The first Christians expected that Jesus would return during their lifetimes.  It is generally accepted that the earliest book of the New Testament is the letter of Paul the apostle to his community in Thessaloniki circa 50 C.E.

For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first.  Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air: and so we will be with the Lord forever.

1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 (NRSV)

A generation later, as the world as he knew it was collapsing around him, as the Roman legions encircled Jerusalem while a bloody civil war raged between the Jewish factions, as the Holy Temple was about to fall, the compiler of Mark’s gospel, the first of the four New Testament gospels, devoted a full chapter to his apocalyptic world view.

When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come … then those in Judea must flee to the mountains, the one on the housetop must not go down or enter the house to take anything away; the one in the field must not turn back to get a coat.   Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing infants in those days! …  Then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory … So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates.  Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.

Selections of Mark 13 (NRSV) written circa 70 C.E.

Of course, it didn’t happen and subsequent generations of Christians generally interpret these passages metaphorically or spiritually or simply accept that the expectations of the first Christians were erroneous.  But, there has always been a fringe that accepts a literal interpretation coupled with bizarre calculations based upon obscure Old Testament passages that they interpret as secret code.  In the two millennia since the 1st century, numerous apocalyptic sects have dotted history with their expectations of the imminent end times.  Perhaps the most famous was William Millers’ sect that gave away possessions before waiting for the rapture in 1844, resulting in the “Great Disappointment.” In our generation, authors Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins have become multi-millionaires with their fictional “Left Behind” series premised on a soon-coming “rapture” in which non-believers will be “left behind”.

ApocalypseAn associated press feature story today reports on the latest in a 2,000 year string of apocalyptic sects.

If there had been time, Marie Exley would have liked to start a family. Instead, the 32-year-old Army veteran has less than six months left, which she’ll spend spreading a stark warning: Judgment Day is almost here.

Exley is part of a movement of Christians loosely organized by radio broadcasts and websites, independent of churches and convinced by their reading of the Bible that the end of the world will begin on May 21, 2011.

The person responsible for “decoding” the Bible to determine this May 21 date is eighty-nine year old Harold Camping, a former civil engineer.  The AP article didn’t explain his particular rationale, but he was quoted as saying, “Beyond the shadow of a doubt, May 21 will be the date of the Rapture and the day of judgment.”  A brief perusal of the website doesn’t reveal the methodology either but offers an anti-church message and encourages purchase of the books and study materials promoted by the website.

I think I have a fishing trip planned that day.