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Mayan calendar aside, end times theology has meaning for many Americans

Published: Wednesday, Dec. 19 2012 6:55 p.m. MST

“It’s theologically incoherent, scientifically wrong and weakens efforts to get public policy changed,” Peter Hess, the director of outreach to the religious community at the National Center for Science Education, told RNS. “If you simply say, ‘It’s God’s will,’ it absolves people of taking serious responsibility for their actions.”

But Darrell Bock, senior research professor of New Testament studies at Dallas Theological Seminary, called that view a "caricature" that doesn't represent mainstream Christianity.

"What most people believe is that it makes a great deal of difference what you do because you’ve been called to contribute to the world God has created," Bock said. "You might not go into it with the idea that you are going to fix everything. But you do go in with the idea that you contribute what you can."

Setting a date

When Rev. Jerry Shirley preaches about the last days, he doesn't sugarcoat his message. He wants congregants of Grace Baptist Church in Decatur, Ill., to believe that crime and natural disasters in the news are signs the end is near.

"Yes, it could be this very day," Shirley said recently in a sermon titled "2012." "It could be years away. But it will happen, and the Bible indicates simply 'soon.'"

What Shirley doesn't want his parishioners to believe is that the end will happen Friday — or any other precise date. Christian leaders cite New Testament scripture, which clearly states only God knows when the end will happen, stressing that setting a date is an automatic red flag that what is being taught is false.

"The person who predicts a date has already crossed the biblical line," Bock said.

But some faith leaders seem to find it irresistible to try to nail down a precise time for the end-time events foretold in the New Testament gospels and Book of Revelation. History is full of their failed predictions. The most infamous was in 1844, when Baptist minister William Miller's faulty number-crunching incorrectly predicted the time Jesus would return to earth for a second time. The event was dubbed the "Great Disappointment."

The episode spawned the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, whose founders held that the reason Miller's prediction didn't come to pass was that people were not observing the Hebrew sabbath. An offshoot of the church, the Branch Davidians, believed the end times had come in 1993 when they engaged in a deadly standoff with federal authorities in Waco, Texas.

The latest failed prediction to generate media buzz was from radio evangelist Harold Camping, who twice forecast the end would come in 2011.

Mainstream Christian leaders today react to such teachings by emphasizing hope over fear when discussing end times.

"The main thing is to remind (the congregation) about what the biblical emphasis is," said Bock. "It’s an emphasis on hope and that God has promised to take care of his people and eventually redeem them, so ultimately there is nothing to fear."

Shirley doesn't want to downplay the tribulations that will precede the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, but he said he doesn't want the congregation to be paralyzed by fear.

"It's better to be aware. But God’s not given us a spirit of fear, and these things should motivate us to work for good today," he said. "It is possible to be so heavenly minded that you are no earthly good."

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