Harold Camping, Rob Bell, Glenn Beck and The Need For Spiritual Discernment
Eighty nine-year old Harold Camping predicted that Saturday, May 21st, would be the date of the return of Christ to rapture his church before the great tribulation. If you are reading this, Camping was wrong. Camping, a retired Berkeley-educated engineer, founded the Family Radio Worldwide, and has been in the business of figuring out the date of Christ’s return for some time. His earlier prediction of a 1994 date for the return of Christ didn’t turn out well either. This time he was sure he had gotten it right. Last January, he said, Beyond a shadow of a doubt, May 21, will be the date of the Rapture and the day of judgment. The vast majority of Christians wisely roll their eyes at such nonsensical date-setting. Scoffing at this sort of thing helps to soften the embarrassment we feel with our non-Christian friends. But not all Christians are snickering. It seems that a fair amount of naïve believers have placed their bets on Camping’s predictions. Between 2005 to 2009 Camping’s followers have given $80 million to his ministry, and have recently been funding ads, signs (over 1000 billboards in just the United States alone), and internet postings around the world. We are left to ponder how so many Christians lack so much discernment.
Whether it is the19th century followers of William Miller, who put on ascension robes and stood on the roofs of their houses awaiting Christ’s return several times, or those who are wondering what to do with a year’s worth of freeze dried food bought during the Y2K scare, or those who are gearing up for yet another end of the world scenario as we approach the Mayan 2012 prediction, what is really needed is a healthy dose of discernment.
The Bible calls Christians to use discernment, especially when it comes to the teachings of Scripture. Discernment is the ability to scrutinize, examine, distinguish, question, and ultimately judge right from wrong, truth from error. When Paul and Silas showed up in Berea preaching in the local synagogue, we see an example of discernment. Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined(discerned)the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true (Acts 17:11). At the end of Hebrews 5, the author is expressing his frustration with believers who remain spiritually immature as evidenced by their lack of discernment. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernmenttrained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil (Hebrews 5:14 ESV). The book of Proverbs could be read as one long plea from a father to his son to exercise discernment. Wisdom is found on the lips of the discerning . . . (Proverbs 10:13). The apostle Paul, advocating the discerning analysis of what comes into our minds says, we take captive every thought and make it obedient to Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5).
It is easy to make light of a quirky octogenarian like Harold Camping or even the misguided 19th century Millerites and their lack of discernment. Unfortunately, though, such gullibility often strikes closer to home. Let me give two examples of how discernment has been found wanting in the evangelical world, and possibly in your own thinking.
The Evangelical church is being flooded with a new group of very hip, articulate, and persuasive pastors, authors, musicians and leaders. Discernment is needed. At the forefront of this vanguard is Rob Bell, the hugely popular and immensely gifted pastor (Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville, Michigan with 10,000 attending weekly). Bell is the author and creator of the Nooma videos and has been on his own lecture circuit reaching enormous crowds. No doubt many reading this article have listened to his sermons, watched his videos and read his books. Bell’s latest book, Love Wins, has landed him in considerable hot water creating a firestorm of controversy (he made the cover of Time magazine). In his book, Bell ponders the question of universalism, (the idea that all people will eventually be saved), and then seems to advocate his own unique version of it. While Bell never uses the term universalism, (Bell is consistently and frustratingly opaque in his writing), he essentially challenges the idea of a final judgment by God that leads to hell. Bell also challenges other settled and central Christian doctrines including the substitutionary atonement of Jesus, opting instead for the model of the cross where Christ’s sacrificial death simply inspires us to live the Christian life. As Kevin De Young has commented, Love Wins demeans the cross and misrepresents God’s character.
My point here is not to enter into a full discussion of Love Wins, but to plead for discernment in the Christian community. Some years ago when Bell’s very popular book, Velvet Elvis, was making the rounds at SBCC, I picked it up to see what so many in our church were reading. I became troubled on two fronts. First, I was very concerned with some of what I read in this otherwise winsome book. Central tenants of historic Christian faith were challenged or demeaned as unimportant (such as the virgin birth of Christ). Second, and most troubling: no one I talked to seemed particularly bothered by what they read.
My second example comes from the political world. No doubt you have heard of Glenn Beck, the popular television and radio talk show host who is best known for his conservative political views. Let me say very plainly, I am not commenting on Beck’s political views. Politics aside, I am trying to discern his theological statements. Beck’s pronounced influence among evangelicals is rather odd and may say more about the state of evangelicalism than about Beck’s engaging personality. Beck recently spoke at Liberty University’s Commencement 2010 (Liberty is the largest evangelical college in the U.S.). Beck talks a lot about God and Jesus. He claims loudly and unambiguously to be a follower of Jesus Christ. This, of course, endears him to many Christians, especially those who share his political views. The problem, however, is that Glenn Beck is a committed Mormon. The Mormon understanding of God, Jesus, and the atonement, is actually quite different than the historic Christian teaching. Beck uses the same words –God, Jesus, salvation– but the meaning he gives these words is very different than the meaning found in the Bible and the historic creeds of the Christian church. Many believers, lacking discernment, have simply assumed that since Beck uses the words, God, Jesus and salvation he means the same thing as they do when they talk about God, Jesus and salvation. Nothing could be further from the truth. Mormon theology and Christian theology are not in sync. Mormons and adherents of historic Christianity do not believe the same things. It takes discernment to realize that Glenn Beck’s Jesus is not the same Jesus found in the New Testament.
I am not arguing for Christians to become heresy hunters, or to define Christian faith so narrowly that it becomes a rigid club for just a few who think they are always correct. An ugly judgmentalism that lacks humility and grace is not the antidote to error. What I am advocating is a discerning mind for believers as we listen to sermons, read Christian books and wander the blogs. What I am pleading for is a loving, and yet critical stance, that examines the content of our reading and listening habits. Many of the sermons, books, blogs, and videos that are now being promoted in the larger evangelical community are very, very clever, well done, and captivating. Much of it is slick, entertaining, professional, and creative. But, before we are completely swept off our feet by the latest rock star Christian celebrity, let’s pause and ask one very simple question. What is this person really teaching? When we ask this question: we are entering into the process of discernment. Practicing the art and discipline of discernment will guard our minds from naively swallowing whatever comes our way. In the process, as discernment is learned, spiritual maturity will be the by-product.