Religion Today

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Are We Still Here?

Harold Camping has preached that May 21, 2011, would be the turning point of human history. This is the day that the radio broadcaster has predicted the Rapture takes place and "all the believers who have ever lived will be instantly transformed into glorified spiritual bodies to be forever with God."

At the same time, a massive earthquake will wreak havoc across the earth, followed by five months of tribulation. Then on Oct. 21, 2011, the world will end. Camping's organization "Family Radio" has been broadcasting warnings on the airwaves and the Internet, posting announcements on billboards around the country, and sending out believers in RVs to carry the message directly to people.

Camping's message is not new, only the specific dates he identifies. It is a form of Premillennial Dispensationalism (PD), a theology common among Evangelical Christians and developed in the early 1800s by John Darby, an Anglo-Irish Protestant. He popularized his views during several evangelizing tours in the United States in the 1860s and the 1870s.

Darby divided the history of the world (all 7,000 years!) into seven ages (dispensations). The theology arranges events and "prophecies" described in the Bible into these ages. Events and prophecies that do not fit into a theologian's knowledge of the past become the basis for predicting the future-a future that entails doom and destruction for the world. (Note: PD theologians are not known for their broad historical knowledge.)

Jesus' resurrection in 33 A.D. began the Church Age, the Sixth Age, in which Christianity proclaims God's salvation to all people and the number of believers will increase. At the end of the Church Age, according to PD, Jesus will briefly appear to take all believers to heaven in the Rapture, and the Seventh Age will begin, leading quickly to the end of the world.

Since Darby's time, followers of PD have taught that the Rapture could happen at any moment and that believers should remain ready. There is a caveat, however. Darby taught that the exact time was unknowable because biblical prophecies referred to the Jews and not to the Church.

Darby's caveat gave his views a big boost after 1844, when William Miller led a nationwide movement of hundreds of thousands of people to believe that what he called the "Second Advent" would happen on Oct. 22, 1844. It did not. In the wake of this failure, PD preachers and theologians emphasized Darby's caveat as indicating that biblical prophecies were not about the current Church Age.

Although a PD theologian, Camping has given a set of specific dates. This is because he believes that the Church Age has ended and we are in the last Age. The prophecies now apply to world events and can be used to calculate the events of the end times.

The problem with PD theology, which its proponents do not seem to have noticed, is that it assumes Christianity has failed in its mission of salvation. Camping's Family Radio is working hard to save a few more people-in the middle of one of the world's most Christian nations!

Premillennial Dispensationalism holds that the world has been going morally downhill. The Church Age, despite the Gospel's preaching, has been a time during which humanity has become more and more depraved, committing wickedness and evil on an ever-increasing scale. The Rapture will take place just before the most morally corrupt low-point ever. Does that indicate Christianity has had a positive influence?

Even in the countries where Christianity is strongest, most Premillennial Dispensationalists think that few people who call themselves Christians will be raptured. The rest delude themselves. So out of the 2.2 billion Christians, only a few million will be claimed. Can Christianity be called successful if so few reach the goal of salvation at the time of rapture?

And, according to this theology, just how successful has God been in bringing salvation to all humanity? Not very.

If May 21, 2011 is a day of Rapture, then it demonstrates the failure of God's all-encompassing plan for the salvation of humankind. It is a rescue mission for the few, not a graduation party for the many.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Osama bin Laden: The Failure of His Message

Why do Americans think that Osama bin Laden was a Muslim leader? Because he styled himself as one and we took his word for it.

At a time when leadership in the Islamic world was largely defined by national or ethnic boundaries for both political and religious figures, bin Laden addressed himself to Muslims at large from a location that was both everywhere and nowhere. After 9/11, his organization, al-Qaeda, seemed able to appear at any place at anytime, while Osama himself could not be found. This provided him a trans-national stage no Muslim leader since Abdul Nasser had possessed. We thought people were listening.

Bin Laden considered his primary audience all Muslims, and in particular Muslims who found themselves living constrained lives. They were in economic straights, often jobless, and lived in countries where their freedoms were severely limited. They lacked freedom of expression and speech, and freedom of movement, and freedom to assemble -- to say nothing of freedom of the press. Their ability to carry out their lives was limited by fear of government reprisals if they (accidentally) stepped out of line. And of course, lack of jobs and opportunities led to widespread poverty.

The problem, according to bin Laden, was caused by Western imperial powers that had conquered most Muslim countries at some time during the past two centuries and then ruled them in a way that transferred the wealth of the vanquished to the conquerors. This characterization of the problem was not original; as the Muslim nations gained their independence during the 20th century, successive politicians in country-after-country used it to justify their policies and the exploitation of their own people.

But bin Laden's solution was original. He argued that if Muslims attacked and damaged Western powers at the heart of their economic strength, those powers would spend their economies dry trying to protect themselves. Muslims would then rise up en masse and throw off their chains. (American reaction to 9/11 has shown that the first part of Osama's assessment was surprisingly accurate. Since then our nation entered two wars that were paid for by increasing our debt and which helped lead to a world-wide recession).

Within the Islamic world itself, the response was much smaller. Most of the people motivated to join bin Laden's cause came from a single segment of society -- young unemployed men. Being unemployed, these men had the time to turn to religious education. This positioned them to hear Osama's message, which was delivered in religious terms. That was the only type of "free" speech allowed by the governments of these Muslim countries, since overtly political speech was suppressed. Because  Osama's message was against the outside powers rather than national Muslim politicians, it was suppressed very little.
Across the world's 1.5 billion Muslims, bin Laden's religiously formulated message was accepted by surprisingly few. It may have resonated with long-standing frustrations in the Arab and Muslim world, but only a few thousand young men actually joined al-Qaeda.

Since the start of 2011, there have been uprisings in many Arab nations, from Tunisia and Egypt to Libya, Yemen and the Persian Gulf states. Millions of people, male and female, young and old, have protested against their governments and some cases overthrown them. But these protests have nothing to do bin Laden or al-Qaeda. They stem from the failure of each country's strong-man leadership to deliver what the people needed: Jobs, civil rights and freedoms, freedom from fear of their own government, etc.

Bin Laden's attempt to blame the United States failed. The Muslim people could see that the roots of their problems lay much closer to home. Indeed, the responsibility was within their own country, not some far-away power. In the end, it is concern over jobs, personal security and freedom that is bringing positive political change to the Muslim world.

So, bin Laden may have presented himself as a leader and a voice for the Islamic people, but few listened. The Western press paid more attention to him than the Muslim people did. The recent revolutions have come from within each country and community. They are spontaneous, rather than theorized and planned.
And most importantly, they result from the people attempting to win better conditions for themselves through peaceful means, rather than through violence and mass murder.