Last year Harold Camping of Family Radio caught the attention of national media by displaying a series of billboard ads declaring that Christ would return on May 21, 2011. Apparently, a significant number of Christians believe his interpretation of the Bible. Many others have reacted with scorn.
Recently, a fellow pastor remarked to me, "Well, I guess we know one day the Lord will definitely not come back!" I didn't inquire, but his reasoning was probably that if "no man knows" the day, and Camping knows the day is May 21, then the day must not be May 21.
But Harold Camping does not really know the day. May 21, 2011, is still a possibility, but not for any of the reasons Camping and his followers have claimed. Here's why.
Camping et. al. build their case for a May 21 rapture on two pillars. The first is that the faithful can know--indeed, will know--the date of Christ's return.
In the Bible a wise man is a true believer, to whom God has given a profound trust in the authority of the Bible. True believers have been in existence since the beginning of time. But the timeline of history as it is revealed in the Bible was never revealed to the hearts of the true believers. ... However, about 35 years ago God began to open the true believers' understanding of the timeline of history. ... However, it was not until a very few years ago that the accurate knowledge of the entire timeline of history was revealed to true believers by God from the Bible. ("No Man Knows the Day or the Hour?")
In support of this idea, May 21 rapture proponents claim Ecclesiastes 8:5, Daniel 12:4 and 9, then add to that reasoning from Revelation 22:18-19 and the experience of Noah. The gist of their thinking is that Ecclesiastes and Daniel predict a time when knowledge not-then-known (concerning "time and judgment") would eventually be revealed. Since no Scripture is to be added to what we already have (Rev. 22:18-19), the revealing of this new knowledge must take the form of a later discovery of information previously hidden in the Bible. (That idea alone is probably more damaging than any of the date-setting!)
So what does Noah have to do with it?
God gave Noah precise information so he could warn the world of impending destruction. Similarly, God commanded Jonah to give the people of Nineveh the precise day He planned to destroy the city of Nineveh. Likewise, in His mercy and love God has given the true believers of our day the exact time of the Rapture, which is the first day of the Day of Judgment, so that they can warn the world. (Same source)
The second pillar of Camping's case for May 21 gets pretty technical. The short version is that calculations based on this and that indicate that May 21, 2011, is the day. Since the case for a particular calculation of the date depends on the idea that believers can know the date, I'll focus here on that more basic idea. If there is biblical reason to believe Christians--however wise and righteous--are not going to know the date of Christ's return, all the math is just a distraction (and I'm always happy to avoid unnecessary number crunching!).
Why we cannot know the day
Diligent students of Scripture have long held that the date of Christ's return is not revealed and may not be discovered by His followers. This unrevealed-date view is correct for several reasons.
First, the phrase "as a thief in the night" is not, as proponents of Camping's view suggest, a deceitful trick employed by "churches" (in Camping's teaching, learning anything from a church is a bad thing! See http://www.wecanknow.com/).
WeCanKnow.com claims that the unrevealed-date view depends on the reasoning that "Christ's coming will be like a thief in the night. In other words, no one can know...." The document then directs readers' attention to 1 Thessalonians 5:2, where the phrase occurs, and suggests that we've all been duped because 5:4 clearly indicates that "ye, brethren, are not in darkness, that the day should overtake you as a thief" (KJV).
Sadly, many believers who have not been exposed to a more complete look at what Scripture teaches on the subject (or weren't paying attention) have been quick to believe Camping's caricature of the unrevealed-date view.
In reality, the context of the phrase "as a thief in the night" in 1 Thessalonians 5:2 shows that Paul had several ideas in mind.
For you yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so comes as a thief in the night. For when they say, "Peace and safety!" then sudden destruction comes upon them, as labor pains upon a pregnant woman. And they shall not escape. But you, brethren, are not in darkness, so that this Day should overtake you as a thief. (NKJV, 1 Thess. 5:2-4)
The word "for" at the beginning of 5:3 indicates that the verse explains the phrase "as a thief in the night." The point is that, for unbelievers, the day of the Lord is unexpected ("sudden," etc.), unwelcome ("thief"), painful ("as labor pains") and inescapable ("they shall not escape").
Consequently, when Paul says believers are not in darkness that the day should overtake them as a thief, he means that, for them, the day is not unexpected, unwelcome or painful--and they have no reason to want to escape it. The passage does not indicate that believers will know where it falls on the calendar (much less, on the clock!).
Second, Jesus explicitly rejected the idea that His followers can know the time of His return. Jesus used the thief metaphor before Paul did and had a slightly different meaning in mind.
Watch therefore, for you do not know what hour your Lord is coming. But know this, that if the master of the house had known what hour the thief would come, he would have watched and not allowed his house to be broken into. Therefore you also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect. (Matt. 24:42-44)
Though Paul's use of the expression is broader in meaning, Jesus uses the metaphor to mean precisely what proponents of the unrevealed-date view use it to mean: that the precise timing of the Son of Man's coming is not knowable.
Some may counter, "Well, Jesus said we won't know the hour, but what about the day?" (Interestingly, Camping allegedly claims to know the hour as well. See US preacher warns end of the world is nigh: 21 May, around 6pm, to be precise.) Jesus clearly rejected the "day but not hour" option also.
Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour in which the Son of Man is coming. (Matt. 25:13)
But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, but My Father only. But as the days of Noah were, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be. (Matt. 24:36–37)
Third, there is no evidence that Noah knew the day when the flood judgment would come. Camping's billboards advertising the date of Christ's coming have included several claiming "Noah knew," with variations on the theme that we may also know. "No Man Knows the Day or the Hour?" claims that God gave Noah "precise information," and WeCanKnow.com also argues along these lines.
But Scripture gives no indication that Noah knew the day of judgment in advance. Genesis 7:11 reveals exactly what day the flood itself began relative to Noah's age, but Noah learned of that day only when God commanded him to enter the ark seven days earlier (Gen. 7:4). The seven-day "head's up" before the first rain drops wasn't advance knowledge of the day of judgment. It was a necessary interval for getting everybody and everything safely on board. The judgment itself began the day Noah's ministry ended and he began loading the ark.
It's true that Noah was aware for years that the time was limited and that judgment was coming, and he preached with that in mind (Heb. 11:7, 1 Pet. 3:20, 2 Pet. 2:5). Our day parallels his in that believers also know judgment is coming and time is limited and the gospel must be preached.
But, like Noah, we will not know the day judgment is to begin until the day it begins.
What about Ecclesiastes, Daniel and Revelation? Though the Scriptures are indeed complete, Ecclesiastes 8:5 is about how to get along with kings. The Daniel passages (12:4 "seal the book until the time... knowledge shall increase" and 12:9 "the words are closed up and sealed till the time of the end") probably refer to safely preserving documents until their promises are fulfilled. In any case, nothing in these passages teaches that the date of Christ's return was hidden in the text of Scripture to be discovered later by a faithful few.
As the old rule of thumb says, it's best to let the clearer passages interpret the less clear ones. Though some questions have no clear passages, "Can we know the date of Christ's return?" is not one of them.