The movie Real Men is at best a guilty pleasure. A womanizing super-agent teams up with a wimpy suburban family man to save the world, one long dad joke after another. For me, the scene which captures the style of the movie best is when the protagonists are attacked by a bunch of rogue CIA agents… all dressed in clown suits. It begins with the line “Who are those clowns?” and finishes as the last clown standing looks around and says (and if you couldn't see this coming when the scene began, you should hang your head in shame) “I'm working with a bunch of clowns”, before running away.
I suspect it's not easy working with a bunch of clowns. And distancing yourself from them is no doubt a tempting thing to do. Especially when they are, in the words of Real Men, “bad clowns”.
It seems to me that that's what happened when Harold Camping predicted the rapture on May 21, 2011. There's no doubt that Camping is a ‘bad clown’. A man with two previous strikes for predicting days of judgement in 1988 and 1994, and who considers every church to be apostate, is arguably not a ‘go to’ guy for understanding the Christian faith.
So when his prediction appeared to become a key news story, it is not surprising that most of us were less than impressed that Camping's views were simply asserted to be ‘Christian’, as though there were a reasonably large block of believers actually thinking that the rapture would occur on May 21. It didn't help that journalists, showing either a typical ignorance of the details of their subject matter, or a typical disregard for reporting those details, tended to announce his prediction as a prediction of the end of the world—something that Camping claimed would not occur until October 21 (and still does, so we've got that to look forward to). It helped even less that people reacted to the news as though it was an attack of the clowns—and seemed to use it to smear Christianity generally with the silliness of which Camping was guilty.
The Christian response from what I saw was, by and large, to take a page out of Real Men; saying, “I'm working with a bunch of clowns”, and running away—joining in in pouring scorn on Camping, and clearly setting out the scriptural reasons why no human being knows when the end will come. In various ways we pointed people to Matthew 24:36 and declared—“Take no notice of the clown in front of the curtain, no-one knows the day or the hour”. We mocked the idea that Christ would return on May 21.
I get the instinct; no-one wants the Christian faith, still less God our Father himself, to take collateral damage due to one bad clown.
However, I think focusing on distancing ourselves from Camping's prediction was the wrong strategy, and will almost always be the wrong strategy in these kind of ‘Camping moments’, when a Christian says and does something genuinely cringeworthy to do with the end of the world or anything else. When people laughed, or sneered, or were just bemused by Camping's prediction of ‘the end of the world’ on May 21, 2011, to what were they reacting? Were they scoffing at the idea that someone could know exactly when the world would end? Or were they reacting to the idea that God would end the world and judge everyone? Which one was the real reason for their reaction?
I suggest that people were not, in the main, incredulous about the possibility of knowing the date. I don't see enough evidence of people's biblical literacy, or interest in the details of the Christian faith, to believe that people in our secular societies were going, “This guy thinks he knows the exact date when Jesus Christ, the Lord of heaven and earth, will return. Hasn't he read Matthew 24:36? What a clown!”
No, I think people were reacting to the idea that God would end the world in order to judge everyone. That's what the laughter, or just the bemusement, was over. The fact that somebody (again!) put a date on it simply made it low hanging fruit. People were reacting to the idea that God will judge the world. That was the true punch line to the joke.
In that light, I think our response was seriously insufficient. The primary thing we should have said was, “Yes, Camping is right. God will bring this world to an end in judgement. And he will do it very soon. You have to take the opportunity now to repent and believe.” Once that was heard clearly, then we could add, “And by the way, no-one knows the date. Just read Matthew 24:36. Camping is a bit of a clown for thinking he could.” We should have pressed the point that people were finding it difficult to come at (there will be judgement), rather than focus on the bit that they already grasped (no-one knows when it will come).
God will judge the world, and has set a day when he will do so. He's given notice of this by raising from the dead the man who will do the judging, Jesus Christ. That might be an inconvenient and socially awkward truth, but it is the truth, and people need to arrange their affairs now in the light of it. We need to make it clear to them that sane, reasonable people (i.e. you and me) believe that. It isn't just the hang-up of weird people with their own radio show.
It's not fun, or funny, working with clowns. But sometimes we need to do so as fools for Christ. Next time we have a Camping moment (and we will, whether it be about dates of the end of the world, politics, morality, or a range of other possible gaff-ridden areas) will be one of those times. So be prepared, step up, and play the clown.