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Predicting date of Christ’s return continues, but professors call it ‘gnosticism’comment (0)

May 22, 2014


Predicting date of Christ’s return continues, but professors call it ‘gnosticism’

It may not get a lot of attention because it falls on a Thursday, but May 29 is Ascension Day. This is the day Jesus’ resurrected body ascended into heaven as His disciples looked on 40 days after Easter.

In the first chapter of Acts, two men in white robes ask the gazing apostles: “Why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way you saw Him go into heaven.”

Ascension Day recognizes that Christ’s plan of redemption is incomplete until the Lord’s return. About what day that will occur, Jesus says in Mark 13: “No one knows, not even the angels in heaven nor the Son Himself. Only the Father knows.”

Speculations about when Christ is coming back

That hasn’t stopped people from speculating, however, from the Seventh-day Adventists who this month celebrate the 150th anniversary of a church that didn’t expect to be around for a decade to Harold Camping, the radio preacher who, based on numerical interpretations of the Bible, predicted the Rapture would occur May 21, 2011.

“Some have said: ‘Jesus just said we can’t know the day or the hour. But that doesn’t mean we can’t know the year,’” said Doug Weaver, professor of religion at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. “They insist we can read the signs of the times.”

Some claim great specificity. A billboard along I-35 in Central Texas proclaims that on Aug. 2, 2027, “Christ stands on Mt. Olivet at noon.” It cites Amos 8:9 as Bible proof. A website links the verse to an anticipated solar eclipse that will be visible in Jerusalem.

Date-setting is most common among fundamentalist Christians who interpret the Bible most literally.

Thomas Slater, professor of New Testament language and literature at Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology in Atlanta, calls it a form of “neo-gnosticism,” similar to an early Christian heresy with a dualistic belief system that the material world should be shunned and salvation attained through knowledge.

“It’s a kind of religious elitism that says the knowledge we have puts us in a different category,” he said. “In trying to eliminate uncertainty, it creates a form of gnosticism that teaches, ‘My knowledge will save me.’ What saves any of us is trust in God through Jesus Christ. There’s not any amount of knowledge that will save us.”

Interest in end-times prophecy

Belief in the Second Coming is a fundamental of the Christian faith. The Westminster Confession of Faith, a Reformed confessional statement drawn up in 1646, says Jesus “ascended into heaven, and there sits at the right hand of His Father, making intercession, and shall return, to judge men and angels, at the end of the world.”

The 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith picked up that language. The 2000 Baptist Faith and Message states both that Jesus “ascended into heaven and is now exalted at the right hand of God” and “will return in power and glory to judge the world and to consummate His redemptive mission.”

Weaver said interest in end-times prophecy historically has intensified during periods of cultural crisis. Middle East unrest, terrorist attacks and natural disasters prompt many Christians today to study prophetic timelines to determine if current events might be signs of Christ’s Second Coming.''

Millennials

“It’s been going on for a long time, but it gained new momentum with the rise of premillennial dispensationalism,” Weaver said.

The millennium describes a 1,000-year period prophesied in Revelation 20 where Satan is bound and Christ reigns with the resurrected saints on Earth. Christians historically have divided into three predominant schools of thought on the matter.

Amillennialists view the 1,000 years as figurative and symbolic. Postmillenialism, which reached its apex in the 19th and early 20th century, believes Christians will usher in the kingdom of God through social reform and missions.

Premillennialists take a dimmer view of history. They believe things are getting worse and will continue that way until Christ intervenes to set things right and establish a 1,000-year reign on Earth.

The premillennial view goes back a long way, but its most popular form today — dispensationalism — dates back to John Nelson Darby and the Plymouth Brethren in the mid-1800s.

It received a boost among conservative Christians in the United States in the 20th century through the annotated “Scofield Reference Bible.” Interest accelerated with Hal Lindsey’s bestselling “The Late, Great Planet Earth” in 1970, and entered popular culture with the “Left Behind” series in the 1990s.

Weaver said the movement’s positive side is its absolute certainty in God’s providential care for His people and in offering hope for the future. “The problem is that it doesn’t focus on the present,” he said. “It’s all about God’s activity in the future.”

Social conditions

Slater said the assumption that social conditions must continue to slide until Christ’s return absolves Christians from the responsibility to make the world a better place in the here and now. “It’s not a very Christian attitude,” he said.

Al Smith, psychology professor at Wayland Baptist University’s San Antonio campus, said one factor driving the belief is fear.

“The more the world around us seems chaotic and falling apart, people gravitate to anything that gives them reassurance,” he said. That is why a preacher who can seemingly offer a clear-cut timeline when the future looks uncertain can usually find a ready audience. “People gravitate toward a charismatic person who is seen to have inside information,” Smith said.

Other criticism includes that a preoccupation with presumed facts about Christ’s coming leaves little room for faith. It can feed self-centeredness and even narcissism, because it separates the redeemed from those who will be left behind. (ABP)

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