The most “viral” thing I had written prior to today was Why We Have Children. It’s probably, since I began writing for Patheos, the piece of which I am the most proud. Yet today, the response to my Open Letter to Harold Camping and Those Who Expected Judgment Day has been something to behold. Whether or not it’s truly “viral” depends on your frame of reference. Compared to a piece at Huffington Post, 2,000 shares (where it stands about six hours after it was posted) is more like a mild cold than a virus. Regardless, many thanks to those who read, shared, and commented on it — and again, please follow the Facebook or Twitter links in the sidebar to connect with me, or subscribe to the blog feed if you feel so inspired.
I wanted to post and respond to some of the more illuminating comments the letter received.
1. FIRST of all, many of the commenters called the letter “compassionate.” I confess that my writing is not always so compassionate. It could stand to be more so, and I hope that the way in which people expressed gratitude for such compassion will inspire me to make it so. But here’s the point: I do feel a sincere compassion for the people who were misled by Camping’s predictions, and the response to the letter reveals how many others feel compassion. How many of us have not believed something, at some point, that we later came to view as silly? How many of us have not felt the tug upon our belief systems that can come from a charismatic leader, or a community of mutually-reinforced belief, or a well-told story that’s filled with “too many coincidences to be chance,” or just the strong desire to believe that our lives are about to become much better?
I’ll expand on this point in a forthcoming series on why we believe the things we believe — but one of the best pieces of advice my father ever gave me was the encouragement, as I went off to Stanford as an incoming freshman, to “seek people of wisdom and not just intelligence.” I soon saw what he meant. Intelligence comes cheap, so it’s cheaply spent. It’s far more common than wisdom. And intelligent people believe and do the silliest of things. I’ve since come to believe that intelligence has very little to do with developing right beliefs and avoiding wrong beliefs. At various places within elite academia, I could mention all sorts of brilliant people who believed in alien abductions, in ghosts, in ouija boards, astrology, palm reading, and the like. I could mention a Harvard professor who believed that “King George” W. Bush was going to declare martial law rather than cede the Presidency and would install himself as a tyrant in perpetuity; or another Harvard professor who refused to buy a home in Cambridge because he was firmly convinced, in 2002, that Cambridge would be under four feet of water within a couple years due to environmental catastrophe. Of course we could mention Truthers on the Left and Birthers on the Right. The factors that go into shaping our beliefs are many and complicated, and my point is merely that silly beliefs are found everywhere amongst the religious and non-religious, the Right and the Left, the young and the old — and the wall between “us” and “them” is a lot thinner than we might think.
SECOND, should Christians call on Harold Camping to confess for sin and make a public and thorough amends? “David A” wrote:
Only one thing remains. This is not the first time Harold Camping has set a date for the return of Jesus. This is the second or third time…I’m flabbergasted that NO ONE has called him to repent or apologize…Graciousness can be applied AFTER Mr. Camping makes restitution for the damage done to all of those who followed him and to all of us who expect the immanent return of Jesus [–] but don’t set dates because Jesus warned against it…[D]on’t be shy about admonishing a man who, in his pride, does not listen to the Holy Spirit and ignores Jesus.
This is certainly a fair point. The Open Letter was really written for the followers of Mr Camping. Camping has a lot to answer for. Was he, as another commenter said, “laughing all the way to the bank”? Some people point out that he did not — while someof his followers did — sell his business and use all of the funds to pronounce the forthcoming of the Rapture. Was his intent malicious? I sincerely doubt it. Just another true believer who believed in the wrong thing. Was he too proud to heed the warnings of others? Was he selfish and arrogant to let others make extraordinary sacrifices on the basis of his unbiblical theories?
I believe he was. I hope he does repent. More importantly, I hope he stops making these predictions and does everything in his power to make whole the people who lost so much because they believed in him. But I also think that mercy — not condemnation — is what moves us to confession. Christ died for us while we were yet sinners (Romans 5:8), after all, and God’s kindness is what leads us to repentance (Romans 2:4).
THIRD, and finally, we should remember to pray for families that were divided by Camping’s teaching. I received two comments from people whose parents were expecting the Day of the Lord on the 21st. The first is Josephine:
Thank you…I’m the daughter of parents who have been caught up in this May 21st deception and convinced of Harold Camping’s interpretations of scripture. For years, it has been a heavy topic of contention, causing a great divide in our family dynamic in which we once shared a common understanding of the Bible and who Jesus is. The danger of deception is all too real and I know with this date passing, it is not the end. I pray that starting today, my parents and all those who have followed Harold Camping will begin to look at the Bible without the filter of past misinterpretations–that they’d be able to examine God’s Word anew.
And the second comes from Lara:
Thank you for this. As the daughter of a man who completely bought into Harold Camping’s false teachings this is the most comforting thing that I’ve read so far. Our lives have been wrecked for the past 2 – 3 years. My father apologized to our family today. We are thanking Jesus for the miracle. We have hope that God will use evil for good. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
Josephine fears that the deceptions and self-deceptions will continue. She hopes that those who followed Camping, including her own family members, will reconsider the ways in which they’ve been reading the scripture, and be reconciled with their families. Lara is already beginning to see that. That’s promising. We can pray for more of the like.
We do indeed have hope that God bring good out of evil, truth out of falsehood, joy out of trial.