A little while ago, there was quite a lot of news coverage about Harold Camping's failed Rapture prediction. He predicted that the Rapture would happen on May 21, 2011, at 6:00 pm local time. Yet that time passed without anything significant happening. Mr. Camping should have listened to the Bible - the Bible clearly says that no one can predict the time of the Rapture, and that Christians should not try to do so. In this article I will examine what the Bible says about date-setting, and why it should be avoided.
No One Knows the Time of the Rapture
The Bible clearly gives many examples of how no one can know exactly what time Jesus will return for the Rapture. Let's examine these verses here:
- "Homeowners never know when a thief is coming, and they are always on guard to keep one from breaking in. Always be ready! You don't know when the Son of Man will come." (Matthew 24:43-44)
- To the church in Sardis, Jesus said "If you don't wake up, I will come when you least expect it, just as a thief does." (Revelation 3:3).
- Paul said "I don't need to write you about the time or date when all this will happen. You surely know that the Lord's return will be as a thief coming at night."(1 Thessalonians 5:1-2)
Also, we know why God has never set a date for the Rapture. In Luke 12:35-48, Jesus tells a story about servants who are waiting for their master to return home. They don't know when their master will return, and so the servants should work hard so that when the master comes they will be caught doing their jobs and will be rewarded. Similarly, any evil servants will be caught doing evil, and will be punished. If the evil servants had known that the master was coming, they would have stopped being evil and would have put on a nice act of being a good servant.
Similarly, Christians should be motivated to keep doing good for Jesus, and witnessing to others because Jesus could come at any time. And any pseudo "Christians" will not have any warning that they should clean up their act before the Rapture happens, and will be left behind for the Tribulation. Also, it will prevent non-Christians from having a chance to convert at the last second just to prevent being left behind.
No One Knows the Day or Hour
The most famous Bible verse on this topic is Matthew 24:36-41: "But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left." (NIV).
There is some disagreement about what this verse means. Some think that it describes the Rapture, others say it is the return of Jesus at the end of the Tribulation. I would say a straightforward reading of it would match the teaching of the Rapture.
According to Dan Kane in his book "Is Yeshua the Prophesied Messiah of the Hebrew Bible", on p.58 he states that "Some misinterpret the one taken to be taken in judgment and the one left behind remaining on earth to enter the millennial kingdom. This misunderstanding comes from the use of the word 'took' in Matthew 24:39 and 'taken' in verse 40. The logic is that if they were taken away in a flood in verse 39 as judgment, then the taken away in verse 40 must also mean taken away in judgment. However, this is incorrect. The Greek word translated as 'took' in verse 39 is airo which suggests being taken away in violence, as one would expect of those who died in the flood. In verse 40, Jesus used the word paralambano for 'taken'. It is the same word the angel used when he told Joseph not to fear 'taking' Mary as his wife (see Matthew 1:20). Thus, the one taken is the one who is raptured. The one left behind will enter into the awful period of time called the Tribulation."
It's Physically Impossible to Know the Time of the Rapture
Anyone who predicts a certain time for the Rapture must take into account the time zones around the world. When it is evening in California, it is already the next day in China! This fact is probably what caused Harold Camping to predict that the Rapture would go by time-zone, and claimed it would happen at 6:00 pm in every time zone.
However, this contradicts what we are taught about the Rapture in the Bible. The Bible says the Rapture will occur at the same instant across the entire world. How do we know this? The Rapture happens instantly "quicker than the blink of an eye" (1 Corinthians 15:52). It doesn't take 24 hours for the Rapture to complete in every time zone, as Harold Camping claimed. God is not limited by time zones.
Can Christians know the general time-frame of Jesus' return?
I believe that if Christians are paying attention to world events, we may know the general time-frame for when the Rapture may occur. Paul wrote: "My dear friends, you don't live in darkness, and so that day won't surprise you like a thief. You belong to the light and live in the day. We don't live in the night or belong to the dark. Others may sleep, but we should stay awake and be alert." (1 Thessalonians 5:4-6).
While Christians have been expecting Jesus' return at any time over the last 2000 years, recently there seem to be more and more signs that the Tribulation may begin very soon. Since the Rapture must occur before the Tribulation (see my article here for why) then the Rapture may be even closer than most people expect. Christians who are paying attention will see these signs of the Tribulation approaching, and will not be shocked when the Rapture happens. I believe for us the Rapture may be more like a surprise birthday party - you know your birthday is coming up, but you don't know the exact time that the party will happen. It's a surprise when the party starts, but not a completely unexpected shock.
How does Date-Setting hurt Christianity?
