If you spent any time using social media in mid-May, you've probably heard or read a joke about Family Radio and Harold Camping, who predicted that the Rapture would arrive on May 21. It was the second failed prediction for the California preacher, who now says that he miscalculated, and that Judgment Day will actually take place on Oct. 21. Comedians and religious skeptics had a field day, and Mr. Camping's crestfallen followers, many of whom made significant decisions based on his interpretation of the Bible, were left to pick up the pieces.
Faith Exchange panelists have convened to discuss prophecies and religious beliefs about the end of the world.
Rabbi Howard Voss-Altman has been serving Temple B'nai Tikvah, Calgary's Reform Jewish congregation, for the past eight years. He is a community leader in the areas of human rights and civil liberties.
Michael W. Higgins is a biographer, a CBC documentarist and currently the vice-president of Mission and Catholic identity at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn. He is the author or co-author of more than a dozen books, including Suffer the Children Unto Me: An Open Inquiry into the Clerical Abuse Scandal.
Sheema Khan writes a monthly column for The Globe and Mail. She has a master's degree in physics and a PhD in chemical physics from Harvard. She is the author of Of Hockey and Hijab: Reflections of a Canadian Muslim Woman.
Lorna Dueck has been reporting on Christian practice in Canadian life for the past 20 years. She is an evangelical Christian and executive producer of Listen Up TV on Global TV, Sundays at 11 a.m. Eastern time.
Moderator Guy Nicholson edits The Globe and Mail's online Comment page. He professes no religious beliefs.
Guy Nicholson: Thanks for taking the time to join us. Panelists, even a non-believer like me can accept using faith as a philosophical guide. But this case seems to me like a clear-cut argument against using a religious text as a literal script for life and death. Do you agree?
Michael Higgins: Being a literalist can be a consoling option - it certainly can go some way to simplifying the complexities that make up what we call life. It also caricatures religious faith, diminishes the importance of a sophisticated and intellectual approach to the appropriation and maturation of a personal faith, and can result in the reduction of religion to the risible and inconsequential. Reading most texts - scriptural or otherwise - in a literalist manner can be a recipe for disappointment. I don't recommend it.
Howard Voss-Altman: The persistent use of biblical text as an instrument of doom is always depressing. Such claims manage not only to alienate the non-believer, but also delegitimize organized religion as a force for social change. Why is it that biblical prophecies are always about destruction? Wouldn't it be wonderful if a religious leader predicted that on Oct. 21, we'd all be "welcoming the stranger" as the first step toward world peace? There's a prophecy worth waiting for.
Michael Higgins: Good point, Howard. Consummation need not be equated with ruin, fire and destruction. It can, and should be, fulfilment, integration, the arrival of a reign of justice, love and mercy.
Sheema Khan: I think we have to be careful in using this particular example to generalize how religious texts should or should not be used. There are many Christians who did not believe or follow Mr. Camping. I think the issue here is whether believers should blindly follow a particular leader without asking questions. Mr. Camping claims that he made mathematical calculations based on religious text. Did anyone actually challenge him on that? Ask to see those calculations and verify them? In science, we do this all the time. Claims are met with skepticism until there is tangible proof and evidence. Even in theoretical physics, if the math doesn't pan out, the claim is tossed out. I think it is Mr. Camping who has lost credibility, not the religious text.
Lorna Dueck: I agree that the wacky numerology that was used to predict the end of the world was a gross misuse of the Bible, a literal tragedy of trying to create a script out of spiritual mystery. Yet Christianity firmly believes that the Bible contains teachings that illuminate how we approach "end times" events - our own death and the return of Jesus Christ to Earth. That academic discipline is called eschatology, and is about the study of God's goals.