The real loss, sadly, is an ongoing misunderstanding of the actual predictive power of faith.

There are many among the faithful who remain preoccupied with proving the truthfulness of the Bible by the preponderance of fulfilled prophecies. And of course there are those, like Camping, who view Scripture as a cosmic crystal ball capable of disclosing the tiniest of details regarding the end of history.

Faith has demonstrated for centuries a tremendous predictive power, but not to the level of detail that anxious believers would desire. Instead of staring off into the far future, revealing the mysteries of God’s timetable, the Scriptures have been more modest in predicting the consequences of human behavior.

Take Jesus for example. He knew that if his Jewish kinfolk persisted in violent opposition to Rome, violence would be their end. An eye for an eye, and all that. He counseled, instead, turning the other cheek and going the second mile -- axioms that make the most sense within the context of Roman oppression.

The failure to observe this wisdom, Jesus warned, would result in Jerusalem being left with “not one stone upon another.” His words were confirmed a mere 40 years after his death as Roman legions convincingly ended a Jewish revolt by destroying the Holy City and burning the temple to the ground.

Other prophets have offered predictions -- not about the end of the world, but about the consequences of human beings failing to observe God’s ideal of community.

To ignore the poor, the prophets warned, undermines the integrity of community.

The practice of giving too much place to wealthy and privileged persons in our midst, while ignoring the rights and needs of working people, not to mention the widow and the orphan, so weakens a nation or community that it will not long stand.

And violence only begets violence. Those who live by the sword die by the sword.

The faith community has much to say about the future. We may not know the hour in which creation may end, but we have at our disposal the knowledge of how creation is supposed to work.

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