A Thief in the Night

The day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.

-- St. Paul

I don’t know if apocalyptic yearnings are hereditary, but I strongly suspect they sometimes run in families, based on my own experience. In addition to the usual bedtime stories, my mother used to terrify her four small children with grim prognostications about the coming nuclear holocaust. This was during the 1950s, when children were drilled to duck under their desks at school in the event of a Russian attack. By the time the Cuban missile crisis rolled around in 1962, I was old enough to realize my mother’s fears were not entirely delusional. Even so, the Cold War gradually receded in her doomsday calculations, only to be replaced by Y2K, the worldwide computer meltdown that was supposed to occur on January 1, 2000. By now my mother was in her eighties, and her dark imaginings were aided and abetted by my younger brother, who persuaded her to withdraw lots of cash from her bank account and to stock up on nonperishable food items before the arrival of the new millennium. Now that my mother has passed on, my brother has replaced her as the family doomsayer. Periodically, the rest of us get e-mails urging us to invest in gold as a hedge against the coming world financial collapse.

My home turf in New England is not especially fertile ground for those seeking to stir up apocalyptic fervor. However, we can claim some precedence for doom-saying, notably the events that took place on May 19, 1780, a date remembered throughout New England as the Dark Day. There was no eclipse or storm approaching, yet the sky blackened at midday, and birds fell silent in the trees. The unnatural gloom persisted, and the full moon failed to shine as expected that night. God-fearing New Englanders were aware of certain biblical signs and portents, describing a time when the sun would be darkened, and the moon would not give its light, and the stars would fall from heaven. It was already an unsettled time, what with wars and rumors of wars. Many believed Judgment Day was at hand. However, Col. Abraham Davenport refused to be moved. He was a member of the upper chamber of the Connecticut General Assembly, which was then meeting. Although the House had adjourned in panic, Davenport insisted that his colleagues remain in session. “I am against an adjournment,” he declared. “The Day of Judgment is either approaching, or it is not. If it is not, there is no cause for an adjournment; if it is, I choose to be found doing my duty. I wish therefore that candles may be brought.” Candles were brought, and the upper chamber continued its debate on a bill to amend an act regulating shad and alewive fisheries. Davenport was soon vindicated, of course. Only much later was it determined that the skies over New England has been blanketed by smoke from a massive forest fire in Ontario.

This was neither the first time nor the last that God-fearing people have mistaken passing events for the arrival of doomsday. A case in point: the octogenarian Christian radio broadcaster Harold Camping, who persuaded thousands of his listeners that the Day of Judgment would arrive with a massive earthquake at precisely 6:00 PM on May 21, 2011. His calculations were based on a close reading of biblical prophecy, with a healthy measure of numerology thrown in. His reasoning was a bit hard to follow but seemed to hinge on the fact that May 21, 2011 came exactly 722,500 days after the supposed date of Christ’s crucifixion. Notwithstanding the New Testament prophecy that Christ would come again “like a thief in the night,” Camping was determined not to allow this event to happen without plenty of advance warning. Having earned millions in the construction trade, Camping was able to put up thousands of “SAVE THE DATE” billboards and bus stop signs across the nation. His followers gave away their worldly possessions and set off in caravans of RVs to alert unbelievers before it was too late to be saved from the destruction to come. The mainstream media eventually jumped on the story, presumably so they could gloat when Judgment Day failed to materialize. Camping admitted beforehand that even members of his own family were not persuaded that the end was actually at hand, thus affirming Jesus’ contention that a prophet has no honor in his own country. This may also suggest that apocalyptic yearning does not always run in families, as it seems to in mine.

Those longing for the end of the world need not be discouraged by the failure of Camping’s prophecy. If history is any guide, there will soon be another doomsday forecast to pin one’s hopes on. Still, you can’t help feeling sorry for those who quit their jobs and depleted their life savings in the fond expectation that they would soon depart this vale of tears. As much as sensible religious folk are inclined to scoff at such foolishness, they should be aware that their faith was founded by people who believed the world was soon coming to an end. The reason that people like Harold Camping get it into their heads that Judgment Day is at hand is that the Bible is full of such speculation. St. Paul, for example, advised people not to marry for “the appointed time has grown short” – this in the first century CE.

It must be acknowledged that Jesus himself was a source of end-time speculation. It was he who spoke of wars and rumors of wars, of the sun darkened in the sky and the moon giving no light. Yet with Jesus you must listen closely. He cautioned his followers not to be alarmed by wars and rumors of wars, or other signs and portents, because this was not the end. He warned them that false prophets would try to lead them astray. So what are we to make of his statement that “this generation will not pass away” before the Messiah comes? Perhaps we may find a clue in the answer he gave to Pharisees who asked him point-blank when the kingdom of God would come. "The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed,” he told them, “nor will they say, 'Lo, here it is!' or 'There!' for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you." Notice that he speaks in the present tense, which may suggest why he said the day of the Lord would come like a thief in the night. It’s not something you will see announced on a billboard or on the evening news. It’s more like one day you will wake up to discover the kingdom of God has been here all along.

Matthew 24:29
John Greenleaf Whittier, “Abraham Davenport”
1 Thessalonians 5:2
John 4:44
1 Corinthians 7:29
Matthew 24
Luke 17:20-21

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