Oh, come on. Admit it. I know you are harboring a slightly superior air of “I-told-you-so” over Harold Camping and his followers because their doomsday prediction this past month was a flop. I know, because I, too, have the feeling.
If you’re not aware of the cataclysmic bullet we all dodged, you probably missed the massive billboard campaign financed by Camping, a conservative Christian businessman, predicting Jesus’ return on May 21.
As the day proved uneventful in all time zones, Camping announced his spiritual mayday wasn’t wrong, merely a miscalculation. Now, he says because Jesus was no-show last month, he’ll combine it with the catastrophic destruction of the Earth on Oct. 21.
But, in case you’re tempted to do the Church Lady’s Superior Dance as seen on “Saturday Night Live,” Camping’s situation calls to mind the story of Noah’s Ark.
The details, common to the versions told by Muslims, Christians and Jews, describe a man named Noah who is commanded by God to built a giant ship called an ark in planning for the destruction of the world by a massive flood.
When Noah finishes the ark, God seals the hatches in preparation for the flood. The storm doesn’t come, however, and for six days, Noah endures much of the same merciless teasing Camping heard this year. Finally, on the seventh day, it rains on the parade of scoffers, and Noah rebuffs the repentant souls pounding on the doors looking for last-minute cruise discounts.
Anticipating the same virtuous vindication Noah received, Camping and his unhappy campers played the theological lottery and gambled on a toxic strand of religion I like to call “gotcha evangelism.” It’s toxic because the gamble plays on our need to be right and retreats into self-pride when we are wrong.
The gotcha gamble isn’t limited to the religious.
Health nuts use the gotcha approach to scare us into eating right. Environmentalists use it to frighten us into carpooling. Journalists use it to induce anxiety in politicians. And police use it in something called a sting.
When these folks have their theories proved or their traps sprung, they declare “gotcha,” like a poker player who has wagered a successful bluff.
But, gotcha becomes a bigger game when high rollers, or Holy Rollers, play the Armageddon card along with the threat of hell to intimidate players into folding their hands.
Faith should be something that invites its adherents, not something that pushes, threatens or bankrupts their joy.
“But,” you may ask, “if people weren’t afraid of judgment day or hell, why would they believe in God?”
The question underlines the problem with gotcha evangelism. Like Camping, this question miscalculates grace. Grace is not a gamble or an escape hatch from a bad day. Jesus isn’t our ejection seat, and heaven isn’t an evacuation plan.
Heaven, Jesus rightly pointed out, is someday and today. “The kingdom of God” he said, “doesn’t come by counting the days on the calendar nor when someone says, ‘Look here!’ or, ‘There it is!’ And why? Because God’s kingdom is already among you.”
Grace and forgiveness are not something we escape to, but rather something we are blessed to live in. Grace is so big we can’t possibly get our arms all the way around it. It’s constantly unfolding to us.
I know in my own life, when grace is added to the equation, all the other figures become nil. Grace is the real trump card.