Date setting hurts Christianity and Christians in many ways. Some Christians who do not know the Bible and who think that the time of the Rapture is predictable may fall for these dates, and may give away all their property, sell their houses, and quit their jobs. Then when it doesn't happen they are in big trouble. Some may even lose faith in God, others may want to kill themselves if they believe they have missed the Rapture. Additionally, the Christians who believed in the set date will probably lose credibility with their friends and family, and may be given the label of a "crazy Christian". This would reduce their ability to witness to those close to them about Jesus.
Date-setting also hurts all Christians indirectly. The news media does not usually distinguish between all Christians and the small percentage who get sucked into date-setting. When the made-up dates for the Rapture don't happen, it reduces the credibility of all Christians and makes us all look bad.
Finally, I believe the date-setters reduce the legitimacy of Christians who are interested in end-times prophecy. If Christians like myself are trying to warn people that the Rapture and Tribulation are coming, people will ignore it and claim we're just as crazy as Harold Camping, and will not take it seriously. It's like the story of the Boy Who Cried Wolf - when too many predicted dates for the Rapture or the end of the world don't happen, people are less likely to pay attention to any future warnings.
Ironically, this behavior is exactly what the Bible predicted would happen: "But first you must realize that in the last days some people won't think about anything except their own selfish desires. They will make fun of you and say, 'Didn't your Lord promise to come back? Yet the first leaders have already died, and the world hasn't changed a bit.'" (2 Peter 3:3). People will scoff and mock Christians who say that Jesus is going to come back, and these failed Rapture or end-of-the-world predictions only increase that mocking.
Is the Rapture still Near?
Unfortunately, Harold Camping didn't seem to have learned his lesson. He changed his date to Oct. 21, 2011 which still didn't happen. And appropriately, I heard that Mr. Camping has had a stroke which has affected his speech, so hopefully he will get the hint that he shouldn't preach about this topic anymore. Although, I read one commentary though which said perhaps God does use Mr. Camping's predictions for some good. At least now the mainstream media has gotten the idea of the Rapture out there to many people who may not have heard about it before. People will be unable to say they did not have fair warning about what the Rapture is when it happens.
I wonder if the recent May 21 and Oct 21 predicted Rapture dates by Mr. Camping also have a secondary purpose. God said that if we are not paying attention, Jesus will come at a time when we are not expecting it (Revelation 3:3, Matthew 24:50). After two failed Rapture predictions, Christians will not be expecting the Rapture unless they are truly interested in Bible prophecy. Any non-serious Christians may be tired of hearing about the Rapture at that point, and may not be listening or looking for it anymore. This could indicate that the "season" for the Rapture could be rapidly approaching.
One more thing is interesting. In an article by Joesph Chambers here , he suspects that Satan is trying to attack and de-legitimize the doctrine of the pre-Tribulation Rapture through these failed predictions. Satan does not fight any other teachings about the Rapture (i.e amillennial or post-Tribulation views of the Rapture) nearly as much as he tries to discredit the pre-Tribulation Rapture. This can be encouraging to believers in the pre-Tribulation Rapture, because since Satan does not waste time fighting wrong doctrine, it indicates the teaching about the pre-tribulation Rapture is correct and is important enough to catch Satan's attention. If we are getting closer and closer to the Rapture, we should expect these attacks on the doctrine of the Rapture to increase.
Date-setting for the Rapture should not be attempted by Christians. The Bible clearly says that Jesus will return suddenly at an unexpected time, just like a thief coming to break into a house. In fact, Jesus doesn't even know when He's coming back - only God the Father knows! And if Jesus doesn't know, then surely no one on earth can know either.
Even though failed Rapture dates are set and pass without anything happening, it does not reduce the legitimacy of Bible prophecy. The Rapture will happen, and the Tribulation will follow, then followed by the return of Jesus to rule the earth. Christians should not lose hope just because the Rapture didn't happen on one specific date. We can still see the signs that the Tribulation is coming, and so we should continue our work preaching and helping others. Then when Jesus does come rescue us by the Rapture we can be happy that when He returned we were doing our jobs and serving Him.
Unfortunately, date-setters make our job more difficult because people will take our warnings of the Tribulation less seriously. Yet in a way, this is encouraging because the Bible says that there will be people who scoff at the return of Jesus in the last days, and so we know we really are in the last days! We need to keep encouraging each other with the hope of the Rapture (1 Thessalonians 4:18), and we should live every day like the Rapture might happen! This constant expectation of Jesus' return is what encourages us to live right and follow God, and we will be rewarded with the Crown of Righteousness in heaven: "Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day - and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing." (2 Timothy 4:8, NIV). Keep looking for Jesus' return, and keep encouraging others to turn to Jesus, and someday soon we may see Jesus in the clouds.