It has been a hobby of Christians to set a date for the return of Christ. Even non-Christian groups such as “Jehovah’s Witness” fall prey to this lure. There is a long history of this. The church of Thessalonica in the New Testament had members who were so sure of the imminent return of Christ (not sure if they set an exact date) that they quit their jobs and relied on the working members of the church to provide for them. Paul told them that if they don’t work they shouldn’t eat (this passage has, unfortunately, been misused to justify being uncharitable). 1000 AD, 1848, 1914, and more have been used. Here in the Philippines, a group out of South Korea is using the movie 2012 as if it is a Biblically-based description of the end of the world. The group is using it, not surprisingly, to draw people to their own faith group. May 21, 2011 is being spread now by a group that uses the tagline “Noah knew. We can know.” Technically speaking, it does not appear that Noah knew. He just did what he was told. But I suppose the point is not hugely relevant here.
Consider a personal experience I had. I was on an airplane returning from a business trip in the late 1990s. I sat down next to an Arab-American. He was a very nice individual, and I discovered that not only was he a Christian, but that he had a Christian radio program. After ascertaining that I was also “born again”, thus not needing the plan of salvation, he asked me to open my Bible. He took me to several passages (I remember one was in Hosea). Using these passages, he attempted to convince me that Jesus was absolutely returning between 1999 and 2002 (he did not feel he could be more dogmatic than that). It is 2010 now, and it certainly appears that his conviction, and interpretation, was wrong. I wonder what affect this error has had on his ministry.
The question is whether date-setting is missiologically useful. I believe the Bible teaches that we won’t know and shouldn’t try to know… but I am aware that some verses in the Bible could be read as if some might recognize the signs of His approach. The question here I am bring us is pragmatic, rather than theoretical.
There seem to be two obvious justifications for date-setting from a missions standpoint. <A> Setting a near date may cause some people to repent, believing that they have only a little time left. One need only look at the story of Jonah to see justification for this argument. <B> Setting a near date may cause some Christians to be motivated to be involved in missions and outreach sooner… believing that answering the call is “now or never.”
But let’s consider the down-side.
1. Many groups have been hurt by date-setting. The Millerites were hurt greatly when Jesus did not return in 1848. the “Jehovah’s Witness” religion has been hurt by date setting (1914 is their most famous one but they have set several dates). Their attempt to describe their literal failure as a metaphysical success has been less than convincing. A nice little webpage listing some of these dates is http://home.intekom.com/jason/return.htm
2. It draws into question the human source. The Bible describes a false prophet as one who claims a truth from God that is later demonstrated to be wrong. Edgar Whisenaunt came out with the book “88 Reasons that Jesus Will Return in 1988” that lost interest after September 13, 1988 for obvious reasons. His sequel “89 Reasons that Jesus Will Return in 1989” did not draw much interest… again for obvious reasons. Should one, who confidently sets a date of Jesus’ return (and is then demonstrated wrong) be considered a false prophet?
3. It often draws on questionable, even occultic sources for determining or confirming. Harold Camping uses numerology as his basis (back in 1994, and now for 2011). Some like to use ghosts or ghostly images for confirmation of a mystical return.
4. It seems to lead to bad behavior. If Jesus was returning next week, why would you be selling your house, dressing up in white clothes, or stand on a mountain? But some did this, while others like the Thessalonians, abused the hospitality of others while waiting. Jesus said to be watchful, ready, and faithful to the end.
5. It leads to sloppy missions. If Jesus was returning next year, perhaps it makes sense to simply spread the gospel thin and wide and pressure people to mumble “the sinner’s prayer”. <Perhaps> But if Jesus is coming in 200 years, what would be more effective? Developing reproducing, discipled Christians, planting 4-self churches, and perhaps transforming communities wholistically. If we don’t know when Jesus is coming, which path should we go? I believe the shallowness of short-term methods hurts the long-term growth of God’s kingdom. Sloppy, short-sighted methods should not be justified by date-setting.
6. It makes us question our role here. Some say that we should spread the gospel to every people group so that Jesus will come sooner (based on a poor understanding of Matthew 24). It seems pretty doubtful that we can make Jesus come sooner by our own actions. But suppose we could. Is that a worthy goal? Quickly spread the gospel to the last “unreached people group”, thus ensuring that many billions in “reached groups” will be doomed? There seems to be a flawed thinking here. This thinking tends to make us “more heavenly minded” and “less earthly good”. If we are convinced that Jesus is coming soon, and so soon that what is going on here does not matter, then we shouldn’t care about poverty, the environment, disease, social injustice and such. But if we are faithful stewards doing what Jesus has called us to do every day (regardless of when the Master returns) we should care about our neighbor, our community, our country, and our world.
I believe that date-setting for Jesus return (whatever one says about whether it is possible) is missiologically unwise… at best. At worst, it is a destructive obsession.