I would like to suggest that people be a bit more careful with the word “heretic.” Christians throw this word around as if it means “someone who disagrees with my beliefs.” After Love Wins was published, Rob Bell was vilified as a “heretic” for is nebulous view of Hell. More recently Harold Camping’s prediction of the Rapture for May 21 resulting in not a charges that he was a “heretic.” In both cases the basic core beliefs of Christianity are not at stake. Rather, these two men have expressed a belief of the church in a way which is out-of-step with the norm. Bell believes in eternal punishment, just not in the same way that Calvin did. Likewise, Camping believes in the return of the Lord, just not in the same way Luther did.
Do not get me wrong, I think that Christianity as properly understood from the Bible down include some sort of an eternal Hell, although I doubt it is the medieval fantasy plagiarized from Dante which most people imagine. Likewise, I do believe in a pre-tribulation Rapture, but I see no warrant in scripture to try and predict the date, nor do I feel any great compulsion to write an epic book series describe “what happens next.” My point here is that one is not a “heretic” for misunderstanding scripture on these issues. We need to reserve that word for someone who denies a core doctrine of Christianity and not use it to describe people who know how to work the media to sell books. Both Bell and Camping land within the bounds of the Nicene Creed and should not be called heretics.
Historically, the study of Last Things, Eschatology, was among the last categories of doctrines to be developed. While I am well are that there is eschatological thinking throughout church history, it was not until the last century that biblical scholars and Christian thinkers began to develop what the return of Jesus means. This theological work is in some ways in response to Dispensational thinking, but Dispensationalism has made solid contributions to the on-going discussion. Someone like Camping stands in a grand tradition of date-setters, but these people have always been on the fringe. But being “on the fringe” is not heretical, just dangerous.
I certainly think that Christianity is has suffered much from the Camping debacle. A generation ago few would have heard of Camping as the day approached, a hundred years ago there would have been very little media coverage at all. The Internet as given a platform to anyone with a strange idea. They can “publish” their ideas and gain a huge following in ways which were impossible until recently. The Internet also makes it possible to mock these sorts of ideas and make them out to be more mainstream than they are. Jokes about the apocalypse were everywhere last week – even Doonesbury got into the act.
I am most disappointed that many non-Christians groups have used Camping’s prediction to paint all Christians as lunatic date-setters who look forward to the Apocalypse. The media calls Camping an “evangelical.” I suppose this is true, but I cannot image Camping reading a paper at the Evangelical Theological Society, or publishing his ideas through a major Evangelical Publishing house. To use Camping as a model of Christianity is fuzzy thinking at best, and intentionally dishonest at the worst.
Camping is neither a heretic nor a paradigm of contemporary Christianity. To mis-quote The Life of Brian, there is no heretic here, just a very silly man.