Well, yesterday came and went, apparently without the arrival of Harold Camping's earthquakes and rapture. The world--and even some of us Christians, God help us--has a good laugh at the whole business, and we're done until next time.
When we're all finished making fun, it seems to me that there are serious lessons to be learned from all this.
First, this episode is a good example of why sacred Scripture has to be read from within the Church that produced it in the first place. As Dei Verbum teaches, Scripture and Tradition together form a single source of divine revelation. One cannot try to separate one from the other, as if the New Testament could be understood apart from the apostolic authority from which it comes. This is not to say that there is nothing new to be learned from Scripture. On the contrary, it is through the Scripture that the Holy Spirit wills to teach the freshness of the faith to each age. But it is also true that these understandings must be tested and checked against the apostolic authority from which the Scriptures came in the first place, sacramentally handed over down through the ages. To put it another way, anyone can pick up the Bible and find God, and they should. But 'finding God' in a personal way cannot be separated from being led into his Church, where his Spirit abides and his sacramental Presence remains.
The 'rapture' depends on a very particular reading of Revelation and 1 Thessalonians among other books, and it is an interpretation that is quite apart from any sense we have in the apostolic Churches. And so in this episode we have the sad fruit of trying to read the Scripture outside of the Church: disappointment, wastes of time, personal resources and livelihoods, and the authority of the Scriptures themselves being mocked by the world.
Second, this rapture business reveals the shallow sense of eschatology that has gained a lot of currency in the modern world. It's as if there is an assumption that we now find ourselves in regular old time and then the 'end times' will suddenly start as a discrete new period. In some ways Christianity has forgotten that all through the Scriptures the Resurrection is the preeminent event of the end times, and this is why the rising of Christ is such a big deal. In other words, the Resurrection of Christ is the inauguration of the end times. So quite far from the linear timelines of dispensationalists (for example), we Christians find ourselves in a situation somewhat more ambiguous: we live both in the profane history that has marched on since the day of Christ's death and burial, but at the same time we live in the inaugurated eschaton signaled by Christ's Resurrection. This overly linear sense of theological time, which is particularly modern and scientistic, does not take seriously the Resurrection of Christ itself as an eschatological event. (And this doesn't mean that it is not also, in some sense, a historical event.)
Third, we who are Christians should observe closely the next 'end of the world' craze when it arrives later next year. My guess is that the world will not laugh as hard as we approach the alleged Mayan end of the world on December 21, 2012. I'll bet that a lot of non-believing folks who mocked this would-be rapture will wonder seriously whether the Mayan thing is real. Why should this be? It can't be about antiquity; the claims of the Scriptures are older. Is it because one seems more exotic than the other, like in the Seinfeld episode in which George's mother is willing to take advice when she thinks it's from a Chinese woman, but rejects it when she finds out it's from 'some girl from Long Island'?
Whatever the reason is, this whole sorry distraction, in which many people are now spiritually disappointed and in a situation of having wasted a lot of material resources, should be a call for all of us Christians to repent of how we have abused the authority of Scripture all the way to the point at which the very idea of its authority is a joke to the world.