Responding to End-of-the-World Predictions

May 21st is the latest end of the world prediction date, or the next one in line. Don’t confuse it with the end of the world prediction for 2012 which comes from the Mayans. No, the May 21st date is from a Christian minister and is being promoted by a group of people in rv’s traveling about the country trumpeting the warning. I am not making this up.

If you want to spend/waste a few minutes google the phrase “end of the world predictions” and browse through the offerings. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of predictions have come and gone in the last two millennia. They tend to cluster around the turn of a century or millennium, or after disasters, and some groups simply can’t resist making predictions. Despite being 0 for fill-in-the-blank, people are undeterred by repeated and unrelenting air balls. Predictions still garner headlines.  

How should Christians who do not subscribe to predictions properly respond to well-marketed predictions?

First, be careful with smug comments. I have already unsuccessfully resisted this temptation, but we do need to remember that contempt and derision are not virtues. Folks who make predictions are easy pickings. Those of us who dismiss the predictions with a bit of highbrow scorn have a historically 100% chance of being right and appearing to be more intelligent, reasonable, biblically knowledgeable, etc. Humility and kindness are always appropriate especially when you have an ironclad guarantee of accuracy.

We must remember the human side of this issue. Many people get caught up in the fervor, and most of them are scared. All of them risk being very disappointed, embarrassed, and disillusioned on May 22. I’m concerned about that. Christian faith is a wonderful combination of joy, insight, peace, and wisdom. It touches both heart and head. When people who practice it become disenchanted, I feel sorry for them. So treat this topic gently.

Second, don’t lose sight of the beautiful truth of Christ’s return. Though I am committed to being careful with my remarks I have a deep concern for the misuse of this doctrine. Because it is the personal playground for the predictors, the rest of us tend to shy away from it. But the return of Christ is solidly represented throughout the NT, and teaching it responsibly does not make us delusional. That God will one day make all things right, creating a new heaven and a new earth, is a reasonable deduction from scripture and from the moral framework woven into all of us. Good really does win, we simply do not know when that will ultimately happen. So let us teach this doctrine as the joyful hope it is.

Third, in the modern religious marketplace two ideas “sell” particularly well: apocalypse and prosperity. They will fill up auditoriums or make people sell their possessions and wait on the nearest hilltop for the end of the world. Nothing gets as much press as a prediction or the promise of a Mercedes.

Both ideas share the common appeal of escape. We are fearful, tired, ill, or heavily in debt and these twin promises offer the idea of deliverance in the form of heaven or a healthier bank account. The temptation is very alluring.

What both the predictors and the prosperity preachers ignore, however, is the fact that God appears intent on helping us live in the meantime. We are not to constantly look for deliverance but for the joy of life as we have it in Christ. We find that joy in our relationship with Christ and in the daily tasks of service to others. In both worship and work we find meaning and every reason to stick around.

Now the folks driving about in rv’s certainly cannot be faulted for not “doing something” with their faith, but doing the right thing for the wrong reason is the very definition of bad religion. Without apology I say unrelenting predictions are bad religion. We need good ideas for good religioin.

I have seen personally the mild hysteria these cyclical events cause (1988 was a big year for predictions, so was Y2K). Christians who get caught up in the panic as May 21st draws near risk at least slight embarrassment on May 22 or a deeper disappointment. Those outside the faith will simply see this as another reason to dismiss Christianity. Let’s all take a deep breath. And for those of you casting nervous eyes to the calendar I cannot say this strongly enough: Do Not Worry! And keep living in the meantime.

Dr. Terry Ellis

May 11, 2011

  1. How timely, since I have recently been in repeated conversation with a person who is so convinced that the world will end on May 21st that he also persuaded certain family members to make sudden, drastic changes in their daily routines, educational pursuits, living arrangements, money management and so forth. Understandably, this has put a severe strain on those family members who are shocked and dismayed by what appears to be irrational behavior. From my perspective, I see a sensitive, intelligent, sincere individual who has suffered a series of painful losses over the past few years and for whom an "end of the world" scenario has become metaphorical of how he feels about his personal world. I view his belief as a "fixed delusion," symptomatic of depression rooted in a failure to grieve.

    Terry, you are right on target in cautioning us not to mock people who cling to apparently irrational beliefs. There is always something deeper going on and, if we can still affirm the person while respectfully refusing to buy into their catastrophizing, we might later be accepted by them as a friend who can help pick up the pieces when the dire predictions collapse and dissipate as steam from a kettle.

    Keep telling the story of God's immeasurable grace!

    • Thank you Reid. I like your word "catastrophizing!" I do believe every challenge also gives us an opportunity to "let our gracious kindness be know to all people." Perhaps those folks who are disillusioned or despairing on Sunday morning the 22nd will be more open to hearing about the joy of abiding in Christ moment by moment. Whenever the end comes, we will live in the meantime.

  2. Thanks, Terry. I am finishing up the book of Daniel (Ch. 12) in my Ladies' Bible Study this coming Tuesday and your remarks are so appropriate for my lesson. With your permission, I'd like to quote part of your devotional (of course, giving you credit!). I've already recommended your Grace Waves website to my ladies and will do so again this week.

  3. Thanks Terry!!!!!!!!