Last weekend's abortive Judgment Day just goes to show what happens when you ignore the poets.
I didn't know anything about Harold Camping's theology, but I didn't need to know much to conclude that he was a dispensationalist. The theology of the man who garnered worldwide media attention for what turned out to be a failed prediction about the end of the world comes from a movement that began in the 19th century and has produced what we might charitably call the "Rapture industry."
Dispensationalism is a modernist school of theology within Protestantism that holds that God has ordained different and successive "ages" in the life of the church in each of which God relates to the church in some different way. God uses these dispensations to progressively unfold His revelation to the church. The exact number of these ages or dispensations depends on which dispensationalist you talk to, but they generally number from three to seven. What they agree upon, however, is that we are in the second-to-the-last age--the age that precedes the "Rapture."
The "Rapture" is the label affixed to the event whereby Jesus returns (sort of) and takes the church out of the world before the seven year tribulation because, you know, God would not allow Christians to be persecuted (despite the fact that He has allowed it repeatedly throughout history). It's the First Second Coming as opposed to the Second Second Coming, when He comes for real and kicks butt and takes names. This school of thought was initially popularized by the Schofield Reference Bible.
The dispensationalist view of the end times (what is called "premillenial pretribulationism," meaning that Jesus will return before a thousand year earthly reign after he has first sort of returned to take the church out of the world to spare it from a seven year tribulation period) overflowed its dispensationalist banks first in a book published in the 1970s called The Late Great Planet Earth, by Hal Lindsey. The book was not only a bestseller; it was the biggest selling book of the decade (even though the New York Times somehow managed to prevent it from ever appearing on a bestseller list because it was a religious book), making Lindsey a multi-millionaire.
The view later spilled out into into non-evangelical world with onset of the Left Behind books, authored by Tim LaHaye and ghostwritten by Jerry Jenkins--books which also sold in the millions and were actually allowed to appear on the bestseller lists by the secular literary authorities.
The penchant for setting dates for the end of the world is a peculiarly dispensationalist habit. If you go back, you can find Lindsey doing it, although he did a better job of rhetorically hedging his bets than the more reckless Camping. For Lindsey, the date was 1988, which passed with a similar lack of apocalyptic action and a much smoother exit strategy by the author.
I call dispensationalism "modernist" because, like modernism in general, it is marked by the tendency to quantify the unquantifiable. This is the largest part of its appeal: it gives you definite answers, neat timelines, and simple, literal explanations. In fact, you've got to hand it to them: the dispensationalists produce the best charts. They have charts for the ages of the church, charts for the Rapture, charts for the millenium, charts for the tribulation.
In the early 1980s, the wags at a Christian satire magazine Wittenburg Door published a detailed End Times chart that showed the rapture of the newly rich Hal Lindsey's Porsche. Had it not been published so relatively early in his life, it might also have included the eschatological trajectory of all four of his successive wives.
The failure of dispensationalist End Times claims are due largely to a simple lack of poetic sense among its adherents. Apocalyptic literature is a literary mixture of the real and the visionary, the mundane and the fantasic, and the literal and the metaphorical that has a sort of surreal quality. It presents persons, places, and events that may have both a figurative and a concrete application, and that can have multiple referents. Time plays tricks and even numbers cannot be quantified.
What does the Beast represent? What is the meaning of his seven heads and ten horns? Who is the Anti-Christ? Who or what is Babylon? Under the gaze of a non-literary mind, each of these must have a definite one-on-one allegorical referent. The figurative must be pursued and rendered literal, and no metaphor can escape without being captured, tagged, and totaled.
There is little tolerance for poetic latitude, and there is no patience for the inexact.
To listen to people like Pat Robertson (another famous dispensationalist) try to explain the meaning of the Book of Revelation is a painful exercise because he is dealing with a form of expression that he simply does not understand. Poetry is a language with its own rules and its own methods of interpretation. It is a language with which these people are simply unfamiliar.
This is why Bob Dylan is a better theologian than Tim LaHaye. He at least understands the poetic. In fact, I've got a test that all interpreters of Revelation should have to pass before they are allowed to make public statements on the Book of Revelation. Here's how it works:
Test #1: The aspiring eschatologist should first be asked to interpret and explain Dante's Divine Comedy. If he cannot, then his prophet's license should be temporarily suspended.
Test #2: Next, he should be asked to explain the following poems: "The Second Coming," by William Butler Yeats; "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell," by William Blake; and "The Hollow Men," by T. S. Eliot. If the candidate cannot perform this procedure either, he should be required to refrain from making public statements on the End Times altogether.
Test #3: If the aspiring prophet has failed the first two tests, he should be asked to make sense of the lyrics to the following songs: "The Earth Died Screaming," by Tom Waits; "When the Ship Comes In," by Bob Dylan; and "When the Man Comes Around," by Johnny Cash. If he stumbles here too, he should simply be put out of the city with a week's worth of provisions and told not to come back.